I Keep Busy

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I plan math lessons. I teach math lessons. I grade math homework. I write blogs. I cook dinner. I clean the house. I wash the clothes. I walk on my treadmill. I read. I call to see how people are doing. I read posts on Facebook. I check my email. I take part in Zoom conferences, I order groceries. I take drives around my neighborhood. I floss my teeth and take showers and dry my hair. I organize drawers and paint lawn furniture. I feed the birds and watch them in my yard. I plant a vegetable garden and weed my flower beds. I text family members and friends. I watch Netflix and Amazon and Acorn and PBS and Hulu and CNN and CBS and NBC and YouTube. I keep busy. It’s the way I cope and always has been.

When the end of the day draws near and all is quiet in the neighborhood my mind begins to wander. I think about things and thinking about things leads my awareness to worrisome places. We are in new territory and there are so many different ideas and theories being bandied about. Are we humans overreacting, under reacting? Who is right and who is wrong? I feel as though we are all being gaslighted, but by whom? Am I the crazy one or is it them? I have to squeeze my eyes shut and listen to calming sounds on my Echo Dot to shut out the thoughts that make me anxious. If I manage to fall asleep I can begin again tomorrow. I can keep busy again in another rotation of the earth around the sun.

I know that I can do this. It’s how I kept going after my father died. I just kept busy, tried not to think too far ahead, went one day at a time. Things got better just as they always seem to do, at least until the next challenge came along. Whenever my mother presented her symptoms of bipolar disorder I just kept busy. When my husband had a stroke and my city filled with the waters of hurricane Harvey I just kept busy. It’s what I do. It’s how I cope, any yet somehow things feel very different now. My mind tells me to pace myself for the long haul, to be prepared for more bad news before the good news returns. I keep busy in spite of my concerns.

I prefer to listen to the realists, not the ones who attempt to lull me with seemingly false promises. I’m a big girl. I can take the truth. In fact I crave it. Still, I want to remain optimistic about the future even if that future may take awhile to unfold. I like the guy from the federal reserve who believes that our economy will slowly heal in the next many months even as we continue to witness illness and death. He is not attempting to fool me and I appreciate that.

I listen to the scientist who sees this moment as an opportunity to envision the world in a new and better way. I hear the historian note that in other times of pandemic humanity applied its inventiveness to improve sanitation, move toward more equitable living conditions and invent medicines. The darkest hours have almost always led to brighter futures from the lessons that we learned, but then I wonder if we have truly grasped the significance of our foundational weaknesses or if we just want to rush back to the way things were without thought of whether or not we might do things better.

I keep busy. I watch the birds in my yard and notice that there are more of them than I have ever before seen. My plants are greener, more prolific. It is as though nature is happier now that we are not filling the air with our pollution. If we just return to the way we were will the haze of ozone once more fill the sky? Is it possible to reconsider how we live? Did we learn how little we actually need during our lockdown? Isn’t that lovely sound of singing birds worth so much more than the frivolous things that we have sought in the past?

I keep busy but I think of the people who have lost their jobs. I hear that Rick Steves is adjusting the salaries of his employees so that he may keep all of them for at least two years. Why isn’t this a tactic being used by every business, every corporation? Why fire some while keeping others and even giving raises and bonuses in the process. What would be wrong with asking everyone to share in the sacrifice until better days come?  Why must there always be winners and losers?

I keep busy but I know that just because we wish the danger of Covid-19 to be over it does not mean that we will all be safe and sound. Just because we may not know someone who has grappled with the virus does not mean that it does not exist. How is it even possible that so many seem to believe that the pandemic is nothing more than a hoax? How is such thinking even possible when there is no logic to it? How have some managed to conflate being careless with patriotism? In what kind of world do we attack our scientists and medical experts for demonstrating the methodologies that guide their work and prevent emotional bias from tarnishing their results?

I know that Covid-19 has forced us to operate in the present. Today and today and today creeps in its petty pace. I keep busy. It is what I do, but maybe this time I should allow myself to think just a bit more.

A Time for the Young

Four-seasons-tree-1r-747x394To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.

