Lockdown in the rear-view mirror

We’ve become used to economic crises, since they are endemic to our system. And some of us might remember the oil crises of the ‘70s (from which we learned very little) and the brown-outs and black-outs, and the rocketing fuel costs. But the past year delivered a crisis several generations of westerners simply haven’t experienced. Here’s a brief look back at the first months and my experience with remote teaching.

In Switzerland, the state of emergency triggering the lockdown was announced on Friday, March 13. It had been expected. A few weeks earlier, the first cases of covid-19 had appeared in Switzerland (in Ticino), so the Federal Council gradually prohibited  gatherings of more than 1,000 people, then 100, then less. That put paid to the big trade fairs, like the Salon de l’Auto in Geneva, Baselworld (watches and jewelry) and traditional events like the Fat Tuesday revelry in Basel. It was obvious that schools would have to shut down as well. Two weeks prior, in my school, we had discussed the skiing week and whether it would be possible. Some thought, yes. The thought fizzled. Hope still remained for the school outing at the end of the year… Then the axe fell.

As a substitute teacher now with long-term contract, I was in charge of a class of eighteen teenagers in their last year before entering the equivalent of high school. At first, they were thrilled not to have to go to school. Some were a little worried about their grades, which they hoped to improve in the third term that had just started. Some were already eying a professional path and were worried about it being in jeopardy. My co-main-teacher and I had a special duties towards them: Throughout the school year, we were asked to prepare them for the working life, showing them the many possibilities of achieving their dream or, if at all possible, finding that dream.

Leaving the schoolhouse on that Friday had a mystical feeling to it. There was no drama, no suggestive music, no worries. Just a deafening silence. The airport, which is about 500 yards from the school as the crow flies, had fallen silent, and the air had a whiff of spring unadulterated by the usual scent of burning kerosene.

The empty classroom, March 16, 2020.

The following Monday morning, my co-teacher and I got the class together on WhatsApp for a little chat about how we would proceed. Our orders were to use the Gmail platform, which features “classrooms,” a meeting app, email, etc… But my colleague, far younger than I and a scientist, knew about gaming. SHe had the brilliant idea of setting up a server on the Discord platform, which is not only quite easy to use, but was also familiar to many of our students. That afternoon, I went to school for the last time to gather the books the students had left behind not thinking that the lockdown would happen, and to pick up our class plant.

Last year I wrote about this moment, which some suggested was like a vacation. “A vacation is planned, implemented, executed. It comes with “vacation stress,” the unwritten edict that says: “Thou 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 limbo the next.”

Revving up

From the start, we felt it was important for the kids to see the positive aspects of the situation. I sent around a few paragraphs explaining how the work environment of the future was demanding more independence from employees anyway (a concept called Work 4.0 that I had had to write about for a company, you can read about it here). The lockdown, I pointed out, would be excellent training in self-motivation, in getting things done, communicating properly, staying “with the team,” as it were. This is what freelancers do every day, anyway (see box below).

This little pep-talk, which I repeated several times during the lockdown, had an effect on some. One boy later recalled how hard it was to work for ten minutes in silence, without the noise of the class in the background (these were very chatty kids). They were given enough work to do for half a day. They received the work in one-week batches and could do the work  whenever they pleased, though as a teacher of English and German, I often asked them to be strict about doing a bit every day. Several learned to communicate their questions or problems in a timely fashion and to actually space out  out their work so as to make it doable, rather than wait for the last minute. Some, of course, disappeared and even calls to the parents couldn’t get them to their desks.

For a generation that has grown up with computers and online, their actual skills in this area were often sorely lacking. They could get pics onto Instagram within seconds, but the computer as a tool was in many cases beyond their abilities. It was time to learn by doing, which is probably the best way.

Back and forth

One key to our online teaching was communication. My colleague and I decided to have regular meetings on the platform. Meet (the app) was not a favorite, mostly, we suspected, because they valued their privacy and were probably sitting in bed in their PJs most of the day. So on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we had a conference call at 11.30 a.m. to listen to their questions and problems. Otherwise, they were free to contact us, and we would respond fairly quickly. At all hours, I might add. I remember one evening helping a student with her French reading, a chapter of a book she did not quite understand. So we worked on it together for nearly an hour. Several did their homework after 10 p.m., which is too late.  One morning early – 4:15 a.m., I am an early riser – I found two students chatting away online and had to convince them to get to bed.

Around the second week, I was contacted by a journalist from the Swiss Radio and Television, who wanted to know what was special about the lockdown, what experience people were having that was brand new. As an incurable optimist, I figured she would be interested to know something about the experience of teachers. And so I described how we, the adults, their teachers, had suddenly entered the world where they spent a lot of time. It was a great moment to share their experience, and to give them a bit of guidance in the utility and dangers of the Internet. It bred a sense of familiarity, too, because we were no longer physically present and applying the usual disciplinary methods. They would bicker and joke around just as they did in class, and occasionally we had to remind them that we were still their teachers. It revealed how vulnerable they could become when not seeing who is communicating with them. A physical voice can be very different from the words on a page.

The airport fell silent as well, a blessing for our noses and ears, and lungs, probably, as well

It was probably not a very interesting observation, because the journo was audibly checking messages on the other end and waiting desperately for me to finish my three or four descriptive sentences. I don’t think she even got my name right. That’s perhaps one of the problems with news media, they do need the spectacular to attract attention, and the subtle gets kicked to the curb.

Epilogue

This regimen lasted nearly two months. The kids would struggle a bit with the IT, somehow get the work back to me for corrections. We did one or two classes online with Meet to get some oral work done. Few showed up for these confabs. It was a bit of a struggle, but, in time, a number of the kids started getting a groove. Some even benefited from the occasional one-on-one classes. The bickering (my class had a few high-level bickerers), while irritating, suggested that they were still engaged with each other, and always offered opportunities for learning social manners.

We returned to school in half-classes on May 11. There were to be no exams, the final grades would be those at the end of the second term. The feedback on the nearly two months of online schooling was mixed. Most students in my class were happy to be back in physical contact with their friends. Even seeing their old teach seemed agreeable. The familiarity continued in the classroom, but as an adult and a teacher you have to keep a certain distance. We are not pals, we are not family. Many felt, too, that testing for grades was stressful and somewhat spoiled the fun of learning.  We discussed this issue, and I had to agree with them, but the problem remained in how to evaluate the kids. The idea of no grading is good, but it does need some preparation. The emphasis is on self-responsibility. What do you do with students who are simply different, whose experience has turned them against any organized society?

Soon, we were back at exploring the curriculum, but without the prize and coercion of grades. This held for another month or so. Then, the promise of summer, the balmy air, the brilliant colors, the the glimmering of freedom till September pried their teenage souls from the classroom, the reading, the maths, the grammar, the constraints. It was time to let them go. My colleague and I organized a picknick after the official end of school. Eleven came.

Those I have seen since are doing well.

In the end, the students who already worked well in class, were also the ones who managed the online learning as well. A few did go AWOL. The parents might have helped, but they, too, were probably too taxed by the situation, though some failed to give their children the proper aural space to work in (in one case, I heard a dad speaking loudly into his phone, while his child was trying to read).

The pandemic is over a year old, now, and people are getting sick of it, while many are still getting sick from it.  But the virus doesn’t care whether or not you’re sick of its presence. This too shall pass, as they say, so me must deal with it. Young people are having a hard time with the lockdown. But hand-wringing, moaning or spouting ridiculous conspiracy theories is not particularly helpful. It behooves us adults to remain stable, supportive, encouraging. Remember the film La vita e bella? Roberto Benigni guides his young son through the trials and tribulations of a concentration camp as if it were a game? That may be where we should all be. In all crises, adults must remain adults, and that does not mean being a pill. It means maintaining your humor, your optimism, your reason. Moaning and groaning about the lockdown and cursing at things you cannot change is not adult. To quote Seneca: “Man is affected not by events but by the view he takes of them.”

The Box: (I wrote about this last year already : “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. Chatty aside: I hear so many people, even friends, complaining about being at home in front of the computer, not seeing anyone during the lockdown… I’d like to say: Now you know what it feels like, welcome to my world!).

Fer Cryin’ Out Loud!

