Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Get your shot — please

February 22, 2021

Millions around the country struggle with non-user-friendly systems, desperately trying to schedule their covid vaccinations. While millions of others refuse the shot.

First, about those scheduling systems. Forcing people to battle for appointments, which are often distant, or unavailable, is simply crazy. Disadvantaging those not computer savvy — and especially, as ever, the poor and minorities. Instead, let’s have everyone just register, with their details. Then let the system dole out appointments, as available, in some rational order, and notify people by phone or email. Problem solved. Why aren’t we doing it that way?

Part of it is that while Trump was all self-praise about the rapid vaccine development, he totally flubbed planning for its distribution. The Biden administration seems to be doing far better getting shots into people. It’s a race against the virus, with new strains more contagious and likely more injurious, thus threatening a lot more carnage before it’s beaten.

The more people who are vaccinated — or immune after infection — the slower the spread will be, because each virus in the air has fewer potential victims. If it doesn’t find one, it dies. At some point available targets become so scarce the disease is stymied. That’s “herd immunity.” The quicker we attain it, by vaccinating enough people, the lower the death toll will be, and the sooner we can renormalize.

This is why your vaccination is crucial. Not only protecting you personally, but helping our whole country defeat this problem. Masks and social distancing are also very important, likewise blocking covid’s ability to infect people and hastening its end.

We know about the covidiots sabotaging us by refusing to wear masks. Claiming an infringement of their freedom. Like obeying a Stop sign infringes your freedom. You don’t have “freedom” to behave in ways that endanger others.

Now we’re also seeing too many people shunning the vaccine, especially in minority communities. This is a very serious problem that threatens us all — delaying herd immunity and a return to normalish life, it will needlessly kill many thousands.

First of course you’ve got anti-vaxxers who oppose vaccines altogether — their views are scientifically bunk. One corner of the wave of internet craziness that’s so ruinous. But covid vaccine resistance goes far beyond those loopy precincts.

Partly it’s that the messages we get from experts may seem confusing. They’re naturally cautious and try to properly hedge what they tell us, creating an unduly convoluted picture. One key thing is being told that vaccinated people may still be infectious so still must take precautions like masking. Leading some to think (wrongly) there’s no point in getting the vaccine.

Here’s the story. Vaccination won’t completely eliminate your chances of getting infected, or infecting others, but it will drastically reduce them. And when we’re told a vaccine is, like, 90% effective, that’s also easily misinterpreted. It does not mean simply that 90% of people getting the shot are protected, and 10% aren’t. Instead, it means that comparing vaccinated versus unvaccinated people, the latter are about ten times likelier to get infected. But even that understates the benefit, because those few vaccinated people who do get infected have much milder symptoms, compared to the unvaccinated average. Their chance of dying is virtually nil. And furthermore, if you do infect another person, they too would likely suffer much less than otherwise.

Another concern is vaccine safety. Some people distrustful because of the rushed development. It was indeed done remarkably fast — but only because the urgency was so extreme, hence enormous resources were devoted to it. That should instill confidence in the result. And these vaccines have been tested thoroughly — those responsible could not have dared risk the repercussions of cutting corners. Nor could the government authorities approving vaccine use.

So are the risks zero? Of course not, nothing ever has zero risk. But one must rationally weigh risks against benefits. Here, clearly, the chances of a serious adverse reaction to a covid shot are exceedingly small. By now millions have been inoculated and there don’t seem to be any cautionary stories. Surely any dangers from vaccination are vastly smaller than the threat of serious illness or death from covid, against which the vaccine provides much protection.

Don’t be a covidiot. Get your shot. Please.

The Plague

February 17, 2021

It starts with rats, coming out, bloodily dying, all over. Of course it’s the plague. Literally; the Bubonic Plague, the Black Death that devastated Europe in the 14th century. In the 20th it hits the French Algerian city of Oran, in the famous Albert Camus 1947 novel, The Plague. Having a new vogue now, and one of my book groups chose it, for obvious reasons.

Camus based his depiction on an actual cholera epidemic striking Oran a century before. Philosophically, Camus has been called an “absurdist,” believing that our lives always ending in death makes them fundamentally absurd; yet it’s up to us to nevertheless make of them what we will. Here, the capriciousness of plague death highlights the absurdity, while the characters do what they can to combat it, imbuing them with a valiant power. 

The main protagonist is a doctor, Bernard Rieux, in the forefront of the struggle, doing his best to cope under terrible strain. As the death toll inexorably rises, the walled city is closed off, no one allowed in or out. Many separated from loved ones. Supplies run short. Naturally it’s hard to maintain a semblance of normal life. (The Covid restrictions we’re enduring seem tame in comparison.)

