Coping with Coronavirus

It seems odd that in the war against what the President calls the “invisible enemy,” the coronavirus, we – as a nation – are being asked to come together by staying apart. It is understandable, but peculiar nevertheless. From what is reported, that is what we are doing, coming together with recognition that we all are faced with a serious threat by this insidious foe. Most of us are convinced of that, at any rate.

Someone on Facebook suggested that “social distancing” is really not the proper term. “Physical distancing” is the more appropriate label, the Facebooker suggests. That makes sense. Physical distancing, self-isolation, limiting gatherings of no more than three, or ten, or whatever number you choose – those are physical acts. The “social” part is, actually, our coming together in cyberspace, online, in chat rooms, instant messaging, or video conferences by way of Facetime, Zoom, WebX or any other group conferencing app.

Online video get-togethers are not new, of course. Businesses, large and small, have been making use of them for years in our techno-savvy age. But video conferencing seems to have taken on new role as we battle the virus. Those of us who are old enough can remember the early telephone party-lines of our youth, when several people could talk to each other at once courtesy of Ma Bell. Of course, that was not always a convenient thing. Video conferencing is becoming a much more popular “party-line” as we remain apart together. Before the coronavirus became a thing, I met with a half dozen neighborhood guys for coffee at a local restaurant early every Thursday morning. Yes, we gossip. Retirement is good for that. But I digress. We now meet online, armed with a cup o’ joe from our own kitchens. It’s not quite the same, but it will do for now.

The point is, we all are doing what we always do – find ways to cope in times of distress. We are coping in countless different ways, from the homebound seamstresses to the company that makes underwear now producing protective face masks, to the thousands of retired medical professionals who have voluntarily gone back to work to care for the virus infected. They have literally jumped into the frontline trenches of this war. Some restaurants, whose business has been thunderstruck by the pandemic, still turn out meals for curbside service, or to provide sustance to children in need. In Chicago, a company called Closed Loop Farms has turned on a dime to meet the needs of people in these times. The company, which normally supplies the Windy City’s top rated restaurants with mircogreens, now runs what WLS-TV reports is “a virtual farmers market from its website.” They are delivering products to people who are self-isolating. The company’s founder tells WLS, “”It kind of represented an opportunity really just to be able to provide a useful service to people at a time that people are staying at home.”

Some have wondered if the rallying together as a nation is the same as it was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. It is a rally, to be sure. But there is a difference. After 9/11, we were united by outrage. We had been attacked by terrorists, a tangible entity that we could grasp and at whom we could vent anger and vengence. With the coronavirus, we are united more by fear. This enemy, is indeed, invisible, sneaky, pervasive and, so far, unrelenting. It is hard to become angry at a virus. Being afraid of it? That’s easy. That’s what most of us have in common now.

It is okay to be afraid. However, fear need not be what rules us now. Courage is. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, during one of his coronavirus briefings, quoted President Franklin Roosvelt who said, “Courage is not the the absense of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” Courage is more important. Coming together, even if it means staying apart, is more important.

The journalist and author, Maria Shriver, who is a colleague of mine from days gone by, writes a wonderfully thoughtful blog called Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper. She, too, has given serious thought to this perculiar time of our lives. Maria writes, “We each have our own fears and anxieties right now. We each have our own unknowns and uncertainties.” She has hers. Your have yours. I have mine. But Maria strikes just the right note. Age wise, she classifies herself, as do I, as one of “vulnerable ones” in the age of COVID-19. She says that means we are also among the “experienced ones.”

“I tell my kids,” Maria continues, “that most people my age have been through some stuff and seen some stuff. We have lived through enough hard times to be able to reassure them that there will be light at the end of this tunnel.” I like to think that light is the luminence of the collective courage we all have together.

The Covid War Within

There is a war raging within many of us. We are facing a formidable and, yes, invisible foe – the Coronavirus. Not only is this enemy redoubtable, it is cunning and crafty. To help us understand the virus, Scientific American Magazine’s July issue takes a crack at laying it all out with impressive illustrations and explanations.

This is not light reading, however. The medical jargon takes some study. You’ll have to navigate such terms such as endoplasmic reticulum, macrophage, glycan, and ribosome. The diagrams, on the the other hand are very clear. The magazine gives credit to its senior graphics editor, Jen Christiansen for that.

