Do viruses salute a flag of red, white and flu?

Describing coronavirus as a “foreign virus” seemed odd to me when I first heard it. Viruses seemed like part of the natural world, no nationality, no ethnicity, mostly to be avoided. But foreign? Do they carry passports? Do they salute a flag of red, white and flu? Did they ask for asylum before coming to the United States? And if so, why aren’t they in Mexico waiting for their court date?

Apparently this misguided notion of how viruses get around in this world is not unique to the coronavirus and its mis-namers. Daniel Defoe starts his “A Journal of the Plague Year” noting the same ill intention.

Start of Plague

We have to be suspicious of Defoe and how he describes the Plague of 1664. He was only 5 years old during that year. So what he remembers or how it impressed him as a child might not hold up too well to Snopes.com. Defoe’s career as an author and journalist had elements that Trump would love: His political enemies had Defoe thrown in prison for slander. On the other hand, the two men had several things in common: They both “participated in several failing businesses, facing bankruptcy and aggressive creditors.”

Defoe wrote the “A Journal of the Plague Year” 58 years after it happened. But he must have heard stories about the plague all his life, gathered information from written sources, interviewed those who survived and wrote it as a grown man walking through the streets of London observing what it must have been like. Literary journalism at its finest.

His version of the plague strikes a chord with what is going on today. Calling the pandemic a Holland plague or a China virus exposes that you are in denial that the sickness is here now and you must deal with it. You could do that. Or, you could say things like:

“. . . We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

“It will all work out well.”

“We have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully.”

“Well, we pretty much shut it down coming in from China.”

“Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away,”

“It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

“I’m not concerned at all. It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”

“It’s going to be just fine.”

Defoe records that those at the top in 1664 were slow to take action.

Government knew

Once the plague started getting around, concealment of sickness became a general practice.

Conceal the plague(To be continued)

 

 

Hawaii could be our only trip in The Year of the Plague

Boat whaleThe February Hawaii trip holds great fondness for me. Not just because of the successful whale-watching trip or the drive to Hana and around Maui on the once “forbidden-to rental-cars” road. The fondness is growing because it might be the only trip I take in this Year of the Plague.

All the time planning, getting camping permits, buying Kentucky Derby tickets, arranging hotel reservations, checking equipment for bike rides, kayak voyages and dreaming, dreaming, dreaming. About to be washed away while sheltering in place – as in staying home. And then Major League Rugby followed some of the minor sports by canceling its season. Tickets in Seattle, Atlanta and Denver, all in the trash.

I do have time to make my way through my reading list:

The Plague by Albert Camus

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuckman

And, of course, A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

Defoe editor note

Unfortunately, I will not be leaving these books behind on planes and in hotels as I usually do with my reading materials when traveling. When leaving the plane in Hawaii, I left behind a copy of the Ohio Farmer. Version 2The February 2020 issue had a scary story in it about “metabolic based resistance . . . occurs once weeds develop that can convert an active ingredient into metabolites that don’t kill the plant.” In other words, weeds that we can’t kill, sort of like viruses, only bigger. The weeds “continue stacking diverse herbicide-metabolism genes into their genetics,” spelling the end of chemical control of weeds, leading to a version of Tom Russell’s question: “Who’s going to hoe those beans when the Mexicans have all gone away?”

I always leave behind a copy of The Liberty Press, so people can keep up with the Mighty Tigers, the town’s sewer and water problems and a library expansion in a town of 1,000. You never know what you might read there. Did you know that the real name of the Big Bopper (as in “Chantilly Lace”) was Jiles Perry Richardson?

Who knows what good will come of my leaving behind my copy of the Washington Thoroughbred? Someone might contact www.blueribbonfarm.com to learn the stud fee for Atta Boy Roy, a horse I always liked even though I lost money on him. How could I with a horse that had both Secretariat and Seattle Slew as great grandparents? The plane cleaner who ponies up enough money to pay the stud fee might have a horse in the Kentucky Derby that maybe, some years from now, I might see run, and probably lose money on it.

