Tuesday, March 31, 2020

SSRSHTF

COVID-19 - Day 30 SSRSHTF (since shit really started hitting the fan):

Life went from pending uncertainty at the beginning of March to near worse-case certainty now, on the last day of the month. While the known cases and fatalities continue to rise rapidly, far more people are taking the crisis seriously and doing what is recommended, at least when convenient. There are still some overreacting and too many under-reacting, but we are a nation of extremes, it seems.

Personally, aside from moving from an actual classroom to a "virtual" one, my life is not overly complicated by this. Complying with the directives issued by the authorities as advised by the experts has not been very difficult. My gas tank in my car has been close to full for about two weeks. My supply of necessities has been adequate without over-stocking on anything, despite the temporary shortages caused by those who did and the things that are not necessities are well stocked as well.

I have not gained any weight nor am I eating my boredom away, probably because solitude doesn't bore me. The only thing that has changed noticeably is that, now that I can sleep later because I do not have to commute to work, I do - and that means I stay up later. And later. And later. I am falling back into my natural nocturnal pattern and, although I don't necessarily see that as a problem, if I let it get out of control, reeling it back in could be a bit of a chore. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

It is Spring Break this week. Ordinarily, I'd be off doing something. I planned to be off riding my Harley all week with no destination, itinerary or plan. While a solo motorcycle ride like that is, by definition, a socially isolating affair, it is not totally completely so. Unless I planned to camp (which, unless absolutely unavoidable, I don't - ever), I cannot guarantee I will remain distanced enough from people who I have no idea where they have been or who they have been in contact with. I'm less worried about getting the disease than I am about spreading it, but either way, I am responsible for keeping my distance, too.

Today I have some loose ends to tie up for my students and I am getting some things in place for when class resumes next week. The weather this week is going to be gradually warming, but even today, with the temperature hitting in the upper 60s, with clear skies, it is perfect for a ride. And I will ride sometime this week for sure. I can go at least 150 miles without stopping for gas, food, a bathroom or anything – I can be 100% isolated on the road for 150 miles that begins and ends right here. But not today, In addition to a little bit of work, I also will do a little bit of work on my motorcycle. It’s also a damned fine day to do that. No reason to “pass the time” with TV, Facebook, sleep, or food. Boredom isn’t real, it is a state of mind – it is a choice. Life goes on, it’s just another day and another adventure.

Peace.

Monday, March 30, 2020

We are Strong


Today is the first day of Spring Break, 2020. It’s a little cloudy outside, about 63 degrees at 1:00 p.m. – that’s about as warm as it’s going to get. There is no rain forecasted and the weather is going to gradually warm all week to the 80’s by this weekend. It is perfect motorcycle riding weather and ideal for what I had planned this week – a five to seven day solo ride throughout California and possibly neighboring Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. My “plan” was to stay on the road all week and travel 2,000 to 3,000 miles with no destination, direction or itinerary – just ride. I am also part of the “Tour of Honor” for the first time this year and I wanted to try to visit some of the tour stops once they were released on April 1st. They are still being released, but they aren’t being scored in “lockdown” states, rightfully so, and, because I live in California, anything more than a day ride is out of the question anyway.

So, yes, boo-fucking-hoo, poor me, cry in my beer, I don’t get to do what I want to do. Those who know me know I am not a whiner. There are too many good reasons for that, not the least of which is that is doesn’t do any good – whining has never made a bad situation better. Never. But beyond that, in this case, what is there to whine about? It’s not as though my life-long dream has been snatched out from under me, never to be had again. I’ve ridden. A lot. A long way. Many miles. Many days. Many times. It’s no accident, I’ve done that because I really like doing it, but not being able to this one time isn’t the end of the world. I have a much, much bigger ride planned for mid-July to mid-August that is a “bucket-list” ride for me, a coast-to-coast, border-to-border month-long, 10,000-plus mile odyssey that, even if this initial crisis has crested, will in all likelihood become just another two-week ride to Sturgis and back. Say it fast and that sounds like a chore - just another…

So many people are being affected by this in ways I cannot even imagine, ways that they will not easily, if ever recover from. And that is to say nothing about the people who have perished or the people who will – a number that is still rising alarmingly fast. I wonder how many people were complaining about being inconvenienced during World War II, when day-to-day staples were rationed in a nationwide effort to win a war. I wonder if anyone was worried about their vacation plans in 1942 when Germany occupied most of Europe and Japan was a constant threat in the Pacific. While there were some detractors and naysayers, the vast majority of this nation banded together in a common effort to defeat a common threat. We were not a nation of whiners.