To me, Christiansen’s layout is akin to a battle map of a war taking place at a tiny, microscopic level. For example, picture the coronavirus as an invading army. Battalions of that army could be the virus particles called SARS-CoV-2. Those particles are armed with spear-like weapons, called spike proteins. Now, these are airborne battalions floating among us like cloaked Klingon warships. We can’t see them. But they see us and when they find an opening…our nose or mouth…they attack!

The invasion thus begins. The battalions close in on the positions that populate our lungs. As they do, the enemy looks for weak spots in our defensive line. Those weak spots are enzymes known as ACE2 receptors, which normally are supposed to help regulate our blood pressure. But, now, they seem like spies for the invading army. They allow the battalions to use their spears, their spike proteins, to latch onto and penetrate our positions, the cells of our lungs.

Here’s where the enemy gets very sneaky. The spear-like spikes pull the membranes of the virus particle and the lung cell together, like pirates once did when they attacked other ships on the high seas. In doing so, the spears tear a hole in our defensive line. Enemy soldiers, RNA molecules, pour into our territory. The battle for our lungs is on!

These enemy soldiers are like highly trained special forces units. They would be called Spetsnaz if they were Russian. Once they are inside our defensive perimeter, they really go to work. Equipped with sophisticated technology, the “Spetsnaz” RNA troops infiltrate what essentially are our cellular supply lines called ribosomes. Simply put, ribosomes make protein, which is crucial for cells to function.

How this infiltration mission is carried out would make the guy who invented James Bond’s weapons green with envy. The special forces RNA molecules distribute unique genes among the ribosomes. This is chemical warfare at the quantum level. The ribosomes are fooled into thinking the genes are friendly proteins, which they certainly are not. Like double-agents in a sophisticated spy network, these enemy provocateurs masquerading as squads of protein secretly begin to build storage sacs called vesicles.

Now the mission turns deeply sinister. The enemy’s special forces units are also equipped with copy machines. The RNA troops makes copies of themselves inside those vesicles. Lots of copies. This part of the enemy’s arsenal is so clever, some of the specialized soldiers have the job of proof-reading, looking out for mutations in the copies and make sure genetics mistakes are destroyed. Some of those enemy copies are tasked with creating more weapons such as the spike proteins. Other copies are loaded into troop carriers. In the macro-world a troop carrier might called a “deuce and a half,” or a two and a half ton truck. Down here in the quantum world, those carriers are more vesicles. Their mission is to spread the coronavirus to other cells or to be exhaled into the air to become new invisible Klingon warships for more unsuspecting human victims. Those are the enemy troops for which all those masks we are supposed to wear are made.

While this invasion its underway, our immune systems are desperately trying to defeat the enemy. Invasion in this scenario is infection. When friendly immune system command centers detect an infection, messengers are sent out, Paul Revere-like, riding so-called interferon proteins to warn other cells that an attack is underway. Friendly troop-cells leap into action reminiscent of a what the military calls as QRF, or a Quick Reaction Force. Molecules are created to stop the virus. Other cells, such as macrophages, are called into play. The macrophages act like M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks to roll over and crush or engulf the enemy virus particles.

But the enemy is wily. Some of the virus proteins seem to have just one job – block those warning message from even getting out. The enemy also uses camouflage to hide his intent. Those spear-like spikes can be concealed with sugar molecules, apparently making them seem way sweeter than they are. They also can swing and sway, blocking friendly antibodies like a hockey goalie, preventing them from counter attacking the virus.

Up here in the macro-world, scientists and medical experts are scrambling to come up with new weapons to defeat the coronavirus. They are testing drugs that might prevent the virus from entering a cell in the first place. Other drugs might interfere with enemy’s cell copying machine, or shut down the virus all together. At least six different vaccine strategies are also being tested, according to Scientific American.

Until proven anti-covid drugs and vaccines are developed, however, the war within continues and the battle ground grows larger every day.

Words Matter

In the stressed-out, overheated vortex we are experiencing, ideas, opinions, real pain, anguish and meanings are often “lost or misconstrued,” as Paul Simon sang. Incendiary rhetoric serves to inflame thought and decompose understanding. The father and founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, put it thusly: “There is a truth and beauty in rhetoric, but it oftener serves ill turns than good ones.”

