Glimpses From The Plague Year

One nurse comforts an exhausted colleague.

The first official COVID-19 death was 60 days ago. There’s evidence there were deaths ea.rlier, but for now let’s go with that February 29th death as the moment things started to get real here in the US. We’ve averaged a thousand deaths a day since. On that day there were fewer than 100 cases nationally. Sixty days later there are over a million. An ER doc from NYC committed suicide over the weekend. Families get separated by hospitals when members are admitted for COVID-19. Some people never make it to the hospital, dying in their homes. We don’t have anything near the number of tests we need. We’re still over a year out from an effective vaccine. Along with respiratory distress and pneumonia, we’re learning the novel coronavirus also causes permanent or near-permanent damage to the lungs, the kidneys, and the lever. Some patients seem to have clotting issues, with random clotting causing strokes in some patients. We’re only a few months into studying the virus and what it does to its human hosts. Healthcare providers, exhausted physically and emotionally, are prime targets for infection. There are shortages of proper PPE, made worse by apparent confiscation by the federal government where they’re put into pools that the states are then forced to bit on in order to buy back.

Anti-lockdown protesters demanding an end to stay-at-home orders

Meanwhile, a small yet very vocal minority, fueled by money from far-right donors, are demanding an end to the stay-at-home orders that have slowed the spread of disease and death. In the name of saving the economy, or protecting fundamental freedoms, or denying the severity of our current situation, these protests certainly make a lot of sound and fury. I know the current situation is both frightening and frustrating. It would be great if we could just end various shutdown measures in order to return to something resembling the “normal” that existed before all this happened. There’s a lot of comfort in the thought this could happen; a greater sense of security in a return to our usual patterns of social behavior than in the odd, worrying new-normal of staying in and isolated, watching our economy collapse as part of the horrid collateral damage from the coronavirus.

Even understanding their frustrations and fears, however, it’s difficult to have sympathy for these protesters because, in the end, they seem far too willing to sacrifice vulnerable populations as a balm to their own uneasy psyches. They often insist the reality we see around us is false; that shadowy forces of one sort or another are exaggerating the threat in order to accrue more power at the expense of our Constitutional liberties. We are told the virus is artificially enhanced, produced either here in the US then sneaked into China, or created by the Chinese themselves and accidentally released. Ships at our two major metropolitan centers, New York and Los Angeles, serving as extra hospital space, are, we are told, actually serving a far stranger purpose, part of which is rescuing supposed “underground children” from sexual slavery.

And now we are facing the prospect of states reopening before there enough tests, enough contact tracing, enough redundancy in our healthcare system to handle the inevitable rise in infections and hospitalizations. After a couple weeks delay due to the time lapse from infection to first symptoms, we will see a steep rise in infections first, followed by a steep rise in the mortality rate. This second wave will be that much worse because, by the time states manage to find the strength to reinstate social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the damage will be done and the virus will be moving swiftly through a far larger portion of the population. Trying to get people back home will be that much more difficult. The ineffectiveness, counterproductivity, and irrelevance of the federal government will make managing things in a second wave far worse than the first wave (because it’s not starting from zero this time, but from an average of nearly 17,000 new cases daily). States will find themselves with fewer resources, the economy will take an even deeper hit as more and more workers get ill, some either permanently disabled or dead, and pressure to continue to operate in the face of danger continuing, social stress will increase leaving those who haven’t contracted the virus with more psychic pain and the promise of PTSD looming into the future.

This is not a happy scenario right now. It’s actually more frightening than things were at the beginning, a mere sixty days ago. We face more sickness, more lifelong damage, more death, more social and economic dislocation, more political unrest, and more uncertainty. Whether this could have been prevented will be the great unanswered, unanswerable question of the 21st century. My hope and prayer is that we make it through to the other side of this season of sickness and fear with a greater sense of what our collective needs are and how best to satisfy those needs in a way that respects freedom without leaving anyone behind.

Nothing’s Going To Be The Way It Was

Drive-thru coronavirus testing, Massachusetts

As we all struggle to comprehend what’s happening with our current situation, it might seem impossible to consider what happens once this is over. It will end, of course. Not soon, which I think people (well, most people) are starting to understand. Still, the shelter in place orders, the business closings, the school closings, the travel bans, all of it will end. The question will become, “What now?”

We are in the midst of one of those events that will mark a “before” and an “after”. Like the Civil War, the Depression/World War II, and Vietnam, people living today will measure things “before the coronavirus pandemic” and “after the pandemic”. The great unknown is how all that might look. Unlike the Spanish flu epidemic 100 years ago, we have means to slow the progress of the disease through the population. While coronavirus’s mortality rate is about the same as the Spanish flu’s (3%-4%), with the measures in place right now both the number of cases and the number of deaths can either be reduced or spread out over a much longer time period. Also, unlike 100 years ago, we haven’t (yet?) so succumbed to fear that we’ve become murderous. During the Spanish flu, lynchings, attacks on communities of color and other minority groups soared; it helped fuel the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan as people sought a scapegoat for their misery. One can hope we don’t descend to that kind of social madness.

