Christmas, again

Something about Christmas brings out the way each of us feels about the odd process of being human. It is especially true this year, amid a stubbornly persistent pandemic and a burgeoning culture war in which all sides see themselves as champions of the beleaguered masses. Not much can be said about the pandemic, which seems to embody every horror film ever made in which the not-yet-vanquished monster rises, incredibly, again. Covid is the Freddy Krueger of diseases. The most telling aspect is that has been subsumed and conscripted into the service of the culture war, no longer standing on its own as an issue.

You might say the same for the Christmas season. But somehow the “War on Christmas” doesn’t quite resonate, possibly because the day itself has long since devolved into a market holiday. The season, however, remains the focus of reflection on the human condition, there being no shortage of winter milestones to mark in other religious traditions.

To me, the story that most closely aligns with the sentiments associated with Christmas occurred on Christmas day in 1914. World War I had begun in earnest, and, five months into it, had settled into a war of attrition. Both sides pulled back to reconsider their strategies, to regroup and rearm in the days leading up to the holidays. Troops on both sides took the opportunity to relax their guard, and even to climb out of the trenches for a breather. By the time Christmas itself came around things had become almost casual. Soldiers who had been blowing each other up a few weeks before exchanged pleasantries, and at one point even a friendly soccer game broke out. The good will lasted only until the end of the day. By nightfall, the killing resumed in full force.

Optimists see this as proof that, given the chance, people will live harmoniously with each other, realizing that their common interests far outweigh their differences. Pessimists, of course, will focus on the fact that after a brief lull to catch their breaths, soldiers returned to the grim task of eliminating each other with gusto once again.

Like most things in life, it’s not as simple as either side would like to think. Instead, the incident illustrates the push and pull of our social natures. We strive to belong but belonging to one group implies rejection of other groups. And so, we have this odd dance of love and hate, and we need to reconcile the two. But how?

This is where the story reflects the reality of the human condition to perfection. The violence is paused for a brief interlude of camaraderie, and then resumes, allowing us to congratulate ourselves and then carry on with the killing.

That this story has become a part of Christmas mythology, and in the retelling affirms our belief in ourselves as just and loving underneath it all, allows us to pick up where we left off once the season is over.

Good hunting to you and watch your back.

Can you hear me now?

The other day I had reason to call customer support for one of my credit cards. Words to strike fear in the hearts of even the strong, right?

It went about as expected, maybe a bit worse. After the customary stalling by running through the automated responses a few times, I was put on hold, and eventually the grating music was interrupted by an actual human voice.

Lucky me, I thought. The voice was clearly South Asian, probably Indian. I say clearly, but advisedly. The line kept crackling and breaking up. Whenever I mentioned that, the person at the other end apologized, did something technical, and asked if that was better.

It was. In a way. During the static-free intervals when the transmission was clear, there were constant noises in the background. The suport person obviously had the call on speaker phone. I don’t think I need to remind anyone of the poor voice quality on speaker phone; it’s as if the call were taking place in a cavern. The distraction from the backgropund noise only made matters worse; the constant clatter was occasionally punctuated by a loud bang.

The support person resolved my problem, and I thanked her whole-heartedly.

Why? Because the issues with the call reminded me of what is happening in India while much of the rest of the world is enjoying a respite from a cruel pandemic. How a nascent success at controlling Covid-19 was derailed by a misguided populist leader, who prematurely declared victory and removed all restrictions. How hospitals and other health services threw up their hands in defeat, overwhelmed beyond their capacity. How the sick and dying were housed in tents and corridors. How a moratorium was declared on cremations due to concerns about contamination of the air. How the Ganges, a river sacred to Hindus, was awash with unidentified corpses under the reign of a Hindu extremist, of all people. How working from home was a luxury not afforded to many in India but was a means of survival in the midst of catastrophe to those who could do it.

I thanked her for somehow bearing all that and still managing to survive and function at all, let alone well.

I thanked her for surviving and hoped that the children I heard in the background would grow to be as strong as she is.

And I thanked her for reminding me of what is and isn’t important.

A year of muddling through: things learned from the pandemic

You can’t waste time. There is always more of it. You might not be in it, but in that case you won’t be around to complain.

You can’t spend time, as if it were a commodity to use in a value exchange. You can’t spend it because you have no control over it.

For the same reasons, you can’t use time, wisely, foolishly, or any other way. To use a thing, you first have to grasp it. Try to grasp time, and it disappears.

It is possible, however, to feel you don’t have enough time while simultaneously feeling overwhelmed by its abundance. You can feel pressured and bored all at once.

The mind is like a huge muddy prairie, full of boundless wonder, but easy to get bogged down in. Even if you keep moving, you leave behind deep ruts for the return trip.

Hindsight is rarely 20/20. It’s a haze of excuses and misplaced or unrecognized priorities. Luckily, you can just make out reality if you squint.

Memory is the vapor trail you leave behind in the turbulence of your passage. Look at it long enough, and you can see all kinds of fanciful shapes.

Work is anything you do for other people; play is anything you do for yourself. The problem is that they often mix, and it’s hard to keep them straight.

