Thoughts on the Pandemic

Some meandering and possibly disconnected observations from the last two months or so, all of which are, of course, my opinion and not objective fact. None of us have all the answers, or even all the right questions. It’s impossible to see the whole picture when we’re in the middle of it. Rebecca Solnit says that the future is dark and no one can see farther than their candle, and I think that’s true. It’s very important, I believe, that in this crisis we refrain from blowing out our candles and stumbling around in the dark, or blindly following someone who claims that their candle is the only real light. 

We’re far enough into this now to allow for old habits to be set aside and new habits learned. As restrictions ease, I wonder how many old habits will be set aside for good and new ones put in their place. Without a replacement habit, the old ones will almost certainly resurface.

Many people are both able and willing to do the right thing even if it’s somewhat (or more than somewhat) inconvenient. To be reminded of this, it’s necessary to step away from the media, which spends much of its time giving the rest their fifteen minutes.

The economic system under which we live is in some respects a house of cards. A system built on the necessity of continual growth is apparently unable to respond effectively to a crisis when the solution is to stop, take a step back, and wait for the danger to pass.

Millions of people all across the country have suddenly become aware of how dependent we are on those who are at the bottom of the ladder as far as income and prestige are concerned. We have always needed them, and now that has been brought into sharp focus. We are an interdependent web indeed, and right now we are being forcefully reminded of that.

I have a feeling that we’re starting to move toward a grasp of the characteristics of this virus and a way to deal with its more damaging effects, but it certainly has been a stumbling path forward.

For some reason, I am reminded of one of the basic rules for dealing with students’ stubborn behavior. I remember telling myself, “You just have to hold out a few seconds longer than they do. Just a few seconds.”

It’s usually easy to tell when a scientist is talking; they are careful in their statements and are generally unwilling to offer conclusions that cannot be supported. Statements by those who do not demonstrate the same restraint should be taken with a grain of salt, especially if the subject is scientific in nature.

The Dunning-Kreuger Effect is real.

The characterization of this as a war is inaccurate. The virus is not our enemy. It has no intent to do us harm; it has no intent at all beyond mindless replication. It has no organization, no homeland, no plan of attack, no ideology that stands in opposition to our own. It does not form alliances or target specific countries or groups of people. This is a medical emergency, not a war.

Asking a politician to refrain from politicizing an event or situation is like asking a weather forcaster to ignore the jet stream or a business owner to ignore profit and loss information. It’s not going to work. 

Like the attack on September 11, this medical crisis has presented the world with a rare opportunity to set aside questions of boundaries, sovereignty, and political ideology and come together in common purpose. And, like in the weeks immediately following the September attack, many government leaders have turned down this chance in favor of seizing the opportunity to assign blame and consolidate power.

Small and flexible is often more effective and successful than big and powerful.

Planning things out ahead of time never works for me as a writer, and I find that I’m not much better at it in other areas of my life. It’s a learning process, and probably good for me to develop this skill.

The desperate plight of those among us who are dependent on a paycheck to stay alive and sheltered but who have no paycheck and no way to get one is frightening, not least because the number of people affected is so large.

The British admonition to “Keep Calm and Carry On” is evidently more difficult to pull off than it sounds.

I’ve discovered that while I still love my wife of almost 40 years, I also like hanging out with her for days on end, a discovery of no small importance during this pandemic. Also, it is my great good fortune that she continues to tolerate my odd take on life in general and many things in particular. It makes this whole thing so much easier to bear.

It’s important to be smart about this, and at least as important to be kind and generous. Recognizing that we (meaning the entire human race) are all in this together can help us reach past differences to common ground, and in that direction lies healing for many of our ills.

Banish Misfortune

“Banish Misfortune” is currently one of my favorite tunes, so I thought I’d share it. Stay safe, everybody, and stay in touch. 

