The nation's biggest deficit may not be financial, either personal debt or public debt, but instead is attention deficit. My elders predicted it back in the days of black-and-white television: They feared that movies, radio, the new TV, and electronic devices they couldn't even envision would lead to a world in which everyone would insist on being entertained all the time. Playtime creativity would disappear as kids sat like zombies in front of the TV; even adults would dumb down as they became passive receivers instead of active doers.
Opposite points can be made, of course. My generation and later ones displayed tremendous creativity, especially in communication, with the result that we now have many more mental time sinks. I'm certainly not advocating going back to a world without the internet -- which surely has proven its positive social value as we self-isolate -- but I do think that my grandparents' predictions have come true in terms of attention deficit.
This thought arose as I visited (on the phone, not in person) with an old friend who has worked at the Mango post office for decades. To my surprise, Mitzi said she is busier at work than it ever before. Like other institutions, the PO did not plan for such a possibility; workers simply were expected to continue to honor the historic postal motto: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor hail, nor gloom of night shall stay the courier from completion of their appointed rounds." Most mail these days is not urgent, but no consideration was given to furloughing these workers. They simply soldiered on.
Remember, too, that they already had been traumatized by the anthrax terror of 2001, which used the post office to distribute poisonous powder. It started in September, just a week after the 9-11 attacks. Democratic senators -- Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin -- specifically were targeted. Envelopes containing deadly anthrax were sent to their offices and elsewhere; people who opened them and inhaled the spores became very sick, and ultimately five died. The FBI botched the investigation, and even now, no one is sure the guy they got was the right guy.
And then there was the Unabomber, who used the post office to deliver his first bomb to a university professor in 1978. He randomly mailed explosives for seventeen years, during which postal workers never knew if a package they handled might contain a bomb. They nonetheless carried on, and they do so today. Unable to get protective supplies at the beginning of this pandemic, Mitzi and her colleagues hung a shower curtain over the counter. And here's where attention deficit comes in: Even with that visible discouragement to visitors, she says that people come in to buy one stamp. They excuse themselves by saying they were bored and wanted to get out of the house.
ISOLATION, NOW AND THEN
I guess Mitzi's experience shows what social animals we humans are – and yet we haven't been that forever because we couldn't be. People in the past spent much more time alone, or with only a few others. And those others weren't necessarily the ones they loved, because enterprise often requires absence from loved ones. My USF students always were taken by an example of loneliness from my Milestones: A Chronology of American Women's History. I used the present tense for that book, and under the year 1630, it says:
"Pregnant Margaret Winthrop says goodbye to her husband John, who leads the settlement of Massachusetts Bay. She will bear the baby, manage their English estate, and preserve his letters – from which a detailed knowledge of this Puritan colony can be gained… They arrange a mental telepathy upon his departure: 'mundayes and frydayes at 5: of the clock at night, we shall meet in spirit.'"
What a lovely idea! I'm not sure if they understood that five o'clock had different meanings in England and in Boston, but their attempt at ESP shows creativity and caring. I've always thought we should invest more money in mental telepathy and other forms of extrasensory perception. There could be more than we know.
When I think of loneliness and isolation, I also think of my ancestors on Midwestern prairies, who often spent weeks in their snowbound homes during winter. Weather forecasts were unknown, and it was risky to leave home. Quoting now my Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America:
"A Scandinavian woman in Wisconsin wrote that her husband had gone to town in the morning, and in the afternoon, the blizzard struck. Hours passed and no husband appeared. Finally Mrs. Jacobsen acted on a sudden impulse. Grabbing the dishpan and a mallet, she went outside and banged away with all her might. The husband who had just passed the house and was headed for an unsettled stretch, heard the noise, turned his horse back and steered for the sound. He was saved. 'It was God's finger,' said Ole Jacobsen, 'that moved my wife to act as she did.'"
WHAT ARE YOU DOING THESE DAYS?
The week before last, I asked readers to let me know how they were handling the pandemic and about their experience with earlier epidemics. Tampa native Lula Dovi was the first to respond. At age 97, she is more than competent with a computer, and she told me about an outbreak of dysentery at Florida State College for Women, which later became FSU. Except for places where public sanitation is poor, no one dies of dysentery anymore, but it used to be a major cause of death, especially for infants and youth. As with many things in her long and eventful life, Lu wrote of this cheerfully:
"Quarantine: I remember in my senior year, 1944, at Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, we could not leave campus or allow visitors on campus due to an outbreak of amoebic dysentery. No visitors were allowed from any of the nearby [World War II] air bases or anywhere else due to the highly contagious nature of the disease. We students trapped on campus got rather silly before long. We would stand out on the open arcades and throw wads of paper down on the pedestrians below. Sometimes it was also a water balloon. My cousin, Lillian Joughlin, who was my roommate, was trapped in Tampa because she was interning here as a teacher."
Mickey Castor wrote about the current situation at University Village, an assisted living facility near USF. "We're in total lockdown here, which is prudent. Our meals are delivered to our apartments, all indoor activities are cancelled, and no outside visitors, including family. We observe the 6-ft distancing rule and take our temps every day. We can enjoy outdoor activities, still at 6-ft distancing, and the lovely weather has drawn all of us who are mobile outside… Terrell is self-isolating except for coming down to my apartment for dinner and as much news as we can stand!" That would be former Speaker of the Florida House Terrell Sessums. I wish we still had smart and compassionate people like him in charge of state government. This wouldn't be as bad as it is but for the science-deniers.
David Edmonds, whose Ybor time-travel novel I reviewed recently, sent a longer message: "If you're struggling for a subject to write about, may I suggest the following – Why do so many females support our Idiot-in-Chief? He seems sooo lacking in things I thought women cared about, like decency, respect, loyalty, competence. How can females like a man who belittles women, cheats on his wife, is married to a trophy model, and says the way you get the girl is to grab her by the… well, you know. Even my super religious sisters (who watch Fox News) love him.
"I suspect part of the answer is the influence of their boyfriends or husbands. Another is that the GOP is better at lies and propaganda than Dems. Also, we liberals sometimes espouse ideas out of the mainstream that Trump can trash. Would love to hear your thoughts." Thank you, David, and I'll come back to this closer to the election. Right now, though, Hubby's condition is worse, I have to write about things that are less upsetting. But I'm joining you in inviting thoughts from others, especially women, about this important political absurdity.
I also heard from Margo Hammond, former book editor for the Times. She now runs a blog, "Creative Late Bloomers," and she devoted most of the last one to the 1918 flu epidemic. Her Scandinavian grandmother nursed a neighboring family through the illness, and they did the same for her. She still has a commemorative plate that was given in gratitude, bearing words in Danish that translate to "God Be with Us All." An interesting thing I learned: this Danish woman believed that spicy soup would kill germs. Margo said that her brother said that Mrs. Jensen's soup would kill anything, but I think it's a thought. I may add more hot spices to my diet. This another thing the furloughed data miners could work on.
I'll wrap this up with messages from my Minnesota nieces. One lives up near the Canadian border, and a lot of her elementary school students are Ojibway. She is worried about them, not only because their homes generally are not accessible to online learning, but also because we all know that the times are ripe for alcoholism and domestic violence. The other niece lives in Minneapolis, and her husband also is a teacher – of drama, music, and media. He is doing "Songs at Seven," playing his banjo and singing from their porch. About thirty people are joining in from their four-street intersection. If a magic carpet were available, I'd love to go and sing along.