Remember When Socrates Got the Covid Vaccine?

Hippocrates, the Greek physician whose oath all new physicians must recite, knocks on the door of his good friend, Socrates.
When Socrates answers, Hippocrates enters with excitement.

HIPPOCRATES
Socrates! You won’t believe this!
Protagoras, the great teacher of philosophy,
is not getting the Covid vaccine.
And he’s telling all his pupils
that a person should not have to
get a vaccine if they don’t want to.

SOCRATES
Be careful, my friend.
Just because Protagoras is famous
and known all over Greece and the Ionian Sea,
does not mean he has knowledge of
the physical sciences, too.
You, Hippocrates, are destined to be a great physician,
and know the care that one must take
about what one puts in one’s body.
But you should take no less care
about what you put in your mind,
as you are about what you put in your body.
On the contrary, you should take more care.
For what you put in your mind will determine
the care that you take with your body.
If you only put in your body
what your reason concludes is good,
then you will never put in your body
what your reason concludes is bad.
But if you put un-reason in your mind
it will become mixed with your reason
and you will no longer be able to tell
if what you put in your body is good or bad.

HIPPOCRATES
Come then with me, Socrates.
And maybe Protagoras can convince you.

The two friends go to the house of Protagoras.
They are led into the living room,
where Protagoras and a dozen of his students
are seated. A silent television in the background
shows the Olympics.
Protagoras recognizes Socrates and Hippocrates
and welcomes them.

PROTAGORAS
Welcome, my young friends.
You are in time to hear my latest wisdom,
that I will give you both as a free trial.
Here is my teaching:
A person can decide not to get the Covid vaccine
and still be a good person.

SOCRATES
Is that so? And is that just people with medical conditions
that make the Covid vaccine riskier than not?
Or is this teaching for all people, whether they
have such a medical condition or not?

PROTAGORAS
My teaching applies to all.
No one should have to get a vaccine
if they are not comfortable getting it.
And that does not make them a bad person.

SOCRATES
And can one be ignorant towards something
and still be honorable towards it too?

PROTAGORAS (exhales loudly)
No, Socrates, one cannot
be both ignorant towards something
and honorable towards it too.
I believe that was settled the last time we met.
You do not have to rub it in.
We all know how smart you are,
and how well you did on your SATs,
and what a great college you got into,
and how proud your parents must be
of their brilliant son’s achievements.
But this time I’ve got the upper hand.
For my reluctance to get the Covid vaccine
is based not on lack of information
but on lack of trust.
I do not trust the long term effects.
I do not trust the government.
I think that this vaccine was rushed (you can’t deny it).
And the marginal benefit from the vaccine
is not that much greater than the risk from Covid.
If I get Covid, I will probably survive,
and be fine the rest of my life.
But if I get the vaccine, I’ll live my whole life worrying
about the long term side effects from the vaccine
and I might still get Covid. You’ll admit, Socrates,
that the vaccine is not one-hundred percent effective.

SOCRATES
That I will agree.
If the Covid vaccine protects against 95% of its hosts,
then 5% of its hosts got sick.
You have done your research, and reasoned well.
At least on that point. That the Covid vaccine
was made in record time, and lacks FDA approval,
and is not 100% effective against Covid, and that
we do not know what the long effects of it are
because we have been using it for not even a year
— on all these points no one could call you ignorant.

PROTAGORAS
Thank you.

SOCRATES
But if I can show that allowing your distrust in the Covid vaccine
to prevent your getting it is solely just lack of knowledge
and nothing more, will you get the vaccine?

PROTAGORAS
I will take it under advisement.

SOCRATES
Fair enough.
Now — the question of whether to get the Covid vaccine
is a difficult one.
And difficult questions are usually made easier by breaking
them up into smaller questions.
So let me begin. Would you agree, Protagoras,
that getting Covid is serious to one’s health?

PROTAGORAS
Yes.

SOCRATES
And would you further agree,
that if one is a caregiver to others,
such as small children or elderly parents,
getting Covid would impair the care
they rely on for their daily living?

PROTAGORAS
Uh, sure. Yeah, I guess so.

SOCRATES
And does the probability of getting Covid
either with or without the vaccine
decrease as each new person gets the vaccine?

PROTAGORAS
The probability marginally decreases
with each new vaccination.
I wouldn’t say it decreases a lot.

SOCRATES
But a marginal change multiplied by many people
will no longer be in the margins.
And so if no one else got the vaccine,
wouldn’t your odds of getting Covid be much higher?

PROTAGORAS
Yes.

SOCRATES
In addition to the outcome of your health
and the necessary care that your health gives
to your loved ones, there is also the outcome
of your family’s health and your friends
and anyone you come into contact with.
Should the risk your non-vaccination
pose to others be placed on the scale
next to the risk it poses to you alone?

PROTAGORAS
Yes, I suppose the risk of my giving Covid to others
must be placed on the scale along with
the risk of Covid to my health,
and the risk of Covid to my caregiving.

