About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

Life in a time of COVID-19

The title of this post is a reference to the famous Gabriel García Márquez book “Love in a Time of Cholera.” I thought it was fitting was because it feels as though COVID-19 is our version of the cholera epidemic of the 1800s, or the Spanish flu of 1918 (which wasn’t Spanish at all, but probably originated in Kansas and was a form of H1N1) or the Black Death of the 1300’s. Those changed the way we lived forever, in thousands of small ways (as this piece argues that COVID-19 will), and I find myself wondering what it would have felt like if Twitter and Facebook and the Internet had been around during the Plague years. Would they have made fun of people wearing “plague masks” that made them look like giant birds? (Side note: Here’s the story of an Italian town that beat the plague, and how they did it). I know for sure that if social media existed during the Middle Ages, they would have been full of posts that said things like “my sister is a doctor, and she says gargling with vinegar can cure the plague!”

A few days ago, I went back and looked at some email newsletters I subscribe to that I hadn’t gotten around to reading from the end of February, and none of them even mentioned the coronavirus (which was still concentrated in China, and seen as not a big threat elsewhere). It was refreshing to read them, since everything is pretty much all COVID-19 all the time now, but it also felt surreal. Those newsletters were from less than a month ago, but it felt like they were from 10 or even a hundred years ago. When I started writing this post a week ago, Italy — which only had 200 cases and no deaths at the end of February — had more than 20,000 cases. As of March 27, it had more than 86,000 cases and more than 900 deaths in a single day. Bodies are piling up in churches.

When we left for our vacation in Florida on March 7, we were aware that something bad was floating around, and made sure to wash our hands etc., but thought nothing of going to the beach or the pool and going out to restaurants. About 10 days later, we were anxious to get home because the rate of infection and death was climbing in the US — in part because of a lack of testing, caused by delays and screwups by the CDC and the Trump administration — and businesses (including airlines) were shutting down. The day after we got back, on March 19th, Canada and the US announced they would be closing the border to everything except goods, and the US closed its airports to traffic from Europe. On March 24th, the Italian government put the entire country on lockdown, with fines for those who leave their homes without permission.

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The amazing mountain cave churches of Ethiopia

Getting to church might involve a long walk or a car-ride for some, maybe a set of stairs. But in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, there are dozens of “churches” — not the kind you would attend mass in as a large group, but small, holy places carved into the stone — that require a lot more than that. Several of them, including one of the most famous known as Abuna Yemata Guh, are tucked inside cliffs that require “parishioners” to climb ropes, walk along steep ledges and across wooden planks thousands of feet above the ground. Some of these cave churches date back to the year 500 A.D.

Despite (or possibly because of) the effort it takes to get to them, the visit is worth it, as Zac from Australia points out in an excellent blog post about his trip to the region, where he visited several of these mountain cave churches and monasteries. In many places, self-appointed “deacons” will help guide you to the next foot-hold (climbing barefoot is recommended) or show you which tree branches to grab on to. At the top, the deacon will ring a bell of some kind to summon the priest, who will show you around the cave, with all of its incredible colored murals, and may even show you a 1,400-year-old hand-inked “bible.”

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The story behind those tiny doors in the US Capitol

As they tour the Capitol building in Washington, some eagle-eyed visitors notice tiny, rounded doors at floor level — looking like fairy doors, or something Alice in Wonderland might have used after she shrunk herself. What are they? If you open one, you will see a small room with nothing but a faucet sticking out of the wall — useful for filling a bucket to clean the hallways. But why the need for such a tiny door? Why not use a regular broom closet?

The reason for the doors goes back to 1851, when a fire broke out in the Capitol building, in a room that housed the Library of Congress. A guard noticed the flames through a window, but there was no water source anywhere nearby, so he had to run downstairs to get some. By the time he got back, the library was in flames, a fire that would destroy more than 35,000 volumes, including almost two-thirds of the books that were acquired from Thomas Jefferson’s estate. Manuscripts, maps, artwork, all burned.

The government asked Captain Montgomery Meigs of the US Army Corp of Engineers to design a water system that would bring water into Washington and also supply it to the Capitol building to prevent future fires. He built an aqueduct system that brought fresh water in from the Potomac, and through pipes to faucets hidden behind those small rounded doors. The building now has modern plumbing and fire-suppression systems, but in a pinch they could always use the faucets that Montgomery Meigs installed behind those miniature doors (via Architect of the Capitol)

Why the covers of the original Lord of the Rings books looked so odd

If you’ve ever seen the original paperback versions of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the prequel The Hobbit, you might have wondered why the cover illustrations looked so odd. There’s a simple reason: The artist who did them never actually read any of the books, but went on brief descriptions of them. “I tried to get a copy through my friends,” she said in an interview later. “I tried finding people that had read them, but the books were not readily available in the states, so I had sketchy information at best.” Needless to say, the illustrations puzzled Tolkien.

“I must ask about the vignette,” Tolkien wrote his publisher, “what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs? I do not understand how anybody who had read the tale (I hope you are one) could think such a picture would please the author.” The image was supposed to depict Hobbiton, a landscape very much inspired by the tranquil English countryside.

Source: The Bizarre Book Covers for the First U.S. Paperback Editions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Books, Made By an Artist Who Had Never Read Them – Flashbak

The School Shooting That Austin Forgot

This is a fascinating (and long) story about a school shooting in Austin in 1978, and the lasting scars it left on the eighth-grade students who were there to see John Christian shoot and kill his teacher, Roy Grayson — a man he looked up to and may have even idolized. After just 20 months in a reform school, Christian was released and went on to study law and become a tax attorney, and still lives in Austin, where former schoolmates have run into him from time to time. Why did he kill his teacher that day? And did his short treatment have anything to do with how well-connected his father was in Texas social and political circles?

Ray listened to the others recite the latest reports about their former classmate, the shooter, John Christian, the son of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s former press secretary George Christian: He lives a few blocks from here. He’s practicing law. Someone saw him recently. What do people say about him? Is he . . . normal? For Ray’s part, the last he had seen of John was when his friend had disappeared into the back seat of a police car. Yet John continued to hover over his life like a spectral question mark, both inexplicable and utterly familiar. “He wasn’t some monster you could easily explain away,” Ray said later. “Hell, he was one of us.”

Source: The School Shooting That Austin Forgot – Texas Monthly