Monthly Archives: March 2020

Meditations on “the new plague…”








“Their headgear was particularly unusual” – and the plague-rod helped “fend off victims…”



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Last March 12, I went to the local library and checked out a copy of The Plague by Albert Camus. (In light our new Coronavirus pandemic.)  Which book, incidentally, I cannot now return, because that library and all others in the area are closed. (Possibly “for the duration.” See below right.)

At the same time I checked out a copy of What Jesus Meant, by Garry Wills, for a bit more uplifting reading. And I also started researching more on this “plague” business.

One thing I learned was that the Coronavirus is not – strictly speaking – a “plagueRoseduration.jpg.” According to Wikipedia, that term is restricted to the “infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis.” (Symptoms for that version generally included fever, weakness and headache, similar to the Coronavirus.) But the most familiar form is bubonic plague, which was one of three types of this plague:

Bubonic and septicemic plague are generally spread by flea bites or handling an infected animal. The pneumonitic form is generally spread between people through the air via infectious droplets. Diagnosis is typically by finding the bacterium in fluid from a lymph node, blood or sputum.

La Peste book cover.jpgThe good news: There is now both vaccine and valid treatment for the plague of in Camus’ novel, at left. (Like “antibiotics and supportive care.” With which the risk of death through treatment is “about 10% while without it is about 70%.”) Not so with Coronavirus.

Not yet anyway… (And “La Peste” is French for “The Plague.”)

I also learned the difference between epidemic and a pandemic.

The web article Difference between epidemic and a pandemic went into great detail on distinctions between the terms, a distinction “often blurred, even among epidemiologists:”

  • Epidemic refers to a sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected.
  • Outbreak carries the same definition as an epidemic but is often used to describe a more limited geographic event.
  • Pandemic refers to an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.

The article also noted the term “plague” refers “specifically to a contagious bacterial disease characterized by fever and delirium, such as bubonic plague.”

But we seem to be splitting hairs here. I didn’t check out Camus’ book because it was exactly on point with the current situation. I wanted to see what similarities there might be between the 1940s Algeria described by Camus, and America today, in March 2020.

Written in 1947, The Plague describes a “plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran.” As noted in one recent review, the novel poses a number of questions about “the nature of destiny and the human condition.” The book’s characters, “from doctors to vacationers to fugitives,” all show the effects of the plague. The novel thus poses a number of questions on “the nature of destiny and the human condition.” The book’s characters, “from doctors to vacationers to fugitives,” all show the effects of a plague on a community.

For myself, in some ways my life is more relaxed with this new “plague on a community.”

With none of my sport-teams playing, there’s no “canary in a coal mine” aspect to my spiritual life now. I have no pressing need for the ongoing ritual purity and ritual sacrifice that have been such a big part of my life since 1989 or so. (See “Unintended consequences” – and the search for Truth – illustrated at right – and On my “mission from God,” from a companion blog.) 

What remains is a series of annoying but petty minor inconveniences…

The biggest example? No more dine-in lunches, or dinners, or stopping by a local bar for a beer or two before Wednesday-night choir practice. And no more choir practice, or church on Sunday either for that matter. And pretty much every morning I used to stop by a local McDonald’s for iced coffee. I liked to sip a bit out, then put in lots more ice. (From the ice machine in the dine-in area. Remember those?)

There’s no more of that, but I’ve adapted. I now bring cup-and-straw from the day before (“saving the world, one McDonald’s straw at a time”), and fill it with ice from my home-freezer.  As for dine-in, every three days a week at work now – at the local branch of Keep America Beautiful,” still open as of this writing – I take my to-go order to the parish hall of my church, around the corner. (I’m the vestry person in charge of buildings, so I have a key.) There in the peace and quiet of the parish hall, I eat my lunch and read my hand-me-down Time magazines.

All of which is, I suppose, a metaphor of sorts…

But then again, even before this “new plague” hit I was pretty much a hermit, living in a rambling four-bedroom house on an isolated acre of woodland. (It’s so isolated that I don’t have any curtains or venetian blinds on any windows. Who the heck is going to look in?)

But back to The Plague by Camus. Here’s a quote from Part 1, early in the book:

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.*

Which certainly seems true of this latest pestilence. It certainly came as a surprise.

I’ll no doubt be writing more meditations on this “new plague,” but for now the Faithful Reader is probably wondering, “What the heck is that beaked get-up at the top of the page?”

