Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Ending With a Whimper

August 14, 2022

After over two years of sacrifice and fear, I guess this is how it ends. A barely reported update from the CDC that two cornerstones of the Covid pandemic era are no longer necessary. Social distancing is no longer recommended nor is at-home self-quarantining after being exposed to someone with Covid. Apparently there are enough people with antibodies that the unchecked spread of Covid is less a concern. That and weakened strains of Covid that don’t hospitalize or kill nearly as many people – though that’s not mentioned as prominently.

I wish there was a party. I wish we could celebrate making it through this together. I wish there was some acknowledgement that our efforts were helpful and effective. We did bend the curve enough to avoid completely overwhelming hospitals and healthcare institutions globally (although some places were indeed overwhelmed at various points). For all the jobs lost, educations disrupted, livelihoods reduced, emotional grief experienced, for all the fear and anxiety and uncertainty – to be able to have some sort of cathartic release would be so nice!

But we’re not going to get any of that kind of celebration. No hurrahs, no congratulations. Nothing. I suspect there are a several possible reasons.

First, I think there is a recognition of the power of mass fear in modifying human behavior, and acknowledging that a fear is passed doesn’t contribute towards that power. Other than 9/11 which was far more limited in scope there hasn’t been an opportunity in the US to see how far people’s behavior could be dictated and forced to change in America in our lifetime. In several generations, in fact. To celebrate the fact that such changes were unfortunate and only necessary for a short period of time might short-circuit the use of such tactics in the future, whether pandemic or otherwise related.

Secondly, people have been conditioned to fear, and there is no shortage (apparently) of possible new contagions to be fearful of. Monkeypox is an obvious example, though exact numbers are quite elusive and the apparent relegation of the disease primarily to the LGBTQ+ community hasn’t made it quite as comprehensive and able to generate the same level of fear – though media outlets are doing their best. Future variants of Covid will no doubt all get their airtime full of suspense and uncertainty whether they merit them or not. Insistence on tracking and reporting Covid cases rather than hospitalizations and deaths will also mean that inevitable spikes will be a cause for further pot-banging, even if they don’t cause more damage than any other illness we’ve taken for granted all our lives.

Thirdly, I suspect there is some level of bitterness in the scientific community. Though initial calls to shut down businesses and lock ourselves in our houses were couched in terms of bending the curve and trying to mitigate the rush of cases and hospitalizations and deaths in the early months of the pandemic, it became quickly clear this wasn’t really good enough for some in the scientific community. Instead, reasonable language was replaced with irrational language – warfare language. We weren’t simply going to endure Covid and ride it out and have as few deaths as possible, we were going to beat it. Defeat it. Stop it. End it. We were going to win because we had the science and technology to do so. Allegedly.

Vaccinations were a big part of this shift in language and I think there is some latent bitterness the vaccinations proved far less capable of protecting people from infection than initially asserted. Granted, the vaccines apparently lessened the severity of infection for some people, but I think there were more than a few folks convinced we could develop a vaccine that would essentially make people bullet-proof to the virus. Instead, we all got a first-class education in the limits of science and technology. And humility is not pleasant.

We also, hopefully, got a first-class lesson in the reality that America is different from any other country in the world. And while we’re quick to tout the benefits and glories of this, there are inevitable trade-offs. Our foundation on individual human rights rather than individual obligation to a government is a huge difference between the US and every other country in the world, democratic or otherwise. The insistence that the individual should be the primary arbiter of their risk-taking and general behavior has provided incredible opportunities that people from around the world still literally risk their lives to participate in by entering our country (legally or illegally).

On the flip side though, Americans are not as willing to accept mandates, directives, or recommendations, and as such vaccine rates were far lower than political and scientific individuals and groups wanted. The stubbornness that prefers to take somewhat known risks rather than the unknown risks of a newly developed vaccine was vexing for political and scientific leaders alike, and I think there is still bitterness over this. Nobody wants to congratulate a population that to varying degrees resisted the exhortations and pleadings and in some cases demands. Rewarding such behavior is counter-productive for future situations.

