Ben Franklin and My Covid Year

I seem to have the soul of an 18th century Yankee — industrious, leaning toward practical virtue, and optimistic. Then again, that is not unlike the striving, entrepreneurial spirit of my Shanghainese parents. I’ve been thinking about these traits in the context of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and my Covid year.

In this memoir, Franklin (1706–1790) presents episodes from his upbringing, his work, his science experiments, and his innumerable civic endeavors.

Franklin’s formal education ended at age twelve when he became a printer’s apprentice. Obviously, his learning did not end. He absorbed knowledge and writing style from tracts that came his way as a printer. He read instead of attending sermons. He formed reading and writing groups. He observed nature and human nature, including his own behavior.

In the Autobiography, he also chronicles his frugality in food, dress and lodging; his attempts to systemize the practice of virtue; and his mistakes. The most poignant passage was when Franklin talked about the death of his four-year old son from small-pox. A primitive and dangerous vaccination was available, but Franklin decided against it. He grieved, “I long regretted bitterly … that I had not given it to him by inoculation.” As with our country’s Covid experience — so much regret.

I want to chronicle my Covid year before it blurs. I want to record my routines, my expectations, my successes and failures. I hope to be Franklin-esque as I see a lot of similarities in our approach to the world, such as these observations of his:

“Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.” And “There are no Gains without Pains.”

The scope of Franklin’s accomplishments is mind-boggling. He invented the Franklin stove, bifocals and the lightning rod. He helped write the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He started Philadelphia’s library, fire department, street sanitation and an academy.

This book could have been a dry, boastful list. But, instead of braggadocio, Franklin charms you. One way is to admit mistakes or errata. “[O]ne of the first great errata of my life,” he wrote, was to delay returning money he had borrowed. He described his “attempted familiarities” with a London matron as “another erratum” [singular of errata]. He struggled with the fault of pride. If he were to conquer pride, he said, “I should probably be proud of my humility.”

My achievements are small compared to Franklin’s. However, I hope for a little bit of the Franklin charm in the telling.

We are eating healthier than ever! Five fruits and vegetables every day. Cooking more, I developed a greater command of basic nutritional building blocks: veggies from our garden; meat, fish or shrimp, cheese; and flavor groupings: garlic, onion and green peppers; garlic, ginger and cilantro; Miropoix; cumin, oregano and garlic.

One erratum. I store sugar above the stove. The steam from all my cooking crystalized the sugar. When I went to fill my sugar bowl, the five-pound bag was as hard as concrete.

Another erratum: I cannot resist Jif Extra Crunchy peanut butter out of the jar.

I have written about my neighborhood walks. We yoga via Zoom five days a week. I can’t name the specific benefits, but it is in the Franklin and Luh family spirit to trust in long-term health rewards for eating well and exercising. When my parents were in their eighties, I dropped in on them unannounced. Dad was leading Mom in a fast walk around the chairs in their basement.

My greatest effort has been writing these blogs. The eighteen essays since March 2020 are a reflection of my Plague Year hopes and fears. The spring abounded in existential dread and longing for normal. Summer focused on historical and current issues of racial justice. Fall and winter were a frenzy of politics, leading up to Joe Biden’s Inauguration.

Happily, I don’t have to write alone. Just as Franklin met regularly with his “club of mutual improvement,” the Junto, friends Laurie, Sue and I have supported each other’s writing for nearly two decades. This year, we meet in a FaceBook room. After a brief chat, we point our phones at the ceiling and work on our projects.

Franklin truly enjoyed his scientific experiments. His account of the kite experiment was hair-raising in every way. Science was also his escape from business and politics.

My escape is to read and learn. This summer, I travelled the Silk Road. I was submersed in the 2,500-year, 4,000-mile epic story of this region. Reading New York Times articles about Samarkand and silk-making in Armenia; listening to a Great Courses class about Genghis, Tamerlane and the Golden Horde; and perusing an art catalog of Buddhist artifacts, the history of the “barbarian steppes” came alive for me.

The reading tied in to memories of our real trips. It explained why a rug seller we met in Turkey was named Genghis. We toured a 13th-century inn for Silk Road travelers called a caravanserai. On a trip to China, we visited Xi-an, the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. We saw the White Dagoba in Beijing, a Mongol Buddhist shrine.

Franklin’s smarts went beyond book-learning. Not being wealthy, he had to convince others to chip in money for projects. He was expert at reading people and convincing them what was in their own best interest. He did help himself by inserting articles supporting these enterprises in his newspaper. Sometimes anonymously.

He advised a military chaplain who was having trouble with the soldiers’ attendance at chapel: “It is, perhaps, below the dignity of your profession to act as steward of the rum, but if you were to deal it out and only just after prayers, you would have them all about you.” This, of course, worked perfectly.

My mom was a keen observer of people too. Soon after coming to America, she confided to me that Americans like food that was deep-fried.

I cannot match Franklin’s people skills. I will pat myself on the back for having spent a peaceful year 24/7 with Bill. I suspect that in the distant future, my hugging his abdomen goodnight, his handling of the Lysol bottle like a gunslinger, our country line dancing on Zoom in the basement, and our murder-mystery binge-watching (I can say “police” in ten languages!) will become the stuff of family legend.

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I am a Chinese-American woman physician and working writer. I live in St. Louis, MO

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Cathy Luh

Cathy Luh

I am a Chinese-American woman physician and working writer. I live in St. Louis, MO

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