Archive for May, 2020

REALITY REDEFINED

As a kid, I played sports. I also was a fan. And, having a vivid imagination, I created my own sports reality. America’s doing the same. It could lead in unexpected directions.

I loved board games played with dice or spinners and based on actual player statistics. Later, I created my own generic baseball, basketball and football games. I ran my own leagues. Today, pro sports are shut down, but the hunger for games remains. Video and board games satisfy that.

Moreover, the media, particularly newspapers, need stories. The San Francisco Chronicle briefs readers on the Giants and A’s during Strat-O-Matic’s simulation of the 2020 baseball season. The Chron co-sponsors APBA’s series between all-time NorCal and SoCal baseball players. In game two, the Giants’ Barry Bonds (NorCal) homered twice off legendary pitcher Walter Johnson (Washington Senators, 1907-27).

It’s like following baseball before television. Even during radio days, most Americans never got to major league baseball parks. They experienced the national pastime in their heads.

Literature understood. In 1968, Robert Coover published a fascinating novel, The Universal Baseball Association: J. Henry Waugh, Prop. A lonely man lives through his dice baseball league—teams and players his own creations. One roll of the dice presents that most rare phenomenon—it happened only once: Cleveland’s Ray Chapman, 1920—a player struck by a pitched ball and killed. J. Henry Waugh faces an agonizing decision. The player is a young star, who has renewed his lagging interest. Should he let him die? If he rolls the dice again, he negates the game’s integrity. We could go on and on about God’s role in history.

Actual baseball, basketball and hockey may resume by July, football in September as scheduled. As with baseball now in South Korea and Japan—and German soccer; English soccer’s coming soon—no fans will attend. Games will be staged for television. Of course, professional sports originated and grew with paying customers filling seats in ballparks, stadiums and arenas. But gate receipts, important as they are, lag behind TV dollars. TV presents reality at a distance, but sports fans long have embraced that.

As play resumes, athletes face real health concerns. They also pose a major expense to franchise owners. Might they and their salaries be replaced with avatars—digital fictions? J. Henry Waugh created his own players, including detailed biographies. They were as authentic to him as the actual Henry Aaron and Mickey Mantle, both 1968 baseball all-stars.

Sports leagues could eventually use holograms of faux players while filling stadiums with real crowds. The action, based on advanced algorithms, would be as exciting as it is now. Outdoor games might be rained out but be played in-studio and on TV. Seasons would avoid interruption by labor strife and—pandemics. Over time, as long as the software remained uncompromised, would anyone miss flesh-and-blood athletes?

Today’s Zoom business meeting, worship service, classroom and family get-together create a new—at least different—sense of reality. What if the people we see and speak with on our devices, not just athletes and entertainers but family members—the ones we wish we had—also were digital fabrications? What if we had a role in creating them? Would we perceive them to be any less real?

Would wefeel any less real?

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SADIE’S DILEMMA

Two-and-a-half-year-old Sadie, granddaughter of my friends Les and Sheila, lives in Singapore. Recently, she had a run-in with a monkey. It deserves our attention.

Sadie lives in a ground-floor apartment with a patio abutting a rainforest. The family was outside, Sadie holding a banana. A monkey snatched it. It was a bit upsetting. This could not have taken place in San Francisco—not because wildlife doesn’t encroach on the city but because we don’t have monkeys. Coyotes strolling our sidewalks when few people are out? Yes.

We humans, especially in cities, think we’re safe from “wild animals.” Our fear is normal. Humans have had to defend themselves from lions, tigers and bears—oh my—wolves, wild dogs and others whose habitats we invade.

The Torah notes how human dispossession of animals creates a fragile environment. God tells Moses, leading the Israelites to the already-populated Promised Land, “I will not drive them [the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites] out before you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wild beasts multiply to your hurt” (Exodus 23:29).

As humans spread out, animals’ territories shrink. Often, that drives both closer. Residents in rural areas find bears rummaging through their trash or breaking into their homes. In suburbia, deer eat up gardens. Let’s not even talk raccoons.

The coronavirus pandemic also has shifted the balance. Media stories report wildlife roaming tourist-deserted places in national parks, and salamanders in the northeast swarming roads at night with traffic almost nonexistent.

Sadie and her family face a dilemma. How are they to live close to wild animals and coexist? Having a patio next to a forest and taking a banana outside invites monkeys to do what’s natural: go after a convenient food source. Sadie’s parents can control this to an extent by not taking food outside. They also have to be careful about opening doors, since monkeys have invaded their kitchen.

We see firsthand that civilization imposes a veneer on nature and a thin one. Monkeys grabbing bananas represents the least of our worries.

