Sunday, July 26, 2020

Negotiating the Danger of Fools and Their COVID-19 Folly

"Sweetie, don't get too close to the lady," I say to my granddaughter at the swimming beach of our local lake. "Give her some space."

As my granddaughter stops and backs away in water that's waist deep for her, the lady says, "Oh, that's not important to me."

"Well, it's important to me," I respond.

The lady leaves the pond, and as she exits the pond, she grimaces and mutters, "I think it's just ridiculous."

It's a hot summer late morning, and my wife and I have taken the kids to swim. Few people are there, only an elderly man (maybe a bit older than me) and another grandmother and her two grandkids. The other grandmother is sitting in the shade maybe thirty or forty feet from the water. She never says a word to her two grandkids, whom we have to remind, along with our own grandkids, to keep our separate family spaces apart. The elderly gentleman has a touch of what used to be called "feeble-mindedness," and I have to clearly ask him to keep his distance as he leaves the water.

So, yeah, I'm thinking about the situation and how I answered, and with a bit of research come up with a Biblical reference from Proverbs: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, lest he be wise in his own eyes" (26:4-5).

That's quite a mouthful, yet I think the main idea is that debating ignorance on its own level is not only a futile exercise, it also legitimizes the foolish idea or action. From that perspective, I think my response was appropriate. I stated my perspective in a way that motivated the response I desired--without trying to argue the individuals out of their mindset. I didn't accept their viewpoint; I just established that I would prefer that they keep their opinions over there.

As I write this, the United States will soon have four and a quarter million confirmed cases of COVID-19, 150,000 deaths, and has several states seriously under siege and in danger of being overwhelmed by the new coronavirus. "What will it take to convince people that the pandemic is real, that there is real danger?" I ask myself. Here I am at the beach on a Saturday morning for an hour and a half, and I have to interact with three individuals who foolishly are disregarding the fact that the world is experiencing a pandemic.

Being an admirer of the Age of Reason, the era that birthed our United States of America, I think of Benjamin Franklin and his Poor Richard's Almanack. “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other, and scarce in that.” The United States, along with the rest of the world, is in the midst of dealing with the "dear school" or hard-knocks school of a viral epidemic, yet because the virus is invisible and for many Americans the effects of the virus are not sitting on their doorsteps, they scoff at the pandemic and its dangers, to circle back to the Biblical reference.

Negotiating the pandemic deniers is one of the greatest dangers during this time. Arguing with the deniers is a danger that has resulted in some deniers invading the personal space of others to breathe or spit on them, or to even attack. Another Biblical quote, reads "For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise" (2 Corinthians 11:19). To paraphrase, if we consider ourselves "in the know," then we should be kind and patient with those who are engaged in unwise thinking and action.

There is the flip side to this saying though, that we should "not kindly suffer fools," that we should not put up with the dull and dangerous thinking of others. Such behavior, though, can be its own expression of the ignorance of arrogance and excessive pride, of belligerence born narrow-mindedness. Thinking about this pandemic, it seems some push-back is necessary to keep a safe space around ourselves. The question for me as a private citizen, an individual, is how do we keep ourselves safe without provoking covid fools to get into our faces? How do we allow ourselves and others our personal freedom without giving this novel coronavirus the freedom to spread?

As a private citizen, I think my course is to be clear in my expectations of others without being confrontational. I am not trying to separate fools from their folly; I am trying to separate myself from the fools. Looking back at my actions at the beach, I think I did an okay job. For the woman who thought social distancing ridiculous, I didn't ask her to change her opinion, only to respect mine. For the grandmother who just let her grandkids play without providing social distancing guidance and intervention, my wife and I just kindly reminded the kids to each keep to their own areas. For the older gentleman who wanted to come up close and talk to me, I asked him to keep his distance in as neutral a manner as possible, turning my shoulder and breaking eye contact. All three strategies worked.