SOCRATES
And so if no one else had gotten the vaccine,
and your odds of getting Covid were much higher,
and the weight of those risks that much greater,
would the vaccine then become more attractive to you?

PROTAGORAS
Yes, I suppose it would given those parameters.

SOCRATES
So if your reason for not getting the Covid vaccine now
is because your chances of getting Covid are not that high,
then why did you not run out and get the vaccine
when fewer people had gotten vaccinated?

PROTAGORAS
How could I?
I was not eligible to sign up for the vaccine until late March.
And when I tried to register the wait was weeks long.

SOCRATES
So you would have gotten the vaccine,
had you been eligible when the infection rate was higher.
But because you had to wait until others got the vaccine,
the Covid rate is low enough that the prophylactic benefit of the vaccine
isn’t worth the long term risks of the vaccine to your health.

PROTAGORAS
Yes, you have stated it correctly.

SOCRATES
And what are the long term risks of the Covid vaccine?

PROTAGORAS
Who knows, Socrates? We may not find out for years.
And maybe the government is hiding the information.

SOCRATES
But didn’t private companies, not the government,
develop the Covid vaccine?

PROTAGORAS
Socrates, you know those drug companies
and the government are all the same.
They’re all friends, and all corrupt.

SOCRATES
So I have heard.
Forgive me, but I think it would be best
if Rumor did not participate in this discussion.
I take it from your silence that you agree.
Now, Protagoras, do you drive a car?

PROTAGORAS
Of course. There is no other way to get around.

SOCRATES
And does your car have brakes?

PROTAGORAS
There is no other way to stop a moving car safely.

SOCRATES
I quite agree.
Did you install those brakes yourself?

PROTAGORAS
Are you kidding? Of course not.

SOCRATES
Did you test the brakes?

PROTAGORAS
I test drove the car before I bought it
and the brakes worked.

SOCRATES
But did you design, manufacture, and calibrate
the brakes yourself?

PROTAGORAS
You know I did not. Engineers did.
And they tested the brakes, and I test drove the car,
and the brakes worked perfectly,
and have every day I drive the car,
including today.

There was some scattered chuckling in the audience.

SOCRATES
I am glad to hear that your car’s brakes work so well.
I wish you and your family only health.
And so I am worried about the long term
health of your car’s brakes.
Is it possible that the brakes have some
defect that did not show in the tests,
but that will surface only after 100,000 miles?
Or perhaps the car manufacturer knows
about a long term defect, and has conspired
with the government to keep the defect a secret?

PROTAGORAS
I suppose anything is possible.

SOCRATES
And yet you continue to drive on those brakes
given the risk that you have just acknowledged?

PROTAGORAS
Ah, Socrates, I see what you are doing here.
You think that you are so clever.
There is a difference between vaccines and cars.
I need to drive a car to go to work,
to pick up my kids, to take my wife on a date night
— you know, living life, and not just talking about it.

There was a round of applause from the audience.

SOCRATES
Yes, I know what you mean.
It is nice to go out with loved ones.
Especially now that it is safer to do so,
than it was when Covid first arrived.
But, Protagoras, I see that the infection rates
are going up, mainly from the Delta variant.
And there is an Epsilon variant, too.
Did you see that?

PROTAGORAS
Yes, I think I did.

SOCRATES
Tell me, when the rates get high enough,
so that the odds of getting Covid without
a vaccine are back at the levels they were
when you said you would have gotten a vaccine
had you been eligible, will you then go out
and get the vaccine?

Protagoras pauses, and then says:

PROTAGORAS
But Socrates, getting Covid isn’t even that bad.

Remember Going Out for New Year’s Eve?

This year I am staying home for New Year’s Eve.  Not that I would otherwise have gone out.  Going out for New Year’s Eve has always been for me a fun but long and arduous duty, with many minutes standing in cold air, far from food, beverage, or restroom.  But this year I have an excuse.  I can tell people that I really would have liked to run out into the cold, dark air and ring in 2021 with pomp and parade, and that because of the pandemic such hopes were dashed. And they will believe me.

When you stay home for New Year’s Eve, the hardest thing to do, I am finding, is to stay up until midnight.  When I was a child, staying up until midnight was more than a rite of passage – it was a way of conquering nature itself, of saying, “I will greet the new day when I will!”  And then I went through a time where staying up until midnight was nothing, because midnight was still evening.  

And now…now staying up until midnight is like holding a full can of paint at arm’s length.

To pass the time I shall take stock of the year’s doings, of what I have, and of what I’ve left undone. As for what I have, I count a total of five masks – two of them with strings knotted beyond salvation; two more that fell on the floor in a public place; and one that has acquired the odor of many lunches.  I was supposed to have ordered new masks, but the mails have slowed to such a crawl that the post office publishes guidance on making things by hand.

What will I remember most about 2020?  I think the better question is what will I forget?  Never before has a year left its mark like this one.  This was the year that I wiped down frozen pancakes with isopropyl alcohol.  This was the year that I followed arrows pasted on the supermarket floor.  

