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.

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.

Gazing At the World

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So this was on Facebook from Frank Swain@SciencePunk:

Study 3 years for degree.

Study 3 more for PhD.

Join lab, start working.

Spend years studying problems.

Form hypothesis, gather evidence.

Test hypothesis, form conclusions.

Report findings, clear peer review.

Findings published, reported in press.

Guy on internet: “Bullshit.”

This post didn’t just make me laugh hysterically, it summed up my feelings about all of the disagreements regarding Covid-19 and whether or not it is a dangerous virus. The members of the medical community and numbers of scientists and researchers are all telling us that we must be wary of underestimating the potential of the virus to continue to impact our lives. At the same time there is so much noise from individuals and groups whose only qualifications for understanding and discussing infectious disease are their gut instincts. I ask myself why they are so intent on not only ignoring the cautions from those with the most knowledge about such things, but also on insisting that the rest of us bow to their right to gamble with innocent lives.

Their answer appears to be to make fun of those of us who want to stay put in our homes. They mention our fearfulness and puff up with a kind of bravado as they boast that they are not worried. They taunt us by saying that we can just stay home as long as we wish as long as we leave them alone, give them their freedoms. They act as though we are the ignorant tyrants, the sheep who have fallen for perhaps the biggest hoax of all time. Even as I write this they are flocking to beaches and malls and gathering in large groups without masks or distancing as though to thumb their noses at those of us who are gravely concerned that their behavior will make our own isolation last even longer.

Right now all of the neighbors in my cul-de-sac are having a kind of celebration across the street. They are wonderful people and I would like more than anything to join them. Under any other circumstances I would already be there, but I observe that they are not wearing masks and they are seated too closely together. They seem to believe that there is no danger even though only a few days ago nine people from a nearby nursing home tested positive for Covid-19. They act as though they are unaware that our suburban area is among those with the highest number of cases from around Houston. They are young and mostly healthy so I suppose that they are feeling the urge to get on with life and just  allow me to hide away as I must surely seem to be doing.

What is my game? Why am I so wary? Perhaps it is because I will be seventy two in November and my husband will celebrate his seventy third birthday in September. He has heart disease and only recently underwent surgery to place stents in his heart. He has been told by his doctors to avoid going out or being in crowds. They don’t even want him to come to their offices. The teleconference with him instead. Even the local Cardinal of our church has asked that we not attend Sunday services now that they have resumed at twenty five percent capacity.

Maybe I am careful because I have a ninety one year old father-in-law who depends on me and my husband to help him. He’s looks exceptionally good to most people who see him but we know that he has a number of health issues and that he is slowing down considerably. We help him to get food and supplies and my husband keeps him updated on the technology that allows him to take care of business without leaving his home. We can neither afford to catch the virus nor accidentally infect him. It seems logical that we need to stay inside.

I have friends and relatives who are members of the medical community. They have not yet let down their caution and they urge me to be as vigilant as they are. They continue to worry that we are not yet in a safe place. I defer to their expertise because they have been correct about every other medical issue that I have presented to them. They are privy to information that most of us do not have. When they tell me to continue to take precautions I listen.

I have a grandson with asthma and I worry about him. I worry about other members of my family who have various and sundry issues. I know that I can’t allow my anxieties to overtake me and ordinarily I do not. This is different. We have been warned what may happen if we act to resume normalcy too soon and yet so many choose to ignore the very people who are most likely to have the answers. I suppose that some among us may actually have the luxury of risky behavior, but if I am to be responsible I have to face the fact that I cannot take the chances in which they are indulging.

So I sit dreaming as much as anyone else to leave the confines of isolation. I want to visit my one hundred one year old aunt who is all alone in her nursing home. I long to be back at church. I’d love nothing more than to go camping in my trailer or to travel to the Texas hill country to see my children and grandchildren. I want to teach my math students in person and have lunch with my grandson at his university. I’d love to walk through the mall and have dinner with friends. I want anyone who thinks that I am just silly or unduly afraid to understand that if I only had myself to consider I would already be out and about. What I know is that my careless actions may adversely affect many others. Therefore I stay inside. I wear my mask. I don my gloves and religiously wash my hands. I gaze longingly at the world that is moving outside. Maybe the ones celebrating their freedom are right and the experts on whom my decisions rely are all wrong. That’s not a chance that I am willing to take.