The problem is that each of those three situations could have been dismal, disastrous fails. The woman who felt the whole thing ridiculous could have ignored me and hugged my granddaughter, or could have charged over to me to scream in my face. The kids (including my own grandchildren) could have ignored our instructions, being at an impulsive age, and just gotten together. (This, of course, is one of the biggest fears of teachers as the beginning of the school year is approaching.) The elderly gentleman could have just not understood my request that he keep his distance, just a nice old guy navigating the fog of his latter years. I could have been occupying the covid reef he crashed upon.

None of those worst-case scenarios occurred, but they could have. I was reminded that going out in public during these times is a risk. We are all trying to balance our need for the freedom to get out with our need to keep safe during this pandemic. What risk level can we tolerate, and what risk level is prudent, not only for ourselves but for society, is the question of questions. We must find a way to kindly suffer fools yet to find a way to be "kindly unkind" and clearly indicate what behaviors are dangerous and unacceptable. As the governor of Wisconsin said last May, "We are the Wild West." Just as in the frontier days, an element of self-sufficiency, clear-headedness, and realistic thinking is required of all of us if we and our families are to remain healthy. The police and civil law can't protect us if someone invades our personal space and infects us with this novel coronavirus. It's already too late.

Yes, people in some cases and places are breaking civil law, but the big deal is that so many are breaking the laws of nature. People may get away with breaking a government's law, but the laws of nature are implacable when it comes to retribution. Hunker down, run, yell--do what you must, but do not get between fools and their folly. And for God's sake, do not become infected with their folly.

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Sunday, July 12, 2020

Three Angles for Writing a Travel Article

I've been thinking about my camping blog, Green Goddess Glamping. During the camping season, I write about the places I travel to, about my experiences out and about in my tiny camper. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, I'm not out and about so much, and when I am camping, it's been to sites close by, places I've camped at before. As a writer, does this create a dilemma? Since I've already written about a particular lake or campground, then what more is there to say?

I'll be traveling to a nearby state park tomorrow, Lake Darling State Park, in SE Iowa. I've written several times about camping at Lake Darling, both as a tiny trailer camper and as a bicycle camper. I've described hikes, bike rides, the campground, cooking, the weather, sunsets . . . all the fun my wife and I have fun there. What more to write?

What occurred to me was that any experience has three aspects or "angles" of approach by a writer, the writer's personal experience, the dynamics of the experience, and the geography of the experience. I've heard this described as the perceiver , the process perception, and the object of perception. This means I can write about any destination from any one or more of those three angles. I don't have to just write about my drive, setting up camp, and what I did. I have more options, and looking through past articles in Green Goddess Glamping, I can see examples of where I have already focused my writing on one aspect of this "three-in-one" reality of experience.

The Writer

When I arrive at a campsite, especially when I camp alone, sometimes the inner landscape of the mind melds with the outer natural beauty of the river or lake, the woods. Sometimes this leads to insights which I share in my articles.

Photo by Mark Busha, tiny trailer camper, in a remote location in Utah

One good example is my article about how being alone doesn't mean one is lonely, that solitude is not synonymous with loneliness. In "Traveling Solo: Being Alone Is Not the Same Thing As Being Lonely," which I wrote while camping, I focused on my inner experience while out camping. I wrote about how camping in nature can lead not to a sense of loneliness and isolation but rather to an experience of connectedness and integration.

The Process

Sometimes the process of camping dominates; perhaps it dominates most of the time if we let it. Towing the trailer, backing the trailer, setting up camp, and camping out provide many opportunities for writing. My "How-To" and "Reviews" tab links are filled with articles that relate to the process of camping, everything from how to stabilize the trailer to campfire cooking. Articles about equipment, how it works and how well it works are always popular and fun to write about.

Jomeokee Park, North Carolina

When I write about the process of camping, there is always that journaling aspect: I did this and then that. Photographs fit into the narrative, which adds to the enjoyment of the camping experience. Many of my camping blogs are about the Green Goddess Expeditions. Since the Green Goddess is my first camper, many of my articles have been about what I needed to learn in order to enjoy the trailer camping experience. One good example of a narrative of a camping weekend is my article "Unknowingly, I Tiny-Trailer Camp-Crash Woodstock," where I wrote about stopping for a quiet weekend at a private campground while traveling the Carolinas, and then discovering that a private camping group had organized a music concert for the weekend. A fun experience!

