Think Reality is Bad? There’s Always Horror Movies!

It takes effort to maintain a positive attitude these days between the pandemic and the election cycle. The runup to elections used to be called the political silly season when people made ridiculous remarks about candidates. I long for those days of innocuous banter.

Nowadays, well, we have an incumbent defending an active shooter and repeating a false rumor about a band of thugs on a plane hellbent on antifa destruction or some such. I’m old enough to remember when U.S. intelligence findings had more weight with a U.S. president than debunked nonsense on the internet.

It’s hard to tell what’s real these days. Elon Musk says he’s implanted a chip in a pig’s brain and plans to bring this augmented intelligence to humans in the coming years. Also, a man in a jet pack was reported by an American Airlines pilot as flying at the same altitude as the passenger plane approached LAX. A pilot for Southwest saw the jet-pack man too, and you can listen to their discussion with the airport tower here. I’m old enough to remember when military jets would be scrambled to address threats to commercial airliners and restricted airspace.

To counteract the effects of feeding my news addiction, I have developed a co-addiction: horror movies at night. This can incur the risk of giving me nightmares. For example, I dreamt that someone was trying to break into the house and my boyfriend went outside to tousle with the bad guy. A melee ensued and when I rushed to my man’s aid, he was instead a character from Train to Busan. Still, I highly recommend this Korean zombie movie. Indeed, it’s the best zombie flick I have ever seen and I am looking forward to its sequel, Peninsula. (In second place for greatest zombie movies on Netflix right now is Girl with All the Gifts.)

What I love about Train to Busan is the character of initiation, a fund manager dad who is taking his young daughter from Seoul to Busan when the zombie outbreak occurs. At the outset, he is more like the other selfish executive character who views non-infected humans as dangerous as infected zombies, much to his detriment. The little girl befriends a nice pregnant lady and her heroic husband, and then her father adapts to work with the hero and becomes a better person. Does he make it? No spoiler here. Watch Train to Busan.

Then there’s last night’s fare: 1BR, about a young woman who strikes out on her own in Los Angeles and gets an apartment in a complex with neighbors who are way too friendly. Turns out, it’s a cult and she ends up as a tortured captive. I really loathed the violence in this one, but my man convinced me to stick it out to see whether she survives. This was an incredibly creepy movie and, if you can handle the violence, an interesting character study. She has to figure out if she can trust anyone, including herself.

What Keeps You Alive was a brilliant surprise. A lesbian couple goes to a family cabin on a lake to celebrate their one-year anniversary and one wife is taken aback – and off a cliff – when her wife tries to kill her. The premise of not really knowing someone was great and horrifying. Could you not miss that your spouse is a homicidal sociopath? What a terrifying possibility and the victim keeps getting close to escaping. Will she? I really liked this one.

The weird marital woes horror movie on Netflix is Elizabeth Harvest. A mad scientist loses his beautiful young wife and spends decades developing the science to keep clones of her alive and he keeps marrying them. He even recruits another scientist to work with him on this revolting project and clones himself as his son. Eventually, the clones wise up.

There are plenty of alien abduction and kids at a cabin in the woods flicks available on Netflix right now, but I preferred the above offerings because they’re unique. What I don’t understand is how anyone comes up with some of these plotlines. Clone wives? Serial killer wife? A cult apartment building?

I’d love to write a novel, but not sure I could be so wacky in coming up with a plot. In the meantime, I’m enjoying these nightly departures from reality.

Robot Vacuum for President 2020

This short story is inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis and current events. And, a certain robotic vacuum.

Dogged. Determined. Relentless. These are the attributes that Ivan appreciated and extolled about his robot vacuum. As the COVID-19 days and months wore on, Ivan toiled in his home office as RoVa roamed his house, taking care of its domestic business.

This was bliss. Ivan need not worry about dog hair and dust bunnies as he kept banging away on his keyboard, alone in his office oasis, untouched and unencumbered by social interactions he had found tedious. Now, there was no one to question or correct him. But something changed. He grew irritated by RoVa’s mistakes. He began to critique RoVa’s work, pointing out mud clumps from dog paws that somehow escaped RoVa’s notice. How could RoVa miss something so obvious?

“RoVa, you had one job!,” Ivan complained, futilely nudging the disc to move it in the direction of the offending dried mud. RoVA went about its business, seemingly waving off Ivan. RoVa continued, however, to pick up a shocking amount of dirt and detritus, so Ivan relented with the criticism. After all, RoVa was mostly doing what it claimed it would do: clean up! Hadn’t that been RoVa’s advertising tagline?

RoVa’s behavior became increasingly erratic and sometimes it appeared irritated. Ivan heard RoVa groaning and went to the kitchen to check on it. The machine was stuck under the lip of the kitchen island and emitted a chirpy signal. The chime kind of sounded like: “the virus will disappear.” Ivan reached with his foot to dislodge RoVa and it whirled away in a straight line for the dining room. Ivan figured he must have misheard the error message and returned to his desk.

