Having been an expert in your field for decades doesn’t make you adept at the technology to teach online. Broadly speaking, with exceptions of course, those at highest risk from coronavirus by age are the ones least accustomed to electronic communications. Daughters and sons home from school help their faculty parents figure out how to teach in the era of social distancing.
The rest of us have been learning new technologies, too. My sympathies to everyone working from home for the first time, expected to keep up a normal pace of productivity in these abnormal times.
Remote communications also challenge community volunteers, support groups, religious leaders and worshipers, teachers of guitar and yoga. Zoom and its online cousins are expanding my skill set. We can’t visit museums or travel just now, but each day brings unsolicited opportunities to learn and explore.
I didn’t live in Wisconsin yet when then-Senator Gaylord Nelson came up with the suggestion for the first Earth Day, which took place fifty years ago this Wednesday (April 22). Even after I moved here and took frequent walks in Governor Nelson State Park, it took a while to make the connection.
Two societal changes of the late 1960s gave Nelson the idea. One was increasing environmental awareness, heightened by the Cuyahoga River fire and the Santa Barbara oil spill. The other was student anti-war protests, which showed the power of demonstrations to influence public policy.
I walked at Governor Nelson a couple of weeks ago, before our state parks had to close because crowding undercut social distancing. We can’t take our out-of-doors for granted. Hope you can find a place with six-foot-wide trails to pass other walkers safely, where you can still enjoy the spring and celebrate half a century of Earth Day.
In December 1973, amid gasoline shortages and global recession, Wisconsin Congressman Harold Froelich warned, “The U.S. may face a shortage of toilet paper within a few months. . . . It is a problem that will potentially touch every American.” After Tonight Show host Johnny Carson mentioned it in a joke, panicked shoppers stocked up. The shelves stood empty for weeks.
Of course people haven’t always had TP. They used whatever was at hand: leaves, moss, rags. Later pages from old newspapers, the Sears Roebuck catalog, or the Old Farmer’s Almanac served the purpose. Mass production of a medicated product began in the 1850s, and Scott introduced perforated rolls in 1890. But who wanted to buy a novelty to replace what they’d been using for free?
What made TP indispensable was indoor plumbing with flush toilets. The age-old remedies would clog the pipes.
Brian Gersten, whose 11-minute documentary The Great Toilet Paper Scare premiered at the Big Sky Film Festival in February, writes his initial goal “was simply to make a film about a bizarre and forgotten piece of history that people would ideally find funny and entertaining. I think my goal now is for people to use the film as a mirror of sorts. A fun-house mirror perhaps.”
Among the season’s many cancellations was a friend’s planned family vacation at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Before their intended departure, I misunderstood him to say they would sleep in the only surviving wigwam east of the Mississippi.
Huh? The small bark winter houses of the eastern and midwestern woodlands weren’t exactly durable. Wisconsin has several replicas. If an authentic original survived, I can’t imagine tourists being allowed to sleep there. West of the Mississippi, tepees, hogans, and pueblos were more common.
Kentucky’s mis-named Wigwam Motel* is on the National Register of Historic Places, as are its two surviving siblings in Arizona and California. They’re remnants of 1930s and ’40s pseudo-Indian kitsch, akin to cigar-store Indians and now-controversial sports team names and mascots.
Preserve traces of our imperfect past, or expunge it out of respect? Souvenir war bonnets, Confederate statues, anti-Semitism in Shakespeare, gendered adventures in Peter Pan: There’s no one easy answer. Museums, classrooms, and historical parks hold thoughtful spaces to preserve and respect. I hope the Wigwam Motel stays in business, with a conspicuous historical marker near the entrance to put the kitsch in context.
* Image: The "wigwams" look more like tepees.
Whatever we think we know about this pandemic is out of date. The number of Americans with confirmed coronavirus topped 100,000 in March. Before they showed symptoms, many of them infected others, who in turn infected more. Each confirmation might mean at least half a dozen infections not yet visible, growing exponentially.