The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers
And despite the commotion coming from a vocal minority, we still are not. Though it took a little time for the skepticism to fade, by the time the crisis became real, most of us became real along with it. There is an undertone of that grit that defined this country during World War II, a grit that resurfaced, for a while, right after the attacks of 9/11, and it is getting louder. We aren’t fucking whiners. We, most of us, do what we have to do and we do it without bitching about it. It is getting louder and it is getting stronger. In The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers, after Gandalf frees Théodin from Saruman’s spell, he tells a weakened Théodin, “Your fingers would remember their old strength better — if they grasped your sword.”

The Lord of the Rings is, of course, the age-old tale of good, against all odds, conquering evil, of bravery and sacrifice, of character and soul, of heroism. These are the themes that are beginning to emerge. This pandemic has shocked us into action the likes of which we haven’t seen before. We have been entirely too comfortable. We are awakening from a long, dark and deep sleep. We have grasped our swords, we are remembering that we are strong. We can do this. We are not fucking whiners.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Apocalypse-ish


I am not a so-called “prepper,” but that is not to say that I am not, generally, prepared for life’s inconsistencies. When the COVID-19 craziness began a little more than two weeks ago (in the US, but in California in particular), I was prepared. My normal supply and resupply routine had me well positioned to weather at least two weeks and, if stretched, much more. As luck would have it, I did my regular shopping – which I do every two to three weeks – right at the beginning of the “scare,” just as it was turning to panic. I figured the panic would pass, the crazed lunacy, the unbridled procurement of random items, the outright hoarding of things that make no real sense, all of that would quickly fade. The big warehouse stores where the huge inventories are stockpiled were hit first, but my much smaller (but still good sized) neighborhood Raley’s Supermarket had plenty of everything and I bought what I usually do – enough for my household. I could have purchased their entire stock at the time, but why would I?

Apparently there is an answer to that question, not one that satisfies me, but one that justifies a whole lot of others, especially when panic strikes. Within a week that panic spread to my local Raley’s and every other store. It also spread to other items besides paper towels, toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Things that make some sense were disappearing – nonperishable food items and such – but also things that do not last over long periods of time. People had carts full of gallons of milk and loaves of bread, produce to feed an army and even with enough freezer space, how much freezer burned chicken will they tolerate over the coming non-apocalyptic months?

My food stores and most other supplies are still good due to my regular supply and resupply routine. I did have to go hunting for paper products today, but although both my neighborhood supermarkets are still out, the local warehouse supermarket has some. As I predicted, the supply chain has started to catch up as the panic is dying down. Even canned goods are reappearing on the shelves. There never was a supply issue. And, as far as paper products go, with so many now owning a lifetime supply, the availability might not be the initial issue next time – it will be some other random “necessity.” Maybe it will be shaving cream, who knows?

And there will be a next time. This time, as bad as this pandemic is and as much harm as it can cause, has caused and will cause, it has revealed something much more damning. Human fear. Mass hysteria. Panic. We did not hit the tipping point… this time. A virus that is a little more deadly, one that moves a little faster, something more mysterious or anything unknown that poses even the slightest existential threat will flip the mass hysteria switch and, if on a national or global scale – that’s Armageddon. Will it happen? Possibly, I have no faith in mass humanity to stop it – this little trial run has shown that. A better hope is that sort of disaster does not darken our national or global door at all.

The “preppers” out there are, as the term implies, prepared for the absolute worse. They are prepared for the collapse of government, of civilization as we know it. They are prepared to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. While I am not at all convinced that sort of preparation is warranted, this little dry run of a widespread emergency has shown me that counting on humans to act rationally when scared is folly. A lot of otherwise intelligent, reasonable people were caught up in their own individual toilet paper wars – it was not pretty. I am, however, stepping my level of preparation up a notch or two. Once this blows over, I will enhance two distinct areas. Stock and defense. While my current position is fine for this scenario and more, I clearly underestimated people.