Rambert is a journalist, caught accidentally in Oran. He deems it unfair, having no real connection to the town but now imprisoned with the rest, aching to get back to his distant beloved. But all his pleas for an exemption fail. Desperation leads him to shady characters to smuggle him out for a price. There follows an opera buffa of missed connections. And when escape at last does seem imminent, so much time has passed that Rambert changes his mind, now feeling he does belong here. He settles in to help fight the plague. 

When it’s finally defeated, Rambert is reunited with his love, embracing on a railway platform. But it’s not so simple a happy ending. Life is a flow, and like a river, is never really the same even from one moment to another. We cannot totally return to what existed before, when it’s interrupted by something like a plague. But even without such a dramatic discontinuity, we never can anyway. Rambert realizes this when hugging his gal. Likewise for us, Covid-19 will prove to have changed everything forever. 

Then there’s old Monsieur Grand. A drone of a clerk in the municipal administration. He’s not good with words, struggling to express himself. That scuppered his long-ago youthful marriage; his wife gave up on his inexpressiveness and left. 

For many years since, Grand’s had a secret pastime. Turns out to be a literary endeavor. Odd for a man short on words. Yet he’s striving for a work that will be greeted by “Hats off!” Eventually he shares with Rieux and others at least the first sentence, on which he’s been obsessing forever, struggling for perfection, each of its words in turn getting agonizing attention. 

Grand falls ill. Seems dying. Shows Rieux the full manuscript — found to contain nothing but that lone sentence in all its endless permutations. Burn it, Grand commands, so forcefully that Rieux complies. 

But then Grand surprisingly recovers. It’s okay, he assures Rieux — he can remember the line. And later, when the plague is over, amid the rejoicing, he relates that he’s now simply eliminated all the adjectives he’d struggled over. And that he’s written to his ex-wife. 

The character I found most compelling, strangely enough, is the old Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux. Struggling to reconcile Oran’s travail with his Christian faith. In a big sermon, he calls the plague “the flail of God” whirling over the city, comeuppance for insufficient faith. Oran now learning the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah. The sermon doesn’t go over well. The citizens really don’t feel like bigtime sinners. 

But as the plague continues ramping up, as do efforts to combat it, with Father Paneloux joining in them, he has a rethink. He preaches another, rather different sermon. Instead of saying “you,” he now says “we.” Acknowledging that his previous scourging words lacked charity. Suggesting that the plague actually cannot be understood at all. In this, Paneloux was bitterly mindful of a child’s agonizing death he’d attended. 

What it all comes to, he says, is their arrival at a time of testing. “We must believe everything or deny everything.” Must accept the plague; accept that child’s torture. It’s not mere resignation, but actually embracing humiliation. Paneloux acknowledged preaching now a kind of fatalism, but an active fatalism. We cannot understand God’s will yet must make it ours. Otherwise we’re rejecting God. 

And Paneloux practiced what he preached. Soon falling sick himself, he refuses any sort of intervention that might have helped him. Without struggle, deeming it God’s will, he goes to his death. If he’s consoled by an expectation of Heaven, the book is conspicuously silent about that. 

Was Camus portraying Paneloux as some kind of saint? Certainly not. The plague does present a time of testing — it tests the idea of a God. For Paneloux, failure on that test is impossible. He’d rather die. But fail God does. Paneloux’s renunciation serves to demonstrate the incoherence of the belief system he struggled to make sense of. Our lives may ultimately be absurd, but less so without God.

Wear a mask — please

January 26, 2021

It’s not something being forced on you. It’s being asked of you. For your own health and safety, and everyone around you. Nobody has “freedom” to do as they please if it endangers others. That’s not “freedom,” it’s irresponsibility. Mask wearing is good citizenship. Good humanhood.

Do we really, at this point, still have to persuade anyone covid is no hoax? Where did that idea come from anyway? Over 400,000 American corpses disprove it. Many of them believers in the “hoax” lie, who didn’t wear masks, and paid for that mistake with their lives.

On one recent day I counted nine obituaries in the local paper citing covid as cause of death.

And this is not merely like the flu. I had that wrong idea myself at the beginning, but facts quickly changed my opinion. This is much deadlier than flu — and even many who survive go through hell first. And/or then suffer long term health impairments. Covid is also more contagious. Especially the more virulent British strain that recently evolved.

Developing vaccines so quickly is a fantastic achievement. However, it will take time to manufacture enough vaccine and inject enough people to achieve the “herd immunity” to finally defeat the virus. And that will be impeded, if not derailed, by many people refusing vaccination. Which makes no sense, because whatever you imagine (wrongly) are the vaccine’s risks, covid’s are surely far greater. As evidenced again by that mountain of corpses. No way could a vaccine kill that many people.

