Science for a Better Future

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I was never particularly good in science classes. I muddled through and faked it enough to make more than passable grades but I had little interest in any of it. Still, I suppose I have always been in awe of those individuals who unlock the secrets of how things work, particularly when it comes to practical aspects of living. I was one of those little kids whose Mama was fearful that I might contract polio until Dr. Salk created his vaccine which I dutifully took as a six year old. I’ve spent hours struggling to compose a paper on an old school typewriter where one wrong stroke of a key meant either starting over or blemishing the appearance of my presentation with a white splotch of correction fluid. Now I can edit entire paragraphs in the blink of an eye and nobody is aware of the mistakes that I made. Science has enhanced our lives in more ways than we might ever enumerate. 

I suppose that as I have moved ever closer into the winter years of my life I have better and better understood my grandfather’s optimism about the future. Until the day he died he marveled at the wonders concocted in the human mind. As he always noted he had witnessed the advent of the light bulb, the automobile, the airplane, movies, television, and space travel in his lifetime. This was thrilling for someone like him who as a boy had lived in a home without glass on the windows, refrigeration for the food or heat from any source other than a wooden stove. He scoffed at those who longed for the good old days and was particularly insistent that scientific progress was the hallmark of human ingenuity. 

I suppose that in between the influence of my father’s collection of books and my grandfather’s optimistic support of science I have always held a fascination and respect for those who toil away in the world of experimentation and discovery even when I did not always fully understand what they were doing. Over time I actually came to enjoy learning about how things work, especially with regard to our human bodies and ways of keeping them healthy. I take great pride in living in a city filled with dedicated individuals who are changing the universe in space and medicine and the environment. Many of them are members of my own family or among my circle of friends.

As we host a multitude of difficulties that almost seem insurmountable at this juncture in our history I find great solace in our scientific communities. Covid-19 began with more questions than answers and so at first it appeared that we were at a loss for how to deal with it. In typical scientific fashion the initial precautionary warning was to be exceedingly careful while more information was compiled and analyzed. Over time our doctors and researchers were able to share a mountain of data and in carefully noting trends they realized that certain very basic behaviors had the positive effect of lessening, if not totally eliminating, the dangers of becoming infected with the virus. At the same time they began to realize the efficacy of certain treatments that appeared to be effective in reducing the number of deaths. Meanwhile never in the history of the world have so many experts been working to potentially find a vaccine for Covid-19. 

Because of the dedicated efforts of science the horrors of Covid-19 have been more and more mitigated than in the beginning of the pandemic. This is not because the virus is going away or because treatments are cures or even because of her immunity, but because the scientific method has demonstrated what appears to be working and what is not. The population of the world that is following the science is complicit in helping even those foolish enough to ignore it. I can only imagine how much safer we would all be in going about our daily routines if everyone were to follow the guidelines of our scientific community. 

I have listened to doctors and researchers and all of them agree that we do not have to wait for a vaccine to be safe. In fact they are uncertain if and when one will be available on a scale grand enough to protect the entire population. They point out that the virus may be with us for years to come and that a vaccine may have to be given annually as with the flu. It may also be that in spite of efforts, just as with HIV, there may never be a single inoculation that prevents it. What they do know is that masks are doing the most important work right now and we need to become accustomed to wearing them whenever we are outside of our own households. They are also finding more and more promising treatments that make them believe that one day anyone who tests positive for the virus may be given prescriptions that will help to reduce the incidence of horrific and deadly symptoms. There is hopefulness from the scientists but that hope is predicated on cooperation from the majority of people.

Just as with climate change, space travel and technology those of us who are barely literate in science should listen to those who have dedicated their lives to learning about how things work in the physical and sometimes invisible world. If the pipes in our home are leaking we call a plumber and stand back while he/she repairs the break. Why do we think we can do without the expertise of our scientists? What do we know about viruses and treating them that would make any of us better equipped to make important decisions about public health? Following science does not mean ruining the economy. On the contrary, it is the most likely pathway to a faster return to normalcy. Watch, listen and learn from the experts. They have no agenda other than keeping us all well. Science, not politics is the route to a better future.