One phrase emerging from the maelstrom now is “defund the police.” Some people mean that literally. Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council are pushing to dismantle the city’s police department. Minneapolis, of course, is where George Floyd died under the knee of a policeman, triggering the firestorm of protest from coast to coast. Announcing their intent, the council members used rhetoric that is impressive for its prose, but short on its meaning. By “ending the Minneapolis Police Department” they planned to create “a new transformative model for cultivating safety in our city.”

The council members, to their credit, admit they don’t know how that is possible. “We recognize that we don’t have all the answers about what a police-free future looks like,” they said. But the words “defund” or “dismantle,” when it comes to police, inflame the passions of people on both sides of the equation. What many supporters of defunding police really mean is reforming police. They visualize a realignment of law enforcement funds for such community programs as education, health care, and social services, relieving cops from the often awful responsibilities of resolving family disputes or the time-consuming task of finding shelter for homeless people.

In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, Georgetown Law School professor, Christy Lopez, co-director of the school’s Innovative Policing Program, says ‘defunding the police is not as scary as it sounds.” Maybe not, but to a lot of people, “defunding the police” sounds very scary. And here is where William Penn’s warning about rhetoric serving “ill turns” comes to the fore. The phrase “defund the police,” has quickly become a political weapon. Democrats, especially those who are up for reelection this year, are looking for cover from the phrase. Joe Biden supports change in policing, but he does not believe police should be defunded, according to his campaign spokesman.

Republicans, meanwhile, are using the phrase to bludgeon Democrats. According to the online news service HuffPost, President Trump’s communications director engaged in some heated rhetoric himself. He told reporters Biden “is complicit” in the super-charged debate. “Biden does not have the strength to stand up to extremists now calling the shots in his party,” he reportedly said, claiming that the former Vice President would “contribute to the chaos” in America.

Some people also see red when they hear the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” To them, it is rhetoric that assaults white culture. Others, however, argue that perhaps those angry people would understand the phrase better if they added the word “too” at the end of it. Black Lives Matter, Too. The phrase, they say, does not mean that white lives don’t matter. It is a question of equality. We all matter. One protestor heatedly put it this way. “They are lucky,” she said, “that black people are looking for equality and not revenge.”

One more thought about rhetoric and I leave it to President Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “Rhetoric is a poor substitute for action, and we have trusted only to rhetoric. If we are really to be a great nation, we must not merely talk; we must act big.”

Forward to the Past

Most of us, it is fair to say, are horrified by what is happening to our country. The violence, the racism, the hatred, the lack of effective leadership have created an uproar that is consuming our daily lives. For many, it is extraordinarily upsetting. I heard a desperate mother cry out the other day. “How can I, as a white woman, begin to understand?” she said through her tears. “I can’t. Help me understand! How can I teach my children?”

That disorder, that desperation, is especially overwhelming for those who are too young to remember…this has all happened before. It is as though we are moving forward to the past.

We Boomers have been through this. We are the more than 78 million babies conceived and born in the frenzy of victory over a war that spanned the world. We grew up to become young adults who rebelled against government over-reach, police violence, war and racism. Sound familiar?

We were known as the Counter Culture, the culture of sex, drugs and rock and roll. But we had high ideals and believed we could change the world. We marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We were Freedom Riders who rode buses into the deep south to challenge segregation. We protested for civil rights and against what we believed was an unjust war in Vietnam. Sadly, we treated military veterans returning home from that war horribly. But full of self-rightgeousness, we went on protesting, battling police in places like the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

We, too, have felt the sting of police clubs and choked on acrid tear gas. 1968 was a watershed year for Baby Boomers. Civil unrest and riots broke out in more than 100 American cities that year. Some of us were killed in places like Kent State University where National Guardsmen opened fire on student demonstrators in 1970. Four of them died.

The despair felt by the “Peace and Love Generation” (that’s also what we Boomers were sometimes ironically called) spawned agonizing lyrics in music of the day. Barry McGuire released a mournful song in 1965 called “The Eve of Destruction.” This is one of the verses.

Yeah, my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’,
I’m sittin’ here, just contemplatin’,
I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation,
Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation,
And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is disintegratin’,
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

But the nation was not destroyed. We made it through those turbulent times. Now, more than half a century later, here we are again. We are horrified, yes. But more than that, we are dismayed. We are appalled that after all this time, the nation seems to have learned nothing.