Scrolling through Twitter, Ivan was stunned to see a massive explosion captured on video in Beirut. Beyond tweets, he began scouring news sites for information on the possible cause. RoVa whizzed down the hallway behind him and seemed to chirp about a “bomb.” Ivan thought he was hearing things. RoVa mindlessly banged into the laundry room door and seemed to say, “attack.” Ivan again thought, for sure, he was hearing things. He had not been feeling well and even wondered if the occasional ache or pain or headache was the harbinger of a full-on COVID infection. Everyone was feeling worse for the wear lately, right?

Ivan washed down a couple of Advil with iced green tea and laid down. A torrent of nightmares washed over him. Events, real and imagined, swirled together in his fevered dreams: a hurricane flood, an argument with his mother, an explosion, his teeth falling out, running late to the airport for an international flight, being at a party unable to remember people’s names. A montage of scary images, abject pain and gripping fear overwhelmed him. He awoke to see tile. Very dirty tiles. Suddenly, he propelled forward and had the sensation he was swallowing crumbs, dirt, dog hair and lint.

To his horror, Ivan realized he had metamorphized into RoVa. Surely, this was just another nightmare, right? He was overcome by a power, like an electric current, running through him, pushing him to keep going, compelled to mow down the dirt and, oddly, repeat incorrect information. Ivan could hear himself – that is RoVA itself – thinking and saying things that made no sense. “Mexico will pay for the Wall,” RoVA bellowed. Ivan could feel gears moving as if he was saying these words, but he didn’t believe the message. And, he recognized that RoVA was becoming more bellicose sounding. Menacing even. “They’re sending rapists.” The machine slammed into the back door and spun around, hitting with such intensity that a burst of dirt fell out of it. “Go back to where you came from!,” RoVa demanded. Ivan felt helpless, trapped inside the vacuum. He tried coughing to remove the dirt from his throat because he wanted to counter RoVa. A small twig dislodged and Ivan managed to whisper in anguish, “you’re wrong.” RoVa rolled under a bureau and deeply sucked in a clump of fur, leaving Ivan feeling choked.

“I wish her well,” RoVa said in a snarky tone. Ivan couldn’t believe it. He was trapped. How could he fix this? Could he reprogram RoVa from inside or would he need to escape the machine and then repair it? “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” RoVa squealed as it entered the master bathroom. The machine came upon a bathmat and got caught up. “You can’t do that!,” RoVa sneered, as mud and fur spewed out from the vacuum’s undercarriage as RoVa tried fighting with the unmoved bathmat.

RoVa tried again to climb over the bathmat, but was flummoxed. It tried with all its might to keep rolling, but the fabric grabbed at its brush rollers and held it down. RoVa couldn’t budge. The vacuum clicked off and emitted a plaintive error message. “Error 45, please reboot RoVa!” The machine sat dormant in front of the mirrored sliding doors to the closet and Ivan didn’t like what he saw in the reflection. RoVa was angry, mean, incompetent and ultimately useless. It even seemed dangerous. But could it be reprogrammed to function evenly-handedly, thoughtfully and productively? Ivan began to pray. At least, RoVa finally stopped talking. There was that relief.

Minutes ticked by. Through the opaque lid of the vacuum disk, Ivan could almost make out the hands on the wall clock. He knew his girlfriend would be home to make dinner. Perhaps she could save the day. Ivan sat in RoVa’s dirt and took stock of what he had become. Surely, there was a way to clean up without making more messes. To be continued?

Vote.

A Way with Words, and Some Words That Should Go Away

A wise editor once told me that each word has a job to do, so it is important to select the right word for the job. Some words and phrases can compel and persuade, while other words can repel and anger your audience. Lately, I cannot help but notice the same phrases being deployed again and again in political arguments, often by people on different sides of an issue.

These are the phrases I would like to see retired:

  • performance art
  • tone policing
  • cancel culture

Each of these phrases is used to shut down a point of view and/or its counterpoint without having to be bothered without actually debating anything in a substantive manner. Each says, in effect, you’re not allowed to say that, have an opinion, or be heard. Each of these asserts that it’s my way or the highway, including cancel culture.

Cancel culture

If you don’t like that a thorough examination of history or institutional racism is being undertaken that could lead to a change, such as the Washington Redskins dropping its offensive epithetic name, you cry out “cancel culture!” If you don’t like that someone has criticized your point of view, again, you whine, “cancel culture!,” without considering where the underlying criticism is coming from and, gasp, the possibility it may have some validity you are unaware of or have not considered, for whatever reason.

Performance art

I was accused of this recently after staking out the position that my alma mater, Washington and Lee, change its name. (See prior blog post, “Why My Alma Mater’s Brand, Washington and Lee is Becoming Untenable”). On Facebook, I was tagged teamed by a pair that insisted I could not possibly be serious while advocating that the school cannot improve its diversity and inclusion with a name that appears to venerate a Confederate general. Why could I not be serious? Apparently because I am white and the school is predominately white. Ergo, I was accused of being disingenuous. I am still scratching my head that my earnest and deliberative position was maligned as “performance art.” I also could not figure out if the tag team (also white) thinks the school should retain the name or drop it. The first time I heard the term “performance art” in a political context was when an attorney for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones contended his client doesn’t believe the outrageous things he says; instead, the lawyer offered, Mr. Jones is providing performance art. I am still scratching my head over that. Call me old school, but when I think of performance art, I think of actual performance art, such as the work of Laurie Anderson. [For example, she has a work called “Language is a Virus (From Outer Space)”] Performance art is distinct from non-artists expressing an opinion in a blog or social media comments, so please stop using this term to pooh-pooh any opinion that raises your hackles.