Particularly since this is an election year, we need to consider “what comes after” more clearly than we might otherwise. While our electoral choices are always urgent and important, rarely do we face such matters in the midst of a national election. We did in 1920 as the flu epidemic continued to sputter; Warren Harding’s weird call for “a return to normalcy” after two decades of rapid social change, efforts for reform, the urgency of war followed swiftly by a plague that killed as many across the globe as died in the war, a vote for “normalcy” had a great deal of appeal. The thing was, of course, was there was nothing “normal” about what followed. The 1920’s were a decade of forgetfulness. People sought to forget reform, forget the needs of the poor, become deaf to the cries of the farmers, forget war and death, indulging in a kind of glorious, childlike excess that had no attachment to reality. When the stock market, whose rise through the decade became as much a sensation as the jazz music, bathtub gin, kids racing their Stutz’s, and moving pictures, crumbled under the reality that nothing kept it propped up, it all came to an end. The wreckage was worldwide.

So do we choose forgetfulness? We’ve been struggling between a kind of excess that ignores our realities of massive impoverishment, our many broken infrastructures (from roads to healthcare delivery), and a kind of radical focus on precisely these matters. This latter certainly brings about passion among those most committed to changing the parts of our society that are broken; there is just enough privilege, however, to create an array of virtual realities that allow even more the escape to a place where the worries aren’t real, the fears aren’t immediate, and death is something that’s overcome by restarting a level. There’s little doubt this latter is so tempting precisely because it provides an illusion of control

Except, of course, we are currently learning we have no control. Not really. Oh, there are measures we can take to reduce risk, to control the spread of contagions and panic. At the end of the day, however, a little virus has done more to alter the world’s economy and social and civic structures than all the cries for revolution, or the opposite demand for decadence, could have imagined. We are experiencing new ways of work. We are coming to appreciate those workers whom we so recently derided as undeserving. People who couldn’t imagine being laid off are suddenly experiencing joblessness. School is happening in new ways, ways from which we can’t return but perhaps can integrate into what happens next.

So the question remains: What happens after? We need to ignore those who insist that things will “go back to normal” because we can’t “go back”. We can try to forget, overindulging in the rapid series of distractions that will no doubt demand our attention. Except we now know their unreality for what it is; reality is much more harsh, much more in need of attention than ever before. We are, all of us, regardless of where we live, our race, our class, our religion facing reality in all its starkness and danger. Holding one another up, getting through together will not be enough. On the other side, we need to fix the many broken things that have worsened our current situation. Those things over which we can assert some measure of control – how we prepare for crises; to whom we listen in the midst of ongoing fear and uncertainty; how we as a society distribute our vaunted wealth and many resources to ensure that everyone is safe.

We have much to consider. Fortunately, we seem to have plenty of time.

Politics In A Season Of Plague

A sign of our times: Times Square empty

It seems uncouth, if not obscene, to talk about politics while we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. To be honest, I’ve avoided talking politics much over the past week or so, as things here in the US went from bad to worse, precisely because we need to pull together. This is a situation that hits everyone, Republican or Democrat, liberal, conservative, progressive, right-wing, whomever. We need each other as fear spreads a bit faster than a disease we’re still struggling to learn about.

That does not mean politics isn’t still happening. Just yesterday, Sen. Rand Paul tried to insert an irrelevant amendment regarding the Afghanistan War into the coronavirus relief bill. Which is not to say that ending the Afghan war isn’t important. It most certainly is! We need, however, to remain focused at the moment.

I’m honestly not interested in the kind of simple-minded partisan finger-pointing because that, my friends, is the blame game. It’s a game children play. Right now, we don’t need children yelling at each other who started what. We do, however, need clarity about responsibility, because when this moment passes – and it will pass, though it will take longer than most people think right now – we will need a season of accountability. I think many thanks are due to the governors of Washington, California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois for acting fast in trying to control a situation that seemed to become more complicated and dangerous by the day. Other states are following suit, except for a few – Texas, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee, among others – whose state leaders seem unwilling to act to protect their residents.

Part of accountability is going to be making clear just how badly our federal government responded. One word I’ve seen bandied about a lot is “bungling” and there has been that. If for no other reason, our current federal bureaucracy is led by some of the most inept, unqualified people imaginable. Starting at the top with the President, they are people who have shown themselves unequal to the challenge; precisely the kind of challenge they are supposed to address with intelligence, calm, openness, and a continual flow of the best information available. While the fed’s actions seem to be catching up to the facts on the ground, it is far too little far too late for far too many. Accountability begins with the one in charge, and it seems pretty clear there wasn’t anyone in charge.

Someone today left a comment about how we need to have “smaller government” in the wake of our current emergency. Nothing, however, shows up the basic fallacy of the “small government” ideology than our current situation. First of all, as a general rule, it is impossible to govern a sprawling modern state on the cheap. Second, our current emergency is precisely why we have government agencies that deal with infectious diseases, disaster response, the coordination of everything from the flow of information to the supplying of resources. The best example is something I read from someone in a company that manufactures respirators, of which we currently are undersupplied. While they’re certainly ready to crank them out, absent large orders from the federal government, they’re not going to start producing. While there’s definitely a need, private hospitals, localities, even states, don’t have the resources to place the orders needed. That’s the federal government duty and they aren’t doing it. And Trump’s, “You try to get them yourselves” comment to governors is woefully short of anything resembling leadership.

Funny enough, we’ve found money to support people put out of work by our situation. We’ve found money to help cover medical expenses for the vulnerable. All the things we were told couldn’t be done for one reason or another are suddenly becoming a reality. It seems to me obvious that this is a lesson we need to hold close.

