Singing in the sun

The view from outside

When the announcement came through on March 13 that schools would be shut down for an indeterminate period, the kids were a little bit thrilled. At least the ones I teach were, and I hear others were too. Perhaps because it felt like a vacation, unexpected and welcome, since the end of the term had just come and gone, and a breather was needed to gear up for the last push to June. There was some fear, of course, the virus being quite a tough cookie. It felt a little like an adventure, a game with a hint of real risk.

But it was not a vacation. Certainly not for the first responders, the medical personnel, who faced a very difficult few weeks ahead, for those who have to “face” the public. And this, the world round – notably in some countries, where the “heads” of state are  more occupied with their image than with the safety of The People.

My classroom, ghostly empty.

Time freed:A vacation is planned, implemented, executed. It comes with “vacation stress,” the unwritten edict that says: “Though shalt relax and be nice to everyone and not think of work.” Sheltering-in-place, on the other hand, is like having been on a demented carousel one moment, and being yanked off and cast into a limbo. Entertainment by shopping: forbidden. A hot chocolate and cake at the local Konditorei: verboten. Getting together with friends at the kàvéhàz: tilos! For many it’s obviously difficult, especially for people who live alone, or are in a difficult partnership. Apparently, in Geneva at least, the number of divorce requests has soared. This virus is strange. You may avoid covid-fever, but for that you get cabin fever.

Without the metronome of work, play, sleep, weekend, rinse repeat, or what the French used to call métro, boulot, dodo, you quickly lose track of time. Clocks and watches can give you time, calendars tell you the day, but if one day is like the other, even the weekends, how are we supposed to keep them apart?.  It’s just a name change. Who cares if it’s called “Thursday,” “or Monday.”  Days mean specific activities. Monday is when work starts for most, Saturdays are for cleaning, Sundays, for some, is church, or doing the bookkeeping, or taking walks and having an ice cream. The Romans used to celebrate gods on each day, and that kept them in line. Chatty aside: Jupiter was great, the god of abundance. That’s Thursday in Latin cultures, by the way.

Time gets messed up with out a proper caliber underneath…

Living the confinementTake the following saying to heart: Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.  This is what I told the teenagers in my class, and my daughter, also a teenager, who now follows classes on her own desk at home.

Get a grip on time and date…

First injunction, therefore, is to rein in time, set up a rhythm, and stick to it. Your health depends on good sleep, some exercise, and attention to nutrition. Excellence is habit, to paraphrase Aristotle and it does apply to surviving confinements of all sorts. Stories of survival in prisons, the Gulag, or of Anne Frank, till her arrest, are stories of establishing routines, more than ever. Sure, we are not in prison, just at home. But there are similarities, and Artist LeRoy Washington, who served time,  laid  it out very articulately in this recent PBS interview.

Second injunction: If you have to do telework, make sure you have space and undisturbed time. As a long-time freelancer, I’ve learned to survive days and weeks in my office (which, for about four years consisted of a board in the kitchen of our former tiny apartment in Geneva. It takes planning. Personally, I often get up each morning around 4 a.m., sometimes at 5. An old habit from my days announcing an early show at radio WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. Seeing dawn appear each day is a reminder of birth and rebirth. To feel the slow heartbeat of the night grow into day, to contemplate a quiet world at the darkest hour, is a deep pleasure. (But you can’t be afraid of yourself).

My office, with the world outside, and my creature items, ink, pens, paper, computer.

Third injunction: The web is a procrastination machine that can swallow you whole, a barrel full of gold nuggets drowned in tons of unadulterated information sewage, so get the stuff you need done using a clock, as if you were at the office. I often tell people who try to contact me while I’m at work that my boss is lurking. That boss is my inner boss. But that boss is nice: She tells me to go have a long lunch and switch off the computer and the phone. Do something else (I take power naps), take a walk if allowed, read a book, do some exercises (the web is full of teachers telling you how to keep fit in place), chat with the family or friends across the way.

Just remind yourself that this is not a vacation. It’s an alternative life moment, an experiment. It too shall pass, and when our daily grind gets going again, you’ll be ready. Changed, but ready. In this time warp, I suspect, many will have discovered, that the frantic and at times mindless consumerism and chasing Mammon’s dream has, perhaps, become less of a priority.

Rest and recuperation are vital.

