Friday, October 16, 2020

Covid in the Family? "Grandpa's Gone Camping" Is the Last Line of Defense

During the last six weeks, I've been camping for four weeks--two at the beginning, then two weeks at home, and now just finishing up the last two weeks. The reason for these stints of camping certainly is in part because fall camping is so exciting, with the colors and the weather variations. However, there's another aspect of my time in camp that is not just about fun, and it's related to COVID-19.

At some point in late summer as our two grandkids and their parents were gearing up for school to start, my wife and I asked ourselves the question, "What if the kids go back to school, catch covid, bring it home, and then their parents and us both get sick. Who takes care of the kids?"

We distanced ourselves from our grandkids (ages 7 and 5) and their parents, just to see how school went. Classes were based on a hybrid model of part time at school with a 50/50 blend of smaller classes and schooling at home. It went pretty well, and my wife and I felt that the situation was about as safe as realistically possible. Therefore we began seeing the kids again, with time outside at the park and by wearing masks when we were in closer quarters. 

The school circulated a survey of parents, and based on information gathered decided to go back to full-time in-class teaching, following the wishes of the majority of the parents. The school had been getting a great deal of pressure from parents to take the kids all day long so that parents could return to work. The economic pressure on parents was undeniable, and the chaos of politics infiltrating health policy on the state and federal levels with its resultant weakening of guidelines was also undeniable. 

Therefore, I went camping again for another two weeks, my wife coming up to camp with me on weekends, and while at home my wife once again not visiting the grandkids. After just under two weeks of school, the grandkids' mom was contacted and told that our seven-year-old grandson had been in contact in the lunchroom with another student who had been tested and verified to have COVID-19. The kids and grandkids were told to stay at home in quarantine. My, who had met the day of the phone call with her daughter, also needed to be in quarantine. 

My wife called that night while I was still at the state park, telling me the situation was exactly as we had logicked out earlier and feared would happen, based on how the state of Iowa had adulterated its health policies with political measures. Out of the four of us--parents and grandparents--I was the only one who was without a doubt not exposed. Fortunately, the next day our grandson was tested and found negative. He received a note that he could go back to school and the parents wouldn't have to quarantine.

My wife brought up the point that sometimes there is a false negative. What if that was true? We were back to our original question of what if all the adults get sick. Who will take care of the children?

My wife decided (and, of course, I agreed) that we two grandparents should extend our quarantine for a bit longer, my wife from her daughter and family, and me from my wife. That way just in case someone falls ill from this situation, perhaps my wife won't get ill and can mask up and assist if needed . . . and if my wife gets sick, then I can be the last grandpa standing, there to care for everyone as best I can. The irony, of course, is that Grandma and Grandpa are in the most vulnerable group, regarding the virus.

Desperate situations are possible in any medical crisis such as this, but when we see cut-offs for distance instruction set at levels above those suggested by health professionals, when we see modes of instruction determined by surveys rather than the best medical advice, when we see state infection rates used that may very well be inaccurate, then my wife and I and our children feel isolated in our danger, not supported and protected by our government. We need to end this arrogant disregard for science. We need to end this placing of political agenda over people. We need to end the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Lincoln said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." I sit now alone in my tiny trailer, writing these words. A cold wind is blowing outside off the lake, rocking the trailer. From where I sit, cooperation and unity seem pretty darn desirable. "Every man for himself," now that Grandpa is the last man standing, seems a bleak and tragic possibility that I hope myself, my family, and my nation can avoid. 

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Friday, October 9, 2020

Reading Emerson's Essay "Nature" While Camping

"Landscape and Transcendence," Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823-1900)
In his essay "Nature," Ralph Waldo Emerson says this about being outside during times "wherein the world reaches its perfection," speaking specifically about October: "These halcyons [days of peace and tranquillity] may be looked for with a little more assurance in that pure October weather, which we distinguish by the name of Indian Summer. The day, immeasurably long, sleeps over the broad hills and warm wide fields. To have lived through all its sunny hours, seems longevity enough. The solitary places do not seem quite lonely. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts."

