Thursday, October 29, 2020

Whale of a Day

In many ways, climbing into bed has become the high point of my day. That’s when I stream the Billy Collins show, broadcast earlier on Facebook Live.

What’s that? Who’s that?

It’s a guy sitting in his living room with his wife, talking. Both of them talking. He’s the star, presumably, because the camera (an iPhone) is focused on him, but that doesn’t prevent a kind of irrepressible banter from interrupting fairly often.

It’s like you’re there in the room with them. He fumbles for his mic, flips through papers, and books. Plays his favorite music at the beginning and end—sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes Bebop or even the Everly Brothers. Surprisingly often Facebook shuts them down for a contravention of musical replay rules, whatever those are.

He’s always shocked and surprised by this.

He begins by reading comments from listeners, all around the world. Then it’s on to the main event. That consists of him reading out loud and then talking briefly about what he just read.

That will be a poem, in fact, but don’t worry, because this is Billy Collins, former two-time US Poet Laureate, called in the NY Times “the most popular poet in America.”

Billy, as we who listen most days call him, writes in the language we all speak, and his subject matter ranges broadly and usually begins by observing something we think of as ordinary. He’s the poetry version of Leon Hale, so maybe that’s why I like him so much.

Billy has a dry wit, so the broadcasts are funny, poignant, and every poem has a turn toward the end that makes you notice.

He reads the work of many other people, as well. Recently he read several poems by Mary Oliver. And Seamus Heaney is a favorite.

Each poem takes only a moment or two to read, in his soothing voice and you’re never far from a surprising remark.

Billy and his wife Susannah began these homely broadcasts when the Coronavirus lockdowns started in March, and he was required to cancel a busy international travel schedule. He needed something to do that provided relief from all the bad news.

And so we have these low key afternoons. She is the “hair, lighting and makeup” director and he is the man behind the desk, rummaging for the poem he thinks will most interest his viewers.

A free-form half hour or so ensues, punctuated every so often by the thunder of a Florida rainstorm.

The written comments flow as the show proceeds, and if you’re watching it live, you can chime in, always understanding that both of them will see what you have written. Kinda fun.

At the end of last month, he launched his new collection, WHALE DAY, with a virtual reading. You can read all about it on his Facebook page where the last five broadcasts are available for viewing.

It’s such a welcome contrast to the strident conversations that have popped up lately on Facebook. There’s never a political reference, by design, because the broadcast is intended to address the need for a quiet, calm interlude in our increasingly fraught lives.

We get that. It’s one reason why our little publishing company is bringing out two new books next spring, one by Leon Hale and one by yours truly (a short story collection) that we, also, will be chatting about on Facebook, and other social media. So there are oases of tranquility present online, if one looks for them. https://www.facebook.com/BillyCollinsPoetry https://www.facebook.com/winedalebooks https://www.winedalebooks.com


Monday, September 21, 2020

What's Empathy?

 Empathy. Been hearing that word a lot, recently.

Most of us assume we have empathy for other people, when what we mean is sympathy.

When a friend loses her job, we feel sympathy. We understand that our friend must be in distress. And we can still express all the support and comfort needed.

The emotion becomes empathy, though, if we feel her fear and worry as our own.

Or, following an explosion, we see a woman wail over the body of her child. We’re an ocean away, watching this horrible moment on a flat screen. Most of us will feel sympathy—we understand that losing a child is a heartbreak almost without equal.

If we tear up at the sight, taking that loss to heart as if it were our own child, we are feeling empathy.

The ability to empathize can be inborn or developed, but it is never comfortable. Often when we feel the urge, we shut it down as being too demanding of our energies.

Or we try to shut it down until something happens that breaks through.

On 9/11, for example, as the second tower was hit and the full meaning of the attack became clear, people across the country suddenly choked up. And when the small dark objects began to fall from the highest floors of the burning building, we sobbed. They weren’t our children, husbands, fathers, mothers, but we were with them and their families. We felt it.

Empathy.

Empathy is considered a high distinguishing quality of humanity, one that warrants cultivating.

In Christianity, the great commandment reads, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul and mind; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” That last bit is also known as the Golden Rule. It finds its place in all the major religions.

Empathy.

