In this month’s Editor & Publisher magazine, check out the cover story. I spoke with news organizations about the past pandemic-challenged year and how they’ve managed through the tumult.
Read on at EditorandPublisher.com:
In this month’s Editor & Publisher magazine, check out the cover story. I spoke with news organizations about the past pandemic-challenged year and how they’ve managed through the tumult.
Read on at EditorandPublisher.com:
This AXIOS on HBO interview with the President is generating a lot of social media buzz this week. If you’re like me and out of the HBO loop, AXIOS kindly published it online, free of charge. Here’s the link:
I watched it pre-dawn, with my first three cups of coffee and a notepad for visceral scribbling. I was most interested to see how Jonathan Swan formulated his questions and delivered them, and how he “managed” the President – prone to ramblings and deflections – in order to keep the interview productive and moving forward.
At least twice, the President broke the cadence of the interview to comment on Swan’s facial expressions, accusing him of smiling or smirking. This, too, is a rhetorical trick of the President’s – to redirect attention to the questioner, often disparaging the reporter in some way. Here, he seems to imply that Swan is unserious or being cheeky. What he did not do is call Swan “nasty,” or dumb or any of his other favorite insults he seems to reserve for women journalists who ask tough questions.
Swan didn’t hesitate to wade into some turbulent waters: the Federal response to COVID-19; Ghislaine Maxwell; the President’s plans to leverage the Courts to contest the election; Federal forces descending on an American city and usurping due process by essentially kidnapping protesters and holding them without charges; Black Lives Matter and civil unrest; and about his lack of regard for the late John Lewis.
Swan even asked about the intelligence reports that suggest Russia has taken out bounties on Allied troops’ heads. The President demonstrated his incuriosity about the intel. “If it reached my desk, I would have done something about it,” he proclaimed.
“This one didn’t reach my desk,” he insisted. And yet it’s on his desk; it’s in his briefing, and the President didn’t even bother to bring it up for discussion during his call with Putin last week (per the White House).
Swan then probed the President about widely circulated and publicized intelligence that ties Russia to supplying weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a shocking “whataboutism” response, the President replied, “We supplied weapons to the Taliban when they were fighting Russia. … We did that, too.”
It is stunning to see a President of the United States equivocating American troops – presumably sent to the Afghanistan mountains to combat terrorism and nation build – with Russia’s aggressive, invading forces the Taliban caused to retreat long ago.
Pressed on troop levels in Afghanistan, the President acknowledged that the numbers have gone up and gone down during his Presidency, but he insists that his mission is to nearly halve the level with which the Administration began. Swan, wanting a number and a timetable on the promise, gets the President to say the U.S. will have between 4,000 and 5,000 troops in Afghanistan on election day 2020.
Swan is particularly effective at getting the President to eventually answer a question. Someone on Twitter suggested that it’s because of the Aussie accent, but it’s really because he fires follow-up questions and real-time fact checks at the President. The White House Press Corps, often kept to one or two questions, don’t have that luxury. It’s too easy for the President or McEnany to just point to someone else and move on.
Throughout the interview, the President makes relentless attempts to stonewall Swan. He interrupts. He talks in circles. He deflects and heads off in tangents – often leading to topics within his comfort zone: Crowd sizes. TV ratings. And why he doesn’t get enough “credit” – from whom, he doesn’t say.
In a line of questioning may be more uncomfortable for the audience than it is for the President, Swan asked the question about his “I wish her well” remarks about Ghislaine Maxwell, the accused pimp and pedo-buddy of the late Jeffrey Epstein – both, long-time friends of the President. In response, the President suggested that Epstein may have been murdered in prison, citing no evidence to support his assertion.
What the President doesn’t want to talk about is the pandemic and the more than 159,000 dead Americans. When Swan does manage to steer the President to the topic, the President flippantly dismisses statistics, including the measurably important death-per-capita data from the United States and other developed nations. The President suggests that data is flawed.
The duo’s conversation about testing is revealing, in an emperor-lacks-clothes kind of way. The President’s obstinance about testing continues. Swan points out that test results take too long – that a test result, sometimes 10 days after the swabbing, doesn’t help the patient and it doesn’t help quell the transmission of the virus.
