Reflections in the time of the virus

Last week my wife and I watched all seven episodes of “World on Fire,” the British miniseries about World War II that’s just now airing on PBS. More than once, watching Polish freedom fighters shoot Nazis or flee into the woods to fight another day, I thought: I could never do that. I would be dead a dozen times over. Somehow, they kept going.

Crises, it is said, bring out the truth in a person’s personality. The coronavirus pandemic has inspired countless acts of heroism, especially from medical personnel who are literally putting their health on the line every day. (It has also revealed that there’s nothing underneath That Orange Thing in the White House besides more anger, fear, bitterness, and a desperate craving for attention.)

I’ve read a lot about the virus and the disease – sometimes out of a determination to educate myself, sometimes out of the kind of curiosity equivalent to peeking through your fingers at a horror movie. I can’t make sense of it. I’m not sure anyone has. (If they have, please point me in their direction.)

Here’s what I know:

  • It almost certainly started around Wuhan, China, probably in a case of transfer from a bat or pangolin to humans.
  • It is incredibly contagious. Each person with the virus can infect at least two others. Some estimates have it infecting up to five people. Hence the exponential spread. By comparison, the flu has an R0 number of 1.3.
  • It affects different people not just differently, but wildly differently. Some have to be hospitalized and many die. Some live through several nights of “the beast” before, presumably, recovering. Some are barely affected. And some don’t even know they have it. It tends to be worse the older you are, but it’s hammered some relatively young people, too. Some of this confusion could be mitigated through testing, but that hasn’t exactly been a strong point of federal response.
  • You may be immune once you’ve had it. Or you may not.

Social distancing, though challenging, is doing its job. In many places it’s flattened the curve to some degree. The point of flattening the curve was to ease the load on hospitals and healthcare providers. It doesn’t mean that, now that we’ve flattened the curve, we can just go back to the way things were. The 1918 Spanish flu had three waves in the United States. The worst was the second one.

I’m scared. How can you not be? I’m 55 and, though in pretty good shape, I’m certainly not as trim and vigorous as I was in college. I try to get out for a 20- or 30-minute walk twice a day. It helps that it’s spring and the weather has mostly been pleasant.

But I find that when I go to the supermarket I’m practically running through the place, as if I could dodge coronavirus particles like raindrops. (And good luck dodging raindrops.) I made a homemade mask a couple days ago because it’s been impossible to find them and I don’t expect that to change. I know it’s supposed to protect others from me – not the other way around – but it didn’t make me feel any better either way.

The stories of dying alone, to be stacked in portable morgues, are too much to bear.

And though I’m worried what will happen if I get the virus, I’m even more worried about my wife, who survived a bout with thyroid cancer in her 20s, underwent multiple rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, and has a weakened immune system. A few years after her initial treatment for thyroid cancer she happened to pick up chicken pox from an irresponsible colleague’s child. She was feverish and laid up for several days, making me wonder if I should take her to the hospital. And that was for chicken pox.

I try not to think about it, but it’s hard not to.

I look at the pictures of the protesters in Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia. They are yelling and not following social distancing guidelines. I wonder if they’ve given the disease to each other. I wonder if they’ll give it to me.

Photo by Joshua A. Bickel, Columbus Dispatch

Will Leitch, the wonderful writer about sports and other things, puts out a weekly newsletter. This week, he talked about how he’s been reading every book about 9/11 and how the shape of the 9/11 story established itself only a few years after the event. That day, and the days after, we didn’t know if there were going to be more attacks, more chaos, more death.

Now we’re barely a couple months in the Covid crisis and people already want to turn to the end of the book to see how it comes out. I can’t blame them – it’s terrifying, and not only do we not know the ending, we don’t know how messy the chapters in between will be – but it’s better to try to focus on the immediate. Which means social distancing, compassion, being careful in public places.

As Will says, “We’re all reeling from trauma, and not only do we not know when the next trauma is coming, we don’t even know if the last one is over yet. There’s nothing to get your arms around. It’s trying to grasp smoke.”

I miss baseball. Here’s one of my favorite moments.

I’m doing OK. Working from home hasn’t thrown me much. I was a free-lance writer for most of the ‘90s, so many of my days were spent in a corner of my bedroom, trying to pound out stories so I could eat and pay rent. This is just those days again, except this time I’m fortunate to work for a company that has been deemed a necessary business, so my paychecks are regular. I’m also fortunate that the company is private and financially conservative, and that combination of thrift and not having to serve idiot masters on Wall Street has served it well.