8 Minutes

“Just imagine,” I heard a lady say the other day in a spate of soul-searching. “Just imagine what we can do for each other in eight minutes. Just imagine all the good we can do.” The eight minutes she spoke about, of course, were the length of time George Floyd lay face down on a Minneapolis street with a police officer’s knee pressing firmly on his neck. They were the eight minutes it took for Mr. Floyd to die.

Those eight minutes were a moment in time that sparked an eruption of anger and anguish, of violence and vitriol in cities and towns across the country. That moment in time was the flash point of the upheaval. It was the trigger, but it was not the cause.

The cause is decades of frustration and torment experienced by people of color in this country. It is a prevailing, daily sense of pernicious but often blatant racism many black Americans say white people, even the most empathetic, can never fully appreciate.

That the wrath felt by so many turned to violence is not really surprising. There is evidence that some of the rebellion is being incited by outside agitators, provacateurs, always waiting for an opportunity to create disorder and conflict. That does not, in any way, excuse the vandalism, looting and showdowns with the law and it certainly does not help the cause of those appealing for, praying for, dreaming of change, especially when the President of the United States calls them “thugs.”

It is inexcusable that what started out as peaceful protest became violent but it is, in some ways, understandable. To be blunt, black Americans are tired of being told to be patient. Among those who condemn the violence point to the Reverand Martin Luther King, Jr. Look at all that the civil rights leader accomplished, they say. Look at what he was able to do without violence. It is not lost on us that it was an act of violence that brought him down.

Dr. King did indeed accomplish much through acts of nonviolence and civil disobedience. Much of what King advocated was included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. He got laws changed. But he could not change attitudes in the minds of many. More than half a century later black parents say they still warn their children every day to be careful about what they say or do in public. Simply the color of their skin makes them as much a target in the twenty-first century as it did in the twentieth.

Black Americans say that feelings of trepidation are always there, just below the surface, in their daily lives. It is as if racism is some ethereal thing, lurking like a shadowy, evil spirit that all too often manifests itself as an ugly, overt act of hatred. In South Africa, where I covered the unrest in the late 1980’s leading to the downfall of apartheid, racism was more clearly defined. It was the law of the land back then. Racism was codified. It was spelled out, if you will excuse, in black and white. There was no question about who was who and where one stood in society due to skin color.

In this country, racism is more insidious. The laws say one thing. The reality is often quite another. It is a message black Americans for so long have been trying to get across. But, they say, no one is listening. They say one can hear them. That’s why the sign held up by a protester in one besieged city was so telling. It read, “Can you hear us now?”

The End of Days?

OK. Admittedly, the headline on this blog is over the top. But, lately, you could be forgiven for wondering if these are the end of days. Likely, they are not…in the usual sense of the phrase, that is. But, in the sense that this pandemic might…just might…be beginning to turn a corner, that the end of those days are nigh? Well, maybe. And maybe not.

The upside of maybe comes with glimmers of hope parts of the country are seeing in their desperate eagerness to return to some notion of normal. The “curve is flattening” over here, we are told. The rate of infection seems to be “plateauing” over there, we are told. The incidence of death, well, that’s another thing. The pace of fatal COVID-19 cases lags behind the millions worldwide who have become infected. The Grim Reaper is a follower in this pandemic, not a leader.

So, with apologies to Shakespeare, to open or not to open – that is the question now. A few governors and other governmental leaders, under pressure from people terrified about falling into financial ruin, are cracking open their closed states hoping to jump start their economic engines, hoping to get businesses up and running and people back to work. Many medical experts and countless others fear that what is being cracked open is a Pandora’s box. A rush to normalcy, they worry, only means falling head-long back into the maw of the coronavirus.

That ‘maybe not’ part also comes with an ominous new warning from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Robert Redfield tells the Washington Post that “there’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation will actually be more difficult” than the one we are currently going through. The reason, he says, is “we’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time.”

This virus is deadly and painfully difficult on several levels. First, there is the here and now; the pain, suffering, sorrow and the personal financial burdens that are growing exponentially every day. Those are nasty matters, real consequences that we must face at this moment. But we cannot afford to ignore what lies ahead. We do so at our peril.

