Gratitude and Grievance…

How do we even begin to think about what’s going on in the world?  It feels like the Rapture. Fires (in Australia where I have family), floods (in the UK where I have a granddaughter), earthquakes (6.5 in Idaho this week where I have children and grandchildren), and pestilence – especially the pestilence – that’s driven everyone into quarantine.

This worldwide virus has changed everything about the way we live—and think about life. It’s intensified our lives, loves, and hates. It’s brought out the best in some and the worst in others. And, it’s given everyone but first responders, nurses, doctors, and other health care professionals time to think about the way they live their lives, who and what they want in those lives, and how they plan to live if they survive the Death-Star.

It’s reminded me to be grateful for the life I have and the elements that have made it so. First and foremost, I’m grateful for M, and that we and our children are healthy as we confront this plague. I’m grateful that in spite of age our immune systems are up and running not fighting some other invader like diabetes, cancer, or a weak heart. Add to that, we’re grateful to have good insurance in case something does go south. 

Every day I see pictures of first responders, exhausted doctors and nurses, refrigerated trucks used as makeshift morgues, and ambulances arriving at nursing homes and hospitals. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for the medical professionals who selflessly put their own lives at risk to care for others. And, I see that so many of the doctors leading the fight have non-Anglo, foreign sounding names – Drs Vin Gupta (UW), Ali Mokdad (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation), Nahid Bahdelia (Boston University), Kavita Patel (Johns Hopkins), Leana Wen (Health Commissioner City of Baltimore), Sylvie de Souza (Brooklyn Hospital Center), and Sanjay Gupta (Emory University). About half are foreign born but all are citizens and leaders in their field.  We are a nation of immigrants and I’m grateful to all of them for their contributions.

At a mundane level, I’m grateful for spring and the camelias blooming in our courtyard, for the afternoon sunbreaks that allow us to get out for a walk or bike ride, for Metropolitan Market and the Hodge Podge Café that let us order groceries and takeout online so we don’t have to break the social distance guidelines, for Drs. Fauci and Birx who give us daily updates and an honest evaluation of the crisis, for Governor Inslee’s courage in locking us down and pushing back when Trump says he’s only a “back up” when what we really need is a Tom Brady, for Pandora, Netflix, and Prime that give us entertainment options, for Zoom and Face Time to connect us with friends and family, for FedEx and UPS delivering to the door, and to all the neighbors we wave at but can’t talk to on our afternoon walks and rides on the Burke-Gilman Trail.

And, while I am sincerely grateful for all these things, I have two correspondingly sincere grievances. The first is that America’s deep logistical resources are in the hands of an inept, unimaginative, self-promoting president who doesn’t understand the federal system or how his remarkable power could address this “black swan” event in a positive way. 

The problem is not one he created, but he has to deal with it. It seems that after two months of dithering and posturing he’s finally grasped the gravity of the situation. The outcome is far from certain, but the path is clear. America needs a coordinated national plan to address the national emergency. Yesterday, for the first time he acknowledged it is a national emergency, but he apparently thinks dealing with 50 small fires is easier than fighting one giant fire. As a result, 50 separate states are competing for their share of personal protective equipment (PPE), hospital equipment (ventilators), and qualified personnel. Instead of coordinating production under the authority of the Defense Production Act and coordinating distribution to the states using a centralized system that prioritizes needs, bringing order where we now have chaos.

Some states like Florida, though impacted, are going about business as usual, letting individual cities address the problem. Others, like ours, are screwed down tight to limit the spread of the contagion. Meanwhile, the Contagion-in-Chief is conducting daily rallies at the White House coronavirus briefings, demanding that everyone “appreciate” his personal efforts, and pitting the states against each other for resources. He repeatedly denies the lack of PPE and ICUs but every day we hear desperate pleas from hospital administrators whose facilities are overflowing, underequipped and understaffed.

Meanwhile, two cruise ships hovering off the Florida coast have become floating charnel houses full of sick and desperate passengers no one wants onshore. It’s a Ship of Fools situation.

On the other hand, temporary field hospitals are being built in all the “hotspot” cities and a number of hotels, including the Four Seasons in New York, are opening their doors to hospital workers for free overnight stays between shifts. 

Imagine a leader offering to open hotels to hospital workers. What if Donald Trump offered the 643 rooms at the Doral and rooms at Mar a Lago, and whatever other properties he owns in Florida. And New York. And Washington. And New Jersey. Think of how Generosity could be added to Gratitude and Grievance to show that politics can be subordinates during an national crisis.

