#5: A spore-borne hate plague

Getting over the 'crisis wall', and how Transformers introduced me to pandemics

September 27, 2020 • Day 199

Tomorrow is 200 days since our family started staying home because of Covid. (I start counting from March 13, the last day we sent our daughter to school, coincidentally the last day school was open before ‘temporarily’ closing.)

I’m tired. You may have seen this tweet thread by Dr. Aisha Ahmad about hitting a “crisis wall” making the rounds a couple weeks ago, when we all hit 6 months of all this. She wrote:

This time, our crisis is global and there is nowhere to run. That's OK. I've had to power through that 6 month hump before and there is life on the other side. Right now, it feels like we looking ahead at long, dark wintery tunnel. But it's not going to be like that.

Rather, this is our next major adaptation phase. We've already re-learned how to do groceries, host meetings, and even teach classes. And we have found new ways to be happy and have fun. But as the days get shorter and colder, we need to be ready to innovate again.

At the same time as I’m nostalgic for places I used to go, we’ve also developed new rituals and pastimes. When all this started, all the businesses in our town shut down — no more walks into the village for a coffee, no more browsing the bookstore. But these places have adapted to operate as curbside businesses, and we’ve come to appreciate these rather than feel the loss of how things were before. Walking to town to pick up treats and coffee from a window is still a joy.

Meanwhile a bunch of our neighbors, rather than power through the crisis, have rationalized going back to the old ways of doing things. One group hosted a birthday “block party” and invited everyone, but they haven’t been masking or distancing from each other in months, and didn’t make accommodations for those of us who have been, so obviously this party wasn’t for “everyone.”

Just as the pandemic has forced adaptation and innovation in how we go out for coffee or to the pool, it’s introduced new ways for people to be casually, unthinkingly shitty to one another. A house nearby we’ve always liked came on the market, and we half jokingly talked about moving.

Then again, the pandemic will end, or at least ease, eventually. When that happens we’ll have gotten an unpleasant taste of who our neighbors are in a crisis, but then it won’t be a crisis anymore, and we can go back to casually, pleasantly chatting with them at the school bus stop or on dog walks. Until then, this is another thing we have to power through.

Let me switch gears and tell you about the first time I learned about pandemics.

When I was a kid, Hasbro and Marvel — having made the almost WTF decision to kill off Optimus Prime in Transformers: The Movie — literally brought the writers and animators for the Transformers cartoon series back to work to make a new season finale that would resurrect everyone’s most beloved Autobot ASAP.

They came up with a 2-part epic, in which scientists studying solar flares (or whatever) find and recover the space shuttle carrying Prime’s lifeless body… but also accidentally bring back mysterious red spores, which turn out to be a highly contagious pathogen capable of infecting any life form (including Transformers!), causing the infected to be overcome by pure hate and rage, attacking each other and hunting down any non-infected they see. (Yes, it was a late-80s cartoon take on the plot of 28 Days Later.)

Anyway, Optimus and a small, ragtag group of survivors end up saving the day by recovering the Matrix of Leadership from the chest of the infected Rodimus Prime, then releasing the power of wisdom into the universe to free everyone from the hate plague.

I don’t remember what age I was when I saw “The Return of Optimus Prime, Parts 1 & 2” — if I’d seen it when it first aired, or later on VHS — but I do remember that to my kid eyes it was amazing and terrifying. At age 10 (or whatever) I was only barely aware of how diseases spread and certainly hadn’t seen any depiction of a pandemic before. And it was particularly creepy that it was a plague that changed people (and Transformers) — as a kid, I knew about sicknesses that gave you fevers and kept you home from school, but not about ones that made you a different person, and a red-glowing one at that.

Today, in the real, non-Transformers world, we have (separately) a pandemic and a hate plague.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how, more and more, the only thing motivating what is still mystifyingly called “politics” in the U.S. is hate. Especially being a 90s kid who grew up during the period between the fall of the Soviets and the War on Terror, it feels a bit like everyone has been infected by hate spores from space, because the conflicts make no goddamned sense.