As Emerson's description of the beauty of the New England autumn unfolds, we are led from an  individual perspective, creeping out of our "close and crowded houses," to the cosmic perspective of the laws of nature. "The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles," to live beyond history, church, or state, in unity with "the divine sky and the immortal year." Nature, he says, is medicinal; it sobers and heals us. It is our first home, feeding our senses with with "room enough," to be whole. If we could be "rapt away" into the fullness of nature, he says, "the upper sky would be all that would remain of our furniture."

The purpose of Emerson's essay is to remind us of and inspire us to our essential nature, that the fullness of nature is also our fullness. He seeks to move us from the everyday "profane" to the eternities of sacred nature, describing "the innumerable florets" of the flower houstonia, glassy lakes, and the south wind that "converts all trees to wind-harps." He seeks to expand our mind through his description--senses, intellect, and emotions--and to lead us to that place within where boundaries fade and even as we sit inside our homes, reading his essay, listening to the "crackling and spurting of hemlock in the flames" of the fireplace and gazing at the patterned grain of the wood-paneled walls, we see "the music and pictures of the most ancient religion." And we are changed, transformed.

"I leave the village politics and personalities, yes, and the world of villages and personalities behind, and pass into the delicate realm of sunset and moonlight, too bright almost for spotted man to enter without novitiate and probation. We penetrate bodily this incredible beauty; we dip our hands in this painted element: our eyes are bathed in these lights and forms."

Is it nature that transforms us, or we that transform nature? Does our perception perceive or create? What is the sequence, the process? The question will betray the unity of the moment. There is no sequence, no creator and creation, only the experience of unity, transcending time, place, and causality. "The difference between landscape and landscape is small, but there is great difference in the beholders." Emerson says that "nature cannot be surprised in undress. Beauty breaks in everywhere." Nature need not be fenced and called a park; it is equally present in a woodlot or planted field. "Compound it how she will, star, sand, fire, water, tree, man, it is still one stuff, and betrays the same properties."

Honey Creek State Park, my home for two weeks
And that is how I come to be spending two weeks in mid-October, camping in a state park in Iowa. Given the opportunity, I choose to bathe "in these lights and forms," to give myself the opportunity to let beauty "break in," to enliven within myself the "same properties" that exist in cosmic reality, to transcend our "petty omnipresence," where "flowers jilt us, and we are old bachelors with our ridiculous tenderness."

Reading all of the essay "Nature" beyond Emerson's introductory laudations that are giddy with transcendental epiphanies, a more somber explication of his ideas--obviously based on his personal experience--is developed. The matter of the universe is all one "stuff," and the motion of the universe is all one energy. Living this unity, though, is not an intellectual construct, nor is it an abandonment of the intellect or mind. The primal essence of existence compels us, even though we cannot fully embrace that essence with our reason. Therefore, "no man is quite sane," seeking to know that essence, and coming up esteeming our "hat and shoes sacred." 

The unified oneness of the perceiver, that which is perceived, and the process of perceiving is an elusive oneness, even for Emerson. He admits the frustration at his fleeting glimpses of that which he does not eternally own. "A man can only speak, so long as he does not feel his speech to be partial and inadequate." We intuit the whole within the part, yet lose the wholeness within the boundaries. This fleeting, intuitive, deja vu-like experience of knowing wholeness is our experience with nature. We have been one with nature before, haven't we? We almost remember it. "There is throughout nature, something that leads us on and on, but arrives nowhere, keeps no faith with us." Our hunger, even when we eat, is for something greater than the physical food. All thoughts and exertions fall short because they are expressions of boundaries which limit the unboundedness that teases us with reminisces with every hard line and definitive action. "This disappointment is felt in every landscape." We cannot come "near enough" to the objects of our perception. "The pine tree, the river, the bank of flowers before [the poet], does not seem to be nature. Nature is elsewhere."