The most forgettable part of the year to me is the part before mid-March.  Those hazy months of January and February are now like a dream of some forgotten childhood, where life was innocent and free, and I frolicked about the garden of good feelings, and ate sweet fruit straight off the vine.    

The year 2020 was destined to be a year of masks and social distance, of new protocols and the end of many things that we took for granted.  As if the year of perfect vision would like corrective lenses let us see things that we had not seen before, would like an LG flatscreen display our blemishes in Ultra High Def, would like the Sword of Omens give us sight beyond sight.        

And as I pretend to wish that I was out on the town, in the crowds, breathing in their exhalations, I look towards 2021 with a mixture of gratitude, hope, and a firm resolve to stay awake for at least a few more minutes of 2020.

Remember When Planes Flew Somewhere?

Hurry!  Book your flight to nowhere! Yes, airlines, struggling financially from the pandemic’s restriction on travel, have figured out that if the problem with the flying was that the planes went somewhere, then the solution would be to offer flights that landed in the same place of departure. These flights to nowhere sold out in minutes.

Other business are following. For example, lots of people have been longing for the feeling of sitting in a subway car, a crowded subway car at rush hour.  Since the pandemic thrives most in a crowded environment, riding in a crowded subway car is no longer advised.  So for those who miss the crush of human flesh, and the hot breath from the mouths of strangers, all while riding many feet under the earth, a new company has a solution. 

lego figure in lego plane

Taking over an abandoned coal mine, this start up offers groups of no more than four at a time a short ride on a “subway to nowhere.” The employees fill the subway car with mannequins and then smear the mannequins’ faces with various foods so that the mannequins smell like real people. The mannequins are dressed in work clothes and overcoats, and the four human riders are shoved into the car.  Then the car travels thirty feet along the underground track – lights flickering on and off of course – and then stops in a real life simulation of a subway stopping for “track problems” that are announced over a grainy loudspeaker.  Business has been so good, they say, that the company has just opened a new attraction – the crowded elevator – using similar technology.   

Another activity that has been completely eliminated is shaking hands.  So a small start-up has started offering opportunities to come in and shakes hands with people in an entirely Covid-safe environment.  You arrive in a completely sanitized and ventilated chamber where you put on a spacesuit and then go into the “hand shaking” chamber where you put your be-suited arm through an arm hole where you shake a real human hand (likewise be-suited in space gear) for as long and as frequently as your pre-paid slot allows.  

And finally, for those who miss the feeling of being among thousands of people at a live event, like a rock concert or Disney on Ice, there is a company that now offers the opportunity to feel like you are at a crowded event.  The company rented out a motel, that, having had a lighter summer than usual, was available for the leasing. You come to their center and they have you go through a turnstile and then you are guided through a “self security” check where you are directed by loudspeaker to pat yourself down for weapons and glass bottles.  Then you pass through a small snack stand where you pay $15 for a hot dog and $18 for a soda sourced from the purest stream in the Himalayas.

You are then directed into the “concert hall” which is really just a chamber of cardboard cutouts of people and then mirrors upon mirrors to create the impression of thousands of bodies stretching out in all directions.  The lights are turned off, and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling makes the light dance all over so that the customer experiences an authentic laser show.  

The performance itself is placed on a small screen.  To simulate the feeling of being seated far away from the stage, the screen is very small.  For an extra charge you can zoom in to feel like you are closer, and staff pushes the cardboard cutouts closer to you so that you feel it getting more crowded.

Of course, with the recent uptick in virus cases, even the in-person fake concert business was compelled to go completely online. I can say from personal experience that although the virtual fake concert is nothing like being at a real in-person fake concert, in these times you simply must learn to adjust your expectations.  

Wow – today is exactly 10 years since I started this blog with a post about Beavis and Butthead. I remember the day like it was yesterday. Very glad to still be doing it. Thank you so much everyone for reading. I hope it’s been worth it! – MK

Remember When All Ice Cream Was Real Ice Cream?

I could not believe what I was seeing.  I rubbed my eyes, but it was still there:  Yet another ice cream shop claiming to be “the only real ice cream.”  This particular establishment’s claim to reality was based on its use of milk from cows that had not been fed hormones – that, and, I imagine, the scandalous prices it charged.

Doesn’t it seem like there has been a proliferation of these ice cream shops claiming to have the only “real” ice cream?  How can there be only one real ice cream?  If this ice cream was the only real ice cream, what had I been eating before?

ice cream cone being eaten

I did some research from my couch. Reality is not as simple as these retailers of ice cream had led me to believe.  One thing was for certain: a lack of growth hormones was not the only definition of reality.  This knowledge was comforting, but it had to be put to the test.  I would have to open my own ice cream shop based upon what I had learned.

The Real Deal (the only REAL ice cream!) opened up to as much fanfare as I could muster on a single Facebook post that took me two seconds to compose.  And a sign with this message greeted customers:

The ice cream is real because you believe it is real.  

