Category Archives: Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Back to Nature on Boreas Pass

I keep thinking about the first paragraph of Moby Dick, the whole of which is on my fall reading list.

A portrait of Herman Melville from 1860.  He has longish hair for the era, and full beard, on the long side, but tidy.  He wears a black suit coat, and his arms are crossed.
Melville in 1860, 9 years after Moby Dick was
published, and 6 years before then Breckenridge
Pass became a stage road.
Unknown author / Public domain

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, or the Whale

It is undoubtedly a damp and drizzly November of the soul now for many of us. I find myself restless and cranky, with much to do but little motivation. My ongoing search for work and the self-directed retraining I have undertaken feel grim and relentless.

Fortunately, Mr. Melville’s ideas about the ocean (just in this paragraph, I’m not speaking to the book) are incomplete. It isn’t only the ocean that one can turn to in such conditions. The majesty and grandeur of nature in all its manifestations can be an antidote to the desire to knock everyone’s hat off.

Bearing this in mind, Mom and I took advantage of a break, earlier in the week, in the pall of wildfire smoke hanging over Colorado this late summer and early Fall. Mom is recovering from a bout of non-COVID-related pneumonia. On Monday, I bundled her, her oxygen tanks, and her battery-operated yellow pulse oximeter into the front seat, packed the dog into the back seat, and headed for the high country.

My Mom, an 82 year old woman wearing an oxygen cannulae, looks out the passengar window of my gray SUV.

We were a little early for proper leaf-peeping, but brilliant gold branches gave us a preview of what is to come. We drove up Fall River Road, stopping to investigate the glacial rock deposits, and then headed on up I70 to Silverthorne. Years ago, driving back to the front range from Buena Vista, I had spotted the sign for Boreas Pass. At the time, I didn’t dare take my little red Scion on the rough dirt road. But now I have the vehicle for it, and we aimed for the pass from its northern end, accessed via Breckenridge.

Boreas Pass follows an old railway grade of the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road. It crosses the Continental Divide at 11,482 feet above sea level. There isn’t a lot of air up there, and we had to crank Mom’s oxygen up to its max.

It was worth it, though. The spectacular views of the Tenmile Range, Boreas Mountain, and Bald Mountain were a balm to the soul in these troubled times. There is something both terrible and reassuring in the reality that whatever happens in the coming months, those peaks will stand, pushing into the sky, impervious to our short time frames.

My pointy-eared black dog, with white around her muzzle, looks off to the side, sitting in front of a dramatic view of the Tenmile mountain range from Boreas Pass.  She wears a blue dog backpack.
Dog was not impressed by the scenery, but did think there were lots of interesting smells to check out.

And there is something to consider, too, in the history of the place. I suspect it is likely that it was known to the Ute for centuries, but for white people, it started as a route for prospectors looking for gold to get to the valley of the Blue river around Breckenridge, called Breckenridge Pass. In 1866, they widened it into a wagon road that could accommodate stagecoaches. In 1882, the railroad began laying narrow gauge tracks and renamed the pass Boreas in honor of the North Wind. When they built it, it was the nation’s highest narrow-gauge railroad. They made a little town at the top, of about 150 people, to keep the line clear, and put in lots of snow sheds. The town boasted the highest Post Office in the country, and the only one to straddle the Continental Divide.

The Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad (DSP&PRR, apparently known to locals as Damned Slow Pulling, and Pretty Rough Riding) gave up its narrow gauge right-of-way in 1937, and during World War Two, the government pulled up the track for the steel. In 1952, the Army Corps of Engineers created the current road on the railroad grade.

A large wooden water tank, painted orange, is on the right side of the image.  The road (Boreas Pass) comes in from the middle and goes off to the left.  You can see my car on the left, also, and lots of trees.
Baker’s Tank served the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Rail Road.

Just think of all the individual, fascinating lives in that tale. Every prospector had a story. Every stagecoach driver, every railroad engineer, every man whose job was to live in that tiny town at 11,482 feet and shovel snow off the tracks had a story — a full, rich life, with at least as many, and probably more, uncertainties and complications as our own. There is something reassuring about that. If they could survive History, surely we can, too.

These are people who lived in an environment that is simply built to a different scale than that of humans. It is a scale we have tried to match throughout civilization’s history, from pyramids to skyscrapers. It is a scale that we cannot match, and likely should not. It is a scale that puts us in context.

The view coming in to South Park from Boreas Pass.
The view coming in to South Park.

On the other side of the pass, going down into South Park, thousands upon thousands of aspen line the road. It will be stunning next week, or the next. It’s stunning now, for that matter.

It’s hard to put your finger on why getting out into that environment that is so much bigger than you, be it the sea or the desert or the mountains or the vast plains, is such a remedy to human mental health woes. It is easy to return to the idea that many humans live in a built environment that doesn’t much resemble our evolutionary habitat. But I live in the woods. There are houses and roads, yes, but still, it isn’t that different from the world where my great-great-grandcestors lived.

Perhaps it is simply that it puts us and our troubles into a larger, much larger, context. Or maybe it is about taking time away from the busyness and complexity of our lives as social animals. During the pandemic, I haven’t had much by way of a social life anyway, but even the twice or more removed interactions of social media and TV demand something of us.

A mountain peak, mostly above tree-line, pushes into a sky with clouds and crepuscular rays on Boreas Pass.  There is a meadow of brown grass in the foreground and pine and fir trees in the midground.
This may be Mt. Silverheels or Little Baldy Mountain, I’m not sure.

The high mountain peaks and the vast single organism that is an aspen grove demand nothing of us, really. They are simply there. If we wish to survive them, and to appreciate them, we must demand things of ourselves. We must demand caution and respect for the power of nature. We must demand reverence and honor for forces so beyond ourselves. And we must demand humility for our place in the vast scheme of things.

