Thursday, April 30, 2020

COVID-19: Handouts

When I was a high school kid on a family trip, we were at a rest stop getting gas when a couple came up to our van and approached my Dad. I overheard them saying that they were out of money, and asked if we could spare them a few dollars. I don't know what my Dad said, but I remember they left without anything.

In my diary entry for that moment, I wrote "We could've [helped] but could we trust them?" Was I always this cynical? I grew up in a city so I have seen the homeless and the destitute up close. Perhaps at a rest stop with other tourists was the last place I expected to be reminded of those down and out.

I think about this in light of the news that 22 million people have filed for unemployment benefits over the past few weeks due to COVID-19. The graph is remarkable: a flat line representing decades of 'normal' unemployment (hundreds of thousands jobless), and then a massive spike: 22 million people suddenly jobless. I have this image of hundreds of people coming up to me, holding out their hand.

The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, yet there have always been people holding out their hands. And now COVID-19 makes it much more so. Do I trust their motives now? With normal economic life shut down, I rue the fact that our economy is based on competition. Even though I'm not losing, I certainly don't feel like I'm winning.

Graph from Vox.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020


Earlier in the month, I was still skeptical about COVID-19, the disease that has now become America's central focus. Back then it was still far away, and I thought that everyone was overreacting. I was persuaded by the "it's just another flu" argument. The lack of urgency from the federal government kept me pessimistic.

I changed my mind when I looked at the death tolls from Italy. Then my daughter's college announced that students should not return to campus after Spring Break. Instead, students would resume their Spring semester work online. Soon after, the company I worked for announced an indefinite work from home mandate.

Since then, major aspects of American life have shut down: all professional sports leagues, college sports, movies, churches, casinos, restaurants and retail centers. It is stark living out without these non-essentials. I would love to be able to go to the library, to the gym, or to the movies. I think all of us would.

Until then, we are practicing social distancing. We go out for groceries, but not with the same frequency as before. The hoarding and insanity of that initial shut-down weekend seems gone, but being in a supermarket feels risky. The virus is invisible. Is this cart wiped down?

We still enjoy take-out, but picking it up from empty restaurants is disquieting. Our take-out orders are a small way of helping local businesses, but they are absorbing a big economic hit. I wish the country were better set up to help people on the edge. Of late, I've been pondering the brutality of capitalism.

As I write this, we're in this situation for at least another month. I hope that we continue to follow the guidelines so that we can flatten that curve. Next time COVID-19 comes around (if indeed it's seasonal), we'll be closer to a vaccine, have more hospital equipment, and have way better protocols. Until then, hunker down, America.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Asleep with Cats

I visited my younger brother a few weeks ago, and I slept on his sofa. He has two cats, and as I was settling in for the night I wondered how these cats would react to me sleeping in their space. My brother said that cats are nocturnal. Well, that's good to know.

I had some trepidation sleeping with the cats. I grew up without pets, so I had to work to become comfortable around them. My wife and an old roommate of hers had a dog and becoming friends with that dog helped me overcome my childhood fear of dogs. But cats? I was vaguely worried about getting scratched. Also, my mother-in-law had a cat and I had a mild allergic reaction to it.

One of my brother's cats is shy, but the other one, Soxs, liked interacting with people. When we got home from dinner it seemed that Soxs was seeking my attention. She kept rubbing my legs with her head. When I sat on the sofa, she would climb up to get closer to me.

After the lights went out, I heard the cats padding around. They seemed to avoid me, so I drifted off to sleep. After midnight Soxs climbed up on the sofa and she started gently pawing at my arm. Then she climbed up on my chest and sat down. She was looking off into the dark with her nocturnal eyes. I was awake by then. I liked the feeling of her on my chest, and her demeanor of utter comfort.

She climbed on me a few more times that night, and each time I welcomed it. I told my other brother, another cat owner, about Soxs pawing at me while I slept. "That's really the cat petting you!" Thank you, Soxs, for your evening company.

Soxs (l.) and Brendan (r.)

Friday, January 31, 2020

My 2019 Books and Movies

In 2019, I finished 17 books and 70 movies.

My favorite fiction from the past year: The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh Nguyen) and The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead). Both were vivid and dramatic, and I loved them, and I highly recommend them both.

My favorite non-fiction: Guns, Germs and Steel. I'm coming late to this book by Jared Diamond. I remember a co-worker reading this in the mid 1990s, and I had put it on my radar back then. I managed to finish it last year as an audio book, but the material was so compelling I bought a used copy. This is a sweeping book about the key drivers behind the formation of modern societies.

For the movies, my favorite by far was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Humor, emotion, music, and amazing action. But a close second was Incendies, a story that rocked me just like it did the children depicted in this brooding movie about family and history.

Nickel Boys

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Tidying Up

I enjoyed Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up when it was published in the US in 2014. It was a bestseller, and when my wife bought it, I skimmed through it also. I liked Kondo's key idea: keep only what brings you joy.

It's a deceptively simple criteria to apply. It's simple because the question is straightforward. It's deceptive because you might expand the definition of joy, lumping possessions under "it used to bring me joy", or "it was a joy to receive it."

I own a lot of things, but not all of them bring me joy. Because I have an unfinished basement, I can afford to keep things simply for nostalgia's sake, or inertia's sake. I can afford to keep all my excess baggage.

My wife and I were inspired by Kondo's ideas though. We began to purge things more frequently since 2014. We know that the joy of possessing something can be short-lived, and nothing is wrong with that.

A fond acquaintance told us "You own possessions, possessions shouldn't own you." As my wife and I perform the magic of tidying up, I remind myself that the most joyful things are things I can't possess: health, relationships, ideas. The rest can be given away.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Signs of Encouragement

On my way home I pass a small house that has two yard signs bearing a message that lifts me. The first: "Don't Give Up." The second: "You Got This."

I probably noticed these signs sitting in traffic, since this house is near a traffic light. After a long day of fighting work problems, it's easy to get discouraged. I think: "I didn't get enough done", or "I'm not cutting it." Perhaps it is the early winter darkness, but this line of thinking can easily seep into the rest of my life. Personal annoyances and irritations can become overwhelming. But that's what life is, isn't it? Along with the positives are the not-so-positives, and it's up to you.

So when I saw these signs, I sat up straighter. "Don't give up, Rick," it was saying to me. "You got this!" Only you, Rick. If not me, then who? Don't give up! You got this.

As I drive on, I think about how some people do give up. "I can't handle it," they think. I send them the positive message from these signs. If not you, then who? Don't give up! You got this.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Scaring Myself at the Movies

I just finished watching "Gone Girl" (2014). This movie is probably closer to a psychological thriller than a proper horror movie, but the end result for me is the same: a good scare! I generally have avoided horror movies, but when I think about dread and fear and suspenseful experiences at the movies, I think of these five.

Alien (1979) - From the appearance of the alien out of the bloody guts of Kane's stomach to the frightful appearance of the alien in the end, it's a horror movie in space.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)- All I have to think about is that last scene, and that scream, and I'm scared all over again. I should probably rewatch this but I know how it ends!

Get Out (2017) - When our hero is held in that chair by that frightening family I was getting that great panicky feeling: what horrific thing is going to happen to him? This is a fun horror flick.

The Omen (1976) - The slow-motion reveal of the antichrist's birthmark is what I most remember about this superb scary movie. When evil is portrayed in a child, that adds to the scare factor.

The Exorcist (1973) - The grand-daddy of scary movies. Regan's rotating head, her frightful taunting and swearing, and all that bile and gore make this an all-time horror favorite. I can't bear to watch it!