The divisiveness of recent politics allows very little room for fellow feeling. Our social media increasingly selects only like-minded opinions to show us. It reinforces outrage.  

The clash of policy and idea in politics generates fringe elements, on the left and the right. Human nature can be contrary, and as we all know, some folks enjoy contrariness more than others.

This process isn’t new. American history is full of odd movements and noisy combative voices, going back to the beginnings of the 19th century. Hucksters sold their patent medicines or outlandish theories from the back of a Conestoga or other wagon. From there, they could do limited harm.

Today, they have the internet. They have social media.

Bizarre theories, conspiracies and outright lies go viral in a time of worldwide fear and uncertainty.

There is always someone, intent on power over others, who will speed things along, perfectly content to break every moral rule in so doing. Lies, half-lies, distortions, good intentions gone awry, spin together, pulling in the fringes, blurring everything.

Only empathy is strong enough to stop the whirlwind.

Only realism can brake the accelerating vortex.

When we’re in the grip of conspiracy-based fear, it’s like the feeling we have in a horror movie. Breaking the spell requires sunlight, open air, the presence of loved ones and friends.

These conspiracies are like bad novels, cheap slasher flicks. They rely on mass hysteria to spread.

Take them outside, away from the artificial world of computer and mobile screens. Let the warm sun and soft autumn breeze do nature’s restorative work.

The conspiracies will crumble. And the people ensnared by their darkness will breathe freely once again.

Friday, July 3, 2020

It's a Free Country


All lives matter, we hear.

I’m not talking about race, but it comes from the same source.

Because we don’t really believe it, do we?

If we did, we’d be wearing a mask in public places.

That’s the truth. If you’re not wearing a mask when you interact with other people, you don’t believe all lives matter.

You don’t believe your wife and children matter. Or your parents. You don’t believe the people you work with matter.

The only life that matters to you is yours.

We are watching new cases of the virus surge in Texas, as businesses open. You’ll have proof of the connection, eventually, when it’s too late.

Crowds thronged our area on the weekend of June 6th, unmasked, ignoring social distancing. These were mostly people from somewhere else. Our beleaguered businesses were thrilled, I expect. They’ve been suffering. The owners and employees have been suffering. No one can deny that.

I visualize those crowds bursting out of solitary hunkering like so many grade school kids let loose to run and play after a hard morning at their desks. With about as much mature thought.

And men were the most likely to go maskless. I see them, everywhere I go in Fayette and Washington Counties.

Their naked faces declare they’re not afraid. It’s a free country. A man’s personal freedom is the only thing that matters.

But he’s not free to spit on the floor of a restaurant or urinate in its parking lot. He’s not free to smoke in a non-smoking place. He can’t walk into the nearest movie theater and holler “fire!”

So many ways we’re not free to harm our neighbors.

Maskless, though, he can walk around exhaling virus on other people. He can sing at the top of his lungs in church all over the person in front of him. He feels fine.

Or, maybe he’s got a little headache and scratchy throat.

Or, sure, he may be a little sub-par—hay fever, you know. He’ll power through.

No one can make him think of anyone else. His mother used to try. She’d drill it into him. But now, he’s a big boy. Nobody can tell him what to do.

Or her, his wife. She hates the masks. (I do, too.) They’re hot and they itch and one’s breath is not a minty delight.

But she chooses to wear it, just in case. She wears it in the grocery store. She wears it bringing groceries and supplies to her car or someone else’s. She wears it, cooking in a restaurant, despite the inconvenience.

She wears it in case the 30% increase in county Covid cases that we’ve had over the past month has touched her. She doesn’t want to bring the virus home to her children, her mother or grandmother who’s diabetic. Or grandfather who’s on oxygen. Or to her macho husband who refuses to wear his mask.

Why do you think we’ve been “lucky” so far? Round Top is a tourist destination. Why don’t we show the rate of Covid infection Houston does, for example? A throng is a throng, after all.

One reason, I think, is our leadership. County officials had the courage and good sense to cancel the Spring Antique Shows. That made sure outsiders did not flood our community with virus from far flung hot spots.

But the July 4th celebration is coming. 

And it might not be a disaster if everyone who attends it, man, woman or child, wears an adequate mask and observes strict social distancing. Wouldn’t that be a great example of community spirit?

