Don’t worry, it’s only a movie

last man2
Here they come, a squad of chubby Sandinistas wearing black surgical masks. Better cross the street. Oh no! A tall, skinny diva walking her tall, skinny dog. All I can see are her eyes, and they’re glaring at me. Better put on my mask and run in the street, at least until I get halfway back to my shack in the Tinicum swamp.

Easier said than done. On the block up ahead there’s a party going on with music playing and a Happy Birthday sign in the window of the corner house. None of the partiers are wearing masks, and they’re not in a social distancing mood. They’re teenagers. Probably more worried about running out of beer than catching the plague.

So I stay in the street and run harder and put my mask on whenever someone gets too close. And after awhile there are no pedestrians and I feel like I’m in a movie playing the sole survivor of an attack by aliens that left all the buildings intact. That’s it, I’ll pretend it’s a movie.

Barnes & Noble is closed. The restaurants have shut down and the schools and gyms and arenas and retail stores and bars and theaters and coffee shops. It’s not as if everyone just took a few days off and will return next week. Some of the storefront windows are boarded up.

When I get back to the shack, Swamp Rabbit shows me an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

… It’s already clear that our habits have been profoundly altered after just a few weeks of home confinement. Many people have grown comfortable working in their dens and basements and having life’s necessities brought to their doorsteps. The longer the closures go on, the more likely that Center City’s struggling retailers will finally succumb to the delivery economy.

The rabbit is rattled. He downs a shot of whiskey and says, “What if them office workers you dissed last week don’t come back? What if everybody starts living indoors all the time? If Center City dies, what happens to us peeps in the boondocks?”

I shrug. “In the boonies we’ll live like second-class citizens, same as before, except the taxes will be a lot higher. Uptown, the office workers will return, at least for awhile. Center City will make a modest comeback when the infection rate falls to near zero.”

“Yeah, but what happens if there’s a second wave of virus, and a third, like with that flu back in 1918?”

“Have another drink,” I said. “You don’t even want to think about that.”

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The loneliness of the long-distance office worker

We took turns reading a Philadelphia Inquirer story about possible psychological damage suffered by office workers who, for their own safety’s sake, must work at home for as long as the COVID-19 disaster persists.

In suddenly empty offices all across America, idle water coolers stand as memorials to a workplace culture that has virtually disappeared during the coronavirus epidemic.

For millions now forced to labor at home, the casual collegiality symbolized by those gurgling office gathering spots has given way to seclusion and uncertainty, possibly exacerbating what ex-Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called ‘America’s epidemic of loneliness.’

Swamp Rabbit shook his head. “Them poor water coolers. I’ll bet they ain’t gurgled in weeks.”

I pretended to smack him upside his head. “It’s not funny, dude. Forced solitude is taking a toll on our mental health. Where would we be without the casual collegiality of the office workplace?”

He raised his mangy head and looked me over. “You’re putting me on, Odd Man. You don’t like office work.”

I failed to suppress a laugh. “Let me put it this way. I never worked an office job that didn’t make me feel like I was trapped with people who, with very few exceptions, weren’t scheming backstabbers or hopeless drones.”

“They probably felt the same way about you,” Swamp Rabbit said. “You ain’t exactly fun to be around.”

“That’s my point, rabbit. Why should office workers have to put up with each other? We’re talking mostly about bullshit jobs — writing ad copy, public relations and so on. Why not just use the Internet to do the work from home?”

“I don’t know, Odd Man, it can get pretty lonely at home.”

“You mean lonely like the loneliness of the long-distance runner? It’s a lot worse being lonely in a crowd of dead-ass office workers.”

We’re reading a bullshit newspaper story about bullshit grievances, I told him. These people are getting paid to work from home and therefore have little to complain about, especially compared to essential workers who get paid next to nothing to risk infection every day.

Swamp Rabbit told me to calm down, he agreed with me, but why did the Inquirer run a story that tries to make us feel sorry for at-home office workers?

“Because office workers are their audience,” I said. “Who else would have the time or inclination to read such crap?”