Upon the advice of our doctors my husband, Mike, and I essentially began self isolation twelve weeks ago. We were a bit earlier than most people in hibernating in our home because Mike was going to have a heart procedure done on March 13, and the doctors felt that it would be wise for us to distance ourselves from the potential of running afoul of the virus which was yet to become so rampant in the United States. When we did arrive at the Walter Tower of Houston Methodist Hospital on the day of his surgery lockdown procedures were already well underway. Each patient was only allowed to have one person accompany him/her and everyone entering the building had to undergo an interview and screening at a checkpoint. Because I admitted to sometimes having a sore throat I was required to wear a mask.

The experience at the hospital was both encouraging and frightening. I realized that the medical community was taking extreme precautions to keep the patients safe as well as to prevent an outbreak of illness among their own. The atmosphere was strangely reassuring and it marked the moment when I too began to really take the virus seriously.

When I went to get my six month injection of Prolia five days later I felt a bit strange wearing a mask and gloves but my doctor had advised me to do so and I have always valued his instructions. He has kept me quite well over the years and so there I was all decked out in protective gear long before our city of Houston had even closed down. I got a few stares and soon realized that people were somewhat afraid of me, wondering why I felt the need to be so precautious. As I climbed the stairs to the infusion center I noted that there was a screening table at the entrance to my doctor’s office where patients were being checked before being allowed to enter the waiting room. That was on March 23, about three weeks from the time that I had first begun staying at home and limiting my contact with others.

From that point forward my husband Mike, and I have had little occasion to leave our home. We meet with family and friends via Zoom or FaceTime, procure our groceries from Instacart, order other necessities online and “go to mass” via YouTube. Once in a great while we venture out for rides around town just to remind ourselves of what the world looks like. Our only real human contact has been with my father-in-law and mother-in-law who are in their nineties and feeling a bit overwhelmed by what is happening. We mainly go to visit to ease their anxieties and to help keep their technology running. Mike regularly orders food for them on Instacart. We even managed to send a cake and some ice cream to my father-in-law on his birthday. When the sweet delivery woman realized that this was for a celebration she included a balloon with the order.

Mike and I are both in our seventies and to a large extent our lives have slowed considerably from the days when when worked ten and twelve hours a day. We have a much smaller income but we planned for that and at least for now it arrives regularly each month. It has not been a great sacrifice to stay at home and we are confident that we have planned well enough to stay put for as long as needed. I don’t think of my current status as being frightening or tyrannically beset upon as much as having the luxury to help with the cause. Namely, Mike and I are doing our parts to attempt to stay healthy so that our medical community will be able to care for those who may unfortunately become ill in the process of attempting to return to work.

I hear so much about those in my age group being the most vulnerable and I suppose that is true in the strictest sense of the virus’ effects but in many ways it is the young adults and their children who are bearing the brunt of the harm that Covid-19 has done to the world. They have had to keep the food supply chains moving and have done their best to keep the heartbeat of the economy tenuously alive. They have been the teachers of the children and the brave souls who have attempted to provide the rest of us with a semblance of normalcy in an upside down world.

I sometimes hear grumpy old people referring to today’s youth as “snowflakes” but I think that we have all seen proof that they know how to carry on in an emergency with grace. I have been greatly impressed by the college students who completed their semesters online. I have watched the youngsters in my neighborhood working inside their homes during regular school hours and then frolicking in their yards in the late afternoon. Like me they have not gone anywhere or done anything special for weeks and yet they are not complaining. Instead they are adjusting to their new world and doing whatever they need to do to. I’ve seen how creative and generous they are and it has warmed my heart.

However this all ends it will fall upon the young to move the world forward. I have every confidence that they will succeed. I believe that they have proven their mettle in spite of the naysayers who have been predicting that they don’t have the right stuff to carry the weight of responsibility. I know more than ever before that those of us in the twilight years should be quite eager to hear what they have to say and how they wish for the world order to proceed. Even the Bible tells us that there is a season for everything. Now is the time to trust the young for this is their world as much as it is ours. They are the ones who will be reopening the cities and towns and states and nations in the coming months. We need to support them as they carve out a world that suits their desires and needs. This is a time for the young.

Hoping For the Best

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When I was a teen there was a song that advocated living for today. The whole idea was to set aside worries and enjoy the moment. It was a kind of rebellious chant against the work ethic that seemed to be driving our country into a state of anxiety and materialism. Many young people, myself included, began to question the way things had always been done and wonder if there were possibilities that might create a more equitable and prosperous life for everyone, not just the power elites.