Some things you crave only because you can’t have them. Other things you crave even though you already have them.

No amount of worrying has ever determined the future, which happens with no regard for your plans. Then it becomes the past, which no amount of regret has ever changed.

The meaning of life is like a knife that’s all edge and no handle. Go ahead, try to grasp it.

You need people more than you think, even if only in the background. Just sitting in a room full of other people is healing.

Nothing will keep you from dying.

Love is not all there is, but it is all that’s worth anything.

The death of satire

Let’s invent a fictional character. Let’s give him a name, say, Tod Croz, and then let’s make him a United States senator.

Let’s say his father, born in a foreign country, entered the US through Canada with his American wife and 4-year-old Tod, who had been born in Canada.

Let’s say that in spite of that background Tod fiercely opposes foreign immigration to the US.

Oh, and let’s throw in a part about Tod once shutting down the entire US government in a failed attempt to keep a bill providing medical insurance to everybody in the country from becoming law.

Just to make things clear, let’s have him thoroughly despised in the government he’s a part of, even by members of his own party. Let’s have one of his colleagues say that no one would be convicted if they murdered Tod in the senate.

Then let’s say that not long ago, Tod ran for president, and his opponent belittled, bullied and slandered him, and called his wife ugly to boot. Just for fun, let’s also say that his opponent accused Tod’s father of being complicit in the assassination of a sitting US president. In spite of all that, since his opponent’s subsequent election Tod has been his staunchest supporter, some would say acolyte. In fact, Tod is one of the most vocal supporters of the enormous lie that election fraud cost his erstwhile opponent the most recent election, and even is seen urging a mob to storm the very chambers where he and his fellow senators are soon to meet.

Oh, and a deadly plague has descended on the country, and Tod spends his time not only opposing, but ridiculing any attempts to deal with the plague based on scientific evidence.

Then –stay with me here– Tod’s home state suffers a terrible natural disaster in the middle of the grinding plague, and instead of using his powerful position to help, he decides to go off to a sunny beach in Mexico.

This, understandably, causes a huge uproar, and Tod rushes back, claiming the whole thing was the idea of his pre-teen daughters, so he can’t be held accountable for it.

However, our character is still seriously considering another run for the presidency, and his party sees nothing wrong with that.

Well, what do you think? Is this character believable? Should I go with him in my new novel?

Thorns, odds, and the impossible

A few years ago I was walking on a disused path in some woods near where I live, when I noticed a small branch that seemed to have attached itself to my foot. When I looked more closely, I saw about an inch of thorn sticking up through my boot just in front of the ball of my foot.

This was a genuine official hiking boot with about an inch and a half to two inches of combined Vibram outsole and orthotic insole, and a Gore-Tex and nylon upper. Needless to say, I was dumbfounded. How had a thorn managed to penetrate all that? More to the point, how had it penetrated my foot without my feeling it?

I pulled out the thorn; it was easily four or five inches long and almost a quarter of an inch thick at its base. A honey locust, I figured, although I hadn’t seen one with thorns quite that big. As I tossed the branch away from the path, it occurred to me that I’d better get a look at my injury before too long. A little way further up the path I found a convenient log, sat down, and gingerly removed the shoe, fully expecting to see a slowly expanding patch of red where the thorn had come through. When I looked, I realized why I hadn’t felt anything.

The damned thing had passed precisely between my big toe and its neighbor as far back as it could without hitting flesh. When I say precisely, I mean there was no evidence of its passage whatsoever — not blood, not broken skin, not so much as a minor scratch.

What, as they say, were the odds of that happening? Well, I maintain that, since it had actually occurred, the odds must have been 100%.

You could calculate the odds as a hypothetical exercise, taking into account such variables as the average number of dead branches small enough to go unnoticed on a disused path, the percentage of those likely to have huge thorns, the probability of such a thorn lying at the precise angle required to use the force of a footfall to penetrate a sturdy shoe. You’d also have to take into account the width of the path, the length of my stride, the size of the shoe, the total area of the sole, and so on. Then you could come up with some number, which would surely be vanishingly small.

And yet, it happened. You might be familiar with the concept of the black swan, popularized in a book of that title by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’m not interested in the failings of statistics which do not take all of the significant variables into account; it may be true that probability calculations can be improved by using the proper data. My point is that even when all knowable variables are taken into account, you can still end up on the wrong side of the conclusion.

Why is that? It’s simple. Statistics are descriptive, not predictive. They describe in detail past events in similar contexts to the one you’re interested in. In the end, any conclusion you draw is based on inductive reasoning, which by its nature is vulnerable to data gaps. When an event actually occurs, such as my adventure with the thorn, it becomes data, and statistical inference is irrelevant to it. The question, “What are the odds of that?” is pointless.

Does that mean that judging risk on the basis of probability is useless? Not at all. But it is why the severity of a negative outcome is so important in the decision process.

If I have a 10% chance of spilling wine on my shirt, that’s not going to stop me from drinking some. But if I have a 10% chance of dying if I get Covid-19, that’s a different story.