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.

Is it...Cedar Fever?

Every year about this time we start to sneeze and cough. We probably includes you. 

This year in our household I went first, two days after book club met. I had the classic symptoms of a flu-like illness. Raw throat, headache, mild body aches, fever--101, 102, unusual for me, but not truly high. We did have our flu shots, of course, for whatever benefit that provides. 

This process is not unfamiliar to us. Year before last, I spent four months with bronchitis, passing it back and forth to my husband, at that time 96 years old. 

This year, too, he caught my bug. After one good week of blowing, hawking, mild fatigue--all the delightful attributes of cold season--he was well. 

I, however, still had it, phase 2. Deep bronchial cough, fatigue. Ick. Four weeks of it, now, at this writing.

Is that what’s going on? Or…I can hear what you’re thinking.

Cedar fever. 

A popular term this year, which has apparently been a humdinger for such allergies. 

Maybe that would be preferable in some ways, despite the weeks of misery. 

If I had cedar fever and not a nasty bronchitis or RSV or rhinovirus, then I could go out in public and sneeze and cough to my heart’s content without the fear that I would be exposing the universe to these weeks of discomfort. 

That’s what most of us do, isn’t it? Most of us whomp down a decongestant or antihistamine and carry on with our business. We’re all so busy, now.

If we’re wrong, though--if it isn’t an allergy--we are shedding virus for days at a time. Infecting everyone we come near, especially older people or children. 

At least, in the grip of flu, most of us feel rotten enough to stay home.  

But in the early days of a cold or other respiratory bug, we can’t tell what we have. We work off probabilities. 

Allergy-prone folks assume it’s an allergy until it proves otherwise. Non-allergy-prone people assume it’s a virus. 

Then what? 

Some of us cannot take decongestants or antihistamines because of medical conditions, including high blood pressure. My husband is one of these. 

Also, he is a cancer survivor twice and 98 years old. When you cough on him in public, or onto his food, you may be signing a death warrant. 

I do think about things like that. It’s one reason I am an obsessive hand-washer. 

Like him, I’m unable to use those symptom relievers, not even codeine to help the cough. For me, public exposure means the loss of at least a month of healthy, productive life, if not more. It is a cost I’d like to avoid. 

But how? What can I do to avoid it? What can you do?  

Wash your hands; use alcohol-based hand sanitizers; cough into your elbow; be mindful of symptoms and stay home through the shedding period when you have a virus. Use video or conference call technology to attend that important meeting.

 (Suggest to your boss that his bottom line will improve if one sick employee is not obliged to spread her virus to all the other employees. A sick person isn’t doing high quality work, anyway.) 

No solution is perfect, though. In the case of a cold-type illness, we shed virus for two days before symptoms begin. And the early symptoms are so confusing we can’t really be sure, can we? 

So the best we can do is to care. Pay attention. Check symptoms with your doctor or on the internet (WebMD, Mayo Clinic are good sites). Check for fever. (Usually cedar fever doesn’t elevate temperature, at least at first.) 

And be mindful in public. All over the world we see people wearing masks to protect themselves and others from airborne toxins. It isn't such a bad idea, is it?

(Note: A version of this appeared in the Fayette County Record in late January, 2020.)

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Great Holiday Migration

They’re coming. You’re going.

Doors locked. House plants watered. Schemes in place for avoiding the worst of it.

America on wheels, in the air.

A week of normal life grinding down. And labor increasing.

Travelling with little kids, stuffing them into snowsuits, packing shorts and sandals.

Or you, the oldsters, dragging creaking bones and rolling suitcases down airport corridors, dodging counterparts.

They’re all coming to your house. Old and young. Red and Blue. Strangers in some sense, now, because they’re living so far away. New York. Thailand. Dallas.

What will you talk about?

Or maybe it’s not your house. Maybe it’s your apartment. Or your condo in a retirement facility.

Maybe it’s their house, say your son’s. We have learned by now that sons are different from daughters.

If it’s your house, you will control the food. That is, your expectations will control it. No?

