Wednesday, December 02, 2020

The 1918 Flu and Shakespeare

If that sounds odd, it was in fact the subject of On the Media's Thanksgiving podcast, which I listen to today while on my exercise bike.  The name of the podcast was No Ado about Much, but  you can listen to the segments individually at the links below; the whole thing is about 50 minutes long.

The first half of the podcast,  Why the Press Downplayed the 1918 Flu, covered an interview with John Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, and explained in detail that leaders on both sides in World War I refused to admit the existence of the flu after it hit the battlefields, for fear of admitting weakness.  (Does this sound familiar??)  Worse, in the U.S., wartime censorship and an attempt to "boost morale" essentially forbid any mention of the ongoing public health emergency in the press.  The Sedition Act of 1918 made it a criminal offense to publish (or say!) anything that offended the government, cast it in a bad light, or interfered with the sale of government bonds!  I was amused that the only U.S. newspaper mentioned as writing about the 1918 'flu was in San Francisco, which published a front page headline "Wear a mask - save a life"!  San Francisco was very far away; a Pennsylvania paper was coerced into not mentioning the flu!

The net result of this - unless you have (or had) a relative who lived through the 1918 pandemic, you may never have heard of it, until you grew up and began to read the history they didn't teach you in school!  That's how I learned about it.  My parents were born in 1907 and 1912, so they were children when it happened; but they never mentioned it.  The  U.S. lost an estimated 675,000 people to the 1918 flu, out of a population of about 103.2 million.

It wasn't just the U.S. that forbade discussion of the 1918 pandemic.  One of my favorite detective authors is the great Dorothy Sayers, whose first novel, Whose Body?, came out in 1923.  Lord Peter Wimsey, her detective hero, was an officer in World War I.  He came home with a case of "shell shock" - we call it PTSD today.  In Whose Body? and a couple of other early novels, Lord Peter had shell shock attacks that essentially incapacitated him for a short time.  But I never heard any mention of the 1918 flu in her novels.  She must have lived through it; she was born in 1893.  But the English didn't mention it, and so she didn't.

So what about Shakespeare?  The second half of the podcast was How Shakespeare Became an American Hero, was an extended interview with James Shapiro, author of Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and FutureAs Mr. Shapiro points out, the plays touch some very sensitive subjects for Americans:  Othello, in particular - a white woman married to a black man!  Listen to hear the story of the world's worst dinner party, where John Quincy Adams sat next to Fanny Kemble, the great British actress, and mansplained to her why Othello was so disgusting!  Romeo and Juliet became an issue because there are places where Romeo expresses emotion.  The 19th century American insistence that a man should never show emotion actually meant that American actors had trouble playing Romeo - in at least one case, Romeo was played by a lesbian!  And The Merchant of Venice - how awful to see a Jew insisting on his pound of flesh from a Christian!  And let's not even get into the issue of who is allowed to play Hamlet!

Seriously, the discussion goes into why we Americans never did, and don't now, talk much about some subjects - I think we're slowly beginning to, but it doesn't hurt us now and then to be reminded of where we've been and why it wasn't a great idea.

Saturday, November 14, 2020


 The pandemic is on everyone's mind these days, as it should be.  So far there are 54,318,841 cases world wide, and 1,318,044 deaths to date.  (Worldometer).  In the U.S. we have 11,226,038 cases and, so far 251,256 deaths.  (Worldometer - U.S.)    This is terrible.  And the restrictions placed on us to try to control it are irksome, and it's spiraling out of control because we're getting tired of them.

But in a historical context, how bad is it really?  A little over a million dead worldwide, out of a population of 7.8 billion.  That's one in 6,000 people, world wide, roughly .017% of world population.  In the U.S., with a population of 331,740,396, it's one in about 1,320 people, or .76% - worse than the worldwide stats, but then we are the number one hotspot these days.  Population statistics from the World Population  Review for the U.S..

A recent Candorville cartoon claimed that the 1918 flu killed 1 person in 75.  This is a little simplistic, because estimates of the total number of deaths range from 17.4 million (.95% of world population) to 50 million (2.7%) to 100 million (5.4%).  World population at the time was estimated at 1.8 billion.  (Numbers from the Our World in Data article on the Spanish flu.)