So that mountain will grow during the coming months. Probably by a lot. The time ahead could be the deadliest.

Masks can help tremendously. Our 400,000+ death toll would already have been far lower had America been more sensible about masks. They can still save a huge number of lives. One October 2020 study calculated that universal masking would prevent 130,000 U.S. deaths in just the ensuing three months.

It’s true that in the beginning experts gave mixed messages about masking. A big reason was a mask shortage raising concerns that widespread everyday use could cause health workers to go without. That’s no longer an issue. And the benefit of masking isn’t rocket science. We know now that covid is transmitted mainly by droplets coming out of noses and mouths and getting into other noses and mouths through the air. Masks help to block them both ways.

Okay, masks are no fun. A bit uncomfortable, a bit of a nuisance. But the notion of masks being somehow bad for your health is simply nonsense. To the contrary, they can literally save your life. Hundreds of thousands are walking around now because they did wear masks and thus didn’t get covid. Given that, calling mask wearing an  imposition is pretty silly. Death is a much bigger imposition.

America’s record on covid is much worse than most other rich countries. Of course that’s mainly because our government leadership was so abysmal — indeed, missing entirely for the last months while infection and death rates accelerated. The most obvious avoidable failure was the refusal to push masking — indeed, doing the opposite. Insane, really. The tragic legacy still bedevils us. A New York Times reporter recently wrote of a long road trip, with masks everywhere notable for their absence. Many places having signs up requiring masks, but they’re widely ignored. Violators getting no pushback. In fact there’s still much pushback when people are asked to wear masks. Bleating about their “freedom.” To be covidiots.

The good news is that most Americans — despite Trump — have been masking. But the bad news is that the minority who refuse are the cause of nearly all our covid infections and deaths. President Biden is asking for 100 days of masking. If every American complied, then by the end of that time, the virus would actually have virtually died out, being unable to infect anybody. Every non-masker will make it take longer. Please wear a mask. Please.

Caste: America’s deep problem

January 14, 2021

Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, about Blacks leaving the Jim Crow South, was inspiring. Her new book Caste is dispiriting.

Wilkerson defines caste as a cognitive system situating people in a social hierarchy, governing who’s on top and what others are deemed allowed to do. Captured in that old locution about Blacks “knowing their place.” She brackets America with the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany. Seeing this as the skeleton underlying America’s social architecture, analogized to the unseen programming imprisoning people in The Matrix, with only rare individuals able to realize it and free themselves.

So this isn’t just about race and racism. Nor does the word “class” cover it, referring to economic differences. Caste is a broader concept, concerning social status relationships. The ability of even the most degraded Whites to hold themselves above Blacks has been a crucial fact of American culture. Taking it away feels devastating to many, relegating them to the bottom.

Wilkerson posits “Eight Pillars” for a caste system:

1) Divine sanction. Blacks supposedly descended from Ham, one of Noah’s three sons, cursed by him (unjustly).

2) Heritability — people born unchangeably into their caste.

3) Regulating procreation to preserve caste boundaries.

4) A concept of purity versus pollution. Thus the “one drop of blood” rule concerning ancestry. I recalled Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! — where a plantation owner rejects his daughter’s suitor — not because he was already married — nor even the relationship being incestuous. The real reason: one drop.

5) Occupational segregation, exemplified in India, where caste dictates one’s work.

6) Dehumanization and stigma. Wilkerson details how Nazis and America’s slave system stripped victims of perceived humanity.

7) Terror as enforcement and control. To keep slaves in check, they were brutalized, even though this meant masters damaging their own property. Emancipation removed even that inhibiting factor. Thus lynchings.

8) Concepts of inherent superiority and inferiority. Each caste supposedly deserving its status.

Wilkerson gives a harrowing account of slavery’s U.S. history. While slavery has existed since civilization’s beginnings, in most cases victims bore no physical markers for their status. Thus it was subject to erasure. Even India’s rigid caste system is short on overt physical cues. But in America the visual distinctiveness of Blacks served to exacerbate their perceived low status and perpetuate it across generations.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah, the Nigerian protagonist says she never knew she was Black until she came to America. Wilkerson quotes a similar statement, likewise saying no European is “White” before coming here. She makes the familiar argument that these racial categories are not actually biological facts but social constructs. Human DNA is 99.9% identical. The supposed division into three “races” was always junk science, struggling to justify some sort of hierarchy among people based on immaterial variations. It’s nonsense to deem any human subgroup innately superior or inferior. And in any case “racial” characteristics are not distinct but blend into each other in a continuum of gradations. Some “Whites” are darker than some “Blacks.”

