It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Publicly, the worst. Privately, sometimes the best. It was the time of Covid-19 and of goodness and nastiness.
In a small dry-country town, a health club owner whose business was ordered closed for being “non-essential” during the pandemic panic checked with the sheriff: Could she conduct exercise classes outdoors, with small groups, everyone staying six feet apart?
Midway through her first class, deputies of that very same sheriff arrive. A busybody has spotted the “deadly” and “illegal” activity and they’ve been dispatched to shut her down. Despite an appeal to both law and reason, she’s forced to end her classes.
The entire county has only a dozen cases of Covid-19 in its hundreds of mostly empty square miles.
In the same dry-country town, the only supermarket for 25 miles has a cop stationed at the door. An employee, also stationed at the door, holds a container of disinfecting wipes.
The woman, wanting to take a cart and enter the store, asks for one of the wipes.
“The carts have already been wiped,” the cop barks.
“Yes, but I want to make sure, and I also want to use the wipe on my hands.”
Cop “allows” employee to give the woman a disinfectant sheet, which she uses on the cart, then on her hands and wrists.
She starts to enter the store. The cop blocks her.
“You have to use hand sanitizer if you want to go in,” he growls.
“But you just saw me use something better than hand sanitizer.”
“You want to go in the store, you use hand sanitizer. Don’t use it, can’t go in. Your choice.”
(Why is it so often governments tell us it’s “our choice” when it’s really only Hobson’s choice?)
In a small wet-country town whose large, mostly empty county has, as yet, zero cases of Covid-19, the tiny hospital and the newly established virus testing station are having trouble getting personal protection equipment. The medical-supply networks are depleted.
A local critter doc, realizing she can purchase items through veterinary suppliers that aren’t available from human-medical channels, buys and donates face shields to the hospital and boxes of gloves to the testing station.
She also gifts a bag of specialty dog food to a client-friend when supplies dry up elsewhere. The friend in turn finds, buys, and gives to her an important supplement that’s been unavailable through Amazon or larger city stores — but happens to be in stock in the most unlikely place, the tiny town pharmacy.
When the doc comes out of her clinic to get the supplement, she’s wearing a colorful cloth mask. A client made a bunch of them and gave several to every clinic staffer.
Lessons not only in resourcefulness, but in the virology of kindness.
In the same small wet-country town, neighbors plan an “illegal” event for the birthday of a bored, scared about-to-be 12-year-old. He hasn’t seen his friends in a month and the constant drumbeat of end-of-the-world news has him terrified. His parents understand full well that the economic shut-down is political and the epidemic nowhere near as catastrophic as the media loves to paint it, but he doen’t have enough life experience to get that. (How many millions of kids are being permanently scarred by endlessly hyped plague panic?)
So one neighbor concocts an adventure — a neighborhood-wide scavenger hunt followed by an outdoor pizza party — and enlists multiple co-conspirators. Even those neighbors not participating, and not in the know about the event, observe the activity up and down the street — and not one calls the cops.
On the contrary, during the hunt, neighbors who seldom speak to each other (and one who usually avoids speaking to anybody) meet and talk.
And the neighborhood’s longest (and oldest) resident, who in some other places might resent all the newcomers and worry about them bringing plague onto her property, donates both prizes and hiding places on her large lot and observes, “You know, this is the absolutely perfect neighborhood.”
Despite the title of this post, this is not about places — not towns, nor cities, nor states, nor countries. I just happen to be reading Dickens and just happen to have nothing but bad (authoritarian) news relayed from the dry-country town and nothing but good news from the wet country.
No doubt in both towns there are people quietly doing noble deeds and others quietly, or ostentatiously, being authoritarian and stupid. (And isn’t it interesting how often authoritarian and stupid go together — as in the case of that lone paddleboarder in California, dragged out of the empty ocean by Authoritah so he could be exposed to more people and they to him?)
This is about individuals, their character, and the choices they make under stress. Isn’t it always?
It’s also about individuals acting on their own vs government and the kind of people who love to use government to enforce their own agendas.
