What’s with all the hoarding?

Where I live, any weather forecast of an approaching nor’easter, big snow, or deteriorating hurricane is enough to prompt a run on all of a supermarket’s milk, canned soup, and bread, usually in that order. It’s idiotic, I know, but it is a New England tradition for many households.

Somehow, though, those grocery shelves are always reloaded by the next day or two. Not to worry.

What we’re seeing with Covid-19, however, is something different. I mean, toilet paper? At first, I thought it was a joke, considering all the BS emanating from the hat-guy and the mess we’ve been hoping to clean up through the last three years. But no, not quite that, even if it does make for an easy-to-connect symbol of what’s passing for leadership.

I’m not sure where this one originated, but my old roommate from the early ’70s sent it my way.

Face it, people are scared.

Scared of something they can’t see, a virus.

They want something to hold on to, a sense of security or invincibility.

No wonder sanitizer suddenly became a valued commodity.

As “it” spread – the virus and the hoarding – the dried bean shelves were soon also emptied of something most Americans normally wouldn’t eat on a bet. (When’s the last time you had bean soup? It raises a specter of soup kitchens and poverty in the Great Depression, right?) So leave the chick peas (garbanzos), lentils, turtle beans, and the like for those of us who really cook with them, will ya? Store after store, ransacked.

‘Fess up. How are using beans in your kitchen? Which ones? Kidney beans in chili count, by the way.

Add to missing in action list all those ramen soup packets, which do reflect changing tastes in the USA. Besides, they’re easy to cook, even for a 10-year-old, so I can understand why they’ve been raided. But the sriracha? Maybe we should spread a rumor that it’s Chinese. (Its roots are Thai or Burmese, actually, but why quibble?)

Coffee and beer supplies, meanwhile, seem to be holding up, at least here.

We’re told of massed shoppers queued up in lines winding around one Costco building in California days on end. We just don’t have one within an hour of home, so we haven’t witnessed that phenomenon for ourselves.

We do know of one independent grocery, however, that’s being shunned – the Chinese one down the road. That’s a shame, for their food’s notable. You want fresh fish? They know their stuff. Where do you think we first found ramen and Sriracha and tofu, anyway?

Well, in all of this, we can add another phrase to our common usage: shelf-stable items.

What empty shelves and missing items have surprised you the most?    

Now for the real estate hit

A few months back, I was reading an analysis by one business columnist who argued that in the upcoming recession, which at the time looked about a year away, real estate prices would be little impacted.

Hah! Despite his numbers and the curves on his charts, I thought he was badly mistaken. I felt – and still do – that he was leaving an important factor out of his calculations. So much of what I saw in the 1990 real estate collapse was a consequence of households where one of the two working adults had been laid off. With housing prices as high as they were, one income was dedicated solely for the mortgage payment while the other was left to cover the remaining living expenses. Nonexistent savings weren’t going to be part of that calculus.

An old rule-of-thumb was that the purchase price of the home should be no more than 2½ times the annual household income Looking around here, I’ve been puzzled that anyone can afford a home at all, especially considering the declining wages we’ve been seeing across the board or the difficulty of younger workers trying to land full-time jobs with benefits.

Quite simply, we couldn’t afford to buy our own house if we were in the market again. And many of the people we talk to admit the same thing, nodding their heads in sad agreement.

As for single-adult households? The odds are even worse.

Flash to the present, with its record layoffs already. History sometimes does repeat itself.

~*~

In the past week, two stories have pushed the developing Covid-19 situation along these lines.

One noted that real estate transactions have essentially gone dormant. Nobody’s out looking to buy and move up, forget an open house, and sellers are reluctant to have strangers traipsing through their dwelling and touching their stuff. We’re all more or less hunkered down.

And now we’re hearing dire warnings that the mortgage industry is on the verge of collapse or meltdown as homeowners (and presumably many businesses as well) are already falling behind in their payments.

Let’s see how the stock market reacts when it wakes up to these turns.

There’s a lot more to the economy than Wall Street, for sure.

~*~

By the way, the U.S. is now the epicenter of the pandemic, and the numbers are just beginning to soar. Nate Silver, the statistics guru at FiveThirtyEight, reports that the cases and fatalities are rising faster in the Trump-leaning red states than in the blue states, where more of the testing has occurred. Within a month, he says, the per capital rate of new coronavirus cases in Trump country should outstrip those in the rest of the nation.

Let’s see what that does to public discourse and opinion.

About those numbers we’re all watching

Part of the fixation in watching the Covid-19 spread in the U.S. is in the suspense of discovering how accurately the experts’ projections hold up, especially in contrast to the deceptive and wishful thinking emanating from the White House and its cronies.

