Surviving the Pandemic: Subjects to Change, Cheap Shots From the Cheap Seats, Are Snakes Necessary? and More

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PROVERBS 4:23
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

In the summer, you can drive down Fifth Avenue from the 90s to the 70s and not see a light on in an apartment building — the rich are gone. It’s almost like that now. And it’s not just the rich: Two friends left New York today. They don’t expect to return before… June.

June may be optimistic. It’s now clear we’re in for it. The only question now is about numbers: How many will get sick? How many will die?

These are, to use the term every pundit is slinging around, existential questions. They’re light-years beyond “When will my portfolio come back?” or “What about graduation?” This is a sh*tshow beyond anything we have known — or can imagine. Think 9/11 every day for months, as the entire globe is brought to its knees by a runaway disease and a crushed economy. Oh, almost forgot: With an idiot at the helm who did nothing for critical months, Pence, Mnuchin and Pelosi — the trio running the government — are desperately playing catch-up to a disease with a huge head start. (The first coronavirus case in the U.S. and South Korea was detected on the same day. By late January, Seoul had medical companies starting to work on a diagnostic test — one was approved a week later. Today, the U.S. isn’t even close to meeting test demand.) Suggestion: Forget about Trump. History will take care of him.

These are existential questions for those of us on the sidelines. They’re real for doctors and nurses, and if we’re unlucky, for us. Nurses in many hospitals wear one mask all day because of supply shortages. Meanwhile, ICE — which only yesterday decided to “delay enforcement actions” and use “alternatives to detention” because someone finally twigged that it’s not smart to keep arresting immigrants and stuffing them into petri-dish detention camps — has plenty of masks. (Note: There is no shortage of masks in China or South Korea.)

Try this: “Grace Fusco — mother of 11, grandmother of 27 — died in New Jersey on Wednesday night after contracting the coronavirus, hours after her son died from the virus and five days after her daughter’s death. Four other children who contracted coronavirus remain hospitalized, three of them in critical condition. Nearly 20 other relatives are quarantined at their homes, praying in isolated solitude, unable to mourn their deep collective loss together.”

In the Times, a board-certified surgeon and critical care specialist writes: “At our large, 4,000-bed New York City hospital, we have 500 ventilators and 250 on backup reserve.” She says what is echoed everywhere: Unless the curve of infection is flattened, our hospitals may soon be so overwhelmed that patients will have to be turned away or denied treatment with life-saving ventilators. For the unlucky, it’s not a pretty death: Your lungs drown you. And you may well die alone. For more, read this.

My 18-year-old daughter, who has practiced a form of social distancing for some time, intuitively understands this. Her text to me: “Stay at home or I will kill you before the virus does.”

My daughter is like a cop. My friends are like sheriffs. And I am a cop for them. We get it. As you do. We are all in lockdown. House arrest. For the duration. And when we emerge, blinking in daylight like moles, the world will be different. That’s the bottom line. Last week was Before. This is Now. Job #1 is getting to After.

In a new biography, the Dalai Lama boils his understanding of his mission down to service — bodhichitta, “the determination to work unstintingly for the Enlightenment of all sentient beings.” His one recreation: attending monastic dates. As a role model, he gets my vote. For at least 8 weeks — think May 15 — I’m aiming to upgrade my compassion and dive into my version of a monastic debate: writing a book.

What seems most useful to me — as Head Butler, as a citizen, as a father — is to focus entirely on one goal: saving my life and helping others save theirs. That starts with acknowledging danger and sharing fear. It proceeds immediately to determination and resilience. It’s all I know. It’s the legacy of my mother, now 103, who beat it into my head from early childhood: “There’s always something more you can do.”

Here, in what I imagine will be a series of postings, is what makes me emotionally alive and mentally active these days.

MUSIC
First thing in the morning, I play music that pumps me up. This week I’m finishing the rewrite of my theatrical adaptation of Michael Tonello’s Bringing Home the Birkin. There’s a surprise in the first scene: at a photo shoot, a model makes Michael dance. Until that moment, he seems to be a nerd; he’s suddenly dazzling. The song is John Fogarty’s “Almost Saturday Night,” the version he recorded with Keith Urban.

MAURICE SENDAK: “THERE ARE SO MANY BEAUTIFUL THINGS IN THE WORLD”
Terry Gross often interviewed Maurice Sendak for her NPR program, “Fresh Air.” In 2011, he had a new book, and she wanted to talk with him again. They barely mentioned the book. Sendak was 83, ill, mourning the deaths of his lover and his friends and contemplating his own.

The interview was absorbing., And emotional — Gross and Sendak understood they were saying goodbye. Christoph Niemann, an illustrator, listened to the conversation and knew what to do: he made an amination of the last five minutes, using images from Sendak’s books. Sendak died either months after this conversation.

The conversation ends with this: “I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more… What I dread is the isolation… There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.. Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.”