Of course, the pandemic also shows our social and structural weaknesses, brought about by far too many years listening to people who insisted our poor are undeserving. People who receive welfare, WIC, food stamps, Medicaid, and other help all too often work, sometimes more than one job. This shows, more than any graph or chart could, how obscenely inadequate our minimum wage is. Raising the minimum wage, not just to $15/hr but above the poverty line, seems a necessity now. Far too many people who work hard still don’t have any resources, or access to public resources, they need just to get by. The time for public frugality is done.

Our healthcare system, of course, is in a precarious position. Understaffed, often facing more and more stringent budgets, we don’t have anything close to the capacity, tools, and personnel needed to face what’s coming. Precisely because someone had the bright idea to turn medicine into a for-profit industry, we see the incompatibility of the demands of the market and the demands of the Hippocratic Oath. We as a whole people need to decide, sooner rather than later, which one is more important for all of us. Obviously, public health has come into focus with our crisis; but that doesn’t mean the needs which seem acute right now aren’t still there in more normal times. Addressing the many deficiencies of our healthcare system is something that we need to do, together, as a whole country. We have suddenly realized all our lives depend upon it.

We need to hold each other up in the middle of all this. We need to recognize we are all and each of us in this together. We’re all afraid, we’re all anxious for the near future. But we also must pull together and demand accountability, demand changes that make us far more ready to face extreme emergencies. Most of all, we need to remember to elect people who are up to the challenges of governing our sprawling, complex, modern, post-industrial state. Politics is serious business and should be treated as such.

Berned Out: The Stupid Democratic Primary Season

Sanders won as a Democrat, not a revolutionary, and he needed to pivot to a strategy that would unite the existing Democratic Party around him.

But it’s hard to move from treating the Democratic Party establishment with contempt to treating it like a constituency, and so far, the Sanders campaign hasn’t.

Sanders can’t lead the Democrats if his campaign treats them like the enemy, Ezra Klein, VOX, March 4, 2020
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

In a comment thread on Facebook the other day, I said that this has been the stupidest primary season I’ve seen. It might be possible my memory is faulty because all primary seasons contain stupidity. This year, however, has been uniquely ridiculous in large part due to the actions of supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders. While some of the more wild and ridiculous things posted on social media by “supporters” may well be the result of troll farms, Russian or otherwise, who benefit from the chaos created by open hostility among Democrats, quite a lot of that hostility rests on the shoulders of Vermont’s 78-year–old junior Senator.

I’ve kept at least part of one eye on Bernie Sanders since he entered Congress in 1988. I mean, who wouldn’t be excited by a real live socialist?!? It soon became clear, however, that while excellent at those one-minute morning speeches that are a long tradition of the House (usually railing against threats to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid), he had neither the interest nor ability to pursue effective, structural legislative change.

The facts are, Bernie has no real legislative successes to speak of. Part of the reason for this is his refusal to work with like-minded Democrats on issues that might have been important, or even forge friendships or good working relationships with members of either party. Preferring to bring a pox upon both their houses, Sanders has claimed his outsider status as a badge of honor.

Until 2016, when he decided he wanted to run for President. Knowing that running as an Independent would be a non-starter, he registered as a Democrat and ran against front-runner Hillary Clinton in a nasty, brutal campaign in which he spent most of his time besmirching Sec. Clinton’s personal integrity, professional accomplishments, and the Democratic Party power structure. While I found enthusiasm among his followers admirable – he did shift much of the discussion during that primary leftward, always a good thing – I found much of their online carrying on both woefully (perhaps willfully?) uninformed as well as counter-productive.

This time, I feel much the same way, only it has occurred on a far larger scale. A good example is the fate of California Senator Kamala Harris. It can certainly be argued that Harris’s time hasn’t come yet, there is little doubt her tenure as California Attorney General, then as the junior Senator from our largest state offered her an excellent platform from which to begin building a coalition. Before a single vote had been cast, however, Harris’s accomplishments had been denounced, her record distorted beyond recognition, and her support disappearing like the water in the Colorado River. Much the same happened to the far more centrist junior Senator from New Jersey, Corey Booker. He quickly ran out of steam, unable to find a place from which to begin to be heard before being shouted down.

Whenever I’ve seen Bernie supporters carry on about the Democratic Party being a capitalist party beholden to large financial and corporate interests, I have to wonder if they know anything at all about politics. I mean . . . of COURSE it is! What else might it be? Yet to Bernie supporters, and occasionally to Bernie himself, this seems a smear worthy of derision. As if a large institution like the Democratic Party could survive outside corporate support! This is just one of the many stupid things I hear more often than is good for my intelligence.

Perhaps the most egregious nonsense has been the concerted effort to paint Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as some kind of centrist, neo-liberal shill with no accomplishments or vision. The facts are precisely the opposite of this, of course, as any cursory search of Warren’s professional history would show. The result, however, has been creating an Elizabeth Warren who doesn’t actually exist. Combined with an ineffective campaign on Warren’s part, this has reduced what should have been the alternative to Bernie on the left of the party into a shadow candidacy, in which Warren finds herself defending things that need no defense, or attacks that are just nonsensical on their face.

With the votes still being counted from yesterday’s Super Tuesday primary, it seems to be a race between Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. Over the past few weeks, I have seen any number of attacks on Joe Biden’s record, whether on race, abortion rights, or what have you, that once again create a strawman that has nothing to do with who Joe Biden has become over he decades of public service. Yes, in the 1970’s, Biden was not a huge proponent of Civil Rights; he was a Senator from border state Delaware, after all. His performance during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991, attacking witness Anita Hill, was awful. These, however, are actions in the far past and Biden has demonstrated a willingness not only to change, but to listen to critics, admit his errors, and work to change for the better.