Yet these points seem at odds with Wilkerson’s argument about clear visual markers facilitating U.S. caste divisions. Those differences of skin color and other physical attributes are real enough. We know what we mean when saying someone is Black. And that, Wilkerson writes, is “the historic flash card to the public of how [Blacks] are to be treated, where they are expected to live, what kinds of position they are expected to hold,” and so forth.

She relates some humiliating personal experiences. In one, as a New York Times reporter, she went to a scheduled interview, and the guy wouldn’t accept who she was. Saying, “I must ask you to leave, I’m awaiting an important interview with the New York Times.”Reading of Wilkerson’s air travel indignities reaffirmed my eschewing First Class and its entitled jerks — but also reminded me of my white privilege. I’ve hated that term; believing it’s just normality; that the issue is really Black dis-privilege. But the book made me think about my running in airports and other public places — very risky if I weren’t white.

There is a large political dimension to all this. Wilkerson describes a film of Germans adulating Hitler. She says the Nazis needed masses falling under the spell, susceptible to propaganda giving them an identity to believe in. Seeing the same dynamic in Jim Crow’s brutalities, reflecting the “weaknesses of the human immune system.” Not speaking biologically, of course. She quotes psychologist Erich Fromm regarding one aspect of dominant caste mentality: “He is nothing, but if he can identify with his nation, or can transfer his personal narcissism to the nation, then he is everything.” And social theorist Takamichi Sakurai: “Group narcissism leads people to fascism . . . a fanatical fascist politics, and extreme racialism.” Fromm too pointed to Nazi Germany and (writing in 1964) the U.S. South. With the working class particularly susceptible — “eager to have a leader with whom it can identify.” And “the narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him.” Does this ring a bell?

Many of us imagined Obama’s election signified America finally graduating to post-racial nirvana. But the book discusses how it freaked out many Whites and actually triggered retrogression. Not just a backlash by bitter-enders, but a general heightening of White caste truculence. Before, dominance loss seemed hypothetical and distant. Now it felt real and present. Made worse by Obama being so obviously a superior person, confounding negative stereotypes about Blacks. The old hierarchy (in which Whites knew their place) seemingly turned upside down. Antipathy toward Blacks increased.

While liberals have long bemoaned working class people voting against their economic interests, many actually see their interests differently — putting caste status above other concerns. Viewing undeserving groups as getting ahead at their expense. And Republicans as representing White caste interests, while Democrats represent the groups threatening them.

Republicanism also reflects evangelicals’ abortion obsession. But that always seemed excessive. Now I wonder whether it’s a kind of displacement for something deeper: racial caste anxiety. I come back to Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor (in The Righteous Mindof the rider and elephant, representing the conscious and unconscious minds. The rider thinks they’re directing the elephant, but it’s really the other way around. Riders may believe they’re battling abortion — but are their subconscious elephants ruled by caste insecurity?

And Wilkerson says that while most White Americans disavow or even ostensibly oppose racism, so pervasive is Blacks’ stigmatization that 70-80% hold unconscious biases affecting their behavior without their even realizing it. She also thinks this lies behind America’s social ethos being harsher than in other advanced countries where people are more caring toward each other. Whom they see as fellow citizens, like themselves. America has, rather than such social solidarity, a deep resentment by the White dominant caste toward nonwhite others. Thus all the hostility toward social programs, again seen as unduly benefiting those (undeserving) others.

Wilkerson quotes historian Taylor Branch: given a choice between democracy and Whiteness, how many would choose the latter? And she similarly queries whether the U.S. will adhere to the principle of majority rule if the majority looks different. Some at least gave us an answer on January 6 when White supremacists carrying Confederate flags invaded the U.S. Capitol — something they never accomplished in 1863. Their caste defensiveness translating into nihilistic, anti-democratic, anti-rationalist Trumpism.

Wilkerson notes that Germany has no Nazi memorials, they’re ashamed about that history. There are neo-Nazis in America but not Germany. They have memorials to victims, and even pay compensation to them. My mother still gets a monthly check, having escaped the Nazis. But in my childhood, Jews’ own past history as a despised caste engendered no sense of solidarity with Black Americans. They were indeed considered below us in exactly the way Wilkerson describes.

Yet I believe most Americans have now progressed beyond that. Wilkerson’s interview anecdote seemed more bizarre than typical. That guy shamed himself, not her. Only a fool today would be thrown off by seeing a Black in any prestigious role.

Black Americans do still suffer from persistent after-effects of past subordination. America spent almost twice as long with slavery than without, and the societal impacts don’t disappear easily. Particularly fraught are Blacks’ interactions with police and the criminal justice system. But whereas in the past, such disparate treatment was accepted as normal, that is no longer true, with widespread public understanding that it’s wrong and needs fixing.