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Disinfecting the disaffected

I wanted to raise a glass Wednesday to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but Swamp Rabbit only wanted to lament the ironies of the occasion:

• The Earth Day anniversary calls for a big celebration, but it’s not happening because the coronavirus pandemic has made getting together in crowds too dangerous.

• The air in this country is a lot cleaner this month, but only because so many cars are off the road and so many businesses closed due to virus-related quarantines. And the orange hog monster in the White House just took action to lower fuel economy standards for automobiles, so don’t count on cleaner air in the long run.

• Wild animals are roaming some city streets, but (again) only because of street-clearing quarantines. Don’t count on wildlife to make a comeback anytime soon. Count on global warming and human overpopulation to push wildlife into smaller and smaller confines. And count on human encroachment to cause more viral pandemics.

“Enough of your cheap ironies,” I said. “Give some credit to the visionaries who created Earth Day. They were in the vanguard of all efforts to stop polluting the planet.”

Swamp Rabbit shook his head. “If you think most peeps are serious about stopping pollution, then you probably think hydroxychloroquine cures virus victims.”

“Don’t be a defeatist,” I said. “Most people create a whole lot more dirt than they clean up, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to save the planet. They just haven’t made the right changes yet.”

I mentioned the slow transition to renewable energy that’s underway all over the world. Coal will be dead soon. Fracking companies are losing money. Even blowhards like financial analyst Jim Cramer are talking like environmentalists.

Swamp Rabbit wasn’t convinced. He reminded me that Congress is still subsidizing the dirt bags who make dirty fuel, and that the disaffected masses in the MAGA coalition are still following the hog monster’s advice.

“I don’t know about that, rabbit. He just suggested that mainlining disinfectant might be another good treatment for the virus.”

“OK, they won’t follow him on that,” Swamp Rabbit conceded. “But they’d be happy if the Democrats did.”

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Trump fans don’t fear the reaper

Andy Borowitz is usually good for a laugh, even when he writes about the vindictive imbecile who’s in charge of making sure the country survives the worldwide plague:

No one could have seen the coronavirus pandemic coming except for people who are capable of reading, a new study indicates.

To be fair – and even Swamp Rabbit agrees with this – most of us didn’t foresee having to put on a mask to gain entrance to a bank. Or walking on deserted city streets at high noon. Or becoming one of the 22 million people who applied for unemployment insurance in the space of four weeks.

But Borowitz is referring to a subsection of the body politic: the legion of Donald Trump fans who totally ignored the pandemic, or scoffed at it. And to Trump himself, who was aware of the impending disaster but encouraged his fans to think the virus was a hoax because he was afraid that belatedly admitting it was real might hurt his re-election chances.

“What you mean by scoffed at?” Swamp Rabbit said from his perch on the porch of my swamp shack. “Ain’t nobody I know would scoff at some disease that’s killing
peeps all over the world.”

“I’m not talking about people you know, rabbit. I’m talking about Trump fans.”

I read to him from a news story on my laptop:

Several thousand cars flooded the streets around the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Wednesday to protest the governor’s extended stay-at-home order. Cars jammed the streets around the Capitol building, filling the air with a cacophony of honking. People draped in American and ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flags blared ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and ‘God Bless The USA’ out of car stereos.

The protest — called ‘Operation Gridlock’ — was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and drew out militias, conservatives, small-business owners and ardent supporters of President Trump, who characterize the governor’s stay-at-home order as an unjust power grab.

The protesters are like the rest of us, in that they’re scared because they’ve been laid off from their jobs and are tired of being restricted to their homes. What’s different is they’re Trump fans and therefore believe that news about the virus is fake or greatly exaggerated, and part of a liberal plot to enslave them.

I said, “They watch Fox News and believe guys like Dr. Phil and Bill Bennett, who said the COVID-19 isn’t really a pandemic and shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than a seasonal flu.”

Trump fans are immune to science and reason, I told him, and opposed to anything that interferes with their so-called individual rights, even when exercising those rights endangers everyone else in the vicinity. Don’t tread on me, dude.

“Thanks for the lecture,” Swamp Rabbit said, “but I don’t think most peeps are gonna go loony and protest the stay-at-home rule, not if it means catching the virus.”

