Hunkering Down

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This is the beginning of week five of my self isolation. I have to admit that I am a very lucky person with regard to staying at home. I’m with a man whose been my best friend for fifty one years and we know how to get along quite well with one another. I have a home  that is comfortable and safe. I’ve been able to find things to do to stay occupied. All in all I can’t complain, but I have to say that the continually changing and often conflicting information that I receive from one day to the next is beginning to make me a bit crazy as I suspect that it is doing for everyone else as well.

We’ve gone from “this will only take a couple of weeks and everyone will be fine” to “there may be 100,000 to 250,000 deaths in the United States.” We were initially told that masks were of no use for anyone other than those who are infected and now the recommendation seems to be that we wear some sort of covering over our noses and mouths whenever we go out.

The list of evolving recommendations has gone into a frenetic cycle of ups and downs that’s as difficult to keep track of as what day it is. We’re told on a Tuesday that we might all be back in church on Easter day, but by Friday we have at least another month to stay at home. People with contact lenses have been warned that they may want to use glasses for the time being or risk being infected as they place the lenses on their eyes. The six foot social distancing rule may or may not be enough to prevent contagion. The virus may spread from talking or it may linger in the air around us. Our dogs and cats may be carrying the disease. The governor from my state of Texas wants us all to stay home but he’s reluctant to make it a firm ruling even to the point of saying that churches can be open as long as people don’t gather too closely together.

In our quest to fully understand Covid-19 there is a a great deal of theorizing and sharing of information. Sometimes there is also a bit too much thinking out loud. It reminds me of one of those brainstorming sessions that we used to have at faculty meetings that ended up with a hodgepodge of unproven ideas being implemented in our classrooms. In other words we are in the midst of a global experiment, a giant science project that is still a long way from being able to draw definite conclusions.

I have little doubt that we will one day fully understand Covid-19 through the cooperative efforts of the world’s scientific community. In the meantime we have to accept the fact that in many ways we are still groping in the dark. The information is changing almost as fast as the numbers of infected souls. Our best bet is not to panic or allow our anxieties to overtake us but to consider the old folk wisdom that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In other words why tempt fate by risking our lives and those of others by flaunting our independence and right to choose how to live? We do not yet know what such libertarian ideas may beget so why would anyone be arrogant enough to suggest such a test?

I’m as confused by all of this as anyone must certainly be. In many ways it reminds me of an impending hurricane, something that threatens my neck of the woods each season from June to October. Most years my city is just fine but now and again one of those storms in the gulf heads our way and  we have to be prepared. We buy our water and food provisions and set aside batteries for our lanterns and flashlights in case the electricity goes out. We gas up our cars in the event that we have to make a quick escape. We make sure our wind and flood insurance is up to date. We board or tape our windows and maybe even purchase a gas powered generator. Then we hunker down and hope for the best.

Sometimes that old hurricane or tropical storm takes a turn and avoids us completely and we celebrate our good fortune. Other times it roars right at us leaving massive destruction and misery and we join together as a community to help those most affected rebuild their lives. Experience has taught us how to hunker down and ride out whatever eventually happens.

We have the same kind of cone of uncertainty with Covid-19, only this event is aimed at the entire world. For better or worse it would be irresponsible to simply ignore it. When our city, state and national leaders ask us to behave in particular ways for the good of our communities they are not overreaching to take away our freedoms. They are doing their best to insure our security. We have to remember that if any of us become ill because we failed to heed the warnings it will be first responders, medical personnel and the American taxpayers who will pay the cost of our defiance. No action in such a time is without consequences for many others. We don’t run a red light just because it should be our right to do so. Life is filled with restrictions set in place for the common good.

Who knows where this is going to end up? I sure don’t. All I can do is be patient. I know that I can seek the comfort of God without gathering in a big building. My freedoms are not dependent on making my own rules. I may be hunkered down with only my husband near enough to touch but I’m still part of a community. I plan to wait this out and not worry about whose theories have been right and whose have been wrong. We will have plenty of time to decide on that when all is once again clear. Take care.