As someone who put off vaccination until the last possible moment and who personally had the illness, I commend this hard-headedness. I commend people insisting on making their own decisions rather than relegating that authority to some other agency. At least as much as possible. Such a line of reasoning does not – contrary to popular media – make people monsters. I think it makes them Americans (which some might equate with monstrosity). This applies in reverse as well – those who opted for the vaccine should be free to do so without denigration from others. Options are a blessing, as is personal agency. You’d think that was not the case to hear some people talk over the last couple of years.

So I think you should throw yourselves a party. Gather your family and friends. Gather your Covid-community that endured the hardships together. Do what’s healthy for yourself rather than expecting the powers-that-be to encourage or sponsor it. Don’t wait for someone to establish a day to celebrate when we collectively started to breathe sighs of relief that Covid was merely endemic. Because they aren’t going to.

While you’re at it, maybe give some consideration about how you’re going to pass down your experiences to the generations after you, especially the ones too young to remember or not around yet. Figure out how to convey your personal and family and community experience of Covid to future generations, rather than allowing whatever official reports exist or will be created to do that for you. You lived through a peculiar piece of US and world history, and your kids and grandkids and great grandkids and beyond would love to hear about it!

And good job, by the way. Whether you fought for vaccines or against them. Regardless of what philosophy you espoused or what political machinations you worked with or against. You made it through. By the grace of God, and that’s something to give thanks for, even as we remember those who didn’t.

Legislating Reality

May 22, 2022

Getting a kick out of all the uproar now that people are finally doing the math (or having the math done for them) and finding out Laura Dern was 23 in the original Jurassic Park movie, cast opposite her leading man Sam Neil who was 20 years her senior.

A few interesting observations.

I’ll assume Dern and other appropriately anti-patriarchy folks talked with Amber Heard a scant seven years ago when she married Johnny Depp, who is 23 years her senior. In real life.

In case folks are worried this was just an example of Hollywood wanting a younger woman with an older male actor, the book apparently also indicates there is a roughly 20-year age difference in the couple.

Dern herself notes at that at the time it seemed “appropriate” to love her co-star despite the age-difference.

However with 30 years to look back on it, she no longer feels this ought to have been the case then, or should be the case now.

In which case, what would an appropriate age difference be between a man and a woman? Or is a 20-year gap acceptable so long as there are an equal number of similarly profiled pairings? So for every Heard-Depp with 20+ years on the guy, there needs to be another high-profile couple where the woman is 20 years older than the man?

Makes me wonder why it felt “appropriate” to her back then but not so now? It seems clear she has a good relationship with her co-star. I’m sure that made their pairing all those years ago much more natural and easy for her to believe. And which may lead one to the conclusion that it isn’t simply male-dominance forcing young women into relationships with older men, but rather there are situations where the age difference (in either direction) seems less important than the quality of the connection and chemistry.

I won’t argue Hollywood clearly has a bias favoring younger actresses paired with older actors. I won’t even argue this is problematic at some level. But what level? At a patriarchy level? What does that even mean in this context? Was it wrong of the author to conceive of such a relationship? Wrong for Hollywood to cast it? Wrong for Dern and/or Neil to accept it? What should they have insisted on instead?

As a father of a daughter, what should I tell my daughter? Certainly if she were to be courted by a significantly older guy I would have my concerns. But should I tell her he can’t be more than 10 years her senior? Five? Fifteen? Should I recognize that sometimes, love transcends age and it isn’t exploitation or the patriarchy or anything nefarious? I’d like to think that with my daughter – as well as my sons – the quality of the person they consider spending time with is going to factor more heavily than simply an age, while trying not to be naive about the risks posed in potential spouses who are considerably older. But to simply declare an arbitrary age as disgusting or inappropriate seems just as disempowering as whatever alleged patriarchy threats Dern imagines.

Some people age better than others, not just physically but as a person, making them attractive to a broader age-range of the opposite sex. Hollywood typically shows us younger women with older men, but I believe it probably happens the other direction just as frequently. The important thing in both the fictional and real world is that the relationship works. And that will necessitate additional efforts when there is a significant age disparity involved.

At least we’ve all got something new to be indignant about. Lord knows, that’s what we need.

