My Breast Cancer Diagnosis Came In The Pandemic. I Wanted More Than A ‘Virtual Hug’

by Karin Huster

“You have breast cancer,” my doctor announced, faceless behind her mask. Silence. In the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic. Her eyes locked on mine and beamed as much compassion and kindness as she could muster. 

“I’m so sorry,” she said as we faced each other 6 feet apart in her office.

That was it. 

The COVID-19 virtual hug: cold and sterile. Punishing, despite the best intents.

As friends came to my home to visit, the weight of this emotional disconnect became increasingly difficult to bear. At a moment when I so desperately needed spontaneous physical connection and warmth — simple human love – there was none. Just sad faces at a safe distance.

“I’m so sorry,” they would all say.

That was it.

Distressed, my mind took me back to West Africa’s devastating Ebola outbreak of 2014, resurrecting images I had desperately tried to suppress. In an instant I was in Port Loko, Sierra Leone, where I managed a Partners in Health Ebola Treatment Unit, listening to the agonizing wails of our patients, alone in their beds with no one next to them to provide reassurance or comfort. Back to the sick children, scared and alone, with whom I would spend time, uncomfortably crouched in my Ebola suit, carefully hugging them and singing muffled songs through my masks. Back to the midnight palliative care rounds for the gravely ill, where I would just hold a hand, provide words of encouragement, give pain medication or stay with our sickest patients as they approached the door of the otherworld. Just so they wouldn’t be alone.

And my mind took me to Detroit’s nursing homes and their vulnerable population, disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. This summer we at Doctors Without Borders provided much needed support. With the outbreak not under control and facilities off limits to all visitors, residents faced an endless, harmful, solitary existence. Grandparents died alone, with good-byes bid over Zoom. Social distancing at all costs became a thing.

I’ve worked for Doctors Without Borders for six years and had my share of difficult and heartbreaking experiences. I don’t work in easy places. I work in war zones and countries with little to no health-care system to speak of. I respond to refugee crises, natural disasters and disease outbreaks. I have gotten used to danger. I’ve gotten used to falling asleep with worries of being infected with Ebola or being attacked by an armed group.

But what I never have gotten used to — and never accepted — was the loneliness. The loneliness of those crowded Ebola treatment units in West Africa and then again in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018. The sorrow of families and friends who undoubtedly felt they were abandoning their loved ones. The loneliness of dying alone. The absurdity of dying on Zoom in an overcrowded New York city hospital – nurses would hold their iPad and people would say their goodbyes.

Not even in war do people have to face hardships alone. The contagious nature of COVID-19 and Ebola managed to instill enough fear to make us — in the name of safety — less human. At moments when we needed each other most, vital social connections were brutally banned. In Sierra Leone, our clinical team remedied this by starting what may have been the first supportive care rounds, specifically for those patients who would clearly not recover, ensuring that these individuals always had someone with them at their most fragile moments. 

Over time, organizations involved in the care of Ebola patients improved the design of Ebola treatment units so patients could be closer visually – but also physically — to their loved ones. Family visiting areas were installed at a safe distance right across patient rooms, where large plexiglass windows were installed. The CUBE, a self-contained isolation room with transparent walls allows families to be right next to their sick loved ones. 

We found a way to do it, and we knew it made a huge difference.

So how did we go so wrong that the COVID-19 response of the world’s richest country collapsed to the level of not being able to provide to the most basic human need – that of not being alone in moments of sickness?

It didn’t have to be this way with COVID-19. With lessons of past outbreaks to guide us, with strong institutional and individual national expertise to lead us, with the experience of countries who fell to COVID-19 before us, we knew what could have been done to protect ourselves, prevent the spread of disease and the overload of our hospitals. 

We knew what kind of preparations and precautions it would have taken to give that hug and hold that hand safely. To be together safely.

Today I am home in Seattle, halfway around the world from Africa. I now have become the patient, the one anxiously waiting alone on a gurney that will take me to the operating room. I grieve the lack of physical connection. It’s not words I need, it’s proximity. It’s touch. Back to that hug, that holding of the hand. That reassurance of being next to one another. It speaks a thousand words. It goes a million miles.

So please, mask up. Wash hands. Practice safe distancing. Do your part so that we will be able to reach the point where we can again get that human bond that makes patients stronger and able to weather the storms.

Do your part so we can finally get back to normal. It is long overdue.

Karin Huster was a field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders on its COVID-19 response in Hong Kong and in Detroit. She is now back home in Seattle, working with USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance as a public health adviser and focusing on the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ongoing Ebola outbreak.

App Lets You Destress By Screaming Into Icelandic Wilderness

by Emily Alfin Johnson and Lisa Weiner

View of Seltun geothermal field in Krysuvik on the Reykjanes peninsula in southwestern Iceland on July 5, 2014.

2020 has been a lot. And we’re barely halfway through. 

Luckily, there’s Iceland. Or…

The Web app lets you release any pandemic-pent up frustration in the form of a scream, then broadcasts it from speakers in the Icelandic wilderness.

The ad campaign is from the group Promote Iceland, a collaboration between the government of Iceland and private institutions. It’s designed to provide a little light-hearted relief and a gentle reminder of all the country has to offer (when it’s safe to travel again). 


As the site explains:

Once you’ve recorded your scream (or any audio really) you can send it to one of the seven speakers placed around the empty Icelandic countryside.

There are also some “screaming tips” from a mental health consultant on how to make the most of your therapeutic scream. For more serious issues, the site urges users to seek the support of a mental health professional.

And while Iceland is encouraging screaming (albeit virtually), there’s a time and a place in the midst of a global pandemic. A newly reopened Japanese theme park suggests you “scream inside your heart” while on its rides, to avoid spreading coronavirus-carrying droplets.

How 6 Problem-Solvers Tackled Pandemic Challenges In Their Neighborhoods

Left: Tech entrepreneur Ruchit Garg is helping farmers connect to customers in India. Center: A mariachi band brings music and joy to the streets of Colombia during lockdown. Right: Designer Rhea Shah created an affordable cardboard bed for health facilities in India.