Humans living together in groups larger than family size do so based on norms and ethics, civil and religious law, customs written and unwritten. In times of stress, people tend to panic. Our innate need to survive often impels us to trample laws and customs previously held to be inviolable. We take an “us versus them” stance, bare our teeth like the animals we are, howl defiance to defend our families—even when we’re not under attack—and often provoke others to prepare for, even use, violence in their own defense.

As the COVID-19 pandemic established itself, gun sales in the U.S. rose.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo, highlighting his state’s mental-health programs, encourages people to ask, “How are you feeling, really?” Rote displays of wellbeing can be misleading. Most people are scared. Many respond not by expressing their fears but through hostility. They find enemies in other groups and in the governments, national and local, that seek to limit the pandemic’s spread and protect community health.

Sadie’s dilemma can be solved fairly easily. America’s dilemma—the potential breakdown of civility and restraint, a permanent fracture in the political system—requires great vision and effort. This demands seeing each other as part of the solution, not the problem.

To the spirits of those who gave their all to defend the nation (thinking of you, Howie): Rest in peace, may your memory be for a blessing. And may this Memorial Day offer us much to think about beyond the family backyard barbecue.

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UNITED HOW?

I’m a citizen of the United States of America but have trouble defining United. As—when—the coronavirus pandemic winds down, how will Americans define the word?

During Congregation Sherith Israel’s Zoom Shabbat service last Friday night, Rabbi Jessica Graf asked what will our country be like post-COVID-19. It’s a good bet we’ll be facing a great many changes no one could have imagined as we rang in 2020.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Over the near-244 years of our national existence, some Americans have interpreted United as the bond between semi-sovereign states joined mainly by the need for a common defense. After all, the British returned to our shores in 1812. Beyond that, they see fifty states marching to their own drummers.

United still inspires debates about the Constitution regarding the extent of powers granted to the federal government and those not and so left to the states. States’ rights advocates long have sought to tilt the balance from Washington to state capitals. Their political ideology supported segregation for a century after the Civil War until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many states’ rights advocates continued to resist Washington’s imposition on their “way of life.” Many still do.

Other Americans take a broader view of United, promoting legal and ethical standards that transcend state boundaries. They want to give Washington increased latitude, particularly to protect minorities.

The coronavirus pandemic has heated up this conflict. Responses have varied from state to state. That’s understandable. New York City, population 8.3 million, is not Deaf (pronounced Deef) Smith County, Texas, population 18,700. In a nation as large and diverse as ours, state and local initiatives proposed by people who know the territory may work faster and better. But guidelines put out by the White House then ignored by the Oval Office in its zeal to open the economy should still be something that, forgive the pun, unites us.

The pandemic will end. Many people are, or soon will be, proposing specifics either to retool America or leave it the way they found it. Or take it back to the time of their grandparents. Any discussion must first address our interpretation of United.

Does our cherished freedom—if we know what that means—demand that states go their own way even when, in many cases, they ignore sound public health policy or privilege some citizens over others? Should states refuse to follow directives from Washington not because they’re wrong but because they fear the “slippery slope” leading to the erosion of “freedom”? If so, can states match the power of the federal government to anticipate and mitigate public-health challenges, stimulate the economy and support the unemployed?

In essence, are we “one nation under God”? (Does God have anything to do with it?)

I’m skeptical that enough Americans will pull together rather than separate themselves by region, state, county, city or town, even neighborhood. As the late House speaker Tip O’Neill (1912-94, Dem.–Mass.) famously remarked, “all politics is local.” I get that.

But as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently wrote, “To bet against the human tendency to relapse into old bad habits is foolish. Tragedy tends to foster expressions of idealistic unity that prove fleeting.” I get that, too.

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BACKFIRE

The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft aglay.” The language requires a bit of interpretation, but the statement is clear. The best of intentions can—and often does—go wrong. Last weekend, I saw first-hand.

Saturday, Carolyn and I took a post-lunch walk out Lake Street west towards the Palace of the Legion of Honor 1.7 miles away. At Sea Cliff, where mansions overlook the Golden Gate and Pacific, the stroll goes uphill to the fountain in front of the Palace. You enjoy spectacular views and get a nice workout. What could go wrong?

Plenty. A few days earlier, San Francisco closed tree-lined, bike-laned Lake Street to through traffic. No hardship there. People in the neighborhood can drive California Street a block south and traffic, while increasing, is still light.

Understandably, the concept of closed city streets is popular. People can walk, run and bike free from motorized impediments. In a non-COVID-19 world, that’s awesome.

In a situation calling for social distancing, that’s foolish.