That does not mean I’m going to dig a hole in the ground and fortify it into a bunker. It also doesn’t mean my home will be some sort of armory or storehouse. It does mean that in addition to my level of day-to-day preparation that was already adequate to cover minor interruptions in daily life, I’ll extend it to preparation that covers major ones – bigger than what we are facing now. I’d like to say I can count on my fellow humans, and under normal and even slightly stressed conditions, I certainly can, but when people are afraid, they do irrational things. The response to fear, more than the thing feared, is often what kills us. I’m not about to let your fear kill me.




Friday, February 21, 2020

Millennial Doomsday


The blaming of the younger generation for all the ills of society is nothing new - it has been going on for, literally, generations upon generations. In his book, "The Sense of Style," Stephen Pinker writes, "Every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it." Examples of the "older" generation denigrating the younger one and then dooming the civilization that THEY built (single-handedly, no doubt) to obsolescence are as old as writing itself.

Illustration: Ryan Kelly
There are two problems with this quasi-argument. The first is that it is patently false. Not only is our civilization more advanced and more robust than it has ever been, it is through thousands of years of human societal evolution - not just the past few generations and certainly not "yours." Indeed, if there is in fact a threat (and there is a strong argument that there is), it is due to unchecked industrialization and "civilization," not some immanent societal breakdown due to changing social norms.

Second, and more importantly, is the implied deflection of responsibility. The older generation is all too quick to assume responsibility and take credit for our largess, for our species' rise to the top and dominance of the food chain. But when it comes to our offspring and how they mature and take hold of what we leave them, well, that's not on us. Who the fuck do you think taught these Gen Xers and Millennials all these things that you despise? It was y'all. There is no one else. What? The media? Who is the media? It's y'all. The government? It's y'all. All "those influences" are y'all - play the fucking tape back.

It's funny, really. You were all once young. The older generation was once bagging on you. That "rock" music was going to be the end of civilization as we know it. The way y'all dressed was and the way y'all talked... and women wanting to be doctors and lawyers? What was the world coming to? Yet you did your thing and look at us now. Now you're old and you don't like the change you're seeing. It's got to be someone's fault. It's those kids! But not your kids, right? You raised your kids right, but no one else did. Please. You had your chance to do your thing and make the world in your vision. Now your kids and grandkids get to do the same - we only had it for a little while. Now it's their turn. Let it go. Change is good. It's going to be okay.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Serendipity Passed


Prior to a near-death experience that was probably closer to actual death than it was near, my life was a series of seemingly random occurrences. I thought myself in control, I wanted to believe that I was going somewhere, the reality was that I was adrift. I had no direction and very little control. That experience, now almost 20 years ago, was the beginning of the end, but the beginning of the beginning would not really take place for another three or four years. But that was the first domino.

There are a couple of concepts that sort of described what has transpired since. One is what is sometimes referred to as the “butterfly effect.” Essentially, the idea is that something as small as the flap of a butterfly’s wings on the other side of the world will disturb the air is such a way that the disturbance – and just that disturbance – will start a causal chain that results in virtually everything else that happens from that point forward. Of course, taken to an absurd extreme, everything is the result of the first flap of the first butterfly’s wings, but the broader point is much simpler. Little things done now can have profound and unknowable effects much later. The other is serendipity, which is defined as, “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” While the butterfly effect has no positive or negative valence, serendipity necessarily does.

That near-death experience was the very large flap of a very large butterfly’s wings and the things that have been presented to me since, the opportunities, the ways in which I have approached life and the paths that have appeared before me have proven serendipitous, indeed. This is not some new revelation, I have experienced profound moments of gratitude and equally profound realizations of the presence of serendipity in my life many times over the past many years. It is upon me again, but this time is not a moment of rejoice, but one of sorrow. It is a time for gratitude, for sure, but also one of loss and in some respects, regret. However, if not for that first domino falling and certain events unfolding as they did starting nearly 20 years ago, I would not be writing this today, even if I had survived.