Cardboard beds. Urban farms. Roving mariachi bands.

These are some of the ways that regular folks are solving problems and spreading happiness during the pandemic.

The solutions aren’t perfect — public health experts have some critiques and suggestions. But at the same time, they applaud the ingenuity and positive vibes.

Read the stories of six grassroots change-makers — then nominate your own at the bottom of this story.

Urban farmer gives greens to the poor

Left: Urban farmer Victor Edalia (in white shirt) with three beneficiaries of his free veggies (left to right): Sheila Musimbi, a single mom; Celine Oinga, who comes from a family of 9 siblings; and Jackline Oyamo, jobless due to the pandemic. Right: Edalia uses modern urban farming methods, including this spiral planter that holds up to 100 seedlings.

In April, Jackline Oyamo, 31, was laid off from her job as an electronic sales assistant at a shop in Kibera, one of the world’s largest slums on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. The curfews to control the pandemic meant fewer customers – and staff cutbacks. “After losing my job, it was extremely difficult to keep feeding myself after I exhausted my small savings,” she says.

But Oyamo is able to get fresh produce for free from Victor Edalia, a 30-year-old urban farmer in her neighborhood. Last November, Edalia, who works as a driver by day, converted a trash dump site in the slum into an urban garden. He signed an agreement with a local chief to use the land. Now, the plot, about a quarter of an acre, grows vegetables such as kale, onions and spinach.

Edalia originally started the farm to boost his income. The idea was to sell vegetables to hotels. But once the pandemic hit, he changed the plan. He wanted to find a way to “give back,” he says.

So throughout the pandemic, Edalia has been providing free supplies of vegetables to 10 needy families and individuals in Kibera. They include young people who lost their jobs in the pandemic, like Oyamo, as well as single mothers and families with households of more than seven people. They can drop by the farm up to three times a week to pick up a supply of vegetables.

“I saw needy families get food donations, mostly comprising of dry foods but without any vegetables,” says Edalia.

Oyamo says the veggies supplement other food donations she receives from charities and people in the community.

Moses Omondi, team leader of Adopt a Family, a local nonprofit that’s been providing dry food donations – like maize flour — to 500 families in Kibera, thinks Edalia’s program is promising.

Providing veggies to families who receive food packs – “I think it’s a pretty smart approach,” he says. “In addition to supporting struggling families during these tough times that face starvation while at home, it helps to reduce anxiety and helplessness of a Kibera family.”

Thomas Bwire is a digital and radio journalist from Kibera, Kenya. 

App maker helps churches go virtual

Houses of worship had to close their doors because of the pandemic. And even now, with some reopening, there may be limits on how many congregants are allowed in.

Nnamdi Udeh, 29, a tech entrepreneur in Nigeria, came up with OSanctus, an app that offers some solutions: easy access to virtual worshipping options and a reservations system so there won’t be crowding at reopened churches. 

Churches can use the app to stream mass online and share community announcements. Parishioners can book a virtual consultation with a priest — and send in a digital donation. And in Nigeria, where houses of worship have capped attendance at 50% of capacity, folks can use the app to register for a spot instead of showing up to church in the hope of being let in.

“It helps the priests manage their time schedule, know how many persons they are expecting on a particular day, all the appointments and masses booked and other activities that they want,” says Udeh.

Harvard Medical School physician Dr. Abraar Karan says indoor churches are high risk. “There is singing usually and close face-to-face contact between participants. While the app is probably trying to reduce crowding outside the church, it is unclear if it will achieve that.” 

But, he adds, “if the church is going to open either way, the app could help ensure that only a certain number of people come at a time.”

So far, it’s been helpful to parishioners. “It is user-friendly and helps us to resolve church registration issues. Parishioners can easily access the parish office and we can also reach out to them,” says Father Paul Akin-Otiko, a pastor at a Catholic-run chaplaincy. “It came in handy during this pandemic.”

The app runs in six parishes in Lagos and has been downloaded about 500 times. It is now under trial in other parishes across the country. But it’s not 100% altruistic. As everyone struggles to earn a living in these times, the app maker plans to charge the churches an annual fee, based on the size of the parish. 

Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg, where he is an Open Society Foundations fellow on Investigative Reporting at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Designer makes recyclable cardboard beds for patients

Left: Designer Rhea Shah, right, and her colleagues assemble a cardboard bed at her family’s paper factory in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Right: Shah poses for a photo with family members and colleagues who helped manufacture the cardboard bed.

As the coronavirus surges in India, authorities are converting dozens of convention centers in major cities into temporary COVID-19 wards, some equipped with rather unusual beds — made entirely of cardboard.

The beds can be assembled in minutes and hold a load of more than 400 pounds. They’re made of tough corrugated cardboard that’s been chemically treated to make it waterproof, so they can be sprayed with disinfectant and wiped clean. They cost about $13 each – roughly half the price of the cheapest metal beds, says architect and designer Rhea Shah, who specializes in urban resilience.

Shah came up with the concept for the bed while under lockdown at her family’s home in western India.

“I was grappling with helplessness, thinking about what I could do with my talent and the resources available,” Shah says.

Her family runs a paper factory and is selling the beds at cost, without profit. They’ve shipped about 15,000 units to isolation wards set up by the Indian Navy, government hospitals and a school in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum – a recent COVID-19 hotspot.

“The cardboard bed was really a great help because it can be disposed of easily,” says city official Kiran Dighavkar, who oversees Dharavi. Once they are no longer needed, they can be recycled.

Dighavkar says it wasn’t economical to buy thousands of metal beds, which would only be used during the peak of the pandemic.

Cardboard furniture isn’t new. Cardboard desks and beds are popular in Europebecause they’re recyclable. With the high death toll from COVID-19 in Latin America, designers there have come up with cardboard beds that turn into coffins.