With the disease now in all 50 states and up more than 600 percent in the last week alone – or from 30 cases at the beginning of the month to 68,440 as of Thursday – the question becomes just how high and how fast those exponential numbers soar. You know, do our social isolation actions tamp down the rise or do continuing exposures fuel more spikes in the spread? To think, at the current rate we would have 2½ million cases in two weeks or 90 million by a month from now. Here in New Hampshire, the eventual infection rate is pegged at 50 percent.

You’re already familiar with the hospital overload potential. With 95,000 intensive care beds in the United States, most of them in regular use for heart attack and accident victims and the like, and a population of 330 million, there’s not a lot of margin to deal with.

For perspective, think what a serious cold does to you. I mean, sometimes it really zaps your thinking. Think of your workplace if even a quarter of your colleagues were out sick. Now extend that to every service you rely on. Uh-huh. Oh, yes, and what about those lingering bugs we seem to get, the ones that never quite go away like forever. By the way, a fever of 103 to 105 degrees is nothing I want to ever endure again. How about you?

And then, if our efforts really do deflate the dreadful scenarios we’re seeing, will a large portion of the public cynically dismiss the warnings as liberal hype? The disregard for the warnings has been disturbing enough, especially the part about infecting others even if you aren’t exhibiting symptoms.

The bigger health matter is not about the number of cases but rather the 20 percent of those that become life-threatening serious. Not just the deaths, either, but the potential for long-term harm. Permanent heart damage, for instance. We’re just now learning.

People under age 65 have been assuming it’s no big deal, but a figure out of France should be a wake-up call. Half of those in intensive care there were recently reported to be under 30. As for here? Welcome back from spring break. One more figure to keep an eye on.

~*~

You know many of the other questions and uncertain answers we’re following as we watch the numbers.

  • Will the number of cases actually fall off in warmer weather?
  • Will the coronavirus mutate and come back hard in autumn?
  • Will it become like the common cold, something that returns year after year?
  • How much immunity will we have?
  • How soon will a vaccine be available and what will the side-effects be? Will the anti-vaccers refuse it or welcome it?
  • And then there are all the stories coming out of the “shelter-in-place” experience.

~*~

In my circle, we’re still sputtering over the audacity of some of those who claim to be “pro-life” but now claim that the deaths of up to two million presumably older Americans is a small price to pay to “save” the economy. Remember, theirs is already a pro-military (not exactly a “pro-life” mission) camp that was all-too-ready to spout misleading anti-Obama advertising warning that “death squads” would rule important health-care decisions (totally ignoring the reality that insurance companies were already doing that) when it came to medical coverage. Now we see the true colors of these callous offiials. It’s been all about profits, not people, all along. Babies didn’t cost them anything. Honestly, they should be tagged anti-abortion. Pro-life is far more inclusive, embracing health care, housing, and education support.

~*~

What’s surprising you the most in the Covid-19 developments? For that matter, what worries you the most?

Is this it?

The Covid-19 devastation, already spread around the globe, is poised to inflict even greater damage when it ravages Third World countries, or so we’re reading. The impact is much more than grim death tolls. We’re hearing predictions of the greatest economic depression in a century.

In the United States, the virus is what finally exposed Donald Trump’s house of cards to full view. Not just his own illusions but his party’s, too. You know, the failure to plan. Failure to take responsibility. Endless stream of lies and fabrications. His scorn for fact, truth, scientific reality. Ridiculing and blaming others. Inability to steer a course. And so on. Feel free to add to the list.

For the past three years, I’ve restrained from commenting much on the outrage after outrage being inflicted on our democratic society. With his hooligans and their fellow cultists being so impervious to facts, I sensed anything that might break through their shells had to come from the right. The polarization of the country predates Trump, anyhoo, just look at the Congress dead set on obstructing President Obama from doing the will of the people, regardless of the ultimate impact.

From my viewpoint, what’s seemed obvious is that only something catastrophic might break through their state of denial and bombast. I kept wondering what that would be. What would it take to allow civil conversation again, one based on fact and not bullying and bombast?

In my years in the news business, I saw how difficult predicting public reaction could be. Big issues are commonly greeted with a yawn, while some seemingly trivial account unexpectedly gets everyone stirred up.

So here we are, with a medical crisis Trump arrogantly derided as a “hoax” and then claimed to have “under control” now exploding exponentially before our eyes. As it begins to hit closer to home, even his supporters can no longer poobah the epidemic as “liberal hype” to “discredit” their fuhrer. Not unless they can explain Italy and Spain’s suffering as part of a conspiracy.

Not unless they can explain why GOP senators were informing their super-rich backers of intelligence findings about the brewing virus storm and quickly selling off millions in stock while telling their voter constituents to stay calm. (Isn’t that insider-trading?)

