Saturday, March 20, 2021

A Retrospective, of sorts

Yesterday I got my second Pfizer Covid 19 vaccine shot.  So in either 2 weeks (via CDC guidelines) or 1 week (via Pfizer guidelines) I will be fully vaccinated.  That is good news and I am thankful for that.  But I can't decide what that really means for me.  After a year of life being on hold, what activities will I actually resume?  What degree of "normal" will I be comfortable with and how soon?  I really don't know and I don't know how to know.  That got me thinking about the past year and the future.

By chance, I happened to watch a video this afternoon that really just had an affect on me.  It actually brought a little tear to my eye (full disclosure, if you know me, you know that's not especially hard to do).  The video was of Hozier singing Bridge Over Troubled Water last June in a dark, empty stadium with a socially distanced orchestra playing.  And while I still ultimately prefer the original Simon and Garfunkel version of the song, to me, this version just seemed to so embody this past year - the darkness, the emptiness, the distance, but also the message of the song, that you have someone there for you in the darkness.  It was just very moving.

I can't help but wonder, when I look back on this time in my life, how will I remember it?  If my grandchildren ask me what it was like to live through the Covid 19 pandemic (because they will likely all be too young to really remember it for themselves), what will I tell them?  I would love to be able to show them that video, and maybe I will be able to. There has been a lot of darkness and uncertainty, with more yet to come, I'm sure.  But there have also been points of light.  While we lost my mother-in-law to Covid in January, we also found out we are going to have another grandchild this coming August.  While we have lost a whole year of being able to visit with one granddaughter, and much fewer visits with our other granddaughter, my husband and I have grown even closer than we were before the pandemic started.  In many ways we've been able to return to what our relationship was in the beginning, when we first met and fell in love, and that has been a wonderful blessing.

Also, one year ago yesterday, I wrote a post about putting the pandemic's death toll numbers in perspective with other causes of death.  According to the New York Times, as of today the US death toll stands at 541,037, which puts it within the estimated range given a year ago, and stands at slightly less than the 2017 total for cancer deaths.  Somewhat interesting to look back at, for whatever it's worth.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Reality is a Jar of Almonds

This is my new attitude about life: Reality is a Jar of Almonds!  Now I recognize that, on the surface of things, this assertion makes no sense, which would probably be sufficient in and of itself to explain life, but I do have an explanation.  The explanation is rooted in logical fallacies, mindfulness, and Whose Line is it Anyway?.

So here we go.  I have a tendency toward assuming that when I look at a situation I can explain it in one of two ways, or maybe three ways (usually somewhere in between), and that one of those ways must be correct.  This type of thinking employs one, or two, logical fallacies.  When I assume that there are only two options, I'm engaging in the "black or white" fallacy (aka false dilemma or false dichotomy).  If I allow for a third option that is somewhere in between, I am undoubtedly falling prey to the "middle ground" fallacy.

The truth of the matter is that reality is so much more complex than I can imagine. This is where mindfulness comes into the picture.  In the book Mindfulness of Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn that I have (partially) read, the author states, 

We can feel victimized by our thoughts, or blinded by them.  We can easily mis-take [sic] them for the truth or for reality when in actuality they are just waves on its surface, however tumultuous they may be at times. (p. 36)

When looking at a problem or situation, there are undoubtedly factors that I have not taken into consideration at all that were actually contributing to whatever it is that I'm trying to understand.  I can't know it all, so I can't consider it all, therefore I will never fully understand the thing that I wish to understand.  This is a fact that I need to learn to deal with, but it's not easy. 

So how does this bring me to the assertion that reality is, in fact, a jar of almonds?  Well, that is where Whose Line is it Anyway? comes into the story.  There was an episode of the show where they were improvising a game of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?.  Brad Sherwood, in the role of quiz-master, asks Ryan Stiles a question, followed by four possible answers, in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? fashion.  But he then suggest that Ryan can go off the board and choose option E - a jar of almonds.  