Other Indian manufacturers are adapting Shah’s design. One company supplied 10,000 cardboard beds to a makeshift hospital in New Delhi, one of the largest COVID-19 facilities in the world.

“It’s heartwarming to know that in spaces where it was most needed, it was useful,” says Shah.

Sushmita Pathak is a producer for NPR India. 

‘Commander Safeguard’ brings COVID-19 messages to remote areas

Left: Rehmat Ali Dost makes an announcement at the village of Kushum in the Upper Chitral district of Pakistan. Right: Using a loudspeaker, Dost shares information about COVID-19 in the village of Rech Torkhow.

Rehmat Ali Jaffar Dost, 43, is known as “Commander Safeguard” for his clean-up and anti-littering campaigns in Chitral, a remote district of Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan. Now he’s adding to his agenda: informing citizens about COVID-19.

In the area where Dost lives, fewer than 20% of residents have basic 2G internet and there are still some villages with no electricity, according to the Aga Khan Rural Support Program, a nonprofit operating in rural parts of Pakistan. And government officials and nonprofit organizations have been slow to spread crucial COVID-19 messaging to remote areas of the country. But the virus itself is spreading. In the district of Upper Chitral, with a population of nearly 200,000, there are more than 110 confirmed cases.

On March 17, Dost went on a 40-day journey across the Upper Chitral region to share information about the pandemic. He borrowed a friend’s car and covered other expenses with the help of friends and donations. Dost is the founder of Chitral Heritage and Environment Protection Society, a student volunteer organization.

In open spaces, Dost organized small group meetings with community members and leaders to answer questions and bust rumors and misconceptions. “A majority of the people did not know what a virus was,” he says, “and some thought people in developing countries are already immune to every kind of virus.”

“In order to respond with concrete and factual information, I have involved community leaders, religious clerics, educated people and health professionals [to answer their questions],” adds Dost.

Dost also trained people to sew their own face masks, which he learned how to do by watching YouTube videos.

In some parts of Upper Chitral, he was not able to meet face-to-face interactions with women. “Chitral is highly divided in terms of religious sects and extremely conservative,” he says So, he came up with a solution. Standing in the street, he uses “a loudspeaker to reach out to Chitrali sisters and mothers,” politely requesting that people stay home, wear masks, don’t shake hands and wash their hands.

Government officials such as Shah Saud, deputy commissioner of Upper Chitral, is grateful for Dost’s involvement. “We totally support and appreciate this initiative. Volunteers like Rehmat Ali can help stop or slow down the spread of this contagious disease.”

Benazir Samad is a lead multimedia journalist at Voice of America’s Pakistan desk in Washington, D.C.

Roving mariachi musicians uplift locked-down neighbors

Left: Since lockdown, the band has been going out to busk in different neighborhoods. Right: Antonio Cartagena, an accordion player in a mariachi group meets his bandmates on the street in Medelli­n, Colombia.

Medellin’s mariachi and folk music bands are usually booked up with performances at parties, weddings and birthdays. But since mandatory stay-home orders were enforced on March 20, they have been out of work.

Equipped with masks, some Colombian musical groups are helping others and themselves by walking the streets and busking.

These public mini-concerts cheer up the city’s residents stuck at home.

Jairo Muriel, 56, has seen four live performances outside his apartment in Bello, a suburb of Medellin. “It’s really enjoyable,” he says. People come out on their balconies to savor the music and sing along.

Then they lower tips in a basket. “People are very good to us. They help us,” says Antonio Cartagena, 66, an accordion player from a mariachi band.

The money is far from normal wages. Depending on how successful a band is, an 8- to 10-piece group can earn up to $1,100 to divvy up for one night’s work. Cartagena says his share of the daily tips in the pandemic is $13 on average. Although it’s not much, he says it’s enough for him to buy food for his family each day.

Not everyone likes the music. Muriel has heard at least one person in the surrounding buildings telling the groups to move along. But the bands, he says, “don’t stay very long, they’re not annoying.”

And the city’s secretary for culture Lina Gaviria is a fan. Entertainment can “transmit a message of hope during these difficult times,” she says.

Sophie Foggin is a journalist based in Medellin, Colombia, covering politics, human rights, history and justice in Latin America. 

Tech entrepreneur connects farmers to customers

Left: Ruchit Garg, founder of the Harvesting Farmer Network, and a farmer near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, in 2018. Right: Garg on a tractor during a visit with farmers.

In early April, Justin Stephen, a 36-year-old farmer from Udhagamandalam, a town nestled in south India’s Niligiri mountains, was distressed.

As India’s lockdown came into effect on the midnight of March 25, the prime season for harvesting avocados was just beginning. Every month, from February to September, the trees on Stephen’s two-acre farmlands yielded a rich harvest of roughly 4,000 avocados. The fruit stays fresh only three days after being picked. So getting the produce to market as quickly as possible is a priority.

Even in previous years, Stephen had difficulty connecting with key retail markets in Indian cities and transporting the avocados on time because his farm, bordering a jungle, wasn’t as accessible. There wasn’t a reliable network of trucks to transport the products. And transport costs were high.

Now, with lockdown restrictions on travel, getting his avocados to market “seemed impossible,” he says. 

In mid-April, when he was staring at mounting financial losses and crop wastage, a friend suggested that he contact Harvesting Farmer Network (HFN), a website run by Ruchit Garg, a tech entrepreneur. Garg runs a tech company called Harvesting, which uses satellite data and artificial intelligence to identify, measure and monitor cropland. 

When social media erupted with videos of distraught farmers flinging produce into rivers and onto streets, frustrated and unable to sell because of the pandemic travel restrictions, Garg’s heart went out to them. “I could feel their pain. I knew I had to do something,” he says. 

Garg launched HFN on April 12 to address some of the farmers’ challenges. With many shops being shut down, some farmers only lacked customers. Farmers can join HFN free of charge and display their fresh produce to customers across India. If a customer is interested in buying, they place their order on the site. 