Weeks before the Swan interview, the Trump Administration “defunded” federal testing sites they’d set up around the country. They folded the tents, pulled the personnel, and said to those communities, “You’re on your own now.”
One of so many unforced errors made by the President during the interview, he asserted, “You can test too much,” citing unnamed sources, “the manuals” and “the books.” To his credit, Swan followed up with a question about which manuals and books he was citing – knowing, of course, that the President cannot answer the question.
The part of the interview about COVID-19 and testing will now be added to the library of videos of the President’s half-year campaign to diminish the virus, to give Americans some false sense of security, to fuel conspiracy theories about it, to play wannabe doctor and pharmacist, to endanger lives.
The national lack of ambition on testing – despite the volume of tests already performed the President prefers to cite – may be our undoing. It should go without saying that the more rapid-result testing we do, the easier it becomes to isolate the virus, identify risks, to help on-the-front lines healthcare workers and facilities be proactive rather than reactive. The path to any sort of normalcy – schools reopening, businesses bouncing back, seeing each other, touching each other, encouraging the kids to play together again, going to a restaurant, going on a date, seeing live music, attending a funeral – is paved in testing.
And we’ve blown it.
About those nearly 160,000 American deaths? The President tells Swan, “It is what it is.”
I spoke with digital news organizations — and some major metro newspapers, including those that have been so-called “hot zones” for COVID-19 — about how the pandemic has influenced, impeded, affirmed, or transformed content, operations, staffing, revenue, and philosophies.
From the July/August issue of Editor & Publisher magazine:
Like a morbidly fascinating party game, I remember once contemplating a question presented to me: If you had to give up one of your five senses, which one could you do without?
In my younger years, I imagine my answer may have been “smell.” It didn’t seem as tragic as losing your sight, hearing, or your ability to touch things and discern their temperature, texture, rhythms, pulse. It didn’t dawn on me that giving up your ability to smell would necessitate giving up your ability to taste, too. How tragic it seems to me now to think of a flavorless existence, eating only for sustenance and never for pleasure.
I thought about smell today as I dropped the kayak into the cove and set off on a morning paddle out to the Sound. Since the pandemic came to our shores, I – and I imagine many people – have wondered if every little dry cough, every springtime allergy-induced sniffle, or throbbing headache was the onset of Covid-19 illness. Besides fever, loss of smell and taste seem to be common symptoms.
Daily, I have taken solace in deeply inhaling the smell of coffee in the morning, or freshly mowed grass, or the scent of basil, cilantro and mint thriving in the cedar planters out back. I’ve taken the first morning bite of the blueberry-lemon oatmeal I favor, and thought, “I’m ok. I’m ok today.”
My morning paddle was a cacophony of sound and fragrance. Baby ducks floated alongside their mother in the cove as I launched; she spoke to them, telling them to be wary of my presence. Low tide has a certain smell – funky and familiar. I rounded the bend and headed out, passing honeysuckle bushes on the bank that filled my nostrils with sweetness and invoked childhood memories of plucking their flowers, pulling at their pistils and letting the tiny drop of nectar fall to my tongue.
Someone had already fired up coals at the Ocean Beach pavilion – a midday BBQ’s start. Caribbean beats quickened the cadence of my paddling. My left foot kept time. Heading out to the Sound brought the fresh sea air to my face, a salty, misty grit. A passing ferry rumbled by and sent wake waves and the smell of its exhaust my way.
The beach had begun to fill with people, eager for a prime spot. The sounds of their laughter found me offshore. The red jellyfish came early this year. They were near absent last August, and yet here they were, all around me in late June — no doubt a symptom of the mild winter and warmer-than-normal waters.
I made my way back, passing shoreline waders catching crabs, holding them captive in plastic dollar-store buckets. Lovers stood hand-in-hand on the rock formations. Giggling girls posed for selfies and adjudicated them before deciding whether or not they were share worthy. Children squealed as waves tickled their toes. The BBQ was in full swing then. I inhaled and imagined meats crisping on the grill. A brief whiff of cannabis came my way – not the skunky kind; rather, a sweet citrusy strain. Citron or Tangerine Dream, maybe, I thought, and recalled the bygone memory of the happy buzz they bring on.