Of course there was nothing really new about youthful indulgence into utopian thinking. It’s something that has characterized teens and twenty somethings for centuries. Some of the most revolutionary and profound ideas in history came from young people who had grown weary of the status quo. So too did I envision a world free of prejudice, poverty and artificial hierarchies. I was more than ready to rebel against the lack of freedoms and opportunities for minorities, women and the poor. In some ways my generation lit the fires that evoked change for the better but as so often happens we became distracted and burdened by the responsibilities of life. Soon enough we were the people over thirty whom we had distrusted. Like so many before us we settled into the rat race and focused on our families and our occupations. We had little time for philosophizing or inventing new ways of doing things.

Now my generation is old and only tenuously maintaining a hold on the power to influence. Yes, our president is from my age group and so is his presumed opponent for the job, but it is apparent that a younger group will soon enough be taking over the reins. In the meantime most of the folks my age have retired from work and are spending much deserved moments enjoying however many years they may have left on this earth. With more time to consider such topics we sometimes ponder our accomplishments and worry that perhaps we might have done more to leave a kinder more promising legacy to our children and grandchildren. After all, what is really the purpose of our day to day existence if not to make a difference?

The last twenty years have been plagued by terror, wars, economic turmoil, extremes of climate and the emergence of hate groups that had been long festering underground. We are as divided as a nation as we were in the sixties and seventies of my youth. Perhaps we are even beginning to understand how life was for our great grandparents who found themselves engaged in a civil war. It has been challenging to watch the deterioration of our relationships that is often fueled by the very people who should be bringing us together. It is particularly sad for those of us who invested so much energy into the idea of making our country an inviting place for everyone regardless of who they might be. Now without warning we are dealing with what may well be the most damaging moment of our history.

Covid-19 has further accented our rifts and made it more clear than ever that we have issues that are still to be resolved. As I sit inside my home at the age of seventy one I grieve for the world, but most implicitly for my nation. I can see that we are not united at all and that our differences seem to be widening rather than mending. We are too much guided by fear and basic needs to work for a self actualized version of our nation. Because we want quick fixes we appear to be placing bandaids on our wounds rather than attempting to understand and heal the root causes of our problems.

When we only react rather than create rational plans we are bound to overlook the pitfalls of our decisions. I feel certain that the vast majority of people want what is best for everyone but in our hour of uncertainty we appear to be allowing those who are the loudest and most aggressive to determine our fates. Instead of putting the best medical and business minds together we are pitting them with one another as though we can’t be safe from the ravages of Covid-19 while also keeping our economy moving as robustly as possible. It has become a them against us free for all in which we witness people hoarding and scrambling for crumbs, all while taunting and insulting anyone who disagrees with whatever they happen to believe.

I have seen this kind of behavior before. It was very much a sign of the times during my youth. Then it was called the generation gap. It meant choosing sides between those who served in Vietnam and those who were against the war. It involved a pretense of fairness when certain races were segregated from the freedoms that the rest of us enjoyed. It kept women from thriving in engineering schools or colleges of architecture. Anyone who disagreed with the status quo of the country was told to “love it, or leave it.” It was not the romanticized era to which so many want to return.

We made some progress for many people but we became weary of the fight. We let down our guard and became self satisfied while new difficulties emerged. Our children and grandchildren kept warning us that there was till much work to be done but we only laughed at their intensity and reminded them that we all feel that way for a time and then get over it. Now I see that getting over it can be a dangerous thing. It leaves us unready and vulnerable when we do not work together to build and repair the foundations of our nation. We revert to partisan thinking and the hateful ways engendered by fear.

I am worried but not so much for me anymore. I am fearful of what my children and grandchildren will have to endure because we appear to be so incapable of setting aside our differences in a time of need. I am worried because so many are unwilling to sacrifice to get us all through of our difficulties. I worry when I see protestors threatening with guns. I worry when I hear insulting and racist comments fall so easily from people’s tongues. I worry because I see fear and ignorance and politics guiding decisions.

I have always been both fascinated and inspired by a story about the great depression in my city of Houston. Unlike other places the banks here never closed. As the tale goes the movers and shakers of the city met with Jesse Jones in the Rice Hotel and they agreed that instead of working in competition with one another they would join forces to make certain that nobody would have to go out of business. While times were nonetheless tough they indeed managed to keep most of the commerce working if only in a lesser form of itself. It was the understanding that saving as many people as possible was better than attempting to emerge as a single victor that kept the Houston economy working better than in most locales.