Were Biden an unreconstructed Jim Crow Democrat, would he have the support of African-American communities, particularly among black women voters – the real heroes of the Democratic victories over the past several election cycles – that he has demonstrated? It is precisely because he did listen and did show progress and change that dredging up actions from 30 and even nearly 50 years ago are not only wrong but ignorant. In dismissing the very real support Biden has among the most important, most active part of the Democratic coalition, Sanders and his supporters show an ignorance not only of Biden’s record, but feels like a racist dismissal of the very real preferences of communities of color around the country.

If the Democratic Party is to take back the Presidency this year – not at all a given, despite Trump’s obvious weaknesses – it has to be as the Democratic Party is constituted right now, not as some might wish it to be, or want it to become after the election. That means working across constituencies and ideological boundaries to achieve a common end. Spending as much energy running against the Party you’re seeking to lead as against the Republican opponent is not only not a good look; it’s a strategy that will not create a willingness among members of the Democratic Party to work for a Bernie Sanders agenda. As I said above, it’s counterproductive.

As an old school friend said on FB, I will support whichever old white straight guy the party nominates. I will do so knowing whoever that might be is far better than our current President. I will do so, however, coming quite close to holding my nose as I do so.

Voting 2020: Why I’m supporting Elizabeth Warren

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren

With so much attention focused on the Affordable Care Act as Pres. Obama’s signature piece of legislation, most people forget another serious legislative accomplishment: the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Set up to stand for people who’ve lost large amounts of money to the same financial conglomerates that crashed and burned down the world economy in 2007-2008, it was the singular brain child of then Associate Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren.

The real action in any administration is executive in nature: knowing what regulatory buttons to push, which enforcers can really go for blood, who to put where, and how to manage them.

It’s a job Warren’s done before, when she was charged with building the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from scratch. It’s an agency she initially proposed in an article as a law professor more than a decade ago and it has a singular mandate: to stand up for everyday Americans against the financial industry and the banks.

Elizabeth Warren has just one plan, Emily Stewart, VOX, September 19, 2019

Warren was, according to this article, so effective an advocate, she pissed off then Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. All the same, love her or hate her, there was little doubt that not only was Warren committed to bringing her plan alive, she was “ruthlessly effective at making them real.” It is this ruthless effectiveness, more than anything else, that’s convinced me she’s the best choice for President this year.

With an agenda virtually identical to Sen. Bernie Sanders (despite the nonsensical lie that Warren’s really a neoliberal shill), the difference between them is Warren’s effectiveness as an advocate, organizer, and bridge-builder. In the wake of these past three years, there is much work to be done not so much repairing the extensive damage to the Executive Branch, as reshaping it with an eye toward something new. Relationships between the Executive and Congress need work (although much of that work would await the loss of a Republican majority in the US Senate, which I don’t anticipate), and Warren has demonstrated a willingness to work across party line without compromising her fundamental vision and values. She also has the skills needed to bring together the left-wing of the party and its moderate center. Much of her campaign has been about doing just that, creating working coalitions that will outlast this particular campaign.

Should the Democratic Party win the Presidency this year, that President will need to recognize the extent of the damage done to our institutions, the trust between the Executive and the public, and the Head of State with other countries. It will require not just creative rethinking, but plans for moving forward that recognize the instability of the status quo, both within the Democratic Party and in the country as a whole. Only Elizabeth Warren has demonstrated this ability at creative rethinking of governance. She has my vote next week in the Illinois Presidential primary.

An Observation

An actual Queen. Most woman aren’t

Usually when I see something on the Internet that shocks me, I grumble then move on. There is far too much out there that’s bothersome in one way or another to worry over anything in particular. Except when I run across something that just makes my jaw drop. Like a meme I saw earlier this week that said the following;

Guys need to be spoiled and told how handsome they are on a daily basis. How do you expect to be treated like a Queen if you treat him like a servant?

Where do I begin? Quite apart from the obvious passive-aggressive language, I keep wondering who wants to be treated like an (actual) queen. Or king for that matter. Are these things actual people expect out of relationships? I mean, I know I’m old. I haven’t dated since the early 1990’s, when I married a woman I couldn’t imagine wanting to be treated like a queen. Nor have I ever thought, “Geez, why isn’t she treating me like a king? Bring me my slippers!”

I do know, however, there are people, men and women both, who really do think this way. That women should be considered a “queen”. I’m never quite sure what this means, because traditionally queens are doted upon yet always at a remove from others. Does a man really want a woman who accepts being put on a pedestal, accepting whatever material offerings are made, but rarely connects with him?

And why would any man want to be treated like a king? Traditionally, kings are spoiled not by their wives, but their concubines and mistresses. I’m pretty sure that’s not what the meme refers to. So I guess I’m at a loss. Unless such a man really wants a subservient woman, I’m not sure how that works out.

The game, however, is given away in the whiny, passive-aggressive tone of the whole thing. “Why do women want to be treated well if they’re not willing to do what I want?” This meme isn’t about love or relationships. Not really. This isn’t about finding a real partner. This is about capitalist exchange. “You give me what I want, I’ll give you what you want.” There need be no emotional content here. It’s all about negotiating an exchange. With an implied threat that if the man’s needs aren’t met in a manner he expects, he will either withhold affection or, perhaps, worse.

