Becalmed, besieged and bestirred


Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Tuesday March 31: in which we dot the i; records are broken; Cuomo says no no no; the cost of testing negative

We passed a new and sad milestone yesterday in the US: more than 3,000 Americans with the virus have died. We’ve definitely advanced up the hockey stick curve of exponentiality. Another 332 people in New York have died, and Governor Cuomo’s brother has the virus. More than half of all confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States have been diagnosed in the past five days.

If you’re American, then the main news in this bad news is, we’re not managing this well. Both South Korea and the United States had their first confirmed case on or near the same day in late January…but South Korea has suffered only 150 deaths. Meanwhile, for the US, coronavirus has already killed more people than the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and there is tons of data and charts but suffice to say: our trendlines look worse than those of Italy and Spain which are even now mired in unthinkable daily death tolls of  600, 800, 900…

There is some good news:  the number of fevers recorded nationwide is falling, suggesting the federal, state and local policies on social distancing may be starting to have an effect. Still, here in the Bay Area no one I know has had a test or knows anyone whose had one, or where to get one. Also, no one I know in the Bay Area doesn’t know someone in NY unaffected, yikes.

Andrew Cuomo’s daily press conference from the Javitz Center is full of news, unlike the White House briefings which are full of talking that is short on facts and long on musings, compliments, denials, accusations and threats. The Boston Globe editorial board fiercely reminded everyone  “As the American public braces itself for the worst of this crisis, it’s worth remembering that the reach of the virus here is not attributable to an act of God or a foreign invasion, but a colossal failure of leadership.”  I can’t remember a newspaper ever making such a comment about a sitting president’s performance. I asked my mom; she can’t remember any such thing either.

Today Cuomo revealed that his daughters are also his tenants and stiffing him for rent, even though they have not been laid off, even though their financial picture has not been affected by coronavirus, according to their dad. Sure it pisses me off but there’s nothing I can do about it legally, Cuomo said briskly if grumpily.  His expression was a funny mixture of irritation and admiration for the moxie of his girls, reminding me why I like New York and New Yorkers so much.

Andrew Cuomo for president? He says no, no, no

In other news #Cuomo2020 is a thing, which of course it would inevitably be, social media being what it is in our society, and the disaster becoming what it appears to be becoming. For the record Cuomo himself says No, no no when the subject is broached, making us just want him more, such is the American faith in fatherly finality.  We are all children in the storm these days. Lately it seems anytime someone is showing leadership we want them to be president or in charge of something, somewhere – Dr. Fauci, the governor of Michigan, this ASL interpreter Virginia Moore for the way she signed news of a “coronavirus party” so emotively John Oliver featured it on Last Week Tonight, lockdown edition.

We are sailors on a ship becalmed, rendered motionless for lack of wind. According to Quora, the longest a sailing ship has ever been becalmed was about two weeks.  It would take a good captain, I think, to keep the peace in such small quarters over such an extended period. For awhile, I read the online journal of a sailor – an online blog called, aptly enough “Becalmed” and in it he gives directions for what to do when your ship won’t go anywhere. 


First, he writes, you start your engine and go on with your day.  But, he adds “Our engine is broken so we didn’t have that option.”  For us pandemic people it’s the same though our engine is not precisely broken, more like, removed, the way a super cautious son or daughter might not be satisfied with taking their forgetful dad’s keys, but also has the engine removed from the car, just to be sure. The car is not going anywhere. 

Second, writes the sailor,  you can drift around, hot, sweaty, bored and frustrated. There are probably a lot of people doing that figuratively on the internet, but I don’t go to the places they go. Some of my Facebook friends let go with an epic rant (Gen X are a bunch of  cussing motherfuckers, in case you didn’t know) about the stupidity of people still gathering in nonsocially distanced groups, but less and less (though the most recent was just this weekend, in NEW YORK, I can’t even). 

Third, writes the becalmed sailor, you can keep yourself busy by fixing the boat, cleaning up and like the wind and waves you yourself become calm.  It seems to me we are responding with a version of this keeping busy philosophy – bestirring ourselves, you might say. As America grapples with nationwide shortages of critical personal protective equipment, there is much ingenuity on display. You can download a template and make your own mask; I’ve seen masks made from women’s brassieres, men’s jockey shorts, vacuum cleaner bags. I even saw an old gentleman on Twitter demonstrating how to make a face mask with a sanitary napkin, and wouldn’t you know it, with their handy dandy adhesive strips, they actually do a really nice job covering the face and with no gaps in protection, as they say.  The antivirus properties remain questionable, but they are “better than nothing” or at least feel/seem like they are, which matters maybe even more, in the same the way the fact placebos work matters more than your belief in them.

This inventiveness extends to ventilators, too, which are now more valuable in the scheme of things than, well, almost anything you can think of. Specifically, they’ve found a way to create a ventilator splitter, so each machine serves two and not just one patient. They’ve also figured out how to change a vent in anesthesia machines, transforming them into ventilators; similar re-rigging and repurposing is happening with BiPAP machines.

Necessity has mothered a spirit of invention and maybe, just maybe this is the moment we look back to, and say to ourselves Here is the beginning of us transcending the ideological split that has us voting on the imaginary poles of red and blue on every topic.  Maybe we will begin to remember, in the collective inventiveness of our DNA, what makes us American.  We even have a song about it – in 1976 America celebrated its bicentennial, and my grade school put on a show for the community. For the occasion, my mom sewed 1976 on the back pockets of my jeans in bright red and blue yarn – 19 on the left cheek, 76 on the right, and an American flag patch on the left knee.  I was in fourth grade and thought those jeans were the bees knees.

I still remember most of the songs we sang, all of them uptempo and about new beginnings, and in which native Americans were only vaguely alluded to. My favorite was “Don’t Forget to Dot the I” which was not a song celebrating the self, but rather the ingenuity of a young country reaping the rewards of the industrial revolution it was leading.

Oh it took Bell to make the telephone ring
and it took Edison to light up the way
Howe told us how to make a sewing machine
the Wrights taught us the right way to fly
So when you’re spelling the word America
don’t forget to dot the i
(for the inventors!)


In other news, a picture has captured the angry attention of the kajillions of people now surfing the internet hourly: that of homeless people sleeping in between the freshly painted, carefully measured so-as-to-be-properly-distant from each other white lines on a parking lot surface. This picture was taken in Las Vegas where there are 150,000 hotel rooms and 90% of them are surely empty.  Las Vegas needs an infusion of ingenuity to figure out how to get those people off the ground; maybe something to do with all those empty beds that won’t be filling up any time soon?

In other news, the cost of the coronavirus test in New York is about $2,000, according to one guy who got tested and shared his receipts with a NY Times reporter.  This is the cost for a test that comes back negative, for a person with insurance. This guy is all of America with his question to the reporter, the hospital, the government, the world:

“My retirement account is tanking and I’m expected to pay for this?”

See past entries in Coronavirus Event


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