It appears, however, that many business leaders, struggling mightily to maintain an equilibrium in this out-of-kilter time, apparently have their backs turned on danger down the road. The results of an exhaustive survey by the Institue for Public Relations (IPR) are both enlightening and worrisome.

The IPR, in partnership with Peppercomm, a communications and marketing agency, surveyed 403 communications executives and senior leaders to find out how effectively their companies are communicating and engaging the workforce during this pandemic. In the survey, 93 per cent of those communications executives say their companies are doing well with the response to COVID-19. More than half say they don’t plan to lay anyone off, but less than third have actually made that commitment. Generally, the respondents say they have experienced “positive outcomes on employee engagement, satisfaction, collaboration and trust.” But, “productivitity overall has declined.” That, perhaps, is not surprising since “more than three-quarters of employees are now working from home.”

The survey took a look at the “new normal” method of conducting business, which includes not only working from home but also increased physical distancing of employees, closing shared spaces, creating physical barriers, adding plexiglass shields, more contact-less meetings, instituting temperature checks, even banning handshakes. Only 10 per cent of the respondents have given any thought “to return-to-office preparations in the future.” Nearly three-quarters “had not discussed any changes to the physical work environment or were unsure if their organization was going to make any changes”.

These may not be the End of Days, but they are the beginning of a very long stretch of difficult and challenging time. We should all be prepared.

Hard Questions About the New Normal

ctmirror.org

We are all adding new words and phrases to our vocabularies in this time of the coronavirus. That word is one of them. Others are COVID-19, self-isolation, social distancing, flatten the curve and new normal. It is that last phrase which may have implications long after the pandemic has eased. Will this deadly virus permanently change the way we interact with each other? Or the way we conduct business? Or, ominously, the way we look at life and death?

Those are hard questions being considered on many levels even as the battle to defeat the virus rages. Talk is beginning to emerge in non-stop media coverage of COVID-19 that it could even spell the end of the common handshake. How might we greet each other from now on? Fist bumps? Elbow touches? Will we all adopt the traditional Native American greeting of simply a raised hand? Or, when all is said and done, will we forget how contagious handshakes can be and revert to the age-old habit of gripping right hands to say, It’s a pleasure to meet you?

In self-isolation, many of us are already learning new ways to communicate. Video conferencing has been a useful corporate tool for several years. But, all across the land, people who heretofore have looked at the digital age as some off-worldly creation are now becoming computer savvy. The neighborhood guys with whom I share restaurant coffee every Thursday morning now meet online, as do countless other friends and neighbors.

Rock bands and choral groups have figured out how to self-isolate and still rehearse or perform together online. Studies are underway to determine just how well businesses, big and small, are communicating, online or otherwise, in this so-called new normal.

For example, the communications firm Peppercomm (www.peppercomm.com) has partnered with the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) to study how the pandemic is impacting corporate infrastructure and business models. They surveyed 300 communications executives and senior business leaders to get a better understanding of how prepared businesses were for COVID-19 and how they are handling the impacts. According to the study, “83 per cent are ‘moderately’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about the potential impact of the virus on their companies, suggesting the virus and its effects are not going away anytime soon.”

Peppercom and IPR are continuing their study to take “a deep dive into employee communications and engagement” in this difficult period. The results of both studies might help determine whether the new normal will sustain once the virus pandemic is over. Will people who occupy the corner offices come to the conclusion that communicating remotely is really more cost effective while being equally productive? Will working from home become the standard business model? Self-isolation during this difficult time may be massively inconvenient, but it seems to be an operational “test lab” for the corporate world to determine how to best conduct business moving forward.

Moving forward means restarting the country at some point. While there currently is wide disagreement among government and medical leaders on when that restart should occur, nearly everyone agrees it will have to happen eventually. An article in the New York Times magazine focusing on moral choices in this crisis includes a headline asking, perhaps, the most sobering question of all – “Restarting America Means People Will Die. So When Do We Do It?”

The article features a transcript of five experts discussing that very serious matter in a video conference. As they pondered the impossibly difficult alternatives for restarting America, Peter Singer, Princeton University bioethics professor, offered a breath-taking observation. He was talking in the “context of the well-being of the community as a whole.” It’s a linguistic context that presupposes that the economy and, therefore, the future of the country is being severely damaged, perhaps irreparably.