Lenten Poetry

March 7, 2022

It may at first seem counterintuitive, that in the midst of Lent we could find and enjoy beauty. But contrition and repentance are not the same thing at all as boringness or repetition or monotony or ugliness. If anything, our Lenten contemplations should drive us in part by comparison – the aching awareness of our sinfulness against the panoramic beauty of creation. Our unfaithfulness in comparison to God the Father’s endless and bounteous and undeserved fidelity. We do not deserve anything, and we are given so much. So much that is good and beautiful.

And these days when beauty and good seem even more elusive, when war and rumors of war rattle our consciences and make our creaturely comforts somehow condemning in the face of others’ utter ruin, these days we need the beauty. Amidst the ashes of war. Amidst the ashes of Lent.

So read this. It’s short, but it will take some time to both understand all of it and resonate with it. I’ve mentioned Wendell Berry before, but this is a good reminder to me I need to find more of him. I need his beauty, that does not seek to cover over or temporarily displace the evil and hardness of the world and our lives, but points us to the greatest beauty yet to come, and which already spreads – if only palely – its glow on all beauty here and now as well as all ugliness.

Nerding a Bit

December 22, 2021

I guess if I’m not to be proclaiming from the pulpit our Lord’s birth and how our celebration of that should be a pointed reminder that He’s coming back and that’s what we should be waiting for every day, I can at least geek out a bit regarding the winding and complicated nature of evil that is never so simple or isolated as we’d like to think.

For the Tolkien fans out there, a consideration of perhaps Peter Jackson’s biggest failure in his overall magnificent film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Book Review – Murder on the Orient Express

November 9, 2021

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

I went through a brief stage in early adolescence of reading classic mysteries. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie were both tutors in this brief foray. It didn’t last long because I tired of the genius of the detective becoming evident only at the end of the story by the introduction of additional facts, clues, and background information I as the reader could not possibly know. I was frustrated because I wanted to solve the mysteries myself, and the authors weren’t giving me what I needed to do so.

But when I found a copy of this book at the tiny library near where we’re sojourning along with a British television adaptation of the book, I knew we had to read it as a family and then watch the film. I’m glad to say that my particular irritations of many years ago notwithstanding, we all roundly enjoyed the book as well as the movie, and had a delightful interchange comparing the two and the interpretative license the director of the film version engaged in, both for good and bad effect.

The story finds Christie’s protagonist, Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot trying to unravel a particularly complicated murder on board the said Orient Express. The ending is truly a masterful stroke of genius. The characters are wildly diverse and curious in their own right. The book is well-written, engaging without pandering. It keeps the readers involved as clues are unveiled and alibis examined.

The television version of it, a 2010 British production, does an admirable job with some interesting twists. It adds scenes and skips over others. But as a whole, the director picks up on religious themes both expressed by Christie in the book and others not in the book but created to better flesh out the character of Poirot. Performances are solid though, as is typical in most adaptations, the characters can’t possibly be given their full due in 90 minutes of film as they can in 200+ pages of text. Still, if you can find this version I’d encourage you to watch it (ideally after just having read the book!) and sit and ponder the meanings of rosaries and prayers and God that find such a central place in this adaptation.

Then drop me a line and let’s talk about it more together!

Book Review – Old Man and the Sea

November 4, 2021

Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

I’d read this back in one of my high school literature classes. It’s not a complicated little story so it wasn’t as though the intervening decades clouded the storyline or the outcome. But as part of our less-connected, wi-fi-unpredictable life for the moment reading together as a family has come to the forefront. The place we’re staying had a copy and I knew it would be good for everyone to experience it.

I like Hemingway, but his sparcity can be exhausting at times. Where Bradbury or other authors bury you in similes and metaphors and adjectives, Hemingway remains terse, no doubt a throwback to his days in journalism. The story is slow, as slow as being stuck in a boat at sea alone for days on end, trailing a line connected to a massive, unseen fish below. I would likely be tempted to tighten it up a bit, but tightening it up ruins the entire point of the story. You feel the interminableness of Santiago’s situation. You feel his hope as well as his wariness. You admire his stolidity.