For a summary answer see Why plague doctors wore those strange beaked masks:

During the 17th-century European plague, physicians wore beaked masks, leather gloves, and long coats in an attempt to fend off the disease… [T]hey covered themselves head to toe and wore a mask with a long bird-like beak. The reason behind the beaked plague masks was a misconception about the very nature of the dangerous disease… Plague doctors wore spectacles … and a mask with a nose “half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils…” Plague doctors also carried a rod that allowed them to poke (or fend off) victims.

So much for that question. It’s a good thing we don’t believe in those silly superstitions anymore. And it’s a good thing history doesn’t repeat itself. And that we can learn so much from the lessons of the past, but we’re digressing again. So, going back to that review “The Plague” I cited above, here’s one thing the reviewer said, that seems to be relevant:

Being alive always was and will always remain an emergency; it is truly an inescapable “underlying condition…” This is what Camus meant when he talked about the “absurdity” of life. Recognizing this absurdity should lead us not to despair but to a tragicomic redemption, a softening of the heart, a turning away from judgment and moralizing to joy and gratitude.

One lesson? The current pestilence might lead to a massive change in our present national life, and especially our national political life. That is, the present “Coronavirus” might lead to a general and sweeping American “softening of the heart.”

Along with “a turning away from judgment and moralizing to joy and gratitude.” Or even a realization that there “are more things to admire in [all] people than to despise…”

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The upper image is now courtesy of Plague Beaked Mask – Image ResultsThe original upper image was courtesy of Why plague doctors wore those strange beaked masks. (National Geographic, with an article apparently “now defunct.”) The article described protective gear worn by “plague doctors:”

The costume [including the “beaked mask] is usually credited to Charles de Lorme, a physician… He described an outfit that included a coat covered in scented wax, breeches connected to boots, a tucked-in shirt, and a hat and gloves made of goat leather.

Re: “For the duration.” The image is courtesy of For the Duration – Wikipedia, about the 1991 album by Rosemary Clooney, “of songs popular during World War II.” 

Re: “Local branch of Keep America Beautiful.” See On “Mad Men” – Revisited, and a prior post cited therein, Whatever happened to … Cassidy?

Re: Why … those strange beaked masks (National Geographic). Here’s the full quote: 

In 17th-century Europe, the physicians who tended to plague victims wore a costume that has since taken on sinister overtones: they covered themselves head to toe and wore a mask with a long bird-like beak. The reason behind the beaked plague masks was a misconception about the very nature of the dangerous disease… [The outfit] included a coat covered in scented wax, breeches connected to boots, a tucked-in shirt, and a hat and gloves made of goat leather. Plague doctors also carried a rod that allowed them to poke (or fend off) victims.

Their headgear was particularly unusual: Plague doctors wore spectacles, de Lorme continued, and a mask with a nose “half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak.”

During the 17th-century European plague, physicians wore beaked masks, leather gloves, and long coats in an attempt to fend off the disease. Their iconic and ominous look, as depicted in this 1656 engraving of a Roman doctor, is recognizable to this day.

The “pestilence” quote is from The Plague, Part 1, Vintage International paperback, 1991, originally published 1947, at pages 36-37. See also “Pestilence, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

The image to the left of the paragraph beginning “So much for that question” is courtesy of Coronavirus Mask – Image Results. The image is accompanied by an article, “Solutions people came up with to try to protect themselves.” 

The lower image is courtesy of The Plague – Wikipedia. See also Plague Camus – Image Results, including the article accompanying the “american illiterati” image.

On “Mad Men” – Revisited…

A revamped ad agency – “Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce” – near the end of Mad Men‘s Season 3…

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Mad-men-title-card.jpgI don’t have cable TV. What I do have is a flat-screen TV and DVD player. And I’m cheap, so most DVDs I view come from the local library. So starting last summer I got hooked on Mad Men, the TV drama “about one of New York’s most prestigious ad agencies at the beginning of the 1960s…”

The series originally ran from 2007 to 2015. It lasted for seven seasons and 92 episodes. The time frame in the series ran from March 1960 to November 1970. Which means it brings back a lot of memories, although I was still in elementary school when that time-frame began.

The early episodes were usually quirky, sometimes funny and sometimes unsettling. Most characters “smoke like chimneys,” and the advertising executives can’t seem to go an hour without visiting each other’s office and offering each other a drink. (“They’re always getting sloshed.”) In another example, one early episode showed Don Draper’s first wife – Betty – visiting a psychiatrist. But later that night the doctor calls Don and goes over the session, nearly word for word, and closes by saying Betty is a “clearly disturbed young woman.”

The Partridge Family David Cassidy 1972.jpgIn another early episode the Drapers go on a picnic. At the end Don finishes his beer and tosses the can off into the distance. And Betty takes the family blanket and nonchalantly shakes it out, leaving the pristine sight now trashed by the family’s garbage. (Did I mention that while emi-retired, I work part-time at the local branch of Keep America Beautiful. See Whatever happened to … Cassidy?)