What is fickle is not nature, not matter and motion; nature is not petulant, nor are we "tickled trout." It is our individual consciousness that is fickle and variable. "We cannot bandy words with nature, or deal with her as we deal with persons." There is no personal or individual relationship with nature, only a cosmic relationship. If we wish to see nature in its wholeness, then we must be whole. Our knowledge of existence is structured in our own consciousness. We cannot experience unboundedness while being bound by our own individual limitations. "Nature cannot be cheated," or tricked into revelation, Emerson writes. "Man's life is but seventy salads long, grow they swift or grow they slow." What we perceive through unenlightened eyes is only a glimmer of full sunlight. "The reality is more excellent than the report."

Emerson provides us with hope, though, even though he provides us with no clear technique for transcendence. Transcendence is our nature, after all. "The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought." Consciousness makes "the whole and the particle its equal channel." Since nature is in every particle of our existence and in all of existence, we should hope and live for that transcendental unity. "Every moment instructs and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form." We must strive for unity with nature, no matter how many days it takes.

"It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence, until after a long time."

The irony of Emerson's conclusion is that being nature, we yearn to know our nature, to live fully our unbounded nature, even if our individual, bound selves are too busy or preoccupied to remember. Being out among the trees can help us remember, though. That's why I'm camping right now, surrounding myself with nature, with trees and sky and lake. Ideas of enlightenment and unity reside in our mind, but also "stand around us in nature forever embodied, a present sanity to expose and cure the insanity of men." I'm here for the cure, even if it doesn't happen until after a long time.

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Thursday, October 8, 2020

3 Quick But Important Takeaways on the Pence-Harris Debate

Having watched last night's Vice-Presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris and then read commentary on the debate, my initial reaction was the same as journalist and columnist David French from Twitter: "I'm feeling nostalgic. This reminds me of normal debate frustration -- when politicians don't answer good questions and respond with canned mini-speeches. Simpler times."

However, after listening to the debate, thinking about the candidate responses, and reading some commentaries, three points stand out for me regarding the debate and what the candidates said, either verbally or with body language. I think these points will have major negative consequences from various segments of the voting population for the Republican Party. I think these negative consequences will be cementing blocks of voters to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket, even though Pence's steady calmness will reassure some voters.


Pete Buttigieg said on the Steve Corbert after-debate show (at 5 minutes in), "The scary thing is [Mike Pence] is pretty comfortable telling a total lie in a calm, reassuring voice that would make you think that what he was saying was God's honest truth." I think voters will realize that Pence's gift to the Trump-Pence ticket is his ability to calmly state lies that Trump . . . well, trumpets. Pence's denunciation of Harris for saying she wouldn't accept Trump's word that a vaccine for COVID-19 was ready but would also need verification by science is just one example. Pence sidestepped the point--not that science doesn't work, but that Trump is a liar. Another Pence moment related to this: "I think the American people know that this [Trump] is a president who has put the health of America first."


Pence's calm, deliberate delivery worked against him when he attempted to "mansplain" his perspective to Harris and the American people. In a Time magazine piece, "Mike Pence’s Vice Presidential Debate Lecture to Kamala Harris Isn’t Likely to Help Trump With Women," both candidates are called out for side-stepping issues in their answers, but the article notes that Pence's overspeaking and extending his speaking time (and ignoring the moderator, Susan Page), his facial expressions, what he said produced a sense of "condescension and contempt," according to the article's author, Philip Elliott, whose comments in the article about the Trump-Pence ticket's problems with women voters is explained. Another article bashing Pence's behavior and how it will adversely affect the voting of women was The Hollywood Reporter, yes, in an over-stated style that nevertheless made a telling point.

"Pence appeared obnoxious, condescending and not altogether present in the moment as he ran roughshod over the two women on the stage and kept addressing issues the moderator had moved on from. If Trump did his best to get his picture under the definition of 'alpha male' in the dictionary last week, Pence’s portrait might be found under 'mansplainer.'”

Calm Pence/Angry Trump 

The literary term is "foil," a foil being a character in a story that highlights through contrast another character's personality traits and behavior. Pence's deliberate calmness ultimately accentuates Trump's volatility. As Pence spoke about how much Trump cared for the American people, the president had just spent a day tweeting about how pandemic relief was on . . . and off . . . and on--until the obvious truth was seen that no matter what the White House and Vice President thought was happening, it could change in a moment, based on the president's mood. And many are tired of that volatility, senior citizens among them. Retirees in Florida are a good gauge of that fatigue, as seen in articles on the subject. 