Come on, folks. Make Mommy and Daddy proud.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Do You Feel Safe?


Our county’s largest town has fewer than 5000 residents. Many of us live on rural properties that give us a nice daily walk to the mailbox. Small wonder that, at the time of this writing, Fayette County had only 30 cases of Covid-19, with 2 deaths.

I give thanks every day, and I imagine you do, too. Because the contrast with larger entities is stark: Texas (47,000 and 1,305 deaths); New York City (348,232 and 22,478 deaths).

It’s comforting to think the difference is population density, isn’t it? All those people crammed together in cities, living in little boxes stacked on top of each other, too high in the air for birdsong.

It doesn’t sound in the least appealing. And certainly not for eight weeks or more confined to one of those boxes.

The kindness of strangers is a requirement for city life, even in normal times. The kindness of neighbors, too.

We’ve been receiving a lot of the latter since our self-isolation here at Winedale began in late February. Our neighbors, meaning all of you, have been so kind and helpful.

Because of my husband’s age, we are abiding by especially strict limitations. Everything that comes into the house is sanitized by me. If I must go into a store, when I return home, I immediately throw the clothes I wore into the washer.

Our margin for error is zero.

You cannot imagine how we long for a loosening of the noose of caution that draws our worry close, night and day.

What would allow that to happen? What would make us feel safe? This is the question that livelihoods, jobs, depend on.

There are answers, of course, but they’re not fast, and they’re not certain.

The culture of our past thirty-five years has not rewarded patience. Every innovation in technology has been to speed things up. A staggering degree of complexity hides behind one click.

Now we’re being asked to understand so much that isn’t easy.

The medical world anticipated a pandemic from China for years, in fact, and warned us we needed a battle plan. (I read about the role of that country’s wet markets in viral transmission at least ten years ago.)

Political leadership minimized those warnings using the same arguments we hear from Congress, now, on climate change. A crisis foreseen never commands the attention of one in full flower.

Most of us have grown up in a culture of distrust. The internet does a particularly effective job of magnifying honest error into conspiracy. We can’t tell whom to believe. And often we just opt out, altogether.

But now we have a choice.

We can flaunt bravado, scorn every request for caution, as a teen-ager might. Or we can grow up and wear that facemask.

Even though we still can’t buy the kind of masks that protect us, we can use homemade masks that protect the people we talk to, the people we pass or stand in line with.

And they can protect you by wearing their masks and keeping a good distance.

If we follow directives from Austin and “open up,” if we hold the July 4th Celebration, and the Sesquicentennial Fete in August, tourists will come from places where the virus is flourishing. We don’t know if they’ll be sick, or asymptomatic, or healthy.

We don’t know if we are, either, right now.

But if everyone wears that annoying face mask and maintains a thoughtful distance, we might all come through it okay.

I’m talking about masks that cover both nose and mouth, worn by every man, woman and kid out of infancy. (Babies should NOT wear facemasks.)

It isn’t a matter of comfort or liberty. It’s a matter of kindness.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Icy Fingers of Doubt


Conspiracy theories flourish in an atmosphere of fear and ignorance.

They’re like fungi, spewing spores that fall on us when we’re feeling small and inconsequential. Or especially aggrieved. A pandemic creates their ideal medium for growth.

Spreading such inventions is a human failing. That’s why the Bible cautions: “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness.” (Exodus 23:1)

Oh, but we do it anyway. Some of us. More of us than we, ourselves, may realize.

The internet has exploded lately with conspiracies about the origin of COVID-19. These run from the absurd to the semi-plausible, if you don’t look deeper.

They attempt to smear with doubt the people we trust most. I’m thinking of Dr. Anthony Fauci, an experienced voice of calm and reason and scientific information in the midst of the viral storm.

I’m thinking of Bill Gates, too, widely admired for the extraordinary work his foundation does to alleviate human misery around the world.

Each of these men stand at the forefront of medical efforts to understand the scope of the danger we’re in, and to find ways to combat it.

Yet concerted attempts are made to undermine their efforts with falsehoods. And those falsehoods are being spread by ordinary people on social media.

People who are fearful, like many of us, unsure whom to trust.