It’s time to come back to reality. Fear and loathing and ridiculous conspiracy theories that have no proof are not how we’ll meet the challenges facing our democratic societies. These will only lead to (more) dissension, illness, death and ultimately war, which, depressingly enough, is one of the most logical reality checks for a society gone haywire.

The last time a Republican president left office after losing to a Democrat, the economy was shedding 750,000 jobs a month, and American soldiers (and Iraqi civilians!!) were dying in a war in Iraq launched using a totally fictitious casum belli, and in Afghanistan. Collectively, we should have learned then what history has been teaching us repeatedly (oh, but “don’t care much about history…” as the song goes): Beware the demagogue…

The Republicans in particular should have learned as well. Fiction and reality don’t mix. In their struggle to generate enthusiasm in the midst of the crashing economy and save the election in 2008, they tapped the Know-Nothing, nativist , lunatic fringe as represented by Sarah Palin. The electorate, thankfully, went for Obama and Biden, a good ticket for a country in the grips of a major financial meltdown. In 2012, Romney did not stand a chance, the economy was in good shape, and the country was well led, essentially, even though today, the revisionists have 20/20 blindsight.

Fast forward 12 years—-A Republican president is leaving office again after losing to a Democrat. But now, he’s a card-carrying member of the lunatic fringe, a kind of Joe McCarthy, screaming at and about hallucinations, a Sarah Palin on steroids, but with a difference: He’s a practiced con man, one of those synthetic TV personalities a failed businessman, a crude and boisterous dandy, who has learned to bluster and flatter and somehow exude a sense of power while not actually doing anything. His entire presidency has been marked by a scorched earth policy. And it has had a terrible impact even beyond US borders, where more and more people have been jumping on the anti-science, post-truth (“my truth is good enough”), anti-Enlightenment bandwagon.

Back to the USA: Trump has a fawning base that he despises, because he is, at heart, a terrible snob, and they seem to have the same make up. He’s jealous of people who are simply better than him, be that a skinny Black president, or scientists, experts, or artists, or the many people who put aside their ego, don a uniform, and go do service for a cause or their country or for their community. But he has gotten a taste for ultimate power, thanks to millions of enablers, including the GOP, who have one and all abdicated all sense of decency, all honesty.

Kenneth Copeland, one of the many multimillionaire religious frauds who support Trump. Here he is “blowing the virus” away…

In the process, he has forged a sick alliance with religious groups, extremist militias, and conspiracy theorists who are often just on his coattails as a way to get money out of very gullible people. He is, and was always, incompetent, he had no plans, he just improvised badly, depending on his moods and what his twitter feed or some extreme right-wing pundit channel churned up. His rhetorical method was transparent: Generate a lot of outrage by lying or simply saying rude things. He does this to cover up more outrage, to cover up more outrage. And ultimately to disguise the fact that his time in the White House has been one long game of golf and watching TV on the taxpayer’s dime.

Trump has exhausted everyone, because the news media, pro and con, became addicted to his antics. He drove wedges into society, and has thus so confused his base, that many are driven to repeat verbatim his most obnoxious and absurd claims, or the claims of the outlets that support him. Their nefarious influence is even felt in Europe, a continent that has always contributed to the advance of thought, and where people tend to be more critical. Too many people I know are falling for transparent conspiracy tales and marching along with neo-Fascists. Backing out of this system will be tough.


The worst part is this: Donald J. Trump has as the full backing of the Republican Party and a cult of millions of followers that refuses to take a serious reality check, because they have willfully let themselves be brainwashed and indoctrinated by agitprop on social media and broadcasts by certain news organizations.

Only now, we have massive unemployment again, and we have shed upward of 270,000 American lives —not jobs, lives— human beings, who died suffocated or from massive septic shock. They are the real victims, not the navel-gazer in the White House. They were thrown under the pandemic bus, discarded by a venal, boring man, a con man, and his nodding and bobbing administration of yes-sayers.

Mismanagement would have been better option, because at least it allows for a course correction. What Trump did — and by extension all those who refused to contradict him — is criminally negligent. And the Republicans have gone along with it and dragged the base into the hecatomb with it.
There lies the problem, and why the “base” cannot seem to relinquish its murdering guru and his repulsive family.


I understand when people are upset that their candidate has lost an election. Happens to everyone…. But this? This total callousness on the part of ordinary citizens? This rejoicing in the death of their fellow human beings? Do these people remember the eight hearings about Benghazi and the ballistic rantings emitted by Fox News when Obama wore a tan suit? Do you remember the name Terry Schiavo, 12 years in a coma, shrunken brain, and the oh-so-religious GOP going haywire when she was taken off life support?

270,000 Americans dead, the number growing daily, hospitals doing triage to see who can be saved, and mealy-mouthed Republican governors like Ms. Noem standing like a hare in the headlights, not mandating masks, because she is terrified of what a fifth-rate con man and lame-duck cult leader in the White House will say to his base, and how that base will react … Shameless cowardice. And when at war, cowardice leads to death.

I even get the satisfaction at triggering librul tears. It was fun for a while, I’m sure. (As an adult, I think that is pretty infantile, sort of sand-box gloating. In fact, when voting, I actually seek the candidate that is offering policy and unity, and concrete solutions, not just bluster)… The hyarhyarhyars must stop. The tears you are seeing are those of families grieving for their members who died, they are those of the exhausted medical personnel, they are not and never were “librul tears.”

I get it, though. It’s a sunk-cost problem. In for a penny, in for a pound…. The gambler’s dilemma: When on a losing streak, when do you stop? When has the cost gotten too high? When have you mortgaged everything, your conscience, your feelings, your capacity for rational thought, yes, even your swift exit from the game of mass-murdering your fellow citizens?
But the murder is real. The failed economy is real. The total degrading of our nation is real. Forget the problems you have with intellectuals, college kids, the woke crowd, the non-existent Hollywood or other elites, or TV and Cable News, with their endless parades of talking heads and fake “debates” aimed at either creating outrage or false equivalencies.

It’s time to leave this disgraceful period as the tail-end of a failed economic and political system and start a conversation based on reality and facts. The first being: Trump lost and refuses to leave the White house, i.e., he wants a dictatorship. Where is that revolutionary spirit of the T-Party? I thought the Bostonians back then were rejecting the king. Time to do it again, especially such a lousy monarch.

That time is now.

Did RGB die in the nick of time?

The coming confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett is something of a double-edged sword for both parties. It’s being done at a time when the US, and even the planet, are exhausted by Trump’s grand guignol show, the pandemic, collapsed economy, Mother Nature going ballistic, people running around with absurd conspiracy theories in their heads, in short, end times feeling. It is, however, a battle, and as such should be a lesson in self-discipline and focus, especially for the Democrats.

Honor her memory by being focused, calm, collected.

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while a shock to so many – and a  source of despair –  has in fact opened a large window of opportunity for the Democrats.  

Over the past eight months or so, Trump and his Republican enablers have literally gotten away with what is tantamount to negligent homicide. Over 200,000 Americans (at last count) have been carelessly thrown under the pandemic bus, and continue to be, all for the sake of a re-election campaign. Thanks to a total lack of leadership, too, the US economy has crashed, the country is exhausted and on the brink of serious violence, and there seems to be no end in sight to this carnage (which Trump promised right at the start).

The way things worked out…


If Obama been nearly this cruel and dishonest, he would have been frog-marched out of the White House well before any election, of course. But Trump is the anti-Obama, he is protected by his party and by vociferous base that nods and lock-steps docilely behind him with each of his vile and undignified attacks on the opposition, on decency, on intelligence, on truth.

And if the Democrats are not careful, he will get away with it in November and then he’ll feel even more empowered to trash the Constitution, after which all bets are open.

How does he get away with it? Backtracking briefly: During the 2016 campaign, it looked as if DJT would lose easily. Every norm he could find was broken, and yet…. He won, squeezing out a few votes in key states where the Clinton campaign had, irresponsibly, failed to read the political tea leaves*. Already back then, it was obvious that the Trump playbook was to stoke the outrage machine till all the valves blew out and a large part of the electorate could barely tell truth from lie from alternative fact. It was a fairly transparent strategy, a classic for any con man: blue smoke and mirrors.