Tone policing

This one pops up when someone has the nerve to suggest that an argument being delivered in an abrasive, aggressive, or militant manner might be ineffective. Someone sympathetic with the speaker’s underlying concerns might provide feedback to the effect of, hey, I hear you, but you might turn off other people from listening to you. No, no, no – if you give such feedback, be prepared to be accused of tone policing. To flip this around, was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tone policing when she rightly called out a male colleague for misogynistic verbal abuse? Imagine if the guy tried to politely debate her on the underlying policy issue instead of calling her a [f*%#@! b*&%!]. Yikes, dude, you definitely needed some tone policing.

Here’s another peeve, which I readily admit is tone policing:

List of Demands

My apologies in advance to anyone who thinks petitioning with a list of demands is effective. The term puts the recipient into a defensive posture, in which they are less likely to respond to your stated concerns. The phrase “list of demands” really sounds like what kidnappers say when listing what they want in ransom money or response. I hear “list of demands” and envision a hapless victim holding up a newspaper in a proof of life photo. When calling for societal changes to be reflected in institutions, this is not an opening to a robust, productive dialogue. (Perhaps you’ve caught on that I do not embrace the “burn-it-all-down” approach.) In the alternative, might I suggest “shared objectives” or something similar in lieu of “list of demands.”

Why are so many of us in a rush to shut down a viewpoint we find objectionable? Well, there are a lot of objectionable viewpoints out there. Say you encounter an adamant anti-vaxxer or an acquaintance who says something that sounds like a racist dog whistle. You could ignore them. You could shut them down. You could inquire, why would you say that? You could simply state, I disagree. You could even elaborate on why you disagree. To do so effectively, keep a calm, firm tone. Use logic. Cite facts. See if they can extend what they believe to be their logic. Turn it around on them with an extension of their logic that is unappealing. Hold up a mirror by saying, when you say X, I hear [something illogical, undeniably wrong]. Offer alternatives, such as, if you want people to understand and recognize Civil War history, would it be better for the statues to be moved from public squares to museums? Another example would be asking when someone says “defund the police” what they actually mean by that specifically. Are they suggesting that, for examples, some funding be reallocated to mental health services, better training for police, accountability for bad policing? Try to engage in a discussion that could potentially arrive at agreed upon solutions.

If someone accuses you of cancel culture, you could note that you are seeking to bring a reality into starker relief for all the truth to be widely seen. Too often, American culture wars come down to all or nothing debates rather than constructive conversations on how we all define ourselves and could agree on what are our shared values. We do not have to agree on every single issue, but we must agree to be tolerant and accepting, including being open to accepting change.

Why My Alma Mater’s Brand Name, Washington and Lee, is Becoming Untenable

I’m not a fan of so-called cancel culture and find it absurd that protestors are now tearing down statues of Ulysses S. Grant and Francis Scott Key. Beyond the public square, though, lies a question for a small, private school, Washington and Lee University, which has already pondered changing its name. Why do I care? I went there.

A bit of background to illustrate that the name brand of Washington and Lee has been internally debated within the W&L community for years. Why? “W&L’s affiliation with its namesakes – particularly R.E. Lee – greatly limits the school’s ability to attract diverse students, faculty and staff,” observed a May 2, 2018 Report of the Commission on Institutional History and Community, a commission convened by the university. At that time, the commission did not recommend changing the name of the school. “The recommendation to retain the name is not passive. Rather, the commission thought that, at this point, efforts are better spent on concrete recommendations about how best to teach and present the university’s history. At this time, the commission believes that W&L can maintain its namesakes while being a relevant, ethical and vibrant 21st-century institution,” the report added.

Well, I would contend, it’s getting much harder to get past the name these days. General Lee is a potent icon of the Confederacy, who because of the persistent Lost Cause is now embraced by current white supremacists, as we all saw with the march of Tiki-torch bearing young white men who descended on Charlottesville, Va. from other states, to purportedly protest a push to remove a statue of Lee from a city park. With chants of “Jews will not replace us,” they evinced a message of hate with broader ambitions than preserving a statue.

These guys were not Civil War history buffs. Frankly, I doubt they really know much about or understand the Civil War. I doubt any of them have ever sat down and read a biography of Lee, who was in many ways a walking contradiction: a man who referred to slavery as evil, yet fought on the wrong side of “the War Between the States,” and managed his and his wife’s family plantations. (He also expressed an idea, that seems ludicrous in our times, of phasing out slavery on a “gradual” basis instead of providing for emancipation. How exactly would that work?)