Compare that to our estimate for the coronavirus of .017% of world population and .76% of U.S. population.

For an even more horrific example, consider the Black Death (bubonic plague) which devastated Europe in the mid-14th century.  Wikipedia says it "is estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe's population." That's between 1 in 3 and 1 in 6 people.  It took until 1500 to reach the population Europe had in 1300.  And at that period, medical knowledge was rudimentary and hospitals were run by religious orders. We now know it was caused by a virus carried by rats and fleas; the actual cause of the bubonic plague wasn't identified until the mid-19th century. So people died from a nameless disease and didn't know where it came from.

I'm not saying we have it easy right now.  I'm just suggesting it could be worse.  We're also flooded with news about our pandemic, every day, all day, on general media sources and social media.  We've also come to believe that modern medicine can cure everything, because up till now it's done a pretty good job overall.  So we have trouble believing it can't cure this.  It may yet, there are promising vaccines on the way.  Until they get here, mask up and remember - it could be worse.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Election Results

I admit I was very relieved when the press called the 2020 election for Joe Biden on Saturday.  I felt relieved and happy all day, although unlike some people I didn't go out and dance in the street.  This was a major change from the 2016 election, in which I was happy all election day until the votes started piling up for Trump in the evening.  After it was clear he had won, I spent about three days in a sort of stunned coma, before I recovered enough to resume normal life. I had a really bad feeling about that presidency, and it gives me no satisfaction at all to realize I was right.

Now, 2 days after the election was called, my elation has subsided.  They're still counting votes, but it's clear that Biden is winning both the electoral college and the popular vote, by solid margins.  But Trump is still there, and he's refusing to concede, claiming election officials are concealing massive voter fraud and Democrats are conspiring to "steal" the election from him.  Unless someone can eliminate his Twitter feed, we'll never be rid of him.

I'm also disappointed in the Democrats.  I can't quite identify what they did wrong, but they were convinced they were going to sweep both houses, and I think it went to their heads.  As it is, the Republicans are on the edge of retaining a Senate majority and the  Democrats have lost seats in the house, and we're facing another 4 years of Mitch McConnell refusing to do anything the President or the Democrats - or the people of the United States - want him to do.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Did my ancestors own slaves?

I've been interested in genealogy for some time, and with the help of I've traced my father's family back to the early 19th century. In fact, I recently turned up an ancestor who was born in 1777.

I find several things interesting.  I have yet to find an ancestor in my father's line who wasn't born on this continent.  My mother's family came to the U.S. in 1921 (from Canada), but the Ivy line, and the associated Moody line (my paternal grandmother's people) all seem to have been here from quite early.  Even the guy born in 1777 came from North Carolina; he moved his family to Tennessee between 1805 and 1810.  They all seem to have lived, before the Civil War, in the "border states" - Tennessee and Kentucky. Based on census and other records, they all seem to have relocated to Missouri sometime after the Civil war.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Literary Racism

As a reaction to the closure of libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic, I've been re-reading some of my extensive collection of classic detective stories, collected over most of my adult life.  Specifically, I've been re-reading Ellery Queen novels, which I've read off and on for most of my adult life.  In recent years I've been exploring new mystery writers at the local library, but that stopped with the shutdown, so I returned to what I had.

The Ellery Queen novels debuted in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery and continued into the early 1960s, after which the authors, Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, also allowed other writers to create Ellery Queen novels which didn't feature their detective, Ellery Queen, as a character.  Most of the novels and stories I've been reading were written in the 1930s.

Given the Black Lives Matter protests over the last few weeks, I'm unusually sensitive to racism.  I didn't think of Ellery Queen novels as racist, but I notice that while the Ellery Queen character almost never uses racial slurs, the New York City cops who feature in many stories do.  This includes the character Inspector Richard Queen, Ellery's father.  I especially noticed the use of the phrase "the shine" to refer to what a more educated person would probably have called "the Negro."  This was well before the use of phrases like black, African American, or people of color.  I also noticed that even when not using racist slang, descriptions of Negro characters, such as hotel maids, were condescending at best.