Our Gigantic Vat of Lemonade

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Well life has dumped a truckload of lemons on all of us and as usual with humans there are lots of folks who are making sweet lemonade. Time and again people prove that it’s rather difficult to hold mankind down. We are a feisty bunch that finds a way to make the best of the worst kinds of situations.

I never cease to be amazed with individual creativity and I see tons of it in the people who are my friends. I had a great time yesterday watching the latest homemade version of Chopped from my former neighbors who have taken to devoting Tuesday evenings to producing their own rendition of this Food Network classic. Each week the two children compete in a cooking challenge that requires their ingenuity in using four key ingredients for their creations.This past Tuesday they had to use ground beef, bacon, Captain Crunch cereal and almonds in whatever they ultimately chose to prepare. The stakes were high because last week’s winner had been victorious by a very slim margin so her brother was determined to steal the crown.

I was thinking that it would be impossible to make something edible with the strange mix of ingredients but the youngsters came through like champs. One prepared a delightful pasta dish and the other used the Captain Crunch to bind bacon filled hamburger patties. Somehow it didn’t matter to me who actually won as much as to witness the fun and laughter that this precious family was enjoying and sharing with others. There was no moaning about boredom or cancellation of life as they had known it. Instead they were making the best of the situation and creating memories that will make them smile for the rest of their lives.

As I scrolled through posts from other friends I was taken by a delightful schedule that a mother and her toddler had made for the following day. It included learning time but also made room for walks outside and playing with toy trucks and cars. It had enough free moments for hugs and those unexpected moments of sadness that must be lovingly addressed.

I’ve witnessed a family in Japan playing a lively game of Heads Up that would have made Ellen DeGeneres proud. As the mom of the family attempted to guess what her word was from the crazy clues that her husband and children were shouting the room exploded with hilarity and the kind of closeness that having simple fun brings to a group of people who know and love each other.

Those videos of quarantined townspeople singing or clapping or dancing together from a distance are so moving. The Zoom conferences that put musicians together to create music are beautiful. The reworking of poems and Broadway show tunes to reflect the current reality tickle the funny bone. I am literally in awe of the genius of people who use the time they have on their hands to create something unique and uplifting.

There are so many incredible ideas pouring from the genius of teachers and moms who suddenly find themselves in the role of educators that make me giddy with delight. They are proving to the world how hard they always work and how much they love their students. Without much direction at all they have joined together across the world to make certain that the education of our children will not suddenly cease. For an old teacher like me it is exhilarating to witness the enthusiasm that drives my comrades to do the work that has so often been under appreciated. It’s not money or governmental directives driving their march forward, but rather the understanding that what they do is the foundation of society itself. Those children who are learning in their bedrooms today will one day lead the world and remember those dedicated individuals who brought light into their lives when times seemed so dark.

Aside from making me feel wonderful when I view such things, it also insures me that we will ultimately be okay. We may experience more hardship and sacrifice than we wish but we humans are going to defeat this setback much as we always do. We will put our best minds and talents together and make the biggest most delicious concoction of lemonade imaginable.

A dear friend with whom I once worked called me a couple of days ago. She now lives in India, the place where she and her husband were born. She is self isolating just as we are here. We spoke of the common bond that each of us is feeling right now. Somehow this is not about politics or geography or ideology. It is about people whose hearts beat in the same way, whose blood courses through their veins without consideration of color, whose lungs long to breathe in good health and healing. Surely we realize more than ever how much more we are alike than different. Hopefully it is something that we won’t soon forget. Maybe we will try harder than ever to continue to work together as we concoct our gigantic vat of lemonade. 

Facing the Fears

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I’ve noticed a number of people being very honest about their anxieties with regard to Covid-19. I was raised to be stoic about such things. My mom never complained or showed her worries until she had a mental breakdown and then in a state of psychosis she could not stop talking about her fears. I suppose that it was that point in life when I realized that we should not have to keep our concerns to ourselves. Bearing the unbearable alone does not always lead to a situation as dramatic as my mom’s was, but it can have both physical and emotional consequences that sap the very energy out of a person. I think it is quite healthy of my friends to admit that they are worried and afraid. I admire them for asking for help in dealing with the losses and frustrations that they are feeling.

