Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Coronavirus in Kansas: A Week of Triage

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

This has been a week of triage for our city.

With the Sedgwick County Commission at first resisting and then finally submitting to medical opinion (and political pressure) regarding the need to order many businesses and places of public gathering to close for the sake of minimizing the potential spread of the coronavirus on Monday, the other shoe--which every small business-owner and all of their thousands of supporters throughout the city have known was just waiting to be dropped--came down on Tuesday, and the scramble find a new normal began in earnest. We'd seen libraries, movie theaters, restaurants and shops of various kinds, and so much else start to limit their hours or close down entirely last week; this week it finally became official. The question becomes the classic one which arises in every emergency, every instance of limited resources: what can be sustained, what can be changed, and what can't be saved?

Like many Wichitans, towards the end of last week I made the time to check in on places of business I was most worried about surviving the loss of commerce which this order--and, let's be honest, the even stricter ones likely to follow it--is going to entail. We stopped by Manna Wok and Grace Asian Market to get some bulkogi and kimchee (and commiserated with the owners who said they were praying their business would survive), and Little Lion Cafe for some ice cream (and commiserated with the one worker on staff who was slammed with orders from worried folks like me). We checked in at Bagel Haus, Pollo Express, TJ's Burger House, and Prost. Everyone has their favorite little spots, of course, and fortunately there are a couple of websites providing regularly updated lists of what places have online ordering, which ones have curbside pick-up, and which have simply closed for the duration. How well online patronage will help the local dining scene over the weeks (and perhaps months) to come remains to be seen.

What I worry about the most, though, isn't the loss of the wonderful and diverse food these local restaurants provided, but rather the spaces they created. You don't have to be an devotee of urban sociology or civic republican theory to recognize the immense value of "third places"--those locations where one is not at work, nor at home, but rather in an open-ended (while still closely defined) arena of connection and interaction. We're talking about the YMCA, or the public library, or community centers--all of which, of course, have needed to close down to prevent people congregating and spreading the virus further.

Places of commerce do this too--not all of them, and not all equally well, but some specialize in it. Indeed, for some the fact that they can provide a space for young and old, rich and poor, regulars and newbies, like-minded folk and trouble-makers, all to occupy a particular place and observe, listen to, laugh with, and learn from other actual flesh-and-blood human beings is exactly their business model. There are many establishments which may advertise this--but none embody it as well as Wichita's bookstores.

Watermark Books & Cafe (full disclosure: my wife worked there for over eight years) has had to cancel all its book clubs, reading groups, and story times. Sarah Bagby and her management staff have had to let their booksellers go, and close their doors, which has been a terrible loss for the College Hill community--to say nothing of the innumerable elementary and middle schools which Watermark regularly brought authors out to--which the store has become so entwined with over the years. Eighth Day Books, the tiny linchpin of a sprawling spiritual community (the Eighth Day Institute, of which I am a member) that connects together churches and faith groups throughout the whole region, is focusing on online and phone orders, as EDI's regular gatherings have had to be suspended, and access to the store limited, with the small, devoted staff of Eighth Day hunkering down to weather the storm. And Prairie Dog Comics, home of some of the best RPG game nights anywhere in the state (and where I buy my daughters copies of  Ms. Marvel), has had to pack up its tables and end its evenings of gaming, restricting itself to fulfilling phone and online orders, and only allowing browsers into the store on a strict reservation basis. All of this, and more, doesn't just threaten businesses--it threatens a by-product of commerce which is far more important that the commercial transactions themselves: namely, people getting together and sharing their literary passions, their spiritual insights, their geeky delights, with those in the same space.

In the larger sense, of course, cities have always been about the civic and commercial creation of such spaces. The reigning ideal of urban life, after all, is to live in a place where complex social connections could co-exist with what an old professor of mine once called "the heterogeneity of anonymity"--that is, a place where we are sufficiently strangers to each other to allow all sorts of original communal associations to emerge, without the burden of the past traditions, prejudices, or authority. That ideal is rarely achieved, obviously--and considering the importance of traditions to who we are, making that urban ideal into an idol is plainly wrong-headed. But it's appeal is undeniable all the same.

Recently Michelle Goldberg, a New York Times columnist, mourned seeing the people of NYC forced to isolate themselves. "Historically, cities have made it easier for people to live alone without experiencing constant loneliness," she wrote, noting that choosing to live in a city is "to depend on interdependence." To be isolated from one another, in particular from those third places where the rich possibilities of community are most regularly realized--as they were and, God willing, still will be, at Watermark, Eighth Day, and Prairie Dog--strains urban interdependence as nothing else.