Becoming A New Greatest Generation

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I suppose most of us are battling fatigue from Covid-19 and a national election. Putting all of the trials of 2020 behind us would be a wonderful thing, but the odds of that happening anytime soon does not appear to be in the cards. We long for a semblance of normalcy and would love nothing better than to wake up one morning to find our lives returned to freedom from the sacrifices we have made.

For me, the journey through the past many months always calls to mind the ravages of World War II and the impact that it had on daily life across the globe. It’s difficult to imagine the years of death and deprivation and fear that became an unthinkable way of life in Europe from September 1939 to May 1945. For a span of almost six years uncertainty and death hung over the continent while a twin tragedy was playing out in Asia and the Pacific. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been just to make it from one day to the next, and yet somehow the world’s people soldiered forward with a determination to rid the world of the evils that caused the deaths of millions across the globe. 

My parents were not yet even in high school when it all began. My mother often spoke of her father’s attempts to determine what was happening in his native country of Czechoslovakia. He would quietly listen to the radio with an unemotional countenance that was unable to hide the concerns that he had for the people back home. The news programs became a daily fixture in houses across America as everyone prayed that our country might be spared from war even as it became more and more evident that such was not to be the case. On December 7, 1941 the die was cast and the USA would battle alongside most of the rest of the world for the next four years.

Think about that. Years and years of shortages, attacks, loss of lives and property. Even the end of the war required a decades-long rebuilding process. We had a friend who was born in Bremen, Germany shortly after the surrender. As a child he suffered from vitamin deficiencies due to lack of proper nutrition. He played among the ruins of his city as a boy. It would be decades before a true sense of normalcy returned all over Europe. 

I wonder if those of us living in the present day would have the same kind of determination and willingness to endure years of sacrifice. I wonder if we would have been as willing to give of ourselves for the good of all as my grandparents, parents and aunts and uncles would have been. I wonder when so many became so spoiled that the thought of wearing a mask or sharing the riches of this country became unacceptable. Why is it so difficult for large swaths of the nation to be compassionate? When did meanness and hate become acceptable in so many quarters?

There is so much talk of making America great again, but the vision that such folks have of greatness seems shallow and lacking in compassion. They are led by a narcissistic individual  who craves their adulation while abusing those who disagree with him. He spews so much hate and acts as though he is just being funny. There is nothing humorous about his jokes. He pretends to be religious but he never seems to go to church. He wants credit for everything while actually doing little or nothing. He is the poster boy for a distorted view of freedom and love of country. 

Patriotism has nothing to do with waving flags or singing songs. Those are rituals that only have meaning when they are accompanied by an earnest intent to bring freedom and security to all of the people regardless of how different they may be. Those who love this country will endure hardship if that is what is needed. They will sacrifice for a better future. They will fight to right wrongs. They will make suggestions for improvement with love, not hateful banter. They will attempt to bring us together not purposely drive wedges between us. They will accept responsibility for past mistakes, learn from them and strive to improve rather than blaming everyone else. 

World War II was a time of intense contrast between good and evil. People overcame horror with courage and grit. If there was ever a moment of greatness that we would do well to have again, it might be found in those long years during which the common cause was more important than individual wants. It would be grand to find that spirit once again. 

It is said that we might stop this virus from its determination to spread if ninety five percent of the people just wore masks and kept those social distances. We might help those who have been impacted by the virus if we were to all agree to a bit of sacrifice whether it be in accepting lesser salaries so that more might retain their jobs or contributing more in taxes. Getting out of ourselves and learning to empathize with others is the key to greatness, not hoarding our good fortune. Understanding the hopes and the fears of one another and allowing all of our differences to be honored is the way to a better world for all.