If we’re lucky, we come back refreshed when we make this demand of ourselves and we are not so tempted to knock hats off.

How to Worry in a VUCA World

A collage illustrating our VUCA world, with a woman printed with circuit boards, and globe made of portraits, and complex cables.  Volatility, complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity are spelled out in German, and the acronym VUCA overlays in the center.
Apparently it almost translates into German. Mummelgrummel / CC0

I learned a new acronym today from the business world.  VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.  

VUCA stands for 2020.  

Nature did not equip humans to live comfortably in a VUCA world. There are sound evolutionary reasons to prefer a stable, placid, dull environment. Even at our most adventurous, we like a calm, constant refuge to return to at the end of the day or the trip.  

And it was already a VUCA world, even before COVID-19 showed up. A statistic I ran across in an August 2019 article tells us that one in three Americans will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. I wonder how much that statistic will change as we all live through this upheaval of everything predictable.  

May you live in interesting times has never been a Chinese curse. Nevertheless, it is apt. Our age will not make the dryest chapter in the history books, but living through it is fraught and exhausting.  

Worry, when it is not dominating our conscious thoughts, is an ever-present background buzz in our minds, like an old fluorescent light that needs a new ballast. It keeps us on edge, unbalance, ungrounded, uncentered. It would be easier to deal with if the current crises were finite, but they’re not. We have no time frame, no point we can look forward to by saying to ourselves it will be over by next month, or next season, or next year.  

A lit up check engine light is shown next to a speedometer.  Worry is like a check engine light in our minds.
Wikiuser100000 / CC BY-SA

So what can we do with all this anxiety?  This article, which prompted me to think more deeply about worry in September 2020, espouses some benefits to worrying. It’s like a check engine light in your mind, giving you a heads-up that trouble awaits on your road. Just as with our car’s warning light, worry should prompt us to take action to mitigate or eliminate that upcoming trouble. It should help us to problem-solve and make plans and preparations.  

Of course, if you are living with your metaphorical dashboard lit up like a holiday display, it’s hard to use worry as an adaptive evolutionary tool. I would assert that you can look at most mental health disorders as too much of a good thing. Anxiety disorders certainly fall into this category. I figure they would be a lot easier to vanquish if irrational preparedness didn’t pay off in such a big way, now and then.  

Where is the line between adaptive worry and disordered anxiety? The above article suggests that worry graphs in a U shape, dipping down into productivity somewhere between too little concern and too much.  

A graph of worry is shown with a U shaped curve and a x axis of not enough worry to too much worry and a y axis of productive to not productive.

There is also, perhaps, a distinction to be made between actionable worry and helpless worry. It is one thing to be apprehensive enough to wear a mask, shop less frequently, and take other reasonable precautions. It’s something else to agonize over the course of the pandemic; something you don’t control in the slightest.  

If an anxiety disorder or even just excessive worry is simply the overstimulation of an adaptive trait, the goal shouldn’t be to eliminate that trait. There are so many articles on getting rid of worry, but it’s really about managing anxiety, not abolishing it.  

In social services, sometimes, a client may not be ready to change harmful behavior altogether. Many practitioners use a harm reduction model. Someone using IV drugs might not be prepared to stop, yet, but they can use clean needles. An alcoholic might not be able to stop drinking immediately, but they can give up their keys.  

Mitigating a trait one doesn’t want to eliminate might be seen as a different kind of harm reduction.  

An icon is shown of a worried stick-figure face with hair sticking up to the right.  A VUCA face, if you will.
worry by Alex Muravev from the Noun Project

Looked at that way, some strategies to “get rid of” worry in all those articles have some good tips. You can assign your worry a time of day, and deny it space in your head until its appointed hour. You can address procrastination and make a point of letting yourself feel the emotions worry may be suppressing. You can journal, talk about it with friends or a therapist, and address negative thought patterns.  

But my favorite ideas come from the article about the benefits of worry and a document on wellbeing developed by Edward Watkins at the University of Exeter.  

Give worry a job, as Kate Sweeny, a worry researcher featured in the article, puts it. Figure out what you can literally do to address the situation or potential situation. There is almost always some preparedness or precautionary action you can take.  

Worried about the election? Volunteer to phone bank or make social media posts, and plan out your voting strategy in advance. Concerned about the virus? Make sure to take all sensible precautions and be prepared. Go ahead and stock up for the next lockdown, but spread your purchases out over a more extended period, so you aren’t running stores out of crucial supplies. Freaked out by climate change? Make a point of making sustainable purchases.  

And if you don’t have time or money to do the things that feel most effective, do whatever you can to not make it worse.  

Just doing something proactive makes us feel a lot better. That was the deal with the national shortage of toilet paper before and during the lockdown. People felt helpless, and stocking up on TP was at least actionable.  

Even making a plan helps in and of itself. Setting up a series of if/then triggers for yourself can help reestablish (or just establish) a sense of control. If school goes all remote again, then I will… If I get sick, then I will take care of myself and others by… If there is another fire in my area, then I will… 

These things allow us to take helpless worry and turn it into actionable worry.   

Branches of a tree are shown with paper leaves attached by zip ties.  Things that people are grateful for are written on the leaves.  The nearest leaf is legible and says "my cat and my dog."
A gratitude tree clients made with me in my old job.

I also liked the suggestion to find something that is going right. It goes along with counting your blessings or the evidence-backed practice of listing the things you are grateful for every day. And you can project it into the future by figuring out some things you can realistically look forward to.  

There are other ways to use time, too. Looking back over your life, it is worth identifying the crisis points and figuring out how you got through them. Chances are, what worked before will work again, even if you must adapt it to different circumstances. And imagining how you will look back on today’s events ten years from now can put things into a different, calmer perspective.  