That little vignette really “got me riled.” (So to speak.)

But the series did get me wondering. I’m 68 now, and a few years back I got hooked on the idea of a “do-over,” going back to high school – for example – and starting over, but armed with all the knowledge I now have about all that’s happened since I graduated. That would be nice I suppose, but it might also have gotten me “burned at the stake.” (Or the functional equivalent of knowing way too much about what happens in the future. “Telephones without wires? Magical cards that you can buy things with? Somebody get the torches and pitchforks!”)

Or as Bonnie Prudden – at left – put it in one of her exercise books: Suppose you could go back in time, but in a way that you knew what was going to happen, but couldn’t do anything to change it? (If you had to go through all the good things and bad you experienced, including all the heartaches you went through “learning life’s lessons.”) 

Something like that happened as I started watching Mad Men’s Season 4. Through the magic of the Wiki | Fandom website, I could tell what was going to happen before it happened. But I also knew beforehand that if it was too unsettling or uncomfortable, I could fast-forward through it. (Like the “lipstick on Peggy’s teeth” incident.)

So, would it be nice if we could do that in real life? Know when something bad was going to happen, and be able to “fast forward” through it? Or maybe not. (As it says in Psalm 119:7, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your [God’s] statutes.” I.e., learn life’s lessons.)

Which – in a way – brings up the time I wrote the first draft of this post, last summer after I had gotten back from my May trip to israel. (See “Back from three weeks in Israel.”) 

I had just finished watching Episode 6, Season 1, “Babylon.”  It was about the day after Mother’s Day in 1960, at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency. Don Draper,the main protagonist, and his co-workers “meet with executives from the Israeli Board of Tourism to discuss marketing strategies. Don, unsure of what strategy to use, meets Rachel Menken for lunch under the guise of asking her for input because she is Jewish.” 

The episode detailed various clandestine meetings between Don and several women – he’s quite the philanderer, through all 92 episodes – including a woman named Midge.

Don, as is his habit, starts to put the moves on Midge at her apartment, but their “bout” is interrupted when Midge’s beatnik friend – Roy – knocks at the door loudly. Awkward introductions follow, with Don sitting on Midge’s bed with his shoes off. A battle of wits follows, both at the apartment and later at the Gaslight Cafe – at right – “to watch Midge’s friend perform.”

Roy – the boyfriend – ridicules Don for the “emptiness of advertising and mass consumption.” In turn, Don ridicules Roy for his youth, “vanity and flightiness.” But their bickering is interrupted when a trio of Midge’s friends take the stage. They start singing a haunting, beautiful song. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

And I said to myself, “That’s Psalm 137!”

As indeed it was, verified by the episode link in Mad Men – Wikipedia, which tells of the trio performing “a song about the Jews’ mourning their exile from Zion in Babylon (Psalm 137 as arranged by Philip Hayes).” But the really moving thing was how it affected Don, normally portrayed as the personification of worldly cynicism. And I knew of it because of a post in my companion blog, “If I Forget Thee, Oh Jerusalem.” (Which I posted on April 18, 2019.)

Which brings up the fact that – “through the magic of the Wiki | Fandom” – I now know what happens to Midge. (The lovely young brunette in the picture below.) She finds a new boyfriend, Perry, and he turns her into a heroin addict. She then meets Don outside his new office in “Blowing Smoke,” Episode 12 in Season 4. She is “noticeably skinnier,” and invites him back to her dilapidated apartment to meet Perry, “her husband.” When Midge leaves the room Perry subtly hints that Midge will do “anything” if Don buys one of her paintings. (Saying “the two of them are ‘not possessive’ of one another.”) Don gives Perry 10 dollars to buy groceries, but when he leaves, Midge says “Perry is just going to take the money and ‘put it into his arm.'”

in due course Don leaves the apartment after giving Midge $120 in cash for one of her paintings. (A lot of money in those days.) So maybe it pays not to know too much about the future. Anticipating the first Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston prize fight would have been fun; I could have made a lot of money betting on it. (Except I was only in 7th grade.) But then too I would have known about the Kennedy Assassination coming up – which I lived through again, watching Mad men – and been powerless to stop it. (Except for maybe getting locked up.)

Or knowing the lovely “Midge” pictured below would turn into a heroin addict…

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The upper image is courtesy of Mad Men Season 3 – Image Results.

Re: “Season 4.” The full link-cite is Season 4 | Mad Men Wiki | Fandom

The lower image is courtesy of Mad Men Babylon – Image Results.