In some ways, our city might be considered better able to handle such a strain than many other, larger cities--which, not incidentally, is where coronavirus outbreaks have been most severe. Because Wichita dominates, but does not encapsulate, its rural surroundings, there is still plenty of space for mandated isolation to take fulfilling--or at least less cramped--forms. Goldberg quoted a psychologist who observed how the impact of quarantine and the closure of beloved spaces depends much upon where you live; the loss of socially enriching spaces will be felt differently "if you’re able to stroll around your farm and pick the produce you’ve been growing,” in contrast to those who are “living in a one-bedroom apartment with three roommates" whom they have to nonetheless keep separated from. While not every Wichitan can easily get out to Andover or Yoder to pick up farm-fresh food from local butchers and producers, the obstacles to doing so--or to even having immediate access to such oneself--are far smaller than they are to even the residents of Kansas City or Oklahoma City, much less Dallas or Chicago or Denver.

At the same time, a city like ours, perhaps exactly because common places of complex interaction and community feeling are spread far apart and are relatively few in number (not to mention too easily bought out and torn down by local financial players), when a crisis comes it is that much easier to retreat to our private locales, set aside public concerns, and forget about the ways in which a city could be made more resilient in the face of threats to its urban existence--and particularly, threats to those spaces which ground the emergent communities and associations central to city's character. You saw some of this, perhaps, in the Sedgwick County Commission's initial reluctance to face the questions of triage which this pandemic is making unavoidable. Wichita's political culture isn't one which has been historically characterized by a great deal of openness to affordable alternative transportation, sustainable food networks, and other strategies for keeping cities' cultural and commercial connections functioning even as the threat of disease mandates a distancing for a time. Perhaps, though, surviving this pandemic will bring about a change.

First we have to survive it, though, and that means helping our essential places survive, even if--maybe especially if--they aren't considered "essential" in the eyes of the government. Talking with Warren Farha, the owner of Eighth Day Books, this week, he expressed his determination to find a way through this challenge, and get to the other side. People--maybe not all the people, all the time, but enough of them, often enough--want and need to come into a place they know, among people they know, looking for the books and art and insight they know they will love, if they can only find it. "You can't replace all that with online shopping,” Warren said to me; “the door has got to be open so that people can come in and be part of something larger than themselves." Maybe they're not going to come in for a time, he admits--but that just means the desire will be all the greater afterwards. I think our job, as we sort out our next steps in this unprecedented week we've experienced, is therefore to find ways to triage our limited time and dollars, and to deliver them in whatever ways we can to help keep these wonderful places alive, until the community connections they enable are able to fully bless our city once again. I've no simple solution as to how any particular Wichitan can or should do that--but I'm pretty we should all think about how.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Star Trek, The Original Series, Season 1: The First Binge

Sometime in January it just occurred to me: I, a 51-year-old Star Trek fan of many decades, actually only know the Original (and best!) Series the same way practically every other Generation X nerd knows the series--as a rerun. For as many times as I've watched the original episodes--and we're talking many, many times--I'd never seen them in actual broadcast order. And for that reason, I knew there were a couple of episodes here and there that I barely knew, so rarely had they made it into the usual Saturday-afternoon rotations--or, for that matter, onto the ancient VHS tape collections I made decades ago and still have stuck in a drawer somewhere. Thus, a determination was born: since the entirety of the Original Series is available on Netflix in original broadcast order, why not just watch them all? And so I began. [Note that this was a determination that I came to months before any kind of coronavirus or quarantine talk; fortuitous to give myself a binging goal so early, don't you think?]

So what's this? My report on the complete first season, which we finished last night. Yep, that's right: we. To my surprise, my wife and youngest daughter (age almost-14) decided to come along on this ride. I'm grateful for them; they snark and ask questions and sometimes even get sucked into these more-than-a-half-century-old, 50-minute-long television episodes, making the whole experience that much better. I'm going to keep my comments to just a sentence or two about each; no need to provide any sort plot summary or extensive reviews, as there's a million people on the internet who have already done that much better than I. Indeed, if you somehow stumble onto these blog posts expecting any kind of thoughtful engagement, you're going to be sorely disappointed. I'm not looking for discoveries myself; just an attempt to re-familiarize myself, in a different way, with something so deeply a part of my pop consciousness that I couldn't extricate myself from it if I wanted to (and I don't). If you're in the same boat as me, though, well, enjoy!

[Additional note: now that we're stuck at home so much more than before, maybe it won't take us 2 1/2 months to get through each of the next two seasons. But really, who knows?