When it is all too much, worry researcher Kate Sweeny identifies at least three anti-worry states. Mindfulness, flow, and awe are incompatible with worrying, and beneficial in and of themselves. She suggests that mindfulness might work better for finite situations. Flow, when you can get lost in a project for hours at a stretch, and lose track of time passing, might be the best (and most productive) distraction in a situation where there is no end in sight.    

Awe might be why going for a walk or bike ride out in nature works so well for me. It is hard to focus on worry when the aspen leaves are fluttering just so, when the sky is brilliant blue and adorned with puffy clouds, when the wind blows through a field of grass, riffling in choreographed waves.  

An icon from the Noun Project representing adapt.  Three lines run vertically in the center.  Two arrows push in on the lines horizontally from either side.  The two lines on the outside bend inward to accommodate the pressure of the arrows.  Adaptability is key in a VUCA world.
adapt by Ralf Schmitzer from the Noun Project

And of course, to an extent, acceptance should be a strategy. We live in VUCA times, and will be living in them for the foreseeable future. We should be worried. We should even be worried in helpless, unproductive ways. Given the times, it is probably a sign of mental health, rather than mental illness. I’d say we all have an anxiety disorder now, but it is too appropriate to be called a disorder.  

Perhaps again in our volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, as in evolutionary times. Adaptability, not serenity, may be the end goal of mental health.  

If School Can’t Pause, We’re Doing it Wrong

I will return to my series Keeping the Faith: Fostering Engaged Citizenship in the US next week.

Two students are shown in an old photograph shoveling dirt, working on wildfire reclamation for a botany class in school, circa 1996.  Student on right is author.
Experiential learning, back in the day. I’m shown on the right. As part of a botany class, we spent some Saturdays doing wildfire reclamation work in Buffalo Creek, Colorado.

I was really worried when I went to college. Part of my elementary and all of my middle and high school years happened in a public school of choice (like a charter school, but established long before charter schools were a thing) with a radically alternative pedagogy. I hadn’t been formally graded since I transferred to the K-12 school in fifth grade. And I was hung up on the fact that I had never had a US history class.

Classes at the Open School were and are designed to incorporate the classic subject areas (readin’, writin, an’ ‘rithmetic, plus science, social studies, history, language arts, etc.) not by teaching them specifically, but as natural side-effects of deep learning. Courses ranged from the historic and contemporary music of the American South (as a preparatory class for a trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) to a group read of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (long after my time, but a perfect example of the type of classes offered). Students also did extensive learning in the classic content areas as they pursued personal projects and self-directed learning experiences.

So, no, I had never had a class that specifically studied US history. I did not have the background that I imagined all the other kids would have from their traditional schools.

The nail in the coffin of those worries came when I spent my sophomore year abroad in Nairobi. I was hanging out one evening with some other American students and some of my Kenyan classmates. One of the Kenyans was studying US history. Having a few handy Americans available, and not wanting to look it up, he asked what year the Declaration of Independence was signed. Of course, I deferred to the kids who had been through a traditional school education. They had no idea. “I’m pretty sure it was 1776,” I told him, still lacking some confidence.

As I have gone on in life, it has become increasingly clear that our school system crams young brains with facts which are retained long enough to be regurgitated on a test, then promptly flushed from memory.

A hand with a pencil taking a standardized test -- the old school paper version, where you had to fill in the little bubbles.
Standardized tests are usually done on computers now, but many of us will remember this format. Image courtesy of flickr.com user Alberto G., used by CC2.0.

In a survey of 41,000 Americans, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (name change pending in the Fall) found that only four in ten Americans had enough historical knowledge to pass the citizenship test. If I’m reading the article correctly (the language is a little ambiguous), that drops to only 27% among those under 45. And mind you, that doesn’t refer to acing the exam, just passing it, even scraping by with a D.

In the annual Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey, only 39% of Americans could identify the three branches of government. Alarmingly, this was a significant improvement over years past. In 2017 (I don’t know why they are not citing updated numbers here — maybe they changed the wording or something), more than a third of respondents couldn’t name any rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

A graph showing trendlines for results of the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey.  Lines are plotted for survey respondents who could name all three branches of government (39% in 2019, a substantial improvement) and those who couldn't name any (22% in 2019, a significant decrease).  Even given that these are improvements more of us should be retaining this information from school.
An encouraging trend — let’s hope it is long-lived.

In the 2017 Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (Piaac), a general test of workplace skills administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Americans were able to hold their own in literacy, coming in a bit above average. However, adults in the US tested 24th out of 32 countries in numeracy, and only 31.4% of the adults who took the test scored at levels 2 or 3 (the highest) in problem-solving in technology-rich environments.

A description of the levels of competency in the Problem-solving in a technology rich environment section of the PIAAC test.  In level 2, adults can - complete problems that have explicit criteria for success, a small number of applications, and several steps and operators - can monitor progress towards a solution and handle unexpected outcomes or impasses.  In level three, adults can - complete tasks involving multiple applications, a large number of steps, impasses, and the discovery and use of ad hoc commands in a novel environment - establish a plan to arrive at a solution and monitor its implementation as they deal with unexpected outcomes and impasses.  
All of these are skills we should be retaining from school.
Description of levels proficiency in problem-solving in technology-rich environments. Courtesy OECD.

It’s clear that the summer slide that so concerns teachers turns into a permanent slump once students leave school.

Given all this, people are right to be very concerned about switching to distance learning during the pandemic. But it is equally clear that this isn’t just a pandemic problem. Students are not retaining the information and skills they are learning in school, regardless of interruptions.

If our kids can’t even handle summer vacation without falling behind, and if we can’t respond to a public health crisis without jeopardizing their future, shouldn’t we be taking a deeper look at how we teach, instead of just agonizing over how to open schools safely?