His dedication is to a code of manhood rapidly being erased in a Western culture intent on desexing and unisexing everyone and everything. No doubt he is dubbed as an example of toxic masculinity in college literature classrooms on two continents. How foolish, to risk his life on such an uncertainty, against overwhelming odds. Yet Santiago’s decisions are set by larger forces than himself and he seeks only to measure his mettle against them, just as he continually measures his own pain against the pain reported of his beloved DiMaggio. Does his suffering come close? Does he measure up?

If you haven’t read this for a while go back to it. As a father of boys and young men it is helpful to show traditional masculine qualities evaporating in the world around them. Like other much longer epic works it highlights the importance of doing what you know to be right and proper despite the potential loss you may personally suffer in doing so. Some things are worth dying for. Some battles should be faced squarely that the stories may be told and passed down to younger generations who will one day have to face their own giants, whether under the waters or in the stars or in their own hometowns.

Blogging Has Been Hard

September 9, 2021

Everyone goes through periods of writers’ block. Given the uncertainty this stage of life is for myself and my family, perhaps that’s even more understandable.

It’s frustrating, though.

The things I’m inclined to observe and write about have felt burdensome in light of how divisive and hurtful they’ve become in our culture. Rather than contribute towards that – even when attempting to be diplomatic rather than vitriolic – I’ve just opted to keep silent.

While we’ve been busy in preparing for the next stage of our journey – literally – in working abroad, most of that isn’t very exciting. Doctors’ visits, filling out forms, raising funding – none of that makes for very riveting reading by and large.

But I’m here. Busy. But here. Trying to write about things that are enjoyable and pleasant rather than divisive and irritating. Waiting for the writers’ block malaise to lift and have the urge to start writing more frequently. Until then, thanks for your patience.

Book Review: Indonesia, Etc.

July 26, 2021

Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbably Nation by Elizabeth Pisani

If you (like me) don’t know anything about Indonesia, this is a good introduction to not just the history but the region and culture. Pisani has spent many years in Indonesia and is articulate and entertaining as she chronicles her 13-month intentional re-exploring of the island nation in the early 2000’s in preparation for this book. Her experience in the country began in the 1980’s as a writer for Reuters and continued with a stint as an epidemiologist working with sex workers in Indonesia.

It’s also clear from reading this book she has an incredibly adventurous spirit, a willingness to embrace a philosophy of “just say yes” and actually follow through on it. This affords her amazing opportunities to be with everyday people and experience what their lives are like, albeit at a cost of personal privation and with an endurance that is truly remarkable.

Pisani isn’t shy about sharing her opinions, and only with further exploration will I know how much to trust her political observations and historical interpretations. Admittedly, writing about these topics even in passing is a dangerous activity as the truth is elusive as well as oftentimes deliberately hidden or rewritten to suit the preferences of those in power.

One of the great resources of this book is her bibliography of other books, films, and websites on Indonesia. She doesn’t claim it’s comprehensive but it’s helpful for those (like me) who intend to study further. Further, there’s a website with more up-to-date observations as well as the ability to access the e-book as well as some photos (which are not part of the print book).

Condemning Without Examination

February 11, 2021

This article is a fascinating example of the importance of analyzing the intent of a communication. What is it the writer or speaker or producer wants to occur in my thoughts or actions after ingesting their work?

The tone of the article throughout condemns the various bans on facemasks throughout Sweden during the COVID pandemic thus far, repeatedly juxtaposing Swedish stances on the issue with the larger body of established evidence. We are to shake our heads at those poor Swedes whose government agencies have failed them during this crisis by communicating inaccurately and ineffectively. We will, rather the author intends it or not (which means they probably do) also likely lament the supposed fate of the Swedes. After all, if their government directly contradicted prevailing medical opinions, was silly enough to even communicate their concerns about the safety of facemasks to the international medical community, and then did a terrible job at communicating the need for facemasks and under what conditions, the average reader would likely conclude that things in Sweden are far worse than places that followed more conventional wisdom and communicated clearly and strongly to require facemasks as protection against COVID.