It was an instant success.  Before long, the lines were out the door and I had to instruct my employees to be extra rude to keep it from getting too crowded.  I had a monopoly on real ice cream and I didn’t even know what flavors we had – it didn’t matter! 

At least, not until a competitor opened up across the street, claiming to have “the only really real ice cream” around.  I put on a disguise, and went to see what made this ice cream real.  At the entrance was a sign:

The ice cream is real because you can feel it and taste it.  

I bought a small cone – I couldn’t believe what they were charging for a small – and tasted it.  Yes, the tasting of the ice cream did seem more real than merely thinking about it.  My customers had left for this competitor, and who could blame them?   

After negotiating an expensive licensing agreement with the new ice cream shop to use their feel/taste formula for making real ice cream, I was glad to be back as a player in the market for real ice cream.  And my customers came back…for a day.  Because then yet another competitor opened.

No Ice Cream Is Real had lines out the door.  Once again in my disguise, I waited on line and when I got to the entrance there was a large sign:

No ice cream is real because no ice cream can prove it is real.  

And there was no ice cream for sale.  Instead, the refrigerated bins behind the diagonal glass panes were filled with slips of paper – paper of every color and thickness, with a small basket of pencils at the register – so that people could work out for themselves why no ice cream is real and therefore satisfy their craving for something that did not exist. 

And outside there were picnic tables where customers were sitting and working out on the slips of paper why no ice cream could prove it was real.  Some of them had the paper in a cone, and others in a cup. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves proving why real ice cream does not – nay, cannot – exist. It was such a simple and beautiful idea.  I could see why everyone wanted unreal ice cream from this place; it was truly the only place for real unreal ice cream.  And you would not believe what they were charging for a slip of paper.

Remember When the Trial Subscription Was Really a Trial?

Yes, the rumors are true.  I missed the deadline to cancel a free 7-day trial subscription of a streaming channel for a smart TV.  The particular channel is not important. I assure you, it was something educational.

I was not that late.  The evening of the deadline, I had been busy cleaning the coffee pot, and had become so absorbed in my work that I lost track of time.  And when I was done, I realized, Oh, I had better cancel that streaming channel.  And it was just about ten or at the most fifteen minutes past midnight.

White text on blue background that says "FREE FOR 7 DAYS"

I already had an email from the channel, containing a receipt for my payment.  I called up the channel to request a cancelation and removal of the charge.

“I’m sorry, I cannot remove the charge,” said the billing clerk.

“Surely there is some exception,” I pleaded, “some special procedure, some authority with the power to take off the charge.  Please!  My payment for Misfit Fruit is due this month and I need to make sure I have enough to cover it.”

“I’m sorry, sir.  All sales are final.  Except – “

“Yes….?”

“Except there is this process where you can request a trial.”

“Really?  A trial?”

“Yes, but I have to warn you, we don’t get very many people using the trial procedure.  Are you sure you do not want to simply pay the charge.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but in the warrior’s code, there’s no surrender.”

The trial of Streaming Channel v. Myself took place three days later.  Of course it was via Zoom video chat to maintain social distancing, and once again I had trouble with the background.  Fortunately, under the Zoom Court’s rules, the jury is sequestered until all Zoom background issues are resolved.  

As the first belligerent in the matter, the Streaming Channel put its case on first.  It called the billing clerk as a witness.

“And how are customers billed?” asked the lawyer for the Streaming Channel.

“On the first of every month, the bill goes out.  It is automatic.”  

“And what would have happened if the customer had canceled on time?”

“Then the customer’s name would have been taken off the billing list.”

On cross-examination, I asked the billing clerk if there was any empathy at the Streaming Channel for someone who was only ten or at the most fifteen minutes late with canceling the streaming service.  

“I’m sorry, I don’t have the answer for that,” said the clerk, “but if you visit our website, you’ll find a place where you can chat with one of our customer service representatives.”

The trial was then turned over to me.  First, I put my neighbor on the stand, who testified that in 25 years of living next to me he has never known me to be late in canceling anything, including a streaming television service.  It was brilliant testimony.  It should have ended the case right there.  Unfortunately, on cross-examination my neighbor was compelled to discuss our plum tree dispute from several years back, and the implied conflict of interest undermined his credibility.

Then I called a freelance technician who testified that the time stamp of the channel was not accurate.  Unfortunately, on cross-examination, the channel proved that my witness technician had an unusually high number of returns via Amazon, strongly suggesting that he ordered things just to use them once with no intention of keeping them.  I let myself have a glance at the jury – something they tell you not to do – and on their faces read nothing favorable to my side.

Finally I testified in my own behalf.  I told of my struggles at remembering to cancel free trial versions of things.  How growing up, my parents worked with me late into the night at remembering to cancel free services.  How I had forgotten to cancel a free compact disc service (remember those?) and how the experience had made me rethink my entire approach towards free services – that the service was never really free, that it was the work of thousands of unnamed and unthanked individuals who perform their jobs with diligence and dignity, and all they ask in return is that I notify them of my intent to cancel by the deadline, usually 7 or 14 days from the day you sign up.