Once farmers receive their orders, they can coordinate deliveries to the customers themselves. For farmers unable to arrange for transport, Garg has arranged for buses and lorries and HFN vehicles to transport produce from the farms to the customers. 

So far, he says that HFN has helped deliver over one million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables from over 2,000 farmers to customers across the country. 

Stephen’s avocados have been popular on HFN. In a single day, he delivered about 3,600 avocados, and some of his delighted customers tweeted their thanks. “I was overjoyed that people appreciated my fresh produce, and that I could connect with customers in these difficult times.”

So far, he’s sold nearly 15,000 avocados. “In a country hit by COVID, we found kindness and a way to look to the future with hope,” he says.

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, India, who has written for The International New York Times, BBC Travel and Forbes India. You can follow her @kamal_t.

Pandemic Gardens Satisfy A Hunger For More Than Just Good Tomatoes

By Petra Mayer

My brand-new back yard garden bed — I can’t control the news, but I can plant some radishes.
Petra Mayer

In this time of fear and uncertainty, people are going back to the land — more or less. Gardening might just be overtaking sourdough baking, TV binging and playing Animal Crossing as our favorite pandemic coping mechanism

So here I am in my back yard, where I’ve got this lovely four foot by eight food raised garden bed — brand new this year, because yes, I’m one of those people who are trying their hand at gardening. I’ve got tomatoes, I’ve got cucumbers, I’ve got radishes, I’ve got beets sprouting up, I’ve got what I think might be a zucchini and a spaghetti squash, but the markers washed away in a storm.

And I had some watermelon seedlings, but they died in the last cold snap. So that’s why I’m out here today — driving in stakes and draping plastic wrap for the next cold snap.

I have to be extra careful now, because I couldn’t actually replace my watermelon seedlings — garden centers and hardware stores have been picked clean.

Jennifer Atkinson is a senior lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Washington, and the author of Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy and Everyday Practice. She says she’d get a flurry of responses to her blog posts about pandemic gardening, but she really got interested when she started seeing it in the headlines. “Seed suppliers were saying they were completely cleaned out in the early days of lockdown, but seed sales were going through the roof. And that a lot of those customers were first time growers.”

Tamar Charney’s windowsill lettuces.
Tamar Charney/NPR

Like me. Now when you’ve discovered a new obssession, you want to share it, right? So I put out a call in the company newsletter. And it turns out that a lot of my colleagues here at NPR love to garden — some are brand new pandemic gardeners, and some have well-established green thumbs. Some don’t have back yards, like NPR One’s Tamar Charney, who reported in from Ann Arbor, Mich: “My garden’s basically just my kitchen windowsill, and it’s full of little glasses, half full of water,” she says. “Each one has a stub of an old head of lettuce in it, and slowly but surely, they’re regrowing.”

Here in D.C., business correspondent Alina Selyukh has just taken delivery of a load of seedlings for her balcony. “Some chives, some Swiss chard, some watercress, lots of herbs.” Morning Edition production assistant Nina Kravinsky says she decided to try her hand at sprouting seeds — and now she has “WAY TOO MANY TOMATO PLANTS.”

An aloe blooms on Andrea Gutierrez’s patio.
Andrea Gutierrez/NPR

From Los Angeles, It’s Been a Minute producer Andrea Gutierrez described what sounds like an amazing setup, full of jasmine, white sage, succulents, vegetables and spices: “I have a flat of strawberries I need to plant, there’s plumeria … We’ve got jalapenos, serrano peppers, Thai hot peppers that my partner likes to dry and grind, agave, I have a couple of aloe plants.”

And back here in DC, All Things Considered editor Sarah Handel says she’s planting more since the pandemic hit. “This year in our garden we’ve got three different kinds of tomatoes, we’ve got swiss chard, lettuce, sugar snap peas, hot peppers, an onion we replanted from an onion top,” and all kinds of herbs. “More mint than we could ever use,” she jokes. And a fig tree.

But let’s be honest — you’re not going to be able to feed your family from a backyard vegetable patch. So why do we love to grub around in the dirt so much?”

“People have always gardened in hard times, but food is only one part of that story,” says Jennifer Atkinson. “They’re also motivated by the desire for beauty or contact with nature. Maybe they’re looking for a creative outlet or a sense of community. And there’s immense gratification that comes from work that gives you tangible results.”

What people are starved for right now isn’t food, but contact with something real.
Jennifer Atkinson

Today’s pandemic gardens are often referred to as “victory gardens,” after the patriotic plots of World War II. And Atkinson says there’s some merit to that comparison. But, she says, what’s going on now is much more complex than just an attempt to shore up the food supply during wartime.

“What people are starved for right now isn’t food, but contact with something real,” she says. “We spend all day on screens. We can’t be around each other at restaurants or ballparks. We can’t even give hugs or shake hands. So all of a sudden, the appeal of sinking your hands in the dirt and using your body in ways that matter, that becomes irresistible.”

I might not be able to control the news, or the weather, or whatever it is my sourdough starter is doing in that jar — but I can press a tiny radish seed into the dirt, give it food and water, and watch it grow.

Comedy Clubs Are Closed, So To Reach Audiences, Comics Have To Improvise

By Elizabeth Blair

Colin Quinn says performing on virtual platforms won’t ever come close to appearing in a club full of strangers because it lacks “the tension” of the live experience. He’s writing a book that draws from some of the material he explored in his Red State Blue State special — and says he now has no excuse not to finish it.
CQE, Inc.

At a time when we really need to keep a sense of humor, comedy clubs are closed. Stand-up comedians are on lockdown. So what do you do if your career is making people laugh? You can write jokes while you shelter in place, but how do you know if they’re funny?

“I don’t know until I get in front of an audience,” says comedian Marina Franklin. For her special Single Black Female, Franklin worked out jokes in small clubs for about 100 people before filming the special for an audience of 1,000 at the Vic Theatre in Chicago.