Which brings me to the most schadenfreude-y moment I’ve had in the last few days. In the most recent New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten writes about some sociopathic financiers who are trying to make a buck off the pandemic. This passage, about one group that believes the world is overreacting, couldn’t help but inspire a bitter laugh:

The Fokkers found it hard to let go of the conviction that the crisis was overblown, and that the shutdown could do more harm than good. One of the more clamorous champions of this opinion went quiet for a while, as he battled the virus at home, in some terror over his mounting inability to breathe. Another had a cousin on a re-breather, a firefighter who’d worked the pile at Ground Zero. And yet within a week both of them were sharing a wish that there were a way to short the price of ventilators in June or September, in the belief that we wouldn’t need nearly as many as the governors of the most beleaguered states were claiming.

This can’t help but make me think of That Orange Thing. And also how they’d react if an asteroid was on its way to a direct hit. Would they invest in water futures? Gas masks? Asbestos?

We’ve come a long way since the Black Plague of the 14th century, or even the Spanish flu. In spite of humanity’s ongoing burden of war and inequality, I’d like to think we have a more profound appreciation of life. I hope this thing passes without much more loss, and when we do start rebuilding the economy, we also rebuild society – universal healthcare in the U.S., measures to address inequality, more compassion.

One can always hope.

This song came up in a comment board I contribute to. I probably hadn’t heard it since it came out in 1980, and even when I did hear it, I imagine it was lost amid the wash of other subdued melodies and early synthesizer hits. It sounds like something that would get lost in the middle reaches of the Top Forty. (It peaked at No. 18.)

Now, though, I hear longing and loss and a bit of wisdom. It may sound like it’s about the end of a relationship, but songwriter James Warren says that wasn’t the case.

“For me it was all about an individual changing and being a different sort of person – trying to find out the root of your inner confusion, dealing with it and becoming a better person,” he said.

That’s the challenge, isn’t it?

Mort Drucker, 1929-2020

It all started with MAD.

If I had to put together a chronological list of my humor influences, I could probably begin with Bugs Bunny or one of the more absurd “Electric Company” sketches. It would continue to “Saturday Night Live,” the late-‘70s National Lampoon (bought, admittedly, as much for the photographs of naked women as the humor), Monty Python, and David Letterman.

But the gateway to it all, the world changer, was MAD. I may have been 10 when I bought my first issue (#176, July ’75), but even at that age I knew it wasn’t really for kids. It made references to Nixon and gas lines and the Middle East. It had those long Frank Jacobs parodies of Broadway musicals (none of which I got). It was genuine satire.

I actually had a subscription. It would arrive in a brown wrapper, like a porno magazine.

And my favorite member of the Usual Gang of Idiots was Mort Drucker.

Oh, I liked the others. Bob Clarke’s advertising parodies were brilliant. Al Jaffee’s Fold-Ins were ingenious, and his Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions were hilarious. The writers were less distinct in my memory, though I think I preferred Dick DeBartolo to Stan Hart or Larry Siegel.

But the premier selling point of the magazine, in my early fan days, was the movie parodies – I first started buying MAD because I couldn’t wait for them to take on “The Towering Inferno,” which I’d loved – and nobody did them better than Drucker. Angelo Torres (who usually did TV shows anyway) was too prissy; Jack Davis was too messy; Jack Rickard’s line just seemed smeary; George Woodbridge was kind of galumphing.

Only Drucker could do justice to “Inferno” or “Jaws,” or all those movies I wasn’t allowed to see, like “Dog Day Afternoon” or “The Shootist” or the Streisand “Star Is Born,” or – when I started getting the paperback collections – “2001,” “Joe” (has anyone watched “Joe” recently? I’ve only ever read the MAD version), “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Cool Hand Luke.” Though he arrived at MAD after it had gone from a comic-book format to a larger, pulp magazine, his work seems to be a key dividing line between one version of MAD and another – the one best captured by Richard Reeves in a 1973 issue of New York magazine. (The same issue – October 1, 1973 – also had a long article on Wacky Packages, another gateway to my sensibility. Finding that issue at some rummage sale was a highlight of my youth. Yeah, I was a strange kid.)

Mort Drucker died Thursday. He was 91.

It wasn’t just Drucker’s talent for caricature that appealed to me. It was his impish marginalia. He worked little signs and strange characters into his splash pages. (Sometimes they weren’t so marginal, like the Willie and Joe in this frame from the “Patton” parody. ) You could spend hours poring over them, long after you’d laughed at the dialogue. (Perhaps some artist could confirm, but it also appeared he ever-so-slightly changed his look sometime in the late ‘70s. His prior work appears to have a sharper line. A different kind of pen, perhaps?)

His work, and that of MAD as a whole, was inspirational. I sought out MAD histories and compendiums – Maria Reidelbach’s “Completely MAD” being the best of the bunch – and branched out to other magazine histories, of Esquire and The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. Thinking about it now, MAD probably had a huge role in making me a writer, and wanting to work for a magazine. Drucker and the Gang always seemed to be having such fun. Wasn’t that the way of every magazine?