The Subject

We show up to a campground for a few days, but the land has its reality outside our experience, it has its geography, its biology, its history. That is a subject for experiencing and writing about that is a source of great possibility. The more times I camp at a particular place, the more I learn about that place.

Statue at the west entrance to Lacey-Keosauqua

Lacey-Keosauqua State Park is a good example of experiencing a particular place. My wife and I have camped there many times, and I have quite a few articles about our "expeditions" there. As time passes and the number of visits to a campground add up, I think the experience becomes more "vertical" than "horizontal." We go deeper into a place and learn its secrets, something I wrote about in the article "It's Not Just How Many Miles or Places." Delving into the details can be a joy. What specific variety of oak is that? What variety of goldenrod? And since I'm writing during the Midwest summer: What exactly is a "chigger"?

Bur oak sketch

The three-in-one reality of knower, process of knowing, and known don't take place one at a time; there is no separation--one including all. As a writer (and a student of nature), I can focus on one attribute of my experience, though. It expands my ability to understand and express my experience. It focuses my intellect.

From the Gutenberg e-book

In Henry David Thoreau's narrative Canoeing in the Wilderness, he shifts seamlessly from his own personal experience to the process of canoeing to the beauty of the woods and river. He writes with growing awareness during the book of how he, even though an experienced naturalist, is not as knowledgeable in the woods as his American Indian guide Joseph Polis. Thoreau creates an enjoyable read as he narrates his experiences of canoeing the river rapids and the turbulent lakes in Maine. He writes about setting up camp and how his guide knows just the right place to be not too far from the river yet still dry and relatively free of mosquitoes. The physical environment is described with great regard and attention to detail, as seen in this passage describing canoeing down a branch of Webster Stream.
"As the shores became flatter with frequent sandbars, and the stream more winding in the lower land near the lake, elms and ash trees made their appearance; also the wild yellow lily, some of whose bulbs I collected for a soup. On some ridges the burnt land extended as far as the lake. This was a very beautiful lake, two or three miles long, with high mountains on the southwest side. The morning was a bright one, and perfectly still, the lake as smooth as glass, we making the only ripple as we[152] paddled into it. The dark mountains about it were seen through a glaucous mist, and the white stems of canoe birches mingled with the other woods around it. The thrush sang on the distant shore, and the laugh of some loons, sporting in a concealed western bay, as if inspired by the morning, came distinct over the lake to us." 
Whether as a camper or as a writer, whether on an expedition into the Maine woods in 1857 or on a weekday romp to the local state park, we can all be explorers of the three-in-one nature of life. We can have our inner selves up uplifted, we can enjoy the dynamism of our activity, and we can appreciate the rich beauty of our world. So this has been a small update from me: I'll be out there somewhere close to home, safely enjoying the richness of life, writing about how to make it even richer.

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Friday, July 3, 2020

Pathfinding the COVID-19 Wilderness

The joke here is that I  own a Nissan Pathfinder, which is also the tow vehicle for my tiny camping trailer, the Green Goddess. The idea of finding the safe path to take during this coronavirus pandemic is no joke, though, and I'm not just talking about the dangers of catching or transmitting the virus. What is important is not just being physically safe but also finding a way to live a full and fruitful life during dangerous times. I'm finding three challenges to living a fulfilling life in our current times: physical, mental, and governmental.

The Physical Environment

Let's face it: our physical environment is more dangerous now, and we'll be living in this more dangerous environment for a long time, maybe even for the rest of our lives. Times have changed. I wrote about some of those lifestyle changes in my last post, which I wrote about a month ago. That much time passing between posts is a surprise, but I guess I've been focusing on my new, "ramped up" old routine.