We have done one trip since Hawaii, driving halfway across Oregon to deliver a grandson to his parents who had driven up from California. With Seattle University doing online classes only, the grandson, a junior at SU, went home where the governor has ordered him and his family to stay. Which seems a long ways from the Feb. 14 issue of The Week magazine I left behind at our hotel. The headline, not a lead headline, was: “China: Is it doing enough to control the coronavirus?” Yes, said an editorial in China’s Global Times. No, said the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. The dead: 420; infected: 20,000. We should remember Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist who warned about the new illness, got carted away in the middle of the night by police and accused of spreading rumors. He has since died of the disease.

The Diamond Princess has just started a two-week quarantine with 2,666 guests and 1,045 crew members. Since then, more than 700 on board tested positive for the virus.

Another headline: “Coronavirus: Should you be afraid?” No, the article said, worry about the flu.

If only.

Wolf Creek

Alex Tizon: “Great journalism from a great journalist”

Alex T. bookjpgBack in the 1990s, I was working as a news editor at The Seattle Times, putting commas in the right places, writing headlines and helping decide where to put things in each day’s edition. That last part was never a problem for stories by Alex Tizon.

“A Tizon story? Put it on Page 1. Photos by Alan Berner? Make it the centerpiece.”

I was reminded of that in a sad way on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, at the Elliott Bay Bookstore when people who knew Alex or admired him gathered to hear readings from “Invisible People,” his book of stories he had written for books, magazines and newspapers where he had worked. His work was there, but Alex was not. He died in 2017 at age 57.

His work was read by a student from Seattle University and by his younger daughter, who is a student at the University of Washington.

People who brought this book together explained their roles and why they wanted to see these stories published in a collection.

Melissa, Alex’s widow, remembered Sam Howe Verhovek, who worked with Tizon at the Los Angeles Times, coming up to her at Alex’s funeral and saying, “Don’t throw anything away. Let’s preserve his voice.”

Sam wanted future journalists to learn from the way Alex used literary techniques to tell news stories. So Sam went through what Melissa had saved, won cooperation from Atlantic magazine, the Los Angeles Times and The Seattle Times and got David Boardman, former Seattle Times executive editor, to “go to bat” for this book at Temple University Press. Boardman probably had the inside track there as he is now dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple in Philadelphia. He referred to the book as “great journalism by a great journalist.”

Several of Tizon’s co-workers and editors wrote introductions to his stories reprinted in the book. As a former news editor, I see this book is a gift to me and my memory. The problem a news editor has is trying to remember a story – no matter how good – as it flies by in the whirl of four editions a day (back then). The story is there one day, then we’re reading copy for the next day’s paper. And now, with the news running on a full 24-hour news cycle, I wonder how anyone will remember anything that happens.

But Tizon’s book reminded me of how well he could, as one of the commentators said Thursday night, take an assignment that might be a throwaway to another reporter and “find a story with anyone.”Alex T 3

I also remember that Alex still told the news. In a story he wrote about a young bride from the Philippines murdered with two others in the hallway of Seattle’s King County courthouse, he talks about the mail-order bride business, the village in the Philippines where Susana came from, her life there, her time with Timothy Blackwell, who brought her to the United States and then, outside an ugly trial to annul their marriage, shot her three times, also killing a baby she was carrying.

When terrorists attacked New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing more than 3,000 and injuring 6,000, Tizon teamed up with photographer Berner on a cross-America trip. The story I remember from that series was the interview with Birdella and Ollie May Wells, a daughter, 49, and mother, 74, sitting on their front porch and “talking to neighbors passing by.”

They were “raised on grits and church hymns.” Ollie May’s “face was as stretchy as a rubber band, her voice, happy as a banjo.” She referred to the terrorists as “Kamikazmi-nauts” and noticed that “much of America seemed to be thinking of God right now.”

“An airplane goin’ into a building will do that,” said Ollie May. “Praise be to Jesus,” said Birdella.

It’s an added delight to read the stories that didn’t pass over my desk at The Seattle Times and to reread those that did in a voice that needs to be preserved.

 

Amor Towles entertains with history, how he writes

Towles coverAmor Towles started with history.

Towles, who wrote “A Gentleman in Moscow,” told a full Benaroya Hall, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, the history of the Kremlin, Red Square and the surrounding area, including the Metropol Hotel, the setting for his novel.

The hotel opened in 1905 and was the first in Russia to have hot water in the rooms. This was during the era of “grand hotels” from 1890 to 1910, to “serve the great new wealth that came out of the 19th Century,” Towles said.