A young girl sits in front of a desktop computer screen.  She may be playing a game, or she may be in school in a distance learning sense.
Hragaby / CC BY-SA

We have talked a great talk in recent years about teaching “21st Century Skills” such as critical thinking (which I posit has been a crucial skill throughout history and will continue to be one well beyond the 21st century). Perhaps our performance as adults will improve as more students are graduated from a curriculum that focuses more on such underlying skills.

But what I haven’t heard in articles and from pundits is a discussion of meaning in education. I was very lucky to go to the school that I did. Critical thinking skills have always been an important part of curriculum there, but it’s hard to think critically about something, let alone retain it, if it isn’t imbued with meaning and context.

Talking about meaningful education can sound pretty touchy-feely, but without developing a context of importance to one’s self, one’s various communities, and one’s own history, why would our brain retain facts? We retain what we care about, and it seems to me that many students in our current system aren’t shown very many reasons to care about what they are learning. Teaching to the test means that teachers are swimming upsteam, fighting their hardest to imbue learning with meaning, while the current is constantly sweeping them towards the next content standard.

W.B. Yeats may or may not have said “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Plutarch did say “the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.” A student who is (metaphorically) on fire gains more knowledge during the summer break, instead of forgetting everything they’ve learned. A student who is on fire might actually benefit from a gap year during the pandemic — it would be a chance to further pursue the things she or he had found most interesting in previous years.

If we choose to use it, this horrible health crisis actually presents us with many opportunities. We can build back a better, more just, more equitable economy. We can rethink commuting. We can use it as a chance to create a national health system that brings us up to the standard of other developed countries. And we can think deeply about how we can create an education experience for our kids that creates context and meaning. An education to remember, if you will.

Nothing to Lose: Race and Poverty in America

You can’t give people nothing to lose and expect stability.

People protest with signs after the killing of George Floyd.  African-Americans feature prominently, but there is a white person and another person of color in the image as well.  Signs read "black lives matter," "he could not breathe," and "stop (sign image) blue on black crime."
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The grace, tolerance, and restraint shown by black and brown people in the protests gripping the nation continually amazes me. Almost all of the demonstrators are committed to furthering a non-violent movement for change. Given the realities, that demonstrates a dedication to principles of peaceful civil disobedience that is absolutely remarkable.

I have spent most of the last nine years working in low-income apartment communities. The trust that people have given me in letting me a little way into their lives and telling me their stories has been a great honor. And time and again I have seen people boxed into a corner by society. Being poor in America is an unending series of catch-22s with no wins and no way out.

The communities where I worked were economically segregated, and included both people of color and white people. What I learned about poverty applies to them all, but everything one can say about poverty in America disproportionately impacts people of color because poverty itself disproportionately impacts people of color.

I have seen the impact of structural police racism on black lives. It’s not just about the terrifying threat to life and limb that African-Americans experience, it’s about a million petty charges filed, and how those petty charges dog a person’s life. That misdemeanor charge for smoking pot in public or talking back to an officer makes it hard to find housing and employment. A charge that would be scoffed off as someone just being young and dumb (if it was even filed) in white job or apartment applicants is seen as indicative of character for black and brown applicants.

Beyond those obvious effects is the fact that the criminal justice system in America has become a resource extraction industry, fracking impoverished communities to pull out every last nickel and dime for the benefit of the taxpayer, who doesn’t have to invest in the infrastructure of law and order. Any brush with the law incurs a seemingly endless string of expenses. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start making people pay room and board for their jail or prison stays. They already charge for everything else.

It sounds tough but fair to say that if someone committed a crime they should pay the expenses of their punishment. But when you consider that an ankle monitor can cost around $330 a month, and what that means to someone who may have $700 or less in monthly income, it becomes a double jeopardy issue.

Modern apartment building in brick red, mustard yellow, and grey blue.  Sign in foreground reads "Ruby Hill Residences Leasing Center" followed by an arrow.
One of the buildings where I worked — it was brand new when I started there. The city desperately needs dozens more buildings like it. ©clmcdermid

Employment opportunities for the under-educated poor are almost a bitter joke. Most of what is available is exploitation, pure and simple. It’s virtually always shift work, so there is no stability from paycheck to paycheck, from week to week. Without any stability, there can be no planning for the future. Not the far future, like going back to school, getting a degree, and getting a better job. There can be no planning for the near future, like what childcare will be necessary next week, and will I be able to pay for it with the shifts I am getting this week? And the wages often barely cover the cost of getting back and forth to the job.

If a worker makes it into a managerial position, things get, if anything, even worse. Most of these positions are salaried, and have no overtime payment. If you factor in the amount of hours it takes to fulfill all the job expectations, some managers wind up getting less than minimum wage.

With increasing automation, most of even these exploitative jobs are disappearing.

Getting an education that will potentially qualify you for a better job isn’t necessarily so easy either. Property taxes in low-income communities just don’t stretch as far as they do in affluent ones. The public schools suffer for it. Many of the people I worked with in their twenties who had graduated from high school did not know how to send an email, capitalize, or punctuate. It’s hard to go to school every day prepared to learn when your family is enduring the grueling stress of poverty. It’s hard to learn essential skills in an overcrowded classroom with limited technology.

Even for folks who have the skills for college, scholarships are limited and usually don’t include expenses like transportation and parking. In Denver, there is a low-income child care program that will subsidize daycare for those enrolled in school, but spots in child care programs that accept the subsidy are rare, and often far distant. I knew one woman who was traveling two hours by bus every day to drop her child off at daycare, and two hours to pick her up. Many potential college students are sidelined by being caregivers to children, to a parent, or to a grandparent. Immediate family obligations needs must trump opportunities for long term improvements.

Demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest in East Lansing, Michigan.  Protesters in the foreground carry an African flag and a Black Lives Matter flag in front of them.  Other protesters carry signs.  Only one sign is legible, and it reads "we wont let you silence George."  The four protesters in the foreground are African American women wearing black.  The protesters behind them are a mix of races.
Black Lives Matter protest in East Lansing, MI. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I can speak, to an extent, to the injustices of poverty, because I have witnessed them. Obviously, not all black and brown people are poor, and racism, both structural and overt, plays a large and somewhat different role in the lives of middle and upper class people of color.

But for the communities of color that are trapped in the seemingly endless snares of poverty, there is vanishingly little to recommend the status quo. And now people of color are dying at hugely disproportionate rates of COVID 19 while the threat from racist policing looms constantly.

Even without an outright police murder caught on camera, is it any wonder that people have taken to the streets? The only wonders are that it took this long and that the Black Lives Matter movement is so committed to non-violence.

When the most basic human right, the right that predicates all the others, the simple right to live and exist, is under threat, people simultaneously have nothing and everything to lose. The fight for change is existential. They myriad frustrations, indignities, and impossible situations of poverty need to be fought against. But gains there must be built on a foundation of the right to be alive and secure in one’s person.

People in the streets today are fighting for the right to better education, better jobs at better pay, better housing, better policing, better health care, and all the rest of the elements that make a good life in modern times. But first and foremost, people are fighting for the right to drink cool water on a hot day, to get a tight hug from a child, to savor a good meal, to walk down the street, to feel the snow in winter and rain in summer on warm skin, to simply breathe and be alive. One cannot enjoy any other rights, any quality of life, without life itself.

When income inequality was last this bad, the workers organized into unions and fought hard, bloody struggles to win us things like a living wage, an eight hour day, and bathroom breaks. Those hard-won rights created a stable middle class, at least for white America. Since those struggles, we have let all those rights erode. We have allowed that middle class, never available to everyone, to evaporate. And we have continued to deny black and brown Americans the basic dignities white people take for granted.

I hesitated to write this up. This isn’t my experience to write about. It isn’t my voice we should be listening to now. Listen to Dawn Turner and many other amazing voices of color, instead.

But sometimes people need to hear something from someone who looks like them, speaks like them, or lives near them. If you can’t take it from the people on the streets, take it from me. Racism isn’t just something that happens in nine brutal minutes, or to birdwatchers. It pervades America, and it pervades class in America. This is about all of that. I haven’t lived the experience, but I am a witness and would take it as a privilege to be considered an ally.

America cannot continue to give her people nothing to lose while threatening the most basic right of all, the right to simply live.

I will be out of town this weekend, so will not respond to comments until Monday or Tuesday. Thanks.

What Will it Be Like?

I used to work in low-income senior apartment buildings. In addition to my duties as a landlord, I got to do some fun activities. Our local public transportation agency had a program where they would provide a bus if you had enough interested seniors, and take them to the museum, an afternoon jazz show, a tour of the local tea factory, a trip to the Italian restaurant with the seemingly endless buffet, and the like.

T-Rex skeleton at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is one of the destinations of the RTD Senior-Ride program. ©clmcdermid

Seniors in low-income communities have typically been through a lot in their lifetimes, and they are still living under the grinding, relentless trauma of poverty. Many were hesitant to spend even the reduced rate bus fair and activity costs. They were worried about spending money on something they might not enjoy. They asked me, over and over, what will it be like?

My mind keeps returning to that plaintive question now. What will it be like has become the question on everyone’s mind. It haunts our national discussions, our private lives, and our dreams. What will it be like when the second wave hits? What will it be like if/when I have to go back to work? What will it be like to find work to go back to? What will it be like to live during an economic depression?

Unfortunately, no one can answer these questions, and we don’t have the option of not finding out.

I’ve written before about tolerating ambiguity as an important life skill that we are all learning and relearning together. Since then, the ambiguity has only grown. Can we open up safely? Can we address the staggering life and death iniquities faced by people of color in modern America? Will another documented instance of shocking police brutality, this time overtly murderous, finally lead to meaningful change? Will there be more legislation to help the states and individuals? Will they extend unemployment?

A painting of French and English troops fighting at the Battle of Waterloo.  Officers on horseback are in the foreground, and troops in formation are in the background.  One officer is in the process of falling off a black horse.
The Battle of Waterloo, by Thomas Jones Barker. Public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We aren’t used to this anymore. In 1815, it took news of the Battle of Waterloo four days to travel to London, a distance that can now be covered in about five hours by car. The whole continent was holding its breath. Now we get our information in near real-time. We never have to hold our breath for very long. And our forecasting in a variety of fields has become so sophisticated that we’re downright affronted if we don’t know about a storm ten days in advance. Forecasts in politics and economics are often inaccurate, but having constant access to them makes us feel better.

We no longer know what to do with ourselves when even the experts are careful to tell us that they don’t know what is going to happen. We’ve never lived through such a slow-moving crisis before. The repercussions of changes in policy now, as the country is opening back up, won’t be seen for weeks, even a month.

It’s hard to think of times in modern life when the question of what will it be like has been so central. I think about my nieces when they made the big leap from elementary school into middle school. And I think about that right of passage for Americans lucky enough to have the classic college experience. Moving into a dorm for the first time is still fraught with uncertainty, no matter that the campus has been toured and you’ve gotten to know other freshmen online.

But those are personal transitions and tell us little about something we are experiencing together as a society. I asked my parents, 80 and 81, about the uncertainties of the history they have lived through. My mother remembers an armed flight my father took to an unknown destination (it turned out to be Laos) while he was in the Marine Corps and things were heating up in Southeast Asia. Dad talked about the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A black and white cartoon turtle looks in alarm as a cheeky monkey hangs from a tree, holding out a stick from which is dangling a lit stick of TNT.
Bert the turtle knows how to duck and cover. Do you? Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And maybe that can help to pinpoint something we are missing, now. Even my oldest siblings were far too young to duck and cover, but I have always marveled at how schools, parents, and children took the practice seriously. The unparalleled power of a nuclear blast was well known by then. The dangers of radiation were well established. How could otherwise intelligent people convince themselves that a school desk would protect them?