My daily prayer is that we will find a way to emulate cooperation and send a loud message to those who would have us fight among ourselves. We can emerge with cuts and scrapes or we can risk being mortally wounded. The difference will be determined by how willing we are to work together. I hope we find a way to make that happen.

The Numbers

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I’ve spent my life teaching young people about numbers. I enjoy demystifying mathematical processes and watching my students grow in confidence when faced with numerical challenges. I don’t believe that there are really individuals who are bad at math. I think instead that some folks just never encountered the right person to help them find an understanding of the logic and processes of math that underpin the workings of nature and the modern world.

Of late we’ve been bombarded with charts and graphs and statistical data of all sorts regarding Covid-19. We hear discussions regarding death rates of the virus and comparisons of this disease with others. It can become confusing and even a bit overwhelming but a few strokes on a calculator reveal some rather interesting information about the effect of the pandemic on our country.

Last week, using the latest information from the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 site along with a few references from Google I decided to do a bit of investigating of my own. I began by determining what percent of the world’s population resides in the United States. There are approximately 7,994,000,000 humans living across the globe. Of those about 382,200,000 are in the United States of America. A little bit of division showed me that our nation is home to about 5% of the people on this earth.

Next I noted that there have been 4,400,688 recorded cases of Covid-19 throughout the world. Of those 1,400,500 have been here in the USA. Another quick bit of division revealed that we have about 32% of the known cases of the virus. I was confounded by the fact that a nation with only 5% of the total population would have almost a third of the cases but I suspect that there are any number of logical explanations for that astounding number. We tend to be a rather mobile population that travels to all parts of the world and is continually on the move within our states and cities. Additionally we have a very modern medical system and in spite of its problems it is generally known for its capability to quickly and accurately diagnose disease. Nonetheless our rate of infection compared to the rest of the world is abnormally high and yet we still have people who are underplaying the effect of Covid-19 on our population.

Perhaps it is because the general story making the rounds is that this novel coronavirus is not any more deadly than the seasonal flu. With that in mind I ran the numbers and found that if I divided the number of US deaths from the virus (84,985) by the number of cases (1,400,500) I got a stunning 6% mortality rate. That is a number far larger than the under one percent figure that many claim is the average fatality rate for this virus. Furthermore the figures that I am using have been recorded in only two or three months as compared with an entire year of flu. We have now lost more citizens to Covid-19 since the beginning of 2020 than we did in all of the Vietnam War. Our percent of deaths does not fare too well when compared with the rest of the world either. In fact our figures represent 28% of all deaths from Covid-19 so far.

I find my calculations to be interesting because they appear to put a lie to a number of claims by individuals and groups who seem to think that what our country is enduring is little more than a grand hoax designed to make our president look bad in an election year. Somehow the numbers tell me that the truth of the matter is that the danger is very real and for some reason our country is not faring as well as we might hope. To believe that anybody would be capable of creating a deception so complexly horrific is incomprehensible.

The numbers regarding the destruction of our economy are just as appalling and maybe even more so, but the fact is that if we don’t very carefully consider the consequences of both dealing with the virus and keeping our country working we will surely face an even bleaker future. We indeed must be willing to talk about the facts without cover up or  recriminations The only undeniable truth in all of this is that we will have to work together, not just with each other here in this country but with our fellow humans across the globe.

Every nation is wounded and hurting. This is hardly the time to boast about our own country’s accomplishments or to isolate ourselves from the great thinking and solutions that are occurring in different corners of the globe. Our battle to save our country and our world is not a matter of who is best or first. Our leaders will have to make difficult decisions that should be based on what is right for the common good rather than what may garner votes in the coming election. All of us must be willing to sacrifice and endure privations and changes for which we are not accustomed. In the end it will not matter who was wrong or who was right in predicting the future, but what will be of paramount importance is how well and willing we are to respond to any new emergencies that arise.

People tell me that they are weary of talk of Covid-19. They want to go back to work, to shopping, to eating out, to going to church, to having parties. They want the coming school year to be business as usual and they look forward to a fall that includes football games and Halloween celebrations. They hope to soon have all of the broken pieces of our lives neatly put back together so that we can bid adieu to all of the suffering and chaos. It’s a dream that we all harbor and with God’s grace Covid-19 will leave us as mysteriously as it came into our midst. Unfortunately based on the numbers it is doubtful that things will be quite that easy.