Maybe it’s your vision of their expectations—the pumpkin pie, the cornbread dressing, the green bean casserole and candied “yams.” The inevitable turkey, gravy and canned cranberry sauce.

They rely on this, the scent of home, the memories.

Well, they must be relying on something, wanting something, hoping, or they wouldn’t make this Herculean effort. Enduring this stressful, maddening travel week, or part of it. Hazarded by weather and crowds.

This is the price we pay for breaking the bonds of family by living half a continent apart. Half a world.

And so much time unspooling between us.

Even if we’re just driving from Houston or Austin to LaGrange, or from Katy to Round Top, the holidays are the closest we have to time travel. With each mile we slip on the skin of an earlier self, with all the insecurities we thought we were finished with.

You present to your parents their grandchildren, eight inches or a foot taller than the last time they saw them, talking of characters from Pokemon Go. Chatting in newly acquired Spanish vocabulary, ages 4 and 7. Wow. That’s some school they go to!

We used to drive less than five minutes to Grand’mere’s house. We used to see each other for Sunday dinner. We used to know each other, didn’t we—even though we might argue, or think one cousin was a bit stuck on himself?

Now we go back home from wherever we live, and it’s no wonder that people fall into their old roles. Their present selves don’t have any other way to communicate. No one can see their present selves, anyway, for the sluffed off skins they’ve reattached.

It’s tragic that Granny and Opa aren’t a larger part of their lives. Continuity is lost, connection is lost. Identity is blurred. They may not understand this, yet. They’re not old enough.

Sure, divorce caused some of this division, but the urgency of contemporary life bears a lot of blame. Corporations move families without a second thought. Jobs in reliable industries disappear abroad, leaving the formerly secure family scrambling. Both parents work. Some want to. Most have to.

Technology keeps them connected to one boss or another 24/7. No time for leisure. No time for reflection, thought, creativity.

Even so, they’re scurrying down holiday highways, across time zones, so everyone can gather around what still pretends to be the family table for a meal no one really loves—except for the bits that were their favorites. And—whatever kind of pie is on your plate—dessert carries the flavor of our bittersweet mortality.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Those Pesky Norms

In school I hated the concept of “norms.” They were wishy-washy, hard to pin down, hard to define clearly. We were studying civics and the teacher was explaining that our country was governed by norms as well as laws. I wanted nice, clear laws to memorize. Norms required me to think, I suppose, and like many teenagers I felt that was a lot of unnecessary work.

Lately I find myself revisiting the concept. My dictionary says a norm is “an authoritative standard; a principle of right action binding upon the members of a group and serving to guide, control or regulate proper and acceptable behavior.”

For example, honor your parents. Keep your word. Don’t hurt pets. Respect your neighbor. Don’t commit adultery. The Ten Commandments reflect normative belief.

Norms are even more numerous than that, though. They’re everywhere. They’re all the things I’d been taught from toddlerhood. Things I should and shouldn’t do to be a responsible adult. They rise out of a common understanding among the people of a community. They allow us to get along with each other.

And, unless formalized into laws, they have no “teeth.” They’re enforced only by the reaction of the affected community to behavior that shatters the values its members hold in common.

Far from being less important than laws, they’re the actual fabric of civilization.

Our representative system of government reflects this fact. It is organized from small community to large in the way that allows the best reflection of the norms of each voting pool.

It’s a very cool system.

The president represents everybody, the largest voting pool, and the place where many nuances of belief are distilled, because of variety, into the clearest norms—basic norms of behavior with which nearly everybody agrees, regardless of religion or heritage.

Such as, stand by your word. Abide by the law. Don’t lie. Do not steal from the public purse. Act honorably in all transactions. These are only a few of them, and they seem simple. It’s the society that has become complex.

I’ve been shocked to realize how much of our daily governance depends on norms instead of laws. Even the balance of power between our three branches of government relies on normative agreement as well as legal.

They provide a necessary stability.