Gaze into the night sky. Your perception of the nearest visible star is obsolete. Its light began the long journey toward Earth more than four years ago.
Isn’t much of life like that? Writers chase a publishing fad only to see it pass before their work sees print. The child I last saw two years ago is no longer the child I thought I knew. Stock bubbles crash from everyone trying to cash in on yesterday’s hot tip.
I admit to having been among the skeptics who once thought coronavirus worries overblown. The numbers were tiny compared to flu. I was wrong. My data was out of date—and always will be. Barring core beliefs and eternal truths, all we can know with any approach to certainty has already passed.
In The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov, each human on Solaria stays far from everyone else. To see or be seen in person is disgusting and obscene. Instead, attended by robots, humans “view” one another remotely through holograms.
I thought of Solaria when my branch bank closed its face-to-face drive-up window in favor of video screens and pneumatic tubes, presumably for security. I think of it now as we talk to neighbors via devices instead of walking across the lawn.
One character in The Naked Sun eventually escapes to a saner, more nurturing planet. Our escape shouldn’t require leaving Earth, but there’s another possibility. How long would it take for our psyches to adapt, elevating physical closeness from risky or imprudent to a lasting cultural taboo?
What might future novelists write about the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020? Its major effects on daily life make it ripe for historical fiction. Can you suggest a one- or two-sentence summary for a plot?
For inspiration, or to fill the time offered by cancellations and self-isolation, these five novels portray ordinary folk caught up in past epidemics:
Coronavirus is respiratory; poliovirus is intestinal, with occasional spread to bloodstream and nerves. COVID-19 is new; polio has paralyzed humans for millennia. Having written about polio history for years now, I see differences but also similarities.
Both diseases are highly infectious, caused by viruses that mutate, more susceptible to prevention than cure. Both can be spread by an infected person who shows few or no symptoms. Americans in the 1950s avoided swimming pools and movie theaters for fear of polio. Many today cancel travel and meetings in response to coronavirus.
Fads fill the vacuum when scientists say, “We don’t know yet.” To prevent the spread of polio before it was understood, communities promoted fly-swatting campaigns, sprayed zinc sulfate up children’s noses, and killed thousands of cats and dogs. Alleged protections against coronavirus include hairdryers, ultraviolet lamps, chlorine body sprays, garlic, and sesame oil. Of course none of it helps.
Less colorful but wiser: Take your tips from CDC or WHO, and remember to wash your hands.
Video: A newsreel clip from 1946 boasts of spraying everyone and everything with DDT to protect against polio.
My last evening in San Antonio, the temperature dropped to the fifties. Winter raindrops dotted my hair. I wrapped my mid-weight coat tighter as I huddled at the bus stop, impatient for the warm, dry hotel.
My fourth day home in Wisconsin, the temperature rose into the fifties. I waded through snowmelt along the paved trail by Pheasant Branch, exchanging smiles with men pushing strollers and women walking dogs, drawn outside by the promise of spring.
Winter is peak writing season, free of the temptation to garden or roam forest paths. But winter is as much about expectations as about calendar or thermometer. Context is everything.
Greens and browns bring gentle interest to San Antonio’s River Walk, where I soaked up winter sunshine last week. How could you not keep going to discover what’s around the bend?
Humans want to understand and to explore, both what’s in plain sight and what may lie ahead. Environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan say the landscapes that delight us—natural or designed—share four qualities:
Their framework fits more than landscapes. South Texas history and culture linked visits to the Alamo, the Mexican market, the presidio captain’s house, Spanish missions, and the Witte Museum (coherence), with easy access on foot or by bus (legibility), diverse sights and activities (complexity), and plenty to learn and discover (mystery).
Now I’m home, with a life that’s orderly and navigable, varied and filled with surprises. I think the Kaplans got it right.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.