I’ve been rocking along being rather proud of myself for bearing up and adjusting to the temporary normal of Covid-19. I’ve kept myself busy, made sure that my husband’s recovery from recent surgery has been smooth and upbeat, created distance learning for my math students, checked on members of my family and circle of friends, kept a written record of this historical event, and generally rolled with the ever changing punches that we are experiencing. I had considered myself to be immune from crushing worries because I’ve handled many crises in my lifetime. So it was a wake up call when I had a dream a view nights ago that made me realize that I was a bit more concerned than I have been willing to admit.

My nightmare began in my old home on Anacortes Street. I was a younger version of myself and my two girls were still children. As I walked down the street to meet them at the bus stop after school I waved at my neighbor Betty Turner who was smiling at me from a lawn chair in her front yard. I told Betty I would be back in a few minutes and I would sit with her and have a little chat. The school bus pulled up just as I arrived at the corner and my daughters hopped off with their book bags and lunch boxes. I was happy to see them and I gave them both hugs before starting back home. That’s when the fun or, should I say, the horror began.

Somehow our straight and quick pathway had become blocked and we had to take an alternate route. At first I wasn’t worried because I knew the area well and there was more than one way to get back home. Unfortunately no matter what I tried we could not find a way to the safety of our house. In fact we were getting farther and farther away and I was doing my best not to frighten my children. Instead I attempted to turn our adventure into a game which worked for a time but eventually they grew weary and begged me to take them home so that they might rest and see their friends and enjoy some playtime.

I kept trying my best to protect them from the reality of our situation but it was beginning to feel hopeless. Our wandering even took us back to the old neighborhood where I grew up and when I searched there for someone to help I only found strangers who ignored me when I attempted to speak to them. I was exhausted and on the verge of hysteria when I awoke and realized that it was all just a dream, but it helped me to understand that I had been denying the impact that this pandemic was having on me and the people that I love.

I suppose that most of us are longing for the comfort of that yesterday before any of this happened. As a mom I still worry about my still grown and very capable daughters. I long to see them and hug them and protect them. It’s difficult for all of us to be so separated and to feel so helpless. I am a person who takes control of situations and suddenly much of that control is in the hands of others. For now I am mostly doing what I can from afar and not being the responsible person in the room makes me feel a bit lost.

My dream has helped me to visualize and vocalize my fears. I don’t intend to dwell on them because that is not my style, but by allowing myself to feel them I have become stronger in my resolve not to allow any of this to defeat me. I think that it is important for each of us to find that honest part of our minds and then deal with the demons that haunt us. It really is okay to long for the normal times and want to rewind to a happier moment. It’s normal to want to protect our children even if they are grown. It’s a very human thing to want to get back to a dear friend like Betty where we can just sit and feel ourselves returning to a sense of safety and contentment that feels threatened by the specter of Covid-19.

I think of myself as a superwoman and I know I have a backbone of steel, but I am in reality just as human as anyone. I believe that it will be our very humanity and empathy that gets us through this crazy time. I’m thankful for all those dear souls who have been courageous enough to admit their fears. They have helped me and others. If we are honest we all know that hearing someone voice the feelings that we have pent up inside assuages our own worries. There is nothing more normal than being a bit anxious right now. Once I admitted it to myself I knew that I would be okay. It’s time to keep calm and remember to practice self care.

The Mathematics of a Pandemic

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I had been teaching math all day long to eight youngsters ranging in age from seven to teens. One of my lessons was on statistical data and how to find different kinds of averages. I used Covid-19 as an example for my student. It was a bit of a stretch but he got the idea. We even talked about what exponents do to numbers and how data can be used to analyze situations and make predictions. It got me to thinking of how differently people are reacting the the virus and the restrictions associated with them based on where they live and sometimes even their political leanings. The truth is that many of the conclusions that people draw do not take all of the information and intervening factors into account. So forthwith is a very elementary discussion of what I believe is happening, but first I want to talk about what occured with the Spanish flu of 1918.