Ask Trump about his platform, and he would just say anything, the more outrageous the better (the “fake news” was a terrific Big Lie). And then the talking heads would be out there filling up hours and hours of airtime with useless deconstructions of his absurdities. Before the cock crowed on a new day, this gesticulator-in-chief and his majordomos were preparing  a new salvo of absurdities so the next round of chattering could start.

So he got away with one-liners, while Hilary Clinton was “boringly” reciting a litany of good ideas. Who do you think got the TV spotlight?

Yacking is cheaper than reporting on real stuff.

The surrogates were in on the game, embarrassing themselves daily with the most egregious transformations of reality into weird reconstructions of the same reality. They excused the boss, they screamed, they ignored, they obfuscated, they pretended that pussy-grabbing was just boys-being-boys, and thus acceptable, even if you had been saved by Jesus, they smiled coyly, they pretended they hadn’t heard, they pounded their chests, they invoked God, they yelled “Bill Clinton,” they said “both sides do it,” but for the Democrats it’s worse…

Here is the most absurd aspect of this little scenario: In reporting every “outrageous” statement, including all the “You are fake news” expectoration, the media was indeed producing fake news. How many times have I emailed anchors and journalists asking them why they didn’t just send a  reporter with an iPhone to Speaker’s Corner? It would be more instructive and less repetitive. Trump’s twaddle could be reported after the weather as faits divers, along with cats giving massages to Labradors.

So why does Trump still have so much support in spite of the massive death toll and the crashed economy? Because he never stopped using the same process, and the media, partly for economic reasons I suspect**, has continued to play the game. Every book detailing his outrageous stuff…. is merely red meat for the base and keeps him in the spotlight. Nothing touches him. His base, absurdly, loves it. The country is burning down, and they are bringing the cans of gasoline.

Bear with me:

The late-night comedians were thrilled. And still are, because the material, as one said (was it Colbert?) writes itself. One of Trump’s latest attention-getters was to, once again, suggest he may not leave office. The fact that this might cause a lot of violence regardless of the outcome of the election (I’ll write about this at another time) doesn’t bother him. Occupying about 80 % of the airwaves and Internet tubes is the point. Even Bill Maher keeps amplifying this point. He admits himself that he may even have given Trump that line …

The result: Biden and Harris can’t get a word in edgewise. I’ve pointed this out for years. But maybe if a real prof says it, it will sink in? This morning, Smerconish from CNN let Michael Sandel, Professor of Government, say it:

“We shouldn’t take his bait and become entangled in a fever-pitch outrage at every new outrageous thing he says. Trump is not a dictator, he plays one on television. And we should not play along as his supporting cast. We should focus instead on his failures to help the working people who elected him in the first place (…) and on the Democrats’ alternative.”

So what does this have to do with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that frail judge who had her finger in the dyke holding back the torrent of authoritarianism…?

The way to mating the king is by a careful and lethal attack. If your position is good, you can even sacrifice the queen to get the job done.

Her death, and the pending confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett  is a golden  opportunity, so close to the election, to break this hammerlock Trump has on the communication channels. Barrett (ACB) is unassailable. She has outstanding conservative credentials, even if you don’t like the idea that she belongs to a strange religious sect. She does her work, has seven kids, is apparently happily married… She has Saturday Evening Post appeal, and whether you like it or not, she’ll play more or less in Peoria. What she is doing cavorting with the likes of Trump now is irrelevant, because we should know that Trump is merely a Trojan Horse for the GOP power grab. They, Trump and most of the GOP, hate each other, because they depend on each other, and one will try to get rid of the other soon.

Play to win
When your forces are too weak to win a battle, draw the opponent to a place where you feel more comfortable. The Battle of Sakarya River in late August 1921 is a good example (for history buffs), where the weaker Turkish forces drew the Greeks, with feints and spoiler work, into difficult terrain, and forced them to capitulate.  Trying to tear ACB down will lose the election for the Democrats and could jeopardize the Senate flip. It will give more fuel to the GOP, which still can’t get over the ripping of Bork and then Kavanaugh. It may not even be necessary. She may turn out to be a conservative but fair judge. Who knows. After all, she got to where she is because RGB cleared the way…

The confirmation hearings, however, will be an ideal platform to respectfully tell the candidate that the GOP flipped and lied and trying to ram her through is not really a respecting her own dignity, and they feel that is not  a proper way to handle the Supreme Court and above all the American People. They must express willingness to look at the candidacy after the election, and the Democrats might really like to confirm her, but it simply would not be fair, as the judge herself said!

There are too many issues at stake that could seriously impact the country in the future, notably the ACA, Roe v Wade, and whether Trump would like, as he says, to dispense with elections altogether. Also, does the country accept the 200k-plus dead as a human sacrifice to the re-election of Donald Trump. In short, they have to make this not about her, and it should not be, but about Trump.

Respectfully, and regretfully, they must say, they simply feel that the process is rushed but the GOP should have waited.  She will get pushed through, the Democrats must congratulate her warmly and ask that she respect the will of the majority of Americans who voted AGAINST Trump. No histrionics. And that should apply to the peanut gallery. Histrionics and cosplaying will dissolve the small lead the Democrats seem to have. Restore dignity. Don’t play the GOP game. Show the American People and the planet at large, which has lost some faith in  democracy, that there is a real alternative, a mature, fair and respectful leadership to be expected from the Democrats, as opposed to the ridiculous games played by the likes of Ted Cruz. That’s my take. I used a few hours writing this, so if you want to help me pay bills…. Feel free.

_________

* I’ve had long and acrimonious debates about her “deplorable” comment, pointing out that it was a profound mistake. I’ll come back to this some other time, if merely to clear up the record: it has to do with the self-victimization of many Trump voters and their deep feeling of being ignored and inferiority artificially enhanced by their news media and, to an extent, funny but slick late-night comedians.  

** It’s expensive to send TV teams around the world  to report on other things, and a lot cheaper to have Trump just deliver the stuff for free, get the same old talking heads together, and fill up the airwaves. So obviously American TV audiences are not very well informed about the world at large. On the other hand, it’s a lot cheaper to have a stringer do it on paper/radio, by the way, or even a social medium. So if you want to do something revolutionary: Subscribe to a good newspaper. And read it slowly.

Masks: Reason and Reactance

Are you getting tired of the circus around wearing masks? The demonstrations that some say had 500,000 people, others 20,000? The sick comparisons that say “mask = yellow star?”The professors and doctors coming on with smug faces and saying: “It was all wrong, it’s just the flu, the dead are not dead”? Don’t be tired. Democracy is the child of philosophers, it was never really accepted, it’s complicated and needs a lot of attention.

Face masks, something dentists use, doctors use, surgeons use, even construction workers use, and people who ride bikes in cities could/should use because of pollution, have become a huge bone of contention that a lot of people are gnawing on. There are many reasons for this, but two main lines stick out. One: Scientists can’t quite agree on clear recommendations, not because masks don’t protect, but for reasons having more to do with human behavior and the complexity of confronting the coronavirus and the diversity of masks and how people use them (that was the recent Dutch issue). Many, as scientists are wont do, have tweaked their views with the spread of the virus and the evolution of society’s response. This doesn’t mean they are confused…

Secondly, there is the behavior of some leaders, notably the fellow pretending to be the president of the USA, who made an issue of it early on, mainly because the virus highlighted his utter incompetence in leadership, and it threatened to consume the time he needed for golf, tweeting, and watching television. He had to find something to distract and deflect from his failure and recent impeachment, so he blurted out a few stupidities about Lysol, UV lights, miracle cures, summer killing the virus, and Democrat hoaxes. The media spent weeks being outraged, and on cue his cultish followers started yelling liberty, unpacking their guns, cosplaying patriots fighting the neo-red coats, threatening health care professionals, in a nutshell, and embarrassing spectacle. Thus, the virus spread, and infantile chaos  replaced reason.

Out of the woodwork crawled the conspiracy theorists, and with them the disgruntled doctors with axes to grind against their more successful colleagues – who are part of the conspiracy, along with “the media.” The professors of recondite institutes hopped on board, too, and because it’s such a great occasion to be heard and revered by the data spreaders of social media, the anti-vaxxers unpacked their  axes, of course, and the climate change deniers, holocaust deniers, Q-Anoners, Reichburgers, “populists” (that’s the other word for you-know-what), the Gateway Pundit, gun-toters, Tea-Party apostles, evangelicals, in short, all the usual suspects. A circus that should be painted by Breughel.