In normal times, Franklin would be out at New York comedy clubs six nights a week. That kind of exposure can lead to acting jobs or the chance to open for bigger name comedians.

“Every night in New York City is an opportunity; you never know who’s going to see you,” she says. But during quarantine, “It’s been oddly quiet amongst the comedy community.” Franklin’s been spending more time focused on her podcast Friends Like Us but still finding the seeds of future material.

“I have had several things happen to me that are pretty funny,” she says. She got into a fight about social distancing at the farmer’s market — “not a place where you normally would fight” — and scolded the man selling fish for yelling Next! “There’s no screaming during pandemic time,” she laughs. “And why are we in a hurry? No one’s going anywhere.”

So, Franklin has material, but she’s concerned about some of her comedian friends who need audience feedback to thrive. “Some comedians, they have depression and mental illness — that’s rampant in the comedy scene, it’s rampant in the world,” she says. “So I do worry [about] the lack of feedback.”

Mike Birbiglia agrees. “Comedians rely so much on audiences to relay their deep, inner most thoughts and feelings about things,” he says. “And when you can’t do that on stage, it’s worrisome.”

Like a lot of comedians, Birbiglia has turned to the Internet to connect with audiences. With help from Roy Wood, Jr., he started “Tip Your Waitstaff,” a series of Instagram Live videos in which Birbiglia talks to fellow comedians about the jokes they’re working on. Gary Gulman, John Mulaney, Emmy Blotnick and Hannibal Buress are among the comedians who’ve participated.

The series is a fundraiser to help comedy clubs around the country including The DC Improv (where Birbiglia got his start), The Comedy Cellar in New York, The Stardome outside Birmingham, Ala., and The Comedy Attic in Bloomington, Ind.

Birbiglia says the Instagram audience takes some getting used to, especially keeping up with the streaming bursts of written comments that quickly roll up the screen. After he interviewed John Mulaney they talked on the phone about how fast the comments go by. Mulaney likened it to watching “1,000 audience members all talk at the same time.’ “

Birbiglia has had to cancel a number of appearances because of the pandemic. He figures he might as well get used to performing virtually since there’s no telling when clubs and theaters will reopen.

Veteran stand-up Colin Quinn was always planning to use this time to finish writing his forthcoming book Overstated: A Coast-To-Coast Roast of the 50 States. The pandemic “takes all your excuses away for not working on things like that,” jokes Quinn. He’s hearing that comedy clubs won’t reopen until 2021. As for performing on virtual platforms like Zoom, Quinn doesn’t think they’ll ever come close to replacing a club full of strangers because it lacks “the tension” of the live experience.

“It’s got to have that element of ‘Oh, this could really fall apart, and this person could be collectively, publicly humiliated,’ ” Quinn says. “That’s part of comedy. It’s the thing you try to avoid in comedy but it’s got to be in the air.”

As for new jokes he’s thinking about now, Quinn’s latest annoyance is “the new sincerity.” It’s always been there, but now, in the midst of the coronavirus, he says “everybody on social media feels compelled to weigh in and go, ‘Hey, guys, be safe. Put your mask on.’ “

Mark Twain once said that laughter is humanity’s “one really effective weapon,” and without it, all of the comedians I interviewed talked about feeling “powerless.” Rob Corddry and some of his comedian friends have been making funny videos specifically intended to cheer up health care workers. Corddry got the idea from a doctor friend who was diagnosed with COVID-19 but kept working from home, taking care of the mental well-being of her staff. He says she was worried that their spirits were sagging.

“She was worried about their cheer, you know, because that affects everything. That affects their momentum,” says Corddry. “So I just thought: Well, I know a lot of funny people that can make videos.” Eventually those videos turned into a fundraiser called Funny You Should Mask in which comedians such as Eric Andre, Sasheer Zamata and Nicole Byer interview health care workers.

Corddry says it is “very sad” to see comedy venues in dire straits. At the same time, he says, something this awful could also lead to some great material. “When comedians get this much of a glimpse at their own mortality, you can expect some pretty funny comedy coming down the pike,” says Corddry.

When that day comes, we’ll be ready.

An 11-Year-Old Girl Writes To Thank Her Mailman. Postal Workers Write Back

By James Doubek and Jonaki Mehta

Emerson Weber, a 5th grader in South Dakota, is an avid letter writer whose thank-you note to her mail carrier went viral.
Hugh Weber

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night — nor coronavirus — stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

The mail is still coming. And one 11-year-old girl in Sioux Falls, S.D., wanted to show her appreciation.

How else, but by writing a letter.

“I’m Emerson,” she wrote to Doug, the mail carrier. “You may know me as the person that lives here that writes a lot of letters & decorated the envelopes too. Well, I wanted to thank you for taking my letters and delivering them. You are very important in my life. I make people happy with my letters, but you do too.”

Emerson has a bit of a letter-writing habit. “She maintains active correspondence with over a dozen of her favorite people,” as her father, Hugh Weber, describes it, and decorates her envelopes with elaborate designs and bright colors.

“I’m sure I keep [Doug’s] hands full with many letters I send,” Emerson tells All Things Considered‘sAilsa Chang. “So I really just wanted to take a chance to thank him for always delivering them.”

The next day, Emerson got a package sent by Doug and his supervisor, “just saying how touched they were by her outreach and how much it meant to them that she had seen their work and seen how essential it was,” Hugh tells NPR.

Then, Emerson’s letter was shared in an internal U.S. Postal Service newsletter, and things really started to take off. Messages from postal workers all over the country began pouring in.

“The letters that Em got from postmasters all over the country really were extremely personal, they were vulnerable and they reflected this sense of being seen, maybe for the first time in a long time,” Hugh says. “They talked about being working alone in rural post offices or that their families were far away.”

Emerson has been busy responding to all her new pen pals.

She says she was “really excited, because I love receiving mail just as much as I love sending it. But it also made me very happy that they realized people were thankful for them and that they took the time to write a letter back to me.”