At one point Wilkerson refers to a coddling of Whites’ self-images “from cereal commercials to sitcoms.” Perhaps she doesn’t watch enough mainstream TV to realize that ads nowadays actually disproportionately feature Blacks. But many Whites have noticed. My 2017 blog post about this got more hits than any other, and way more comments — the vast majority expressing crude racist hatred. But they’re surely no representative sample of American sentiment.

When I see a Black person, I do see a likely descendant of slaves — but as part of recognizing something opposite to Wilkerson’s theme — the remarkable degree to which such people are normalized — integrated — in today’s culture. Increasingly, I see them as the very backbone of America, in job after job, the working folks who make our society function.

A recent David Brooks column observed that “racial sensitivity training” never seems to actually change people’s attitudes. What does, he said, is putting them in extended relationships with different people. They adapt to the new circumstances, developing new conceptions of who is “us” and who is “them.”

Wilkerson writes of a plumber arriving at her house in a MAGA hat. At first he was cold and unhelpful. But then both spoke of recently losing mothers. That human connection overrode the caste hostility. We have similarly seen examples where antipathy toward immigrants melts when people actually interact with them.

White supremacy is a lie, and people believing it prove who’s really inferior. While Blacks who, despite all the crap they have to endure, are decent human beings, prove they’re the superior ones. As activist Kimberly Jones said, Whites are lucky Blacks want only equality — not revenge.

Racial conflict is not inevitable. After the Civil War, with Blacks only just emerged from the most degrading, despised condition, and few Whites truly believing them equal, America nevertheless made them voting citizens. That humanistic generosity of spirit still takes my breath away.

Strangely, Wilkerson says virtually nothing about what I see as the true caste divide in today’s America — not between races but educational levels. Blacks who get well educated basically join the upper caste. That’s not to say they never experience painful slights like those Wilkerson relates. But those are not (or needn’t be) central to their overall life experience.

It is true that race and educational attainment do correlate to an unfortunate degree. This is the biggest continuing after-effect of America’s racialized history. We cannot erase skin color but we can— if we really set our minds to it — ensure equal educational opportunities. It’s long overdue and would solve most of the problem we all live with.

The deadliest sin: arrogance

January 10, 2021

One of the traditional “seven deadly sins” is pride. But that’s actually not the right word.

Most of those “sins” have unambiguous meanings — sloth, gluttony, lust. But “pride” is trickier. It can indeed be bad if excessive, and people often take pride in the wrong things. However, pride in the right things is good. To gain that feeling motivates us to do good things. I take pride in those I’ve accomplished. And then we have “gay pride,” “Black pride,” etc., certainly positive feelings. (“White pride” — uh-oh. Maybe not so much.) 

The Greeks had the word hubris, meaning immoderate pride. It has a connotation of self-aggrandizement, which comes closer to the concept we want here. But I think the most appropriate word is arrogance. That’s the sin that makes my blood boil.

It differs from succumbing to sloth, gluttony, or envy, which are understandable and, really, forgivable human frailties. Wrath and lust are also normal feelings. Every human experiences these. And are they indeed wrong? Anger is often justified; in the face of evil, lack of any wrath would be wrong. And of course we are imbued with lust as a natural feeling in order to keep the species going! Anyhow, these kinds of feelings are to a great degree outside our control.

This raises the eternal free will conundrum. I’ll limit myself to simply saying we’re all subject to impulses beyond our control — but we do have the power to countermand them. Lust aroused by an attractive person is not a choice, but rape is.

This brings in another key point. The religious concept of sin as an offense against God fails if there is no god. It’s better to think in purely human terms. Nothing can be a sin unless it harms another person. The “deadly” seven don’t fit well with that — generally not deadly at all, typically harming, if anyone, only the “sinner.” That’s true of pride, insofar as it’s merely an inner feeling. Arrogance, however, operates in relation to other people. Not just a feeling, but a behavior, that does harm them.

And I see arrogance as the fundamental sin, the ur-sin, behind most bad things people do. Consider its opposite: humility. A recognition that other people are entitled to the same rights and respect as you. The sin of stealing, for example, is a rejection of that ethos. The thief believing they’re somehow more entitled to whatever is stolen. That’s arrogant.

This applies to almost anything we call a crime. Arrogantly disregarding the rights of the victim; privileging one’s own wants above theirs.

This is why arrogance is so hateful. Even in mere boastfulness and braggadocio. That’s saying, “I’m better than you,” privileging your ego above those of others and making them feel bad. Contrast again humility, embodying deference to their equal humanity.