The thing is, most people, most of the time, are quite happy being treated like a human being. Not someone’s idea of who he or she is or might be. Certainly not royalty! In relationships, we should shield ourselves from market forces that looks for any kind of exchange of goods and services. Intimacy is about openness, which means being oneself with another in a way that risks emotional pain, but also rewards with a shared togetherness tat is beyond the grotesquery of the market. Being a real person with another real person is far more difficult, challenging, and ultimately satisfying than being a “king” and “queen”.

Before anyone suggests that the meme exaggerates to make a point, I want to know what point that might be. Are men in relationships with women who care nothing for them? Then they’re not in a relationship, and should probably find the nearest exit. That women won’t return physical or emotional affection in a way men want? Then try talking about things. Don’t throw a tantrum because you’re not being treated the way you believe you deserve. Particularly if you’ve never made those expectations clear. And don’t go into a relationship believing you “deserve” anything from the other person beyond what they’re willing to offer. If you’re in it for the long haul, these things change over time, and deepening intimacy and emotional openness creates opportunities for all sorts of wonders.

What I’m saying is: Men, you don’t deserve anything from another person. Give without a thought to what you might get. This is how relationships work in the long haul. You’re not entitled to anything. And insisting that you treat her like a “queen” in order to be treated like a “king” might bring about an unpleasant surprise. Settle for being a person figuring things out together with another person and things might well work out in far more surprising ways than you could have imagined.

Finding by Maria Popova

Maria Popova, author of Figuring and curator of

Along with my oft-mentioned experience reading about Voyager 1’s encounter with Saturn as reported in National Geographic, my desire to learn more about more things was excited by reading Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain. Subtitled, “Reflections On The Romance of Science”, the book is a series of essays that explore everything from the biographies of some of Sagan’s heroes, the weird attractions of pseudo-science, the promise and hope of space exploration, and the limits of science fiction. Written for any average reader, it is an invitation not only to wonder, but to discovery about the interconnectedness of awe, beauty, and understanding, and to contemplate a different perspective of our life here on Earth.

Having recently felt lost, wondering if it were possible to recapture some of that wonder I felt as a teenager when I considered the possibilities Sagan offered up, I decided to pick up my battered, yellowed copy and read it again for the first time in decades. I discovered, to my sadness, that I knew each word so well, each image Sagan’s writing brought to mind, that even after – what? 30 years? More? – this book was so ingrained inside me that I realized there was nothing left to discover. Rather than offer an fresh opportunity at wonder, it was like returning to my hometown and discovering how sad I was it was no longer the little village I knew.

Then my wife gifted me Finding for Christmas.

I subscribe to, enjoying the wonderful essays its curator, Maria Popova, offers up as fresh takes on matters scientific and cultural. I had seen the book announcement she made, which is how I ended up with a copy last Wednesday. What I knew about the books content was the ad copy she offered up. That and she would cover a wide variety of topics through looking at the people whose lives embodied them.

After an introductory chapter entitled “0”, she begins with a sketch of Johannes Kepler’s struggles during the last years of his life both to complete and publish the first science fiction book (written to present the Copernican system to a non-scientific audience) and clear his mother of charges of witchcraft. That he succeeded in the latter but not the former is a tragedy of the times.

Now, Kepler received chapter-length attention in another of Carl Sagan’s works – Cosmos – and I found myself thinking, I know this story.

But, surprise!surprise!, I didn’t know this story. Not at all. For Sagan, Kepler’s story is one of the victory of patient observation overcoming the ideological blinders of a kind of Platonic Idealism that was still regnant among so much of early-modern science. Popova, however, saw in Kepler’s story – his work with Tycho Brahe, the development of the laws of planetary motion, his struggles against a legal apparatus that still considered “witchcraft” a thing to be punished – a whole. Particularly his efforts to offer the world an accessible view of the still-controversial Copernican system (Galileo’s conviction by the Church caused Kepler much angst), brought together many of the themes Popova would explore throughout the rest of her work: how chance and choice, the surrounding mores and and social rules, biography, and the inexorable pull of new ideas create individuals whose findings have changed our world for the better.

Much the rest of the book offers up a series, mostly, of women whose work may or may not have been heralded, whose lives may or may not have been forgotten, whose legacies might or might not have been distorted by those too afraid of the possibilities these women offered the world. Most of them lived in the 19th century, when the social etiquette of the “woman’s sphere” (hearth, home, raising children) was often violently enforced against many women. Many of the women lived outside the simplistic binaries of conventional gender and sexual ideologies. To live as such, to work as such, to create beauty whether in science or art or culture, in the midst of so much that would prevent them from doing so testifies to the courage these women live out in their work-lives.

Of course, not just women appear in these pages. Emerson, because of the central part he played in the life of some of these women as well as our developing sense of “American” culture, is woven throughout the chapters. Whitman, too, one of our marvelous mythologists, shows up more than occasionally. His own life and work offers further testimony to the power of following one’s muse, even if that muse is often a person of the same gender. There’s even a beautiful excurses on Carl Sagan, his partner and love Anne Druyan, and the creation of the “Golden Records” attached to the Voyager spacecraft, labors far outside simple-minded science, but rather a testament of love for humanity at a time when such was scarce.

I rest much easier now, knowing that such a work as Finding exists. There are ample opportunities for another young person to become excited about the possibilities life can offer should we make our way through the vagaries of chance and choice with a modicum of wisdom, courage, and most of all – Love. For Popova, love as portrayed through this book is not an emotion. It is, rather, an approach to life, with ourselves, with others, with the world in which we live, that bundles it all together and creates the possibility for finding . . . all that one can in the meager moments of human existence. It is love for understanding, for discovering, for offering to the world these understandings and discoveries, for those we hold most dear that drives people as different as Maria (pronounced like my daughter’s name, Moriah) Mitchell, Emily Dickinson (some of whose mysterious life is revealed in Popova’s beautiful portrait), Rachel Carson, and Lise Meitner to be the people who accomplished the things they did.