Taking Risks

The pandemic is starting to affect my life in unexpected ways. Until last week my wife and I were staying at home, using curbside pickup to restock the pantry and refrigerator, visiting with family by computer, working on the yard and garden, and just generally riding it out. 

Then my mother fell. She’s close to ninety, so a fall is significant, and in her case, made a trip to the hospital necessary. She had surgery the day before Mother’s Day and at this writing we have just finished being part of the dance that takes place among the hospital, the doctors, the insurance company, the rehab center, and the family when decisions are needed about where best to continue her recovery from surgery. All this is done long distance right now because of the pandemic. 

I haven’t seen my mother for a while, and don’t know exactly when I’ll see her again. The hospital didn’t allow visitors except in rare circumstances (which did not include her situation), and now that she is moving to a rehab center they will quarantine her for two weeks to protect the other patients there, so no visitors. When that’s over she will likely still not be able to have visitors because the center will be locked down for fear of the virus gaining a foothold among the patients and/or staff. We talk on the phone and I get updates from the staff, but face to face, personal contact is not happening. I’m so glad my mother made it through the surgery, glad that I can talk to her and make sure she’s okay, and I sure wish I could sit in the same room with her now and then.

When I was in the workforce, I was a special education teacher and one of the prime directives we operated under was “least restrictive environment.” It says that a child should be educated in the setting that contains the fewest restrictions on his or her access to regular school activities, peers, and so on, as long as the child’s education can still be ongoing. The lowering of the level of support is outweighed by the increased opportunities for learning and growth. A long-term view of the child’s welfare, especially taking into account the time after the school’s support system is no longer available, helps guide the decisions. I thought, and still think, that that orientation is correct.

I spent much of my professional life saying that less support is justified, even preferable, if it results in a higher quality of life. Risk is inevitable, and to pretend it isn’t is a mistake. I still believe that, and I know it applies to my own life as well. For example, at least until the pandemic hit and the doors were closed, I still went to TVUUC on Sundays and sat in the same room I was in when the shooting happened. When the doors reopen I’ll be back, because my quality of life is better in that place and with those people. Part of the reason life quality can increase even with greater risk is that we can change our perceptions of what to do and how to behave in the face of new circumstance. Taking risks should include recognizing their existence and working to minimize them.

After her surgery to repair two broken bones (femur and humerus), my mother spent a very few days in the hospital before being moved to an environment that could be characterized as less restrictive. She will have access to more aspects of “normal” life in exchange for less medical support and access to specialized equipment and personnel should something go wrong.

This presents me with somewhat of an ethical dilemma. 

I believe that my mother’s quality of life will be better in a rehab facility and, eventually, an environment that offers even less support, since she will be in the company of more people including, eventually, family members, and will have a larger physical space open to her. Social and leisure activities will be available that would not be in a hospital setting, and more familiar pieces of her life before the surgery will be accessible to her.

Still there is a part of me that says, “No, she should have been able to stay in the hospital longer, where she would be safe and also could get immediate access to medical care that another environment can’t provide. After all, who knows what will happen tomorrow?” My family and I are in one of those situations where a solution that is at once clearly the best for her and also lacking any significant downside does not exist. This kind of situation is actually fairly common in all our lives, although usually not involving issues quite this serious.

As I said, a dilemma, and frankly, one of the reasons I’m conflicted about her being in a more open environment is the fact that there are a significant number of people that are not taking this pandemic seriously. For all of us, and especially for folks like my mother, taking a few minimal precautions like keeping our distance from each other and wearing facial masks in public settings is literally a matter of life and death. Time to step up, I think, and do the thing that’s right for all of us, including the most vulnerable, and that means taking active steps to lessen the risk and slow the spread of this disease. Seems like a no-brainer, right?

March of the King of Laois

“March of the King of Laois” is usually played at a faster tempo than this. I like it slow; it puts me in mind of mists rising in the forest and something stirring. This started out as Ken Kolodner’s arrangement and mostly sticks to that.

