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. 

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. 

Accepting Our Different Ways Of Coping

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I’ve often noted that speaking or writing in public can be a dangerous game to the extent that words whether uttered or written down are subject to misinterpretation. As someone who majored in English Literature I remember the energetic debates regarding what an author may have actually meant to say. It always amazed and amused me how we bring our own preconceptions to the analysis of virtually any topic. Where and how we grew up plays a major role in shaping how we view the world. The experiences we have had or not had contribute as well. Our understanding of the nuances of language is yet another factor. Indeed communication is far more complex than a simple utterance may at first glance appear to be. Putting thoughts on paper or speaking them in a public forum is an exercise that will lead to as many different parsing of the words as a game of “telephone” played by a hundred people.

There is very little in the world that is simple but we humans nonetheless do our best to keep things that way. We want certainty in our lives, routines that help to make us feel secure. When those things are taken away the foibles of our individual personalities are tested. Some become uncomfortable while others actually appear to enjoy the riskiness of the situation. When the situation we are facing is wrought with more questions than answers we go into survival mode and how we behave can be very different from one person to another.

As we navigate the unknowns presented by the outbreak of Covid-19 our individual modes of coping are often at odds. There are those who appear to do best by laughing at the situation and that’s not a totally bad idea. The award winning film Life Is Beautiful tells of courage in the face of horror in a story of the power of humor in overcoming the unthinkable. Being able to voice our fears is important but sometimes difficult. A good chuckle allows our emotions to run free.

I have noticed others who turn to activity to keep their minds from dwelling on the possibilities. I know from my own experiences that keeping busy is a powerful antidote for sadness. It was the very panacea that I needed and used after my father’s death. The only trouble that I found with it is that I eventually needed to face down the powerful feelings that remained in my heart. Hard work kept me going but it was not enough to heal my hurt. Stoicism can be admirable, especially when we need people to get things done but we must always remember that at some point they may need to vent, to express what is bothering them. It is important that we allow them those moments.

Of course we all know individuals who quite openly speak of the thoughts that are flowing freely through their minds. For some their honest utterances are uncomfortable. As a rule we sometimes don’t want to hear them. We try to quiet them with platitudes and assurances when all they really need is our willingness to hear them out, our attempts to understand. In many ways they are actually the most courageous among us because they are often saying things that we are too reluctant to say. They have the wisdom of profound honesty and I wonder why it makes so many of us so uncomfortable. Their embrace of the truth of their feelings is a sign of trust, so why do we so often cringe when we hear them saying the very things that are buried in our own hearts ?

I suppose that I am a classic “Pollyana.” I go about in a crisis attempting to make everyone feel happy and optimistic. It is as though I have some notion that if we just stay positive everything will work out for the best. While there is nothing innately wrong with that approach it can be annoying to the realists and it can also have unforeseen consequences. Not every ending is a happily ever after but facing the state of things as they actually exist can sometimes be the surest route back to the promised land. A mask of false confidence can be as ineffective as a thin mask used to contain a deadly virus. Sometimes people have to hear the truth to get to a better place even if it makes them uncomfortable.

We are each reacting to the threat of this novel virus in our own particular ways. How we manage to get through the coming days is a very personal journey. Perhaps our reaction to one another’s differences should be more understanding.

I am in a good place on a personal level. I do not mind being isolated inside my home. It is a lovely environment that allows me to spend my days in a serene little cocoon. I do not have the virus but I have every other thing that I may need. I only worry about others as I watch this tragedy unfold.

I hear the panicked warnings of the doctors in my family and the healthcare workers who are my friends, and I am anxious for them. I witness the anxiety of those who have lost their jobs or watched their nest eggs decrease, and I understand their concerns. I see the young men and women whose educations and experiences have been so abruptly upended, and I understand their disappointment.

I do not have to be told to relax or to endure or that everything will soon be alright. I have every faith that humanity will ultimately win this battle, but my instincts tell me that recovering will not be as easy as some would have us believe. We are in for great change and difficulties unlike many of us have ever seen. It will take a global united effort to get back to a good place and there will be no room for laying blame or making excuses. We’ll simply just have to get to work just as humans have done anytime the world has turned upside down. More importantly we will need much understanding and a willingness to accept our differences in the way we approach problems.