I will keep gazing at the world through a window. I hope that I won’t have to do this for very long, but my experts tell me that I am in for a long period of isolation. If I save even one person from the dangers of Covid-19 it will not have been in vain. 

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.

Who Are You Staying Home For?

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Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York created a campaign called “Who Are You Staying Home For?” It puts the rationale for our stay at home advisories into perspective because there are valid reasons for each of us to isolate not just for ourselves but for the good of someone else. It got me to thinking about my intentions for keeping to myself for almost five weeks now.

I have to admit that I do not wish to contract Covid-19. I tend to believe that if I were to do so I would survive just fine, but I don’t know that for sure. Exposing myself to the virus would be a kind of Russian roulette that our healthcare workers are forced to endure on a daily basis. They don’t need another case to deal with and so it would be incredibly selfish of me to flaunt the directives and potentially place myself in harms way. So I stay home for all of the dedicated individuals who are responding so valiantly to caring for those unfortunate souls who have somehow caught the virus. I hope that somehow I and others might lighten their load if we manage to stay well.

I’ve also been quite worried about my husband, Mike. He only recently had surgery to correct major blockage in the arteries of his heart. He is doing well but I believe that if he were to catch Covid-19 it would be quite dangerous. He’s seventy two years old with heart disease, a combination that does not bode well for anyone who comes down with the virus. I am vigilantly staying away from any situation that might be a source of the disease. I order all of my groceries and when they arrive I have a routine for disinfecting them that I use religiously. My hands are cracked and quite ugly from all of the washing to which I have subjected them. I am obsessively compulsive about taking all of the precautions quite soberly knowing that if I get flippant and catch Covid-19 there is a good chance that I will infect Mike.

I’m staying home for the people that I have never met who might accidentally catch the virus from me if I become infected and travel brazenly around my neighborhood and my city. I don’t want to be that person who spreads disease because I am unwilling to be careful. I don’t want to be someone who assumes that we are being duped into a draconian situation that is based on some grand hoax. If I flaunt the rules and I am wrong I will only be complicit in prolonging society’s suffering. I’m staying home so that we have a chance at getting back to normal sooner rather than later.

I’m staying home because I truly believe that God has given us the intellect to know what we must do not just to save ourselves but also as many of our fellow humans as possible. He has placed many brilliant doctors and scientists in our midst who believe that if we can flatten the curve of contagion there will be fewer lives lost. Why would I not listen to the experts? Why would I be so arrogant as to believe that without any knowledge of viruses and medicine I know more than those who have studied these things?

I’m staying home for my children and grandchildren so that they will have one less person to worry about because I know that they are indeed concerned about me. I want them to be confident that I am going to be fine because I am not taking any unnecessary risks. Staying inside my house is a very small sacrifice to provide them with a greater sense of well being.

I’m staying home because this virus really is novel. There is so much more that we must learn about it. I want the rise of emergencies to subside enough that those who study such things will have more time to discover the secrets of Covid-19. We have to know exactly how it works and what if anything is capable of stopping it both before and after it happens. I want to help clear the hospital decks so that this kind of work can commence without interruption.

I’m staying home because I know that it is the right thing to do. I understand that sometimes my liberties must be secondary to the good of all. I may have a right to be cavalier but if doing so endangers others then I am wrong to insist on bucking the system.

I’m staying home so that those who have lost their jobs may possibly get back to work sooner rather than later. I understand that we must all make sacrifices and be willing to help each other even when we are once again allowed to emerge into the outside world.. There will be much need for support and I want to be healthy and ready to do my part.

Who are you staying home for?