But what duck and cover did was to provide a veneer of control to protect teachers and students from their horrifying powerlessness. It was meant to protect the mental health of kids and adults, more than their persons. The feeling that you are doing something to protect yourself, no matter how farfetched, is crucial to the psyche.

That need for a self-protective ritual is manifesting itself in many ways. For some, the mask has become a talisman to protect from illness, despite most of its efficacy being in stopping the wearer from spreading germs. For others, not wearing a mask has become a sort of rain dance for the return to the old normal. An alarming amount of people believe that rejecting vaccines will protect them.

In this, the reckoning for allowing a vacuum of leadership to form in the country, everyone turns to their own magical thinking. If I disinfect my groceries, it can’t happen to me. If I microwave the mail I will be safe. It can’t hurt me if I have enough toilet paper.

Prince Charles in front of a projected map of the UK with temperatures superimposed on it, delivering a weather forecast.
Weather forecasting has become so sophisticated, even royalty can do it. Image courtesy of user Dunk on Flikr.

And perhaps some of that is a good thing. Rituals like wearing a mask, washing your hands obsessively, and keeping your distance can serve the dual purpose of making us feel a little more in control and having a public health benefit. Other practices, like my weird fixation on being sure to have a full tank of gas as often as possible (yeah, I know) are irrational, but harmless. And of course, some of these superstitions range from merely dangerous to outright malevolent.

Our own personal rain dances say a lot about us. We should choose them with care.

And of course, we have to reckon with the fact that any and all of those rituals don’t make us really safe (though hand-washing and distance are a great start.) Certainly, none of them can rescue us from the uncertainties that haunt us. So far the only answer to the question what will it be like has been that it will be like not knowing.

Duties, Rights, and Responsibilities

In the States, we are framing our national debate around our freedom to (leave the house, shop, get haircuts, go to work) versus our freedom from (COVID19, the unmasked, germs, non-essential risks). But what if this isn’t about our right to get a haircut, or our right to be safe? What if this isn’t about our rights at all? What if we’re asking the wrong question?

I’ve been thinking a lot about duty lately. It isn’t something we talk about much in the States anymore. It isn’t something we have talked about much for a long time. Maybe this is the time to re-emphasize that democratic citizenship and patriotism don’t just bestow rights, they also incur responsibilities.

Hands wearing blue medical gloves sew a calico cloth face mask on a white sewing machine.  Three other masks are on the table.  There is a stack of fabric on the table.  Many saw sewing masks as a duty.
Many undertook mask making as a voluntary duty at the beginning of the pandemic. Is it our duty to wear them? Image via Adobe Stock.

What are our duties in a democracy during a pandemic? What obligations do we have to our fellow citizens? To our government? To the economy? To essential workers? What duty do we owe to our most vulnerable populations, to our neighbors, to our friends and families? What should we be doing for our states, towns, and cities? For our healthcare workers?

We are in the midst of an existential debate about the role of government while in the midst of a pandemic. Should our federal and state authorities prioritize our freedoms from or our freedoms to? What is our government actually for? This debate has always existed in, and to an extent defined, the United States. But in the last 30 or so years the debate has increasingly come to define us as individuals. It has become particularly loud, aggressive, and destructive, and it has become about poles rather than a spectrum of ideas and opinions.

We’ve become so caught up in this debate about what government ought to do, we’ve forgotten about what we ought to do.

Wikipedia defines duty as follows:

A duty (from “due” meaning “that which is owing”; Old French: deu, did, past participle of devoir; Latin: debere, debitum, whence “debt“) is a commitment or expectation to perform some action in general or if certain circumstances arise. A duty may arise from a system of ethics or morality, especially in an honor culture. Many duties are created by law, sometimes including a codified punishment or liability for non-performance.

I posit that duties also arise from systems of government and social expectations. The duty to vote and be informed arises from democracy. Our duty to say ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes is entirely a social norm. (Now, of course, we all have a duty to try desperately hard not to sneeze in public at all.)

A Louisiana National Guard soldier on duty puts a box of food into the back of a white SUV at a food bank.
Louisiana Army Guard Soldiers with the 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team help package and distribute food to the local community at the Food Bank of Central Louisiana in Alexandria, La, March 24, 2020. Soldiers are assisting the food bank to ensure the supply of food for the needy is maintained and distributed during the increased demand from COVID-19. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Thea James)

Our challenge now should be to sort out, as individuals and as a society, the tangled priorities of our own personal responsibilities. Does our duty to stimulate the economy and support local businesses outweigh our personal responsibility to save for all the rainy days we are in for? Does our onus to maximize self-sufficiency surpass our obligation to leave some toilet paper for the next customer (hint, no!)? How do we balance our economic needs with our responsibility to protect our neighbors, coworkers, and families? Is it our duty to utilize our essential services to keep people employed, or to minimize our use to try to protect workers? What can we do? What should we do?

The people who sat at their sewing machines making mask after mask have been asking the right questions. The people putting bags of groceries into trunks at the local food banks are doing or exceeding their duty. The essential workers who keep us all fed and tend to our health are what a retired Royal Navy man of my acquaintance once referred to as ABCD. Above and beyond the call of duty.

Now, more than ever in most of our lifetimes, it is about what we can do for our country. It isn’t about us and our freedoms and rights, it’s about we. We the families and neighborhoods, the towns and cities, the states and the United States, the world. We the people, not we the persons.