But while this is likely the inference of the average reader, the article nowhere bothers to confirm this reaction (let alone dissuade it). The author clearly feels Sweden was out of place in the course of action it has taken in downplaying the efficacy and safety of requiring citizens to wear masks. The author certainly substantiates with external links that such a course of action stands in marked contrast to what most of the rest of the world recommends. But the real proof in whether a travesty has taken place or not is whether this decidedly different approach resulted in a pandemic situation worse than those countries pushing mask wearing. In other words, going a different direction can be good, bad, or indifferent based on the results. Or it can be simply dismissed as bad in itself – taking a path contrary to the established norms of the larger group is always bad, regardless of whether what the larger group recommends is actually helpful or not. That’s ultimately what this article leaves you with.

But that’s not necessarily true. It can be. But as a rule of thumb, a guideline to live life by, it can be very dangerous and misleading, and is actually a logical fallacy – an appeal to the majority (ad populum, to use the Latin). Just because more people think something is true – or because a particular group of experts think something is true – does not necessarily mean it’s true. It’s certainly something to take into consideration! But the demonstration of whether they’re right or not must lie somewhere else or in something more than opinion.

So let’s do some research. Sweden has a population of roughly 10,400,000 people. The World Health Organization says there have been just over 604,000 reported cases of COVID, and just under 12,4000 deaths. That pans out to an infection rate of the overall population of about 6%, and a mortality rate of COVID infection of 2%. For comparison, the US has a population of 330,000,000. The WHO reports US COVID numbers as just over 27,000,000 infections and 468,000 deaths. That comes out to an infection rate of 8% and a mortality rate of 1.7%. Arguing for any number of mitigating factors like population density and we could generously say that the infection rates are roughly similar and perhaps the mortality rates are a smidge higher in Sweden than in the US.

What about a European comparison? Germany has a population of approximately 83,000,000 people, of whom 2,320,000 have had COVID leading to 64,200 deaths. That comes out to an infection rate of not quite 3% and a mortality rate of not quite 3%. Germany’s infection percent is half of Sweden’s but it’s mortality rate is 50% higher. Interesting trade-off.

The United Kingdom has implemented increasingly extremely restrictions and punishments to discourage gatherings and travel and stem the high rates of infection. The UK has a population of 68,000,000, of whom 4,000,000 have contracted COVID and 115,500 have died. That yields an infection rate of almost 6% and a mortality rate of just under 3%.

So it would seem that while Sweden’s advice on health masks has been at times contrary to prevailing ideas on the efficacy of face masks, and at other times confusing to the point of being almost useless, the resulting levels of infections and deaths have not been noticeably higher than those countries that have imposed very harsh restrictions and mandated facemasks in all public spaces (at the very least!).

Perhaps COVID isn’t the best way to examine issues of what and how governments communicate to their people. Or if you’re going to do that, you should focus more exclusively on that rather than implied judgment about whether what was communicated (however poorly) was the right thing to try and communicate or not. I think you could write an article showcasing poor communication skills without also implying pretty heavily that not only was the communication poor, the message was wrong.

Blogging Curiosities

September 24, 2020

I’ve been at this for nearly 15 years, blogging on a regular basis. I never expected it would be a success by any sort of commercial or industrial metric. I never expected to earn revenue from it (and I don’t). I hoped to have some conversations with people, and that has happened.

I have a small following of regular readers (that I know about). A couple of dozen folks from past and present congregations. A little more than 250 followers through WordPress, but I don’t think about that much as I know many of them followed me in the hopes of building their own sites towards commercial viability. I generally get a couple of dozen visits per day, with fluctuation in both directions. Since moving my site to WordPress six years ago, my visitors and views have gradually increased each year. There are at least a few people who read, and that makes me happy.

But it’s interesting to me that yesterday I had double my usual number of visitors. I could pat my back for saying something people found interesting enough to share with friends, but that’s generally not my modus operandi. Rather, I find it curious that some of my visits yesterday came from China, and that yesterday’s post mentioned the conviction of a prominent Chinese opposition figure. I didn’t say much about it, just referenced it in passing. But it makes me wonder just how far-reaching the tentacles of geo-political monitoring go. Did I appear on some sort of Chinese radar for mentioning a related news story? Perhaps. Is that disturbing? Perhaps? Should it be more disturbing? Probably. But I’ll leave it at the curiosity level instead.