Suddenly we have a kind of war about nothing, one of those terrific distractions that seem to expose a society bored stiff and pampered by comfort and cheap consumer goods, a “Societé du Spectacle,” to repeat Debord, one that has nothing  more serious to think about, like the actual value of liberty (hint: liberty is deeper than being asked to wear a face mask, nor is it equivalent to traffic lights, condoms, seat belts, air bags, helmets).

How are we to get along if every time there’s a collective challenge or problem that needs all of us to concentrate and work together, the political majordomos seize the occasion and set up an army of drama kings and queens with fallacious arguments and oddball theories. Imagine all those whirring servers chewing up energy just to keep all that hot air, arguments, YT-clips and gaslight moving!

Maybe it comes from too much television. Too much info. Boredom. The lure of “interesting” if wobbly facts. A false dialectic. Deep-seated fears of a new-ish situation. Or, as I often suspect, plain egotism and what psychologists call reactance: An almost irrational/immature reaction to being told what to do, even if it is perfectly reasonable. Which is then experienced as an infringement on personal liberty, a deep aggression on the individual, an attack on Grundrechte, basic rights, the Constitution, Magna Carta, the freedom of speech.

Marchers against the mask…. right-wing extremists have gotten involved…

All it’s about is trying to prevent the spread of a deadly virus. And since the situation is quite new, new data demands a new approach. It’s not about basic rights and human rights. It’s more like putting a traffic light at a dangerous intersection.

This sounds very one-sided, and it is, because bothsiderism happens to be an intellectual plague that has invaded the media and it’s doing no one any good. It equates flimflam with the real thing. It’s time to put the church back into the village, as the Germans say : In a democracy*, we have the blessing of rights. Switch off Facebook and the TV, read some material on feudal or autocratic societies by some decent authors, and you’ll immediately see what is meant by rights. But there’s the companion to that: duties or obligations. My liberty is limited by the liberty of others and of the collective, and that means I have to sometimes accept 60%, or even less of the rights-cake. If that means that by “spontaneity” is being infringed upon, then so be it. If I have to urinate, I look for toilet, I don’t just do it where I am standing. Ethics demand that we ask ourselves: What if everyone did this, what would the world look like (I think that idea was propounded by Kant, but let’s not get too serious).

Rights and obligations maintain a balance between the individual and the collective. Otherwise our society would become an ochlocracy. A rule by mob. Where silo-dwelling groups, believing that they have the right to do X, Y, or Z (like the gun owners in the USA, by the way), theatrically proclaim it, do it, and get into everyone else’s hair. This can have dire consequences, even murder. Imagine if everyone did it with the anti-mask and anti-confinement actions… You don’t have to imagine it. Look at the USA. 185,000 deaths (updated) and climbing. Brazil the same, where the evangelical boss ignored the threat completely.

That’s why I posted the quote by Mathieu Ricard from his book Altruism on my Facebook page:

Individualism mistakes the freedom to do what you please and real freedom, which consists in being master of yourself. (…) Spontaneity is a valuable quality as long as it is not actually mental agitation. To be free inside means first and foremost liberating yourself from the dictatorship of egocentrism and the negative sentiments that go along with it.

Here’s the deal: Many friends of mine complain about having to wear a mask. That’s a luxury. The same friends pass around the shrill screeds of anti-maskers and usually in the same breath anti-vaxers, another great luxury, since the same people tend to live in nations with outstanding medical infrastructure, excellent doctors, with health insurance, a phone number that will get you an ambulance in ten minutes, and where vaccination programs have led to herd immunity already, so you are free not to get vaccinated. That’s not the case in many developing nations, where crowded conditions, lack of medical care, and poverty (often due to our unquenchable thirst for cheap consumer products that have to be manufactured for $3 a day) make diseases deadly. I often mention diphtheria in Yemen and polio in Afghanistan, but there are others.

I don’t have the luxury either. I work. Every day. About 140%, because I do my work as a drifting journalist and copywriter, and as a teacher. The latter means I am in a small classroom (about 45 square meters), with twenty-three teenagers, who tend to chatter a lot (aerosols). I have to speak loudly (aerosols). Some kids might have asthma (risk), or diabetes (risk), or it’s their parents. Or their grandparents, who take care of them, because the parents are working. We are dealing with a highly infectious disease (if you think Covid-19 is a hoax, please protect yourself with tin foil). I might carry the virus without knowing it. Or it’s one of the kids who brought it in. I might transfer it home without knowing it. I do know that a mask can help however. Because I read a lot about it. And because three dentists  told me. And other medical personnel, like my doctor. Especially if social distancing is not possible. That’s all. It makes me a covidiot, a sheep, and some other choice terms, but too bad.

My classroom is a two-thirds of this and the tables are closer togteher

And by the way: Even before the pandemic, I sent sick kids home. Because I didn’t want a classroom of sick kids to delay the course. Maybe this time we can even reduce the impact of the other flu. Who knows.

At any rate: Here is the conclusion from a long article in the Telegraph explaining that the mask alone might not be perfect, because the problem is in the feeling of  safety that a mask can generate, which in turn means that people can forget to keep their distance. The article is fairly clear, and a lot less smug than some of the stuff floating around. Bottom line:

Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, said: “A number of new studies and systematic reviews have persuaded most researchers and public health officials that they should be worn, including those who were skeptical a few months ago …  Growing evidence on potential airborne transmission of the virus adds to the case for face coverings.”  You don’t have to wear a mask at home. But if you’re in a train (which many of my anti-mask friends are not, in a shop, or in a crowded place, just do it. Even if you think it doesn’t look chic enough. You can take a selfie without it at some other time.

*Democracy…. what is it…. I have a few ideas about one branch, but it’s for later

Parallel Worlds (part 2): The Makers and Shakers

My last post was a general explanation about why I feel it’s important to expose conspiracy theories for what they are: in short, dangerous bullshit (cf. Harry Frankfurt On Bullshit). Dangerous because they get people confused and they very often lead to violence. Here I explore what CT is, and what is the reason for promoting it. A note: This is merely a short intro… Books have been written about this subject. I can recommend Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (not directly about conspiracies, but the anti-expert idea is closely related) and Thomas Milan Konda’s Conspiracies of Conspiracies.

Short version:
1) Conspiracy theories have been around for ages. Some are fairly harmless, many have sparked mass killings, (check pogroms, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, the Rwandan massacres, various “ethnic cleansings” that we’ve seen since 1992, etc.).

2) What are they: Essentially a way of reorganizing facts and often adding new, mostly fake ones. The tonality is “whispered,” in case someone is listening. . They essentially state that any incident large or small is controlled by some evil forces or individuals who intend to (fill in the blank). Some of them go far, talk about lizard people, etc… You’re in crazy territory then. A young student, Abbie Richards drew a very concise chart worth viewing. What she does not mention, however, is that the lower theories are often “gateway drugs” leading to  psychosis territory. (More below).

3) These individuals promoting them like to pretend (or they really believe) they are at the forefront of an apocalyptic battle of good versus evil, usually one that cannot be won anyway, which is what makes CTs so durable: It’s about nothing real, it’s just a rearranging and creating of odd facts. The theorists also like to pretend they are victims of the Great Conspiracy: Ask yourself, WHY are they being taken down from social media or their material is not taken seriously by regular news media? They will say: It’s the evil bugaboo. But conspiracy theory has nothing to do with free speech. The reason most of them remain obscure, and should, is because of the gatekeepers (editors and the like), who check the material and see if it is relevant, true, verifiable, in any way significant or meaningful. The other reason is because they distract from real issues and are dangerous, even lethal. They can convince an unstable person to commit acts of violence, and in the current situation, they are slowing down the moment when the rest of the planet can get back to work again. 

4) The real personal motivation for generating these myths is usually recognition, money, and/or, power.

5) There is now some serious political motivation and impact: Most of the Covid-19 “anti-maskers,” “it’s just influenza,” “hydroxychloroquine,” “we should be like Sweden,” “It’s all a hoax,” etc., material on the Internet started or has been co-opted by so-called “populists,” a euphemism the media use to describe what are essentially neo-Fascists and anti-democratic forces.  In the USA, the highest bully pulpit is occupied by a fairly transparent con man who freely dispenses conspiracy theories and lies, which are then picked up by his media (Fox News, Sinclair, Breitbart, etc) and his apostles and spread around. And that has reached European shores, where people just go along with it (I’ll write about this in Part 3) without really knowing the origins of the stuff.