You can't go back and change history, or classic novels.  In fact I've seen much worse racism in "tough guy" detective novels by Raymond Chandler and  Mickey Spillane.  I think the explanation has to be that some people in the 1930s talked that way, and the authors put it in for realistic effects.  I still think the Ellery Queen novels are worth reading for the amazing logical puzzles they present.  I've always preferred puzzle mysteries to the shoot-em-up types.

Monday, June 01, 2020

And now we have to admit...

One week ago, a man named George Floyd died at the hands of four policemen in Minneapolis.  On camera. 

On the same day, May 25, 2020, in Central Park, New York City, Christian Cooper, a birder, asked a woman with an unleashed dog to leash her dog.  This was in an area clearly marked "dogs must be leashed."  The woman refused to comply and became abusive, so Mr. Cooper began recording the incident, during which the woman called the police and told them she was being "threatened" by an African-American man - who had done nothing worse than ask her to obey the park rules.

Christian Cooper and George Floyd were both African-American.  The policemen, and the woman with the dog, were white.  That's the point. 

These two incidents, on top of a series of other incidents in various states where black people were killed by police, have set off a firestorm of largely peaceful protests, unfortunately sometimes accompanied by violence and looting, in major cities all over the country.  For the last 6 nights.  My county (Alameda) in California was put under curfew last night because of disturbances all over the county, including such largely white towns as Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill.  In my entire life I've never been aware of so many large public protests, in so many different places all over the country, all at once.

I attended public school, and a public university, in the United States (California, specifically).  Apart from being told about slavery in the South and about the civil war generally, I don't recall any emphasis on the fact that the U.S. is a racist society.  I came out of my schooling believing the legends of a free, democratic society, where everyone had a chance to succeed.  This despite the fact that I got into a major fight with my father when I was in high school, because I signed an Open Housing petition circulated by the local Methodist minister.  My father was from southern Missouri, but had never really talked about his attitude toward African-Americans.  But we had the Open Housing petition because Napa, CA in the 1950s was "redlined."  Black people couldn't buy there.  I'll never know, because Dad is gone; but I've recently wondered if that was why we moved from Vallejo (very racially mixed) to Napa in 1950, when I was 4. 

I've always been a student of history, and the more I've learned about American history in the years since I left university, the clearer it is that the basic assumption of our social arrangements is that people of color are inferior to white people.  Even, occasionally, when they are well educated and well-to-do.  And this is still so.

I think we all have to admit now that the society we live in is racist, and values or devalues its members based on the color of their skin.  It saddens me; I thought we were better than that.  I was wrong.  I don't think I'll detail here all the reasons this is so; as an aging white woman, I have no direct experience of them, and there are memes all over social media which include them in excruciating detail.  They start with inferior education and go on to low paying job opportunities, lack of access to health care, and housing options in food deserts, but the real issue is the treatment of people of color by the police.

I don't know what we do to fix this.  But it's becoming clear that we have to do something, probably starting with major changes in policing attitudes and approaches.

It's also becoming clear that white people are realizing we must do something.  The policeman who knelt on George Floyd's neck has been fired, and arrested for 3rd degree murder (whatever that is).  The woman in the park has lost her job (she was fired when the story went viral) and the dog (the rescue operation where she got it took it back). 

There were times when nothing would have happened to either white person; in fact the policeman had a record of 18 complaints, none of which had ever led even to a reprimand.

Ironically, I think we owe the last week of demonstrations to social media.  If those incidents hadn't been recorded, and shared widely on social media, it's possible that nothing would have happened, again. But they were, and there were consequences.  We've complained a lot about social media the last few years.  But in this case it may be the driving force pushing us to look at our racisim - and fix it.  So we don't have to look at any more terrible videos.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Eight Weeks and Counting

Today is the beginning of the 8th week of the COVID-19 shutdown.  Everything has stopped.  We eat, sleep, do what exercise we can.  In the absence of the gym, and especially the water aerobics classes, I'm losing core strength.  I have to do something about that, because it means my old lower back trouble is acting up again.  Walking has been painful off and on for the last 4 days, and I'd give a lot for a personal appointment with a physical therapist, but all that's available are videos.  The doctor suggested some exercises, only two of which help at all.  I'm living on Tylenol and trying to remember to stand up straight because that seems to help; but if I want to sit anywhere, I have to use the inflatable lumbar rolls I thought I didn't need any more.  Well, I do.