The reality is that we need will need everyone and every response. We will need to laugh from time to time and sometimes cry. We will require the brutal truth and the softness of diplomacy and encouragement.  Perhaps as we sit in our homes it is time that we consider how to be more tolerant and willing to accept that nobody has all the answers and no one person is always right. Maybe coping means being willing to accepting that each of us has a place at the table and something important to offer the world.

 

Living In the Twilight Zone

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Do any of the rest of you feel as though we have been caught in an infinite loop of The Twilight Zone? I know I do. I find that I awake each morning feeling rather good until my brain reminds me that nothing is exactly as it was only a couple of weeks ago. I won’t be planning a camping excursion any time soon nor will a trip to the grocery store be as unremarkable as I had grown accustomed to it being. As long as I am in the quiet and safety of my home I don’t feel anxious at all but as soon as I turn my attention to the outside world I am stunned by the extent to which we are all grappling with the unknown and my cockeyed optimism is rattled just a bit more.

I keep thinking of Rod Serling’s greatest stories and how they have stuck with me even though they seemed to be only the stuff of science fiction, unlikely to ever transpire. There is the tale of the young woman stuck in her New York apartment as the world is slowly and painfully coming to an end. Then I remember episode featuring a man who is a lone survivor of some cataclysm making the best of the situation by planning to read away his loneliness only to drop and break the eyeglasses that allow him to see. When I see the photos of empty shelves in grocery stores I am reminded of Serling’s take on the effects of panic in a cautionary story of a once friendly neighborhood that turns on itself at the first sign of trouble. Those shows had a way of stunning us with their shocking endings but we never thought that any of the creative scenarios might possibly come true.

Let’s face it. Despite all of our past grumblings about the unfairness of the world most of us would be more than happy to rewind to September 2019 if only we might never have to face the unraveling of the world that has slowly enveloped all of us in fear. It’s difficult to go the the dark possibility that maybe things will never be quite the same again. If there were indeed a way to undo all that has happened would we remember how it felt to be threatened with loss and privation? Would we be more willing to be appreciative of our good fortune and then share it with those who have not been as lucky? Would we be more attuned to working together to solve problems. Would we always be generous and less wasteful, eager to slow down to enjoy our families and our friends? Would we treasure life more now that we have seen how fragile it and our institutions can become? Would we be able to see how destructive our hubris can sometimes be and begin to value our differences?

The human experience is riddled  with instances of grave mistakes as well as stunning victories over injustice and evil. We seem to slowly work our way toward better versions of ourselves as long as we don’t get lost to temptations that interfere with our focus. We work best together when we are willing to tap into our more enlightened natures by a willingness to admit that we rarely have all of the answers. Perhaps we have been moving too quickly of late. Maybe we have been to busy competing with one another and building resumes of our accomplishments that are not particularly important. We have scurried about too quickly, forgetting to take the time to be still and hear the beating of our hearts and see the simple beauty that surrounds us.

This is indeed the most incredible event of my lifetime and I have seen quite a bit in my seventy one years. It has the potential to define us in the long stretch of history. We will eventually move on from this, but will we have learned from it? I know that I have been continually reminded of the wonderful people who are part of my life during the last few weeks. I have felt their love surrounding me. I want to cherish that feeling and never forget what it has meant to me. My hope is that the whole world will find renewed pleasure in the simple act of spreading kindness and understanding every moment of every day.

I am not so naive as to believe that this is a kumbayah moment in which humankind will shed every aspect of its darker side. People have endured plagues, wars, economic depressions and holocausts many times in the past and yet we still haven’t found a way to prevent those things from ever happening again. We fall back into our bad habits again and again which is why I find it somewhat hypocritical to denounce our ancestors when our own modern track record is not free from sins. Instead we must attempt to learn from mistakes and rectify them as best we can.

We’ve seen hoarders and thieves and individuals who have attacked Asians in the misplaced belief that they are somehow responsible for our present woes. At the same time we have witnessed even more signs of generosity, courage, brilliance and understanding. When all is said and done these are the qualities that will remind us of who are and should be as the human race.  Our questions right now should not dwell on judging others, but rather on how each of us might help. These are the things that will provide us with the optimism we need to build the future and take us out of the twilight zone.