Diary in the Time of Coronavirus (8)
by Paul Hudon
In Consciousness, his only volume of memoirs, John Updike proposes two life-defining questions. First, Why me? Second, Why here? Identity and place. He paired the right questions, only, being Updike, he put them back to front. Place comes first (the who question has a where answer), not identity (the where question has a who answer). Where predicts who, not the other way around.
The choice — who or where — can look pointless and obscure, a mind.quest invented by people with too much time on their hands, people who don’t have to grub for their living. In fact, since 1859, when Darwin explained natural selection, the choice has never been pointless. In the West, it refigured the definition of human nature. Among us Americans, the choice has recently become political, an active demographic fact. It could prove fatal to the republic. Not pointless.
Can Jesus be my personal savior when I might just as well be someone else? That’s a hypothetical way of putting the question, but the question itself is anything but. Not to evangelicals. Natural selection operates in a contingent universe. Identity is cumulative, building on a sequence of options taken in a succession of time and place. Specific time and specific place. Identity is not preordained, not determined, never settled. In other words, the annihilation of self as evangelicals know it. Contingency terrifies them. They retreat, find themselves in Scripture, in words. Their choice of words.
Here’s a pointed question: Can an evangelical be a citizen of our republic? Their answer: NOT. Which is how it happens they’re willing to buddy-up with le trompeur to build a place where they feel at home. Idols can only ever survive in their own sanctuary.
Just past noon, at my west-facing window, river hawk suddenly there, from above and behind, within ten feet of where I’m standing. It can only have come off the roof. Low-flying, rising, “makin’ lazy circles in the sky” like the song says.
I allow myself to think, ‘‘Just for me.’’ Allowance comes easy in a time of dark need. The need for visual signs where the living are seen to put trust in life. Keeping faith with the gift.
It’s The Yellow Dog all over again. I make a try for escapism but get a story that features contagion and fear. This time it’s a movie.
“The Killer That Stalked New York” is a mix of film noir and docudrama. Released in December 1950, the movie tells about a smallpox event in New York City in the spring of 1947. Oddly, it has something to say about our situation in the spring of 2020 .
It’s the story of Sheila Bennet, a woman who smuggles diamonds in from Mexico, and about the man who done her wrong. That’s the film noir. The docudrama runs parallel. Here Sheila carries the smallpox virus into the city. She’s an agent of death but she doesn’t know this, a thief but not a killer. The villein of the piece is the virus itself.
Health officials at first are skeptical that the virus could show-up in New York City in the middle of the twentieth century; but once smallpox is confirmed, their response is immediate and very aggressive. The mayor of New York is vaccinated — “the big scratch” — with all the fanfare at his disposal. “You’re donating the police stations,” he tells the police commissioner. “Same with the firehouses,” he tells the fire chief. “In all the boroughs.” The program to vaccinate all eight million New Yorkers needed every possible venue in the city.
Half way through they run out of vaccine, ‘and when the doors closed at the vaccination centers, the big fear began . . . panic was born, became as epidemic as the disease itself.” The manufacturers are put under heavy pressure to produce the other four million doses. The mayor brooks no delays.
The urgency in all this makes for a telling contrast to what we saw from the Trump administration this past winter and spring. Hollywood is notorious for shaping movies to fill the big screen with box office dynamite. Not this time. The public record shows that the outbreak began in March and by 24 April it was over. Under two months. In 1950, government was not “part of the problem”
One note looks and sounds familiar. There were complaints with the city’s strong-arm response, and with the mayor in particular. “Next thing you know,” one man says, “they’ll be showing pictures of him brushing his teeth.” And “what right does the mayor have spending taxpayers money like this? This is costing millions.” But — in this script at least — there was little resistance to the need for swift, collective action. In this, it made a huge difference to our own situation that the vaccine was already available. There was no need in 1947 to shut down the economy and quarantine entire populations.
Well worth the 79 minutes screen time.
Contagion again, sort of. Last month at Atamian’s, when it came time to pay for my resurrected AC, I automatically went to insert my card into that device we’re all familiar with. The young man at the cashier’s desk interrupted. No need, he said, Just tap your card on it. Which I did, and the money transfer was made.
You’d think I’d have figured-out by now there are life-time-firsts to be had, even in my 82nd year. The primo lesson in The Time of Coronavirus, after all: Settle in, you’ve still got a lot to learn about where you are and how to behave here.
Another first, then. And then again, was it? What difference did it make, really, insert or tap? None at all to the device apparently.
So I moved on: What is it about in-or-on makes a difference to me?
I don’t have a clear and distinct idea on that. Fenton ties it back to, Life is the organization of signals. But that’s become an instinct with Fenton, a default . And anyway, so what? Life informing organization, put-in or tapped-on, that makes a difference? I don’t reckon it does. Only it got my attention and so it was a learning experience for me, sort of.
I get an elaborate two-page statement from Verizon. It owes me 12 cents.
A literature accumulates exploring what the pandemic is doing to us as individuals.
Not a mention of the anniversary of D-Day, the allied landings in Normandy in 1944, and the creation of a second front against Nazi Germany. On the other hand, I watch a video of President Eisenhower in September 1957 where he explains sending federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas. The troops are sent to enforce court rulings against racial segregation of public schools. “We are a nation in which law not men are supreme,” the president tells us. “I regret to say that this truth, the cornerstone of our liberty, was not observed” in Little Rock. For a week, sixty-three years later, we’ve watched demonstrators by the thousands take to the streets, showing how little we’ve accomplished on equality before the law. There’s been a regression in fact: Now the issue is safety in the streets.
Mixed feelings. Sad that race and racial issues are still so potent among us, still liable to wreck “our noble experiment in self- government.” Hopeful that with a presidential campaign gearing-up we’ll see Republican candidates relinquish white supremacy as an electoral issue. It’s been mighty useful to them since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in 1968. Perhaps it’s become a liability.
In any case, those demonstrations in a time of pandemic, are a wonder to behold.