THIS WEEK’S HERO: KATIE PARKER
The scene: a hearing of the House Oversight Committee
The Players: Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) and Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield
The Conflict: getting to “yes”

ERIK LARSON
For 57 consecutive days, Hitler’s planes bombed London. Erik Larson delivers a new take on those days — what it was like to be Churchill or be in his circle — in his new book, “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.” The book couldn’t have come out at a better time; the blitz has started here. Friends who have read it say they devoured 600 pages. Clearly, it’s the book to read to fill a day or two. [For the rave Times review, click here. To read an excerpt, click here. To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

TOM LEHRER: “I GOT IT FROM AGNES”

26 MINUTES OF JOHN CHEEVER
“’The Swimmer’ was made into a film some of you may have seen,” Cheever remarked before he began to read one of his most famous stories at 92Y in 1977. “It still runs on late-night television. I know because people always call me and say, ‘Hey, you’re in the movies!’ It’s usually about half past 11… . Here again the story has had an international success, and the various interpretations have always interested me. It’s very popular in Russia, for example, where there are almost no swimming pools and where almost nobody swims.” To listen, click here.

HARRY CLARKE
In this one-man show, Billy Crudup begins life as a kid in Illinois who knows he is destined for better. He takes his fake-British accent to New York, and…. along the way he plays 19 people with astonishing accuracy. This sensationally smart, funny, surprisingly touching play is now an audiobook. Just watch the video. You’ll see why, instead of watching something, you’ll want to gather loved ones around the speaker.

SPOIL YOURSELF
It takes 1,300 roses to make ONE gram of pure rose oil used in a Diptyque candle. This candle lasts so long it’s like a bottle of Dom Perignon that keeps refilling itself while your back is turned.

BOOKS FOR KIDS

ROALD DAHL
“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was an instant hit when it was published in America in 1964; its first printing sold out in a month. In the early l970s, Dahl produced a sequel, “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.” Later, a movie with Gene Wilder — a very different movie from Tim Burton’s — turned Charlie into a kids’ classic. Starting around age 8 or 9, all the smart kids I’ve known have loved Dahl’s books and the drawings by Quentin Blake. “Matilda.” “James and the Giant Peach.” “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” “The BFG.” They’re all here.

WILLIAM STEIG
“CDB!” has given generations of pre-schoolers a book they can “read” — like this:
R U C-P?
S, I M.
I M 2.
And the stories! In “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” a frightened donkey turns himself into a stone, but can’t reverse the process. In “Dr. De Soto,” a mouse who is an excellent animal dentist takes a huge chance and accepts a fox as a patient. in “The Real Thief,” a goose is false accused of stealing a royal ruby.
But even more, the moral and ethical sophistication in Steig’s books astonish me. In “Amos & Boris,” a mouse falls off his boat and contemplates death in terms never before seen in a kids’ book: “He began to wonder what it would be like to drown. Would it take very long? Would it feel just awful? Would his soul go to heaven? Would there be other mice there?”

The Everything Kids’ Science Experiments Book: Boil Ice, Float Water, Measure Gravity-Challenge the World Around You!

This is not just a book of wonky science for kids seven and up. It’s got puzzles and quizzes. And terrible jokes: “Why did the young scientist bring art supplies to class?” “She wanted to draw some conclusions!” [Note to parents of daughters: This book is refreshingly generous with feminine pronouns.] The meat of the book, of course, is “experiments.” Almost all require an adult as helper and supervisor — if you don’t plan to share the fun of this book with your kid, please, in the interest of the child’s safety, don’t buy the book.

NOSTALGIA: Barack Obama on Bob Dylan at the White House

February 2010. The White House’s Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement. Dylan had never met Obama. He sang “The Times They Are-A Changin’” and shook Obama’s hand and left.

The President’s review: “Here’s what I love about Dylan: He was exactly as you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal; usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to that. He came in and played ‘The Times They Are A-Changin.’ A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage — I’m sitting right in the front row — comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it — then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise.”

LATE NIGHT MUSIC
I’ve been ending the last few days with Nathaniel Rateliff’s “And It’s Still Alright,” often under the influence of this or that. It’s not “easy listening.” You can reliably expect a 4-minute emotional ringer. But it’s real emotion. After, I feel better: “It’s still alright.”

It ain’t alright, the hardness of my head
Now close your eyes and spin around
Say, hard times, you could find
That it ain’t the way that you want
But it’s still alright

Late at night, do you lay around wondering?
Counting all the lines, it ain’t so funny now
Say, times are hard, you get this far
But it ain’t the way that you want

I’ll be damned if this old man
Don’t start to counting his losses
But it’s still alright

They say you learn a lot out there
How to scorch and burn
Gonna have to bury your friends
And then you’ll find it gets worse
Standing out on the ledge
With no way to get down
Start praying for wings to grow
Oh, baby, just let go

I ain’t alright, you keep spinning out ahead
It was cold outside when I hit the ground
Say, I could sleep here, forget all the fear
It will take time to grow
Maybe, I don’t know
Hey, tonight, if you think about it again
Remembering all the times that you pointed out
Say, the glass is clear, but all this fear
Starts a-leaving a mark
Your idle hands are all that stands
From your time in the dark
But it’s still alright

Hold the thought: It’s still alright.

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