Thursday, April 30, 2020

An escape to tuna melts -- April 30, 2020 column


I wasn’t going to write about Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and his tuna melt.

His debut cooking video was a hoot, but I resolved to stay out of the ensuing fracas over his undrained tuna, his betrayal of Duke’s for Hellmann’s, and his microwave technique.

But I loved Sen. Kamala Harris’s tweet in response to Warner’s video: “Mark – we need to talk. Call. Please. Your friend KDH.”

The California Democrat’s how-to video tutorial on tuna melts with Warner as pupil was charming and fun.  

In the era of Room Rater, when the home backgrounds of celebrities on video chats are graded – see @ratemyskyperoom on Twitter -- Warner compliments Harris on her lovely kitchen. She says she saw his kitchen, too.

It’s an “extra kitchen,” says Warner, a Democrat and one of the wealthiest senators.

“I only have one kitchen,” Harris deadpans.

He teases her about the teaspoon of Dijon mustard in the tuna as a “Northern California” addition and, going all Everyman, brandishes a block of Velveeta and a package of bologna for the future.

When the tutorial is over, you think you’ve wasted 10 minutes of your life, but you’ve laughed. You feel better. That’s not a bad use of 10 minutes in the middle of the worst health crisis any of us has ever seen.

More than a million Americans have tested positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and more than 60,000 have died. Healthcare workers risk their lives daily going to work 13-hour shifts with just one protective N95 mask to wear all day.

News about the economy is apocalyptic. The U.S. economy shrank at a 4.8% annual rate in the first quarter, the worst quarterly slide since the fourth quarter of 2008, and analysts predict a cataclysmic drop of 30% in the second quarter. More than 26 million Americans are out of work.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump let national stay-at-home guidelines expire Thursday. Despite warnings from health professionals that social distancing is still needed to avoid a surge in cases, Trump wants to see people sitting “right next to each other” at baseball and football games soon.

After dragging his feet on using executive power to produce masks and other personal protective equipment for medical workers, Trump sprang into action to avert a meat and poultry shortage.

About 20 processing plants around the country had shut down after thousands of workers crowded close to each other on beef, pork or chicken assembly lines had fallen sick, and some had died. The plants created disease hot spots that are overwhelming rural hospitals.

Trump declared the plants “critical infrastructure” and ordered them to reopen. He said he would protect companies from legal liability if they are sued by employees who get COVID-19 on the job.

That little can of tuna on the pantry shelf suddenly was far more appetizing than animal proteins processed by workers under duress and scared for their lives.

I was making tuna melts long before Warner and Harris made them cool – if the comfort food sandwich can ever be cool. Weeks ago, I found tuna melts just the thing for a stay-home lunch and have made them several times.

I’m evidently not alone. Tuna is so popular some groceries stores have started limiting sales.

So here’s my take: Mix drained and flaked white or light tuna, chopped celery, chopped red bell pepper, grated sharp cheddar (right from the bag, no need to grate your own) and minced pickles. I like cornichons, those fussy little French dilled pickles, but sweet gherkins work too.  

Add a dollop or two of Duke’s Light mayonnaise. Not too much. Sprinkle on pepper, mix again and stuff the mixture into whole wheat hot dog buns. Yes, they exist.

Warner used sliced white bread. Whole wheat buns let you flirt with virtue.

Wrap each tuna melt in aluminum foil and cook 20 or 25 minutes in a 350-degree preheated oven -- not the microwave a la Warner. The oven gives the sandwich a melty interior and a toasty top.

While you’re busy chopping, mixing and stuffing, keep your mind on the tasks at hand. 

Let the tuna melt be your temporary escape to a simpler and safer time. Enjoy.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Stay at home, vote at home -- April 23, 2020 column


As a few states bow to pressure to reopen businesses, medical professionals warn COVID-19 is sticking around and could get much worse.

The disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has claimed nearly as many lives as the Vietnam War, likely will surge this fall and winter during the regular flu season. Now is the time to plan for safe, secure elections in November.

In-person voting can be dangerous during a pandemic. In Wisconsin, at least six voters and a poll worker appear to have contracted COVID-19 during the state’s April 7 election, when voters, many without masks, stood in line for hours to cast ballots.

And in Florida at least two poll workers tested positive after that state’s primary in March.