Finding is a book so desperately needed right now. It offers hope, and humanity, and most of all wonder at what may yet be possible should there still be people willing not only to find, but to passionately love finding all the ways there are to wrest meaning from the meaningless of our small blip of life.

What Christmas Means To Me

Consider the Almighty God looking like this.

For me, the Christian faith is the single most radical, humanistic, and revolutionary claim ever. While the events of the passion and resurrection are the central meaningful events of the Christian faith, when we remember the birth of Jesus, we make a startling claim: We’re saying that all of God came to live among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

This is not only a claim that a specific tribal god has acted in a specific way for the benefit of that particular group of people – it is most assuredly this, and the starting point for the declaration of Christmas – but the proclamation that this very specific, very real, very human event involves the God who makes and sustains us. At Christmas, we’re not just sharing the blessings of family and gifts, of sentiment and comfort. At Christmas we’re proclaiming that the God who has made everything cares enough about this one little group of persons suffering under foreign domination and oppression to come down to earth to effectuate their freedom; in so doing, this same God sees fit to free all humanity – indeed, all creation – from the one enemy nothing escapes: death.

We human beings are schizo about religion. We like it to be comforting. Why else do so many turn to it when the going gets rough? We do so, at least titular or former Christians at any rate, because the proclamation of the Incarnation is indeed one of radical comfort and care, rooted in an understanding of the human condition that has become divine, holy, and eternal. God comforts because God has grieved. God consoles because God has suffered. God provides solidarity because God has experienced oppression. All the sorrows and sufferings of human existence have been taken up into the Divine Life. They are made holy, provide the source of human confidence in the faithfulness of God in the midst of all our trials.

At the same time, we don’t like it when people turn religion into a weapon to wield against others. We tend to be put off by the exclusionary ideas inherent in the proclamation of the Incarnation. The truth is, though, God takes sides. If the Incarnation teaches us anything, it’s that God’s fullness dwelt among a specific people at a specific time and place, reaching out to specific groups of people, working with outcasts of all kinds to create something that, while transcending the politics of the moment nevertheless speaks to that moment in the most radical way possible: Divine favor rests with those the world casts out. The Divine Presence is with those we call blasphemers and sinners. Divine power is evident not in the biggest battalions or billions of dollars but in the beloved community of the excluded who experience human life in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. No, there are no particular partisan political conclusions one can draw from these events. There are, however, very certain and sure ways of living that impact how we are to live toward one another that are given real life and meaning in and through the Incarnation.

Divine grace, that overwhelming, overflowing love that takes this sad and broken reality, says “Yes” to it even as it says “No” to it, is summed up in the events of Holy Week. These moments give meaning, not a meaning we find but rather a meaning that finds us, as we realize God has been here with us all along, in this broken corpse now missing from the tomb. We live in a Universe unimaginable in its breadth and potential both for beauty and violence. That Universe is the product of completely free Divine love and care. A love so free that God chose to become flesh and dwell among us folks, right here on this one damp rock circling a forgettable star on the fringes of a galaxy that probably has bigger concerns.

Merry Christmas

My Mom

Virginia Johnston, probably her Senior Picture in HS

Today is my Mom’s birthday. Of course, she passed away three years ago at the age of 91, but as long as I can, I’ll lift up her birthday. Growing up, I often saw my friends and acquaintances looking at her and just seeing who she was at that time, a middle-aged housewife, mother of five, whose quiet public demeanor (mostly) was in stark contrast to her husband’s very outgoing friendliness. As I became older, learned more of her life, talked to her siblings, saw photos, and remembered things she did, it occurred to me that it was nearly impossible to judge who she was; ridiculous to try and sum up who she was with one or two simple labels. Oh, I’m sure she would have been happy being known as a mother and wife, because she told me that’s all she ever really wanted to be (more about that later). But during her very long life, she did and was many things, very few of them boring.

Being the older daughter in a very large family, she helped raising her youngest siblings, particularly since her mother was quite ill after having the two youngest. Her youngest brother, Ned, when he was in high school, would introduce her to his friends, “This is my sister Virginia. We call her Virgin for short, but not for long.” Which should give you an idea of what kind of family she lived in!

She attended the University of Dayton during the Second World War. She decided to take chemical engineering as a major because, as she told me once, it sounded fun. She was the only woman in a small group of men, several of whom were Cuban, having been educated at Society of St. Mary schools in their home country then coming to UD. She graduated top of her class in her major (which should surprise no one), but she never pursued anything to do with her degree because, well, she studied it, did well in it, but she wasn’t, you know, married to it. It wasn’t her life’s vocation.

During her summers in college, she did war work. She worked for what was then National Cash Register Company, Huffman Bicycle Company building those folding bikes soldiers carried during the invasion of Italy (I think she was always proudest of that). One summer, she worked for The Manhattan Project. She insisted all she did was pass a Geiger counter over clothes workers wore, although I don’t believe her. At a family get-together once when I was in high school, I asked her oldest brother about that. He just smiled and said, “She received a commendation from Pres. Roosevelt for her work. Do you really think she got that checking clothes for radiation?” After she died, going through her lifetime’s accumulated things I never found such a commendation. I know she had one, because she told me about it after I asked her if it was true. I don’t think she kept it. Because, well, why would she?