Without writing a book-length memoir that accounts for the unlikely path that led from there to here, part of that journey included a return to school as a “nontraditional” student.” Nontraditional in this context is commonly translated as old – old compared to the average college age student. In my case that was well into middle age, well after screwing up my actual college age years and making a mess of much of my life in the years following that failed attempt at college. It was not as though I never experience success; I did, but it was always fleeting and never with any solid plans or goals. It was incidental success, accidental success or, perhaps, opportunistic success. It was the kind of life that might have predicted the end that almost happened.

The path that took place after almost cashing it all in led me through a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree at California State University, Sacramento before I continued on to a Ph.D. program. I applied to a number of schools all over the country, among them was Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Two schools accepted my application, one was, serendipitously, LSU. Why serendipity? Because I have not just connections in Louisiana, I have family. Blood family. My mom’s sister, my Aunt Nancy, my cousins and other direct family all live nearby. While I had never been to Baton Rouge prior to visiting LSU before accepting my invitation to study there, I visited family in Southern Louisiana and Mississippi many times over the years since I was a child. While not close on an “everyday” basis, they were still very close and the “home base” that I had there, generations in the making, made my relocation much easier.

But it was far more than that. Sure, the practical implications of a middle-aged grad student having a complex, fully integrated family support system in place was an advantage that certainly made the transition smoother. Anything that removes external stresses could only be beneficial to my studies. It doesn’t take a great deal of intuitive power to see that. But the 2,000-plus miles between our homes meant that, aside from some holidays and other “special occasions,” we really didn’t spend a lot of time together. My living less than an hour north for the better part of four years eliminated that distance both physically and personally. It was so close, in fact, that I often took it for granted. No longer was it a major event to visit my Louisiana kinfolk, I could go just anytime. And although I did, in retrospect, I didn’t often enough.

I entered LSU in the fall of 2011. That year, before I knew I would be attending LSU, my Uncle Sonny, Aunt Nancy’s husband, passed suddenly. His memorial was one of those “special occasions,” though that word, “special,” feels somewhat dubious. However, as it was a celebration of his life, for a memorial it was pretty special. He and my aunt were married for almost 60 years. Yesterday, after a relatively short battle, my aunt followed him. From the fall of August of 2011 until May of 2015, I spent much, much more time in Louisiana than I did in California. The vacuum left by Uncle Sonny’s passing was still very real, but Aunt Nancy’s strength was the stuff of legend and, truth be told, I needed that, even if I didn’t know it or would never admit it. There were times, many times, when we would find ourselves, just her and I, alone just chatting about this and that – important stuff, trivial stuff, family stuff from an entirely different perspective – just stuff, and sometimes an hour or more will have passed in the blink of an eye. Although I built new closeness to my cousins and other relatives there, too, it was with Aunt Nancy I grew closest to. With my own mother, her sister, so far away, she was that to me, too.

I realize that I said a whole lot about me before I got to her, but this isn’t meant to be a memorial. I could not do it justice, anyway. One of my cousins will do that much better than I ever could, and rightfully so. This is more a reflection on the little things in life and how important those forks in the road can be, many miles and many years later. While I regret not taking the opportunity to visit more often when I could have, I am forever grateful for the time we had. My aunt was more help to me than she knew, more help than I knew, especially considering so much more that was going on that I didn’t write about here. I will truly, truly miss her.

As I was perusing my Facebook memories today, pictures of Mardi Gras popped up. Prior to LSU, I’d been to a few, but while at LSU, I felt more part of it than ever before. But those memories, while nice, are not unexpected or particularly profound. One, however, was; it was a comment from her on one of my posts. She was more a Facebook “stalker” than a participant, so her commenting is kind of a big deal, that it would pop up today, two years ago one day after she passed, is… touching, in a way I can’t describe. It reads: “I have no comment on the content of your post, but I see genes appearing. Grandad would be proud of you. There's nothing like a good argument to keep life interesting. Good job.”



Friday, February 07, 2020

The Radical Middle


There is, seemingly, nothing that the far right and far left agree on. In fact the one sure thing that they clearly do agree on would get push back from both sides if it was even suggested they agreed on it. Both sides constantly lament, no, whine, about how juvenile the polarization, the mudslinging, the back-biting and the sand-kicking has become. However, as much as they would bristle at the fact that they actually do agree, they do, in fact agree – we are a nation divided. I became politically aware at the beginning of Nixon’s second administration – yes, that Nixon – and in the past more than 45 of my 57 years, I have never seen this nation so set against itself. It is a domestic threat that looms far larger than any foreign threat that exists.