The soul rejoices

So many people are sharing bits of their lives these days. People are learning about online meetings. It may be out of boredom, it may be out of loneliness, it may simply be because suddenly, as in wartime, we realize how important other humans have become. At our cooperative, for instance, the nightly clapping on the balconies engendered a nice routine, as it did in many parts of the world: Singing. We sing, with three guitars, a harp, the occasional clarinet. People from the neighboring building have joined in, we practice on the roof where there’s enough space to stay apart, we learn new songs, harmonize, and so forth.

Practice on the roof

Singing, especially with others, is one of the finest antidotes to feeling low. A psychiatrist I knew, who sang in a choir, used to say she’d be out of work if her patients simply sang once a week in a choir. It’s also a great fountain of youth. It makes our inner child rejoice and come alive again.

Next installment: a few observations about teaching online.

Stay safe.

Numbers Game

The trick to enhance positives and mitigate negatives

Just a few weeks ago, after days and days of strenuous deflection, gesticulation, self-victimization, media-aided campaigning and incoherent bilge about the pending coronavirus assault, Donald J. Trump suddenly talked of the number of deaths. It was a stunning reversal. Suddenly, after promising that we would soon dodge the virus (because of warmer weather… great gut science), he was delivering hard numbers:  100,000 – 200,000 deaths from Covid-19.

That’s about it, but not without intention.

Trump frowned theatrically for the camera, played a vigorous  air accordion and did a few air karate chops.  It was going to be tough. Well… we who keep an eye on the news outside Jerkwater, USA, knew that, but… The news media went into a tizzy, Twitter “lit up” as they love saying. But the big question is this: Where in earth did those numbers come from? Maths? Real stats? Fauci? His covfefe? And moreover: What do they mean.

Trump numbers could be this big, or that big, whatever feels right.

They are perhaps the only real indicator that the Trump re-election team is engaging in some form of crisis management, at least on the public relations front, since everything else, to date, has been a pretty well-formed catastrophe, nothing unexpected, by the way, from an administration and a political party determined to destroy everything left by the previous administration (the GOP never forgot FDR…).  

It’s about expectations management, which I have already written about before. Let us say, you know something good is about to happen, and you would like to enhance the pleasure/joy experienced when the thing comes to pass: You lower the expectation by casting a little doubt. We do it to ourselves. “Well, I’m not sure I did well at that test…” When the expectation is more than met, the joy is greater. If not, you still have an escape hatch. (See 4/ at the end for a really brief example).

The same happens with negatives, as in a crisis: The expected result must be announced as worse, so that when the expected figures turn out to be lower or the just less disastrous, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and the crisis managers come out looking better, even if they were a major factor in the crisis unfolding in the first place.

Chances are, Trump’s 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus will not happen, thank goodness. The figure could be reached, of course, as the virus spreads in a second wave throughout the country. It might be reached in June. If we are all back at work in some form, we may not even know about it. The hospital crisis will have been mastered, the public focus will be elsewhere – Trump’s team certainly known how to shift attention from the man’s incoherent administration.  The statistics will be unclear.  But at some point, we’ll have stopped counting, maybe at 35,612, or 42,590, and by then it will be merely statistics, as Stalin would have said, and they can be massaged this way, or that, usually by the fallacious comparison to 1918. And we’ll breathe a sigh of relief.

There you have it. The point is not the figures, it’s how we got to this point.

Thanks for reading. This is not cast in stone. But if you are interested and have the time, below find a few examples I’ve collected of very public expectations management.

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1/ The Muller Report: Ever wonder why the Trump administration kept talking about it loudly for months. Saying it was a hoax and a lie. And attracting attention to it? That is not what normal PR looks like, you don’t attract attention to what could be a disaster. As long as Muller was mulling, the Trump admin raised the expectations of some absolutely incontrovertible proof of wrongdoing, pee tape and all…. The report was released, bowdlerized for public consumption, Trump was not exonerated, but the evidence was simply not massive enough and incontrovertible. Muller himself said so. Shady activity does not have the power of a real crime (and white collar stuff is not really considered a crime by many).

2/ Deepwater Horizon Spill: The oil rig exploded killing eleven workers and then pumped oil into the Gulf of Mexico for months. After many attempts at stopping the spill, an effective solution was announced (in early July 2007) for two months hence, so when an announcement was made that the flow had been slowed two weeks later, it sounded like a huge success. The  actual capping happened in September, but by that time no one was really talking about the worst marine oil spill in US history (nor of the families of the dead oil men).