The egrets weren’t around today, nor the osprey that’s typically tending the high-up nest. But the oyster catchers were out, feasting on the shellfish marooned by the tide, and the baby ducks were still swimming in the cove when I finally beached the kayak and gratefully breathed the morning in.
I’ve spent the past week working on an article (cover story, July 2020 Editor & Publisher magazine), for which I’ve spoken to news editors around the country, to better understand how they’ve managed through months of pandemic – and now, during protests and civil unrest. It feels like crisis on top of crisis on top of crisis for news organizations already fiscally challenged, with newsrooms gutted.
It got me thinking about life here in northern Vermont, and how communities have managed through the protests and pandemic.
Last week, a group of students from an international boarding school in St. Johnsbury staged a protest, and maybe a hundred local residents came out to demonstrate their frustration with the disproportionate number of police shootings and killings at the expense of black families. The incident was not without its own strife. There were a few arrests of protesters who blocked the entrance to the local police station. One overzealous officer manhandled a tiny sprite of a woman, tossing her like a doll down the concrete stairs leading to the entrance.
By the next day, the small town had returned to its sleepy status. The protesters had been replaced by a small group of maybe a dozen “Blue Lives Matter” counter protesters, who planted themselves on the sidewalk in front of the station, hoping for honks from passing cars, in support of cops. It didn’t surprise me, this kind of support for the men and women in blue. Here, as in most small towns across the country, cops aren’t wooed from other towns; here, the officers live in the community. They know everyone, and everyone knows them. This kind of co-dependent relationship makes it untenable for the police to overreach their authority, and it makes citizens more respectful of the force made of their neighbors and family members.
Crime is, of course, a little different here. The local paper’s crime blotter this week reported a local man over in Burke who was arrested for pelting a woman with eggs after a night of, admittedly, excessive drinking.
Only about half of the residents you see milling about in towns, or driving to and from them, sport “PPE.” You won’t see many N95 masks. More often than not, they have the cloth kind that someone stitched by hand, or bandanas wrapped snug. I saw a man yesterday who was heading into a local pharmacy with a grimy, old white t-shirt haphazardly wrapped around his face and tied in the back. At least he was trying to be accountable to his community.
It’s not that the others are unaware of COVID-19. It’s not like they don’t take it seriously. The local health clinic always has a full parking lot, and the low-tech “website” for our town – a metal billboard at the end of our dirt road – reminds people of the risks and to socially distance themselves, as if that were even a choice.
It’s more likely that people here are simply nonplussed by it. There is a sense that, no matter what happens here, that life will go on, that poverty will endure.
I’ve been introduced to a number of residents who came here from Connecticut, where I still live full time. Each has a similar story – that they came north for a more idyllic perspective, an active lifestyle – snowmobiling, hunting, fishing – and to escape oppressive taxes. But what they found in northern Vermont is that life’s challenges simply take on a new form.
From the previous owner of my little cabin, I inherited some relationships with a couple of locals who help me maintain the land. The local town selectman is my plow guy. He maintains the town roads for a living, and plows out the driveways of his neighbors for $30 a visit. He automatically shows up anytime we get more than six inches.
I have a young man who comes to shovel paths around the house and to pull the snow off the metal roof when it piles up. His mother is the town clerk a few hollows away. We got to talking during his first visit, and he explained to me how much he loves it here, especially being able to navigate the region by snowmobile during the winter. It’s a practical, affordable and thrilling alternative to automobile transportation.
But he said that he may have to go back down south to Connecticut, after all, because there’s just no opportunity here, no work for him.
He spends his summers doing landscaping and mostly fighting off the dreaded black flies. We called upon him to mow a meadow, because it had gotten high from the spring rains and because we knew he could use the buck.
Back home, I’m used to landscapers showing up with a veritable fleet of vehicles, equipment and personnel. He showed up with a riding mower on in the back of his pickup, its blade and cover dangling precariously off the side of it. Rusted through, he had to hold onto it, guiding it across the grasses and adjusting the height by hand, courtesy of a string he’d tied to it.