“I think the assumption,” Singer said, “that we have to do everything to reduce the number of deaths is not really the right assumption.” He wonders about trading off loss of life against loss of quality of life. Singer acknowledges what many say is the stark reality. “We can’t really keep everything locked down until there won’t be anymore deaths.” He concludes the supposition thusly: “How do we assess the overall cost to everybody in terms of loss of quality of life, loss of well-being, as well as the fact that lives are being lost?”

Is this where Darwin comes in? Hard questions hardly begin to describe what lies before us.

Coping with Coronavirus

It seems odd that in the war against what the President calls the “invisible enemy,” the coronavirus, we – as a nation – are being asked to come together by staying apart. It is understandable, but peculiar nevertheless. From what is reported, that is what we are doing, coming together with recognition that we all are faced with a serious threat by this insidious foe. Most of us are convinced of that, at any rate.

Someone on Facebook suggested that “social distancing” is really not the proper term. “Physical distancing” is the more appropriate label, the Facebooker suggests. That makes sense. Physical distancing, self-isolation, limiting gatherings of no more than three, or ten, or whatever number you choose – those are physical acts. The “social” part is, actually, our coming together in cyberspace, online, in chat rooms, instant messaging, or video conferences by way of Facetime, Zoom, WebX or any other group conferencing app.

Online video get-togethers are not new, of course. Businesses, large and small, have been making use of them for years in our techno-savvy age. But video conferencing seems to have taken on new role as we battle the virus. Those of us who are old enough can remember the early telephone party-lines of our youth, when several people could talk to each other at once courtesy of Ma Bell. Of course, that was not always a convenient thing. Video conferencing is becoming a much more popular “party-line” as we remain apart together. Before the coronavirus became a thing, I met with a half dozen neighborhood guys for coffee at a local restaurant early every Thursday morning. Yes, we gossip. Retirement is good for that. But I digress. We now meet online, armed with a cup o’ joe from our own kitchens. It’s not quite the same, but it will do for now.

The point is, we all are doing what we always do – find ways to cope in times of distress. We are coping in countless different ways, from the homebound seamstresses to the company that makes underwear now producing protective face masks, to the thousands of retired medical professionals who have voluntarily gone back to work to care for the virus infected. They have literally jumped into the frontline trenches of this war. Some restaurants, whose business has been thunderstruck by the pandemic, still turn out meals for curbside service, or to provide sustance to children in need. In Chicago, a company called Closed Loop Farms has turned on a dime to meet the needs of people in these times. The company, which normally supplies the Windy City’s top rated restaurants with mircogreens, now runs what WLS-TV reports is “a virtual farmers market from its website.” They are delivering products to people who are self-isolating. The company’s founder tells WLS, “”It kind of represented an opportunity really just to be able to provide a useful service to people at a time that people are staying at home.”

Some have wondered if the rallying together as a nation is the same as it was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. It is a rally, to be sure. But there is a difference. After 9/11, we were united by outrage. We had been attacked by terrorists, a tangible entity that we could grasp and at whom we could vent anger and vengence. With the coronavirus, we are united more by fear. This enemy, is indeed, invisible, sneaky, pervasive and, so far, unrelenting. It is hard to become angry at a virus. Being afraid of it? That’s easy. That’s what most of us have in common now.

It is okay to be afraid. However, fear need not be what rules us now. Courage is. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, during one of his coronavirus briefings, quoted President Franklin Roosvelt who said, “Courage is not the the absense of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” Courage is more important. Coming together, even if it means staying apart, is more important.

The journalist and author, Maria Shriver, who is a colleague of mine from days gone by, writes a wonderfully thoughtful blog called Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper. She, too, has given serious thought to this perculiar time of our lives. Maria writes, “We each have our own fears and anxieties right now. We each have our own unknowns and uncertainties.” She has hers. Your have yours. I have mine. But Maria strikes just the right note. Age wise, she classifies herself, as do I, as one of “vulnerable ones” in the age of COVID-19. She says that means we are also among the “experienced ones.”

“I tell my kids,” Maria continues, “that most people my age have been through some stuff and seen some stuff. We have lived through enough hard times to be able to reassure them that there will be light at the end of this tunnel.” I like to think that light is the luminence of the collective courage we all have together.

