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.

Gazing Into the Future

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I spent my last years working full time as Dean of Faculty in a KIPP charter high school. One of our mathematics teachers was an extraordinary educator who was originally from Nigeria. He once told us a story of his youth and how he wanted to become an engineer from a rather young age. His village provided him with enough education to be rather literate but not enough to gain admittance to a university. For that he needed an advanced course in Calculus but there was only one person that he knew about with the credentials to help him, and that person lived in the next village over from his.

My colleague was determined to earn a spot at the university and so he visited the teacher who held the knowledge that he needed and offered to help him with his farm in exchange for Calculus lessons. For a year the determined young man walked several miles after the regular school day to meet with his teacher. Ultimately my friend indeed earned a degree in engineering.

I was reminded of the many people across the globe who do not have instant access to education when I attended a little seminar at Rice University last year. The special guest was Salmon Khan, who is best known for Khan Academy an online educational platform.  Khan spoke of the power of the internet in bringing instructional opportunities to individuals who might otherwise not have them. He told stories of young women in Afghanistan who have used distance learning to earn college degrees in fields that might otherwise have been closed to them. Today’s world is filled with ever more opportunities for advancement because of individuals like Khan who offer lessons in multiple subjects.

We’ve seen the power of online education in recent days as millions of children have learned their lessons in the safety of their bedrooms. We know of workers who are continuing to do their jobs from their dining room tables. As doctors and nurses are on the frontline of the battle against Covid-19 telemedicine is being used more and more.

My husband was supposed to have a follow up visit with his cardiologist later this month. It will still happen but this time it will take place via computer. When possible this method is being used more and more often during the pandemic and I suspect that it will become a commonplace way of providing general medical care in the future. I can see how it will be an important way of bringing world class medical care to rural areas and parts of the world experiencing a shortage of qualified doctors.

Of course this brave new world of computerized education, work life and medicine will require internet infrastructure but already internet cafes are cropping up all over the world. These are places where anyone may come and pay a fee to use networks for all sorts of reasons. Some cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma are actually leading the movement toward creating centers for online access. I can envision countries creating such places for the population just as we once built the interstate highway system after World War II. What a boon it would be to anyone living in a remote area to have a way to learn or work or get medical care or just to become more a part of the global community!

I remember watching a program about Arthur C. Clarke many decades ago. He was a futurist in every sense of the word. He lived on a Pacific island but was very much connected to the world. Of course he was wealthy enough to have satellites and computer power in an era when few people had access to such things. Nonetheless he predicted that it would one day be possible for anyone to live virtually anywhere and still experience modern conveniences. The computer era is proving him right on so many levels.

I suspect that as we move out of pandemic mode we may want to continue with some of the practices that we have been using and expand on them. While the economy may be battered I predict that new opportunities will arise as clever young people learn from observing what was essential and how we solved various problems during our time of isolation. We are experiencing lessons in supply chains, risk management, education, public health, computer power. Our teachers will be the geniuses among us who paved the road to linking the far corners of the world through online communication. We may be on the verge of a great civilizational shift much like the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution. In fact it may have already started.

Sometimes great good comes from tragedy. Let us hope that the lessons we learn will lead us to ever brighter days ahead and a willingness to try new ways of doing things. I suspect that the greatest minds among us are already making plans.

A Time For Healing

It’s far too soon to speak of the Covid-19 pandemic being over. It’s doubtful that we will be able to flip a switch and go back to the normal, at least for a time. There will be a wariness in the air until there are no longer daily outbreaks of the disease and a trustworthy vaccine is available to everyone. Still, we are becoming more and more anxious for that day to come because at heart we enjoy being part of a community. It is in our natures to be productive as well, to have purpose in our lives.

We’ve spent time away from the ebb and flow of the world at large. Our streets have been quieter along with our daily routines. We have had time to think, to meditate, to consider what kind of changes we might want to see in the new normal that will emerge. In some ways we no longer wish to return to the status quo as it once was because in our days of isolation we have realized new possibilities. Our worldwide distancing has in an ironic twist made us somehow feel closer. The individual who dies in Italy is as important to us as the grandfather who does not make it in our hometown.

We have witnessed a simplification in our lives, reminding ourselves of what and who is actually essential. The skies are clearer all over the world and so are our priorities and obligations to share our lives with others. As we enjoy our own blessings we realize how many people it took to make them happen. We may be in a cocoon of safety right now but we survive so pleasantly only because an army of people have worked diligently to keep the supply chain of goods and services running.

We look to our medical community for answers and comfort in time of need and see the immense sacrifices that have always been part of their work. We struggle to keep our children learning and realize the creative and caring presence that teachers have have been even while we often criticized their efforts. That onion or that loaf of bread are suddenly precious commodities brought to us with the backbreaking labor of migrant workers, people that we have sometimes derided in the past. We look to the wonders of technology to keep us connected and pray for the genius of our scientists and engineers to bring us out of this crisis.

We must surely be humbled by this pandemic which has both upended our way of life and demonstrated the amazing human spirit. Heroes that we once thought to be ordinary have emerged with powers more wonderful than Superman. That nurse who dons her battle gear day after day to administer to the dying deserves a Medal of Honor. The drivers who bring food and supplies to vulnerable shut-ins are providing an immeasurable service. The neighbors who look after one another are the very foundation of who we are as people.

We have learned to enjoy simple things. We realize that we do not need as much as we may have thought. The sound of a neighbor playing the violin is lovely enough to make our day. The birds that congregate in our trees are as entertaining as an evening spent on the town. The meals prepared at home are tastier than those at a five star restaurant. Maybe we don’t really need that extra pair of shoes or a new pair of earrings. Instead we might see who around us is struggling and help them to weather this storm.

