"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Fraidy Cat, Fraidy Cat–Afraid Of One’s Own Shadow In The Time Of Corona

“Watch your edges!”, said Albie’s grandmother as he peered over the balcony to watch his friends playing by the pool.  “Watch your edges!”, she said again as he stood on a chair to reach the sink and wash his toys.  “Watch your edges”, she shouted as he went off down the alley on his bike.

“Never run with scissors”, she reminded him.  “Always walk with your toes up so you’ll not trip on the rug”, and “Chew each mouthful twenty times in case I missed a bone”.

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Of course the more warnings she gave, the fewer Albie listened to, all according to the childhood Law of Diminishing Returns.  The more his grandmother harped, the less he paid attention. Good advice was lost in the inconsequential, and finally the whole idea of risky behavior got neutered before Albie was even ten.

Ironically because of his grandmother’s hectoring, Albie took more risks than the normal young boy.  He rode his bike faster, climbed higher trees, skateboarded down steeper hills, bushwhacked through denser woods, leapt over wider gorges and skied off-piste on the double-blacks. He became an Xtreme mountaineer, mountain biker, and snowboarding daredevil.

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Overdoing it inevitably has the same results – nobody listens.  The mother of a friend of Albie’s had this thing about girls – you could get them pregnant, you could catch a disease from them, they could snooker you into marriage and once they got you there bleed you dry.  “You’ll soon find out”, she shouted when he saw her son behind the tool shed with Annie Filbert or smelled cheap perfume in her station wagon.  Instead of the witches women were made out to be by the boy’s mother, they became an irresistible, intriguing, special species.  There must be something behind all the bloviating that his mother wasn’t telling.  The Law of Diminishing Returns again – the more his mother banged on about the dangers of promiscuity, the less he paid attention; and of course he paid the simple, sweet, engaging, honest girls in his class – the only girls his mother approved of – no mind.  He went out with the outlaw girls from East Brighton who would love to sink their hooks into the West End, wealthy, Ivy League-bound Harvey. What was the fun of sexual conquest if it meant only careful, temperate, well-thought out moves? No, he was better off with the boilermaker’s daughter from Ellis Avenue who was coy only up to a point and then undid his buttons.

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In fact, the more he dated risky girls, the more the good girls wanted him; so he fished from both sides of the stream.  He was the bad boy in town, the one even the socially hungry mothers from across the tracks warned their daughters against; and Harvey had himself the time of his life.  Risk was not all it was cracked up to be.

Risk is a funny thing.  Everyone views it differently.  The risks one person takes, another avoids.  Harvey would never have traipsed up a mountain farther than the first Bierstube while Albie would never have gone near the skanks at the Bowl-o-Rink on Arch Street.

The reason why Harvey’s mother was so down on her own sex was because of his father who constantly risked his marriage with casual cinq-a-sept liaisons, séjours with dark women, or even with a cheap thrill here and there.  He risked getting found out by jealous husbands, getting rolled in Marseille, declared persona non grata by the Romanian Minister of the Interior whose wife had joined him in Paris for a week-long affair, and getting caught cheating by his wife.  It was all worth it, and as their marriage went on, the chances of her leaving him grew less and less.  To compensate for this dialed down danger, he increased his risk, slept with women he had no cause to, was more and more public about his assignations, and was as bad a lover as there was at Chase Manhattan. 

A World Bank colleague and friend of Harvey’s had worked in the developing world for many years – over fifty countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean – and had never thought twice about the high risks associated with his business. Malaria, dengue, schistosomiasis, cholera, and HIV/AIDS were endemic.  Kidnappings, crime, civil unrest, coups, and horrific traffic accidents were common, usual, and accepted as a way of life. Never once did he balk at travelling to a country unless it was in all-out civil war.  High risks were par for the course.

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Neither Harvey nor Albie for that matter saw any point in travelling to these pestilential, irremediable places.  The risks were simply unacceptable.  Why risk one’s health and life in these poor, blighted, benighted places for little in return?  Of course Harvey’s Bank friend thought differently.  Life in America and Europe was far too tame for him.  The untamed, lawless, and ungovernable countries of the Third World offered the romance and excitement he never could have at home; and love in a tropical climate, listening to the voodoo tom-toms in the hills above Kenscoff from the balcony of the Oloffson, drinking rum punches with a lovely Haitian princess was inestimable, and never replicable in Washington.

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So it was not surprising that none of these three men carried on as if the Corona virus had not disabled most of the world.  Yes, they took proper and reasonable precautions – they were risk-takers not daredevils – but refused to be cowed and timid in the face of the disease.  They knew that the actual risk of infection was low for any one individual; that the rate of physical symptoms even rarer; and the chance of death for any healthy person almost negligible.  At the same time if one did get a serious case of COVID-19, it would be no fun indeed.

None of the three scrubbed down their credit cards after use, left mail in a bin on the porch for three days before opening it, or scrubbed steering wheels, kitchen counters, bannisters, and doorknobs with Clorox twice a day.  They walked in city neighborhoods where mothers, fathers, and children were walking, runners and bikers were exercising, and people were taking the sun.  They kept their distance, avoided clusters, and went on their way.  They knew that a downdraft by an infected runner could carry the virus; that a stray spore could remain on their shoes and be in the spot that they dropped the cheese; that another could stick to a sweater and jump to another with a hug; but what were the chances?

Had Albie’s grandmother been alive during the time of Corona, she would have been disassembled – fragile, uncertain, worried, and afraid.  She was at one end of the risk scale, her grandson at the very other.  Risk assessment has become a scientific discipline and the basis for investment and military action.  Sophisticated algorithms have been applied to ever enterprise with some data base and levels of risk calculated.  Ordinary people have no such tools and are at the mercy of their grandmothers, parents, nature, and experience.  They are susceptible to media reports, viral information, hearsay, and fake news; and the panic is exponential.  Once fright takes hold, it increases out of proportion to risk. 

None of this is to downplay the seriousness of Corona.  Many people have died a suffocating death and no one wants that fate.  Yet the chances of dire consequences in this Spring of 2020 , if one does not count the draconian shutdown of the entire world economy, are few and far between. Of the many mortal fates out there – heart attacks, cancer, traffic accidents, seasonal flu, crime, gun violence, and much more – Corona is but one, more probable than some, less probable than others, not to be taken lightly but to be considered within a larger existential scope.

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As of this writing Albie, Harvey, and their World Bank colleague are still alive and well; but risk assessment is only one of probability, so who knows?

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