Mail workers “are doing stuff right now that we wouldn’t want to do right now,” Emerson says. Even while millions are staying at home, “they’re still going to work seven days a week. And I just think we should be really thankful for them.”

Hugh shared the story on Twitter and got an overwhelming response.

Hugh [email protected] · Replying to @hughweber

We weren’t sure that a day could be more emotional than yesterday, but – my friends – you’ve topped it. We’re seeing all of your replies & retweets. We’re reading them aloud as a family. We’re absolutely in awe of the ripples of impact that have come from one letter. #WeSeeYou

Hugh [email protected]


And, if you’ve gotten this far, just know that you can start the same waves of goodness with the people that you count on, respect & love. (Maybe even your @USPS mail carrier.)

Just tell them that you miss them, love them or just see them. And, then, let us know what happens.

He thinks Emerson’s letter and response has become particularly resonant at a time when most people are physically apart.

“I think what this moment with Emerson has revealed is exactly that, that there’s such a basic human need to be seen and to be known and to be loved. And she’s reflected that,” Hugh says.

“We can all take that step of showing gratitude and showing love. And so it’s overwhelming to have the young woman that I know spark that.”

Don’t Worry, Even Fashion Guru Tim Gunn Is Living In His Comfy Clothes

By Terry Gross

Fashion expert Tim Gunn used to bemoan what he called the “comfort trap” — clothes that prioritized comfort over style. Now, after weeks of self-isolation in his New York City apartment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s reconsidering his stance.

“I’ve gone through an evolution in these last five, five-and-a-half weeks,” he says. “Why should we be self-isolating in clothes that constrain us and constrict us and are not as comfortable as something that’s a little looser and more forgiving?”

Gunn became famous for his role as a mentor on the fashion competition series Project Runway. His new fashion competition series, Making the Cut, is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

As a TV host, Gunn’stypical attire is a tailored suit and a complementary pocket square. In recent months, because of the pandemic, he’s spent more time than usual in a white T-shirt, pajama pants and a cotton robe. But no matter the circumstances, Gunn maintains some fashion rules.

“I won’t leave my apartment — I won’t even go to the trash chute at the end of the hall — wearing that,” he says. “It’s a kind of pact that I make with myself.”

Interview Highlights

On initially feeling ambivalent about the fact that Making the Cut would begin airing during the pandemic

My co-host, Heidi Klum, and I talked about this when we heard when the show was going to start airing and we were really concerned about it. And we thought, “This seems to be in very egregious bad taste to do this now.” And Amazon listened to us and understood and said, “This is really a feel-good show. It’s uplifting. It’s inspiring, and people will want this at this time. People feel shaken. They feel derailed, off-center. And the show is very grounding, and it’s a good time to release it.” And I thought, “They’re right. It really is.” And the response has been quite phenomenal.

On how he had debilitating anxiety when he first began teaching at Parsons School of Design at the New School

I was a wreck. … The very first day I pull into the school’s parking lot and I promptly throw up all over the asphalt and I’m shaking, and shaken, and I get to the studio where I’m teaching and just the mere anticipation of the students coming into the room has me trembling. So I brace myself against one of the walls. My back is against it, because if I step away from it, I’m just going to collapse to the floor. I needed that support. …

I rehearsed the meeting I needed to have with [my mentor and teacher] Rona [Slade]. And on Friday I had the meeting and the rehearsal was brief, because it didn’t require many words. And I just said, “I can’t go on like this. This is just completely debilitating. My health is suffering. I’m not sleeping. I’m an emotional wreck. I can’t go on like this.” And Rona, who is Welsh, said in this very clipped voice of hers that she trusted that this experience would either kill me or cure me, and she said, “and I’m counting on the latter. Good day.” And who knew, 29 years later, I was still teaching. I grew to just completely love it.

On his method of giving criticism and feedback

I pummel people with questions, because I need to know where they’re coming from. I need to know a context before I dive in with my own analysis.

I learned early on that you can’t soft-pedal and sugarcoat things, because it doesn’t help the student. I also learned early on that you can’t be too blunt an instrument in delivering critical analysis, because if you are, you’re discredited. The student just dismisses what you say as being mean-spirited and unkind and believes that you don’t understand their work. So I developed what I call a very Socratic approach. I pummel people with questions, because I need to know where they’re coming from. I need to know a context before I dive in with my own analysis. And for me, the ideal is — this is what I really strive for — the ideal is to get the individual with whom I’m speaking to see what I see.

And on Project Runway for 16 seasons and on Making the Cut for this one season, there are occasions when I disrupt production, in a manner of speaking because of the camera placement, and I asked the designer to come stand next to me so they can see their own work from my point of view. … I want that designer to see the silhouette, the proportions, perhaps even the construction. … So for them to stand by me and say, “Oh, I see!” That a-ha moment for me is the sweetest, most wonderful thing in the world. It’s like, “OK, I can leave you now because you get it. You see it. What you do about it [is] completely up to you. But at least you see what I see.”

On being moved to tears by the designers’ work

Beautiful things that pluck at my heartstrings make me tearful. I own it. It’s just part of who I am.

Tearing up with the Project Runaway designers, and now with the Making the Cut designers, it’s more about bearing witness to the triumph of the human spirit and how just reassuring that is about the quality of life and us as human beings, and it’s a great honor to bear witness to that. This happens to me at the Met all the time. I was looking at a Rembrandt painting of Flora, one of his models, and I was reading the caption and then looking at the painting again, and I had to step away because … I was just welling up with tears. It’s the triumph of the human spirit. It never ceases to make me emotional. Same thing happens with reading beautiful words. … Beautiful things that pluck at my heartstrings make me tearful. I own it. It’s just part of who I am.