It’s hard to invest in your business when jobs are scarce.
For so many Vermonters here, pandemic or not, the barn still needs a new roof they can’t afford; the tractor still needs repairs. The fields around the house need to be groomed, and the ruts in the road – caused by the freeze-and-thaw cycle of mud season – need to be smoothed out. Farm animals and pets still need feed, and rotted wood on the cabins needs to be replaced with whatever scraps of lumber can be found in the shed.
But there are also little pleasures. With spring comes picnics with the family. The woodstoves go cold, while charcoal grills fill the air with the seasonal scent of smoke. Kids run free and play outside, and when night comes – as was the custom in our home growing up – the parents bathe them of the grime and check their heads for ticks.
Joy feels smaller here. Expectations are managed. Passersby aren’t always inclined to smile, but they do wave and nod. Conversations are truncated and efficient. People don’t feel the need to be constantly entertained.
There are no fine dining experiences or nights at the theater to miss – let alone to protest until they “open up.” A date night might take of the form of a retired couple sitting on a front porch and sharing a bottle of wine, watching the occasional truck rumble by. No one is in a rush, after all.
Life is simple by design, by necessity, and by geography. They know the virus will come, and that there’s nothing to do but wait for it and to carry on.
Photo: G.A. Peck, 2020
There’s a saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and for good reason. Graphics can be a powerful representation, somehow distilling down what is otherwise complex and difficult to process.
This Sunday morning – on the eve of Memorial Day, when we honor our fallen – readers found The New York Times’ front page free of graphics. Yet, the image of 1,000 printed names, a mere fraction of the American lives stolen by a global pandemic, is shockingly graphic.
You may read about the Times’ editorial decision to publish this stark and poignant representation here.
As of this writing moment, an estimated 342,000 people around the world have perished from COVID-19-related illness. Here in the United States, where everything must be politicized nowadays, the figures are undermined. You’ll hear plenty of pundits trying to shirk government’s blame for its slow response, its dragging of feet when mitigation was critical.
They say things like, “If a person has a heart condition or is dying of old age and they contract the virus, are they really dying of COVID-19, or are they dying of those preexisting conditions?” Dr. Deborah Birx was asked to address this at one of the maddening press briefings. She clarified that, in cases of this kind, it is the virus that’s the acute cause of death.
This is not a controversial medical opinion. If a patient is hospitalized for an injury or illness, and while in the hospital contracts an infection and dies, it is the viral infection that kills the person, not the condition that put them there.
But there is good reason to question the figures, which are flawed and fluid, and may, in fact, be conservative estimates at this point. It is unknown how many Americans during these past few months have been sick and died in their residences, in their workplaces, or in the streets, who were never afforded a post-mortem test for COVID-19. The disease is so wildly unpredictable and adept at subterfuge, with symptoms ranging from fever and the obvious respiratory ailments to neurological and vascular breakdowns. Even younger people with no underlying conditions have died of heart failure and massive stroke.
We still have so much to learn and to understand about this virus – known to be exponentially more contagious than flu-like viruses that have proceeded it. We don’t really know how it so effectively spreads. We don’t know why those symptoms vary widely. We can’t even say with certainty that those who have contracted the virus and lived to see the other side of it cannot be re-infected.
This story is not yet written.
Because everything is so politicized and polarized in the nation today, it is not surprising that pundits have stoked the anti-media flames, accusing the Press of somehow manufacturing the story, of inflating it, and causing people to fear for their lives.
I’m of the opinion that a virus that potentially makes you so sick that you feel that you’re drowning – not for minutes, which is what it usually takes for a person to die by drowning – but hours, days, weeks, deserves a perfectly rational level of fear. But if that’s not enough to give all Americans pause, to consider the seriousness and solemnity, certainly the number of deaths should.
Our culture relishes comparison.
Those trying to diminish the virus like to compare it to annual flu deaths. Various strains of flu virus are to blame for 24,000 to 62,000 American deaths each year, measured over the course of 12 months. Nearly 100,000 people have died from COVID-19 in fewer than four.