"He does not seem to care for truth. Truth is very important to me. He does not check facts," one retired man said. Another Florida retiree said, "They’re concerned about his plans for Medicare and social security of course, but they also didn’t allow their children to behave like this, they don’t allow their grandchildren to behave like this, and they’re very much turned off by it." In a Christian Science Monitor article, another retired voter says, "I’ve never seen this level of mishandling my entire life, and I was around during Richard Nixon and Watergate. This coronavirus situation has just highlighted how inept [President Trump] is."

Irises, Vincent Van Gogh
Ultimately, Pence's delivery style in the debate only serves as a foil to Trump's volatility. His demeanor is like the one white iris in Van Gogh's field of purple irises--the one white iris accentuates the saturation of the purple flowers. As we head into the home stretch of the 2020 election, Pence's one debate with his steady demeanor will only emphasize the stormfront of Trump's behavior--and folks are tired of the needless sound and fury.

People will hear and see what they want to, according to their point of view. After four years of White House lies, intolerance, and a stormy president, one solitary debate where the vice president calmly lies, is serenely intolerant, and who denies with wide eyes the storm raging outside--one debate, I sincerely hope, will not change the tide pulling us toward a more sane and civil time. As a final note, as usual, NPR provides an objective, balanced summary of the debate: "4 Takeaways From The Mike Pence, Kamala Harris Vice Presidential Debate." "The vice presidential debate wasn't likely to change many voters' minds or shift the trajectory of the race, but it showed sharp contrasts between the two parties' agendas for the economy, health care and more." Let's hope for a time of more informative reads and fewer diatribes.

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Saturday, September 26, 2020

Don't Expect Same Night Election Results

G. Washington, 1789
(National Archives)
I remember clearly staying up late on election night, watching election coverage and waiting for the winner to be announced--even though a news network's prediction was in reality unofficial. That probably won't happen in the November 2020 election, and voters need to understand that and be okay with waiting for election results . . . possibly for weeks or longer.

It helps to know that historically, during times when hand-counted ballots and snail mail were the norms, that gathering national election results took time. It used to be that the president was not installed in office until March, until in 1937 (and thereafter) when presidents were installed in January. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, the "Lame Duck" amendment, upped the inauguration day to speed up the transition to office, something needed and possible in the more technological age but which would have been difficult in older times when communications and travel were slower.

I recently read an article speculating various scenarios of a contested 2020 election, published by the Harvard Gazette, in which I was able to glean the one sentence of historical fact that I was looking for: "For many times in our history, we didn’t know the result of state tallies for weeks, so that’s not historically unprecedented." I wasn't motivated to fall under the spell of gloom-and-doom scenarios the article speculated, but I was interested in the idea that for most of the history of the United States, there were no election night instant results. Voters understood that there would be a time lag between the voting, the vote count, the results announced, and the inauguration. These things took time . . . and still do.

I also found it interesting that the idea of secret voting came about mostly after the Civil War because of the intensity and violence of that conflict. Before that, voting was more public, even including voice votes and adding your signature to a list for a candidate--sometimes during fairs or carnivals where folks (men, who voted then) could be inebriated. It seems voting is more solemn now, probably a good thing, not just something done between horse races.

The Wall Street Journal has posted an article online, "When Will We Know the 2020 Presidential Election Results? A Guide to Possible Delays," that seems to fairly objectively discuss the idea of delayed results for the 2020 presidential election. The journal's main point is that mail-in ballots will take longer to count, that we should expect that, and that we should be patient. 

“We have to prepare for the very strong probability that an election unlike any other we’ve ever had might take a little longer to accurately count with integrity,” said David Becker, executive director and founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research, a group in Washington, D.C., that works to improve election administration. “More time being taken to report results is not an indication of a problem.”

We are reminded that election night results are unofficial and that it often takes weeks for the official tally to be announced. In a close race, it is even more important that the certification process be accurate, which may increase the time lag. 