Humility is also epistemologically important. Confirmation bias is the tendency to welcome information validating pre-existing beliefs and shun contrary information. We all suffer from this, but humility is a good antidote. As opposed to the arrogance of thinking you know it all. 

The ultimate in arrogance is abuse of power. Privileging oneself totally over others, dictating their very terms of existence. The related word, “arrogate,” as in arrogating power, bespeaks the illegitimacy. A true public servant, in contrast, regards power as a solemn trust, to be used to benefit others, not just their own ego.

It’s said “we’re all equal before God.” Even if there is no god, the essence of the sentiment is true. It leads to another eternal conundrum, between merit and luck. My own success might be ascribed to intelligence and character traits. But those were products of happenstances of genetics and life experiences — i.e., luck. Not some pre-existing aboriginal deservingness in me, compared to others less lucky. My luck does not render me superior.

Understanding this is an antidote to arrogance. It makes me a very humble person. Something I’m quite proud of.

Rick Burns, democracy in action, and my coming of age

January 3, 2021

I saw a January 1 obituary for a Richard “Rick” Burns, and it pricked a distant memory. I wasn’t even sure I had the name correct. But his age seemed about right, as did the photo — insofar as I could recall a face I’d seen just once, half a century ago. Then reading the details did show him active in Republican politics then.

So was I. In 1972, my GOP ward leader in Albany quit, wanting me to succeed him. A meeting of committee members was called. This was when we stood for reform, and our ward was the feistiest, actually having a full committee roster. The county leadership sent some operatives to our meeting, introducing Rick Burns as our next ward leader. We’d never seen him before, but were told we had no choice. Several members got up to argue. Discussion was long and heated. Then we voted, and I was elected unanimously.

A true instance of democracy in action.

So Rick Burns was the only person ever to lose an election to Frank Robinson. And that meeting felt like my coming of age. I’d been active in campus politics, but always as an outsider, playing the quixotic clown figure. But now, at that ward meeting, I was finally the serious man. Those other guys, sent from headquarters, were the clowns.

To see that obituary, of a person whose path crossed with mine, so fleetingly, yet tellingly, so very long ago, gave me a frisson of the strangeness of life. And then I remembered that also at that meeting was a woman who’d later represent my coming of age in a different way.*

*https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/ask-a-very-personal-story/

Farewell 2020

January 1, 2021

(We had a zoomed family holiday poetry slam. Here’s my poem.)

2020 Farewell,

A year from Hell;

A year of years,

Of fears and tears.

A sickness spread across the land,

The president without a plan,

A sickness of our national soul,

Fallen into a deep black hole.

Half the country gone insane,

Backing that evil monster’s reign,

Embracing his every lie;

How many had to die?

With children in cages,

Among countless outrages.

The choice was stark,

Between light and dark.

And when finally voted out,

Reality he did flout,

Trying to overturn the vote,

To cut our democracy’s throat.

And so we’ve been tested,

But were not bested;

Up against a wall,

We’ve come through after all.

And in the end,

We’re on the mend.

We did not fail;

We shall prevail.

Can you love multiple partners?

December 17, 2020

Having multiple sex partners is common enough. But what about love?

This was a question discussed at a social gathering; an intellectual group. Earlier we’d discussed whether love is a “choice.” The consensus was pretty much in the negative; that it’s just something that happens, outside of one’s control.

Well, we do make choices. But the real issue is how we make them. A powerful metaphor is Jonathan Haidt’s in his book The Righteous Mind — the conscious mind as the rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. The rider thinks they’re in charge, directing the elephant. But mostly it’s the elephant going where it wants, with the rider making up rationales for why they’re going there.

That applies to falling in love. Yes, it’s a choice, but an elephant choice. Your conscious, thinking, rational mind is along for the ride. You do have reasons for falling in love with someone, maybe even ones you can articulate. Yet the true reasons operate at an unconscious level, deep in your psyche. The two sets of reasons may coincide, to at least some degree. But we shouldn’t imagine really understanding what’s going on.

So what about simultaneously loving more than one person, in that way? (Loving parents or children, etc., is a different thing.) In a romantic love relationship, exclusive fidelity is a cornerstone concept, with infidelity seen as incompatible. This is a sociological, cultural idea, powerful enough to influence our elephants. Yet our elephants may still harbor other ideas too. Judging from how humans actually behave.

This is crucially shaped by evolution. The only thing nature cares about is reproduction — producing offspring, and getting them to adulthood to reproduce again. That accounts for all our sexual feelings. Embedded deep in our genes.

And fidelity is an element here. Women are programmed to want male partners who’ll stick around to protect and help raise the kids. And the male wants the female to be faithful so he knows the kids he’s expending resources on are really his. These imperatives are a very big deal, evolutionarily.