It is true that more than 600,000 people died from cancers in the U.S. last year. But can you imagine if we simply gave up the quest for answers and cures?
An estimated 58,200 American soldiers died fighting the Vietnam War, a gut-wrenching statistic that erupted the country in protest. Can you imagine if the Press never reported on it, or never published the Pentagon Papers?
Nearly 3,000 people were slain on 9/11. Our government used those dead as opportunity to invade two countries. Can you imagine if the Press merely shrugged it off? Can you imagine if politicians and their “fans” told grieving, frightened Americans to “just move along, nothing to see here?”
I’m in the midst of writing a 2,000-word piece for Editor & Publisher magazine about how news organizations are covering the pandemic, for which I’ve spoken to a number of news organizations – from large national newspapers and broadcast companies to small community and non-profit digital publications. It has flipped newsrooms upside down, shaking them like snow globes, with more stories than they can tell falling down all around them.
Every single story today is colored by COVID-19, because the effects are far-reaching and disturbingly influential: Economics, business, labor force and unemployment. Critical public health and safety. Long-term healthcare. Education and schools. Parenting and caretaking. The food chain and food banks. The supply chain. Personal interest stories, and on and on.
And the Press must cover all these angles. To ignore them is a dereliction of duty.
It more than pains me – it makes me irate – when I see and hear people suggest that the Press shouldn’t cover this virus, that we shouldn’t even tell the stories of the individuals who died – people who lived and loved and contributed to the society in some way.
How completely selfish and vulgar it is to look at Press coverage and find it to be inconvenient and uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit into a preconceived, politically crafted narrative.
It’s insensitive, to put it mildly, to suggest that we shouldn’t tell the stories about the aftermath for their families, of grieving from afar and then alone. It’s foolish to ignore the challenges and burdens it has placed upon us, not just on commerce and businesses, but literally on every single one of us – here and around the world.
Pandemic is profound.
I think of what yet has to be told, what will be written in the weeks, months, years, and decades to come.
This morning, I look at the image of that Times’ front page, and I feel the weight of it all.
That image – the picture of a thousand words. A thousand names x 100.
Long before we found ourselves sequestered in the wilds of northern Vermont, I became concerned about moose. Though a friend who lives in Vermont describes them as “the dumbest animals to walk the earth,” I find them quite intriguing – their fortitude, their height and weight, their ability to adapt to harsh conditions, to navigate treacherous forest floors. I appreciate how the mothers care for their young, how they bed down in the snow, and I’m fascinated with how the males annually grow their awe-inspiring racks. The new antlers are covered with a soft velvet as they emerge in the spring, which the moose violently scrape during by September, rubbing them against trees until the bloody velvet falls to the ground, often taking a tree’s bark with it.
I’m intrigued by the annual rut – when hormones are on high – and how the males battle for territory. Men!
I eagerly await the first sound of a moose mating call and would likely squeal with glee if I ever stumble upon a cow and her new calf.
My husband’s coworker is stationed up in Maine. He’s a hearty sort, who spends time at a seasonal camp, hunts, and knows just about everything you need to know about living and surviving in the woods. He’s been a wellspring of information for us this year, as we learn to navigate the forest and coexist with the animals that have now ousted us from the top of our local food chain, as they say on survivalist shows.
A few years back, he bemoaned Maine’s tick problem and reported that the local moose population was being decimated by them. He said the moose up there are literally covered in ticks. Here, too.
I looked into this, and read an article about one account of a moose emerging from the forest with an estimated 80,000 to 90,000 ticks on it. I suppose math was involved in that estimation. I doubt they were picked off and counted, one by one.
Ticks are bad here, too. We have to take extra precautions – for us and for our dog – when we return from time spent outdoors.
The moose population in northern Vermont is reportedly not as plentiful as it once was. Locals here tell us that a decade ago you couldn’t drive around the region without spotting them, and that every landowner had at least one moose roaming the acreage. They were everywhere, and the signs along Vermont’s roads and highways are a testament to that bygone era. I see plenty of signs of moose out on the property – horseshoe-shaped hoof prints in the snow and mud, mounds of almond-shaped scat. But I have yet to spot one for myself. Those that remain in our forest are quite adept at keeping a low profile.