Several years ago, I convinced my editor at CNN to send me to a gathering of MAD artists in Savannah. The ostensible reason was to do a profile of Al Jaffee, who was as generous and wonderful as I’d hoped. I also got to laugh with Nick Meglin – forever cracking jokes – heard a ton of William M. Gaines stories, and got to see Sergio Aragones do a sketch in real time.

But, starstruck MAD fanboy I was, I really wanted to meet Mort Drucker. He couldn’t come. I believe he had been ill, or maybe just not well enough to travel. He’d already retired from MAD, and I got the feeling that he was already fading. After all, he was in his early 80s at the time, and nobody of that classic Gang was getting any younger. (Davis died in 2016; Meglin in 2018. Fortunately, Jaffee, Aragones and Paul Coker are still with us.)

Mort Drucker will always be one of my heroes. Some writers wish to be immortalized by Martin Schoeller or Marion Ettlinger. I always wanted to be sketched by Mort Drucker. I’m happy so many others got the opportunity, because it helped make my life a little happier.

Adam Schlesinger, 1967-2020

He was so fucking talented.

Adam Schlesinger, who co-founded the power-pop band Fountains of Wayne, wrote the Oscar-nominated title song for “That Thing You Do!”, produced the Monkees’ excellent 2016 reunion album “Good Times!”, co-wrote dozens of songs for the TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and in general was a pop music genius, died Wednesday. He was 52.

The cause was complications of COVID-19.

It’s hard for me to write this obit. From the moment I heard the first Fountains of Wayne album, I was an Adam Schlesinger fan — an excitement that only grew when I found out he’d written “That Thing You Do!”, still perhaps the best distillation of a British Invasion-inspired single ever written. I was even more bowled over when I heard FoW’s second album, “Utopia Parkway,” a series of songs largely inspired by the New York suburbs. From the opening title cut to “Red Dragon Tattoo” to “Prom Theme” to the closer, “The Senator’s Daughter,” it’s pop at a high level. It’s still one of my all-time favorite albums.

(None of this is to dismiss the contributions of Chris Collingwood, Schlesinger’s FoW partner in pop. The two generally wrote separately but their outlook was so seamless it was hard to tell.)

“Utopia Parkway” was followed by three more Fountains of Wayne albums, but the energetic Schlesinger always had other projects going on — his band Ivy, his other band Tinted Windows, other movie soundtrack material (“Music & Lyrics”), TV specials (such as Stephen Colbert’s Christmas special and the Tony Awards), TV shows … just so much. Variety described him as an “EGOT contender.” He probably should have been an EGOT winner, but “That Thing You Do!” lost to some new song for “Evita” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had written for Madonna, and all you can do is laugh.

I had the good fortune to interview Schlesinger three times — once when I was with the Atlanta Jewish Times, where I gave a nod to his faith (his home studio was called “Room with a Jew”), and twice with The first time was the most memorable, as FoW was just about to get a taste of pop fame with the single “Stacy’s Mom,” from the album “Welcome Interstate Managers.” Schlesinger and Collingwood were in the back seat of their publicist’s car, looking for a parking space and shouting down the phone over the New York symphony of car horns and jackhammers. We all found it hilarious.

Later, I had a chance for a brief interview in conjunction with “Traffic and Weather,” the follow-up. Schlesinger, this time reached at his much quieter home, was typically modest about songwriting, noting how he used “Eleanor Rigby” as a placeholder for the chorus of “Someone to Love” and that the goal was just putting out the best music they could.

“As far as our expectations — we never have any. We just keep doing what we do,” he said.

Never mind that even a double-CD of FoW B-sides and ephemera, “Out of State Plates,” was far more clever and enjoyable than most bands’ front-line releases.

Schlesinger was so busy that I pretty much lost track of his work the last few years. A friend, a big “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” fan, included a handful of clips of his work for that show in a recent exchange. All I could think of was, This guy’s amazing. (So were the rest of the cast, given the camerawork and choreography.)

And now he’s gone, claimed by this fucking disease that has us all trapped in our homes, waiting for it to weaken or pass. It’s trite to say, but I just can’t believe it. He should have had two or three more decades of work in him, like Randy Newman or Stephen Sondheim. He was fucking talented. He was modest — “Our object is not to conquer the world. We do what we do. We didn’t set out to compete with the Godsmacks of the world,” he said in 2003 — but he was so fucking talented.

I don’t want to think of being trapped in a room, and I don’t want to think of sad things. So I’m going to finish this obit with my favorite scene from “That Thing You Do!”, in which the Wonders hear their single on the radio for the first time and scream and dance and celebrate. It’s full of pure joy (tip of the hat to director Tom Hanks), the kind of unexpected ecstasy that seems to belong to a more innocent time. And if it’s one thing that Adam Schlesinger brought me and so many others, it was joy.

Rest easy, Adam.