World War I was at an end and the troops were coming home to the United States. Since the fighting was mostly confined to Europe it was natural that the ship first came mostly to ports along the east coast. Additionally some cities like Philadelphia were initially rather lax in enforcing rules to keep down the level of contagion. As a result the highest incidence of contagion and death trended in cities in the eastern part of the country first. As the flu moved westward more stringent efforts of social distancing resulted in fewer illnesses and deaths. In other words the people learned from the mistakes of their fellow citizens in the east and profited by being more vigilant. There were still may deaths but the numbers were mitigated by the measures derived from observing the problems in the places where the flu first presented itself. 

Today we have massive numbers of people traveling across the globe with places like New York City, Seattle, and Los Angeles serving as ports of call for cruise ships and air travel. It appears that the first cases of Covid-19 in the United States were travel related, but because there initially were few attempts to change our normal activities the virus soon spread through community interactions. It took a bit more time than it should have to approach the realization that people needed to protect themselves and thereby flatten the exponential curve of contagion by staying at home.

Only a little more than three weeks ago spring break was in full swing. The Houston Rodeo was still packing in tens of thousands of people on a daily basis. My grandson went to New York City with his orchestra to perform in Carnegie Hall. Mardis Gras had attracted massive groups of people. It was already a bit too late to eliminate the suffering that now plagues many cities in the country but the heartland of middle America has been somewhat spared by finally closing down schools, businesses, churches and all unnecessary gathering. Sadly, some people have misinterpreted the slowdown of cases in those areas as an indication that the whole pandemic is nothing more than a hoax, much ado about nothing.

I’ve been looking at pie charts for the Houston area. Rather amazingly the sixty and older crowd makes up very few of the current cases. My guess is that people in that demographic hunkered down rather early for fear of catching the virus so they have mostly stayed well. I for one have been outside of my home fewer than five times for the past month. One time I accompanied my husband to Methodist Hospital for his heart surgery. On another occasion I went to get a Prolia shot for my  osteoporosis and twice I went to pickup  groceries at HEB. Aside from that I have been home watching the world go by from my windows. It’s little wonder that most of the cases in our area are younger than is typical because they often tend to be the ones who seem to think that they are safe from infection or having a serious case.

It is incredibly important that we not get overly irritated about having to stay home. We are the defense against a surge of Covid-19 as long as we follow the guidelines. If we start to get lax we will undoubtedly experience an unnecessary surge in cases that will only result in prolonging any agony that we may be feeling. I sincerely believe that each of us has a moral duty to work together to keep the numbers at a manageable level.

There are a many things that greatly disturb me, but most egregious of all are the people who insist that this whole ordeal is some vast political conspiracy designed to make our president and our country look bad. Many of these folks are refusing to stay at home even as the numbers of infected individuals grow. They don’t appear to notice that even President Trump has finally abandoned his wishful thinking that we will be back to normal by Easter Sunday. So far the facts demonstrate that the medical community has been right on target with both their predictions and their recommendations. It’s time for us to listen to the mathematics of the pandemic.

I’m as worried as anyone about what a prolonged period of isolation will do to our economic well being. I suspect hard times even once we are able to resume our normal routines. Nonetheless I keep reiterating my observation that it is rather doubtful that all the leaders of the world would be willing to trash the global economy on a whim. This is serious or as Angela Merkel said, “Es ist ernst” and we need to treat it as such. It would be even better if we might do it in a spirit of harmony. It’s the patriotic thing to do.

Learning From the Past and the Present

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Several years ago I read a fascinating book about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. It was one of those page turners that I was unable to set aside, so I found myself neglecting all of my other duties until I had reached the final page in the hours after midnight. After reading the story of the world’s battle with the unknown disease I had a difficult time thinking about anything else.

I suppose that aside from my fascination with the vivid first person descriptions of the horrific time was the fact that I had never before heard of this event. My grandfather who was a storyteller of the first order had spoken of small pox, the Great Depression, the Cleveland Panic and all sorts of historic events but not once had he even cursorily mentioned the pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide. Sadly, by the time that I had finally learned of this historic emergency Grandpa had died so I was unable to question him about what he might have known.