It is like pathfinding, though, through a dangerous wilderness. Even while bicycle riding to the library, which only has curbside delivery now, with book browsing via the online catalog, I have to leave home only after checking whether I have a mask (which I don't wear while riding but have handy) and whether I have sanitizing spray. I am prepared to kindly ask others to keep their safe distance. Entering stores is an even more dangerous excursion into the "deepest, darkest wilderness." Sometimes when entering a store, I feel like Frodo and Samwise in The Lord of the Rings as they enter Shelob's lair. This coronavirus is invisible yet still dangerous. It's out there somewhere--in the air, on some surface, but where? I enter a store mindful of surfaces, air flow, other shoppers. Sometimes I don't enter or I just poke my head in and then leave.

A Balanced Inner Life

Negotiating the physical environment during a pandemic is just one aspect of living one's life. There's the physical and then there's the mental. My wife and I are dealing with all those issues everyone else is also dealing with--cabin fever, the sense of life being restricted, the awareness of danger to ourselves and to our loved ones. Emotional claustrophobia.

A main way we maintain a balanced inner life is by continuing our practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique. We've been doing this technique for many years, and since it's safe to sit quietly and close our eyes at home, we have our entire inner selves to experience, safely and enjoyably. This is a great boon. And the deep rest the technique provides the body also strengthens our immune systems.

Since I'm retired and my wife works her consulting business at home, we haven't had to deal with environmental dangers like folks who are still working out in the community. Beyond engaging in those physical safety measures while at the grocery store or the farm store, our challenge is that we are always at home--cabin fever. We're exploring local camping with our tiny trailer, which opens our horizons, but we're also taking time to honor our individual lives. We've recently bought a second car so we each "have our own." This is, of course, not a matter of legality but just a sense of identification. We had two cars for many years, but when we both found ourselves more at home, me having retired and my wife starting her own business, then we sold one car. With two cars again, I can travel and camp locally, and my wife and I can both enjoy some individual time alone, or she can come and visit, or I can drop in at home for the day. Having two cars is both an actual opening of possibilities and a symbolic recognition that we both have individual lives, the cars expanding and enriching both personal time and shared time.

It's odd but true that travel now--even across the road to chat with a neighbor--involves much more psychological gravitas. My wife and I are finding ways to safely "open up" our lives, both individually and together, in ways that fulfill our need to both be together sometimes and alone sometimes. How typically American my wife and I are that finding a balance in life, finding emotional safety, includes buying a car! The irony on top of the irony is that buying a second car wasn't just an emotional gesture. It really does increase safe opportunities to explore our individual lives and our life together.

The Government Conundrum

A conundrum is a "confusing and difficult problem or question." How our government is dealing with COVID-19 is certainly an uncertain landscape to find a safe path through. I suppose it has always been the reality that government actions affect our lives--but now government actions glaringly affect our lives . . . and deaths--130,000 American lives as I write this. One governor called the pandemic experience the Wild West, and I get it. Since the response of the federal government for the most part has been too little, too late, and since many states (all but two of the fifty, by my reading) have opened up too early, there is that sense of living the frontier life, out there on our own and having to be self-reliant. It's like pathfinding through a bog or swamp. We have to be careful where we step because the land may look firm but may suck us under.

We have to be self-reliant and look out for ourselves and our loved ones as best we can. Physical and mental dangers are increased, though, due to the insufficient and inept (and sometimes insane) response of the government to this pandemic. It's as if our neighbor has a vicious dog and lets it run loose. The city responds--or says it has--yet somehow the dog is still running loose. Okay, we've made the phone call, but the dog's still out there, pacing and growling. We have to recognize the reality. Unfortunately, for whatever psychological reasons, many people are not recognizing that the dog's still outside our front doors, growling and waiting for us to come out. And the government's commentary is making the situation worse. That, in my opinion, is true for the federal government and for my state of Iowa. Iowa isn't lowering the curve of infections; it's just behind the curve of other states.