He Was Essential

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In this time of Covid-19 I have found myself thinking of my paternal grandfather, Paul Ulrich, more and more often. He came to the United States on a steamer from Germany around 1912. I never got to meet him because he died at a rather young age a few months before I was born. What little I know of him is garnered from stories from my mother and a cousin who was old enough to have actually met him. I have always wanted to know more about him and painting a picture of him is almost akin to putting together an all red jigsaw puzzle. I’ve had to infer a great deal but I’ve also found documents and scraps of evidence that tell the truth of the kind of person he was.

According the family memories much of the work that he did was typical of immigrants even to this very day. He spent time working on a big farm near what is now the Houston Ship Channel and doing lumbering work in the Beaumont area. Eventually he got a job at the Houston Meat Packing Company that operated on Navigation Street just east of downtown Houston. His job was to clean the area where the butchering of the carcasses took place. It was backbreaking work that bore heavily on his health. My mother often spoke of how her father’s legs were riddled with varicose veins so painful that he had to wrapped them in bandages before going to his job each day. In spite of the hardships his children always boasted that he never missed a single day of work until he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that ultimately lead to his death at the age of sixty five.

I have been reading a great deal about the outbreaks of the coronavirus in meat packing plants across the United States. The essential workers there are on the front line of keeping the supply chain of meat products moving to supermarkets across the country. Sadly conditions in those places have lead to contagion on a massive scale. It is as though the environment of a typical meat packing production line is the perfect place to incubate a virus. The process requires workers to perform their duties without benefit of social distancing in very cold temperatures. Without proper protective gear such places have become like petri dishes for growing Covid-19, making the carrying out the duties one of the single most dangerous jobs in terms of contracting the virus.

As I have heard about the numbers of illnesses and deaths associated with meat packing and Covid-19 I have thought back to my own grandfather who was so much like the people who today work in such places. It is a job that has brutal effects on the body even in good times. During a pandemic it is dangerous, and yet we expect to see our grocery stores filled with our favorite cuts of meat without much thought of the people who are responsible for processing the products. They are all too often simply faceless persons, numbers on a data sheet that mean little to us. I suppose that because my grandfather was once one of them I find myself wondering who they are and how they are doing. My guess is that missing work is out of the question for them just as it was for my grandfather. They not only lose income whenever they are absent but in all probability they will be replaced if they choose not the be present too often.

We take so many of our remarkable resources for granted until they are not available and then we fret and complain, rarely thinking of the people who have been delivering our goods to us. We want whatever we want even as we shelter safely in our homes. The inconveniences bother us and we tend not to associate the hardships of others with our own personal needs. It’s natural to take things for granted when they have always seemed to be there. Ours is a land of plenty that is often the marvel of people the world over. Suddenly the smooth functioning of our systems is struggling to keep up with demands and it is as novel and frightening as the virus itself.

I don’t think that we always fully understand or appreciate the contributions of every person involved in the supply chain of goods and services in our world. We don’t see the long process that brings what we desire to our homes. We don’t think of the slaughter houses or the assembly lines or the person who cleans up the leftover entrails and blood. It’s difficult to imagine how grueling such jobs would become after performing them day after day. Many like my grandfather spend their entire adult lifetimes engaged in what must be terribly unsatisfying and difficult labor.

My grandfather was a collector of books. Each Friday after being paid his wages he would visit a bookstore where he purchased a new volume that he would read in the evenings. His interests were in science, mathematics, agriculture. I learned from perusing a box of old paperwork that he had once purchased land in Richmond, Texas. He told one of my cousins that he hoped to retire and create a farm there. The deed for the property was among the receipts but somewhere along the way, no doubt from necessity, he had to sell the acreage and along with it his dream.

My grandfather was not particularly respected in his neighborhood. He was an immigrant who spoke English with an accent. He had eight children crowded into a tiny house and he never made much money. Some people assumed that they knew him. They even went so far as to say that he and his family were dirty and uneducated and low status. They did not see that he was a man who worked dutifully every single day. He paid his bills, owned his home and died without a single debt in the world. His house was lined with the bookshelves filled with volumes that he had read. He was so much more than just someone who cleaned up a sickening mess over and over again. He was an essential worker in our society, and now because of Covid-19 we should all understand how important he was.