The second of my grievances is the failure of our health care system at a time of crisis. This plague only highlights the incredible – and it is incredible – small minded self-interest of those in Congress who would rather support a bloated insurance industry than protect the health of their neighbors and fellow citizens. How is it that the wealthiest country in the world can’t provide universal coverage for its citizens?  I’m trying to be grateful but it’s awful to watch Americans go without prescribed medicines or avoid an emergency room visit because of cost. If Congress can give the richest Americans a big tax cut it can surely afford to provide emergency medical care.

This is a stressful time. We all want the country to come out the other end as strong as we know it is. Nothing is perfect, especially government systems, but let’s all pull together. We can address the large systemic issues when the virus is behind us. For now, let’s be grateful for what we have, hope that a national strategy will minimize the loss of life, and maybe, just maybe, come together “to form a more perfect nation.”

My Quarantine Project…

In the days before the great pandemic, when life was simpler and we were living normally, M and I stopped to have a glass of something before dinner – often with a small dish of nuts or olives – and talk over the day. We still do but these days are not normal, but it seems especially important now to share small pleasures. It doesn’t surprise me that sales of beer, wine, and spirits have risen 300-500 percent in the last two weeks in the wake of the statewide quarantine. After you’ve binge watched Mrs. Maisel, Chernobyl, Berlin Babylon, and Jack Ryan you need a jolt of something strong.

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know I was the proud recipient of a one-year medallion from Alcoholic Anonymous (35 years ago), but like all innovative would-be alcoholics skirting the edges in these perilous times, I’m a practicing denier and have come up with a “cocktail project” to take my mind off my weakness.

Moving on… In 2007 M and I did a three-week bike tour of Vietnam, and when we reached Hanoi at the end of the trip we went to the Metropole, one of the world’s great hotels, to celebrate. There, on the bar menu, was an item that seemed irresistible – a Wasabi Martini. I hadn’t had a martini in 30 years, but after three weeks of nothing but watery Tiger and Bia Saigon it sounded irresistible? When it arrived in a frosted martini glass, the jade green liquid shimmered and when the wasabi hit my tongue it was sharp and spicy.

When we returned to Seattle, I looked for a mixologist/bartender to duplicate the Metropole version, but none came close. That Christmas, as a total surprise, M gave me the ultimate martini kit – two kinds of glasses, a cocktail shaker, strainer, two kinds of gin, dry vermouth, and a jar of pimento stuffed olives. She thought I could work on The Wasabi myself. There are recipes all over the internet and I’ve tried several, but they all fall short. When we returned to Vietnam to work, we made a pilgrimage to the Metropole, but The Wasabi was off the menu. Sometimes, it’s the occasion and setting that makes it impossible to reconstruct a special moment in time.

Last year, a talented friend, Delia Cabe, who teaches writing at Emerson College in Boston published a book called Storied Bars of New York: Where Literary Luminaries Go to Drink that more than made up for the disappointment. Her book was the perfect gift for me, a collection of stories about writers and their favorite NY bars and their signature cocktails. When the pandemic lockdown came along it gave me the idea for a “Cocktail Project.” I thought I might work my way around in Delia’s book trying out recipes until the time we’re finally released from house arrest. I may not strictly limit myself to her book, but that’s my starting point in the same way food blogger Julia Powell made a book by working her way through Julia Childs’ The Art of French Cooking. Remember the movie Julie and Julia. That’s the idea. 

In quarantine, drinking has become a cultural phenomenon that would have alarmed us just two weeks ago. We’re not becoming alcoholics, but after all the books, Netflix, Prime Video, newspapers, push ups, walks and daily “rally/task force briefings,” we need something to look forward to at the end of the day.

Two years ago, my daughter-in-law gave me this book from a famous East Village boîte in Manhattan. The name is catchy; I hope it wasn’t an early message from a higher power about the apocalypse. So be it; I’m plan to use it as a supplement Delia’s wonderful compendium of recipes and literary bar anecdotes.

For now, in these stressful times let’s just say cin cin, salud, santé, prosit, or cheers. Enjoy!!!

PS: You can follow the “Cocktail Project” on Instagram at jdbernard743

A Small Business Crisis…

Kris and Karen have an inspiring story. Coming from diverse backgrounds, they found each other, had three children – now in college, high school, and middle school – and she became a citizen. Five years ago, they opened a small café in a strip mall in Kenmore. Kris was an experienced chef with years of restaurant experience but never as an owner/operator. The café was their American dream. 

Marilynn and I were among their first customers. To my eye, as a former restaurant owner, it looked vulnerable—nicely done but probably under-financed in a location with almost no foot traffic. On that first visit, the sales rep from Caffe D’arte was training Karen in the art of espresso. We were pleasantly surprised. As a coffee snob I had doubts, but she nailed our lattes and our patronage. It became our go-to espresso stop.