Finally, I'm tempted to say, "Americans have had it too easy, so easy that they can't accept that they're in danger. They can't set aside politics and their personal banner issues in order to deal with the pandemic." It's just not true, though. Too many Americans don't have it too easy and already were in danger even before the pandemic. I don't know why we as Americans don't have the unified vision to work together to deal with our challenges--other than the fact that we just don't have the unified consciousness now. My wife and I and our families--that's a manageable unity for me, not necessarily a controllable reality, but one that is close enough to heart and home that I at least feel kinship with. My wife and together travel a wilderness; we choose and follow our path together. Sometimes we disagree on the exact path, but agree that we are traveling together. Our children follow somewhere behind . . . maybe. We are blazing a trail, though, and follow or not, they know our direction and course. The path has its dangers and its beauty. I am not alone, though, and for that I am grateful.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The New Pandemic Lifestyle Is the Old Lifestyle--Ramped Up

The basic reality is this: my federal and state governmental policies regarding the COVID-19 epidemic are driven by politics rather than medical science. My wife and I are in the higher risk category because of our age. No vaccine exists, and scientists are still trying to discover medicines that help lessen the impact of the virus if one is infected.

The basic reality is that I'm living in a hostile environment. In my state of residence, Iowa, infections are still spiking even as the governor "opens" the state, even though she never really "closed" it. From April 20 to May 12, the state's confirmed coronavirus cases rose from 3,159 to 12,912, an increase of more than 300 percent in 22 days.

The basic question is this: How do I stay alive and healthy in this environment? 

There is no quick solution to this pandemic, especially since state and federal governments are making decisions that ignore medical realities. Our current situation will last for years, probably--at least for my age group. I feel like a villager in the African savannah that has a thorn fence around the village. Lions prowl outside the fence, but still one has to leave the security of that barrier for water, for food, for taking care of the herds. My armor is not a warrior's spear, though. It's knowledge. Even during the good old days of just-plain-flu season, there were safety protocols. I have to continue with those--ramped up.
  1. Stay home and limit my interactions with people outside my "safety bubble." Currently my wife and I only interact closely with our daughter's family--daughter and two grandchildren. We first quarantined for two weeks and now closely maintain our bubbles of safety, as best we can, going out for food as little as possible.
  2. Heightened awareness of safety protocols when in public. Going out to a store or business is not a casual act. I consider the need, and if there is a need, then I fulfill the task, using a mask and having an alcohol sanitizer spray bottle with me. I sanitize the car, all the places I touched, when arriving home. 
  3. When packages arrive, we treat them as suspect. When a package arrives, we follow the advice that there is low risk that the package has been contaminated with the virus--but not zero risk. We remove the contents of the package, place the box outside, and then wash our hands.
  4. Long-term plans. Recognizing that our environment has changed, we are establishing long-term lifestyle habits. Masks and hand sanitizer when in public will most likely be a reality for at least the next couple of years. Social distancing will become a norm. When school begins again, we recognize that may impact our interactions with our extended family. Lacking specific information, we'll just have to wait and see. We are establishing a routine that will continue for a long time, and we are ready to modify that routine based on incoming information.
  5. Stress management. These are times of increased stress, so my wife and I make sure we communicate, get our rest, and regularly continue our lifelong practice of meditation. We have goals to limit our focus on the news. It's important to know what's going on, but it's also possible to spend too much time obsessing on repetitive, negative news. From my side, I need to get the news but not then read the ten additional stories, analyses, and opinions regarding that particular bit of news. 
  6. Maintaining a healthy, positive routine. In our family, our positive routines over the years have included bicycling and hiking, gardening, camping, and cooking and eating healthy, natural foods. We believe we can maintain our healthy, positive lifestyle yet also maintain our safety protocols. Bicycling and hiking will still necessitate social distancing. Camping will be local. We'll cook at home and not hit the restaurants.
We are always ultimately the ones responsible for our own lives. Especially in our current times when our federal and state governments are saying that there are more important issues than our individual lives, it's vital that we look to and plan for our own healthy future. There have always been lions outside the thorn barrier that surrounds the village. Those lions are more numerous now, and closer and more actively agressive.