Not unless they can explain why the markets and employers and local and state officials of both parties have independently taken the drastic actions they have, contrary to White House proclamations.

He still doesn’t have a clue, does he? This is the man who offers big aid to China after turning down any help for the most seriously impacted states in America. (Sorry, you’re on your own, guys.) What!

One of the reasons he’s clueless is that none of his incoming staffers who attended a big meeting with outgoing Obama officials eight days before the inauguration took the ebola lessons seriously. At least one future cabinet secretary dozed off during the briefings and their worst-case scenarios. Another reason is that Trump promptly eliminated the emergency preparedness coordinating office Obama had created for cases like this. What Trump touted as streamlining proves to be reckless disregard for reality and an exercise of personal spite. There was no planning, period.

Fellow Republican Susan Collins, a senator from Maine, even prevented epidemic response planning from being budgeted back in 2008. There’s a pattern.

Here we are, after being stuck with Trump’s obsession to spend billions building a useless border wall but do nothing on pandemic prep. Like that wall will stop anything.

I long ago saw that incompetent managers and executives feel threatened by competent people working below them – the very ones who could make their bosses look effective, if given the chance. Do I need to say more?

Smart management is taught to be proactive, not reactive, but that’s not what we’re seeing here.

The illness itself is only the face of the storm as we get glimpses of even bigger economic, political, and social ills that have been long festering.

Oh, yes, high turnover is another sign of mismanagement. Two-thirds of Trump’s team at that epidemic meeting three years ago are no longer part of the administration. Who’s in charge, paying attention to details?

Wall Street may have been soaring, and a “correction” had been long anticipated though not expected to kick in till after the November election, but for many of the country’s working class, full-time jobs – especially those with benefits – have been scarce. Minimum wage rarely covers basic living costs, and health insurance premiums often eat up a third of that income while imposing high deductibles few would ever be able to pay without going homeless or, if hospitalized long, losing their jobs. Many of those minimum wage jobs, by the way, require “reliable transportation” from employees, as if the pay actually covers as much as a clunker to get to worksites far from public transportation. Steps to improve their situation has not been presented from the current administration, even while cutting taxes for the rich and corporations continues.

Well, some of that finally has been acknowledged in the proposed coronavirus aid package, at least for this specific illness. Maybe it’s a start. Those low-pay, part-time jobs are a huge part of the workforce, and if they break down, even for two weeks, watch out.

That’s the real economy.

I could say more, much more, but let’s leave it at that for now. From all indications, this drama’s just starting.

There’s no disputing that bodies are piling up, even in the USA.

Spending nights at the opera on my laptop

When I graduated from college 50 years ago, I expected to wind up living and laboring in a major metropolis like New York, Chicago, or Seattle where nights at the opera or symphony would have been part of the package. As you can see, my life took a much different direction. In fact, working weekends and nights along with the bottom-tier professional wages of my profession curtailed much of my attendance where I was, even for the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD showings in local movie theaters.

Surprisingly, now in the midst of our Covid-19 cloistering, I’m relishing in daily free online streaming of past performances from the Met’s series, and what a revelation they are.

Each show gives me a fuller awareness of the stellar productions than I could ever get from listening to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts – incidentally, available where I live only by streaming. Well, that’s another rant, though I’ll send out a shout to both Harvard’s student-run FM station and New York’s WQXR for their participation.

The university I attended was acclaimed for its opera department, with a show every Saturday night and, as I recall, seven productions during the regular school year. Each of these was in English, which I found made the experience feel more like going to a Broadway musical rather than an esoteric ceremony. It was pointedly called opera theater, with an emphasis on blending music and showtime, abetted by stage directors like Ross Allen who insisted on historically correct motions for the periods being presented. A woman wouldn’t have shown her ankle while dancing, for instance, or sat in a particular posture, that sort of thing. As for facial expressions or delving into the psyche of a role? That wasn’t widely valued in earlier incarnations of the art form. But today?

Back to the Live in HD.

Imagine a Hollywood movie being filmed straight-through in a few hours like this, rather than gleaning only a minute or two of usable film a day, as is standard in the cinema biz. There’s no room for retakes in a live performance, and yet what I’m viewing is cinematically gripping. The acting is extraordinary, and the stars are visually and vocally convincing – something that wasn’t often the case when I got hooked back in the ’60s. I’m enthralled simply considering the camera work (and planning) behind each of these. (I have a feeling we’re deeply indebted to NFL and MLB technology and practice on this front – think of those crisp facial closeups shot from the other side of the field.) As for the lighting? Wow.