The Birth of a Band

It all started with the rhythm of the beat. For me, anyway. All my life, when listening to music, I was attracted to what musicians call the bottom. The beat. The bass. It was the rhythm, not the ryhme, that got to me. Ask me the lyrics of a particular song? Unless it was something like White Christmas, or the Star Spangled Banner, forget about it. And the melody? Well, the melodies were fine and I could hear them inside my head. Some I could hum. Barely. But the beat? Oh yes, I could tell you the beat. I could feel it.

It was only when I entered fourth grade that I began to understand what I could feel. I learned how the beat was formed, or with apologies to Sonny and Cher, how the beat goes on. I learned what 4/4 time meant. Also, 3/4 time, 6/8 time and the others. It was in fourth grade that I started taking drum lessons. I remember my father making for me a drum practice pad. It consisted of three small blocks of wood, each maybe eight inches square, an inch thick and attached to form a triangle. The hypotanuse was tilted like a snare drum is often tilted and covered with a rubber pad. I can clearly see it. It was red.

Although I could instinctly feel the beat, it was on that rubber pad that I learned how to keep the beat. At first, it was harder than I thought. It took more coordination than I realized. I was introduced to very strange sounding terms like paradiddle and flamadiddle. I learned how drum rolls could be very loose or very tight. Soon, not only could I feel the beat, it was becoming clear how and why.

We had a small band in elementary school. We sounded like what you would expect ten and eleven year old kids just starting out with musical instruments to sound. But, let’s put it this way; we were earnest.

I mean, look at the smiles on those faces! In case you are curious, that’s me, fifth from the left holding the drumsticks standing next to the cub scout.

In junior high school, our band was a little bigger and a little better. One would hope! By then I had worked my way though snare drums and bass drums and was learning how to play timpani drums. Now we’re talking. These were drums that not only could carry a beat, they could produce different notes on a scale! One distinct memory comes to mind about those days. Our band was rehearsing for our annual spring concert. Parents attended, parents of classmates attended, teachers attended. This was a big deal. At the time, I was also a Boy Scout. A week before the concert, our scout troop went on a weekend campout. As young boys are prone to do, I was fooling around, pretending to be a pole vaulter using a long stick to lift myself into the air and fall back to the ground. On about the third launch, I landed wrong. Very wrong. I broke my right wrist. My timpani playing right wrist!

The injury itself was not that bad. It was a small break. But, it necessitated wearing a cast on my right arm from my hand to my elbow. Disaster! I was supposed to play a timpani solo in that spring concert. Oh, woe! Our band director said that some other band member would have to do it. No sir, I was determined. I will play it, cast and all. I would just make it work. I did and made it through the solo. The pain was tolerable. Maybe even more than tolerable. I think I had only one tear in my eye. Maybe two.

It was in high school that playing drums got really serious. Our band director, George Bell, was a genius. He was also a very tough task master. He expected perfection from all of us and was never shy about letting us know when we failed to measure up. We loved Mr. Bell. Ask most any band member today and they will tell you about the fond memories they have of the late George Bell. He taught us more than music. He taught us about honor, integrity and commitment. Under his direction, our high school band won several statewide awards. We were also invited to be the main halftime entertainment for the Thanksgiving Day, nationally televised football games between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears. Twice! This is us in 1962.

By the time I became a senior in high school, I had been playing drums for nine years. You’d think that I was on to something, that maybe a career in music might be in the cards. You’d be wrong. It was traditional for graduating senior band members at our school to be featured in our final concert appearance on commencement day. When that concert was over, I put my drumsticks down and never picked them up again.

Don’t ask me why. I don’t have a good answer for you. I really enjoyed the experience, so why I turned my back on drums has always been something of a mystery to me. It never really occured to me to continue drumming in college. At any rate, my focus turned to other matters, especially a career in broadcasting,

That career came to a successful conclusion nearly five decades later when I retired from ABC News in 2012. In all that time, even without the drums, I never lost the feel of the beat. So, in retirement, I decided it was time to keep the beat again. But this time, it is the other half of the bottom, the bass. I traded my methaphoric microphone for a real bass guitar and started taking lessons.