When we speak of making America great I suspect that we now realize that it will require an acknowledgement that we are indeed members of a global community. A tiny virus has shown us that we cannot escape the fact that when a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa we are all somehow affected. This pandemic was not the fault of any one nation but we are all reeling from it.

Our new big idea should be to look around and see who or what needs help. We must look for ways to use our resources and our privileges more wisely and more universally. We need to consider our young adults who will be inheriting a world greatly changed. We must share our wisdom and work together to overcome the forces of human weaknesses like greed. We also must accept the reality that we are in a symbiotic relationship with the environment and everything we do affects the health of the earth. We humans are not the only ones who are sick, so is nature. It’s time we labor in tandem with our lovely planet.

I hope that we do not soon forget the lessons we have learned in our urgency to open up business as usual. We must be mindful of each other and what is truly important. If we just go back to our closed mindedness and most current tendencies of endless disagreements we will have missed an opportunity to not just recover physically but emotionally and spiritually as well. Now is the time for healing.

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.

Living History

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If only we had a crystal ball that would accurately foretell the future, we might know exactly how to proceed in any situation and most especially during times like those in which we presently find ourselves. Of course we know that no such thing exists and even if it did we might still find ourselves feeling anxious, uncertain and out of control as we wait for a shoe to drop. In truth there are no magic formulas for making the best decisions in a given situation, but there are ways to consider alternatives and then choose a course of action to follow based on rational data. Of course since nothing is perfect there is always a chance that mistakes will happen, making it necessary to adjust as needed.

Humans are part of an intricate web of differing ideas, philosophies, dispositions. Two people might look at the same problem and see it differently. In the luxury of hindsight we may eventually know who was right and who was wrong but in the moment it is impossible to be one hundred percent certain about anything we do. In truth life is a procession of trial, error, correction, and hopefully ultimate success.

I have always enjoyed reading about history. There are certain events whose consequences were so epic that it’s easy to feel as though I am viewing a horror scene in which I know that the boogey man is hiding from the unsuspecting people who are about to get the scare of their lives. I wonder how many Americans from the south would have seceded from the union if they had known the toll of death and destruction that they would endure. Would the people of Russia have revolted against the Czar had they realized the decades of privation and fear that would follow? How many Germans would have supported Adolf Hitler had they seen what would ultimately happen to their country? Would our founding fathers have allowed slavery to be legal in their new nation if they had realized the full consequences of such a decision?

It is always easier to assess a given moment in history once we are able to see the whole picture. We become aware of how things might have been made better. In the heat of the moment we are all too often ruled by more by our emotions, our needs, our personal inclinations than by rational analysis. We desire to find the easy answers even when they are few or nonexistent. Most of the time the situations in which we find ourselves are not dire enough to warrant much of our attention and so we blithely choose sides mostly with those who think exactly life ourselves without giving much thought to alternative ideas. We find comfort in groupthink because it is never easy to be that extraordinary person who goes against the grain of society.

So here we are with all of our human abilities and talents that are tainted by our frailties and fears. We hear the noise of opposing solutions all around us and we are confused as to how best to proceed in light of a worldwide pandemic. There are so many points of view to consider that we feel overwhelmed. We crave simplicity for a complex question. So perhaps we might take a cue from Mr. Rogers and look for the helpers, the people who are working on the front lines all across the globe to save lives. We need to listen to their stories and learn from them, for they are the ones who are living the nightmare in real time while we are isolated in our homes.

During the early years of World War II the United States was decidedly isolationist. It was only after the attack on Pearl Harbor that our nation went to war. We were quite unprepared and our first forays into battle were alarmingly unsuccessful. I have little doubt that the American people felt overwhelmed but they found ways to change the course of history with their sacrifice and determination. They looked to the brilliance of men like Admiral Nimitz and General Eisenhower and supported those who were on the forefront of the war. It took time and treasure and changed everyday life but they were willing to support those who were on the forefront of the war.

We have been asked to isolate ourselves to prevent an outbreak of Covid-19 that has the potential to send our healthcare system into a death spiral. The men and women of medicine are telling us what they need and far too many of us are questioning them and suggesting that what we are hearing from them is little more than scary propaganda, but in truth they are the experts, the generals and the troops who are in the trenches. They should be a primary source for our decision making for the time being. We can worry ourselves with elections and personal causes later. For now we need to rally around them with everything in our power knowing that our sacrifices are small compared to theirs.

Our food supply continues to flow even if we find ourselves lacking some of the luxuries that we once enjoyed. Our children are still learning from parents and teachers who greet them from a distance. Many are continuing to work from home but there are far too many who have lost their jobs, their sources of income. We cannot forget them but we can reassure them that as we shelter in place for now we intend to care for them now and help them to rebuild their lives once the danger has passed.

It is true that our economy and those of countries around the world are reeling. Our work will not be done even when this epic moment has passed. We have to be ready for the long haul just as our parents and grandparents were in World War II. We can’t get too anxious to return to normalcy. Doing so might ruin all of the efforts we have made so far. This fight is bigger than any single individual. It is about all of humankind and each of us has an important role to play. Let us hope and pray that we are choosing to listen to the right voices, the helpers who are risking their own safety to protect us. Listen to what they have to say and be wary of anyone who appears to be more concerned about their own reputations and popularity.  

We are living history from moment to moment. May God help us to do it right.