This has been amply documented by serious journalists, which is precisely why we have a president in the USA who has been ranting stupidly about “fake news,” and conspiracy theorists just repeat that message. Like sheep going baa baa. If you have been following the climate change “debate,” you will see parallels: 97% or so of the scientific community says: It’s real, it’s here, here is the evidence (Swiss friends, look at your glaciers). But suddenly, all attention is on the 3% that say it’s not the case. I asked Australian psychologist Stephen Lewandowsky about this phenomenon, here is his response:

“(M)ost of the dissenting climate scientists had terribly mediocre careers (at best) until they became climate deniers. And then all of a sudden, they appear on TV and testify in front of Congress and so on. The second thing is that most of those scientists have a long history of contrarianism in their field—science does tend to attract the occasional cantankerous individual who would not fit in anywhere else. But those are just anecdotal impressions rather than hard data, so I can’t be too certain except for the first three—money, ideology, notoriety.”

6) Watch out: Facebook and other social media are an easy and cheap way of spreading the deflection, because most people think” oh, this is interesting, maybe it’s true.” I would posit then, that a major factor in the spread of conspiracy theory is the fact that “clips” from YouTube are easy to absorb and difficult to deconstruct, i.e., to reference this McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Massage. It is just like the coronavirus, each reader/listener needs to use an intellectual mask to sort  out the  lies and the BS and the vapid arguments from what’s more or less real.

Finally: What you can do about it: First, stop posting this stuff and saying “I don’t have an opinion, either way.” If you don’t feel competent to read a text, don’t promote it, it’s irresponsible. You are literally risking people’s lives from the safety of your keyboard. Also, the moment you post something, the algorithm will register you as having an opinion and will send you more of the same rubbish.  If you do feel like posting something you find interesting/different, then check it out carefully: What is the source? Did you Google it, and which sources came up first will tell you who is pushing it. Check out the fact checkers like Snopes, etc., they often do excellent work. And then check their work. Many conspiracy theories are built using syllogisms. Check each element. When you do that, listen to your intuition. Does it sound right? (This is what journos do).

Now you’ll start seeing why the satrap in the White House has tried to denigrate and minimize the hard work of real news gatherers. I’ve never been a “great journo” doing big things, but I did not get a press card because I believed in hobgoblins. Now you’ll also understand why there’s a job description called journalism.

Here’s the longer version:

Conspiracy theories have been around for ages.  Many are simply developed by individuals seeking to draw attention to some pet political/social topic, expose a bugaboo, frequently a non-existent one, or simply to boost an individuals need for self-importance and recognition. In politics, the conspiracy is a great way of attracting attention and demonizing the opponent, and in the religious field, one finds a great deal of  these stories, especially since religious leaders tend to self-victimize and self-stigmatize. It’s part of the charisma.  At any rate, CT can be fairly effective, depending on the audience.

So what is a conspiracy theory? Basically, it’s the idea that the world’s events, large and small, are in fact being controlled by invisible, all-powerful forces. Sometimes these are  organizations, sometimes they are individuals, but then they tend to be “untouchables,” like billionaires Bill Gates and George Soros, whose elevation to Dastardly Doyens of all that is evil is in fact nothing more than latent anti-Semitism, the financier having replaced the Rothschilds in the roster of Jewish evilissimas. The groups or organizations have often existed for real, like the Illuminati, Freemasons, the Jews, the Club of Rome, and so on, but their impact is nothing like what the conspiracist will describe. The Communists have been favorites in the USA since 1871, believe it or not, and a separate chapter should be devoted to them. Suffice to say, when you hear grown men who are supposed to be leaders call Democrats “Marxists,” you know they are merely string up archaic fears.  

I would encourage people to read Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style”  published in Harpers Magazine in November 1964, a time during which the impact of the McCarthy-driven red scare was dwindling. It pithily explains how the conspiracist actually works. Hofstadter uses the clinical term not because he considers CT a sign of proponents being “of unsound mind,” but because “(i)t is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant (…) Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric.

This is a crucial distinction to make. It’s not only the content of the CT, but the tonality. At its core, therefore, CT is the obvious backed by a spooky soundtrack.

In my view, there are at least three identifiable tiers to the CT, plus a few ancillary players, like the media. Tier 1 covers the owners of the information, the ones who launch  or really curate the conspiracy theory. “As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public,” wrote Hofstadter, “the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated.

Therein lies the danger. This is a fight that will need confrontation. And in a country like  the USA, where guns are a plenty,  who knows which neurons will suddenly start sparking and backfiring… In addition, the conspiracist will always intimate that he/she is a victim of sorts, and has been or will be attacked. One inspector from the Federal Criminal Office (the German FBI) I knew told me that one political cult I was researching used to call him up to tell him they’d been shot at, or attacked in some way. All nonsense, but he had had to investigate. Pete Evans, an Australian star chef and noisy conspiracist also kept suggesting in an interview that if he disappeared or died, it would not be an accident. An incredibly irresponsible thing to say, but conspiracy theorists are, if anything, irresponsible.  

The motivation

There are too many reasons to create these odd fables to list here. In recent times, though, becoming an Internet celebrity is one way to slake ones thirst for recognition and money. You have the notoriously callous Alex Jones, whose porcine grunting especially about the Sandy Hook “crisis actors” finally got him into well-deserved trouble he well deserved, or Glenn Beck, with his Vicks-induced theatrics and his chalkboard covered with phony connections. For these two, dumping their self-respect to make fools of themselves brought in the riches. Pete Evans, mentioned above, was also selling some $24,000 “light machine2 that was supposed to perform some miracle.

The Internet has boosted CT considerably, by offering very cheap platforms to spread the nonsense. Facebook and others, have become festering sewers of conspiracy theories, and the average user will spread the stuff without really thinking. This is irresponsible (as I mention above). But it’s also why Facebook and Twitter have come under attack.

The notorious Q-Anon conspiracy theory is particularly pernicious in this regard. Q is allegedly a clandestine source in the government explaining to the world how Trump is combating elites, the “deep state” (a typical “obvious thing” with spooky music in the background), child pornography; in other words, he is the Messiah. Indeed, the QAnoners use terms like “awakening” and are awaiting some grand moment when a bunch of Hollywood stars will be arrested for child pornography. This strange obsession is in and of itself unhealthy. Q cannot be seen or named, and is thus particularly thrilling for those who’ve fallen for the con. This irony, that an invisible person is spreading non-information, and people believe it (several spreaders are members of Congress or want to be) make Q the almost the perfect conspiracy theorist. My hunch? Look for a 400-pound guy in a basement, or the like (in the meantime he’s rich…there are so many suckers out there).

Worrisome…

Ranters like Jones and Limbaugh and Hannity  and Savage and Kirk are dangerous, because they tend to fill their audiences with fear and loathing. They will not incite violence directly, but they will condone it, and the anger they generate can easily fuel violent acts. When you speak of a specific group with such hatred, violence must always be considered as a possibility. The far-right, Trump-boosting  Sinclair Broadcast Group finally pulled a 26-minute video called “Plandemic” by an anti-vaccination barker named Judy Mikovits that put Dr. Fauci at the center of a massive conspiracy theory (they are always huge!), which in turn drew death threats to the good doctor and his family. Really nice, right? CT is dangerous.

But pulling out late is actually just a brand-washing technique… the insemination has taken place and the story, boosted by the Internet’s steroids, then runs all by itself. No amount of debunking will work (pizzagate is still a thing among the QAnoners, in spite of a guy actually going there and shooting up the place only to find it didn’t even have a basement.  But the conspiracists can now ALSO say: “You see, they are trying to silence us!” It’s a perfect con game.