So when I am trying to remind myself that I don't have all the information and my hypothetical explanations don't cover all the options, my new shorthand is to simply remind myself that reality is a jar of almonds - that alternate explanation that I never even thought of.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

2020 Reading List

As we all know, 2020 was not a good year.  For many people, it might have been a good year for reading.  For me, it was better than last year (with only 9 books), but I still had long stretches when I wasn't reading.  Apparently reading was not my coping mechanism any more than sewing was.  I'm not sure I really had a coping mechanism, but I made it through the year in one piece, so that's at least something.  Without further ado, here is my 2020 reading list.

Books

  1. No Escape Claws - Sofie Ryan
  2. Civil War Sampler - Barbara Brackman
  3. Sojourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman - Patricia C. & Fredrick McKissack
  4. Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History - Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
  5. Alabama: One Big Front Porch - Kathryn Tucker Windham
  6. Claw Enforcement - Sofie Ryan
  7. Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier
  8. Tongues of Flame - Mary Ward Brown
  9. The Boyfriend School - Sarah Bird
  10. Lady Susan - Jane Austen

Short Stories

  1. "Neighbor Rosicky" & "The Sculptor's Funeral" - Willa Cather
  2. "A White Heron" - Sarah Orne Jewett
  3. "Babylon Revisited" - F. Scott Fitzgerald
  4. "Rip Van Winkle" & "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" - Washington Irving
  5. "Young Goodman Brown" & "The Maypole of Merry Mount" - Nathaniel Hawthorne
  6. "Rappaccini's Daughter" & "Bartleby the Scrivener" - Herman Melville
  7. "My Contraband" - Louisa May Alcott
  8. "The Queen of Spades" - Alexander Pushkin
  9. "A Simple Heart" - Gustave Flaubert

Four out of the first 5 books were read for Women's History Month.  

The last two books were read because of watching the movie version of the books. 

I got caught up on my Sofie Ryan series.  

I read Rebecca because it was on a list somewhere, but I forget what list or why I was reading said list.

Tongues of Flame is a collection of short stories that I read as an undergraduate and wanted to reread it.  It also led to reading the non-collected short stories, which I read with my husband (a retired literature professor).  I was thinking that I might want to try to write some short stories, but I never did.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Fear and healthy respect

Things are really getting to me.  The funny thing for me is that my life really hasn't changed that much because of the pandemic.  Before all this started, I went out a little more than I do now, but not much.  My life was mostly spent at home with the people who live in my house, and it still is.  But all the uncertainty has really begun to weigh on my mind.  I find myself doing COVID-19  math with Alabama's numbers and the US numbers -  what percentage has been tested, what percentage of those tested are testing positive, what percentage of those testing positive are dying.  The percentage are relatively small (for Alabama they are 2%, 7%, and 3% respectively), but somehow that still isn't comforting. 

I wish that we could transition from fear (or denial) to a healthy respect for the virus and the situation.  I wish that I knew what activities were actually safe and which weren't.  Is it really okay to get take-out from a restaurant?  Am I really safe if I wear a mask in public and wash or sanitize my hands once I'm out of public?  Does wiping down my groceries really do any good?  But with so little reliable information out there it seems difficult to know, so fear remains the dominant emotion and healthy respect is difficult to achieve. For society as a whole it seems even more difficult, with some groups in total denial of gravity of situation and, as with most things these days, people's opinions being influenced by their political inclinations. 

I know that in general, people just want things to return to normal as quickly as possible, but as my priest said earlier in the pandemic, things won't go back to normal.  There will be a new normal, which is, as of yet, unknown.  Unknown is hard to deal with, at least for me.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Putting things in perspective

As I've mentioned here before, I have generalized anxiety disorder.  One way that I try to combat my anxiety is to put things into perspective.  That's not always easy to do, mind you, but I try.  With all the fear and speculation swirling around due to the coronavirus (SARS CoV2) and it's resulting illness (COVID 19), my brain has been tending to waffle between "It'll be okay" and "We're all going to die."  So in order to deal with that, I've been looking at some numbers to try to put things into perspective.  Here is what I have found.