Indeed, our group discussion noted male animals sometimes killing their mates’ offspring sired by a different partner. Even among humans, how often we read of the “boyfriend” mistreating or even killing a woman’s child by a previous guy. That’s evolution driving him. That boyfriend (his genetically shaped elephant) wants to perpetuate his own genes, not to invest work in someone else’s.

All that said, however, it’s far from the whole story. The male is also programmed to spread his sperm around as widely as possible, to increase the chances for his genes to appear in the next generation. Some readers may have noticed how this factor manifests in human behavior.

The calculus for a female differs since she’s strictly limited in numbers of offspring. Thus she must make each one count — birthing the healthiest children, most apt to reach adulthood. That’s why she too has a roving eye. Her mate may be nice enough, but some other male may attract her as likelier to give her a better baby. Also, her mate may be shooting blanks. Sex with additional men makes getting pregnant more likely.

So while we do have some cultural and evolutionary drivers for exclusivity in love, we also have genetic drivers for playing the field. At any rate, certainly our elephants are not programmed to rule out multiple simultaneous loves.

And meantime there’s a lot of psychology in play, wholly apart from our evolutionary and cultural programming. To name just one factor: ego. That’s why we talk of romantic “conquests.” In sum, the elephant may be perfectly capable, even desirous, of multiplicity in love. If one is good, mightn’t two (or more) seem better?

Stated another way: the heart wants what it wants. And it may want more than one.

Where the Crawdads Sing (Big spoiler alert)

December 7, 2020

My local paper publishes the NY Times bestseller list weekly, which I glance at. Where the Crawdads Sing, a novel by Delia Owens, topped it forever. Owens is a zoologist and wildlife writer; this is her first novel. I’m not normally into popular novels, but then my book group chose it.

Its appeal is understandable. It’s set in the marshes of North Carolina’s outer banks, leading to the ocean. Kya, known as “the Marsh Girl,” lives there in a shack. By the time she was six, her abusive drunk of a father had driven away the rest of the family; often absent himself, he disappeared for good a few years later. Leaving Kya to survive alone. Which she does admirably.

This story is joined with a murder mystery.

Teenaged Kya, much the loner, nevertheless develops a diffident romance with Tate, a slightly older youngster encountered exploring the marshlands. When he goes off to college, he promises to return. But guess what?

Kya feels really burned. Yet she falls for the next fella to penetrate the marsh and earn her trust: Chase, a “golden boy” in the nearby town of Barkley Cove. He penetrates her too, with promises of marriage. Guess what?

After Chase marries someone else — Kya, devastated, only learns of it in a newspaper she buys on a fluke — he returns and brutally tries to rape her.

Subsequently he’s found dead at the foot of a tower.

Kya fortunately has a good alibi. You see, Tate had meanwhile come back too after all, earned her trust again, sort of, and now a biologist, he gets Kya’s marsh expertise on shells, birds, etc., embodied into beautifully published books. So she makes the only bus trip of her life, to Greenville, to meet with her publisher, for dinner and then breakfast. Just happened to be the night of Chase’s death.

But Kya is arrested anyway and charged with murder. The prosecutor’s theory is that she could have bussed back and forth to Barkley Cove during the night. The bus schedules allowed for that — with just barely enough time to do the deed — if you assume a lot. The bus drivers testified they didn’t see her. But the prosecution suggested she traveled in disguise. All seemingly far fetched!

Kya is acquitted.

A few things struck me. Why would buses run between these small towns in the middle of the night? Seemed a blatant authorial contrivance. And never mentioned is a gaping hole in the case. Assuming Kya did meticulously plot this caper, how did she know she’d find Chase at the tower? On the other hand, she never actually professes innocence.

Anyway, she returns to her marsh life, spending the next forty years lovingly together with Tate in the shack. The murder — if it wasn’t just an accidental fall — is never solved.

But there was one loose end. Missing from Chase’s body was the shell necklace he’d worn for years, a gift from Kya. It whispered to me throughout the aftermath. I knew it would resurface — else why was it there in the first place? Like Chekov’s proverbial gun. And when, on the final page, after Kya’s death, Tate stumbles upon her hidden cache, I knew what he’d find.

P.S. “Crawdads” are fresh water crayfish.

Russell Baker: “There’s a Country in My Cellar”

December 1, 2020

Russell Baker (1925-2019) was a New York Times reporter and then columnist. His book about growing up — titled, oddly enough, Growing Up— was a wonderful read. This 1990 selection of his columns was — pretty good. Mostly.

Baker starts off saying that when he first moved from news reporting to writing columns thrice weekly, he was exultant. Now “at last free to disgorge the entire content of my brain.”