The plunderers

That’s when the second group of conspiracy theorists gets going and plunder the first. They are generally less noisy, so you must train your ear. I call them “Monday-morning quarterbackers,” mainly because the only reason they can comment and critique and invent is because they are safe, they will not really get their hands dirty. Take the Covid-19 conspiracies: Governments have already imposed measures that have “flattened the curve” and saved lives, so the conspiracist is not faced with a very dramatic situation. They can be smug about it and say: “Merkel should have done this differently. Look at Sweden.” Extrapolating from Sweden, Germany would have had about 50,000 deaths. Then the same people would be on television or YT channels saying: “The government ran a euthanasia problem, they should have imposed a lockdown…” See how it works?

Their discourse is easily recognizable, but sometimes they manage to sound so reasonable, you almost think they are legit. Take  the hydroxy clamor: It started with a little-known doctor in Marseilles… He suddenly says he has a miracle cure. It’s early in the pandemic, people are afraid. Hope blossoms. His name, as is to be expected, is uttered from pole to pole. He may legitimately think he has got the solution. But the medical field has rigorous  systems in place to test, and his “testing” didn’t pass muster. The testing system is to prevent accidents (like thalidomide) and points out that his study has serious flaws and the drug he’s using has unwanted side-effects… (The average vaccine takes over 10 years to get onto the market).

But Trump gets wind of it and uses his platform to promote it.  And then come the real plunderers, like Simone Gold, promoted by a far-right-wing group affiliated with the astroturfish Tea Party. She  makes a video (much better than writing the stuff down, which then has to be read and checked) that goes viral. By time the real fact checkers have pointed out the incredible flaws in it, the absolute nonsense, including the speech by some strange doctor in Texas, who believes in “demon sperm,” and the dangers of  believing her, the  video, like the coronavirus, has infected  millions.

 
Conclusion:

I have spent a lot of time just skimming the surface of CTs and hopefully communicating how urgent it is put a stop to them. Unfortunately, they are now genuine money-makers, and that means they are driven by robust profit motives.

In our both-siderist  culture, it may appear unfair that I only listed the right-wingers. There is a reason for this. First, they are definitely the most dramatic and loudest ones. Second, they have now been integrated into the mainstream of conservative politics, which have drifted to the extreme right wing. Third, they have made it over to Europe, where, suddenly people of all stamp have started demonstrating against mask-wearing, the confinement, the government, etc. There’s a political will behind it. As I mentioned: The boy who cried wolf…. If you can train people  to not react to the  cry of wolf, when the wolf is there, you can’t get people to move. Think of climate change. Governments will have to act at some point. What will my anti-masker friends say: “Here’s a really interesting clip, a scientist no one has ever heard about says it’s just a way to achieve the New World Order. Actually, he says that driving SUVs and flying around the world millions of times a year is totally harmless.” And the person saying that will be the same boy who cried wolf.
I’m not saying conspiracy, but one fake conspiracy is a really good way to conceal a real one.

In part 3, I’ll briefly look at the Common Folk, those who carry the water for the conpiracists.

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.

______________________________________

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).

The Collapse

The power of people

The sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 followed shortly thereafter by the entire Iron Curtain came as no real surprise to me, and I was not alone. This is not some idle boast with 20/20 hindsight. For a couple of years prior already, the pressure had been mounting on this monolithic razor blade cutting the world in two. It was overly ripe for the fall.

No comment needed

I had been to East Germany several times, birthplace of my now ex-wife, and home to her huge tribe of relatives (her grandmother had married a widower with three children and had then had three of her own with him, who all, amazingly, survived World War Two, if I remember correctly). I had had long conversations with people there, read the local papers, which pretended that everything was fine and all bad things came from the West. Every encounter with an East German involved a liturgy of complaints about the absence of goods … not money. Things. One of my wife’s cousins couldn’t find a replacement car door, for example, because the Five-Year plan that had been agreed to around then didn’t include passenger doors for the Trabants that year. Another cried after seeing all the East-German wares like those blue polka-dotted Bürgl earthenware cups and the famous “smoke” figures from the Vogtland region  being sold at a Christmas market in Frankfurt on the Main in the west. Those goods were not available drüben, over there, at home, in East Germany

Checkpoint Charlie: a neural point in the world

Fulfilling shopping was not the only problem. A friend had been in the NVA (the National People’s Army) and reported driving around drunken officers all day in decrepit equipment. And you could see the degraded barracks, the quiet rejection of Russia and things Russian ­— most people dislike occupiers, regardless, so don’t think this was just “Communism.” People who grew up learning Russian in school hardly speak a word anymore or refuse to. At any rate, all of what I saw contradicted the apocalyptic vision of ultra-powerful Eastern Hordes often referenced in western media with glee and with proof by grainy black and white photos.

Most revealing, perhaps, was a simple conversation, during which I and my interlocutor compared east and west, a very frequent and prolific topic. I casually referred to where I lived as “back in Germany” (bei uns in Deutschland). She interrupted me: “This is also Germany.” In that instant, I realized that Bismarck’s claim that Germany would need a civil war once a century to stay united was no longer applicable. This was a unified country with an impenetrable and cruelly ridiculous border running through it. Impenetrable, but not permanent.

One just had to hope that a war would not be necessary to break down that wall…

A bubble was growing in East Germany, that was for sure, a quiet, unspectacular one. A bigger one was beginning to bulge elsewhere, however, namely Hungary, and thanks to my first book contract with APA Guides, I was able to drive there often as a Mr. Nice Guy writing about travel and culture, essentially harmless stuff for the over-political Communists…

The Hungarians had been chomping at the bit for a while already. Crippling foreign debt and palpable weariness at the leaden straitjacket imposed by a stuffy, unimaginative squad of corrupt apparatchiks was creating a kind of mental rebellion. Judging from the many essentially freedom-fighting idols who appeared  as statues, or on the bills, it would appear to anyone with a bit of a sense of observation, that Hungarians like their freedom, and they don’t like to be told what to do, and if that is the case, they tend to become ornery and uncooperative. Let me mention Kossuth, Deàk, Ràkoczi, the many poets  (Petöfi, Ady, Jozsef…), who are naturally inclined to free thinking, and of course Dozsa György, who led a massive peasant revolt against a corrupt aristocracy and died horribly, in 1514, along with many of his followers. A friend of mine, a simple seamstress out east, could recite the national poet Sàndor Petöfi’s famous “Talpra, Magyar” (On your feet, Magyars) that roused the Hungarians against the Austrians on March 15, 1848. From her mouth, it always sounded suspiciously contemporaneous, and very passionate.

Another snapshot: In August ’88, in a crowded csàrda near Tiszafüred on the Great Puszta, I had jokingly called the waitress “elvtàrs,” which means comrade. She yelled back at me for all to hear:  “The only thing red with me is my dress,” which was indeed red.

The Tisza between Hungary and Ukraine

My contacts in the country were all turning west. I crossed the border five times in ’88 without ever being searched. Unlike my crossings into East Germany, which never took less than three hours. I even wrote to editors in the USA (the big magazines, hoping to get The Scoop) that Hungary was almost out of the East Bloc and the Iron Curtain was now a flimsy, rusting reminder of past failures. I explained why I thought it would happen…. “Dear Mr. Radkai, that is all too speculative” was the standard response. The US media simply loved its cloak-and-daggery East Bloc, with its run-down buildings, barbed wire as a metaphor, the sinister cement posts, so dramatic when displayed in grainy black and white on the broadsheets.

It was not all lucubration. There was some action as well. For example, in late June ’88, a massive demonstration was held in Budapest against the systematization (modernization) project initiated by Ceaușescu in neighboring Romania, which would have seriously affected the majority Hungarians in Transylvania (the USA still considered Ceaușescu  one of the better guys in Eastern Europe).  After much sending out, the Berkshire Eagle picked up my report on it, bless their soul. A year later, June 16, 1989, with the Hungarian Democratic Forum as a kind of opposition pool, the country re-buried the “hero” of the 1956 rebellion, Imre Nagy, along with Pal Maléter, Miklos Gimes, Geza Losonczy and Jozsef Szilagyi. An empty coffin was added to represent the thousands of Hungarians who had also perished fighting off the Soviet army. It was a huge demo.


But lots more was happening. In May, guards were removed from the border, an open invitation to use Hungary as an escape route. Also, on June 27, Gyula Horn was at the western border to ceremoniously cut open the Iron Curtain (I have a piece of it). In August and September, East German refugees started entering the country, allegedly to go on vacation: Hungary had always been known as “the country for encounters”…. my ex-wife’s family would come to the Balaton in summers to meet their East German relatives. These vacationers now spawned a refugee crisis that ultimately forced the Hungarian government to do the right thing and let them emigrate westward. The trickle became a flood.