3/ The two Iraq Wars (1991 and 2003). The armies of Saddam Hussein were described by much of the news media as almost unbeatable. Absolute apocalypse awaited. A friend of mine was in such a panic, he filled his car with food and slept with a radio next to his ear (in ’91), convinced that a nuclear war was about to break out. But in 1991, Iraq had come off an eight-year war of attrition with Iran, and dictators are rarely the best leaders (Trump, take note), since fear is not the best motivating tool. I told my friend to relax, it would be over soon… He got mad at me for being so unconcerned. I was concerned, but not about the military stuff.

Same with the Iraq invasion of 2003. The country was sick and tired of Saddam Hussein, and had been subjected to some very damaging sanctions. Where the media came up with  so much apocalyptic stuff was beyond comprehension. In fact, even the usually staid German media joined in. At which point the TV I had used for 2 months went back into the cellar (I used it for video films) and I cancelled my payments to the German television  stations stating explicitly that they had adapted to the low sensationalist standards of private TV companies, and I didn’t think it was worth paying for. I also ceased using CNN as a general reference. Their cheer-leading was embarrassing to watch (I was traveling a lot in those days and would catch their reports in hotel rooms).

4/ Ever play chess with someone spontaneously ? What do you say? “I haven’t played in twenty years.” If you win, it’s really great, if you lose, you have an excuse…. Expectations management in a nutshell…

The world outside my window (Part 2)

Settling in, finding the rhythm, absorbing the shock, observing. This is even shorter than the last installment.

Sometimes the weather fits the mood, sometimes vice versa

The week started with weather as appropriate as “pandemic genre” film music. The sun remained hidden behind racing clouds driven by a violent wind that jostled the high rises moored to this part of the city. The bise noire is a Geneva specialty, an icy northeasterner that rips across the lake between the Alps and the Jura ranges. Normally, it brings sunny, but Calvinistically cold, weather. The “noire” version is different, it blankets the sky with menacing clouds that never seem to rain themselves out. It’s a little unnerving, because it raises images of an apocalypse, which is the general mood right now, even though the sun has returned.

The silence that engulfed the city a few weeks ago has started restoring our acoustic keenness. We hear other sounds with more acuity. A car accelerating, the voice of children in the garden, the Vespas that recall chainsaws in the forest. And in the background, ghosting along the larger avenues, is the spooky wail of ambulance sirens. They were always there, but now their fourth interval sings dan-ger, dan-ger…

Monday morning blues, add sirens.

We are waiting. Doing stuff, working, sometimes playing, and hopefully learning all sorts of soft, hard and medium rare skills in this brave new world. The web is full of clever activities, because given time, people are fantastically creative. The memes and fun clips are entertaining. There’s an Italian fellow playing football with a cat. Boredom, I always told my daughter, is the first step towards creativity. No wonder the powers-that-be would like to get us back to work, pronto. It’d be difficult to maintain the old economic system with a society filled with artists. A selection:

But you don’t have to go viral to defeat the virus. Staying home, doing nothing and reading is clever as well. Or practicing an instrument, or painting, or cooking, or just thinking. Maybe we will even shift the paradigm a little more, not towards technocracy (I’ll have a word about that in the next installment), but towards humanocracy. That guaranteed income idea could be gathering steam…

The virus is a great equalizer in many ways. It seems to be stimulating the kind of compassion to wipe away all the artificial barriers that have allowed us to see the “other.” The virus is an equal opportunity killer. It has taken to the shades: the pastor who was convinced it was a hoax, the “resister” who saw it coming, the doctor who spotted it early on, the bus driver, and children, adolescents, young women and men, in addition to the older people, whose lungs are not made for that kind of assault.

It reminds me of something: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself (Matthew 22:29). It has real meaning now, even in the midst of our silo-ized society, as Hermann Hesse once pointed out in his Lektüren für Minuten (Vol. 2), because you/we are now reflected in the other, and the other in you and us, and that irrespective of ethnicity, skin color, religious beliefs, if any.

The others are now your mirror.

Then there are those outside

So we, that is me and my global neighbors, wait at home, hope for the best, and like the human beings we are, we get creative, or neurotic, or, in worst cases, a little psychotic. We wait and create and work and hang out, keeping our spittle to ourselves. Outside the window, a medical army struggles to get a grip on the infections and the other accidents and illnesses that still plague us all, the garbage pick-up continues, postal workers, police, bus, tram, trolley, train and truck drivers keep doing their bit amidst a spreading pandemic. Families or relationships that experience abuse are very vulnerable. So be careful. Listen attentively.

Our ears are our first line of defense and theirs as well. A little vigilance can save lives.


(The next installment will look at work an the things that keep us sane).