Wasn’t it only last holiday season when everything was just peachy? Sure, we had an unusual President, the North Pole was melting and the Democratic and Republican parties were acting as if the opposing parties were themselves a dangerous virus. But, heck, the economy was good. There were 100 or so somewhat deluded men and women running for the Democratic Party nomination for the Presidency, confidence was high, oil prices and inflation were low, and airplanes were full. Harry and Meghan’s withdrawal from the Royal Family was the most important story of the day.
Then in Hubei Province — a place few Americans had ever heard of prior to January 2020 — at a seafood “wet market” in its capital of Wuhan (a small Chinese town of more than eight million people), some fool ate a bat or some such animal, and the world started to spin backwards. Instantaneously, the job of humor columnist became essential and imposing.
The reality is that people will not be in a mindset for belly laughs when perhaps 50 percent of the people in our country are going to contract a previously unknown disease that has a relatively high mortality rate, for which no vaccine exists, and, worst still, spring baseball has been cancelled! It is indeed a hard pill to swallow that while lying in the beds of our hastily constructed tent hospitals, without essential medical supplies such as respirators, we won’t be able to turn on the television to watch baseball. Summer is starting to look like scenes from M*A*S*H re‑runs.
The conundrum is finding humor when your deadline falls in the middle of a global pandemic. I’m wondering what Mark Twain did to entertain people in the middle of the Spanish-American War. I’m guessing he said something witty, acerbic and partly true. Today, he would likely be writing about politicians who brashly refuse to quarantine or wash their hands, or others who are actually attempting to wash their hands of any responsibility.
In fact, as I sat at my desk, pondering humor in the time of coronavirus, I received an en banc order from my state’s Supreme Court: “In re: Response to the Coronavirus Disease Pandemic.” Prior to the order, individual circuits had been making their own rules to deal with problems presented by group gatherings, contending with issues of criminal defendants, emergency child custody, temporary restraining orders, mental health issues, guardianships, orders of protection and unruly attorneys sneezing on jurors. In other words, local courts were dealing with the type of issues they deal with every day.
Our Supreme Court stepped up to coordinate what it referred to as “justice and procedures” throughout the state by supplying lawyers and litigants with one general order to follow. It basically banned in-person proceedings. The high court excluded some emergency matters and granted local courts certain discretion in performing “the core, constitutional functions” and “upholding” the constitutional rights of the litigants.
Finally, in a Martin Lutheresque gesture, the court included an Exhibit A, which it ordered tacked upon courthouse doors. The edict prohibited “access to the premises for individuals that have been exposed or are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.” Of course, as we know, courts love postings. They use them in serving papers, telling folks they need to get out of their houses or places in which they are residing without paying rent. There is nothing objectionable about suggesting that individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19 should keep out of the halls of justice. The press tells us, however, that few people who have been exposed to the coronavirus actually know they have been exposed to the coronavirus. So, the posting is unlikely to have the same history altering effect as Martin Luther’s theses. It may, in fact, result in contempt of court by hundreds of uninformed court-visiting offenders. Finally, the court ended with the proclamation that it intends the order to be “interpreted broadly.” That marvelous phrase caught my attention. Henceforth, every time I propose an order to a judge that allows my client to do something, I intend to include the language that it must be “interpreted broadly.” So some good has come out of this pandemic already.
Another good thing, for some, I guess, is law firms are allowing or making their employees work at home. My law firm has ordered that only a skeleton crew of essential personnel report to the office — I am not one of them — and has directed everyone else to work at home (thus unfairly exposing me to numerous potential “honey do” tasks). I understand the wisdom of the work-at-home policy, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. You see, I am just not the solitary type who loves to work alone — or even be alone. I had a dinner with a client and his wife scheduled last weekend. They cancelled. I had a dinner planned this coming weekend with an interesting new friend from Mali, with whom I wanted to talk to about visiting West Africa. Unfortunately, the city just closed all dine-in restaurants. In fact, just before the city’s order, my wife told me that she thought we should cancel because it would be the socially responsible course to follow.
So, what does the future hold: likely instances of selflessness, selfishness, gallows humor, tears, sadness, delight and indelible memories. Some claim Sir Isaac Newton developed theories of gravity and motion while social distancing from the Great Plague of London. While such heady conceptual thought is admirable for the Newtons among us, I think I’ll just settle for a few Cuban cigars and a bottle of rum — items I recently brought back from Havana — while I figure out how to work from home without going crazy or running out of toilet paper. That would be a success — interpreted broadly. And what is the upside for all of us? How about human beings overcoming a devastating situation — and finding humanity and humor while doing so? Remember, Corporal Klinger did it in a dress those many years ago.
Actually just today, I received an internal email from one of our legal secretaries. She related the story of her son’s boss — a State Farm agent who asked that his employees, instead of making sales calls, reach out to their elderly clients and offer their services if anything was needed. Most of their clients didn’t need anything, but were appreciative of the call. A few, like Sam, did. He needed and was brought some fruit and oatmeal. So just like the fictional 4077th M*A*S*H unit, we will actually find a way to get things done. And we might as well do it — like they did — with a little humor and a big smile on our faces.