Season 1
"The Man Trap": B-
The very first episode broadcast. A decent premise, with some nice sci-fi touches (the alien appearing differently to Kirk and McCoy was well done), but overall a rather hammy execution.

"Charlie X": C
A spooky narrative concept, with lots of disturbing potential, and an ending that was genuinely sad and creepy. But with what was essentially an all-powerful immature brat onboard, wrecking havoc, why doesn't Kirk freak out? Kind of poorly acted, it seems to me.

"Where No Man Has Gone Before": C+
This is was the second pilot; you can't deny that Roddenberry & Co. didn't let anything go to waste. Once again, this one is built around a spooky--if predictable--science-fiction idea; mostly, the episode's story makes you think of a different, smarter Kirk which was never fully developed.

"Naked Time": B
Oh man, this episode is easy to mock, but it's really great fun. Filled with all sorts of 1960s-style sexism and stereotypes, it tells its story while playing all of them honestly and with great heart. A slight episode, but the show's first really solid one.

"The Enemy Within": B
Again, a ridiculously easy episode to mock, and again, one heavily dependent upon various sexist and deeply Freudian tropes. But the story itself is genuinely kind of scary as well as profoundly adult, deserving a remake today (consider what could be done with Yeoman Rand, a rape survivor who assumes she needs to cover up for her captain!).

"Mudd's Women": D
Their first real stinker. It's an offensive episode, more for its basic stupidity (the Enterprise ran out of power because it extended its shields around a cargo ship?) than its dumb, condescending, clumsily (as opposed to forgiveably dated) message.

"What Are Little Girls Made Of?": C
A decent sci-fi story (an ancient and long-dead alien civilization which left behind humanoid robots, good enough to replace the real thing?), but the whole thing is just weakly developed. Watch out for red-shirts falling into pits.

"Miri": C-
This one gets a lot of hate, but I don't think it's that horrible. Once more, a decent and spooky central concept (kids living on their own, their adolescence extended, eventually contracting the plague that killed all their parents when they hit puberty), but the casting is terrible--what, there were no 12-year-olds available?--and its ham-fisted treatment of "growing up" is just annoying.

"Dagger of the Mind": C+
Better developed than some; in Noel you have an actually competent 60s-era female character (and are we supposed to understand that Kirk was embarrassed or confused about his previous encounter with her, even before she messed with Kirk's memories?), elevating a by-the-numbers story of a megalomaniac needing to be stopped.

"The Corbomite Maneuver": B
This was supposed to be the first "official" episode after the second pilot was accepted; if you know that, then that'll help you look past the painfully obvious "morale of the story." Cheap sci-fi, but solid.

"The Menagerie," Part 1 and 2: C-
First part of this recycling of the original pilot is much better than the second part; it builds an interesting story out of the idea that Spock is faithfully executing one final order for his former captain. The second half drains any interest in what's going on, though, through various deus ex machina moves.

"Conscience of the King": D
Actually kind of boring, with an entirely predictable twist, and Kirk's supposed obsession isn't well communicated at all.

"Balance of Terror": A
This is Star Trek's first truly great episode, and the fact that nothing about it is original is entirely forgivable. It's pure adventure story-telling, a straight-up submarine battle, both nicely told and really well acted.

"Shore Leave": C
Dumb, but take the whole thing as fundamentally unserious, and you can have an okay time. (Man, McCoy is a horn-dog.)

"The Galileo Seven": A-
I'm not sure what the problem some people have with this episode is; it's one of my favorites, because Kirk is actually mostly off-screen, and we're given time to follow the development of Spock as a commander, and the others dealing with a non-human commander (the only really weak bit of writing, if you can ignore the ridiculous ogres-with-spears as the requisite monsters, is why McCoy was on the shuttle craft at all).

"Squire of Gothos": B+
Another slight and not particularly serious episode, but it's a genuinely fun bit of science-fiction, and William Campbell turns Trelane into a actual comic tour-de-force.

"Arena": B
Kirk's willingness to put ship and crew in danger to pursue the enemy is out of character, but the build-up to the stand-off is pretty good, overall. The actual face-off with the Gorn isn't pretty good too, if pedantically handled; it's kind of a small tragedy that the whole thing is so meme-worthy

"Tomorrow is Yesterday": D
Our daughter actually thought it was a funny episode, so I'm glad someone enjoyed it. I though the acting was wooden and the narrative is poorly thought through and has enormous, annoying plot holes (why won't Captain Christopher and the guard remember everything when they're put back in their own time?).