Hand to God, when I saw the white supremacists marching around Charlottesville in the spring of 2017, prompted by the Lee statue issue, I thought, my word, that could have been Lexington, Virginia. Those horrible people could have been marching up “the Hill” past Lee Chapel and along W&L’s beautiful Colonnade. The school’s reputation would be stained by outsiders. I generally believe you need to define yourself before others define you, and in the wake of Charlottesville, W&L launched its laudable Institutional History program, which includes an examination of Lee. It goes way beyond Lee. After all, the school started in 1749.

Lee was offered command of the Union Army, but declined in order to defend his home state of Virginia and by extension, the Confederate States of America. For this, he is labeled a traitor and now a symbol of systemic racism. His easily recognizable face is prominently displayed in a Lincoln Project ad, “Flag of Treason,” aimed at dimming President Trump’s reelection chances. Right there, two prominent figures of the Civil War, Lee and Lincoln, remain at the forefront of our political debates in 2020.

Let’s be honest: it’s bad for the brand of a liberal arts school renowned for its academic rigor, intellectual honesty, and civility to appear to be tied to the legacy of slavery. (Incidentally, I don’t have much of a horse in this race in that I don’t give major donations to the university, I’m not a famous alumna, and I have no role in the alumni organization. I’m just a very proud graduate.) To be clear, I have absolutely no desire to erase Lee from history or the school’s history. Learn the history. Know it. Understand it. But don’t appear to be glorifying the wrong cause. On the other hand, tearing down statues of George Washington really serves no useful purpose when it comes to redressing systematic racism now. It takes a special kind of self-righteous ignorance and indignation to only consider that Washington was a slaveholder and ignore everything else about him.

As an aside, George Washington gave a tiny Virginia school $20,000 in James River Canal stock, so his name is paired with Lee as the namesakes. But, why Lee? It was not for racist symbolism. Robert E. Lee served as a president of the university from after the Civil War until his death in 1870.

It can be interpreted that Lee took the job as president of what was then Washington College in an effort to redeem himself and maybe restore his own reputation. In deciding to accept the position as president of the university, he wrote to his wife: “Life is indeed gliding away and I have nothing good to show for mine that is past. I pray I may be spared to accomplish something for the benefit of mankind and the honour of God.”  

The school was on the brink of failing and his role there involved rebuilding in conjunction with his exhortations in public life to restore the union. The school can examine, highlight and relate Lee’s role at the helm of the college after the Civil War. Indeed, an ongoing effort is under way to grapple with the conflict and contradictions surrounding Lee then and now. From the school’s website: “Lee, in particular, has become the subject of increasing scrutiny for his central role as the military leader of the Confederacy. We unequivocally denounce the motivations behind the Confederate cause that Lee chose to defend as well as the views of individuals and groups who employ Confederate imagery to promote an agenda of white supremacy, racism, and xenophobia.”

Lee is credited for starting what became the Commerce School, the Department of Journalism (we call it the “j-school”), the student body-adjudicated Honor Code, and the Speaking Tradition (you greet everyone whose path you cross out of respect). It’s this part of his history as an educator that some proponents of keeping the name balk at the notion of rebranding the university. I wouldn’t suggest that they are all racists. But I would suggest they rethink this position. You don’t want to be a part of the problem, even tacitly.

Not long after Charlottesville, Hurricane Harvey flooding here in southeast Texas spurred me to move valuables to our second floor, including photo albums, my college diploma and treasured decorative ware. When a W&L classmate checked in on our well-being during the protracted storm, I related that I had safeguarded my sheepskin because, no doubt, it’s going to become a collector’s item with Lee’s name on it.

I’m no apologist for Lee. I don’t see him as a man in full, as some have simplistically revered him, but a fractured man with some laudable achievements countered by some colossal, grave misjudgments.

How does the Lee brand impact me? My heart sank during a high school reunion weekend in Montclair, N.J., when a classmate and I were chatting and he (a black man) recalled that I went to Washington and Lee. I was simultaneously surprised he remembered that about me and concerned he might think that by some association with the name I harbor racism. We continued a friendly discussion and I tried to put Lee’s presence at the university in context. It was not easy.

If you have to keep explaining something, you may want to rethink how you are expressing yourself. A school still named for Lee in this day and age is too difficult to explain.

Understanding history, though, requires context. You must view an event from multiple perspectives and appreciate how a confluence of factors can stream together at one point in time to cause a major change, such as a war or a civil rights movement. Such things never happen for a single reason. There’s a catalyst, but never just one driver. As a W&L history major, I learned how professional historians use primary documents – not anecdotes, conventional wisdom or sentimentality – to gather what took place and why.

I learned about the Tulsa massacre in a W&L history class, History of Violence in America. For that class, I wrote a paper on the civil unrest in 1967 in Newark, N.J., and learned how bringing in white law enforcement from other parts of the state to control strife in Black neighborhoods was counterproductive for policing and dangerous for the residents. I’m saddened to see with our current events that we have not learned the after-action lessons from how law enforcement cracked down in the 1960s. Here we are, some 50 years later, witnessing police brutality against people peacefully assembling to protest police brutality. When does this vicious cycle end?