That dry-country busybody who objected to an outdoor exercise class with all participants postitioned the prescribed physical distance apart would never, on her own, have walked up and tried to shut it down. Not even if she was standing six feet away, wearing mask, gloves, and a full hazmat moon suit. But oh, when all you have to do is call a cop to do your bidding, that’s a whole different story!
That dry-country cop, could never, as a private citizen, be in a position to enforce the completely irrational demand that a customer of a business he didn’t own treat her hands with a chemically unknown lesser substance after he’d already seen her do much more with a superior method.
Left to their own judgment, most individuals chose self-interest, and in the present case, physical distance and cleanliness are self interest. Being protective of the health of your friends and community is also self-interest. Only when government gets involved (and overreacts to absurdly overblown “studies”) do you have idiocies like slamming shut half the small businesses in the country and assuming you can just make everything right again in a month or a year with an inflationary check. Idiocies like closing health food stores (Nevada) while leaving other food stores and supplement dealers open. Idiocies like declaring liquor stores “essential” but shutting down firearm dealers (several states). Idiocies like “allowing” certain stores to remain open, but trying to seal off all goods inside them deemed “non-essential” because heaven forbid that anybody should also purchase an end-table or a tomato plant while shopping for food at Walmart.
So far, the thousands of petty (and not so petty) totalitarian wannabes are mostly getting away with it because people are scared, dazed, obedient, and way overly trusting.
“Fear is the mind-killer,” wrote Frank Herbert. He sure had that right. Press big red panic button; even smart people tend to quit thinking. Press that button and all of a sudden speaking plain sense or plain skepticism becomes thoughtcrime.
Expect the mood to change in a few weeks when it begins to sink in that rulers imposed draconian measures on most of us for nothing. When the realization hits that all this control and brutality was nothing but yet another bold and cagey power grab. When the realization hits that Covid-19 remains a nasty disease but never the apocalyptic plague the media and government told us. When the realization hits that Mom and Pop’s restaurant isn’t reopening and that the charity that ran the thrift store has to dissolve for want of income and the gym or the furniture store or the arcade down the street is never coming back. And that unemployment is going to stay at 20% or more. And that the world as we know it has ended, and victory has been declared in favor of government and against freedom.
Will we get freedom (and uncommon common sense) back when the panic subsides and people realize they’ve been had? Hardly. On a political scale, freedom will be as dead as half those small businesses that have been so viciously and needlessly attacked by government at all levels. We’ll learn to live with the new level of control and surveillance, as we always do. The recession — depression — social unrest — tyranny will as usual not be quite as intolerable as our worst predictions. But they will be long and painful. Anger will rise — and keep rising.
And always — always and everywhere — a few key individuals will set the mood for entire communities. They will set moods and standards that run against any prevailing cruelty, stupidity, and violence. They will change the course of life for others in useful and freedom-enhancing ways.
In the wet-country town I speak of, which is of course my own beloved home, Furrydoc and Neighbor J are two (of no doubt many) individuals who have created calm, creative, helpful centers around themselves. They’re doing what they naturally do, and others are responding. I see it. I benefit from it. I become a better person because of the better people around me. Others, I hope, benefit from me being better than I think I am. And outward it spreads.
Will Furrydoc and Neighbor J change the world? No way — at least not in the sense that Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Bill Gates, the Davos crowd, and thousands of other happy dictators will change it.
But they will change people, and people will change the places they love. And thus small islands of freedom are preserved in the worst of times.
Though that’s hardly a new message to come from me, this is a perfect time and perfect way to see it in action.
In A Tale of Two Cities, lawyer Sydney Carton is a drunk, dissolute wastrel. Nobody would call him a classic good guy. But if you know the story, you know he comes to one of the most noble and memorable of all ends in literature — and he gets there because terrible, terrible times have made him both a better person and a life-saving, fear-reducing influence on everyone around him. He dies; but damn, he dies well.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done.”
It’s not so much that these are the best or worst of times, or the best and worst of places, but that they are times that give us the opportunity to bring out the best or worst in our actions.