Today we get minute by minute updates on Covid-19 with our twenty four hour newsrooms and breaking headlines on the internet. We get texts from local authorities with news of what is happening near us. We learn how our friends and members of our family are doing from social media and any number of communication platforms. In 1918, I suspect that the average person was mostly privy to what was happening nearby and only peripherally concerned with faraway events. It’s possible that my grandfather was untouched by the Spanish flu and so he simply went about his work and thought little of it.

On the other hand I have often suspected that my grandmother, Minnie Bell, was more personally impacted by the events of 1918 of something that I found as I was researching my family tree. She had been married to Orville Thompson prior to meeting my grandfather. Her first husband who was still rather young died in 1918, and her son seems to have somehow vanished in the same year. The next thing I know about my grandma is that she and my Aunt Opal were working in a boarding house a couple of years later where she met my grandfather. They had a kind of whirlwind courtship that lead to marriage and eventually the birth of my father.

I knew that my grandmother had been a widow but she never once spoke of her first husband, nor did she ever tell me that she had a son other than my father. Of course adults rarely spoke of their personal business to children back then so I knew very little about the most private feelings that my grandmother may have had, but I have since become intrigued by the possibility that her first husband may have been a victim of the pandemic. I wonder if what she witnessed was so horrific that she chose not to speak of it ever again. Since the official death records of Oval Thompson do not list the cause of death I will never know but I think that my conjecture may hold some truth.

The Spanish flu coincided with the end of World War I and the homecoming of soldiers who had served in battle. The first recorded outbreaks were in military bases. There was so little knowledge of the illness that doctors were uncertain how to treat it. There were no vaccines, no drugs, nothing of particular impact and the numbers of the sick began to rise exponentially especially in places like Philadelphia where the city leaders had decided not to cancel a celebratory parade that attracted thousands of people even though there were credible warnings that such an event would be dangerous. That city would become one of the hardest hit places in the country.

When word of the rapid rate of infection began to spread to middle America many cities and towns essentially locked down just as we are now doing. The incidence of illness and death in those places was considerably less than locales where the people continued as though nothing was happening. Thus the historical precedence that is guiding our activities today.

Back then researchers worked feverishly to understand the nature of the Spanish flu and to find ways of protecting people from its ravages. It would be many years later before they unlocked the mysteries of that virus. By then the world was fighting new battles that would ultimately lead to another war, but the knowledge gained would keep us relatively safe from another such occurrence for a hundred years.

The scientific and medical communities have been studying diseases that affect humans for decades. Since 1918, they have found vaccines for chicken pox, measles, polio and the common seasonal flu. My generation still came down with serious illnesses like the measles, chicken pox and mumps but our children and grandchildren have never known such diseases. I had friends who were struck down by polio but now it is a disease of the past. I suspect that within a very short time there will be a reliable vaccine for Covid-19 along with viable measures for better treating those who contact the disease in the future. 

Nonetheless those on the forefront of medical science tell us that we will face new challenges as viruses and bacteria mutate in their natural tendency to fight for survival. It would be good for us to learn from the Covid-19 experience just as our ancestors may have done with the Spanish flu. Each family, state, city, country and organization must include the possibility of a worldwide pandemic in their risk management plans so that the mistakes that we have made this time around will not be repeated in the future. I suspect that there will be many discussions as to how to successfully prepare for any health eventuality once we are clear of our current danger. We need to take such conversations seriously and be willing to respond to honest critiques. It is imperative that we prioritize such efforts rather than becoming so relaxed that we dismantle programs designed for readiness because they appear to be unneeded. 

It would be a grave mistake to simply bury this event in the pages of history. Instead it is an opportunity to honestly reassess our responses and our institutions. If we are very lucky we will never again witness such a thing, but we must nonetheless be cautious about becoming complacent. Just as we sometimes grow weary of fire drills we do them anyway lest the practice session becomes a reality one day. So too must we adapt to the new emergency requirements that Covid-19 has revealed. The first step will be listening intently to those whose life’s work is to know more about these tiny microbes that lurk among us. They will tell us how to proceed.