However, he writes, “having written fewer than a dozen columns, I made a terrifying discovery: I had now disgorged the entire content of my brain, yet another column was due at once.”

Actually, he exaggerates. The book is full of exaggeration. It’s what he’s good at.

One piece, for example, “The Incredible Shrinking Life,”* chronicles the tribulations occasioned by rising New York City rents, forcing repeated moves to ever smaller apartments, and the painful sacrifices this entailed. The repeated refrain: it was like “being whittled away.” First to go, unable to fit them in a reduced space, were the children. It proceeds from there. Ending with accommodations too small for anyone over four feet tall. “A touch of sadness is only to be expected,” says the surgeon, “after you’ve been whittled away.”

Speaking of surgery, Baker presciently anticipates today’s trans phenomenon, with a very practical suggestion for men who’d prefer to have female bodies, and women who want men’s. They should just trade heads. If the experience fails to fulfill their expectations, they can simply switch back. Problem solved.

“The Excellence of Welby Stitch, Jr.,” purports to be a Harvard recommendation letter for the named young scholar. Whose record and personal qualities are glaringly rotten in every salient respect. All of which the letter gamely endeavors to spin in a derangedly positive light, as if to make a silk purse of the proverbial sow’s ear, turning standards on their heads. The letter ends with the signature: “Welby Stitch, Sr.”

“Boneless Sunday” sets forth a rather elaborate narrative set-up to enable Baker to finally pen the words, “Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone, but when she got there, the cupboard was bare.”** But that wasn’t the ending. The tale continues, “and so the poor dog left home to go to Acapulco with a Texas bone millionaire who loved the idea of a dog who could say, ‘Nuts to the King.'” Yes, the story had previously introduced a king, set before whom now is a pie. When told blackbirds had been baked into it, he says, “The cook must be losing his mind.” And “then the pie was opened and the birds began to sing.” The king was revolted, whispering “Ugh!” to the Queen.

“Shut up and eat a slice,” she says, lest he hurt the cook’s feelings.

But the king does more than hurt his feelings. The cook’s body is found in a ravine.

However, that still is not the end of this jam-packed story. Jack and Jill, and Little Miss Muffett, duly put in appearances. All in all, quite the literary tour-de-force.

Eating, being a major human activity, receives attention in other pieces. Baker’s gourmandizing is not too refined. He rhapsodizes about one of his favorites, the fried seafood platter, even telling of a 250 mile road trip just to hit one of the few restaurants that still serves it — at least in conformity with his exacting standards. But much as he describes relishing the dish, he actually makes it sound highly unappetizing. It seems it’s really the experience of the meal — you had to be there — not the flavor.

Money is a frequent preoccupation. No, make that obsession. Baker is always expostulating about how much things cost. One piece satirizes itemized hospital bills by chronicling his visit to a sick friend, being billed every step of the way, from the elevator ride to partaking of the illumination supplied in the corridors. A big point for him is people on expense accounts not paying with their own money. A lengthy commentary about the gravity-defying figure on a hotel bill (including an “occupancy” tax as if one might rent a room but not occupy it) concludes with the desk clerk fainting on hearing that Baker must pay with his own cash. Likewise, first class air travelers are shown laughing at the economy class peons because, “except for Rothschilds and madmen,” the former are never paying out of their pockets. And Baker notes that with business expenses tax deductible for companies, those first class tickets are actually paid for, in the end, by the taxpayers in economy class.

Speaking of taxpayers, there is “A Taxpayer’s Prayer,” couched in stentorian Biblical cadences. One line intones, “Yea, though we falter in meeting thy wishes,” it’s due to “our poor want of appreciation of thy marvelous law [i.e., the Internal Revenue Code] which surpasseth all understanding.”

So, yes, Baker is a humorist. Yet his temperament is curmudgeonly in a way I didn’t find endearing. A lot of this book is a howl against modernity, deeply felt. His modernity, of course, now decades past, which in today’s hindsight seems imbued with quaintness. I cringe to think what Baker would make of our current American culture.

I myself have written some pretty acerbic things on that subject. There’s always plenty to criticize and cluck one’s tongue at. But I come to it with a sensibility completely different from Baker’s. He seems to be one of those people who romanticize the “good old days,” forgetting what they were really like. Look at the opening scenes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which, though hilarious, quite accurately depicted a time when life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” That continued being largely true until not very long ago. My immersion in history makes me never forget it; makes me profoundly grateful for modernity, with all its faults.

* For those too young to remember, there was a 1957 sci-fi film, The Incredible Shrinking Man. 

** Reminding me of a joke with a couple discussing the weather, and also an acquaintance who’s a Communist spy, to set up the punchline, “Rudolph the red knows rain, dear.”