The jury was in tears.  Deliberations lasted all of 10 minutes.  They returned a verdict of “no liability” meaning the charge would be removed, and I wouldn’t have to pay anything, and I even got a new trial subscription that I just had to cancel by the deadline.

The channel’s attorney congratulated me on my win; a professional to the end.  I held an impromptu press conference on the courthouse steps, where I thanked my legal team, expressed gratitude that justice prevailed, and closed on a message of hope. 

“My hope is that one day such efforts – such trials – will be unnecessary and people who are only 10 or at the most 15 minutes late in canceling a streaming channel can avoid a charge without having their lives tossed about.”

My finest memory of that day shall be the faces of the children in the audience, who saw at last that the system can be trusted, but that you should still remember to cancel the free trial by the deadline.

Remember When You Knew Where Your Photos Were Stored?

Where are my photos? The question had never before occurred to me. I just assumed that the thousands of photos I take with my phone remain on my phone forever. But the other day I was searching for a video I took last summer of a squirrel, perched on the edge of a dumpster, eating a french fry, just like a little person, and was told it needed to be downloaded from “the cloud.”

I called customer service. “Where is this cloud?” I demanded to know after choosing the right option from the main menu.

The receptionist took a deep inhale, exhaled slowly, and then said, in soft, measured tones: “You are not ready. It takes many years of training to be able to undertake a journey such as that. Or you could become a premium member.”

So I bought a trial-version of the premium membership and the customer service rep emailed me the instructions on finding my photos. The instructions were not quite what I had expected. Here is the summary: I would have to journey to the Cloud – a long journey through hill and dale, forest and meadow, brook and stream and river, over perilous seas and scorched desert sands, and climb the great mountain at the top of which stood the Cloud. And there I would the king, the King of the Cloud, or Cloud King as he preferred to be called, and ask him to show me where my photos were located.

I left at dawn and journeyed through a forest, and then the hillsides, and then the foothills of a mountains. There I camped, and built a fire, and made S’mores by the fire. Then I curled up under the stars, and dreamed that I was eating at a fancy restaurant with my digital photos.  The digital photos kept ordering food, and I had to keep going into the kitchen to make the food.  In the last scene, I was balancing many plates on a large serving tray, and being very worried that everyone could see me struggling under the weight.

I climbed the mountain the next morning, all the way to the top, and there at the very top, where the air was thin and wisps of cloud surrounded all, was an enormous castle, and inside was an enormous throne room, with an enormous throne upon which sat an enormous king, the King of the Giants.

“Greetings,” he said.  “I understand you are come to Giant Land to discover where your photos are being held.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Wait…how did you know that?”

“The Cloud knows all. If you wish to find your photos, I will show you…but only if you can defeat us in contest. First, you must run a race against Thialfi, my swiftest runner.”

I looked at this Thialfi.  He did not look very fast, and I had been doing 30 minutes on the elliptical a few days a week, so I felt pretty confident. The photos would be mine in no time.

The King clapped his hands, and the race began.  Thialfi ran very fast, and in a moment was far ahead of me.  After a few seconds of intense running, I felt a sharp cramp, and had to slow down, and was walking slowly while clutching my side that I shuffled across the finish line that was marked off by two winged dogs that legend said to hold in their mouths the virtues of Temperance and Truth.

The King watched me gasp and heave for a few minutes, and when I had regained my composure, said, “Well, let’s move on to the second contest.  You must engage in a drinking contest with Thor, the lightening god who is also good at drinking.”

I thought it rather unfair to set me against a god who is known for drinking, but I held my tongue, and hoped if the beer would be cold. I can drink beer only if its really, really cold.

We were brought each a large horn filled with beer.  I am not kidding.  A horn, like that would come from a giant…I don’t know what.  A giant ox?  Do they have those?

Again the king’s assistant clapped – he looked like he enjoyed this part of his job – and we began the drink.  Thor tipped it back and drained the entire horn in one draught.  For a good ten, maybe twelve seconds he was dumping beer down his throat.  I could see the gulps going down his neck as he tipped his head back.  Glug…glug…glug.  

I had put the beer down after a sip – it was very bitter and although I don’t mind a good IPA once in a while, it is usually too hoppy to take down in a large gulp. I was munching on pretzels and getting ready for another good sip when Thor turned his horn over towards the ground and showed all that he had drank the entire horn of beer.

“Well, that was two out of three,” I said, trying to be a good loser.

“One chance remains,” said the King. “For the third and final contest, you must pick up my cat.”

“Your cat?”  How hard could it be to pick up a cat?

They brought in the cat on a wheelbarrow roughly the size of a small car.  The cat, a grayish brown tabby with a white belly, was asleep, curled up in that ring shape, you know where they curl up on the side in a perfect circle, looking like a big furry button.  Very carefully they tipped over the wheelbarrow – it took several men to lift it even that high – and slip the sleeping ring onto the floor.  The cat did not awake.