This matters to me personally because my retirement nest egg is dependent upon the reputation and stability of the United States.

So is yours, most likely.

Our economy depends on agreements where our word as a nation must be trusted. Spoken word and written word. The higher up you go in the government, the more every syllable is weighed and judged by the business people at home and abroad. Decisions are made accordingly.

Once trust is lost, it can be re-established only with the greatest difficulty. If ever.

To say that norms can be swept away without negative consequence when they complicate an elected official’s exercise of power is to invite economic and social chaos. Look at Crimea, Venezuela, Syria, Yemen.

Our system, which has been the best in the world, works well only if both officials and voters understand the basic values supporting our civilization and refuse to compromise when they are ignored.

This post first appeared as my column in the Fayette County Record, Nov. 2019

Thursday, September 26, 2019

What's the Rush?

The calendar says September, but the thermometer still says August loud and clear.

The fields that aren’t torn up with pipeline excavation or well pads are filled with the wildflower known as “snow on the prairie.” Look for it at dusk when the cooling illusion is most beautiful.

Beauty is a necessary thing, I’ve decided. And for us—human beings—it is a potent medicine. Even more than that, its absence creates a slow growing dis-ease. 

Don’t you feel it, this pervasive uneasiness?

Everywhere we drive now in Fayette County, we feel the land hurting. Cows huddle under shade trees at 8AM. The sere pasture next door wears a painful slash, fifteen feet deep, and beside it piles of spoil. At the bottom of the trench, there are lengths of pipe, newly set. The men nearby are working in 100 degree weather and relentless sun. Who will do that work if the temperature keeps rising?

The junkiness that gas exploration, industrial development and transient retail bring to our peaceful landscape isn’t given a price tag. But it exacts a cost. 

Recent reports confirm a large increase in anxiety-related illness since 2016. But we already knew that, didn’t we?

Abruptly, it seems, we find so little to rely on. The people and routines we thought worked well have vanished.

Business rushes to replace them with the latest technology. My favorite is the portable card reader that malfunctions half the time.

We get pressure from our banks—the big ones, that is—to pay bills online, in interfaces that buck and pitch on a good day. Or, if that’s too complicated, you can just scan your check. Hmm. And wait for the massive data breach that’s sure to come?

Does that help us feel secure and comfy?

The Baby Boomers are aging in a large indigestible lump throughout the economy. Precisely at the time when reflexes are slowing and eyes are developing “issues,” business decides to speed things up. Put half their operations and all their communications on a screen in 8 point type.

My car dealership outside Houston just fired (or reassigned) the service manager with whom I’ve worked for fifteen years. “All the old guys are gone,” I said to the very young man who took his place. “Yeah,” he said cheerfully. “Too slow.”

What’s the hurry, folks? What’s this finish line we’re so eager to reach?

The other evening I came out of a meeting into an extraordinary sky. The meeting room sits on a hill. When I stepped out of the door, I felt space open in front of me and above it sky, framed in tall trees.
Shades of soft blue and pink rose beside a dappled gray thunderhead, and at the top, just off center, the slice of new moon. What my son used to call a “fingernail moon.”

I was alone for a few moments while Beauty flowed into me. Time slowed.

We are so starved for Beauty. Our souls are pinched by its absence. With every desecration of our landscape, of the scenic charm that brings visitors to patronize our businesses, our souls shrivel a little.

You may not like that I use the word, “soul,” but what else is it that blooms inside me when I allow a field of flowering snow in September or a sunset sky to fill me up? What else can it be?

I can tell you this: it is the same part of us that dies a little in the presence of grief. 

There’s so much cause for grief around us, now. Horrific wrecks on the roadways, mass shootings, children and parents damaged by hurricanes and border policies, landowners losing the peaceful enjoyment of their land for the rest of their lives. 

In a broader view, artic ice melts, the Amazon rainforest burns. The globe warms, bringing with it the prospect of mass extinctions.

Grief is a logical response.

We are bequeathing the Age of Loneliness to our children.

Why are we in such a hurry to get there?