National Service

WPA poster, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Today, watching a back episode of Amanpour and Co., I heard Mark Cuban call for National Service. The idea gets kicked around. Pete Buttigieg, a Navy vet, rolled out a whole plan, along with Kirsten Gillibrand, and some more obscure Democratic candidates. Clinton called for an expansion of AmeriCorps in 2016, as did Obama in 2008. A quick scan of Biden’s website shows him proposing $10,000 in student debt relief for every year spent in national or community service.

Now, of course, as Cuban points out when he talks about unions in the above clip, things have changed. National service seems less like a squishy, feel good, liberal sort of program, and more like something that could save the country.

During the Great Depression, FDR launched the Civilian Conservation Corps. In its heyday in 1935, more than 500,000 young men were enrolled, doing things like building roads, airstrips, trails, and campsites; controlling erosion and flooding; fighting fire; planting trees and shrubs; improving streams; and providing disaster relief. In a Gallup poll in 1936, 82% of respondents were in favor of the CCC. That number included 92% of the Democrats and 67% of the Republicans. That’s pretty broad bipartisan support.

The CCC’s big brother, the Work Progress Administration, employed 8.5 million people between 1935 and 1943. That’s about 6.6% of the population. Its aim was to provide breadwinners with jobs. WPA workers built streets and roads, the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, the dams and waterworks of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Camp David, among other things.

WPA workers paving Moss Street in New Orleans. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It was World War II that finally led to economic recovery for the States, but it is worth asking how much the post-war boomtimes were fueled by the great infrastructure the country enjoyed.

We sure could use 8.5 million people working on our roads now. About 32% of urban roads and 14% of rural roads are in poor condition. Our battered and worn infrastructure is a real problem for our economy. It is a concern of companies deciding where to locate, not to mention a hindrance to commerce and a time vortex for individuals.

And we don’t just need to fix what we have. We need to add broadband capacity for everyone, more bike lanes and public transportation options, renewable power generation projects, charging stations for electric vehicles, and some potentially staggeringly large water projects if we want the West to remain habitable. We also badly need to build more levees, straight-up move some communities, and mitigate for wildfires throughout the West, and, apparently, Florida.

WPA bridge. Courtesy National Archives.

Experience keeps teaching us that infrastructure is an essential investment, not wasteful spending. In New Orleans, the levees failed, in Minnesota, the bridge collapsed, in the Northeast, the power went out, and it takes a freight train between 26 to 30 hours to get through Chicago. Maybe that’s why nobody could get toilet paper.

It is a lesson we seem hell bent on not learning. But it’s time we stopped pretending that you don’t have to spend money to make money.

In addition to beginning to fix our ongoing neglect-made infrastructure disaster and providing incomes for breadwinners, national service would put kids from my high-income, low-diversity town shoulder to shoulder with kids from a huge range of backgrounds. Gap years are becoming more popular in the US, but not everyone can afford to take a year to explore. Hell, a lot of people can’t afford college in the first place. National service creates a gap year opportunity for everyone, feeding colleges and workplaces a more experienced and worldly graduate.

CCC enrollees planting willow sprouts. Image courtesy National Archives.

And national service doesn’t have to just be about infrastructure. Childcare is a huge problem in the US, especially in low-income communities. Social workers, addiction counselors, school teachers, safety-net hospitals — they’re all desperate for help. We could bring back the candy-striper! And, of course, in the immediate term, there is all that contact tracing and testing to be done.

These things, too, are investments that benefit our economy, if, perhaps, less directly.

In April, the US lost 20.5 million jobs and the unemployment rate was 14.7%. To get to the 6.6% of the population employed by the WPA, we would need to hire 21.6 million Americans over the course of the next 8 years, if my math is right. Going the route of a mandatory or at least strongly encouraged program for young people would be a vast project. Getting to CCC numbers and limiting the program to youth would be a lot easier, especially with many service corps still existing in various states and regions. But it would still be a huge undertaking.

Sometimes huge undertakings have a huge payoff.

Red Rocks Amphitheater, a WPA/CCC project still in use. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We’re still using roads, dams, campgrounds, and other infrastructure built by the CCC and the WPA more than 75 years later. These programs got the nation to work, and allowed us to go into World War II ready to fight, despite the hard times. It is impossible to calculate the economic benefit of all those projects over all these years, but it must be substantial.

The post-war years saw booming growth and creation of what we think of as the middle class in this country. At a time when both our infrastructure and our middle class are collapsing, national service is an idea whose time has come ’round, again.

Day Forty-Four: Review

It’s been a long, strange forty-four days. Jefferson County has baked. I can tell, because there is no flour to be had. Jefferson County has gardened. I can tell by all the planting I’ve seen my neighbors doing. Jefferson County has, by and large, stayed healthy. I can tell by this case summary put out by the county.

I suppose I should be relieved and feel safer for that. Instead, I mostly feel sad. Denver County, about 30 miles away, has had 202 deaths. It has had 3,892 laboratory-confirmed cases, out of a population of 619,968. That’s 0.62%. Jefferson County has had 1,160 confirmed cases out of a population of 582,881. That’s 0.19% To me, those numbers illustrate the class divide in this country. Part of the disparity is about population density, yes. And there are plenty of privileged people in the city and county of Denver. Nevertheless, these numbers speak loudly of class.

Our 44 days of staying home have clearly worked for those of us with the privilege of doing it, which is most of the foothill communities. Even for those of us who make up the socioeconomic diversity of the area are massively privileged now. The houses up here, be they humble or not so much, are far apart. Nobody shares an elevator. Most people are able to work from home, and there is a good chance they were already doing it. We complain about the crowds at our parks like it’s the local pastime, but they are paltry in comparison to the parks in the city.

Alderfer/Three Sisters Park.

In my area, I give the stay-at-home order four and a half out of five stars for keeping the privileged safe. I give it two out of five stars for keeping the underprivileged safe.