“Now,” said the King of the Giants, “try to pick up my cat.  If you can do it, I will show you where your photos are kept.”

I took a few cautious steps towards the cat. I have learned from experience that you should not touch a sleeping cat.  And then I had an idea.  I stood a few feet away from the cat, and said, “Psswss, psswss, psswss,” I said.  “Come get your food!  It’s out of the can!”

The enormous cat woke up at an instant and ran over to a corridor on the other side of the throne room, past an arrow labeled “Kitchen” in medieval-looking block lettering.

The king shrugged his shoulders and said, “All right, I guess that counts.  Very well.  I will show you where your photos are being kept.”

One of the king’s servants stepped forward holding a pillow upon which was balanced a laptop.  With the servant supporting the bottom of the pillow, the king flipped up the laptop screen, and began typing on it.  After a few moments of typing, he motioned for me to come over to his side so I could see the screen.

“There,” he said.  “You see that folder down there marked ‘Photos’?”

“Um, yes.”

“That’s where your photos are.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Well, thank you.”

“But beware!” said the Cloud King.  “Many a traveler has become trapped by the photos.”

I nodded politely at the advice and then went home with my photos. I still haven’t looked at them. Five-thousand photos doesn’t really seem like much until you actually start to look at that many one by one. I did, however, find the video of the squirrel eating the french fry. I know that all my friends would love to see it.

Remember When You Could Eat Inside a Restaurant?

“Curbside pickup only” said the warning at the top of the online menu. It was our favorite restaurant, and I had many cherished memories of enjoying fine meals among fine decor, getting recommendations from the polite staff, and asking my kids to stop standing on the seats and staring at the other diners.  But all that would now have to be packaged up in those plastic containers with the clear tops, stacked up inside of a plastic bag with a yellow smiley face.

I won’t bore you with the travails of online ordering – navigating the different sections, managing the options available with each meal, adding items to the cart only to find the items either doubled or disappeared, trying to create an account and being told that I’d already created one, re-setting the password and having to start all over again while the kids asked if the food was here yet.  Soon I had placed the order and, after a frantic search for my mask, was on my way to the restaurant to pick up our curbside dinner.

I pulled into the parking lot, pulled into one of those spaces labeled “curbside pickup ONLY” and waited.  There were a few other cars there.  I looked over through the windows of one of them and saw the driver wearing a mask.  The driver looked back at me and I quickly put my mask on, too.   

For a few minutes I sat there quietly and reflected on the whimsical nature of life. Then I wondered when they would bring out my food.  Wait a minute, how were they to know I was here?  Didn’t the email confirmation instruct me to call when I arrived?

I felt around for my phone but it was not there.  In my hurried search for my mask I must have left the phone at home. And if dining inside the restaurant was prohibited, then surely they would not want me going into the building. So I found an old receipt on the floor of my car, and on the back of the receipt I wrote “Hi my name is Mark. I forgot my phone. I am here to pick up my order.”

The restaurant had a large window at the front, and through it I could see a few people busy putting containers of food in bags. I went up to the window, held up my sign, and knocked on the glass to get their attention. An employee came over and, through a mask, yelled at me to stop. I pointed to my sign.  The employee pointed towards the parking lot. I was about to write more on the sign when I remembered that the online order form had made me specify the make and hue of my vehicle.  

I got to my car and saw that another restaurant employee was already there, wearing a mask, and holding the plastic bag with the yellow smiley face. If eyes above a mask can look annoyed, this employee’s did. The bag of food was held out for me to take it, but there was no way I could take it from six feet away. So instead I used my remote key fob to open the trunk and pointed to it.

Suddenly, I remembered that a few months before I had finally cleaned out my old bedroom in my childhood home, and the trunk was still full of boxes. I had intended to go through the boxes at some point, but with the pandemic and everything I had just not found the time.

Waiting a polite second for the restaurant employee with my food to step back at least six feet, I stepped forward and started going through the boxes right then and there, grabbing stacks of chemistry notes, and review books, and quizzes marked up with lots of red ink, and shoving the stacks into the back seat of my car, and it was only after the restaurant worker dumped the bag in my trunk – rather abruptly, I thought – that I realized that I could have put the food in the back seat and gone through the boxes when the pandemic was over.  

When I got home I asked for the isopropyl alcohol, but my wife said I’d used it all, and gently took the bag from me and started taking out the food. I was washing my hands when I heard her gasp. 

Instead of our dinners were four ice cream sundaes in four plastic containers.  I checked my email and saw that I had indeed ordered four ice cream sundaes by accident.  In my haste I must have tapped “Get It Again!” on a previous order.  So it was ice cream sundaes for dinner. Well, at least the kids were happy.  

Remember Your First Zoom Meeting?

When the coronavirus pandemic hit and everything was closed, and everyone sent home and ordered to stay away from each other, I thought to myself, “Well, at least I won’t have to sit through meetings for a while.”  I was wrong.  The video conferencing service that goes by the name of Zoom was there to make sure that even a pandemic would not stop our sacred ritual of wasting each other’s time with meetings.  