We are not yet out of the woods. There may be more suffering to come. Let us consider emulating the generation of World War II that demonstrated the right way of doing things. Let’s be like the people who understood that evil was unacceptable and were willing to do whatever it took to eradicate it. We can be better than we have been of late. Let us become the new Greatest Generation as we build for the future instead of longing for the past.

Above All Be Kind

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This is still my favorite time of year in spite of all of the changes wrought by Covid-19. I usually have a constant routine of attending events and preparing for the many holidays that abound. This year has changed so many things which I don’t mind at all, but I have to admit that I am becoming quite angry that we are not more uniformly bearing the sacrifices of enduring the pandemic. I realize that some don’t get as sick as others and that we need to continue to move forward insofar as possible, but if I hear one more person suggesting that the virus isn’t all that much because it really only hurts old people and anyone with underlying health issues I think I will scream. 

I’ve also grown weary of the people who suggest that we just need to open everything back up and forget all of the silliness of masks and social distancing. They flaunt their “courage” and freedom by boldly eschewing their masks and shooting the proverbial finger at such measures. They point to the fact that things appear to be getting better, ignoring the growing numbers that include thousands of new cases every single day in the United States alone. They don’t seem to understand the rules of cause and effect that they should have learned in elementary school. If we are doing better at all it is because about half of the people in this country are religiously wearing their masks and continually taking precautions. If we all tossed our masks in the trash bin I suspect that our situation would be dire. 

I have no problem with mostly staying home. I don’t mind attending my Rice University continuing education class remotely. I missed walking among the lovely plants at the Houston Garden Club Bulb Mart this year but I drove through to pick up the items that I ordered online and had fun planting them in my garden. I’m sad that I won’t get to visit the extravaganza of the Nutcracker Market in person but maybe the virtual version will provide me with a fun shopping experience in the comfort of my home. I’ll miss my brother’s big family gathering at Thanksgiving but I’ll use that day to decorate for Christmas and order gifts from the online Black Friday sales. Christmas Day won’t include forty plus guests this year so I’ll see what it is like to quietly do my own thing. I can live with change if it means keeping the virus at bay.

I can make for one year to keep myself and others healthy, but please don’t act as though people like me should be the only ones playing it safe. Do not insinuate that if it were not for the old folks life would be so much better. Please remember that when the less vulnerable people flaunt the rules it makes it that much less likely that those of us who have been precautious will be able to be back in the swing of things for quite some time. 

There are older citizens languishing in their houses or nursing homes who might be able to reenter the world if they know that everyone else is creating a safe environment for them. Sadly all too often there are individuals who think that their rights are more important than the common good. If I see half of the people in Buccee’s or my HEB grocery store tossing their masks in their pockets I don’t feel comfortable being out in public again. I worry that I may bring the virus to my husband or my father-in-law. I feel that I have to stay put. The precautions should based only on the condition of each person, but on the general condition of the country. We have to do this for each other, not just for ourselves. 

I sense that we are in grave danger of being held hostage by widespread selfishness when a militia group plots to kidnap and possibly even murder a governor only because she has instituted strict guidelines for dealing with Covid-19. When the response to such an horrific attempt is to suggest that the governor brought the potential violence on herself, I worry that we have lost our common decency and morality as a nation. Even our president seemed more amused by the incident than concerned about its implications and he has yet to send his support to the governor. 

This is not the time to throw caution to the wind. Our political leaders need to call out anyone who would suggest that only older and unhealthy people need to be careful. They should be modeling compassion and seriousness about Covid-19. They should always remember the over 210,000 people who have already died. When they compare this virus and its consequences to the flu they are slapping the faces of all of the families that have already lost a loved one. They are insulting the professionalism and concerns of the medical community. They are telling those who have been advised to stay home that they do not matter. It’s time to stop such disregard and insensitivity.

We are entering the months of the year when illnesses grow like wildfire. We have little idea how Covid-19 will act in the coming weeks. Stop the bravado. Put on the masks without complaint. Indicate your empathy for the vulnerable. Get a flu shot. Stand back from strangers. Quit insisting on being totally normal for now. Adapt, adjust and think about the good of everyone. Above all be kind.