We talk about the two Americas now to reference our political and cultural alienation. But when John Edwards (yeah, I had to look that up) brought the phrase into the popular lexicon, he was referring to the class divide. That divide seems especially stark now. It is a little hyperbolic to say that it is life or death. Instead, it’s more of the same dynamic that already existed: life or increased risk of death.

And that’s without getting into the racial disparities that lie starkly exposed in the wake of the first wave of COVID19:

And so we should be a little sad as we mark this milestone of moving from stay-at-home to safer-at-home. Those of us who have been lucky and able to stay safe shouldn’t be celebrating our relative success with stay-at-home, we should be mourning, not just for the dead, not just for the bereaved, not just for the ill, but also for equality and opportunity.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

P.S.: I will be using this milestone to revise my posting schedule — a little less frequent because I want to do some more in depth pieces. Thanks.

*** Change *** I initially included the case number for the unincorporated mountain communities in Jefferson County as 14. This was wildly incorrect — I didn’t realize the chart had broken out several of the unincorporated mountain communities separately. The case count in Evergreen, my town, currently stands at 47. Thanks to Cliff Coffey over on Facebook for pointing that out.

*** Update *** The Evergreen Chamber of Commerce estimates that there are 25,000 people in Evergreen. That makes our 47 cases 0.19% of the population, the exact same rate as the county as a whole.

Day Forty-Three: The Economy

I mentioned I have been re-reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Like many, he writes about what makes us Homo sapiens so special. Why are we the dominant organism on the planet, and not lions, or wolves, or bears, or any number of other species that could eat us up in a few big bites?

His theory is that our secret ingredient is the ability to collectively believe in things that have no concrete reality. We started off with the gods, ghosts, and spirits. Whatever your take on God, you’d have a hard time actually, literally, physically pointing at him/her/ze/them (depending on your religion). Religion is, by definition, an act of faith. You might be able to point to something that you see as God’s or The Gods’ work in the world, but you can’t point to a physical manifestation. Maybe your prophets could, maybe you will be able to in the afterlife, but for now, it’s faith.

It’s not just God/Gods. We humans believe in lots of things that aren’t literally, physically there. We believe that our money has value beyond the paper it is printed on or the ones and zeros that represent it (at least I hope we still do!) We believe that the other side of Niagara Falls is somehow, magically Canada, even though it looks the same as this side. We believe in capitalism, communism, socialism, or whateverism.

There is no Canada. Don’t tell Justin.

That doesn’t mean that these ideas we all believe in aren’t real. It just means that they aren’t nouns in the literal sense. They aren’t people, places, or things. I can point to Cuba. I can’t point to communism. I can eat a banana. I can’t eat a ten-dollar bill, but it is somehow more valuable than the banana.

Patriotism, capitalism, communism, socialism, the value of money, God, The Gods, and Canada have real, concrete, literal consequences. Consequences that have enabled a fleshy ape with weak teeth and nails to dominate the planet. And consequences that have, on many occasions, been disastrous for individual (or large groups of) apes, not to mention other species.

All this has got me thinking about the economy. It’s another one of those things you can’t point to, but it sure does have real-world consequences! It is an idea, an act of collective imagination that allows us to cooperate on a staggering scale.

Right now, we are all watching helplessly as it tanks.

If you do a google image search for “economy,” it gives you lots of images like this, but no photos. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

But ultimately, the economy is just a consensus. It is only as good or as bad as we collectively think it is. If investors have a sunny outlook, the stock market goes up. If businesses feel good about their chances, employment goes up. The degree to which such an important idea is based on the collective subjective is a bit gobsmacking, if you think about it too much.

Except it is time to think about it too much, and be gobsmacked.

We humans are great hackers. We hack our computer networks, we hack adulting, and since at least William James, we have been deliberately learning to hack ourselves. If, as a species, we can hack one big collective idea, elections, using Facebook, propaganda, and misinformation, shouldn’t we be able to hack the economy? Can’t we use Facebook and propaganda (which, after all, is just advertising), if not the misinformation, to collectively imagine our way out of this mess?

The economy is only as bad as everyone thinks it is.

Signing off. Take Care, and Take Care of one another.

Day Forty-Two: Opening

Did they wash those hands, before they let them cradle that house?!?

Colorado has moved to a “safer-at-home” footing, rather than a stay-at-home order, but my county, in coordination with five other metro area counties, decided to extend the stay at home order. That extension is almost up. On Saturday, Jefferson County will take its first tentative steps to reopen.

We can’t all stay home forever. And it seems like forever is how long it is taking to roll out a massive testing operation. But how many of us are really going to feel safe enough to resume some semblance of normal activity? What if Jeffco reopens, and nobody comes?

According to Axios, Colorado cases are declining, which is excellent news. Jefferson County numbers are also declining. However, most of our neighboring states have case numbers that are still rising. And without a ton of tests, I’m not sure we can feel confident about any of these numbers.

A lot of businesses are planning on taking patron’s temperatures when they come in. This does nothing for me. We don’t know the percentage, but it’s clear there are plenty of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers wandering around. Besides, there are also people like me. I can be plenty sick, but I almost never spike a fever.

Interestingly, no one seems to be spouting any rhetoric saying “it’s safe to come out now.” Even the president has admitted that more people will die. Messaging in Colorado is that we should continue to stay home as much as possible, which I’m sure all those businesses who can reopen are just thrilled about.

So what is the responsible thing to do? I’ve said before, for me, not much is going to change. I live with a one-woman vulnerable population. But what about the rest of us? Where does one balance among supporting businesses, regaining a semblance of normalcy (we can’t all stay home, forever), staying safe, and stopping the spread?

How are you planning on negotiating this? If you are somewhere that has already opened up, what have you been doing? Leave a comment!

Signing off. Take Care and Take Care of one another.