On a memory he has of his father, an FBI agent who worked for J. Edgar Hoover

[My father] was very private and secretive. … He brought home the Warren Commission [Report, about the Kennedy assassination] before it went to Congress. And I don’t know what possessed him, I think he was just proud to have it, and he told my mother. Well, after dinner, I can hear the water running in the bathtub of my parents’ bedroom, and dad’s watching television or something. Mother’s gone and it turns out mother’s in the bathtub with the Warren Commission [Report]. So dad figures this out. He knocks on the door. It’s locked. He asks her to open the door. She refuses. He gets an ax and takes the door down to get the Warren Commission out of her hands.

On how the current pandemic has brought back memories of the AIDS crisis

I really didn’t come to terms with my sexuality until my early 20s, and I had only one partner to whom I was extremely loyal and wouldn’t betray, and we were very close. After a long relationship, he said to me, “I don’t have the patience for you.” And I knew he meant sexually, but I was devastated. I was in his bed watching M*A*S*H* with him and he said to me, “I want you to leave, and this is over.” I was so devastated. I drove to my apartment. I had to pull off the road because I was hyperventilating. And this was in 1982. … He told me … that he had been sleeping with dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of other people.

So the next day was a moment of reckoning for me, and I went from being distraught and feeling worthless and just emotionally devastated, and that evolved into incredible anger, because I thought he may have given me a death sentence. … And that experience has caused me to reflect upon the situation that we’re in now and about how people need to wear masks. They need to social distance. They need to be rigorous and responsible about this. This is not something to be taken casually or lightly. And when our elected officials are walking around maskless in hospitals, I’m thinking this is absolutely an abhorrent message to be sending to people that, “We don’t have to do this.” You could kill people or you could be killed yourself! But in this particular case, I’m more worried about being asymptomatic and killing other people. I’ve reflected a lot about AIDS and the devastation that it wrought, and my own experience with the crisis and as I said, thankfully, nothing happened. The man to whom I was so close for so many years, I don’t know what happened to him. We never spoke again.

Love On Lockdown: Tips For Dating During The Coronavirus Crisis

By Sam Sanders and Anjuli Sastry

Spring is supposed to be romantic — enjoying long dinners on the patio at your corner cafe, introducing your new beau to friends at an outdoor concert, holding hands on an evening stroll … except coronavirus. So, none of that is happening. And yet, people are still seeking love and connection.

In fact, dating apps like Tinder and Bumble have seen the length of user conversations and number of messages increase since shelter-in-place orders went into effect.

But finding love right now feels kind of like the Wild West. The old rules don’t really apply — if you have a good Zoom date, what’s next? And if you’re already in a relationship, great! But how do you hole up with someone 24/7 without going bananas?

It’s Been a Minute host Sam Sanders got some timely advice all about managing love right now. Lane Moore, host of the comedy show Tinder Live and author of the memoir How to Be Aloneshares some tips for virtual dating during the coronavirus pandemic.

(And for those maintaining a relationship during the pandemic, scroll down! We have a few tips on getting through this without biting your partner’s head off.)

1. Don’t force yourself to use dating apps right now.

Nimarta Narang lives in Los Angeles and is a sporadic user of the dating app Hinge. She says she has a bad habit of logging in, making a few matches and then forgetting about the app for a month or two. When she returns after a long silence, those matches aren’t exactly ready to chat.

“I’m finding that during quarantine or the self-isolation period, I’m even worse for some reason,” Narang says.

If dating apps don’t fit into your life right now, don’t force it. “Just take some time off,” Moore suggests. Finding a partner isn’t some sort of assignment you have to complete right now.

She eschews the idea that dating should be easier since people are under lockdown and have more “free time.” “We’re not operating with normal energy in a crisis. If a building is burning, you know, you’re not going to be like, ‘Oh, well, now they’re burning. A lot of time to, like, catch up!’ … You gotta deal with the burning building.”

Her advice: “To not hold yourself to this idea that because you technically, on paper, have more time, that like there’s more productivity or you can focus more. This isn’t the same units of time we’re used to.”

2. Embrace the real you.

Image is an undeniable aspect of virtual dating. So what do you do if you want to create a profile with your best face forward, but don’t have the usual resources?

That question came to us from Jacqueline, who wrote into the podcast Dates & Mates. “Salons and businesses are closed, so one can’t have a makeover done. Is it OK to do the best you can with what you have with items at home?”

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best, Moore says to consider the double standard. “Women are held to such a disgustingly higher standard that like now you have to maintain, like untold levels of hotness in quarantine.”

Moore acknowledges it might sound sappy, but this is also an opportunity to embrace a more authentic version of yourself. “Maybe now is a good time to be like, ‘This is what I actually look like.’ “

3. Be honest and direct.

Chelsey Smith met a guy online at the beginning of the pandemic. “We have our fourth FaceTime date scheduled for later this week,” she says. “How do we keep momentum if we can’t meet each other in real life?”

Moore says you can get a good idea of chemistry through a video chat. So if everything is going well — you feel comfortable and there are no signs of caginess — she suggests being honest about not knowing how to proceed. “I think that you could just ask him because he’s probably thinking the same thing. It’s entirely possible that he’s thinking like, ‘Oh, how are we going to move through this?’ And who knows, maybe he has an answer,” Moore says.

“It just ultimately comes down to is it worth it to you?”

4. Give yourself some extra grace right now.

This is an evergreen tip for anything pandemic-related: Be easy on yourself. Forgive yourself. This is a hard time. You might not get it all right.

4 Tips For Those Already In A Relationship During The Pandemic

To figure out how to help an existing relationship thrive during the coronavirus crisis, we checked in with Damona Hoffman. She’s a certified dating and relationship coach and host of the podcast Dates & Mates. She’s also under lockdown with her spouse and two children.

Here are four tips to help your relationship survive:

1. Make a plan to spend meaningful time together.

“I recommend setting up an actual date night. There’s so many things that you can do at home to still make it special,” Hoffman says. “Maybe even something nostalgic that reminds you why you’re together in the first place.”

Game night, sip and paint, stargazing, anything! “When’s the last time that you took a moment to go outside and actually look up at the stars? Get your little blanket to cuddle up, keep it cute.”