“You’re wrong, rabbit. We’ll see more and more loonies, especially after the first wave of the virus peaks. Michigan is only the beginning.”

“Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult

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OK, it’s Biden, if he still has a pulse

Swamp Rabbit read the tweet and said, “Who is this varmint and what’s he got against Bernie Sanders? Bernie ain’t even actively running for president no more.”

I explained to him that David Axelrod was a top advisor to Barack Obama who remained an influential political consultant after Obama was gone. He’s one of those Democratic dinosaurs who don’t yet realize they’re heading for extinction even if their current champion, Joe Biden, finishes ahead of Donald Trump in November.

“The dinosaurs like to gather in shady groves, eating low-hanging fruit and complaining that progressives and socialists are a danger to the nation,” I said. “The only thing they ever did for Bernie was damn him with faint praise, even as he was breathing new life into the Democratic Party.”

Swamp Rabbit scratched his head and sipped from his flask. “I can’t figure why the dude is dissing Bernie for not making a so-called stronger case for Biden. What about Biden making a stronger case for Biden? If he don’t, nobody else will.”

I took a look at the speech in which Sanders announced the suspension of his candidacy. Yes, he “lauded his movement” and all the people who worked hard to achieve goals the dinosaurs couldn’t quite countenance. Goals like universal health care and housing, a decent minimum wage, debt-free education, a full commitment to clean energy. Goals that renew the promise of FDR’s New Deal and reject the idea that helping multinational corporations and banks is more important than helping working people.

“There’s still hope for Biden,” Swamp Rabbit said. “He listened to Bernie. He just come out in favor of Medicare for peeps over sixty and he’s got a plan for the student debt crisis.”

“Biden was for the Iraq war,” I replied, “and he was a hired gun for credit card companies. He helped create the student debt crisis.”

“That’s water under the bridge, Odd Man. You’re gonna vote for Joe ’cause he ain’t Trump.”

“How can I vote for him if he never shows his face? Trump is on TV every day spreading lies and misinformation about the pandemic. Where’s Biden? Is he still alive?”

But Swamp Rabbit is right, of course. Biden will turn up more often when the virus levels drop. His gaffes are brutal, but he usually means well and his mind isn’t totally closed to new ideas. Most important, he isn’t a bigoted narcissistic fraud, incapable of leading efforts to end one of the worst crises in U.S. history.

He ain’t Trump.

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Daily briefings from the beast

Swamp Rabbit wore a surgical mask today when he went to the SuperFridge. To protect himself against COVID-19, he said, but I figured he just wanted to rob the joint without being identified.

He brought ketchup and fish sticks back to the swamp, just in time to hear me ranting about Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Why did the liar-in-chief force the various states to engage in a bidding war for much-needed medical equipment and, in some cases, actually use FEMA to bid against certain states for that equipment? Why did he refuse for so long to invoke the Defense Production Act, which compels private companies to quickly make sure there is no scarcity of equipment needed for a national emergency? Is this a case of Trump being stupid and malicious, or just stupid?

“Don’t make no difference,” Swamp Rabbit said. “With a dude like Trump, stupid and malicious are the same.”

I showed him a Boston Globe editorial about Trump that doesn’t pull any punches. It starts with a famous literary line:

‘Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,’ wrote W.B. Yeats in 1919. A century later, it’s clear: The epicenter cannot hold. Catastrophic decisions in the White House have doomed the world’s richest country to a season of untold suffering.

The language is even stronger a few paragraphs down, just in case Globe readers hadn’t yet got the point:

The months the administration wasted with prevarication about the threat and its subsequent missteps will amount to exponentially more COVID-19 cases than were necessary. In other words, the president has blood on his hands.

Swamp Rabbit shrugged. “Trump ain’t no Lady Macbeth. If he gets blood on his hands, he just wipes it off and looks for something else to wreck.”

He suggested I check out Trump’s daily marathon press “briefings” and remember how we wondered what would happen to the country if its fate fell into the hands of someone who can only wreck things. As Yeats asked:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

We’ve known for three years what the beast looks likes. The only question now is how much wreckage he will cause before he slouches in some other direction.