A majority of poll workers in the 2016 and 2018 elections were 61 and older, a high-risk category for death from COVID-19.

Virginia is among nine states that have loosened restrictions on absentee voting, at least for the summer primaries. States are evaluating how to allow the November elections to proceed without jeopardizing public health. In Virginia, voters will be able to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse starting with the November general election.

Norman Rockwell’s image notwithstanding, in-person voting on Election Day has been in decline. In the 2016 presidential election, 57.2 million voters – two in five – cast their ballots absentee, early or by mail, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

While states set the rules for state and local elections, Congress has authority over federal elections.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon have introduced a bill to help states expand early in-person voting and absentee vote-by-mail during the pandemic. The bill has 25 Democratic cosponsors, including Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but no Republican senators are on board.

Voting by mail is not a way-out, fringe idea. Five states, including red-state Utah, conduct elections by mail. Others are Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington. 

Almost no cases of election fraud have been discovered.

Mail-in voting does require an efficient postal service. Typically, voters receive ballots in the mail, which they return by mail, at designated locations or drop boxes. States track ballots with bar codes and through the postal service and have harsh penalties for voter fraud.

The main way states detect voter fraud is by identity verification, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which supports mail-in voting.

In Washington state, election officials compare every signature on every ballot to make sure it matches the one on the voter registration record.

Clearly, setting up a mail-in voting system that has voters’ confidence takes thought and time, but it can be done.

A majority of voters – 58% -- approve of changing election laws permanently so everyone can cast ballots by mail, a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released Tuesday found. Another 39% oppose permanent change, but one-fourth of that group said mail-in voting should be allowed this November.

The idea is most popular with Democrats – with 82% in favor – and independents (61%).

Among Republicans, only 31% support it. That probably reflects President Donald Trump’s strenuous opposition to mail-in voting. He calls mail-in voting corrupt and horrible.

More to the point, he has asserted that mail-in voting, “for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans,” although he cited no evidence Democrats fare better with mail-in voting. Analysts say there isn’t any.

Voters may remember Trump repeatedly insisted during the 2016 campaign that Democrats were rigging the election – until the moment he won.

And he’s at it again. Just the other day, he sent out a fundraising appeal saying the Democrats are trying to “steal” the election.

It’s wrong for the president, any president, to undermine the electoral process, along with other American institutions.

Trump himself voted absentee by mail in the Florida primary. A reporter asked how he reconciles his mail-in voting with his opposition to it for other people.

“Because I’m allowed to,” he said, adding that it was different when he did it because he was out of the state.

That kind of flawed reasoning makes no sense in the best of times and won’t work in the time of a pandemic. Voting is a civic duty. It should not be life-threatening.

© 2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Bridging partisan divide in the new normal -- April 16, 2020 column


In the new normal of the coronavirus, I mostly stay home. About once a day I go out to stretch my legs.

My unscientific survey of life in Alexandria indicates people are heeding the message to keep their social distance. A few even carry sticks with flags at one end to remind people not to get too close.

Many people, though certainly not most, wear masks or face coverings outside.

My experience may be colored blue. Alexandria votes Democratic.

Polls show Democrats are more concerned than Republicans about the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes. A new study from Stanford University also found partisan differences in social distancing.

Using smartphone location data and an online survey, the researchers looked at the period from Jan. 26 to April 4 and found localities with more Republicans engaged in less social distancing, even when controlling for factors such as state policy, population density and local COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The divide may be attributable to how political leaders and the news media portrayed the threat, analysts suggested. 
Partisanship showed up Wednesday in Michigan, which Donald Trump flipped from blue to red in 2016.

Conservative groups staged “Operation Gridlock,” a protest in cars and on foot at the state Capitol against stay-at-home restrictions ordered by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat. Some demonstrators waved Trump flags, wore Trump hats and shouted, “Lock her up!” and “We will not comply!”

Michigan has the nation’s fourth highest number of cases and the third highest number of deaths from the disease, according to Johns Hopkins University.

“There’s no cure, there’s no vaccine, it’s incredibly contagious and it’s deadly,” Whitmer said on CNN, calling for personal responsibility.

Trump is desperate to get the economy moving again; he believes his re-election depends on it.

But health officials as well as some business leaders, governors and mayors urge caution. Don’t reopen the country until testing is widely available so we have a better idea how many Americans are infected, they say. 