Both the left and the right, fueled by the extremes, blame each other; both say it was started by… pick a president, pick a Republican or Democratic House and/or Senate, pick a personality or a network or even “the media.” The reasons, the personalities, the policies, the attitudes, the generations change with the election cycles but the common denominator is blame. Vote for me because they did this to you. I love America, they want to destroy it. I represent American values, they are fascists (if on the right) or communists (if on the left). And everyone is stupid. Nice.

The reality is that most of us have a complex mix of both conservative and liberal ideals. Most of us do not have a straight party line ideology that is consistent with any political party platform. We make our decisions based on who best represents what is most important to us, every time giving up some things that we must concede. The only political candidate for any office who completely represents my interests is… me, and I’m not running. In every election we make compromises with ourselves regarding who the best candidate is, not who the perfect one is. Like us individually, our collective society, reflected in our government, consists of a melding of these liberal and conservative ideals – it always has. Everyone gets something, no one gets everything, by design. Somehow we seem to have lost sight of that. The is nothing inherently wrong with conservatism or liberalism so long as both extremes are checked by the give and take of debate, cooperation and compromise. When that works, democracy works.

While our democratic republic is still working, it is not working well and if something doesn’t change, it will, eventually, stop working at all. The only power that can destroy this nation is the power that created it. Those on the extreme are fine with reforming our policies and our institutions in their visions of the extreme – in that respect, accusations of communism and fascism are well-founded, but they don’t represent the vast majority of us and they don’t even represent those in congress, despite the partisan claims to the contrary. The vast majority, Republican, Democrat and independent, love this country and are patriots just like you and I are. However, they also love their jobs and to keep them they must (or feel they must) pander to their base – and that base tends to be on the extremes. But just the “extremes” isn’t even the problem, it’s those on the extreme edges of the extremes who are driving the division, and it is no accident.

A careful reader might have noticed by now that I have not accused or otherwise called out one side over the other for instigating or being the aggressor in this quagmire. A not so careful reader might be reading in Rs and Ls where I have not placed them. Please, please, don’t. And please do not internalize this because no matter how you feel about the left or the right – and even if you don’t believe those in congress “love their country” (I’ll even go so far as to say they might love their jobs more), the vast majority of your friends, family and neighbors are just like everyone else – a complex mix of conservative and liberal ideals who must balance their interests with those running for office and choose who best represents them. All we can ask of them is that they do the same when they get to office and debate legislation and policy. When we demonize the general “other side,” we are also demonizing our friends, family and neighbors who happen to identify with the left or right of center.

President Nixon resigned in disgrace. He screwed up, got caught and paid the price. It was a dark time in our nation’s history, a veritable Constitutional crisis. But despite that, he was no dummy. One of the things he saw was similar to what we are experiencing today – a political middle that is caught in the cross-fire. He recognized the non-political, hard-working Americans who had had enough of a whole lot and he mobilized them. He gave them a voice, and a name – the Silent Majority. They didn’t want to march, they didn’t want to protest, they didn’t want to be berated with mudslinging, with accusations, with bombast – they just wanted the government to work for them. And they showed up – at the ballot box.

It’s time for the middle to rise up again. We don’t have to march. We don’t have to protest. We don’t have to post or respond to stupid memes on Facebook. We just have to vote. But who do we vote for? It seems that they are all the same – each side pointing fingers at the other, each side taking credit here and placing blame there like it is some kind of game and the side with the most points wins. Aren’t we, the people, supposed to be the winners? We win when they work together. This election cycle, I will be voting not for any candidate who thinks most like I do on any given issue, I will be voting on the candidate who pledges to work together with his or her colleagues to do the work that we sent them there to do – our work. Those who can show me they have the backbone to rise above the partisanship and work to find compromise on the issues that face us will get my vote, and I don’t care what party they are attached to. It is time for the radical middle to be heard. Indeed, it is our only hope.