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Dylan’s JFK song is dizzy, Miss Lizzie

Swamp Rabbit wanted to know what was the big deal about “Murder Most Foul,” the Bob Dylan song about the John F. Kennedy assassination that he wrote years ago but didn’t release until now, when the country’s mood is arguably darker than at any time since 1963, when Kennedy got whacked.

“The big deal is that it’s about an event that probably changed the course of Dylan’s music,” I said, “not to mention the course of history.”

“Okay, Odd Man, but do you think the song’s any good? Seventeen minutes long, the same chords over and over, and it ain’t got no chorus. It’s like he’s telling a story, not singing a song.”

“It might grow on you, rabbit. At first it seems like a general account of the murder, like a news story. Then Dylan throws in all the mysterious details. They’re still mysterious. I couldn’t help but laugh.”

Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?”

I told Swamp Rabbit to listen to where Dylan gets in a groove and starts dropping names and free-associating. Stan Getz and Dickey Betts. Harold Lloyd and Pretty Boy Floyd.

You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzie
You fill me with lead
That magic bullet of yours
Has gone to my head.

It’s a loosely stitched tapestry, as much about the wildness of American pop culture as about JFK’s murder. Dylan jams in so many pop references that Rolling Stone felt compelled to issue an annotated version of the lyrics.

“It’s history, rabbit. Never heard of the magic bullet theory? Look it up.”

Thelonious Monk checks in. Etta James and Patsy Cline. Marilyn Monroe, of course. A critic in Vanity Fair wrote that the song reminds him of that scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen starts naming artists who make him feel life is worth living. Maybe, but I doubt that was Dylan’s intent.

What’s new, pussycat? What’d I say?
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay
And that it’s thirty-six hours past Judgment Day

Will “Murder Most Foul” resonate with most of those who aren’t old enough to remember the assassination? Probably not. The world today is caught up in a crisis even bigger than the JFK catastrophe. Everybody’s out of work, hiding in their houses. Maybe there’s an end up ahead for the pandemic, but no one can see it yet.

“Decades from now somebody’s gonna write a song about what the virus done to this country,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Somebody in the music business who’s the voice of his generation, so called.”

“That’s assuming there will still be a music business and more generations,” I replied. “Never assume, rabbit.”

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From out of the blue, new realities


I was reading to Swamp Rabbit from Albert Camus‘s The Plague:

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.

I reminded the rabbit that he and I, along with tens of thousands of others, had been at the Flower Show in Philly less than a month ago. Even the most ignorant tulip watchers knew the coronavirus was coming, but hardly anyone at the event seemed worried. It was too hard to believe, in such a balmy setting, that a plague would soon “crash down on our heads from a blue sky.”

“Enough Camus,” he said, stretching out in a beach chair on my porch. “I don’t need no more existential dread. I’m depressed enough as it is.”

He was playing devil’s advocate, like last week. Or maybe he wasn’t.

“Camus believed in courage, not dread,” I replied. “He believed in fighting the good fight, even though the deck is stacked against you.”

Swamp Rabbit laughed. “It’s easy to feel courageous if you got groceries and the Internet and checks in the mail. It’s peeps like us who ain’t got no dough who feel the dread.”

I fetched a rusty milk crate and sat down six feet from him. “This is tough on everybody, rabbit, even those with money. People like privacy, but they also like to go to ball games and flower shows, and to their hair cutter and so on. They don’t like sheltering in place. They don’t like too much isolation.”

“Peeps don’t like forced isolation,” he said. “They like having a choice. The thing is, there ain’t never no choice if you got no money… Is my six-pack of beer still here?”

He was trying my patience. “Virus deaths are spiking in Europe,” I said. “The worst is yet to come over here. Trump has stopped saying the virus is a hoax and started calling it the invisible enemy. He wants his base to think it was planted by the Democrats and the Chinese.”

The rabbit sat up, angry. “Trump’s gonna do what he always does — blame other peeps for problems he’s too dumb to deal with. F–k Trump. He oughta be quarantined in some dungeon somewhere.”