A New York Times article from March 13, 2020 reports a possible US death toll for the virus ranging from 200,000 to 1.7 million people,
Between 160 million and 214 million people in the United States could be infected over the course of the epidemic, according to a projection that encompasses the range of the four scenarios. That could last months or even over a year, with infections concentrated in shorter periods, staggered across time in different communities, experts said. As many as 200,000 to 1.7 million people could die.
These are disturbing numbers, no doubt.  The article does, however, say that these numbers were from the end of February and do not take into account the measures currently being applied to mitigate the situation.

Taking these numbers as my guide, I started looking at some statistics.  The most recent absolute numbers I could find for US mortality on the CDC website were for 2018.  In 2018, the total mortality in the US from all causes was 2,839,205 (source).  This is an increase over the previous year and our death rate has continued to increase, slightly, from 2008 to the present, according to Macrotrends.net.  For a breakdown of the numbers among the top 10 leading causes of death, I had to look at the 2017 numbers (no idea why those are the most recent on the CDC website).  These are the numbers I found:
Heart Disease = 647,457
Cancer = 599,108
Accidents = 169,936
Chronic lower respiratory disease = 160,201
Stroke = 146,383
Alzheimer's = 121,404
Diabetes = 83,564
Flu & Pneumonia = 55,633
Kidney disease = 50,633
Suicide = 47,173

A little perspective.  The lower number of the estimate (200,000) would be more than those who died in accidents, but less than those who died of cancer or heart disease.  If it was the higher of the estimated numbers, it would be comparable, though slightly below, the total of the top 5 causes of death combined.  These are all staggering numbers, but at least now I have a little perspective of what those numbers actually mean.

I did find another article, this one from the Washington Post dated March 11, 2020, that had a much wider range in its estimate.
His team put together a simple table that looks at various scenarios using case fatality ratios ranging from .1, similar to seasonal flu, to .5, a moderately severe pandemic, and 1.0, a severe one. The infection rate ranged from 0.1 percent of the population to 50 percent. That put the range of deaths at 327 (best case) to 1,635,000 (worst case). The deaths would not necessarily happen over a month or a year, but could occur over two or three years, he said.
What struck me (other than the wildly lower best case numbers) were that these deaths could take place over a period of 2 to 3 years.  If it were the worst case scenario numbers but over 3 years, it would actually make it lower than the number of death from heart disease in that same period.  Still a terrible loss of life, and I'm a firm believer in the "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee" philosophy.

Hopefully a little perspective will help me to keep calm and carry on.  But as Douglas Adam suggested, the last thing a person really needs is perspective...
[Upon putting his wife into his newly created "Total Perspective Vortex"] To Trin Tragula's horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.  (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe p. 77)

Saturday, January 18, 2020

2019 book list

Here we are again, halfway through January, and I'm just now getting around to posting my meager book list from 2019.  Over all, 2019 felt like a lost year.  My husband needed cancer surgery and radiation treatments.  There were multiple visits to family out of state.  It seemed like there was very little time for enjoyable pursuits.  Here's to better things in 2020.  So now, without further ado, the list of books I read in 2019.

The Story of the Trapp Family Singer - Maria Augusta Trapp (the inspiration for The Sound of Music)
The Weans - Robert Nathan
Ghostly Paws - Leighann Dobbs
Island of Time - Barbara Kent Lawrence
The Gospel According to Mark - New Revised Standard Version (yes, the book of the Bible)
Good Omens - Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman
The Other Island: Ben's Story - Barbara Kent Lawrence
A Tale of Two Kitties - Sofie Kelly
The Cats Came Back - Sofie Kelly