The policy backfired because the crowd on Lake Street was way larger than any I’ve seen since San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order took effect on March 16. I walk three times a day, every day. Heading west on Lake isn’t my only route, but I take it at least daily—and at different times. My sense of the volume of people using the street is pretty reliable.

The problem? Keeping at least six feet from someone requires what I call slalom walking. No way can you just set out in any direction and walk in a straight line. Some sidewalks are too narrow or blocked. On wide sidewalks—which describes most in my neighborhood—people often stroll two or three abreast even when they see others coming. Staying to the right and briefly walking single-file seems too much bother. Also, most people don’t wear masks. So you duck out into the bike lane or into the street.

This poses unanticipated dangers. Counterintuitively, until the street opens to traffic, pedestrian safety is severely compromised.

Hordes of cyclists—no masks, understandably—speed along in both directions. Runners—no masks—whiz by. I ran for decades, so it pains me to say that most cyclists and runners refuse to give an inch, won’t swerve under any circumstances except for an oncoming vehicle. But closure restricts vehicles.

Try keeping your distance, and you take your life in your hands. The normally carefree route, even during the pandemic, has become an obstacle course. Accidents are waiting to happen while opportunities for people to spread the virus to others have increased—unless we’ve been misinformed about social distancing.

Playing it safe, Carolyn and I cut over to California Street. We encountered few walkers and, when necessary, went out into the street. Traffic was light. We made it up to the Palace and back.

Good intentions are insufficient. Theory goes just so far. While weekdays are calmer, weeknights are crowding up. Devil’s advocacy and observation should guide—and alter—our decisions. We’ll have many to make in the weeks, months and years going forward.

I suggest hanging the quote from Robert Burns in every home and municipal office in the nation. As a bonus, we’ll learn a bit of Scots.

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two. I could write volumes. I’ll restrict myself to two heartfelt words to all those who fought in Europe and the Pacific, and slogged through on the home front: Thank you!

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UNMASKING THE CHALLENGE

You probably saw or heard the news. America’s two highest officials spurned the guidelines they issued to reduce the spread of coronavirus. What message are they sending us?

Tuesday, Vice President Pence visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The clinic has a set policy: Everyone wears a mask. Mr. Pence didn’t. His excuse: He’s tested often and was negative the last time. The lasttime. Health care professionals remind us that someone who tested negative yesterday could be positive today.

Mr. Pence explained that he skipped the mask to look staffers in the eye and express his gratitude. Really? As someone who always wears a mask outside—made by Carolyn for me and dozens of family, friends, nurses and ambulance drivers—I can say it covers my nose and mouth, not my eyes. Also, masks don’t prevent you from being heard.

Here, the vice president aped his peerless leader. President Trump eschews his own guidelines because he seems to think masked meetings in the Oval Office don’t provide attractive photo ops. Their purpose? Not modeling behavior during the pandemic but pursuing politics. So he met with Republican Florida governor Ron DeSantis barefaced as was everyone else in the room, and sitting less than six feet apart. The same situation held when Trump met with Democratic Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards.

The president and his fawning VP missed prime opportunities to shore up their chances at the polls this November—if Pence is on the ticket—by setting an example. Still, the foolish posing and disregard for science was hardly unexpected. Trump said on February 10, “Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” On February 26: “We’re [U.S. cases of COVID-19] going down, not up.” The president also theorized about shooting up on disinfectant.

As of May 1, U.S. coronavirus cases, according to Johns Hopkins University, have passed one million. Deaths top 63,000. That’s 5,000 more than American troops killed in Vietnam.

Many states are relaxing shelter-in-place. Georgia got a head start, bowling and getting a tattoo being urgent matters. Let us pray. Eventually, COVID-19 cases will go down, testing ramp up. A vaccine will be developed. Researchers at Oxford University in Britain are bullish on theirs. Remdesivir might heal coronavirus patients faster. But how do we improve public health now?

California, New York and other states are planning phased introductions to normalcy but slowly, letting the data guide them. Being 75, I doubt I’ll be eating in a restaurant anytime soon. That’s okay. I fear for everyone else.

The key to America’s resurgence won’t be found in the White House. It will emerge from the American people making critical—and difficult—decisions. Will they follow updated guidelines, wearing masks and keeping social distance? Or will they succumb to shelter-in-place fatigue, reject science and claim a Constitutional right to risk their lives and those of others?

I walk three times a day. If I said that as many as 25 percent of people I see wear masks, I’d fog—maybe crack—the lenses of my rose-colored glasses. And this in San Francisco! Bluster and disregard for others may well spawn a second, possibly deadlier wave of COVID-19. Wishful thinking can’t mask that awful possibility.

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