The decrease in the moose population concerned me, and even more so when I heard that Vermont was going to allow a rather generous number of moose-hunt licenses this year – 55 licenses are expected to harvest 33 moose this year.
You might wonder why a person would want to hunt a moose. It’s not for sustenance. Mounted bull moose heads do fetch a pretty penny. In St. Johnsbury, we discovered a place that specializes in all sorts of taxidermy – everything from full-standing bear to kitschy raccoons paired up and placed in little birch canoes, like they’re out for a paddle on a river.
Standing beneath a mounted moose head is humbling perspective, and well-done mounts can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But how many people have that kind of money, room, or the desire to have a moose mount on their living room walls? Is there a market for 33 of them of this year alone, I wondered?
It turns out that the reason for the hunt has nothing to do with big-game prizes, and everything to do with the tick population. If ticks can’t find a host, they move along to where they can. In theory, thinning out the moose also thins out the ticks.
As much as I don’t like the idea of gunning down a beautiful, regal, elusive beast – just out loping around in the forest, minding its own damn business – I can understand this countermeasure. If you think about it, it’s not unlike stay-at-home orders during the time of pandemic. The only way COVID-19 continues to thrive and perpetuate is if it finds readily available hosts.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not anxious to be a human-equivalent tick-covered moose, nor a dead moose. Things may be “opening up” around the country, as the idea of “herd immunity” and “culling the herd” – the sacrificing of vulnerable Americans* – seems to be gaining popularity, but I’m going to stay put for now.
How about you?
*Vulnerable Americans refers to both the elderly and people with pre-existing, co-morbid conditions. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 50 to 129 million NON-ELDERLY Americans have some form of pre-existing health condition.
You may have heard about the Texas salon owner who recently defied the State’s shutdown restrictions and opened her salon. She was arrested and brought before a Judge who referred to her actions as “selfish.” Shelly Luther explained to the Judge, who threatened her with imprisonment, that she was merely trying to put food on the table for her family by operating her business. She claimed she didn’t want to be perceived as a political martyr.
But that’s what Senator Ted Cruz created in Luther, when he alerted the media and tweeted about his trip to her Salon a la Mode today. Masked up and surrounded by Luther’s staff – all themselves in masks – Cruz sat cloaked in her stylist’s chair and got spritzed with a water bottle to make his salt-and-pepper hair amenable to scissors.
Cruz was trying to make a political point, of course – that people should defy the law and get back to work. A slick Harvard Law-educated lawyer and politician, Cruz wraps his incitement in words that speak to anecdotally Libertarian minds – “patriotism, liberty,” you know the buzzwords.
Earlier in the day, Senator Cruz had taken to Twitter to poke fun at the notion the Federal Government should pay Americans upwards of $2,000 a month until the country can safely return to some semblance of commerce and normalcy. His disdain for the idea seemingly was at odds with his prior support for the stimulus monies already approved by Congress – the $1,200 per person in exchange for a 2021 tax credit Americans would’ve gotten.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin infamously said the $1,200 payments should help families stay afloat for several months. Mnunchin has a pattern of out-of-touch and tone-deaf comments and actions. Who could forget his notorious trip to Ft. Knox, his taxpayer-funded romantic excursion with his wife to view an eclipse, and that now iconic photo of the couple practically jizzing all over a freshly printed sheet of currency?
I tweeted back to Cruz, asking if he was being prematurely dismissive of this idea. How many months could the Federal Government afford to pay Americans simply by rolling back a fraction of the bloated defense budget? Why are we always so quick to prop up businesses that don’t bank some of their profits for rainy days? Why are we so quick to condemn people and States and Cities for lacking the same rainy-day funds?
Isn’t a pandemic — already sinking the nation into Recession, and by some economists’ accounts, leading to a likely Depression – the perfect time to rethink our nation’s priorities?
I felt great empathy for Shelly Luther when she pleaded with the Judge, expressing that she was trying to make ends meet and had no choice but to defy the stay-at-home orders. I imagine she’s in the company of hundreds of millions of Americans facing the same dilemma. The unemployment numbers today are staggering.