Also while in college, she and her best friend Mark Kotterman showed up at marching band practice together and told the director, “We’re your majorettes!” He looked at them, not quite sure what to say. Mary and Mom made their own uniforms, flags, came up with their own routines, and marched at halftime with the band through one season. She did it, she told me, because she wanted to see UD beat the University of Cincinnati and this was the only way she’d be able to go to the game. For years, a little pennant saying, “Beat Cincy!” hung on the attic wall. It, too, disappeared at some point.

She also thought it would be fun to join the archery team. Of course, she’d never handled a bow and arrow before, but why should she let that stop her? That year, she ended up going to Nationals. The next year, she claimed, “I couldn’t even hit the target!” I don’t believe that. I think she went out for the archery team, did really well, and then was quite done with it all. Like her not pursuing work in her chosen field, doing any majorette stuff after that one autumn, and so many other things, she did something she though would be fun. She did it really well, proving to herself she could. Then, she was done with it.

The only thing my mother really wanted to do was, well, to be a mother. She told me once that she had always wanted five children. She even, so she claims, had the five men picked out who would help her reach her goal! Then she met my Dad in New York in the late 1940’s. While each of them lived their lives and were with other people, they stayed connected and in the early 1950’s when my father found himself pursued not at all subtly by the students at all-women’s Stephen’s College in Columbia, MO, she agreed to marry him. I have no doubt they loved each other very much, even through some rough times here and there.

While she spent most of the next thirty or so years raising her large brood, she also took time out to volunteer for the Red Cross after Hurricane Agnes flooded our area in 1972. She volunteered for the regional Adult Literacy program, helping teach people to read. She wore quite a few hats at First UMC, Sayre, PA. She welcomed her childrens’ friends into her home with no questions, providing a safe, fun place for all manner of boys and girls over the years. I think sometimes of the gaggle of kids that would sometimes gather in our yard and house to play and remember her being insouciant about it all. Of course they were welcome! This last is something Lisa and I have done, too, making sure our house was a welcome place for pretty much anyone.

Mostly, though, she was my Mom. She put band-aids on my cuts. She used to be able to hold my legs just below my knees, and as long as I locked my knees, lift me up to touch the ceiling. She was there when I cried, she barely tolerated my adolescent moodiness and angst. She welcomed her childrens’ spouses into her home just as she always welcomed people into her home. She loved her grandchildren, even welcoming her first two great-grandchildren late in her life.

Mom was not at all the person one saw at a glance in the supermarket, or mingling during intermissions at band concerts and school plays. I think this is important to remember when we see people casually; we should remember their lives might well be far more full and interesting than it might appear. I celebrate my mother today because I know she’d be embarrassed and upset I would do so, because she wasn’t one to think she’d ever done anything interesting. She was, after all, just a housewife and mother.

Ignorance Is Not A Virtue

This picture started it all for me.

All sorts of things happened this week, good and bad. There was another school shooting, this time in California. Venice and Sydney were both affected by events exacerbated by global warming, even as governing bodies in these two very different places sought to play down this simple reality. States keep wasting taxpayer money and their own time passing clearly unconstitutional anti-abortion laws. Of course, there were the first public impeachment hearings against Donald Trump, two days that proved how callow and nonsensical the Republican Party has become.

I’d rather speak for a moment about Ohio’s House Bill 164, entitled ” Ohio Student Religious Liberties Act of 2019.” Snopes, ever cautious in looking at click-bait and scare headlines, insists the claims that the bill would allow students to ignore science in, well, science classes if these students insisted it clashed with their religious beliefs are “unproven”. To the extent that the wording of the Bill is significantly vague enough to make a casual reader wonder; and that the Bill has yet even to go to the State Senate, let alone be signed by the governor, this certainly seems an arguable position to take.

Except, of course, such a view ignores the trajectory of religious-based anti-science activity of the past half-century. Obviously, the goal of this bill is to keep students who, say, believe the earth was created in six days 6,000 years ago from being penalized for insisting so during a term studying cosmology, evolution, or geology. The invention of “Intelligent Design” by a kind of newspaper Jumbo Scrambling of creationism was just one step along this way. Couching the language of the bill in terms of religious freedom is certainly no accident; even were one not a believer, it seems, most Americans would be hard-pressed to correct a students religious beliefs with something as arcane as scientific understanding.

The first stirrings of awe and wonder in my own mind and heart – said affects being necessary for the pursuit of understanding according to the ancient Greeks – began with the photo above. Specifically, that photo adorned the cover of a National Geographic magazine from 1981 that captured my attention in a way nothing ever had before. I’ve written of this life-event before, so you can click the link to find out more about the specifics of that moment. Suffice to say, for our purposes here, long before I thought about what I might study, or what kind of person I might become (beyond perpetual student); long before my own heart was strangely warmed by reflection upon the events in my life, an event that sent me off to Seminary; long before I declared Political Science as my undergraduate major; the very moment I started down a road that would twist and turn through all these moments and more, I sat and wondered about the planet Saturn, its moons, the immensity of space, of time, and who we human beings were and might become. It was science, in this case planetary astronomy, that started the little gears and gizmos in my head turning and spinning, trying to figure things out.