The Kind of Person We All Should Hope to Be

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She began her life as an adult working in a hospital as a member of the cleaning crew. Day after day she arrived early and worked twelve hour shifts mopping floors, scrubbing toilets, sweeping hallways. She was proud of her contribution to the health of the thousands of people who came to the medical center in the hopes of becoming well again. She put extra effort into making the environment spotless and safe but as she watched the nurses interacting with the patients she found herself wanting to be more like them. 

She had not been a particularly outstanding student in high school. For many reasons learning had not been a priority so college had seemed to be out of reach, but now she thought about becoming a nurse more and more often. She found a program that was flexible enough to allow her to keep her job and take courses step by step. 

It was difficult laboring for long hours and then spending her free time attending lectures, reading and studying but she was as determined and dedicated as she had been with her modest job. Bit by bit she moved closer and closer to earning a degree until one day she had completed all of the coursework and the rotations through different aspects of nursing. She had passed the state licensing exam and she was a registered nurse, hired for a position in the same hospital where she had once cleaned. 

She loved her work. She had quietly watched the nurses that she most admired. She had learned as much from them as she had from her books. She found great joy in working with the patients. It felt as though she was a natural, someone destined to be a nurse for all time. She worked those twelve hour shifts with passion. 

Her supervisors told her that she was a rock star. They recommended her for advancement but she knew that she needed more education. Her desire to learn became insatiable and so she once again spent her days and nights and weekends juggling work with studying to become a nurse practitioner. It was challenging and exhausting but she had long ago learned that her grit would serve her well. She knew how to sacrifice to become the person that she really wanted to be. Once again she persisted and earned the coveted degrees and certifications that she needed. Now in that same hospital where she once scrubbed toilets she is a revered nurse practitioner, still an essential worker, still on the front line of healthcare, still passionate about her work, still a hero. 

She is proud of her entire body of work. She knows the importance of having a clean and sterile environment inside a hospital. The workers who provide that service are unsung heroes dealing with germs and waste that potentially carry disease if not eliminated properly. She understands the importance of having nurses on continuous call to immediately administer to the needs of patients. She now has a body of medical knowledge that some first year residents do not yet have. She has worked hard to get to where she now is. She would tell people of any circumstances or ages never to simply give up and settle for anything less than the best of their dreams. She would also remind us to honor anyone who is part of the chain of responsibilities that make us well. Any job done well and with love is of great value. 

There is a competitiveness in schools today that often discourages young people. They are ranked and tested in ways that sometimes undervalue their true worth. They are led to believe that they are unworthy of elite universities or difficult majors. In fact they are sometimes told that they just do not have what it takes. Such systems don’t have a measurement for grit, determination, persistence, hard work. An SAT score or class standing does not always tell the true tale of an individual’s character. There is so much more to becoming a successful adult than just appearing to be smart. Life is not a race. 

The woman in my story is real. She overcame barriers that would have discouraged most people. She might have been a cleaning lady for the rest of her days if she had only listened to the naysayers who did not believe in her. Instead there was a voice in her head that told her that if she just worked a bit harder she would overcome the challenges that seemed to be blocking her pathway forward. She understood that her only competition was with herself. She patiently and quietly made progress without comparing herself to anyone else. 

In an effort to be data driven rather than anecdotal our school systems use testing and numbers to theoretically be fair. What should have been a method for creating individualized and self paced learning opportunities instead became a game of determining the worth of every teacher and student. The problem is that the numbers often lie to us and sometimes in the process they also change the trajectory of potential. It is something that we need to change. We should instead be looking for that person who never gives up, the one who keeps fighting against the tide, the one with a special talent that can’t be measured. If we did that we would find many more people like the cleaning woman turned nurse practitioner.

She is now an officer in the battle against Covid-19. She dons her battle gear each day and leads her battalion to save lives. As she does she has full understanding that somewhere among the lower ranks is an earnest person like herself with the potential to be a hero. Hers is a story that we need to share with our children. She is the kind of person we all should hope to be. 