My friend Jim Ray tweeted that, while phone banking for a Democratic candidate in North Carolina, people told him he should be hung for being a Democrat. I mean, what the actual fuck?

When my 6-year-old daughter gets upset, she sometimes will start leveling accusations at me or her mom — e.g., you don’t want me to ever color again! You told me I have to use a pencil instead of a marker, forever! — that are unreasonable, and usually incoherent. I think what happens is: she gets upset, and being 6, she can’t really see through the anger to form a sane-sounding explanation of why she’s mad, so she just strings together scenarios involving us, rules, and whatever she was doing when we made her mad. (The solution, btw, is almost always giving her a snack.)

Internet anger seems to come from a similar place. It all seems like angry word salad — brains trying to rationalize being and staying angry.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a Matrix of Leadership we can open that will cure the hate, nor do we have a way to offer all the Fox News junkies some fruit and crackers. Or maybe we do, and we just don’t know what it is yet. Maybe we all just need a break from knowing too much about everyone else’s lives.


BTW, did you know how bloody hard it is to watch O.G. Transformers cartoons in the streaming era in the U.S.? Seasons of the 1980s series are not available on iTunes, Amazon, or any other paid video stores, nor are they on Hulu, Netflix, or any of the major streaming apps. Know where you can find Transformers? On Starz, of all places. The Starz app has a “throwback cartoons” section with all four seasons of the original Transformers, as well as ThunderCats, Voltron, He-Man (and She-Ra!), Super Mario Bros., Inspector Gadget, and more. Weird flex, but I’ll take it.

This week we’ve been watching Van Der Valk on PBS (a British detective show set in Amsterdam, with some very English Dutch cops), Ted Lasso (Apple TV+’s delightful sitcom with Jason Sudeikis, about an American football coach hired to run the other kind of football team), the second season of What We Do In The Shadows on FX, and for family movie time we just re-watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Nintendo shipped Super Mario 3D All-Stars last Friday, and I’m already most of the way through Super Mario Galaxy (which, tbqh, is the reason I bought the thing). There have been some spicy takes on this new collection — my friend Jon Maddox tweeted he wants his money back, for valid reasons. I will say that if Nintendo’s goal was to only lightly adapt the games so they’ll run on modern Switch hardware but otherwise serve a throwback audience, they kinda succeeded… however, Mario Galaxy without motion controls requires some truly epic hand-contortion to work, which hasn’t been bad enough to ruin my fun, but is indeed annoying.

I used to listen to a lot more tech/business/Apple-related podcasts — like John Gruber’s The Talk Show and Accidental Tech Podcast — but finally stopped because those shows tend to be well over 2 hours long. So I was very happy to check out and pay money for Dithering, the new paid-subscription podcast from Gruber and Stratechery’s Ben Thompson. New episodes run thrice a week, and are always exactly 15 minutes. Their latest episode was about Substack, the platform powering this newsletter — somehow I hadn’t recognized that the text font on Substack’s website was Spectral, a screen-optimized serif commissioned by my team.

Drinking (or not drinking)

This week I’m still going easy on alcohol — while I’m long past done with antibiotics, I’ve been feeling run-down, and even half a drink has been a bit much for me.

But! I promised you a weekly cocktail recipe, so here’s something lighter. Very early in the pandemic, when stocking up on whiskey and vermouth, I impulse-bought a bottle of St George Bruto Americano, a Campari-like, low-ABV bitter liqueur. There are loads of good recipes on St George’s website; my favorite when I’m looking for something gentler and refreshing is the first one, Captain Americano:

  • 1.5 oz Bruto Americano

  • 1 oz sweet vermouth

  • Soda water

When my alcohol tolerance comes back, I’m definitely going to try the St George version of a Paper Plane (equal parts Bruto, amaro, bourbon, and lemon juice), and IIRC the gin-based American Werewolf is also great.

Here’s to drinking again with you next week,

P.S., if you’re enjoying these newsletters, please do tell a friend!