Yes, people are scared, frustrated and weary of restrictions. Everyone hates hardship, massive unemployment and economic ruin.

And yet, The health of Americans must be our top priority. It would be far more damaging to pretend it’s OK for some parts of the country to resume business as usual while others remain closed.

Experts warn a resurgence of the virus could lead to future lockdowns which would devastate the economy and our health care system.

Los Angeles and New Orleans already have indicated they may put on hold any large gatherings, including concerts, music festivals and sports events, until 2021.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician, wisely extended his order closing non-essential businesses until May 8. It had been set to expire April 23. That means in-restaurant dining and many entertainment venues will remain closed, and no gatherings of more than 10 people are permitted. Northam’s stay-at-home order is set to run through June 10.

“When people say it’s time to stop what we’re doing and get back to normal, they’re wrong,” Northam said Wednesday.

Earlier that day, while I was out walking, a woman on the sidewalk across the street wrangling a huge package of Charmin caught my attention. She had toilet paper!

In our era of hunting and gathering, she’d bagged a major prize. On a Wednesday morning! The closest supermarket gets its deliveries on Wednesday nights, I’d learned recently.

Pleased, and envious of her catch, I smiled (though I doubt she could tell as three-quarters of my face was covered by my makeshift bandana mask).

She took a couple of steps toward me, lowered her own mask and shouted from her safe distance: “Go quickly! They have sanitizer in the pharmacy area!”

I gave her a thumbs-up and made a beeline for the store. Sure enough, at the back of a bottom shelf were bottles of hand sanitizer. I reached for two, wishing I’d worn gloves.

Never before have I had such an encounter with a stranger, and it gave me hope.

The 9/11 attacks permanently transformed how Americans, live, work and travel. The coronavirus likely will change our lives at least until a vaccine against COVID-19 has been developed, tested and is readily available. That could take a year or more.

We need a new normal in blue and red cities and states alike in which we show kindness and look out for each other. Even if it’s just with hand sanitizer.


Thursday, April 9, 2020

Wearing a mask: It's not about you -- April 9, 2020 column


Until now, masks were something other people wore.

Train robbers in the Wild West. Modern cowboys on horseback, riding the dusty range. Midnight marauders plucking glittery diamonds from posh jewelry stores.

In the olden days – 2019 -- masks in the United States were mostly confined to medical professionals. 

Occasionally, you’d see an ordinary person wearing a mask on the street or subway, and you’d wonder: common cold or something worse?

Then, in the early days of 2020, we started seeing photos of men, women, everyone, in China wearing masks as the novel coronavirus and the killer disease it causes, COVID-19, swept the land. Across Asia, virus and masks spread.

These people like wearing masks, we read. They like the conformity and masks reduce disease.

That sounded sensible, but masks were not for us. As the disease spread to cruise ships and made landfall in the United States, the federal government urged Americans not to succumb to the siren call of masks.

On Feb. 29, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome M. Adams tweeted: “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS!

“They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

So, I didn’t buy any masks. I left the surgical and N95 or respirator masks for the sick and the medical heroes who desperately need them.

I also passed by the painters’ and dust masks. The masks were expensive by then and in short supply. I didn’t buy extra coffee filters, which I had no idea I’d need.

Then, last Friday the Centers for Disease Control reversed course and recommended that Americans wear cloth face coverings for “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

I felt like a chump.

I’d listened to the authorities and was unprepared.

Americans learned, finally, what Asians had long known. The beauty of wearing a mask is it’s not about protecting oneself. Wearing a mask is an act of generosity toward others.

The coronavirus is so contagious that asymptomatic people can have the virus and, without knowing it, infect others. With a mask, if you happen to breathe, sneeze or cough near someone, you won’t transmit the virus. We hope.

If everyone wears masks, we protect each other. What could be more patriotic?

Naturally, President Donald Trump stressed masks are voluntary and he himself wouldn’t wear one.

“Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens – I just don’t see it,” he said. Heaven forbid a dictator might laugh at the Donald.

Trump has tested negative for the coronavirus. Before he met with corporate bigwigs at the White House the other day, he had them all tested.

First lady Melania Trump urged people to take seriously the CDC’s recommendation to wear masks. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician, also recommended Virginians wear masks.

But what kind? Authorities said cloth masks are OK, and templates for sewing them are everywhere online.

