From Unclassifiable Blather

Surviving Our Plague

Album cover: 15 Thoughts of Brinsley SchwarzThis coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is NOT the plague, this post’s hyperbolic title notwithstanding. Nearly all of us will survive it, for one thing. And though we may very well see chaos on a large scale in this country (beyond empty toilet paper shelves at supermarkets and the canceled, well, nearly everything), we won’t see conscripted sanitation workers pushing carts on our city streets and calling, “bring out your dead!”

Here are some of my thoughts this morning. They include a few specific to our temporary “new normal,” but more that are only tangentially related if at all. It isn’t healthy to focus all of our thoughts to this particular elephantine roommate. I will keep politics almost entirely out of this post, and ratchet back my usual irreverent goofing as much as I can.[1]

Fifteen thoughts of Chair-man Steve

Please take this seriously. Listen to those who are best equipped to know: doctors. In particular, it is critical we take heed to epidemiologists like the NIH’s Dr Anthony Fauci. He has impressive qualifications and has been unafraid to speak truth to those who do not. He is prioritizing lives. Dr Fauci has spoken bluntly to those who may feel at relatively low risk themselves about the importance of their behavior.

First they came for our toilet paper, and then for our guns? There is now a surge in gun sales. What?[2]

Two novels I can recommend that have plague outbreaks at the center of their stories are Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith and Albert Camus’ The Plague. NOTE: We aren’t facing anything like the devastation wrought over-and-over-again by the plague.

Arrowsmith tells the powerful and heartbreaking story of a doctor forced to choose between conducting a rigorous, scientifically necessary trial of a potential cure for bubonic plague–which could save countless future lives–or abandoning the trial to treat hundreds of suffering patients in immediate peril. This novel seems to be overshadowed by other works by Sinclair Lewis (Main Street and Babbitt for two), but it is my favorite of his books, and it is the novel for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.[3]

If you get BBC America with your cable package[4], watch the recent Seven Worlds, One Planet series. David Attenborough is an international treasure! The series is beautifully filmed–as one would expect–and fascinating throughout. Nature a bit too “bloody in tooth and claw” for the youngest of little ones.

Pangolin in a defensive posture Yesterday evening as we watched the “Africa” episode of the BBC series, the pangolin briefly took center stage. Although it may not crack the “weirdest animals featured in the series” top ten, it is a strange one. It seems to be a mashup of an armadillo and an aardvark, with a dash of a “rolly-poly” bug thrown in. Even its name is vaguely chimeran. Joann remarked, “That’s the animal researchers think may have started this pandemic.” It is used in traditional Chinese medicine and is one of the most trafficked animals in the world. Evidently it is ticked-off.

From the Silver Lining Department: the Timberwolves haven’t lost a game in over a week!

My friend Chris K shared on Facebook that Major League Baseball is making at least one of each team’s classic games available to watch for free online. He also shared links to two old Twins’ games available on YouTube. I watched the complete game seven of the 1965 Twins-Dodgers World Series. This is the first time I’ve seen this Koufax guy pitch. He’s pretty good!

Despite having never seen Koufax pitch (he retired when I was six, after a 1966 season in which he went 27-9 with an ERA of 1.73), I have long been a big fan. Because my dad was, and is. In the early 90s before strong passwords were considered essential, “32koufax” was one I kept in my rotation.[6]

Vin Scully. Simply the best ever. He takes over play-by-play duties in about the fifth inning of the television broadcast linked above. One of my favorite memories is listening to him on KFI, a Los Angeles station ~700 miles away from our backyard on one of the not-so-infrequent nights when atmospheric conditions were just right, and listening to Dad’s admiring appreciation for the broadcaster. Dad wasn’t wrong. For some reason Dad’s approving comment about Scully’s use of–not Willie but–Wilver Stargell stands out.

My mind is getting away from baseball now. It’s spring-ish here today, and during the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020, The Birds Will Still Be Singing. They are singing, in fact.

The talk of passwords[7] and the song I just listened to (and linked to) has made me think about my mentor at the Shasta County Office of Education as a computer programmer and, specifically, as a UNIX/Linux systems programmer. His name was Claude Smith, and he took his own life ~25 years ago. I still miss him and wonder about his wife and his two young (at that time) sons. Was there no other way Claude?

