Bob Schwartz

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Pandemic in Cloud Cuckoo Land (America): Trader Joe’s will take your word that you are vaccinated.

Trader Joe’s has stopped requiring masks for customers. How will they know you are vaccinated? Because you say so—no proof required.

This, when only 57% of Americans believe the 2020 election was legitimate and accurate (Reuters/Ipsos Poll, May 2, 2021).

I wish we lived in a country where a vast majority acted as if they were based in facts and embraced principles like honesty. We don’t. So if you would like only vaccinated customers to shop in your store without masks, and you ask an unvaccinated customer whether he is vaccinated, there is a good chance he will say, “Yeah, sure, of course.”

If you are someone who believes in the “honor system” for confirming Covid vaccination, then, respectfully, you are no less a fantasist than those who believe the election was stolen or that the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol involved peaceful visitors in orderly lines hugging the police (actual claims).

As we modify our response to the still ongoing pandemic, it is important as ever that we stay real and self-aware, even if it is not always a great look. Ignoring or rejecting reality is how this pandemic got as tragically bad as it did.

On hearing Allen Ginsberg

I listened to Allen Ginsberg reading his poetry the other morning. It was a recording made in 1959, by which time he had become a poster poet for the Beat Generation.

In the middle of the last century, we endured the darkest era in modern history. How darkest? We witnessed human depravity on a scale and of a type thus far unseen and barely imagined. We unleashed a weapon that for the first time assured total destruction.

Polite society tried to respond humanely and politely, acknowledging the worst, but determined to resume life (more or less) as usual. Nothing to see here but good times and progress.

Also in response, some creatives announced “not so fast”. Among them were the beat poets and writers. While not strictly a beat movie, in The Wild One (1953), Marlon Brando is asked “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” “What do you got?” he answers. Like that.

Allen Ginsberg was crowned a king of the beats, partly because he reveled in the publicity and attention, also because his poetry captured the sense, as Bob Dylan wrote, that “something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

Ginsberg’s poem Howl is considered the loudest and longest cry of beat. Very long. So here is something shorter, but still right to the point.

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! —and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?

I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.

We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?

(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)

Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?

Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Berkeley, 1955

Pandemic: Deniers, Normalizers and Explorers

Three general types have emerged from the pandemic: deniers, normalizers and explorers. We will be living with the different approaches from now on.

Deniers are those who never believed there was much of a problem, or after that became unsustainable, believe that we have overreacted to the situation. We have done too much, and even the latest response, the vaccines, is an unnecessary step.

Normalizers, acknowledging how bad things got, still keep the faith in getting back, eventually, to the way things were at the end of 2019. They never deny that a tornado hit their house, but they are determined to rebuild it more or less the way it was where it was so they can move back in.

Explorers come to believe that we have crossed an ocean and been shipwrecked on a strange shore. Attempts to recreate some of the older basics may work, but besides some of the old ways not being suitable, there is a slowly growing sense that, like it or not, planned or not, we have arrived at a new world. So maybe, rather than stubbornly resisting, we should consider new possibilities—even if they make normal life something entirely different.

Why some benefits of Covid vaccination are illusory and meaningless to some people

We have got to work on logic and language.

You may have heard that messages promoting Covid vaccination should stress all the wonderful things you can do once you are vaccinated. Partying and joining large social gatherings without masks, for example.

The problem: a number of people have every intention of partying and joining large social gatherings already, without getting vaccinated. Since there are no vaccination mandates for these and other activities, what’s the benefit? You can do all these things anyway. Nobody is saying you can’t. So why bother?

Of course there are significant individual and public health benefits to getting vaccinated. It’s just that being allowed to do what you are already allowed to do isn’t one of them.

Two poems for the Time Being

William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. Two giants of twentieth century poetry. Two poems, one from each, unusually brief compared to the writers’ other longer and denser works. Short strings of words that reflect tathagata, thusness, suchness, as well as words can. For the time being.

by William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

by Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

When the power of messaging fails to persuade about vaccinations, what is left to promote public good?

It is sad but inevitable to see that in America, and especially in some parts of the country, it is possible that the Covid vaccination rate of total population may barely hit 50%. There are already explanations offered up, analysis that includes pandemic fatigue, hesitancy, ideological objections, and so on. In the end, if the number of the vaccinated is that low, we may find ourselves saying: Oh well, we tried everything, we fought the good fight. That’s unfortunately how it goes in America.

This doesn’t mean we’ve given up. Now that vaccine supply is adequate and distribution points are expanding, there are three paths available.

The path that has been promoted almost from the first of the pandemic is messaging. The right people saying the right words and showing the right pictures about the right behavior for personal and public well-being. Unless you slept through the first pandemic year, you will know that among a large number of Americans, for various reasons, this proved ineffective.