Again, I felt like a chump. I don’t have a sewing machine, and it’s too late to hone my hand-sewing skills.

But Surgeon General Adams made a video of himself folding up a square of cloth and using hair ties to make a mask. That I could do.

The effectiveness of such cloth masks was questionable, though. Fabric matters, and tight weaves, like flannel, are better than loose cotton weaves.

Updated CDC instructions on bandanas call for adding a layer of filtration, like a coffee filter, to screen tiny droplets. 

But remember, even if you wear a mask with good filtration, you still need to wash your hands frequently and maintain social distancing of six feet from other people.

Keith and I watched the surgeon general’s video, folded our bandanas just so and attached the hair ties. Our ears hurt from the ties, the several layers of cloth impeded our breathing and our sunglasses steamed up.

“And the point is?” I whined, as we suited up for a walk.

“Solidarity!” Keith said. Yes, solidarity, and doing our part in the fight against the coronavirus.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Finding light in darkness -- April 2, 2020 column


With the onslaught of bad news, we all need moments of light and delight.

It was heartening to see Italians singing from their balconies and Brits clapping on their front porches, showing solidarity and thanking healthcare workers during the coronavirus crisis.

Some residents of Alexandria put candles or luminaries outside their houses at 7 p.m. April 1 to thank healthcare workers.

Unite the Night, an idea that started in Ohio, asks people to put out luminaries for an hour starting at 8:30 p.m. every Sunday. The idea is for the event to start at 8:30 in each time zone, so “there is never darkness as we wait for the next time zone,” the Unite the Night website says.h

I hope the gesture catches on not only to thank doctors, nurses and all the first responders who are overworked and in danger but also to fight the darkness we’re all feeling.

The prolific author Alexander McCall Smith has written a poem for our troubled times, “In a time of distance," that begins:

The unexpected always happens in the way
The unexpected has always occurred:
When we are doing something else,
While we are thinking of altogether
Different things – matters that events
Then show to be every bit as unimportant
As our human concerns so often are;”

It’s a wonderful poem, and if you haven’t read McCall Smith, you might pick up one of his popular novels – perhaps electronically through the public library or from an independent local bookstore that is closed temporarily and is struggling.

It seems wrong that liquor stores are “essential” but libraries and bookstores are not, though I’m glad people are staying safe.

Fortunately, exercise outside is still allowed, with social distancing, unless you or someone in your home is sick.

On our walks, we often stop outside the tiny, independent bookshop a few blocks away and peer through the windows at the stacks of books. The bookshop has shifted to online-only sales with optional curbside pickup service, a very popular option many retailers now offer.

Around the corner, an Italian restaurant made local news for a promotion giving away a free roll of toilet paper with every carry-out order. You can still buy a roll for $2 with any order. Proceeds of the TP sales benefit their Employee Relief Fund.

Some people are adopting pets to help them get through this period of fear and grief. This is especially worthwhile since animal shelters are overflowing with pets but are not open to the public. The Animal Welfare League of Alexandria is sponsoring a virtual adoption process with potential pet owners and pets meeting first online.

You probably can find in your community similar creative ways bookstores, restaurants, animal shelters and other businesses are coping.

We’ve found the busy-ness of our lives replaced by slowness and silence. Walking in areas usually bustling with traffic, we hear more birdsong and spot new birds, oblivious to human troubles. Along the Potomac, I heard the river lapping rocks. How had I missed that?

At home, I’m cooking old, family recipes I always meant to try. My late mother typed some on a typewriter on 3”x5” index cards. On Sunday, I made “Mrs. O’Quinn’s Waffles – Selma, Ala.” I was a toddler when we lived by Mrs. O’Quinn.

I haven’t tried baking bread yet, but many people are, evidently. Yeast and flour are among items in short supply, if available at all. A friend reported on Facebook he ordered six small packages of yeast on Amazon for $33.98. Those will be pricey baguettes.

Fortunately, farmers’ markets are open by pre-order and pickup, and many vendors sell bread. You can learn new cooking skills from the many chefs who teach free classes on YouTube and Instagram.

And, as the coronavirus invasion happened in the spring, we have daffodils, tulips and other flowers to lift our spirits. We can putter in our gardens. Weeding is still a chore, but it cures many ills when we can’t control much of anything.

It’s a great time for a victory garden. What will you grow?

© 2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.