What is innovative about Zoom is that you waste time not only with the meeting itself, but in joining the meeting as well.  I learned this on my very first Zoom conference when I spent a half-hour trying to find the link to the meeting, sifting through daily news digests (“Batman Spotted Not Wearing a Mask”) and take-out coupons (“Fight COVID-19 with our baby back ribs!”).

I was sitting in my living room, and as I was just about to join the meeting, I noticed that behind me the kids toys were strewn all about the room.  Having the Shimmer and Shine Palace bedecked with Peppa Pig figurines and piles of Disney princess gowns and magic markers without caps behind me would not look very professional, so I spent several minutes selecting a more suitable background.  

After trying out several different backgrounds to find the one that best showed off my unique mixture of professionalism and panache, I selected a photo of the outer Solar System, and with a few clicks I was snuggled in between Jupiter and Saturn.  Only then did I feel comfortable joining the meeting.  All of my co-workers appeared on my laptop screen like talking heads on a cable news program.  A little rectangle labeled with my name appeared too, but I was not in it.   “We can’t see you, Mark,” someone said.  I employed my usual method of dealing with computer issues and clicked lots of buttons at random while crossing my fingers, and finally my own talking head appeared…without my groovy space background. 

Something must have malfunctioned, and instead of the two ruling planets, my background was the living room with the kids’ toys all about: the Shimmer and Shine Magical Light-Up Genie Palace, bedecked with a melting-pot of Calico Critters and figurines from Peppa Pig and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and sparkling Disney princess gowns all over the floor, as if there had been a fire sale at JCPenney, and magic markers without caps, and a tower of Legos that was in violation of several building codes, and about seven thousand puzzle pieces blanketing the coffee table and couch, no two pieces interlocked properly.  Even in their small rectangles I could see my co-workers stifling laughs.  

I started to explain that this was obviously some kind of malware designed to make good hard-working people such as myself look like they have let their kids leave their toys all over the house.  “We can see you, Mark,” someone said with a stifled laugh, “but we can’t hear you.”  There was more laughing, not so stifled. I played with the settings some more, and discovered that I needed to set up a microphone. 

Why didn’t anyone tell me I needed a microphone?  Where was I going to get a microphone?  I searched on Amazon and found one – an Amazon Prime “bestseller” with a 4.8 rating and free returns – but the expected delivery date was in November and this meeting was scheduled to last no more than an hour.

I started to write out my words on paper so that I could hold them up to the camera, kind of like a silent film.  I grabbed the closest writing implement — a glitter-infused red magic marker with a heart-shaped tip — but, alas, it was out of ink.  As was the blue, green, orange, and purple.  Markers, markers everywhere, and not a drop of ink!  

I needed to find a microphone.  They had gone ahead and started the meeting “while Mark sorts out his technical issues.” This was quite frustrating to me since I have always liked offering unhelpful advice on other people’s projects.  I needed to find a microphone!

And then I saw it, in a corner of the room.  The Disney Princess Bluetooth Portable MP3 Karaoke Machine Player.  A white plastic console decorated with a composite of female leads from several Disney animated features of recent vintage, and, best of all, a corded microphone.  I grabbed the microphone like a drowning man grabs a life preserver, and discovered to my glee that the microphone used a USB connection.

I plugged the microphone into my laptop and began to update everyone on the projects that I hadn’t really been working on during the lock down.  But my boss interrupted me.

“Mark, I don’t understand…are you singing…is that a song from Moana?”

I stopped and realized that I had indeed been singing a song from Moana.  Checking the microphone, I saw some fine print that read “Terms of Use: Only Disney songs may be sung on this device.” I shrugged my shoulders, finished the song, and decided that maybe meetings over Zoom weren’t such a waste of time after all.

Remember When You Did Not Have to Wear a Mask?

“Do I really have to wear this?”  I asked aloud, at home, to anyone who was not already sick of my voice after two months.  “You know now they are saying that the mask actually increases the spread of coronavirus.”  I searched on my phone for where I read that, but instead there was a notice that the article had been taken down for violating the site’s terms of use.  They just don’t want us to know the truth.

I searched online for a mask, but the cost was $39.99 and would not arrive until November. So I tried on one of kids’ Halloween masks and went outside. I felt protected from coronavirus, but my face began to sweat and so I was able to trick-or-treat at only a few houses.

Then I tried a scarf that I found stuffed into a corner of the coat closet with assorted winter gloves and hats. I wrapped it around my face, and could not breathe. I searched the internet for the proper way to wrap a scarf around your face. The top result was an article that began telling me about the history of the scarf. The second result began telling me about why wearing a scarf was a good idea. The third also began telling me why wearing a scarf was a good idea. The fourth result showed the different ways that scarves are worn throughout the world. The fifth was another article that began telling me about the history of scarves, but with more typographical errors than the first.