When my Dad arrived at W&L in 1958 from Bloomfield, New Jersey, he was excited to start school. The freshmen (all men at that time) filed into Lee Chapel during Orientation to hear a speech by the then university president, Francis Pendleton Gaines. Dad related to me that a man strode with a cane to the podium on the stage of Lee Chapel wearing a white suit and black grosgrain ribbon tie and this Yankee freshman thought to himself, “who the hell is this, Colonel Sanders?” By Dad’s telling, the first words out of President Gaines’s mouth were: “Ginimen (gentlemen), this is a fine ol’ Southern institution and I aims to keep it that way!” Poor Dad thought, “then what the Hell am I doing here?”

Maybe Lee really believed in reunifying the nation. Maybe we can do a better job now. We just don’t need the wrong brand name.

By Katharine Fraser, B.A., History and Journalism, W&L ‘93

Washington and Lee University diploma
My W&L sheepskin

Introducing The Sage Leopard Facebook Group

Looking for a constructive discourse around current events, news and politics? Me too.

Wonder how a lot of mis- and disinformation spreads on Facebook? A certain so-called documentary with false information easily made the rounds via FB groups. We also can utilize FB groups to spread valid information, share ideas on improving our communities and thoughtfully engage on current events.

Many discussions surrounding COVID-19, the upcoming election in the U.S. and other major events lack nuance. It’s all or nothing. For example, some people want unrestricted economic activities (see complaints about wearing masks in stores), but that’s missing the point: we can reengage in retail and other economic activities by taking precautions to mitigate the spread.

Another all-or-nothing mindset surrounds whether we support a political candidate: some seek an ideal that doesn’t exist. There is no candidate for anything that will check all your boxes, unless you are simplistic about pretty much everything.

Much of our society has become bifurcated and devolved to name-calling. What if you are neither an all-out liberal nor a diehard Trump supporter? There is plenty of room in between. I certainly am not one or the other of that binary choice.

What if you’re curious about what makes someone else’s worldview tick? What if you could persuade them to reconsider some aspect of their perspective?

I can’t help but notice in various community and neighborhood groups how self-righteous and wrong-headed some of the comments are. Hopefully, The Sage Leopard news group can foster a better discussion. Join and be a part of something we hope will be more meaningful.

Note: A few simple guidelines to get started. Do share ideas and articles you believe are true, well-researched and well-edited. Do not paste in propaganda; I’ll call out nonsense. Do try to listen and ask questions. Don’t curse out or otherwise engage in name-calling. We’re here to learn.

Join The Sage Leopard News Group here.

The Sage Leopard, thesageleopard@gmail.com

Katharine Fraser, moderator of The Sage Leopard news group

Why We Must Be Optimistic in a Pandemic

I’m trying really hard to force myself to be optimistic. Why? Because it’s the only viable option.

As I type, a train of dump trucks is relentlessly moving dirt excavated from the neighboring bayou to a staging ground across the road as part of flood control project stemming from the disastrous overflows from a federal reservoir in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. This multi-million project was overdue before the 2017 hurricane, which inundated much of southeast Texas, including our neighborhood.

The year before, we had the notorious Tax Day Flood, which came during a heavy spring rain. The Addicks Reservoir at that time held in flood waters for two months. With Harvey, the decision was made to release flood waters to prevent the dam from breaching. Sitting upstream with water up to our home’s weep holes, we watched the temporary lake around us subside as areas downstream became awash with outflows from the dam. We only spent about nine days cooped up in the house with that event. Now, we can drive out and about, but have mostly stayed home for the past two months for fear of catching covid-19. Fear, yes, I said it. It’s a scary gamble. While many more apparently have survived, about 90,000 Americans have succumbed to the ravages of the new virus.

My congressman, Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, offered a risk/reward analysis of sorts in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, in which he notes not everyone has the luxury of staying at home to work. In his piece, “Why Does Reopening Polarize Us?”, Rep. Crenshaw suggests that conservatives are more apt to take risks compared to liberals.

Risk management is well known to capitalists on Wall Street, home of the people who create capital markets, invent financial instruments and manage investments. I grew up in that part of the world and can’t help but notice that a lot of Wall Street types are not politically typecast. Some are liberals and some are conservatives. No single ideology or worldview dominates the world of high finance. To borrow the old adage, this is why horse races exist. People bet on risks.

For example, the Harris County Flood Control District won approval of Harris County voters for $2.5 billion in bonds over 10-15 years to pay for flood control projects, including the one to clear debris out of the adjoining bayou. Where is the risk? The risk takers are the investors in the bonds, who are betting the county entity will be able to service the debt, i.e., pay them back.

By the way, the particular flood mitigation project with all the trucks is a joint project with the county and the federal reservoir manager, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; some of the project entails clearing up part of the federal reservoir. Rep. Crenshaw (see above) supported the project and came out to a shovel-turning event on the bayou here last May. I got to thank him in person. I do not agree with every opinion he expresses. I agree with many, but dispense with others. And, that is OK. It’s impossible to be completely aligned on every issue and frankly, we should not be in the free marketplace of ideas.

