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.

The good monsignor

At one level, what follows is an amusing anecdote about childhood. At another, it tells you all you need to know about religion at ground zero, away from the ponderances of theologians.

When I was a child, I went to St. Philip Neri School, the beginning of 12 years of Catholic education. For the most part, it was an excellent education, sometimes in ways no one there could have predicted, or would have acknowledged. I’ve long since stopped being a Catholic, but I miss some of the trappings of the church.

I’m thinking particularly of Confession, the sacrament. Even as early as the first grade, we children were marched to the church next door every Friday morning to confess our sins.  It’s a ritual that, on balance, is a good thing in a general way, a kind of cleansing of the spirit, a renewal and a chance to start over repeated frequently enough to have a continuing effect. That’s the positive side of it. The negative side is that some people used its recurring absolution as a clean slate on which to write more transgressions; think Mafia, for example, or Mussolini or Franco. Of course, you could circumvent the need for regular redemption with good timing. It’s said that Constantine put off baptism and confession until his deathbed, realizing that as emperor of Rome there was no way he could avoid any number of sins per diem.

At the other end of the spectrum were we children. Our problem was that there was nothing to confess half the time. Disobedience, yes, there was always that, but it felt a bit repetitious after the first dozen or so times. There were always “impure thoughts,” but, honestly, at the age of seven or eight, we had no idea what they were, except that they had something to do with girls and boys. I suspect it was the priests who heard our confessions that needed to meditate on that more than we did, at least until the sixth grade or thereabouts.  So, we made up fictitious lists of sins. The priests must have thought we already had one foot in hell to hear all the things we did in a week.

Of course, it was not always so. I remember one Friday morning in the third or fourth grade when, as we marched across the playground to church, my best friend told me he had something terrible to confess, and he hoped he could be forgiven. The day before, he had been accosted on the way home by a public-school boy, a bit older and larger than he was. It happened, in that curious way that beggars belief, that he had a fork with him, who knows why. As the older boy lunged at him, my friend struck out with the fork. It stuck, and drew blood, albeit not much. The older boy’s eyes got huge, and he pulled out the fork, threw it on the ground and ran away, crying. My friend was sure there was major time in purgatory in store for him, if not hell itself.

Well, as it happened, as we lined up in front of the confessional to wait our turn, in came Monsignor Busald. He was the pastor in the parish, which at the time ran to four or five other priests, any of whom could have been hearing confessions that day. But no, it was Busald.

He was ancient, a bit crabby, and no longer given to keeping up appearances. He reserved the daily 5:30 AM masses for himself, and he was the only priest in the parish who would make the altar boy go in the back to get more wine in the middle of mass. He was also hard of hearing, and like many such people, talked more loudly than necessary.

And so, it came about that when my friend entered the confessional, full of trepidation, we heard everything.

“Mumble, mumble, mumble…”

“What? Speak up, boy!”

“Monsignor, I stabbed a boy with a fork!”

Outside the confessional, it was all we could do to stifle our laughter, while the good sister whose name is lost in the mists of time, our teacher, turned crimson with embarrassment.

There was an uncomfortably long span of silence. Then, the monsignor:

“Was he Catholic?”

“No, Monsignor, he was protestant.”

Another awkward silence.

“Well, that’s all right then. Next!”

Service in hard times

It’s a thing nowadays, thanking veterans for their service. I get it a lot, because I was, as Bill McClellan so eloquently put it, “…patriotic enough to flunk out of college and get drafted…”  I always feel a bit uncomfortable. If only they knew what my service was like.

But now we have lots of people who really do deserve our gratitude for their service: delivery people, grocery store employees, all the people going to work as normal while the rest of us hunker down.

Of all the people who deserve and need our support, however, none are doing so much and taking greater risks than health care workers. They’re on the front line day after day, working long hours with inadequate equipment, literally risking their lives.  They get exposed to the biggest doses of the virus and for longer periods, which seems to induce much more severe illness, at a time when fatigue and stress reduce their ability to resist.  I am certain that when this is all over, we will have many, many cases of PTSD among health care workers.

Let’s thank them now, but above all let’s not forget them when times return to something like normal. We owe them so much.