Emotions are high for many, and some politicians are doing their best to inflame those passions. I think it's ironic--and good--that Americans need to realize that our patriotic duty in the upcoming election is to vote . . . and then chill. Don't listen to screamers and accusers. Let the process follow its course as it has done so for over two hundred years. Step back from that need for an instant information fix. Be patriotic. Just chill.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Down with Doomscrolling!

"Doomscrolling" and "doomsurfing" are new compound words Merriam-Webster is watching, "referring to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing. Many people are finding themselves reading continuously bad news about COVID-19 without the ability to stop or step back." The "scrolling" compound highlights the use of the smartphone for skimming for bad news, the "surfing" referencing computer use, although the terms are pretty much interchangeable. 

And I am guilty of engaging in this activity. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

"Can you think of a better way to spend your time?" Merriam-Webster asks, adding, "Remember to take some time away from your phone today." Yes! As one friend said to me six months ago: "It's bad enough to let this virus into your body, much less your mind." Merriam-Webster continues to provide wise insight. 

During times of crisis and uncertainty, some of us pay more attention to the news, looking for answers. And this might not surprise you, but we have to say it: a lot of the news is bad. And yet we keep scrolling, keep reading article after article, unable to turn away from information that depresses us.

Our friendly neighborhood dictionary provided some emotional support at the end of this "Words We're Watching" entry: "Whether you prefer to surf or scroll for your doom, don’t feel you need to take it in all at once. After all, tomorrow is another day."

Rathbun Lake
I was curious to see what strategies others have suggested to cut doomscrolling out of our day. And, yes, I went online to find out, but with a focus! In fact, here is my pre-research list of what I think I'll find, written down because this whole process--article and research--is really a bit of self-therapy to re-balance myself and to re-structure a more positive activity level for myself. It's part of my current two-week camping sojourn at local state park. Change of view, change of pace, and screw my head back on.

  • Have a specific purpose for going online
  • When (or if) checking the news, set a time limit--and set a timer for that limit, for instance, setting five or ten minutes to locate an article that provides current covid updates.
  • Use the internet to research for information for an article. This is similar to the first bullet point, except that it is linked to my computer writing work for my blogs. 
  • And as always (always, always, always!), check your sources!
NPR wrote an article that is pertinent to this topic: "Your 'Doomscrolling' Breeds Anxiety. Here's How to Stop the Cycle." The bottom line advice? Set a time limit, stay cognizant, and swap "vicious cycles" for "virtuous cycles." The use of your phone's timer is pretty obvious (and spot-on useful). Staying "cognizant" just means to enter the online information world with a specific purpose--and then to accomplish that purpose and get out. The last "cycles" concept is to replace the negative information activity with a more positive one. I wasn't so far off on my own self-suggestions, was I! published a comprehensive article about doomscrolling: what it is, why it's bad, and how to stop. "Turns out your brain loves this stuff," a psychiatrist says, the ancient negatives like dodging saber tooth tigers has been replaced by more pervasive, insidious negatives that just hang on and on. The article's suggestions? First admit that you engage in the behavior and that it has a negative effect. Next, set a daily time limit (15 minutes a day, the article suggests). Finally, train yourself to identify positive events in your life and around you. (Find three positives a day, the article suggests.)

What I found interesting and useful about both articles is the mention of having a plan. Negativity can be like quicksand; the ground looks stable, but suddenly you're stuck and being pulled down. Plan to stay on higher, firmer ground. Create a habit of engaging in positive activities. I think my two-week "staycation" here on the lake is paying off: reading, writing, cooking, hiking and bicycling, and having a plan to limit my news intake. Hiking rather than scrolling! In fact, now that I've finished this article, I think I'll see what my neighborhood heron is up to. Wash your hands, wear a mask, and maintain social distancing to keep your body healthy . . . and, you know, the mental equivalent for those three measures ain't so bad either. Keep to positive online material, filter your internet activity, and distance yourself from your phone. 

Well, okay, for me it is literally a new dawn on the lake, and I'm looking forward to this new day.

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