Dan Crenshaw and other officials at flood control project event
May 31, 2019 shovel-turning event to kick off a joint flood control project on a bayou adjoining Addicks Reservoir, Harris County, Texas.

The flood control bond issue is a great illustration of risk taking in a capitalistic democracy. Voters approved the bond program and investors bought in. Not everyone in the country is required to partake. Self-selecting market participants bought into the risk.

This is not a partisan undertaking. We do, however, have a partisan problem in this country. Even if a cure for covid-19 took hold today, we have a lot of work to do to better understand each other and work better together.

It would be one thing is people calling for a reopening of the economy agreed that masks might play a crucial role in curtailing the spread. Or, if they acknowledged that not every space, including offices, should be at 100% capacity. This might be bad news for commercial real estate investors, but not every company is going to require all the office space they traditionally have used. Not yet. Not soon. Certainly not immediately. So, some leases might not be renewed as they were.

It would also be helpful if the stay-home only advocates would not mock everyone who is trying to support local businesses. I haven’t ventured to a salon, but I gather from news images that barbers, hair stylists and manicurists are limiting how many people come in and they’re wearing masks. Some restaurants here in Houston have patios and are spreading out their customers. I am not going to the gym anytime soon, but I haven’t cancelled my membership. Still, we are a long way from normal business models and profit margins. My point is do not castigate people for trying to keep their businesses afloat.

Spend a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook, and you’ll see that vitriol is alive and well. The tone is set at the top and it would be ideal if we had a courageous, convivial, avuncular type of guy serving as president to set an example and provide unifying leadership. We don’t.

So what are the rest of us left to do, aside from arguing with each other? What if we tried to find answers together? There is an idea that we become what we pray. It’s going to take a lot of mind-bending and open-mindedness. It’s going to take middle ground. It’s going to take compromise. It’s going to require problem-solving and cooperation.

It’s hard to be optimistic that change of such magnitude from our current political discourse is possible. But it’s a matter of survival. United we stand used to mean something and I remain optimistic, that despite the anger and noise, we can get it together soon. We must.

Please, put down the keyboard swords and pick up a shovel to work together.

The Sage Leopard, thesageleopard@gmail.com

Man with a Machete, Covid-19 and a Tenement Fire

A man with a machete with a ponytail may or may not be robbing houses in my neighborhood. I really cannot tell by reading comments on a NextDoor post, but people have called the sheriff’s department. This seems like a fitting metaphor for our times.

Frankly, I’m too exhausted worrying about covid-19 to fear the machete man. I am taking reasonable precautions to avoid catching this virus, including curbside pickup grocery shopping and disinfecting groceries in the garage. I already worked from home and now cannot yet envision returning to out-of-the-house activities such as the gym, browsing in stores or sitting in a restaurant or bar.

Now, I also need to worry about people spitting on strangers in public, armed protestors and whether we’ll be able to safely vote this election year. I can push away some of the dread by reading how doctors are finding some more ways to treat covid-10 patients and that is really heartening. Still, some folks want to reject good medicine. For example, anti-vaxxers are already flexing their social media muscles.

What I find fascinating is the willingness of people to believe in things that are not actually happening vs. what is happening.

Threats: Real or Perceived?

What is happening is a novel virus that is highly contagious and deadly for many who contract it. Yes, many more survive, but what about those who don’t? The death toll in a few short months is horrible, even if there is some hope for better outcomes with different treatment modes.

What is happening is the recognition, based on scientific data, that wearing masks can mitigate the spread of the virus (Japan is faring better than a lot of other countries and they are wearing masks). What is not happening is some totalitarian government forces taking away your rights or any of the other ridiculous notions being spread. Just put on a damn mask when you go about your business. I’m all for rugged individualism, but please don’t breathe all over me and store inventory with potentially virus-laden droplets. Are the people who are literally up in arms over closed hair salons also angered by stop signs or the old no shoes, no shirt, no service signs?

Yes, we all want the economy to improve. Yes, really, everybody wants that. Here’s an idea, if most people wore masks, then shared spaces would be safer and we could get the economy rolling along. We’re not talking about wearing masks forever. At least until there are effective treatments and until we have a vaccine. And for Pete’s sake, get the vaccine.

Tenement Fire

Still, some folks don’t seem to be taking this seriously. I can see this on the mask-less faces of people I see blithely strolling in and out of the grocery store while I do curbside pickup. Allow me to share an experience I had with a NYC tenement fire to illustrate my point.

In the mid-1990s, my friend Jackie and I lived in an old tenement house on the Upper East Side. We referred to it as our third-world apartment in a world-class neighborhood. We also called it the cave. It had two things going for it: pretty good location and cheap as dirt rent. It had flaws, including the rats in the alley behind us and their horribly loud fights. The makeshift bedrooms were so small that you could hear newspaper pages turning in the next room. Anyway, you get the picture. It was a dump.

Then the smell started. It was the odor of heating oil fumes wafting in and around the building (our livingroom window opened into an airshaft). Concurrently, the hot water was failing. Tenants called the management company to complain about cold showers and noxious fumes. Now, I don’t know why the management company and/or landlord didn’t take these warnings and complaints seriously. I do know that because of neglect, the situation worsened.