Over a cup of coffee, my ninth of the day, I remembered where I had last seen a mask. Downstairs in the basement was something classified in my brain as “the paint stuff box.” Inside the box were paint rollers, and those plastic rolling pans, and a roll of blue painting tape, and those little squares of paint color samples with names like “forest glen” and “ocean wind” and “scarlet sunset” and…a mask!

Like Heinrich Schliemann after he unearthed the face of Agamemnon, I was overjoyed and considered sharing my discovery with several archaeological journals. The mask was bluish white, made of a hard felt and shaped like a cup, with two thin elastic bands in the back. It was quite uncomfortable to wear, and my glasses kept fogging up, and I had to wipe them repeatedly without touching my face, but otherwise the mask was perfect.

The first place I went with my mask was the supermarket. Every person there, customer and employee alike, was wearing a mask, and every mask had a different pattern. A mask with a flower pattern. A mask with a plaid pattern. A mask with a skull and crossbones pattern. I felt like I was at one of those parties that they call a masque, spelled like with Q-U-E at the end, and the masks are held up not by elastic around the back of the head, but with a little stick affixed to the side, and the mask covers just the area around the eyes instead of the nose and mouth.

And then I thought of something that would cheer up everyone. I could host a masque, covid-style!  Everyone would wear their masks by holding them to their faces with a stick attached to the side of the mask.  And instead of music, I would re-play Governor Cuomo’s daily news conference in an endless loop.  And the dancing would all be individual, with only four people on the dance floor at any one time.  And for food…well, I would tell everyone to eat before the party. 

I wrote the invitation in a broad, flowing script with a calligraphy pen, took a picture of it, and emailed the picture to all of my friends. Almost immediately I got a response. Someone I had never met in my life had posted the invitation on Facebook and added the comment “Nice to see people observing social distancing. Sheesh!” Within an hour my invitation had a million shares and was being attacked in the form of a meme so clever that I shared it myself.

I was subjected to a digital public shaming until I agreed to withdraw the invitation, issue an apology, and attend mandatory social distance training. The training was via Zoom video chat. At least I would not have to wear a mask.

Remember When Kids Went to School at School?

The first thing I told my kids was that, contrary to rumor, this substitute teacher was not taking any abuse. “Things will go on exactly as usual,” I said, and pulled out the lesson plan that I had written in my daily planner. The planner was for the year 2007, and was mostly blank, as I had apparently preferred to live 2007 the seat of my pants. But I always knew I would one day find a use for it, and that day had arrived.

As I began to read aloud from my list of assignments based upon my best recollection of elementary school – “Penmanship…Show-and-Tell…Gluing Things to Other Things” – I was advised that the day’s assignments were in an email from the teacher. I checked my inbox and, lo and behold, there it was, sandwiched between a daily body count briefing and a coupon from TGI Friday’s for 25% off family meal boxes to go.

The email had been composed in comic sans, and the first assignment was to have your child complete level one on a reading website called Do Re Me Like to Read, where you completed sentences by controlling a digital frog avatar that hopped from word to word. But the username and password were in a different email, and I could not find the email. I spent twenty minutes looking for it, and when I finally decided that the reading lesson was over, I saw that the kids had found the iPads hidden in the cabinet with the salad bowls, and were watching those toy reviewing videos that seem to have neither beginning nor end, and it took the promise of something on the order of changing the tides to earn their attention back.

The next assignment on the list was math, and for this we were to visit a website called “Math-teroids” where your child controlled a space ship that flew through an armada of numbers. A math problem would appear at the top, like 5 + 3, and you were supposed to shoot laser beams at the number 8.

But the game required that I run the latest version of my browser, and when I tried to update the browser, I was told that I needed to have administrator privileges. And after I figured out how to activate such privileges and updated the browser, I was told that I needed to install a certain plug-in. And after I downloaded the plug-in and waited for it to install, I noticed that the kids had found the iPads where I’d hid them under a stack of flattened Amazon boxes, and were now transfixed by a video of a family that decided to dress up as unicorn elves for Christmas and share their experience with the world.

The next item on the list was a science project. We were going to simulate the water cycle in our very own homes! Just fill a clear plastic sandwich bag with water, seal it shut, and tape it to the window. The project seemed straightforward, except that we had no clear plastic sandwich bags, having opted months earlier for environmentally responsible bags made of beeswax. So I filled one of these beeswax bags with water, sealed it shut with the natural heat of my hand, and taped it to the window. But tape does not stick well to beeswax, and the bag fell, and we ended up simulating just the flood part of the water cycle.

The last assignment of the day was story time. Now here was something I could do: simply find an age-appropriate story and read it to the children. I knew that kids like fairy tales, so I read them a story that I picked at random from a beautiful book titled “The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales” that had been sitting on our shelf for years. When I was finished reading the story – a riveting tale about a very hungry wolf and some very gullible goats – my kids weren’t looking for the iPads. They were staring at me with eyes wide open, mouths agape, and bodies perfectly still. At last I had their undivided attention, the kind of breakthrough that makes the hard work of teaching all worth it.