2. Don’t expect your partner to be your everything.

Your significant other might be the only person you’re getting within 6 feet of, but they can’t fulfill your every emotional need. Expecting one person to check every box is a recipe for disappointment and resentment.

“Rather than looking at your partner as just your best friend and your intimate partner,” Hoffman says, “try to find other avenues and other people in your support network that you can connect with virtually or [through] a distance hangout.” That way, the pressure is off your partner to be your sole support.

3. When feathers are ruffled, listen and take breaks.

Fights with your partner during lockdown are different. You can’t go get advice over drinks with your friends. You may not even be able to move to a different room. What’s the solution?

“What I would love to see people do is to focus on listening and understanding right now,” Hoffman says. “It’s really easy when you are in an argument to try to be heard and to impress your perspective on the other person. But especially right now, there are a lot of problems that do not have a solution, that will not be resolved by you making your point.”

If you’re in a fight, try putting a pause on the conversation and doing something else. “It might just be folding the laundry,” Hoffman says. “Then set a time that you and your partner can come back and have this discussion. So say, ‘Why don’t we talk about this tonight after the kids go to bed or tomorrow after I’ve had a chance to talk to my therapist?’ “

Even in lockdown, there are lots of ways to access therapy, from virtual appointments to apps, Hoffman says. “Use the tools that we have available so that you can be your best self in the relationship.” (Here are more tips on accessing therapy from home.)

4. Don’t ignore the elephant in the room.

This is a tumultuous, isolating and uncertain time. If you find yourself turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms or addictions, don’t try to sweep them under the rug. It probably won’t work very well, and doing so “really can be a silent relationship killer,” Hoffman says. “These are the exact kind of things that you need your partner to be your support system on.”

Hoffman says to talk about the elephant in the room. “If you just shine a light on it so that everyone knows it’s here,” she says, “then you can actually talk about what’s going on.”

From ‘Parks And Recreation,’ A Brief But Delightful Return To Pawnee

By Linda Holmes

It’s been five years since Parks and Recreation ended its run, after a final season that jumped forward into the future — specifically, to 2017. We haven’t got the nifty transparent touchscreens their 2017 showed. Instead, we have a pandemic, and we have social distancing, and we are doing without many of our comforts, large and small. But for a half-hour on Thursday night, we did not have to be without our friends from Pawnee.

The special, conceived, written and filmed during the weeks of isolation that have idled much of Hollywood, began — after an intro from Paul Rudd’s lovable rich dummy Bobby Newport, who’s living an oblivious life in Switzerland — with Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ben (Adam Scott) checking in via video chat. He was at home with their kids; she was somewhere else. He’s in Congress; she works for the Department of the Interior. There are nods to the things he’s done to amuse himself during lonely moments in the past, from his Claymation experiment to his complicated board game, Cones of Dunshire. She’s worried about him.

But Leslie, being Leslie, is running a phone tree with all her former colleagues, because she checks in on everybody to make sure they’re all right. She calls up Ron (Nick Offerman), who’s out in his workshop in the woods — and he’s still doing battle with his second ex-wife, played by Offerman’s wife Megan Mullally. What makes that particularly funny is that Ron is with Tammy 2, but the show is otherwise stuck with the limitations of actors who can’t be in scenes together, even though the story would have them living together. This is sometimes solved with humor, as when April (Aubrey Plaza) is not with Andy (Chris Pratt) because he’s locked himself in the shed (classic Andy). It’s sometimes solved with simple logic, as with Ben and Leslie’s busy jobs, or when Ann (Rashida Jones) is quarantining separately from Chris (Rob Lowe) and their kids because she’s still working as a nurse. It is a pure quirk of casting and the intersection with reality, but it’s also very funny, that out of all these people, only Ron and Tammy 2 can be together.

The episode, written by show creator Michael Schur and a virtual room of the show’s former writers, finds some very clever ways to incorporate the oddities of video calling. Tom (Aziz Ansari) and Donna (Retta) are using the same tropical background on their call together, because they are always looking for ways to live well. To treat themselves, as it were. And Garry (or Jerry, or Terry, or whatever they’re calling him right now) (Jim O’Hehir) is unable to figure out how to turn off the camera filters that make him look like a dog or a baby.

But one of the reasons I tried — oh, I really tried — to keep my expectations low with this special is that Parks has always been, for me, a show about togetherness. At weddings, at funerals, at parties and weird public events, it’s typically been at the height of its powers when a group connects. And I’ve seen enough Zoom calls to know that groups of faces on a screen have their charms, but they can’t really get to the emotional place that a group hug wants to go.

I was wrong to doubt.

Because of course they found the perfect final moment; of course. It wasn’t just the “Bye Bye Li’l Sebastian” singalong (although it was that, obviously). It was that we got a little slice of what became my favorite story of love in all of Pawnee when Ron reminded Leslie to stop taking care of everybody else and let people take care of her. This group of writers found a true character beat, one that made sense for the moment and is absolutely what the Ron we know would need to tell the Leslie we know, that they could write into this special. Mostly, yes, it’s just a visit — with the whole gang, with Joan Calamezzo and Perd Hapley and Dennis Feinstein and Jean-Ralphio. And that was such a spirit-lifter that it would have been really fine.

But then there was that little bauble of a reminder that even though they’ve been separated for years, even before social distancing, these people still love each other, and they still know each other. It’s so funny now to look back at the great feature Vulture did in early April in which writers speculated about what their COVID-19 episodes would look like. Schur said a lot of things that didn’t come true in the special, quite. But he also said this: “Ron would be thrilled because now there’s a reason for him to be alone with no one bothering him. But he would worry about Leslie.” And that little bit of emotional realness in an entry that’s largely jokes, is the part that survived.

That, and the lighters, and the singing … well, I cried, of course. But it was the nice kind of crying. Maybe I even needed it. And hey, sometimes that’s all you can ask for from a visit with old friends.