Ian Bremmer offered this perspective on social media:
“Largest ever one-month job loss on record was 2 million (in 1945). 20.5 million jobs lost this past month.”
That is not a hole we’ll climb out of with a hasty reopening of business that have somehow endured.
But what struck me about the Senator’s stunt today and other politicians? They are being disingenuous about framing this dilemma as a two-pronged debate: Feed your family or not.
Or, Liberty versus Tyranny.
Cruz entirely missed the “elephant” in the dilemma – COVID-19.
I’ll use a personal experience to illustrate why it’s disingenuous to suggest this is a binary choice.
Without going into detail here, let’s just say that back in the late 1990s, I had a traumatic experience at a hair salon. That, combined with the fact that I never really had $75+ every month or so to get a ‘do done right, caused me to become pretty good at cutting my own hair for two decades. When I had brain surgery and patches of my hair fell out and I had to wear soft-knitted hats and scarves for two seasons, I became even less concerned with vanity and how my hair presented itself.
But just before pandemic descended upon us, my husband encouraged me to go to a salon. I suppose he’d grown tired of me complaining, “I can’t do anything with this mop,” as I brushed and ironed and inevitably piled the mess into a ponytail every day. I decided to take him up on the suggestion, and I made an appointment at a salon one town over.
I had to laugh when I went in for my first appointment with the stylist who was kind enough to work me in on a busy Saturday. The place was hopping, mostly with women in the 70s-and-up category – blue-haired beauties getting their “sets” and buying their curls. Definitively middle-aged, I was the youngest patron in the place. Debbie introduced herself and took me to get a wash, which felt heavenly. I showed her some hairstyles on my phone, and she got right to work.
As is the custom at beauty salons, Debbie was the chatty sort, and we talked about this and that. We really hit a conversational stride when we spoke about what it’s like to be a caregiver of an elderly parent. I told her the still-raw story of my father-in-law who’d passed away the prior spring, and how difficult it was to find resources and services – let alone pay for them – for our aging or infirm loved ones.
Debbie told me that she was the primary caregiver for her mother – elderly and in the throes of dementia. They shared a two-bedroom apartment nearby in town. Though her mother required full-time care, Debbie admitted that she wasn’t able to provide it for her mother, because the salary and tips she made doing hair – the only thing she knew how to do, she said – was barely enough to keep food on the table and that rented apartment’s roof over their heads.
Debbie herself had no healthcare coverage, but was grateful that her mother was able to see doctors, courtesy of Medicare. There was no possibility to have in-facility care nor in-home care. Medicare and Medicaid alone would condemn her mother in a facility that no one’s mother should have to endure. Trust me. I’ve seen them.
Instead, Debbie had to rely on the generosity of dear friends to stay with her mother while she worked or went out to run errands. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done anything social. There were no dinners out with friends, no trips to the theater, and forget about leisure travel. She’d resolved that she’d never live out her dream to see Europe.
I thought about Debbie who has likely been out of work since shortly after cutting my hair – beautifully, I might add. She’s quite talented. I wondered how she and her mother must be getting by. I wondered if they were still able to cover the rent or if they had food on the table. I wondered what would happen if her mother’s dementia might require full-time nursing care and what that decision would look like in a time of pandemic, when more than 10,000 of our loved ones have died in nursing homes across the country.
I thought about Debbie and her mother, in context to Shelly Luther in Texas, and that binary choice that Ted Cruz was championing.
If it had been so easy – to work or not – I’m confident that Debbie would’ve been at that stylist’s chair, cutting old ladies’ locks and standing on her feet for 10-hour shifts, only to go home to bathe and feed her mother, to try to get her to sleep, when sleep eluded her.
I’m certain Debbie would’ve gone right on doing what she’d been doing for years. But now, Debbie would’ve also had to take into consideration this deadly virus, and whether it would kill her and her aged mother if she brought it home with her at the end of the impossibly long day.
To Ted Cruz and other politicians who make this seem like a simple choice, maybe try sitting in Debbie’s chair next time and listen to her risk-benefit analysis – when the risk is the death of your family.