I’d best get back to birds, to staunch the flow of weepy eyes. Birding is a great way to get out and be “socially distant.” I love to see others take an interest in them and nature.[8] My granddaughter, whom I hope will be birding with Joann 10, 20, and 30 years from now has asked me more than once while screwing her face into the most adorable quizzical expression, “Grandpa, how do you know so much about birds?”

I hope there are birds for them to see in 20 or 30 years.

The image at the top of this post depicts the album cover of the 1978 best-of collection Fifteen Thoughts of Brinsley Schwarz, which inspired this ramble.[9] I have to reference its lead track, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?” It is probably Nick Lowe’s greatest achievement in a long career as a great songwriter, though his pastoral version with the Brinsleys was and is overshadowed by the rocking and loud, anthemic cri de coeur he produced with Elvis Costello and the Attractions. It has been covered by everyone, it seems. Here’s a pretty good live performance by Bruce Springsteen with some special guests. It doesn’t touch Costello’s recording, but it is worth hearing. The question resonates still.


  1. With the exception of the next footnote, I stuck to my “no politics” resolution. There will be time when this difficult season has passed to assess the performance of of our leaders. [^]
  2. The big-game-hunting acorn that didn’t fall far from the tree is gleefully tweeting about Democrats panic-buying guns during the pandemic. (Click on link to see an image of the twit’s tweet.)[^]
  3. Lewis refused the prize, writing in part:

    Those terms are that the prize shall be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” This phrase, if it means anything whatsoever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.

    Good grief! He deserved a Nobel Prize for that alone. [^]

  4. “Cable?” you say, “Okay Boomer.” [^]
  5. Image of pangolin from Wikimedia Commons and is courtesy Stephen C Dickson. I have resized and cropped it. [^]
  6. Up until my move to Minnesota in 1995, I was a huge Dodger fan. The 1994 players’ strike, steroids, and–strike three–the fact that almost all Dodger games I could get on TV started at 10pm my time or later killed my fandom. All things must pass.
    Another password in my early 90s rotation: 13fergie — a throwback to my 70s-era obsession. Jeff T, Mike S, David B, and a few others would understand. Hint: my favorite highlight from the Dodgers’ drubbing at the hands of the Swingin’ A’s in the ’74 Series is responsible for this one. [^]
  7. We supported school districts located all over the state of California that used our software. The servers weren’t connected to the Internet. We logged in over 9600-baud modems. In our offices Claude had written on a whiteboard, “Allow enter into only” to quickly identity root passwords for district servers. We used the first three letters of the one of those four words beginning with the letter corresponding to the first vowel in district’s name. We capitalized the third. The count of letters in the first name in district’s title, followed by the last four letters of it spelled backwards completed the password. Thus:
          Cascade Unified School District = alL7csac
          Woodland School [whatever] = onL8dnal
    Simple, right? Not good enough for today’s Internet-connected servers, but okay then. [^]
  8. I am always happy to introduce friends to birding. I have crowed often about helping to get one of my favorite Scrabble friends into birding. She’s fairly hardcore now. My brother and his wife, and Joann’s elder brother and his wife are now casual birders (and there’s nothing wrong with casual there). It took years of our insufferable badgering, but still, good for them! (My brother Randy is the inspiration for Randy’s Guide to the Birds of North America). Even my mom, the patient, long-suffering wife, mother, and mother-in-law to frequent tick-carrying-home birdbrains, is noticing and watching birds now–albeit from tick-free vantage points behind windows whenever possible.
    I am fortunate to have as a caregiver an enthusiastic bird watcher, and over the years I’ve treated her to more than a few “good birds” in my yard. (I’m not very upset that she has had Evening Grosbeaks at her own feeders.) Recently a treasured friend of over 20 years–though we’ve met just once in Euclidian space (now that’s social distancing!)–has started taking gorgeous photos of birds. I can’t take any credit for her interest (her son may be the impetus), but it’s fun to see!
    The numerous good friends I have met through birding, most of whom have been at it far longer than I (including these delightful Londoners), I will save for a post on another day.
  9. I owned this import on flimsy 12-inch vinyl ordered from a classified ad snipped from an issue of Rolling Stone magazine printed on actual paper. Yes, I’m a boomer. [^]