And other people, too, of a bristling ignorance. Angry at what they don’t understand, and wrapped in longing for simplistic answers, instead of the slippery complexity of a brand new virus.

Conspiracy theories, whether left or right, can be seductive. Once you allow the first deadly spore into your conscious mind, it will multiply according to a design that exists only within itself, quite separately from any other reality.

Like a virus does, in fact.

The only “vaccine” against conspiracy-think is knowledge. Verifiable knowledge that’s at everyone’s fingertips, if we take the time to look for sources and read critically. (That means outside the thread of links that support the conspiracy.)

I have spent a great deal of time in recent weeks researching what is known about COVID-19 and its fellow coronaviruses. I subscribe to a daily compendium of articles from medical journals related to the virus, in addition to other well-respected and verifiable sources. Science is accretive. New information arrives each day. And as we learn more, we revised the picture of what we know. It’s like turning a pencil sketch into a painting. Understanding is a work in progress.

The half-truths, no-truths and innuendo that are woven together by shady operators to comprise the most prevalent conspiracy theories are a disgrace. They are designed to promote various agendas not related to your or my good health.

Run them down for yourself. Make sure that you look at a variety of unrelated sources to evaluate your information. Don’t swallow Laura Ingraham or the Washington Post headlines in one, undifferentiated gulp. (The actual articles in the Post are far more balanced, by the way.) Political axes continue to be honed, even now, when we should be pulling together.

As for those who spread misinformation about subjects that affect me and those whom I love, I have a few questions:

What are you trying to do? What are you trying to gain? Who are you working to benefit? I’d really like the answers.

You seem to want communities to unravel. You want children and unsuspecting adults to die from preventable illness. You want to topple rational, experienced leaders and replace them with what—a leaderless massing of people? For what purpose?

Your spreading of lies about Dr. Fauci and Mr. Gates will cause some well-meaning people to resist the COVID-19 vaccine when it is developed. And that will undermine the herd immunity we need for life to resume a more complete normality. Herd immunity is basic science, which you scoff at.

If you’re successful in sowing doubt your result will further imperil my husband and me as we are imperiled now in our self-isolation. You will cause people to die.

Why? Why would you do that?

[Titled "Conspiracy Theories," this post ran as my column in the Fayette County Record, April 24, 2020.]

Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Novelty for Us


My mother was a worrier.

She worried in the way that a bird builds its nest, part instinct, part purposeful endeavor. The worries formed a web of protection around those whom she loved. A web like that of a spider that grows from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of silk. Spreads wide over everything that feels uncontrollable, uncontainable. Only her continual anticipatory caution kept disaster netted at the edges of perception.

A habit of mind? A genetic quirk? A prayer that never ceases?

I was five years old when the polio outbreak began. I would sit on the tile floor of my grandmother’s sunporch, scribbling in my Big Chief tablet while the adults, chatting nearby, switched from English into French to discuss what they didn’t want me to hear. Names swam up out of the rhythmic flow, familiar names—of friends’ children who had become sick, I learned later.

I can only imagine my mother’s inner terror. No one knew how the illness was spread, Was it from flies lighting on a piece of fruit, on a sandwich? Did the virus lie in wait on the doorknob of the supermarket?

Ne touche pas! became a litany that required no church. Wash your hands! Do not touch your face! I thought it was a matter of deportment. Proper little girls were not to fidget. They were to fold their hands neatly in their laps and be quiet. They were to be clean and neat at all times, vigilantly observed by their elders.

How frightened she must have been. How restive I was at the restriction.

Is it a requirement of youth to rebel against limits whose purpose and rationale they don’t understand?

Six years passed before the Salk vaccine arrived. Six years of ordinary life with an avalanche looming. The mothers then were tough. They’d endured and survived an even longer period of world war with familial deaths, rationing and privation, and Victory Gardens, a nation pulling together to defeat an enemy they could visualize.

Polio was a hidden enemy and it had a specific cruelty, because it focused on children. There is no fear like the fear of harm to your little ones. And yet part of a parent’s job is to prevent such harm. The reflexes are in place. The fear of polio merely expanded and intensified the need to be on guard.

The Novel Coronavirus that we face at this moment seems to spare children. In exchange, we believe that it imperils our mothers and fathers and grandparents. To protect them, we are asked to accept disruptive limits to our lives in every aspect.

