Covid-19 Unmasked: We’re Really Talking about Climate Change

My new haul of notebooks (50 cents each).

Writing on paper has magical qualities.  Putting the pen to the page has the  preternatural ability to tell us who we are. My brain fuses feelings with thoughts and grief I’d rather not acknowledge.  Screens screen us; paper reveals.

Fall is the time to buy office supplies on sale, so I have written by hand frequently this month.  I bought some composition books (50 cents each).  I’m not writing a diary.  Yet I write about what I don’t want to think or talk about:  Covid-19.  And I recently scrawled a few notes on a  conversation with another Covid-obsessed friend.

“What will we do when we can’t meet outside?”

“Go inside and wear masks.”

“I don’t think this will end, do you?”

“Not in this lifetime. We’re lucky to have made it this far.”

“This isn’t so bad comparatively–if you stay home.”

“If it ends, it will be more climate change events.”

We were being bores, but the shadow of Covid-19 hangs over us. I want to be distracted, and then I find an article about midwestern hotspots, or read about new outbreaks in Italy.

So many factors underlie every conversation about the virus.  When we talk about Covid, we are really talking about climate change.  In the wake of deforestation and urban sprawl, the chance of viruses jumping from wild animals to human beings has increased.

And it’s not just viruses: scientists predict more terrifying weather events. Hurricanes, tornadoes, derechos (inland hurricanes), more floods, more wildfires, and extinction of species.  Did you read about the starving birds dropping dead from the sky in the Southwest?  Now I did cry about that, though in general I’m against crying.

People have not been at their best during the pandemic.  Don’t take me literally on human behavior, which I don’t pretend to understand, but human beings are unpredictable, sometimes helpful in emergencies, other times raging and violent.  We can agree on one thing we’ve learned from the pandemic:   people all over the world hate staying home.

What do we see in the future?  Perhaps more protests against lockdowns, masks, and vaccines, or more protests like the sympathetic Black Lives Matter movement, or unsympathetic events like the motorcycle rally in Sturgis.  Perhaps there will be even more connectivity to electronic devices–people need distractions.

Alas–and I know I’m not supposed to say this– gathering in crowds has the potential to spread the virus.  The truth is, people are in denial.  It only hits home when when large numbers are tested (as they have been at the universities–terrifying), or when someone you know gets sick.

And so we wash, we wear the masks.  Yet I worry about the isolation of people who gathered in libraries (now closed) for a quiet hour, attended yoga classes at community centers, or  took  continuing ed classes. Continuing ed is a regular Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And now I’ll go write something frivolous and bubbly to lighten the mood.  People used to call me effervescent.  Wow, that was a long time ago.   I doubt I’ll recover that quality–“not in this lifetime,” as my curmudgeonly friend and I like to say.

Do You Speak Bear? and Other Musings on Languages

“Don’t worry! I just came to tell you I’m not like other grizzly bears.”

There cannot be, as far as I’m concerned, too many translated books. We would love to read our favorites in the original, but that would require an all-consuming love of languages, not to mention talent, in an age when universities  have targeted language departments for budget cuts.  Spanish is, oddly, the sacrosanct “practical” language: the college presidents may imagine students are conversing with illegal migrant workers, or ordering drinks in Spanish in Cancun (though spring break is canceled next year).

I wonder if the American lack of interest in languages is, to a large extent, because we travel so little. Certainly, this was true when I was growing up. Family travel was expensive: if we felt like a trip, we went to the funny, charming movie, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.” (It’s still one of my favorites.)

When we did travel in those halcyon days of the 20th century, it was likely to be a camping trip in Montana (where we didn’t speak Bear) or camping in Canada (where we still didn’t speak Bear). In fact, I was happier at home studying dead languages (ancient Greek and Latin), which, like Bear, are seldom spoken by humans.

Few stumble into classics of their own accord. (They’d rather speak Bear.)  Literature in translation is the lure. Where would we have been without a Classics in Translation class? How many of us rushed to sign up for Greek or Latin afterwards? We owe it to Richmond Lattimore (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), David Grene (Sophocles’s Oedipus the King), Robert Graves (Apuleius’s The Golden Ass), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Rolfe Humphries). Today we have other brilliant translators: Betty Rose Nagle (Ovid, Statius), Robert Fagles (Homer and Virgil), and Anne Carson (Euripides).

It turned out we loved the grammar and translation.  We especially loved our summer Ovid class, which tipped the scales in favor of Latin, though we studied both.  Once you’ve read Ovid, there’s no going back. “We’re the Ovidians!” (I wish I had the T-shirt.)

And it’s not just ancient classics, of course. There are so many classics we love in translation. I am a fan of Tolstoy’s War and Peace:  you should see my collection of different translations. (My favorite is the Maude, but I also recommend Rosemary Edmonds.) And then there’s Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter (Norwegian), Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog (Russian), Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (German), Balzac’s Cousin Pons (French), and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (Japanese). Some of my favorite modern translators are Tina Nunnally, Lydia Davis, Ann Goldstein, Juliet Winter Carpenter, and Lisa C. Hayden.

I still don’t speak Bear, but I am grateful for the many languages that reflect the cultures and literatures of our world.