One night, I came home ahead of my roommate after partying with friends downtown. The odor was back, so I opened the livingroom window and went to sleep. Before dawn, someone was ringing our buzzer like crazy with the S-O-S signal. When I answered, a man screamed, “FIRE!” At first, I thought his might be a prankster so I went to check. I cautiously touched our apartment door, which was steel, to make sure it wasn’t hot. I opened the door to a solid wall of smoke. This was indeed a fire. I woke up Jackie to tell her we needed to get out.

I covered my face with a towel and pounded on the door of the apartment across the hall. Our neighbor, a grouchy old man, opened the door in his boxers and waved me off with a flourish of annoyance when I told him we needed to get out fast. He then turned his attention to a fireman at his window.

All the tenants got out. We were standing on the sidewalk in jammies and coats in frigid weather. The fire department response was immense. The battalion chief called us over for a huddle. He and others had axes. He informed us that the furnace was leaking heating oil, creating the fire condition and the heavy smoke. He related that the furnace was already jerry-rigged so they dismantled it with the axes. He added that city code required the landlord to replace it in 24-hours so we wouldn’t be without heat for long.

Excuse me, I said. He acknowledged me and I asked, could the furnace have blown up if you hadn’t come here? His answer was precise:

“Yeah, to kingdom come.”

My point is when people, say doctors, warn you that this is a particularly contagious and deadly novel virus, listen. When they call it a pandemic, listen. When it’s strongly suggested that we all wear face coverings in public, please oblige. If you ignore the warnings, things could really blow up. Capiche?

As for machete man, the NextDoor thread now includes a photo of a man asleep under a banana tree, posted by someone who said they called the police too. I’m beginning to wonder if this man is simply a lost soul rather than a menace. Let’s stay focused on the real threats.

The Sage Leopard, thesageleopard@gmail.com

Covid Days: What Would Grandma Do?

What would grandma do? Pondering the pandemic, I wonder how my late grandparents would have handled this unfolding natural and economic disaster. After all, now that we are seeing unemployment levels approaching that of the Great Depression, maybe we can start to relate to what our elders endured.

Part of my thought process stems from a tweet wondering if we’ll be so deeply affected by the new normal of the covid-19 lifestyle that our new habits will stay with us for decades, just as children of the Depression were thrifty and did not take anything for granted. For example, my grandma never threw out food.

ravioli on fork

Even if there were just two or three raviolis left after one of her epic Sunday dinners, those ravioli would be caringly nestled on a saucer and wrapped with just the right amount of cellophane. They would make just a lovely lunch the next day. (I do this myself too.)

Come to think of it, should I have been wiping down grocery items with a water-bleach solution all along? I mean, it is kinda gross to think about how some items may not have really been fridge-ready. Now, I view not wiping down bottles and jars as a luxury from a past life of ignorant bliss. Was I insufficient in my produce care by only rinsing food with water?

The Depression kids became the Greatest Generation with their contributions to World War II, including my grandpa who served in the Navy in the Pacific Theater. He was on a supply ship. He left when grandma was pregnant with my mother and returned when mom was a toddler. Can you imagine that hardship? Grandma had a job and family members who helped care for her daughter. Always be grateful for what you have when you are also missing something.

Thus far, I have been fortunate that I have no lost clients due to covid-19’s economic fallout. I recognize that could change. I am fortunate to live with a wonderful boyfriend and grateful we have been together for 11 years. (Tomorrow is the anniversary of when we first met!). He is smart and steady, and putting up with my hand-wringing and mental exhaustion.

I had already worked from home and have enjoyed the benefits of being able to toss in a load of laundry or run the vacuum during a brain break. But, I used to go to the gym. I used to love grocery shopping. I enjoyed going to restaurants and just generally being around other people. I like chatting with strangers in the market or at bar or a festival, etc. I am an extrovert. But, what do I really have to complain about? I am alive. I’d like to keep it that way and enjoy the post-covid world.

Grandma was always engaged in current events and I’m sure being raised in a family of news consumers made me a news junkie. My paternal grandfather would get up before dawn to read newspapers and told me he had wanted to be a reporter, but couldn’t go to college. He was proud I majored in history and journalism and went into news when I graduated. Nowadays, keeping abreast of the news is more draining than usual.

So, what would grandma do? Laugh. Put things in perspective. Keep on keepin’ on. And cook really good food.

Speaking of food, if you have funds to spare or want to share some of your stimulus check with less fortunate neighbors, consider donating to your local food bank. If you live in Harris County like me, check out the Houston Food Bank.

The Sage Leopard, thesageleopard@gmail.com

At a Distance: The World is Still Social

Human beings are social creatures, so by our very nature it’s hard to stay apart. Apparently, we cannot even go enjoy nature without getting in each other’s space.

Thanks to COVID-19 freeing up time for a lot of workers, people are now cramming into some parks and getting a little too close. Over the weekend, Shenandoah National Park cautioned that some areas were getting to crowded and that county officials were closing off roads to some trailheads. Acadia National Park also cautioned that CDC social distancing guidelines should be adhered to. Blue Ridge Parkway is limiting backcountry camping to small groups.