Our Emotional Health

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As I write this a hurricane is moving toward Louisiana in a path that threatens cities and towns that are still reeling from hurricane Laura during the summer. We are feeling outer bands of wind and getting some rain where I am in Texas. The sky is dark and dreary. I’m making soup and feeling rather safe and cozy but my mind keeps drifting to those whose lives will be upended by the impending storm. It’s also on something even more somber, a message from a dear friend who has learned that a young man in the senior class of her son’s high school has died from suicide. Meanwhile my husband Mike received an email today with news that one of his high school classmates has died. 

This has been an incredibly difficult year for so many. There are millions of distressing stories that we have not even heard. People have been sick. People have died. Homes have burned. Winds have destroyed houses and businesses. Millions are still out of work and wondering how much longer they will be able to hold on without losing everything. Teachers and students are struggling to keep schooling going in very difficult circumstances. We have witnessed injustice and protests. The F.B.I. uncovered an incredible plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan. The political environment is filled with venom and division. Nothing feels right. We are no longer surprised by anything. We feel battered and numb.

We do our best to be as normal as possible. We explore ways to relax and to laugh and to celebrate small victories. Sometimes we find a quiet corner to meditate or even to shed a few tears. We may not have contracted Covid-19 or suffered from other health problems but we are mentally fragile and so are our children. They are quietly absorbing the stress that they feel, perhaps without really understanding their own emotions. 

I am teaching mathematics to eleven different students during the course of each week. They vary in age from about fourth grade to high school. They delight me and fill me with joy each time that I see their beautiful faces on the screen of my laptop. We try to laugh and forget about the world around us during our time together but sometimes reality creeps into our discussion. We digress from math for a few minutes to talk of something that matters more. 

Recently one of my kids quietly mentioned that someone in his school had Covid-19. It was apparent that he was a bit worried so we talked about the virus and how it is spread. I mentioned precautions that he might take and he assured me that he was following the protocols. I tried to be honest without frightening him because he was already quite nervous about what is happening. He thanked me for talking with him and said that his father had told him similar things. He greatly admires his father and views him as one of the smartest men in the world. I liked that he is able to talk about his feelings with his dad. 

It is unlikely that our difficulties will all be solved anytime soon. Winter is coming and with it will be bouts with colds and the flu as well as a possible resurgence of Covid 19. There will  be an election that will bring who knows what kind of reactions. Our holidays may look different. There will still be deaths and unexpected events. We have to find ways to keep hope alive, ways to laugh, ways to care for ourselves. We also have to protect our children whether they be toddlers or teens or twenty somethings. They are watching and being affected by everything that happens. Talk with them just as that father so lovingly spoke with his son. Help with their fears without making light of them. Talk with them no matter how tired you may be or how grouchy they may be. Make certain with every fiber of your being that they fully understand how much they are loved. 

Make the most of small things. A walk around the neighborhood can be more comforting than an elaborate outing. Making cookies together and talking about feelings keeps helps our young people to know that their concerns are normal. Sometimes a hug is worth a thousand words. It only takes a few minutes to show how much you care.

I think of the young man who took his life and it tears out my heart. I would urge every parent, every adult to watch for signs that someone in your circle is not doing well. Watch for the cries for help, remembering that sometimes they are so very subtle. Depression manifests itself in countless ways. Many times the person who is laughing the most is dying inside. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Somebody you know may be sending signals even now. Be aware of them and then reach out to comfort them or even urge them to seek professional guidance. 

Be kind in every way. That person who seems so angry or lazy or insulting may actually be dealing with issues that are all consuming. If you are a teacher watch for these things in yourself and in your students. If you are a parent keep the love and the communication flowing. If you are a friend reach out to anyone who appears to be lonely or hurting. We need each other and nothing, absolutely nothing, should be more important than taking that extra moment to reach out a hand in a spirit of love.