Yesterday I turned in our mail-in ballot requests at our county courthouse. I did so safely, following all the protocols--mask, sanitizer, distancing, and don't touch your face. I know whom I'm voting for, and it won't be for candidates that consider me expendable. I plan to vote, but in the meantime, I've got a few fun and healthy activities to engage in. As Voltaire said in the last line of Candide, "That is all very well and good, but let us tend our gardens."

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Talkin' Dylan's "Murder Most Foul"

"Murder Most Foul" is Bob Dylan's longest song and, according to the headlines, also his first #1 hit. Strange for the "voice of his generation," a label Dylan has evidently never liked. Do I like the seventeen minute song? I'm not sure that I do, but does anyone really "like" a song that long? And we're not talking or including classical music here. Probably liking the song isn't the right question.

I've interacted with the song "Murder Most Foul" in three different ways: the official video release, a video with visual lyrics, and then just the print lyrics.
My best experience with the song was listening to the song while following along with the visual lyrics.

When Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize in Literature was announced in 2017, it was with the following observation: “He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the English tradition," by Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy. Darius continues on to say that Dylan has been "reinventing" himself for fifty-four years. It's not controversial to say that "Murder Most Foul" unfolds another iteration of Bob Dylan the bard.

The song is more of a chant than a song in the traditional three-minute servings most folks are familiar with. The music is supportive, amplifying mood and creating a tonal milieu for the song. The lyrics are contemplative, even casual, lacking the intensity and focus of songs such as "All Along the Watchtower" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," for instance.

Ironically, I don't think "Murder Most Foul" would make it as a three-minute cut, and it certainly wouldn't have been a #1 hit. The song's strength won't be discovered by comparing it to other popular hits, even though the song references a great many tunes. A more compelling affirmation of the song can be made by comparing it to the work of two American poets: Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg and their respective poems "Song of Myself" and "Howl." The strength of these poems is the poetic technique of listing or cataloging--of heaping on image after image. This technique can also be seen in epic poems, where tribes or city-states and their heroes are listed.

The strength of cataloging is that quantity has its own quality. The rolling on of the images, the creative evocation which stimulates our sense memory has a unique power to create a powerful emotional landscape for a reader/listener's journey. The speaker in the poem reminisces about a generation's loss of innocence with the assassination of a president, the loss of an ideal vision (hardly a new observation, one reviewer notes). The reminiscing is a stream of consciousness ramble, seventeen minutes of on-and-on, and all that ultimately hold the song-poem together is the cataloging of songs and musicians, a long rambling list of associations, that ultimately creates an effect: we have lived a good life, a varied life, and a worthy life, which can be appreciated best from a cosmic perspective, in its totality. The points and pieces seem random and pointless, but all together, meaning exists.

I'm reminded of Milton's Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man," where Milton sought to justify the ways of God to man, and Pope sought to vindicate the ways of God to man. Milton wrote from a climate of belief and faith; Pope wrote from the time of the Age of Reason, where skepticism and satire were the darlings of the time. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" justified that Flower Power spirit of protest and idealism. It resonated in a timely manner the emotions of many during Dylan's early recording years. "Murder Most Foul" vindicates that spirit of protest and idealism in the current "OK boomer" climate, a climate where younger generations are asking, even mocking or ridiculing, the accomplishments of the grey-haired Boomer generation.

It's appropriate that Dylan released the song at this time when our culture is being challenged by an impartial host, the novel coronavirus. Isn't it healthy to look back and see that the perfect idealism and hopes of youth don't need to be reassessed as failures just because time has worn and blurred the vision? Lack of perfection is not failure. I'm reminded of what William Faulkner said in his  Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help a man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
It's notable that in order to fully appreciate "Murder Most Foul," one has to examine the wholeness. One has to consider the poem in relation to the great works of literature. One has to pay attention. And, finally, just like many great works of literature, one interacts with "Murder Most Foul," appreciates its message, and then sets it aside. It's fulfilling interacting with the song/poem, but it's not light entertainment. I'm not going to be listening to the song while cruising down the road. Maybe "Lay Lady Lay."

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