Then there’s the incentive and reward option. Dunkin Donuts, for example, has offered to give every vaccinated American one free donut every day for the rest of the year. (My favorite snack food and a favorite bright spot in an otherwise dark time.) Should we be paying people to get vaccinated, thus saving some of the enormous public health costs that endemic Covid will later burden us with? It’s a thought. For some people, money trumps ideology.

Finally, there’s the path that is not about persuasion or incentive. It is about, not to sugar coat it, coercion. Maybe soft coercion, but sticks rather than carrots. If people choose to be public health menaces, which unvaccinated people behaving in pre-pandemic ways are, they may lose privileges enjoyed by their more responsible neighbors. “Freedom loving” ideologues object, since the freedom to infect others with a strange and deadly disease is said to be an American right, if you properly listen to the Founding Fathers and read the Constitution.

Words are powerful, and good words can do good. So can good pictures and good videos. Messaging does serve. But that power is limited. When the words fall on deaf or hostile ears, when anyone can conveniently get a vaccination but fewer and fewer do, when it is summer 2021 and only half of America is fully vaccinated, what do we do then?

Oh well.

Morse bird

Morse bird

That bird insists
on dots and dashes
u then u then v
v then v then u
a message not discerned
by other birds
who don’t know Samuel Morse.
I do.
Not to say know him
his being dead so long
while his code lives on
to solve the mysteries it creates.
First he was a painter
mainly of people
though he surely observed birds
placed a few in his portraits
their songs inspiring him
to devise the telegraph.
Maybe. Possible.
As it is possible
That bird telegraphing
a stream of u and v
is telling me something

© Bob Schwartz 2021

Endless mass shootings and violent gun deaths are identical to our standing by as almost 600,000 Americans died in the pandemic

Two things for certain:

We know how to prevent many of the mass shootings and violent gun deaths, one shooting occurring just yesterday, killing eight people.

We knew how to prevent the deaths of many of the 600,000 Americans who died during the pandemic.

We didn’t and don’t do anything, even though we knew and know what to do. That’s how the two are related, almost identical. Wise and good people tell us again and again what would help. It didn’t and doesn’t get done. People stand in the way of help and just stand by and watch.

You might say shame on them. But as we know for certain, they don’t have any.

What caused America to be a nation that allowed hundreds of thousands of people to die needlessly of Covid?

We know at least two things certainly about the pandemic in America.

Hundreds of thousands of people were infected and died, despite valiant work by so many skilled and selfless health professionals who tried to save them.

A large number of those who died—hundreds of thousands—did not have to be infected and end up dying. We look to public policy, personal behavior and of course the virulence of the virus as contributors to this.

That leads to an overriding question: How are we a nation where public policy and personal behavior allowed this to happen?

The answers are more complicated than pointing to people in power or to individuals demonstrating some combination of selfishness, ignorance or recklessness, as convenient and in some ways as accurate as that might be.

How did we become a nation with a sufficient measure of selfishness, ignorance or recklessness that lead to that outcome?

As we review what happened—and make no mistake, vaccines notwithstanding, is still happening—we should not leave that question unexamined. It belongs near the top of the list. Set aside whether we can discover the social, cultural and political preconditions that would make our response to another similar emergency equally inadequate. If there are factors in our American life and in our American psyches that are tending to move us away from an optimal level of knowledge and care for others, and we are able to look at 600,000 dead (the estimate by this summer 2021) as an unfortunate fact of life in America, as just a natural disaster like a hurricane, as much as I try to reflect rays of light, the American prospect, at least in the near term, may be bleak.

Passover and the lonely toaster

It is Passover, which means no bread for eight days. The story says that traditional Jewish ancestors couldn’t let bread rise in the wilderness, leaving them to bake dry flatbread. Leaving us, by way of acknowledging the tradition, to buy boxes of dry flatbread—matzo—and to avoid eating bread.

On the first night of Passover, tidying the kitchen, I looked at our toaster. Its four wide slots stood ready to receive whatever baked goods might need hot wire treatment. Bread, bagels, English muffins, other national muffins.

But no, not this morning, or for some mornings to come. The toaster is temporarily useless and lonely. I had never considered trying to toast matzo, for good reason. Not only is it already toasted, but it slips right through slots made for much wider slices.

Sorry toaster. Unlike other kitchen gadgets that don’t get daily or even weekly attention, you are there serving us almost every day. But not this day. Not tomorrow. Not this week.

We will be back together soon. Maybe I will pop you down once in a while anyway, just to let you know that you are not forgotten. Happy Passover, my trusty friend.