I found the Trapp Family Singers book very inspiring, but little like the movie, really.
The Weans was something I remembered hearing about when I was an undergrad in college and read it on the airplane flying to visit family in Washington.  It was a bit disappointing and very short.
Ghostly Paws was also disappointing.  A little too much magic and too little logic.
Island of Time and The Other Island were sort of two sides to the same story.  I liked Islands of Time better.
Reading St. Mark's gospel was my Lenten discipline for 2019.  It was interesting.
I read Good Omens because of the Amazon Prime series (starring David Tennant) based on the novel.  I enjoyed and finished the novel.  Less so for the series - we didn't finish watching it.
The two Sofie Kelly novels were the latest installments in the Magical Cats series that I have been reading for the past few years.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

A Few Words About Walls

"People have been building walls all through history.  Why do you assume walls don't work?"  This is a question I've seen asked recently on Facebook (I'd provide a link, but I can't find the post).  Here is my answer.

First and foremost, walls in history have usually been built primarily for military purposes - to stop military invasions.  One very famous wall that sometimes gets mentioned is the Great Wall of China.  This is what China Travellers website has to say about the purpose of that wall:
The Great Wall of China was built to protect China from its enemies and invaders from the North, especially the Mongols. The Mongols were a tribal group that would regularly conduct raids into China. Despite the wall, the Mongols eventually conquered China. The Wall also kept Chinese citizens from leaving China.
I would draw your attention to the fact that "Despite the wall, the Mongols eventually conquered China." It was big, and beautify, and ultimately didn't work.

Another example of a wall built for military purposes is the Maginot Line between France and Germany.  Built after WWI, this wall was supposed to deter another German invasion of France.  And while the wall itself was well made and strong, it obviously didn't stop the Germans from invading in WWII.  In fact, it was so unsuccessful in producing its ultimate goal that it has become synonymous with a false sense of security.  In fact, Merriam-Webster defines Maginot Line as follows:
1 : a line of defensive fortifications built before World War II to protect the eastern border of France but easily outflanked by German invaders
2 : a defensive barrier or strategy that inspires a false sense of security
These walls were built primarily for defensive, military purposes and they ultimately failed.  So let's look at a wall that was built primarily for immigration purposes - the Berlin Wall.  The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to stop people from leaving East Berlin for West Berlin.  According to Wikipedia:
Before the Wall's erection, 3.5 million East Germans circumvented Eastern Bloc emigration restrictions and defected from the GDR, many by crossing over the border from East Berlin into West Berlin; from there they could then travel to West Germany and to other Western European countries. Between 1961 and 1989 the Wall prevented almost all such emigration.[7]
Ah ha!  A successful wall you say.  Yes, it was a successful wall, but it was also a very well guarded wall. Again from wikipedia:
The barrier included guard towers placed along large concrete walls,[4] accompanied by a wide area (later known as the "death strip") that contained anti-vehicle trenches, "fakir beds" and other defenses.
It was also only approximately 87 miles long.  Trump is asking for a much longer wall to be built - anywhere from 234 miles to 1000 miles according to a report from cnbc.com. And even the very effective Berlin Wall was not perfect.  Going back to the Wikipedia article:
During this period over 100,000[6] people attempted to escape and over 5,000 people succeeded in escaping over the Wall, with an estimated death toll ranging from 136[8] to more than 200[9][6] in and around Berlin.
And let us not forget who wanted that wall torn down.  I believe it was the much revered (in some circles) Ronald Reagan who famously said "Tear Down This Wall."   In the late 1980s, a wall built for retarding illegal immigration was seen as a threat to freedom and liberty.  So why is one such a good idea now?

These are some examples of why I assume walls don't work and are a bad idea.  Where there is a will, there's a way.  People will always find a way around, over, through, or under a wall.  Building a wall doesn't get to the root of the problem, it just spends a lot of time, money and effort to reroute the problem. 

Let us remember also that walls in the past have not just been built to keep people out, but also to keep people in.  I'm reminded of "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost, in which he says:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.
And, as Reinette (aka Madame De Pompadour) reminds us in "The Girl in the Fireplace" episode of Doctor Who:
A door once opened may be stepped through in either direction.
A wall, once built, blocks passage from both directions. Think about it.