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

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Mortality In A Muddle–Fear In The Time Of COVID

Hector Pucci was in his seventh decade.  He never ever  thought that he would reach that age; but now that he had and saw from the actuarial tables that he had a scant ten years to live, he took note.  His wife, a practical, objective, and unflappable woman pointed out his error.  The average life expectancy of a man his age was indeed only 8.9 years; but he was in excellent health, his parents had both died shortly before their 100th birthday, and the socio-economic factors which favor longevity – advanced academic degrees, place of residence, race, and ethnicity – all pointed to a life span very close to that of his parents.

Hector was unmoved.  Whether he had 8.9 or 9.9 years was irrelevant.  The end was nigh, inescapable, and right around the corner.

COVID was a wake-up call.  Not only was a monkey wrench thrown into the works – not only were cancer, heart disease, and strokes ready to take him off, but something totally unexpected.  Older people’s risk from the disease were far higher than those younger, so the actuarial tables had to be recalculated.  Ten years was a stretch at best and even nine was pushing things.

There are two existential ways that people deal with COVID.  The first is to hang up the old life expectancy tables on the wall like an WWII pinup calendar and stick stubbornly to its facts.  By hunkering down, never going out, refusing visitors, grandchildren, and aged aunts; by ordering everything online for at-home delivery; by masking up inside and out, tripling social distance, and washing up like a heart surgeon, COVID is likely kept at bay.  In other words, no risk is worth dying for.  The years left are as precious as gold and should not be squandered or wasted.  It is the years that count, not how they are used.  Life has an absolute value.  Opportunity cost and risk-reward calculations are irrelevant.

 Image result for vintage calendar wwii pinups

Andrew Burnham, a former colleague and retired friend of Hector’s fell into this hard, absolute value category; but it wasn’t COVID that had cornered him.  He had always refused the economic argument of relative value.  A dollar was a dollar, he believed, and paying more than bottom dollar was foolish, ignorant, and senseless.   There was one and only one way to get from A to B, and that was the shortest, most economical route.  Forget that it might be through a warren of hard-to-find side streets and alleyways requiring constant concentration, focus, and complete attention.  It was the only sensible route to take. Any restaurant dinner over X dollars was a flagrant misuse of money.  Forget that one might go to a five-star, Michelin-rated restaurant once every five years, the sum total was all that counted. There was no give in this particular economic ethos, no flexibility whatsoever, no fanciful expenditure, no impulse buying, nothing out of the routine and ordinary.

So it was no surprise that he calculated life itself in equally inflexible terms. There was no way that any intelligent person would possibly decrease his life expectancy by even one year if he had the means to control it; and anyone who did not take appropriate measures to keep the virus at bay at all costs was negligent, ignorant, and stupid.

Betty Calvert, another colleague of Hector’s was the diametrical opposite.  Nothing had absolute value and every cost was relative.  Every risk had its proportionate rewards, every missed opportunity was much of a debit as a lost wallet.  A weekend at a top-flight resort on the Chesapeake was worth thousands more than it actually cost.  The value of Its elegance, Southern gentility, and sophistication could not be calculated .  Set high on a promontory above the Rappahannock River not far from the Bay, the Inn was a perfect anodyne to the business of K Street. 

Image result for images tides inn irvington va

And so it was at the same age as Andrew Burnham,that she threw COVID caution to the winds.  Although she was as respectful and dutiful as anyone else when it came to observing pandemic rules and regulations, she was insistent that her life would go on; and that the things that had always made her life worth living – family, the good life, church, and camaraderie – would continue to do so.  The thought of dying alone, shriveled, pasty and gaunt after months in a self-imposed penitentiary was unconscionable.

Hector was befuddled.  Just as his father’s bonhomie and Roman ‘for tomorrow we die’ Mediterranean zeitgeist kicked in, his mother’s Puritan ways pulled the curtains on whatever thought he had for la dolce vita.  Battles in his home were not over straying, cinq-a-septs, emotional abuse, or pound-of-flesh niggling; but over value.  What was the point of life if it is not to be lived to the fullest, shouted his father.  Because it is a valuable, God-given commodity not to be wasted, retorted his mother.  Poor Hector never knew what was what because let alone the insecurities of adolescence and concerns about college and the future, he had to prematurely wonder about the meaning of life. 

Image result for images fellini la dolce vita

After he got on his own, settled down of a fashion, and began to follow his instincts, he forgot the existential conundrums argued by his parents.  He ate well, slept well, was engaging and productive at work, and had paramours in Buenos Aires, Palestine, and Chad.  It wasn’t until his pull-by date, that awful moment when male sexual desire is still strong and demanding but sexual performance has begun to decline, that he began to wonder about the rest of his shortening life.  He was never one for regret, was used to the ride on the philosophical seesaw with either his mother or his father, and never counted days past or days to come.  Until now, until COVID, and until the hysteria of America in 2020.  “I’m not afraid to die” had become a political statement.  No existential diffidence was allowed in a censorious, self-righteous time.  There was a moral component to the mask, distance, and soap and water.  “I don’t want to die!” was acceptable only if it carried with it “Nor do I want you to die”.  There were more ins and outs about mortality than Hector had ever thought possible.  Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Kant had not prepared him for this hysterical free-for-all. 

Image result for Images Dostoevsky

COVID was a wake-up call.  No matter how many X’d-out days there were on his Betty Grable calendar, or how many blank ones there were ahead of him, it was time to recalibrate his settings.  There was no time for jittery half-steps now – a masked, shielded, gloved dash through Whole Foods, a socially-distanced tea in the garden with chairs and side tables set up in the bushes, filling the car up with gas at 4am.  It was sink-or-swim time, fish-or-cut-bait time; and most of all to choose up sides with his mother or his father.  Would his  final 8.9 years would be happy, carefree ones which might be cut short; or emotionally parsimonious, careful, uninteresting ones which might well even go beyond the 9.9 years?

Sorting out what’s what – the meaning of anything – is difficult in the best of times, and most of us just give the question a pass, wait till later and maybe never to figure it out.  COVID has forced our hands, forced us to play what we were dealt; and if we’re lucky we come out a few bucks ahead. 

Perhaps because his father’s dolce vita was so appealing, especially in contrast with his mother’s Salem judgments, that Hector tilted his way.  Fuck it, he said as he turned one year older, and que sera sera to you, Jack.  The good life was not so easy as he had expected.  There were too many nervous Nellies around to throw cold water on his plans, his children were spooky about infection rates, not everywhere he wanted to go was open for business; and his knees weren’t what they used to be; but it felt good to let the wind blow him wherever it would.

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