I was thinking about the last time I saw you. You pulled up in front of my hotel in Santa Monica with the Merlin and the Bike Friday in the car. We rode down to Manhattan Beach, then back up to Santa Monica, where we froze while eating at a sidewalk cafe. Los Angelenos have this thing about hanging out outside, even being in a desert where it’s freezing as soon as the sun goes down. Not to mention that we were in sweaty bike clothes. Neither of us knew you would die before we ever saw each other again. It was a good last visit. I remember the ride, but not what we ate.
I was in town for a workshop led by Dr. Roy Meals (see “About Bone” in “blogroll”.) I’m back in touch with him and he makes me remember you. By the way, while I enjoyed the chance to ride the Bike Friday, the Merlin was one of my dream bikes and I secretly wanted to ride it.
I was living in San Francisco during the last great plague. I lost my boss and my job to that one. It was hard to see Jim wasting away. The last time I saw him, he was blotchy with Kaposi’s Sarcoma and barely clinging to life.
So now we have another plague. This one kills a lot faster, but kills a lot fewer of its victims. When the 1980s plague hit, we weren’t sure how it spread and people tended to avoid each other (or at least certain others) until we knew. This one requires that we avoid each other because it spreads so easily. But like that other one, we’re still learning. We were first told it spread only through droplets and not aerosols. Oops, turns out that was wrong and it can hang in the air longer than we thought. Turns out the virus can live on surfaces long after the droplets have dried.
When you got a cellphone and started calling me on Mondays, we stopped writing letters. I missed that. Since I don’t have your phone number in the afterlife (nor do I know that there is an afterlife), I’m back to writing letters to you. In the children’s book “The Mole Family’s Christmas” (by Lillian and Russell Hoban), Delver Mole decides to write a letter to Santa. He doesn’t know where to reach him, but knows that Santa comes from up, so he decides to send the letter up. In the same vein, I don’t know where to send this, so it’s going to the internet, the 2020 version of up. If you want to hear the story, I recorded it on a CD for my nieces, since they were blind and unable to read. (My kids also got copies, even though I could read to them in real life.) I could maybe send it to you via the internet. The CD also contains my all-time favorite read-aloud story, “Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear” by Ken Kesey (yes, that Ken Kesey).
This plague has gone viral. It spread worldwide in less than three months. As of April 2, there were only 18 countries not yet reporting confirmed cases. Does that mean they don’t have the disease? Or that they don’t have testing? “Confirmed cases” is an interesting concept. Since we can’t test everybody, and it is cold and flu season as well as allergy season, we don’t know who has this disease. Some people have suspicious symptoms and don’t get tested. Some people have suspicious symptoms and tested negative (but the false negative rate has been reported as increasing with each day after onset, and ~30% on day ten for nasal swabs per Wikramaratna, et al [worse for throat swabs].) Dr Gary Procop of the Cleveland Clinic calls false positives extremely unlikely. We could talk about Sensitivity and Specificity and Odds Ratios and the like, but overall we lack data to draw any strong conclusions about the tests we have.
There is some reluctance to test, as that would show more people with the disease and possibly lead to greater panic. Criteria for testing vary – my PCP said I didn’t meet criteria, my Employee Health Department said I did. So we don’t know a lot. When people die during the pandemic, but have not been tested, they are not identified as having died from COVID-19. We don’t use up test kits on the dead. If people are getting better, we don’t test them. If people are surviving at home we don’t test them, as bringing them in to testing centers risks spreading the disease.
So every day we see charts with logarithmic curves of the increase in cases; and those curves surely underestimate the numbers. We see daily numbers, not rounded, which makes us think there is a level of precision which is not actually there. Despite that, we’ve crossed the ½ million threshold in the US and are approaching the 2 million mark worldwide. We’re over 100,000 deaths. All of these numbers will be higher by the time you see this.
We’ve lost famous people and unknown people. I’ve already written about John Prine and embedded several of his songs. I read this tribute today and it made me cry again. It contains a link to Roger Ebert’s review of Prine from 1970.
Much of the world is in some level of quarantine. We don’t like to use that word, so here it is called “Safer at Home”. Only “essential” businesses are open. That means I go to work (hospitals are essential). Grocery stores are essential; though I used to go to the corner store almost daily and I’ve been there once this month. When I go to the co-op, I drop >$150 at a time so I can minimize the number of shopping trips. Restaurants are not essential, but can sell take out. Most of them have “no contact” pick up methods. They set the food outside and you pick it up. Pizza places have “no contact” delivery. They call to tell you when they are leaving it on your doorstep and you pick it up after they leave – same with Meals on Wheels. In some states, gun shops are considered essential. I don’t even want to comment on that. It is like living in a Twilight Zone episode.
Our only president likes to call this the “Chinese Virus” (and he has this weird way of saying “China” – it almost sounds like he wants to say “vagina”, like Austin Powers talking about his character “Alotta Fagina” (itself a parody of a James Bond character name).
Were you still around and not sheltering in place, you would get to see American racism first hand again. Folks would blame you for this disease, even though you were born and raised in L.A.
I don’t remember if I’ve told you about the president. He inherited a real estate fortune and frittered it away. He may be the only person who managed to lose money running a casino. He has declared bankruptcy for more businesses than most business owners will ever own. He was the star of a reality TV show with the catchphrase “You’re fired!” He likes that phrase so much that he regularly fires cabinet members, press secretaries, and other senior officials. He uses Twitter to do it. Almost all in his administration have the word “Acting” in front of their titles. You can’t make this shit up.
By the way, the rest of you can read this. Curtis was a friend in LA; the last person with whom I kept up a snail mail correspondence. Since he’s not around to read my letters, that falls to the rest of you. Since he’s no longer on earth, I’ve explained a few things that may be obvious to the living. Another letter to him can be found here.