We are asked to accept a drop in income, a denial of pleasure, a disturbance of the process and conditions of our work—all to diminish a deadly outcome we cannot yet visualize.

We are taking these steps based on faith, a faith we share in the knowledge of scientific experts, whom we are never more aware of needing than at a time of crisis.

But it is a faith we share in the goodness of our neighbors, too.

Our local businesses, our neighbors’ livelihoods, are taking a serious hit from the numerous cancellations. We need to patronize their businesses.

We need to order takeout when we are social distancing; we need to find a way to visit the grocery store without exposing our elders to higher risk. (Maybe the local smaller stores can offer telephone orders for pickup.)

To feel secure in patronizing local business, we need to have faith that they’re taking this crisis as seriously as we are. That they are committed to the high standards required to minimize the spread of the virus.

That includes requiring workers involved with food service to stay home at the first sign of a respiratory symptom.

If a local fund is needed to help businesses implement these extraordinary measures, I would certainly contribute to it. And I suspect many others would join me.

(This post appeared as a column in the Fayette County Record in March, 2020.)

Sunday, March 22, 2020

So Much Noise


Daily in this election year the personal and political portions of life have become difficult to separate. President Trump dominates the airwaves and the dialogue, as his Tweets are disseminated further on every newscast.

Political news is everywhere we look—in restaurants, doctors’ offices, my phone’s notification stream. A conversation with friends too quickly slips into one that betrays what one thinks about the man, negative or positive. Friends are lost.

We are being slowly herded into personal silence.

Historically, silence has been a tool of dictators and autocrats. In other countries we have seen repressions, arrests of political opponents, executions—literal silencings.

Now that social media can be manipulated toward political ends, however, we have an alternative, the silencing that results from overkill. From political noise.

We Americans are not used to a constant political bleat, at least not in between election campaigns.

This orchestrated noise affects our health as well as our sense of well-being. We react to the shock of daily news—melting ice caps, the novel coronavirus, Australia burning, earthquakes, floods, as well as the usual death and destruction in the Middle East. Politicians threaten Medicare, a literal lifeline for older citizens, and the news is hidden in the noise, if not twisted.

Small wonder that studies along with anecdote confirm a rise in popular anxiety following the election of 2016. Blood pressures—easy to measure—rose. Medical complaints referring to anxiety increased, as did prescriptions for anti-depressants.

Opting out of Facebook and Twitter is one way people cope, but that complies with the goal of political noise—to silence coherent discussion and the ability to communicate freely.

The excuse for leaving social media is the stridency of argument and personal attack it allows. Both sides—Left and Right—engage in this.

Republicans, however, have displayed greater skill at the strategic use of new technology. Their supporters are better at amplifying a targeted message from the coordinated set of megaphones they have positioned throughout the public sphere.

It has required many years—decades—of Movement Conservatism, lavishly funded, to create this network, the right-wing messaging universe: Talk radio, FOX News, numerous internet-linked interest groups, message boards, along with bot banks that spread false information. (“Political Bots and the Right-Wing Hijacking Of Social Media,” WBUR, May 18, 2017)

The manipulation of text and videos by technology has made it even harder to isolate even a manifest truth. This is another aspect of the engineered political noise intended to silence us.

We hear a lot of commentary on underrepresented voices, silenced voices. Often this refers to segments of society overlooked by the nattering cohort of coastal pundits, mainstream and right-wing.

But what about self-silencing?

That’s what we do when we pull out of social media. Or when we avoid discussion and the opportunity of listening to our neighbors.

It’s also what we do by slicing the views of candidates and issues too finely, then defending our slice as though it were home territory.

We see the result of that reaction in the Democratic debates where, except for longtime socialist independent Bernie Sanders, so many presidential candidates vary so little in basic convictions. Democratic heads don’t wear white or black hats. They wear hues of gray, pink, purple—well, a rainbow of nuanced positions.

The election to date, however, shows how those nuances can add up to fragmentation. The Democratic Party is divided into rough-edged parts. Although those parts interpenetrate, they do not blend into one mass, moving in unison behind one candidate. At least, not yet.

And it becomes harder for them to find that unifying catalyst in the presence of so much noise.