I'm reading a lot.  I've gone through the 11 detective stories I borrowed from the library just before they shut down, so I'm revisiting my extensive collection of early 20th century mystery authors.  Right now I'm reading through all the Ellery Queen I have in hardback; I may have to replace some of the paperbacks with e-books, they're pretty old.  A friend has recommended Elizabeth Letts' Finding Dorothy, so I've borrowed the e-book from the local library and will start it soon.  But I'd  like to have something real to do.  I love reading, but I also like to accomplish things, and right now all the things I'd like to accomplish are out of reach.

OK, I'm depressed. I'll admit it.  I doubt I'm the only one.  I miss my friends from the exercise classes, and my friends from the chorus.  God only knows when either of those activities will be available again.  And let's not even discuss the small businesses and restaurants I like to patronize.  I talk to my friends on the phone and in Zoom, and I email them.  It's not the same.  I'm glad Governor Newsom is being cautious, but waiting for a vaccine to be able to sing in a group again is terrifying.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Life While Sheltering in Place

So now we can't leave home except for "essential purposes," or to walk or run for exercise (as long as we stay 6 feet away from anyone we meet).  I love my house but sometimes I have to get out of it; today I took a long walk, up to the top of the canyon where I live.  I used to take this walk regularly, with a cane, when I was recovering from knee replacement surgery.  It's 3/4 of a mile one way and goes up about 200 feet in altitude; a good stiff walk.

I wondered what activity I'd see, walking up the canyon on a Friday afternoon when everyone is supposed to be at home.  Quite a bit, actually. 

I passed the elementary school, and there were some small kids (with parent attendants) riding skateboards down the slight slope of one of the driveways behind the school.  Riding, here, means "sitting on."

A little farther on, I passed the baseball diamond, where a man was pitching baseballs for his teen-aged son to hit.  Further on in the sports field was a family with a picnic, a couple of guys batting a tennis ball back and forth on the grass, a woman kicking a soccer ball with her small daughter, and a couple of small boys throwing frisbees.

The major action was at the 3 public tennis courts at the end of the school sports field.  Every court had an active game, and the practice wall at the side of the courts had 2 guys hitting balls.  I assume all the tennis buffs were here because the private club, further up the canyon, was closed for the duration, with all the other fitness facilities.

Farther up the canyon, I saw people walking dogs, people walking without dogs, bicyclists with kids on bicycles, bicyclists without kids.  There weren't many people, but I was definitely not the only one out.  I'm not sure why but it made me feel better.

Friday, March 13, 2020


I haven't been posting much; Christmas and its aftermath was very chaotic.  And now what we all thought was a sad epidemic in China is a global pandemic, and it's right here in my town, where everyone agrees with China that the best way to cope with it is for everyone to stay home and not mix with other people.

Part of the problem, of course, is that our brilliant government decided it didn't need a team of pandemic experts on standby (Trump fired them in 2018).  And when a real pandemic came along, they decided we should build our own test kits instead of using the ones from the WHO, like most other countries.  And because Trump has also been gutting the funding for the Centers for Disease Control, the first test kits they sent out were unusable because they were missing a part.  China's epidemic is tailing off, South Korea is testing hundreds of thousands of people, and the U.S. can't get off the ground.  California has almost 40 million people, and we have about 8,000 available test kits, some of which don't have all the necessary parts.  Who's the 3rd world country now? 

I may go crazy.  I don't usually put personal information in these posts, but I'll admit that I'm over 70 and I have asthma.  Treated and controlled asthma, but asthma.  So here I am, a prime target for the virus; and there's nothing I can do but wash my hands.  Which I do.  But I'm a very social person; I need to interact with people.  And the "stay home and shut up" advice is steadily shutting down all my options.  My chorus rehearsals - cancelled through the end of the month.  The concerts we had tickets for - cancelled.  If I'm stuck in the house, my solution is to read - I just learned that the city is closing all its libraries "until further notice."

The uncertainty of all this is not helping.  I'm a problem solver by nature; the pandemic is a problem I can't do one single thing about.  And nobody knows how long it will last.