As a drummer, it was never really necessary to learn theories of music. We drummers never really had to worry about chords or keys or harmonies. It was just the beat, man. But learning to play bass is a whole different ball game. Now, I had to learn strange things like the Circle of Fifths or the Cycle of Fourths. The cool thing about bass is that now I’m playing different notes while still keeping the beat. We bass players like to call that “the groove.” OK, maybe that’s a little borderline pretentious. But the point is, the bass and the beat are what create the bottom, the sound that fills voids that melodies and lyrics can’t reach.

As a result, after more than 55 years I am in a band again. Here we are…

Because we are all “of a certain age,” except for the young lady, we call ourselves 40 Years Too Late, which kind of says it all. I met Rob Liszt and John Melton, the two fellows on the right, during a jam session at the music shop where I had been taking lessons. These guys sounded great, but I thought they needed…well, you know…bottom. Graciously, they asked me to join them. After playing together for a few months, we added the very talented Crystal Estey, who has a voice like an angel. Then we added Ken Cherry, the fellow in the blue shirt, as our drummer…and voila, we have a band! Rob as lead singer and rhythm guitar, John on lead guitar, Crystal as vocalist and guitar, Ken as drummer and yours truly on bass. My, son Blair recently tweeted, “No one, but no one, rocks retirement like my Dad.” Maybe, but it is great fun.

I guess this trip down memory lane is a way to announce that 40 Years Too Late has booked its first two gigs, one at a local VFW post later this month and one at a local restaurant next month. The beat, indeed, does go on.

Why I Write

“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” – Orson Scott Card – Novelist and Essayist

The story of a lovestruck Civil War general came at me out of the pages of a book like a well aimed missile. I wouldn’t have learned of the story had it not been for a chance meeting with a remarkable man. His name is Edwin Bearrs. Mr. Bearss is considered America’s premier battlefield historian, especially about the battlefields of the Civil War. He is the historian emeritus of the National Park Service. He is also a prolific writer being the author of 13 books.

I met Edwin on a ferry boat carrying visitors to Fort Sumter where I serve as a docent for the Park Service. It was because of that volunteer position that I had a delightful conversation with him, trying to soak in as much of his knowledge about the War Between the States as I could.

The next day I went out and bought one of his ‘baker’s dozen’ collection of books. It is called Fields of Honor. It is an exhaustingly detailed examination of 14 most significant battles of that war. The Battle of Gettysburg is one of them. It was in that chapter that I first learned of Major General John Fulton Reynolds. The General, a highly respected Union officer, was shot and killed during the first hours of that fight. It turns out, Reynolds had been having a secret love affair with a woman sixteen years his junior.

Fields of Honor is 448 pages long. Bearss devoted only about two paragraphs to the relationship between Reynolds and Catherine ‘Kate’ Hewitt. But his clean, crisp style of writing, to my mind, hinted at a much deeper saga about two lovers coming together in the throes of a most terrible war tearing a country apart. It was a story I saw and wanted to write.

Edwin’s book led me to other reference material about Reynolds, Kate Hewitt and the war, its politics, its misery, its frustrations. A book of my own began to form. I visualized a novel of historical-fiction, based on the true events involving Reynolds and Hewitt. The research took me to Gettysburg where I stood on the spot where General Reynolds was gunned down by a Confederate soldier. It took me to the religious center in Emmitsburg, Maryland where Kate became a nun. The story was practically writing itself.

The result is ‘The General & The Lady: A True Story of Civil Love and War,’ the first book I have had accepted for publication. (I self-published an earlier book called ‘Naked Ambition,’ a murder mystery aboard a cruise ship. It is available at Amazon.com, if you will pardon the little sales pitch.) The manuscript for The General & The Lady is undergoing the editorial review and book design phases at Page Publishing. We hope to have it ready for distribution by spring of 2020. You can read more about the story behind the story elsewhere on this website (jimhickey46.com)

Writing, it has been said, is a lonely task. Perhaps. But it is challenging, exhilarating and nerve wracking and pleasurable all at the same time. The beginning of this edition of the ‘On Cutting Edge’ quotes author Orson Scott Card. Another best selling writer, Wally Lamb, has also wise words about the art of writing. “If the book is true,” he said, “it will find an audience that is meant to read it.

The General & The Lady is a true story. I hope it finds its audience.