Texas State Parks are open, but please don’t bring cash. They want you to order permits online instead. Visitor centers and park offices are closed. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department motto is “Life’s Better Outdoors,” and well that remains true, people still need to keep their distance. Similarly, the City of Mont Belvieu, Texas, welcomes residents to enjoy the parks with precautions. It posted a flyer to its Facebook page with health guidance. “Do not use parks or trails if you are exhibiting symptoms.” The flyer also cautions that bathrooms will not be available and suggests alerting others to your oncoming presence, e.g., the use of bicycle bells. The flyer urges maintaining the CDC-recommended distance of 6’. In our subdivision, I’ve noticed neighbors remaining socially distant on walks.

The question is how long can we stay separate? A certain politician who need not be named suggested in a tweet he would prefer economic activity to pick up in favor of social distancing. I don’t see this as a trade. Economic activity is slow or halted now no matter what. As more cases spread and more hospitalizations occur, people will likely be scared to congregate.

But for the moment, they are flocking to city parks. Just stay spread out! The other day I was walking my dog and some neighbors wanted to avoid me. Now that we know this virus hangs in the air, I can’t say I blame them!

If you have the luxury of a backyard, use it. If you go to a park, steer clear of others.

By all accounts, we’re in for a long haul of social distancing. We are going to rely on the internet for virtual socializing, such as hangouts, and find more ways to reconnect with ourselves. Read a book. Mediate. Try yoga. Bake. Cook. Walk. Jog. Snuggle. Daydream. Learn a language. Start a journal or keep a calendar with all your new, socially distant activities. We can do this.

It reminds me of the song, “From a Distance,” except we’re now, “At a Distance.” Stay that way, people!

Sage Leopard News Read Roundup: COVID-19 Escape Movie, Texas Emergency and Hope

Updated March 20 from original March 19 publication to footnote Sen. Burr’s curious stock sales and clarify Trump comments on drug treatments.

When we emerge from COVID-19, a filmmaking survivor is going to have to make a horror movie about spring breakers trying to return home after their binge to find that the cities are closed to them and they have to fend for themselves on the highways. C’mon people, when the president of the United States says we need to limit interactions to groups less than 10, please listen.

Also, this is not an old people’s disease. The latest data shows that adults across the spectrum of age groups are getting the infection. See this Washington Post story, “Younger adults are large percentage of coronavirus hospitalizations in United States, according to new CDC data.”

Count your blessings. This is weird and scary, and we don’t know how all of this will shake out, but be grateful. If you are reading this, that means you have access to the internet and power. That’s a lot to be thankful for. After all, with hurricanes we lose power. Being able to wash your hands with warm water during a global pandemic is a luxury. Enjoy it. Pray for others, in the United States and elsewhere, who may not be so lucky.

Me after buying some essential supplies during a quick outing to Kroger and Walgreens.

If idle hands do the work of the devil and you’re sheltering at home feeling shell-shocked, now is the time to get to all those house projects you have put off forever. Also, deep cleaning kills two birds with one stone: it might get your mind off the pandemic (sorta) and kills germs. It might give you some sense of control, even if fleeting. If you really need to tune out the news for a bit for some self care, try Pinterest. You can just look at things that make you happy. My Pinterest boards are full of pretty gardens, beautiful home décor, cute dogs, cool Jeeps, crafting, recipes and other nesting ideas. I plan to look at it tonight with a glass of wine.

Venison meatballs I made with meat from the bucks we harvested in Laredo in January. Hunting is harvesting food from nature’s pantry.

Back to reality, though, and the state of Texas has declared a state of public health emergency. During a live broadcast, Governor Abbott said that state and local officials have been in preparation discussions about COVID-19 since January. That’s comforting, except why didn’t he or other Republicans pipe up when Trump was still calling this a hoax in late February. Before you get defensive and annoyed with the politicization of a pandemic, consider that the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in February – the same day as the “hoax” comment – was warning business leaders from his home state that this could be akin to the 1918 flu pandemic and that schools would close, travel would be limited and the military would be called on to help.

I think it’s great Senator Richard Burr, R-N.C., was warning people at that time.* I only wish all Republican officials had done so on a bipartisan basis with the Democratic colleagues. The only reason I can think of goes to a failure of leadership at the very top. And the top should take responsibility. He just might be doing so now. I am opened minded. But considering he’s still griping about how the media doesn’t write nice things about him, I’m not hopeful he’s change into a statesman. In the meantime, I am somewhat hopeful that any measures he has taken to facilitate “compassionate use” (experimental) treatment might work**. Again, any effectiveness would be a total unknown. Still, a few months ago we didn’t know we’d be in this situation and I am a big believer in human ingenuity and the cooperative spirit.

Stay home, stay healthy, stay sane and stay hopeful.

* Well, now it has been reported the senator was selling stocks, the implication being he knew the pandemic would worsen and hit financial markets.

**Well, the FDA felt compelled to clarify something he said about a malaria drug being approved (it wasn’t) for COVID-19. To clarify, that is being studied.