A friend of mine, Ingrid Heller, kept a diary of her escape with her two teenagers:

Budapest, August 23

We went straight to the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. We hoped to get some assistance there. But the embassy was closed. All I could see was the locked gates, the bell, and the guard house and Hungarian sentinel. Four youths came up from behind and stormed the bell. As if it were a life saver, I thought. A member of the embassy staff came out and handed us some flyers through the gate. They pointed the way to the Church of the Holy Family in Zugliget district.

We headed to the church. The embassy had set up a kind of emergency space in a garage in back of the church. They were taking the applications for passports. We had hidden passport in the pages of books to avoid being noticed by the East German customs officers.

Then the East German “tourists” started collecting like the birds on Hitchcock’s jungle Jim at the West German embassy in Prag. And soon the Czechs had to relent and let them go.  The East Germans at home, meanwhile, were not totally passive. I remember hearing that people wanting to move from Dresden in ’86 were giving the reason as “lack of access to western television,” though I suspect that was apocryphal. But it referred to the fact that western TV signals did not reach the great city on the Elbe, which became known as the “Valley of the Know-Nothings” (Tal der Ahnungslosen).  In September ’89, they began to demonstrate, culminating in a huge march in Leipzig. The SED government had no cogent response, and repression was not an option, most probably because the USSR under Gorbachev was no longer prepared to back violence. So, whether leaving the country or marching in the streets, people were “voting with their feet,” was a popular saying.

The Wall falls

But in October ’89, I still had to order a visa to enter East Germany. I was planning an one of those cultural-lifestyle articles for a magazine, this time on Frederic the Great, who had palaces in what was now West Berlin and Potsdam in the East. My visa for multiple crossings was for November 12. So I reserved a train ticket from Munich to Berlin for Nov. 10, giving myself a few days to do research and visit friends in West Berlin – yes, my young readers, there were days when you could work at a human pace, read books, dig deeply into your subjects, and have a real social life with flesh and blood people… I then went back to my daily routines, writing scripts for the Deutsche Welle, reporting, preparing more guide books, and, of course, listening intently to short-wave radio, as was my wont.

On Thursday, November 9, 1989, I was packing and listening to the news in the evening. There came a really strange report from Dresden. Under pressure, Günther Schabowski, a party secretary, had just suggested that private citizens in East Germany could travel freely to West Germany. It was a somewhat confusing message, which directed people to get emigration visas as usual, and then stating, but permitting private travel abroad with short-term permissions (Die Genehmigungen warden kurzfristig erteilt). History has shown us how precarious the situation really was, even the NVA (the army) was mobilized later on, which could have produced an unbelievable bloodbath, but the East Germans heard it as permission to cross the border. And after some hesitation, they rushed it, notably in Berlin, while millions of West Germans sat riveted to their TV sets, glued to their radios and newspapers (the good ole days).

By the 10 p.m. news, it was clear that something apocalyptic was under way. East Germans were coming across the border without restrictions. And I stood in my living room listening, packing, mouth open, and  suddenly realized there were tears streaming down my face.

On November 10, I took the night train to Berlin. It slinked and slithered through East Germany, slowing down as it was supposed to, when passing stations on the way, but never stopping, giving us an almost eerie sight of dusky platforms crowded with East Germans wanting to just go, go, go. Because the second night was the real one. Until then, there was fear that the border would slam shut behind those taking tentative steps west. Or worse, the regime would suddenly crack down on the people who had exposed themselves in an explosion of euphoria.

Berlin in the morning. It was ice cold. But the sidewalks were bustling, the traffic dense notably with those strange East German cars, the Trabants and the Wartburgs, and the occasional Lada or Dacia (franchises of Fiat and Renault). I deposited by bags at the friends’ place where I was staying and soon joined the thousands of West Berliners and tourists gathered at the Wall. I found a spot not far from the Brandenburg Gate. Climbing onto it was forbidden. It was dangerous, because the other side was essentially a minefield. Many were trying to chip away at it, the so-called Mauerspechte, wall woodpeckers. That, too, was prohibited. In front of me, a Japanese fellow had showed up with a stonemason’s hammer, a huge chisel, gloves, and began whacking away. Bits of painted concrete flew in all directions, the wall shook. I picked up a few pieces. A mounty showed up, confiscated the man’s tool…

East Germans wandered through the city. You could hear them from their dialect. Many wanted bananas, even the KaDeWe had run out, that grandiose department store that was built just to thumb a consumerist nose at the goods-challenged East. I heard that an employee of the KaDeWe had gone into a cheap discounter’s to purchase more bananas … Lines in front of a sex shop… That, too, of course. The East was quite puritanical…

But was this real? It did not feel real at all. It felt more like some magical moment, and soon the Big Brothers would come and say: “OK, folks, party’s over.”…. That did not happen. The next day, a Sunday, I  headed to the Interior Ministry in East Berlin to get my visa. Two hours at Checkpoint Charlie. The Iron Curtain was open one-way only. I changed the statutory 25 deutschmarks for 25 ostmarks.

The ministry was in chaos. Journos running about, officials pale and wide-eyed, travelers wondering where to go, what to do …. I found the office I needed, got my visa and asked casually: Should I cross the city again, or can I circle the city and go to Potsdam directly…. I had reserved at the Cecilienhof, the famous hotel where Churchill, Truman and Stalin had met in July ’45… “Uh, no you have to go to Gleiwitz.” I didn’t look at my visa. Trudged back to the Checkpoint, bought some chocolate cake on the way for my friends in the west. Waited another two hours. By the time I got through, the cake was mostly eaten.

The rest of the story is available here on my blog (www.journos-blotter.com), and is quite strange, since I actually ended up in the eastern zone without a visa. In a nutshell: As it turned out, Gleiwitz was the autobahn crossing, and I had requested a train crossing because I was on foot. Secondly, my visa was not a multiple visa, as applied for, but a single crossing.

Let me just add this: When I reached Potsdam thanks to a kindly pensioner who picked me up on the breakdown lane of the autobahn —after changing another 25 deutschmarks into ostmarks — I asked a young woman for directions to the Cecilienhof. She told me, and then asked where I was from. “The USA,” I replied. She spontaneously hugged me and gave me a friendly kiss. It was quite a surprise. So I trudged, exhausted, towards my hotel. On the way I tried to get rid of all those eastern bills. I found an open book shop, and bought several classic novels, books of poetry, some philosophy. When that historically famous palace hotel appeared before me, a thought crossed my mind: The war is finally over, let the peace begin.

Epilog:

The Kohl government rushed to consolidate the openings and bridge the country’s division. The effort was boosted no doubt by the enormous good-will of people in Germany and abroad, the sheer sense of “Yes!” of optimism, of welcome for this new age of international understanding. The People had ultimately won. The bizarre Communist governments fell one after another, some in blood, like Romania, others just crumbled. In 1990, I covered the first elections in Hungary. The Communist Party was running. I spoke to their reps, and they smiled and said: “If we pass the 5% mark, we’ll be happy.” That would have meant at least representation in the parliament. They reached about 3% if I recall…

Yet, as the curtain fell, new walls went up in people’s minds. In Germany, the westerners got suspicious and snarky about the East Germans, especially the Saxons, whose dialect grated on their countrymen’s ears. The easterners created the “Besserwessi,” the western know-it-all ( a play on the word Besserwisser), a kind of carpetbagger, who came and seduced the womenfolk with charm and money (this strange hallucination is not confined to Germany, by the way, it’s something visceral that one finds in xenophobes and racists of all stamp). Then the westerners started speaking of the nebulae, the NEuen BUndesndern, the new Länder of unified Germany and their bizarre customs. There were also the “Wendehälse,” the European wrynecks, able to turn its head 180 degrees, like the now suddenly former Communist. A cousin of my wife’s, for instance, had been an army officer and had always expressed his anger at “that American” whom he was not allowed to meet, because he was a “holder of secrets.” Suddenly, he wanted to have a beer with me. Then came Ostalgia, nostalgia for the East (Ost). Today, some of those old problems still plague the eastern Länder,

Bit by bit, though, the country did grow back together again. It meant huge investments. There still are differences, and they are always dangerous, because they are visceral. Maybe the jokes were needed to create a bit of excitement and take away some of the raw emotion. But every now and then I will pick up the bit of Wall, or look at my six inches of barbed wire that cut the world in two. And inevitably a tear or two will form as I think of all those people who suffered and continue suffering from the hubris of small-minded men who still use the age-old divide-and-conquer method to maintain their power.