Soon after, we stopped to sample Kris’ food, an eclectic mix of made-from- scratch soups, salads, Cuban pulled pork sandwiches, Vietnamese Banh Mi, lobster Mac ‘n Cheese, and more. Everything was delicious and made with the freshest and best ingredients – Reggiano Parmagiano, Swiss Gruyere, French baguette, farm fresh eggs, crispy lettuce, savory peanut dressing and the like. A high quality operation.

Like most family businesses the keyword is family. The cafe is open seven days a week. Kris does all the cooking, Karen takes care of the dining room, and the kids help with chores in between stints of homework. They tried to hire help, but couldn’t get quality at a price they could afford. “Catch-22.”

Marilynn and I worried about their survival, but for four plus years they’ve managed to keep it going. Early last week, the state ordered all restaurants and other non-essential businesses closed, except for takeout.

Yesterday, we called to order Mac ‘n Cheese, Banh Mi’, and “Warm Puffy Things” (their lightly fried delicate French pastries with whipped cream and confiture)—bypassing Uber Eats and Grub Hub, the delivery services that take a piece of each order.

When we drove up to get our order, Kris brought it out to the car. I asked how he was doing; he told us he was afraid King County would order a complete “lockdown.” Everett, just to the north, ordered one on Friday. Edmonds, to the west, ordered one last night. A pincer movement. He told us it would be difficult to deal with a lockdown but they see themselves as survivors determined to keep serving their customers. I asked about the proposed Federal relief and he laughed. “They’re talking about loans. We can barely make it now. How would we ever be able to pay back a loan?”

I’ve been in the restaurant business. I know how tough it is, how hard the work is, and the stress it can put on a family. The Hodge Podge Cafe is the face of small business vulnerability during the coronavirus pandemic. Marilynn and I have our fingers crossed for Kris and Karen. We need people like them.

Live by the Sword…

For 40 years America has had a health care problem. We spend more per capita than any other country with substantially poorer patient outcomes. The majority of Americans agree that the system is unfair, too expensive, fails to cover the neediest, and rewards insurance and pharmaceutical companies while limiting patient care.

Until a month ago, Democratic presidential aspirants were arguing about how to pay for better coverage – Medicare for All, single payer, or an expanded Affordable Care Act. All would cost more than the current system. Republicans scoffed and called their proposals socialism.

Today, the Democratic primary is old news as Congress and the president try to wrangle a $1 trillion plan to save American capitalism – airlines, cruise ship companies, and hotel chains – all of them with impressive balance sheets until the coronavirus invaded our space on January 19, 2020 in Everett, Washington. 

When Obama and the Democrats saved the automobile industry in 2008, many of today’s big spenders were frugal Republicans who took issue with the investment although they had bailed out the banks, insurance companies, and other bad actors whose reckless trading caused the Great Recession.

For the record, the automobile industry repaid the government loans while none of the financial sector executives who caused the banking crisis were prosecuted. The banks and insurance companies who drove the economy into the ditch then recovered their losses by foreclosing on customers and taking advantage of government insurance guarantees.

I guess it isn’t socialism if the beneficiaries of a $50 billion airline bailout are private companies – even if unprecedented company profits have come their way as the result of shrinking seat sizes, reducing legroom, withdrawing meal service, charging for baggage and other customer inconveniences.

We don’t need to bailout the airline, cruise ship, and hotel industries when we’re in the midst of a virus pandemic. The people’s health should be the nation’s priority. Support and enable the medical professionals with protective gear, expanded tests and intensive care facilities, then focus on financial relief for those impacted by the crisis. Mortgage payments, food, drugs, and health care expenses are the concern of people who’ve lost their jobs. Airlines, cruise ships, and hotels are not going to kill Americans but the virus might. Businesses can afford to wait their turn at the trough.

All during the primary campaign, Republicans were fear mongering about socialism, so why now is their hair on fire to bail out private for-profit businesses? If they’re really in distress why not offer them low interest loans and let them manage the short term crises with a reasonable repayment timeline, as with any loan?

If we’re really all in this together and the national emergency requires a costly rescue package ($1 trillion is on the table), why not claw back the windfall amounts given to America’s wealthiest corporations and individuals through the tax cut bill enacted in 2017? According to Bloomberg Industries the price tag for those cuts was “as much as $1.9 trillion. “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Granted, the economy is in freefall but why is the administration’s first instinct to protect business interests rather than its citizens? It may seem inappropriate to criticize the government at a time like this, but it’s not inappropriate to point out the government bias in favor of the wealthy when millions of ordinary citizens are losing their jobs, their health is endangered, and insurance coverage questionable. 