The Metropol was mostly used by Muscovites until 1917 when it found itself in the middle of a proletarian revolution. The tsar’s government housed soldiers in the hotel, with snipers at the windows. When the Bolsheviks took over, they kicked out the soldiers and all the windows.

Towles told the story of John Reed, who wrote about the Russian Revolution in “Ten Days that Shook the World,” and his checking into the Metropol. The desk clerk said that would be fine “if the gentleman doesn’t mind a little fresh air.”

When Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over in Russia, they moved the capital from St. Petersburg to Moscow, taking over three hotels to give government officials suites, making the Metropol the single biggest bureaucratic building in the country.

By 1922, the European nations were starting to recognize the Communist government as legit, opening the way for business representatives to start arriving in Moscow to start turning an agricultural society into an industrial one – and turning a profit. We can’t house these people in ratty hotels, the new Russian leaders decided, and the bureaucrats were out of the Metropol, the place was spruced up and an orchestra playing American jazz moved onto the bandstand.

The Communist leaders started hanging out at the Metropol even though it was supposedly off-limits to Russians. Towles said only about 10 percent of the Russian population belonged to the Communist Party, a status that brought multiple privileges and rights: Special stores where they could shop, schools their children could attend, or maybe a meal or a drink at the Metropol.

Ninety-five percent of the Russian population before the revolution was illiterate, Towles said, mostly peasants working other people’s lands. The Communists started a rapid reversal of that, using “five-year plans” for a quick industrialization of the country. To pay Western nations for help and material, the government needed hard currency, and it had little of it. But citizens did, stashed under mattresses, etc. in case who knew what might happen. So the Metropol was opened to all Russians, as long as they paid in Western currencies.

The decade of the 1930s was a bleak one for Russia, with the five-year plans failing and starvation taking millions of lives. But inside the Metropol, it was like “F. Scott Fitzgerald describing the Plaza Hotel in New York City.”

Towles

None of that, Towles said, is in the book.

The book is about individuals, especially the Count, the gentleman who lives through this history.

Towles came up with the idea about where to place his individual while he was working in finance, traveling to different cities to do presentations. He noticed that many of the same people were in the lobbies of hotels where he stayed as he returned year after year. In 1998, he visited the Metropol.

Next came the outline. He said he spent a year and a half designing “A Gentleman in Moscow.” His outline included a description of each chapter, what would happen in it, some poetry, some events, some language that could be used.

Having a structure for the book freed him to let his subconscious go, to choose the right words, to let the “flow” of creativity happen without worrying about where the book goes or how it gets there.

It took him another year and a half to write a first draft. “I write the first draft for myself,” he said. “Everything goes in, anything I want to do goes there.

“I had to ‘spend’ 32 years with a different person placed in a situation I’ve never been in, all presented to me through the craft of writing.”

The tone of voice of the character gets decided as Towles writes. Who Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov would be was decided when Towles wrote this passage, which appears on Page 10, about the Count being escorted to the hotel by two guards:

Version 2

“That’s the guy,” Towles said as he finished. He may be imprisoned in a hotel for the rest of his life, but he still takes charge.

What about historical research? “Pre-research,” Towles said, too often comes out as “clunk, clunk, clunk.” And he gave an example:

Let’s say you wanted to write about a child in the 1960s, arriving in the kitchen where her Mom is preparing dinner. Research would tell you what the room looked like and that the mother probably unwrapped a box of frozen Birds Eye peas and dumped them into a pot of boiling water. But what the child might remember is the solid brick of green peas, maybe some frost clinging to it, her reaction to that, her feeling toward her mother and what she might have said.

“And all that goes on in that room (goes there) so that when you go back and read it again, you say, ‘Oh, that’s when all that happened.’ ”

The research has to be there at some point for Towles to know whom the count is mostly likely to meet throughout the years in the hotel. But it never comes off as clunk, clunk, clunk.

He wrote the first draft for himself, but the revision is for the reader. Time to get rid of redundancies, use as few words as possible, clean up your own work and create the covenant with the reader. “I write with an audience in mind.”

That audience will probably be expanded in the next year or two as “A Gentleman in Moscow” is being made into a television series.

And Towles is working on his next book.