Vacation Interlude in Turkey

Leaving Fethiye bay…

Freelancers and the self-employed seldom go on real vacations. Especially since the advent of instant and frenetic communication, which keeps us in line better than one of Calvin’s egregious ordonnances.  But….

… when I do choose to step out of the daily grind, it’s usually to go someplace where the electronic cookie monster is less active, or at least where the barriers to get online are higher or impossible to surmount. It’s a bit of a risk, of course, clients are impatient, but it’s only for short periods … This year, 2019, thanks to some friends and neighbors, we went on a seven-day boat trip exploring the Gulf of Fethiye on the southern corner of the country’s western coast, near to where the Mediterranean meets the Aegean.

 

Fethiye, a bustling town of about 80,000, is in fact a vacation destination in Turkey, which explains why the plane from Istanbul, a massive 777, was packed to the gills. It landed in Dalaman, after which we took a bus to Fethiye to spend one night in a pleasant hotel by the sea. The next day, we met up with our friends from Geneva, a Turco-Swiss family, and headed to the pier, where the Seahorse awaited, fueled and stocked up with food and water, of course.  The boat is a gulet, a traditional two-master, whose sails, I later found out, are not really used anymore, unless there is an emergency. The boats were used for carrying freight and are therefore quite large and tend to roll easily.

The Seahorse, 100-foot “gulet”

By midday on the 3rd ,  the seven expected families were now all on board, the bags were stashed in the cabins (each with a small bathroom), which were fairly hot and musty. No surprise, since the temperature outside was about 37 °C. They would be air-conditioned twice or three times a day to avoid wasting generator fuel, I guess. As it turned out, hardly anyone slept in the cabins anyway, since the weather was dry throughout…. The teenagers on board rapidly occupied the sea of mattresses over the wheelhouse, which gave a spectacular view of the night skies. Others found space over the cabin section under a canvas an acre in size that kept all protected from the imperious sun. I staked a claim on the generous divan aft, which gave a glimpse of the sky and left enough space for my legs…

In addition to the twenty-one passengers, there were six crew members. The captain and owner of the ship is Mehmet Avcu, a wiry fellow with a deep knowledge and love of the sea and the local history.  A 20-plus year stint with the Turkish Navy left him with a slightly commandeering tone, but whenever we had a question about strange creatures or local lore, we could just pick his brain. He was the boss on board, as tradition has it, and his word was gospel. He not only steered the ship to the right places and kept operations running smoothly, but also turned into a veritable encyclopedia of information about marine life and local history. Spotting that some of us were also interested in the region, he didn’t hesitate to take us on tours onto the land. One day it was an island with a few Byzantine ruins and a few of goats, another time it was to visit a farming settlement on a spit of land sparsely covered with olive trees, Turkish pines, carob trees… .

Kizil Island in the Gulf
Sea and sky in the early morning

We set off. The sea was slightly choppy for the first hour or so, giving all a chance to test their seaworthiness. We soon found a quiet space at the foot of a craggy mountain – all mountains are craggy here – in a pleasant cove, where lunch was served on the deck aft: plates of different salads and vegetables, broccoli in a lemony sauce, a dish of charred eggplant, rice pilaf, a mixed salad, and purslane simply dressed with yogurt (a ubiquitous sauce in Turkish cuisine, it is a little richer than many yogurts available in Europe). The salt and pepper on the table was augmented by a jar of pul biber, crushed red peppers, and a bottle of nar ekşisi, a sticky, sour, fruity balsamico made of pomegranates.

As for activities, well…. swimming, snorkeling, and, for a surcharge, diving with aqualungs. The younger ones quickly discovered the thrill of flying off the taffrail, while the adults usually used the starboard ladder to get down to the sea, which was, as usual, blue and clear, and very warm. Two of the teenagers opted for genuine diving. I chose to snorkel with my 15-year-old daughter, who received her real salt-water baptism in these glorious waters.

A few hours after lunch, we raised the anchor and moved off to another cove for dinner (always around 8 pm) and to spend the night. A few more dives into the dark and inviting waters closed off that first day. Quickly, almost surreptitiously, all made their respective beds and went to sleep. The sea was mirror calm, but with a gentle swell that rocked boat from side to side. It was like being in a cradle again. Other boats could be seen (as every night thereafter) in the night, their position lights vying for attention with the stars, those points of safety that have shepherded mariners across the Seven Seas for eons. At some point in the night, the cicadas went to sleep, apparently all at once.

This established the pattern of the next six days. Three opulent meals shared at the large table punctuated the flow of time. Breakfast with cheeses, jams, fruit, and eggs sometimes hard-boiled, sometimes scrambled or fried; lunch with an array of cold dishes, rice, stews; dinner which sometimes included charcoal-broiled fish or meat done on a curious grill hanging off the starboard rail near the bow. And always accompanied by the delicious Turkish breads also made freshly onboard. One night, after a few glasses of raki loosened the limbs and spirits, there was some singing (Turkish love songs, an old Viking song in Swedish, …) followed by dancing on the forever gently swaying deck.

Time on the Seahorse flowed quietly along, with endless hours chatting, staring out to sea, reading, playing cards or backgammon, and naturally swimming.  The use of goggles to swim made the activity far more interesting than the usual lengths in a pool. The rocky seabed made for particularly clear water, through which one could see small colonies of long-spine sea urchins and strange sea cucumbers resembling bits of rubber hose. We spotted a few small rays, otherwise  there were just schools of minnow-like  fish, who would scamper away when we came near them, glittering in the sun — though one passenger did try angling, without success — but did bring back garbage that others had decided to dump into the sea, plastic bags, empty cans, metal caps, and bits of rope.

The view from Gelimer Island

 

Karacaroen Island….

Every now and then we’d leave our floating home to rejoin the community of landlubbers. One time it was to the diminutive Karacaoren island to stagger through Byzantine ruins and untamed brush in 40-degree heat. The next expedition was to Gemiler Island to explore more Byzantine church ruins and watch the sun go down in a spectacular canvas of warm colors.  One fellow who allegedly walked these rocky, dusty, rugged slopes was none other than St. Nicholas of Myra, the gentleman who later became Santa Claus. While that does sound a little stretched, one does wonder how in earth people back in the 6th or 7th centuries built these fairly large structures, or the spectacular covered staircase that leads up to the highest church?

It was not all Byzantine. Göbün, on the northwestern entrance of the gulf, features some Lycian graves that were up on a cliff side (unreachable in the burning sun) and the remains of a Roman bath now half submerged. The narrow  strip of land is inhabited by farmers in jerry-rigged dwellings. According to Mehmet, they are more or less squatting the land and arguing with the government for official rights to it.

On a more contemporary note: We also stopped at the port of Göcek, a favorite hub of yachtsmen apparently, whose presence spawned numerous chic shops and restaurants mostly with inflated prices. At the entrance of the bay, a long, stern-grey, ship-sized yacht, the 126-meter Flying Fox, allegedly belonging to Jeff Bezos. No one was quite sure. There was some buzz on board about that.

Göcek port

 

Tree-hugging, crafty style…

All in all, it was a beautiful trip. In retrospect, the coves and inlets, bays and beaches flow into one another in memory. The conversations were fun, sometimes rich. I scanned some of the books fellow passengers were reading and found one crew member reading a work by Tolstoy, the title was a question, so it may have been the essay “What Is Art?”. On the crew’s kitchen table lay a book on Latin America. Another was reading Bulgakov’s Master and Margerita.  In fact, I was told that Russian literature is popular in Turkey… By the time we returned to Fethiye on Friday, we had all made friends, created a WhatsApp group, and sworn contact with one another.  Stepping onto the hard pier was not all that easy. The sun, now untampered by the sea breeze, hammered down, and the speed of the small town For days, our blood had been rocked by the sea, and, as if by dint of resonance, our bodies continued to feel the motion for days.