Eight years ago, President Obama and a Democratic Congress enacted an imperfect national health care plan that has been under attack and undermined by Republicans since its enactment. They tried to repeal it. They sued to have it declared unconstitutional, and they have stripped several important elements of their effectiveness. Americans generally regard health care as the most important policy issue in the upcoming election, but the Republican Senate has blocked any and all House amendments intended to improve it. Republicans continue to argue that there is not enough money to provide universal coverage for all Americans, but tomorrow their plan is to fast track legislation designed to protect big business.

Epilogue

My former employer Pan Am was denied federal aid when it was in financial trouble, though that trouble was the result of government action restricting its access to a domestic route structure. When the industry was deregulated, Pan Am, Eastern, Braniff, Air Florida and People Express declared bankruptcy and went out of business while Continental, United, Delta, and American representatives of a particularly rapacious form of capitalism used the bankruptcy laws to cancel labor contracts, reduce pay and worker protections. Today’s bailout looks like another version of the double standard where the government is picking winners and losers. The American public will almost certainly be the loser but the current health crisis should remain our priority for now.

I’ve Seen this Movie…

It was a different time and a different contagion, but the set up was eerily similar. A mysterious microbe, the Andromeda Strain, was loose and threatening life on the planet. It first appeared in Arizona where it wiped out most of the population but left two survivors – a dyspeptic old man and a bawling infant.

Back to the future… in 2020 we see a dyspeptic old man and bawling infant rolled into one golden combover and the arrival of a new contagion. Will Donald J. Trump with both ends of the Andromeda spectrum covered help us survive the coronavirus?

In Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel, Dr. Jeremy Stone, an unmarried professor of bacteriology is selected to lead a task force to defeat the microbial enemy. Though he is a Nobel laureate, he is chosen because he fits the profile of the Odd-Man Hypothesis i.e. that unmarried men were better able to execute the best, most dispassionate decisions in crises. Trust me...I’m not touching that one.

But, back to the future again; in the 2020 sequel, notwithstanding the Odd Man Hypothesis, with no member of the Trump crime family willing to take the fall, “Mother” Pence has given the Grand Dragon permission to use Mikey to head the task force. The choice, of course, was based on the Born Again Man Hypothesis that promises God will intervene and save the world if everyone prays hard enough–the same failed strategy he employed during the 2015 HIV crisis in Indiana.

In the Andromeda Strain, Dr. Stone is the real deal – a super sleuth chasing down an elusive pathogen with the help of a CDC protocol and coordinated government plan. Wouldn’t it be great if the sequel had such a plan.

Today’s worldwide pandemic is confusing, unsettling, and full of mixed messages. The skilled scientists on the US’s coronavirus task force are thankfully beginning to take charge but their strategies involve draconian shutdowns of restaurants, bars, sports events, theme parks, and transportation systems, while working around a feckless president whose only concern is his own ego and re-election. 

In the beginning, Trump tried to manage the game but got knocked out in the second inning. After a robotic Oval Office address, Mike Pence came in to lead the team and called the skilled reliever, Dr. Anthony Fauci, up from the bullpen to take the mound. Everyone hopes he’s Mariano Rivera and Mike Trout rolled into one. It’s not too late for a save, but it’s going to be a long game. With Fauci on the mound and a couple of other All-Stars, like Dr. Deborah Birx, in the batting order we may live to play again.

Make no mistake, this is a real crisis not a game. Thanks to some adults from outside the White House (Fauci, Birx, and various governors) a strategy is emerging. It’s not a problem that can be jawboned. Lies and pep talks are not going to subdue this virus. The public wants and needs good information, and we might finally be getting it though it’s mostly from local officials, governors, and trustworthy media sources not the feds.

As we’ve come to expect, it’s all parallel play for Trump. Pence is set up to take the fall, but the Grand Dragon, unable to resist the spotlight, comes to every task force briefing, grabs the mike, tells us how great everything is, makes a few more self-serving remarks and then leaves the room to the grown ups.

On Sunday, he took credit for the Federal Reserve Board’s emergency cut to the federal funds rate, something he had nothing to do with, doesn’t understand, and has no power to affect. Yesterday, following those remarks, jittery investors drove the Dow down another 3000 points. For some reason, the Grand Dragon hasn’t grasped the fact that this is not primarily a financial crisis. This is a global health emergency and neither fiscal nor monetary policy changes will do anything to bring about a solution. The coronavirus pandemic calls for a war-like marshaling of expertise and resources and he won’t get out of the way.

While he dithered and spewed, the American public and the stock market was looking for guidance and reassurance. Neither was in evidence and the result has been a kind of survivalist panic. Households are hoarding everything from toilet paper to guns and whiskey while investors are taking shelter in gold and short term treasury bonds.

The Andromeda Strain ended on a sober but positive note; civilization survived. We can only hope that the dyspeptic old man’s task force manages to gain control over the current pandemic and our real life sequel ends the same way.