"Court Martial": C
This one has some nice scene-chewing by Cogley, but on the whole a potentially great story is wasted with a bunch of perfunctory scenes and passion-less acting (just like Kirk never showed much concern for Finney--hey, maybe it was a meta-commentary!).

"The Return of the Archons": B-
Once more, a story with lots of potential (it's the Purge, 50 years before the movie!), but none of that potential is really ever explained or worked out. Plus, it introduces one of the worst of all Star Trek cliches: outsmarting the computer!

"Space Seed": A
Deservedly praised. This is a tightly plotted story, with far fewer of the usual loose strings in Original Series story-telling. Khan is consistently brilliant but also arrogant and dismissive throughout, as he should be. It's also interesting to see, through the eyes of the script-writers, how 1960s sexists imagine what a "real man" would be like. For once, Kirk isn't the alpha male!

"A Taste of Armageddon": B
Another smart and genuinely cool sci-fi idea. The episode shows that the writers hadn't thought much about the "prime directive" yet; is Star Fleet a bunch of imperialists imposing their beliefs on an alien culture, or are they the British in India putting an end to suttee, freeing a society from a stagnate murder cult? Also, I liked that the predictable jerk ambassador is given redemption.

"This Side of Paradise": B+
Continuing a run of mostly really great episodes, this one gives us, upon reflection, a sad, desperate, and somewhat manipulative woman (interestingly, it was my wife who spotted the undertone of a wanna-be lover finding an excuse for imposing her choices on Spock), and a Kirk whose heroic escape from the spores really fit with his character, even if it wasn't developed enough. Needed more Southern doctor McCoy!

"The Devil in the Dark": B
A monster conveyed through awesomely bad "special effects"--my daughter actually remembered this one from when she was a child, when we would pull blankets over ourselves and pretend to be "hortas" sneaking around the house. Overall, it's a fun story, with hilariously hapless miners and a hammy Spock.

"Errand of Mercy": A-
This is a wonderful introduction of the Klingons, with great--and really well-scripted--performances by the Organians. It's probably the best of all the many "the crew of the Enterprise meets a super-powerful race that just can't be bothered with humans" episodes; in Season 1 alone, we have, besides the Organians, the Metrons from "Arena," the Thasians from "Charlie X," and Trelane's mother and father from "Squire of Gothos." And there's more to come!

"The Alternative Factor": D
Ending a wonderful run of mostly top-flight Star Trek episodes, this one is confusing, poorly plotted and developed (did anyone on the Enterprise ever even ask where Lazarus came from, or why he was on that planet?), to say nothing of following through on a science-fiction idea that they no means of depicting except with some truly terrible visual effects.

"The City on the Edge of Forever": A
The best, most mature, most serious, tightest, and most effecting of all the Original Series episodes. Everyone knows it, because it's true.

"Operation--Annihilate!": C-
Man, why did you have to end the first season with the stupid flying pancake/amoebas? As so frequently the case--but thankfully, less so towards the end of the season--you have weak acting and weak plotting here, and a reset (the secret Vulcan eyelid!) that wasn't foreshadowed at all. A let-down of an ending, for what was, for the most part, a really decent season of television.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Coronavirus in Kansas: The First Week

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

It’s dark and quiet Wednesday morning here in the Fox household, March 18, 2020. It’s been dark every morning–and mostly grey and cloudy and cool all through the days as well–for pretty much a whole week now, appropriately enough. Partly that’s because our schedules, both external and internal, haven’t caught up with the hour in the morning we lost less than two weeks ago when Daylight Savings Time began. But most, I think, it’s because of the gloom which has descended upon many of us here in south-central Kansas in the past seven days, with the weather–unhelpfully but perhaps unavoidably, reciprocating.

A week ago, on Wednesday, March 11, I was wrapping up my classes at Friends University in anticipation of spring break. Students were handing in their midterms, and telling me about their travel plans. Of course people were aware of the coronavirus threat; I’m originally from Washington state, and my mother still lives there (my father having passed on some years ago), so as the news tumbled forth from Seattle and elsewhere about cancellations and quarantines, I got regular updates from siblings and others. We all knew it–meaning both the virus and the panic--would be in Kansas soon; every informed person did. Yet from the top of the national government all the way down to the local level, the mood was...ordinary.

Maybe that’s not what you were feeling a week ago; maybe you’re a prepper that had already rushed out and stocked up on toilet paper back in February. Most of us aren’t that, and I certainly wasn’t, and neither were any of my colleagues at Friends. Our president spoke at a regularly scheduled university-wide community meeting that afternoon, and she said she didn’t anticipate anything that would require any major changes. We talked about the mission of our small liberal arts college, talked about the integration of Christian values and higher education, talked about and made plans for all the usual things. She wished us all a good spring break, reminded us to wash our hands and stay home if we were sick, and then we left to get our Thursdays and Fridays in order.