Opera is often discussed as the pinicle of the arts and their muses – vocal, choral, and instrumental music conjoined with drama, dance, poetry, scenery and costumes in the theater itself. It’s a collective enterprise, the way movies are. Well, I often consider it as the movies of the 19th century and, let’s not forget, the distinctively operatic singing style evolved to project into a hall long before electronic amplification existed. The vocal style is not as frilly as you might think but is actually quite flexible and expressive, even if it’s often an acquired taste.

As I was saying about these productions?

Read More »

How well are we hunkering down? Here are ten things to do in self-isolation

So here we are, spending too much time online digging for the latest in the Covid-19 deluge. I know I’m not alone there. The mere fact that so many sources for updated reports from around the globe are available only a few keystrokes away feeds our obsessive googling and scrolling – for many, a morbid fascination, for sure.

Having pretty much self-quarantined (in part at my wife’s nudging), I’ve been trying to continue generally as much life-as-usual as possible, which you’ve seen reflected in the posts here at the Red Barn. Admittedly, my life since retiring from the newsroom and turning my attention fulltime to a writer’s discipline has meant generally limited face-to-face social interaction anyway, but even I’m getting a bit antsy without my Quaker gatherings or daily swims at the city’s indoor pool or even dashes to the bank or grocery.

Still, I sympathize with those who have never undergone a discipline of doing without – as in fasting, leaving electronics behind for a backpacking or camping expedition, or even enduring an extended power outage. (As for the toilet paper, don’t get me going. That’s truly a First World problem!)

So while I’m treating these restrictions as an opportunity for reflection and renewal, here are ten things to make the best of it. And remember, if you’re sharing this hunkering down with a mate and/or children, try these together.

  1. Starring in the kitchen: Usually we’re too busy running around to actually take the time to cook attentively. You know, maybe from scratch. So reach into the backs of your cupboards and actually use ingredients you put aside for someday. When you don’t have everything a recipe calls for, be inventive. How does homemade bread sound right now? Pancakes? Your own pretzels? (Oops, I’ve got to check on that pork broth simmering on the stove!)
  2. Guilty reading: Got a pile of books or magazines gathering dust? Kick back and open a page. Don’t overlook ebooks, either. They’re easily downloaded … I have a few I’m recommending.
  3. Arts and entertainment: You might be surprised what’s being streamed, not just on Netflix or Amazon Prime. I’ve been watching a different Metropolitan Opera production for free at dawn every morning. (Often while I’ve been doing one of these other activities.)
  4. Deep cleaning and reorganizing: Revisiting old files in my cabinets or on my laptop and purging many of them is feeling so liberating. It’s allowing me to refocus, too. Think about your closets and drawers. Parts of the barn are going to be next, weather permitting.
  5. Seed planting and yard work: Hey, you can’t stay inside all the time! And when you do, you can get some of those seeds started.
  6. In-house exercise: The gym and indoor pool may be closed, but you can still go for walks or clear a space on the rug for yoga or pushups. I had forgotten we have hand weights, which I found while cleaning. Inhale, one, exhale, two …
  7. Games and puzzles: Get out the decks of cards or a board game. How long’s it been? Puzzles can keep you busy, too, solo or with everyone’s help.
  8. Phone calls and emails: Yes, keep in touch. I’m really behind here!
  9. Rest: What’s wrong with napping or staying abed longer? How often do you get a chance to do THAT? A deep, long hot bath is another soothing option.
  10. Prayer, meditation, and reflection: Many churches have mobilized streaming events on this front. Check out their websites.

Here’s hoping you and yours aren’t showing any virus symptoms.

~*~

What would you suggest adding? What are you discovering … or rediscovering?

The latest on the coronapocalypse from here

Has anyone else noticed how quickly our language has added “coronavirus” to common usage and then, over perhaps a week, “COVID-19” has become equally common parlance?

It started as a synonym, and at first I would have said it made for a shorter word in headlines but now I’m thinking it’s about the same length. When it comes to newspaper columns, the shorter the word, the better, especially in headlines.

Watch for the next step, which is to make the acronym even shorter by going from all-caps to Covid-19, as it’s already appearing in a few places.

~*~

You’ve probably already noticed the panic rush on the supermarkets after the Tom Hanks diagnosis was announced. The shelves of toilet paper, especially, were quickly cleared out. The new deliveries have been limited to one package per customer, maybe two, depending.

My wife just came back from a quick trip to one store (for its special on butter). She noticed the guy ahead of her in the checkout line, a blue-collar type apparently stopping on the way home from an overnight shift and picking up a few more items for the duration. He had a package of toilet paper, not surprising, and a half-dozen cartons of Ben & Jerry’s. How’s that for priorities?