“That’s better,” I said. “Anger will keep your spirits up, rabbit. We’ve got to grapple with the new realities, the opposite of what Trump’s doing.”

He slumped back into the beach chair. “You go right ahead and grapple with them realities, Odd Man. Where’s my beer?”

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Is social distancing here to stay?


I read aloud from a Washington Post story about our reluctance to maintain social distance from fellow humans during the coronavirus crisis:

Hermits aside, humans are social animals, even what some call “ultra-social.” For millennia, survival has depended on being part of a group. If distancing seems hard, it’s not just you: It’s human nature.

“Human nature, my ass,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Whoever wrote that article must be tripping. Or maybe she never heard of the suburbs.”

He sipped whiskey from his silver flask and jabbered on. If the post-WW II years have proved anything, it’s that many if not most people prefer to exist as far away from each other as possible. Sure, there are family homes and barrooms and sports arenas, but these are vestiges of an earlier era in which humans felt there was security in clans and safety in numbers.

The automobile and the highway system ended the notion that Americans were inherently friendly and/or group-minded, Swamp Rabbit added. Big cities emptied out as the middle class grew. Suburbs sprang up and metastasized into mega-suburbs where endless expansion is driven by the human preference for private space.

“City peeps ain’t much different,” he continued. “The more money you got, the more you avoid other peeps. If you’re rich in Manhattan you can go from one end of the island to the other without crossing paths with nobody but the doorman.”

I told him he was exaggerating, people really are upset about having to isolate during the pandemic in order to keep the infection rate down. Most humans don’t like social distancing. They like face to face contact with their fellow creatures. There’s no substitute for the human touch.

“What planet you from, Odd Man?” he said. “Where I live everybody’s on the Internet. They stream music and movies instead of going to record stores and theaters. They order groceries instead of going to the market. They socialize on Facebook. If they need the human touch, they go to one of them quickie sites, Tinder or whatever.”

“You’re too cynical, rabbit,” I replied. “When the pandemic fades, things will go back to normal.”

He shook his head and took another drink. “Normal today means staring at a smartphone, in case you ain’t noticed. Ain’t nothing you can do about that pandemic.”

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High anxiety goes viral

Swamp Rabbit was reworking his coronavirus song today. Last week it was a bossa nova, but now it’s a blues sung to the melody of “Corrina, Corrina”:

Corona, Corona
Gal, you’re on my mind
Corona, Corona
Gal, you’re on my mind
I’m a-sittin’ down, thinkin’ of you
I just can’t keep from crying

It must have dawned on the rabbit that we might be screwed, especially those of us who have to work and have no health insurance or well-off relatives.

I told him the good news: Universal health care will cover all costs related to citizens’ exposure to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Then the bad news: This is happening in Thailand, not America. The Thai government plan is for Thai citizens, period.

“I knew you were putting me on,” he said, putting down his guitar. “Ain’t no universal anything in this country. Most peeps got lousy insurance. Thirty million got no insurance at all. Trump don’t even want the peeps to have Obamacare.”

Don’t worry about insurance, I told him. Worry about treatment. The Trump gang watched the chaos in China but didn’t even think about making sure we’d have enough hospital beds to deal with the virus when it crossed the ocean.

Swamp Rabbit sipped his beer. “At least we can get tested for the virus. I heard it on the TV the other night.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, but there are hardly any test kits. Fifteen thousands South Koreans get tested for the virus every day, compared to a tiny fraction of that number in this country. No one knows how many Americans are already infected.”

Complacency has given way to high anxiety in recent days. South By Southwest was canceled, Tom Hanks has the virus, the NBA and NHL suspended play, Christian zealot Mike Pence is “spearheading” the White House’s efforts to defeat the virus. Help me, somebody!

Swamp Rabbit was depressed but defiant. “If I get sick, I’m gonna keep working.”

“Don’t be crazy, rabbit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says sick workers should stay home so they don’t infect others.”

Swamp Rabbit laughed. “That’s easy to say if you’re with the CDC and get benefits. Ain’t no paid days off where we work, Odd Man.”

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