But, of course, they weren’t in order.

Late that Wednesday night, the cold weather rolled back in, and the University of Kansas announced–following the decisions of various major institutions of higher education around the country made that same day–that they also would extend spring break by a week, ask students to vacate student housing, and go to online education thereafter. Immediately, the dominoes started to fall. An NBA players tested positive for the virus, and by the following morning the word was out: the league was suspending all games until further notice. Throughout Thursday, March 12, the announcements kept coming. Other local universities--Kansas State, Wichita State, more--were following KU’s example, telling students not to return after spring break, but to work from home. March Madness was announced to be going forward without an audience, and then was cancelled altogether.

By Friday, March 13, there were reported coronavirus cases throughout Kansas, including one patient who had just been released from Wesley Medical Center here in Wichita. Our younger daughters were home, with their spring break having begun, but I was attending another, hastily-called, university-wide meeting, where our president, having been in conferences with other college presidents and Sedgwick County officials since 7:30am, informed us that Friends was following suit: two weeks of spring break, followed by online instruction. The rush was in full swing. Sedgwick County and Wichita started issuing the first of their cancellations and restriction orders, with the grand re-opening of Naftzger Park being the first casualty. And still the weather remained cloudy and cool.

It was a rough weekend, as anyone who went shopping can attest and looked in vain (as I did) for certain particular items (really, a mad rush on powdered milk?) can attest. The early farmers market that Saturday, March 14, at the Sedgwick County Extension Center was cancelled, so I couldn’t stock up as I do once-a-month while the regular market is out of session. (I ended up driving to Hutchinson to hit up our long-time local meat connection, Phil Nisly, at his farm-slaughterhouse directly.) There was a death in our extended family–not coronavirus-related; it was an elderly relative, and had long been anticipated. But there would be no funeral, in the same way that there was no church on Sunday, March 15, as our congregation had cancelled all gatherings at church buildings for the foreseeable future, as so many other denominations had. So, no chance to say a final farewell, no chance to mourn with family we almost never see. We needed to cheer ourselves up and hence, anticipating that movie theaters would soon close as well, we sneaked out over the weekend to see the new Pixar film, Onward, in a mostly empty theater. (No Wall-E, but pretty good!) Just in the nick of time, as it turned out.

Monday, March 16, dawned--sort of, anyway--and the long-process of sorting out the weekend and finding a new routine begins. The YMCA had announced they were closing their facilities on Sunday, cancelling all their classes; hence, my wife did her Zumba class in front of a screen. She went into work, wondering how Watermark Books, where she has been a bookseller and event coordinator for eight years, will ride out these quarantines and cut-backs (shop local everyone–keep Wichita’s small businesses alive!). Our second-oldest daughter consoled herself with the fact that, while her end-of-semester concerts were cancelled, at least the Chipotle she works at has a drive-through, and thus may be able to survive social distancing better than some others. Then yesterday, Tuesday, March 17, the governor and state education commissioner finally dropped the other shoe, as we all knew they would: all public schools are closed for the remainder of the year. Our sixteen-year-old is freaked about what shifting to online assignments will do to her grades, and our almost-fourteen-year-old, usually a dismissive teen-ager, kind of teared-up, realizing that her eighth-grade formal won’t happen, and sadly counting up all her friends that she never got contact information for. And still the grey skies continued, with an oozing, tail-end-of-winter wet accompanying us all through Monday and Tuesday.

Still, the seasons respect no virus; springtime is here (or will be, officially, tomorrow–and there’s even a chance of some proper sunshine by the end of the day on Thursday!). So all day yesterday, ignoring my wet socks and the mud, I did as I’ve been planning to do since January: redesigning and improving my garden space, with the aim of making for a more productive and more attractive crop this summer. So I plowed everything up--borrowing a rototiller from a neighbor, as I have ever year for close to a decade now--then raked it, purchased boards at Home Depot, built new raised beds, laid them down, hauled ten wheelbarrow-loads of compost over, then topped it off with 16 40lb. bags of topsoil from our local Ace Hardwart. It looks nice. Now I just need to put down the mulch on the walking paths, and step one of the garden rebirth will be ready, maybe just in time for spring.

One week into the full effect of the coronavirus panic here in Wichita, and we’re hunkering down for the long haul, like everyone is. Someday it will be summer, and there will be fresh peas and tomatoes to enjoy. Keep your eyes on the (still-distant) prize, everyone. Eyes on the prize.