113

What I had in mind was a piece on the potential positive outcomes of the pandemic: modernization of the education system, increased recognition of the essential contributions of people we have tended to ignore, disparage, or take for granted, the clear illustration of our mutual interdependence that transcends borders, the increased awareness of how the internet can serve to bring us together (as opposed to giving anonymous troublemakers the platform of their dreams), the exposure of the Achilles heel of an economic system based entirely on growth, how the ubiquitous and often invisible structure of privilege allows some of us to cope with this crisis much more easily than others, and so on. I wasn’t very far into the process before I realized how completely unqualified I am to write that kind of thing. I decided instead to focus on the 113 square feet that a six foot radius of social distancing provides. 

Before COVID-19, my personal space was about a foot and a half, which works out to a shade over seven sq. ft., and which I disregarded anytime I stood in line, went to a restaurant or a movie, attended a concert, went to church, or any number of other things. Only when there was plenty of room available and another person got too close to me did I become uncomfortable or suspicious. In my few trips out of the house since the pandemic hit, I am acutely aware not only of the distance between myself and others, but also of the distance other people maintain with those around them (and whether they are wearing masks). I now have a new criterion by which I judge people. Might they put my health at risk by stepping inside my 113 square feet of space? 

As I mentioned in a previous post, I find myself thinking about Thoreau these days and his decision to live deliberately. I wasn’t aware of the fact that most of the things I did as I moved through the day I did without too much thought. I’m certainly more conscious of my decisions now, and in my current frame of mind, my deliberations always include whether or not I can maintain my 113 sq. ft. distancing.

For quite a while I’ve believed that what governments do in many areas of our lives is set the lowest bar for the behavior of citizens. The debate goes on, as it has for many years, about whether the group currently in power is setting the bar too low or not low enough. Watching the back-and-forth about the pandemic related restrictions, I am reminded that I can set a higher bar for myself in my personal life than the government sets for me as a matter of official policy. Just because the regulations allow me to go out to eat doesn’t mean I’ll be jumping into the car anytime soon.

Then there is hugging, one of those situations when we welcome or even ask for a disregard of our personal space. We hug a lot at my church and I’m not sure when we’re going to open the doors again and how we’ll address the issue of human contact. I believe strongly that touch is a powerful way to connect with others, and right now it’s one of the things I miss about not being able to attend church. Also there is the fact that the weekly gathering in the fellowship hall before and after service involves coffee. Coffee at TVUUC is close to being a sacrament, and the communal urn is now looking like something to approach with suspicion. 

So many things that used to be done without thought, things I never thought of as dangerous, are now looking like high-risk activities. Eating out, meeting friends downtown, going to the farmers’ market, doing volunteer work, going to church, visiting my parents, having friends over — everything looks different seen through the lens of the 113 square feet that I now feel like I need to protect, both for my own health and safety and also that of others. I wonder how long it will take for this feeling to fade. A while, I’m guessing.

Vincent/Irish Heartbeat

I thought I’d share this; it feels like it goes with this rainy afternoon. I’ve been playing these two songs together for a while now; they seem to fit. Stay safe and take care of yourselves and each other, and stay in touch.

Hard Times

I’ve been working on this song for a while and it seems particularly appropriate for the times we’re living in at present. It’s an old one, from the mid-1850’s, written by Stephen Foster, and the lyrics (which I do not attempt in this recording) sound timely even after 170 years or so:

’Tis the song, the sigh of the weary

Hard times, hard times, come again no more

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door

Oh hard times come again no more

While my wife and I are able to maintain a “shelter at home” life without too much hardship, there are those who don’t have the ability and others who don’t have the option to minimize their risk. I feel for them and hope that those who are making decisions for our community, state, and nation keep in mind that we are all interdependent and the smart thing to do is to help each other through this. The pandemic is no respecter of social or political boundaries. We are connected in ways both obvious and hidden, and we need to remember that. Besides, taking care of each other, including the least fortunate among us, is the right thing to do.