Over the years I’ve studied lots of things. Political analysis, statistics, constitutional law (as an undergraduate), American history, medieval history, the theologies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, liberation theology and the relationship between science and theology, the philosophy of science reading Newton’s Principia, Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, and Thomas Kuhn (among many others). In all that reading, and over decades, I’ve never encountered anything that would suggest science and religious belief – of any kind; not just Christian or so-called Abrahamic faith, but eastern religions as well – would be at odds with one another. Considering each concerns completely different parts of the human experience, has different criteria for method, the pursuit of “truth”, and discuss wholly different phenomena, this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

The phony story of a clash between religion and science begins with that eminently modernist religious movement, Fundamentalism. First flourishing in the early years of the 2oth century, the “Fundamentals” were a rationalist, fideist reaction to what was then called the higher criticism of the Bible, the emergence in both Germany and the United States of what became known as liberal theology (a beast that bears no relationship to the targets of the epithet these days), and the activism of the Social Gospel and Personalist theologies among Baptists and Methodists, respectively. The “Fundamentals”, ignoring 1900 years of Christian teaching on grace and the specific language of Scripture, insisted there were these things it was necessary human beings “believe” – a word now reduced to a simple cognitive act, empty as it had become of the nuance and affective content it had held throughout history – in order to achieve salvation. One of those things was the literal understanding of the Bible in its entirety, as if somehow the ancient Hebrew teachers and and rabbis were as stupid as a bunch of Princeton theology professors. This included the Creation, without ever once acknowledging the reality, long known, that there were two distinct, contradictory, and irreconcilable creation stories in Genesis. One was simply to acquiesce to their literal truth without examining what each might teach us about God, the world in which we find ourselves, or the relationship between Creation and Creator.

In part a reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which was in turn indebted to the science of geology for discovering how long the earth had existed, how slow and steady (we now know occasionally punctuated by periods of rapid, extreme) change is, fundamentalists now had something to challenge Darwin and the growing disenchantment with simplistic religious belief that was clear for everyone to see. They met most famously in Dayton, TN when a HS science teacher named Scopes taught evolution against the express wishes of the school board. The trial is famous for its clash of legal titans, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryant; less known is that Scopes was found guilty and fined.

It was the public humiliation of Fundamentalism that, for a time, pushed so-called religious objections to scientific study underground. These objections, however, never went away. Re-emerging as part of the fundamentalist revival of the late 20th century, we saw renewed attempts at curbing the teaching of evolution, the Big Bang, an ancient and slowly morphing planet, solar system, galaxy, and Universe. The courts, quite rightly, saw these attempts for what they were, ruling them unconstitutional. So the matter has sat, with variations on the theme played out in the early 21st century with the elimination of “Intelligent Design” as an alternative to creationism.

This history is important to understand. It has been a very specific, blinkered, very modern, and politically motivated (as opposed to the pursuit of the Gospel, which is the actual focus of Christian religious life) religious movement that continues to create conflict and controversy where none actually exists. Most scholars of each recognize this to be the case, even as voices of idiotic publics on both sides (consider Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) continue to pretend the fate of the human race hinges on whether religious belief or the acceptance of science is taken to be the proper measure of things. Even as the risible spectacle of ignorant religious fanatics and equally ignorant scientistic fanatics yelling at each other continues, both the scientific project and religious life continue. They do so precisely because each fulfills needs that are a part of what it is to be human. We are a species, it seems, that needs both to know as much as we can about all that is around us; we also recognize, in a near-infinite variety of forms, there is specific type of awe that pushes us to consider our moral relationships with the world and with other people. Whether one accept Christian theology as a legitimate pursuit or not, surely it’s difficult to deny the reality of the ubiquity of similar such schools of thought among other groups of people.

A particularly dark trend on social media is an increased deprecation of higher education. Whether couched in terms of equality (people who get a college degree think they’re better than everyone else!), or economic and financial security (you can get a good-paying job without a college degree!), or pithy nonsense (a college education doesn’t teach common sense!), it is becoming more and more common to see such declarations. Combined with the increasing difficulty of attending a college or university without incurring impoverishing debt, more and more we erect barriers to higher education even as such an education becomes necessary for economic survival. Such views not only increase the disdain for the educated among an American public already predisposed to such a view. It does so in ways that misconstrue or ignore the reasons for and benefits of a liberal education. Such an education has never concerned itself with social, financial, economic, or some other betterment. It should also be said that what passes for “common sense” all too often is not at all how the world really works at all, which is why an education is necessary; to see through the comfortable illusions of “common sense” to the way we understand how things really are.

Ohio House Bill 164 is nothing more than part of our latest spurt of anti-intellectualism, itself a response to fast-changing social conditions and mores. It pits the “common sense” that there are only two genders, immutable and ontologically distinct against the scientific fact of multiple genders, not only in humans but in other creatures as well; the “common sense” that minorities in America already enjoy far more rights than the majority population, special rights that others do not enjoy against the reality of ongoing and increasing resistance to minority rights; the “common sense” that our personal experience of the world is the best guide to what is, and is not, actually the case with how the world works, what is in it, and is the final arbiter of reality for all of us against the scientific spirit and liberal notion that it is critical reflection upon our experience that teaches us just how wrong we too often are. We couch this in a language we no longer understand, that of rights, enshrine it legislation, codifying what is a passing moment of social and cultural discomfiture for an eternal truth to be followed by all persons at all times. This is the antithesis of what liberal education provides, the most important virtue being the ability to think critically about the world around us. Rather than thought, such a bill insists on the acceptance of whatever passes for truth in one’s own mind as the sole guide for understanding the world, whether one calls it religion, or race, or what have you.

While it is technically true the more outlandish claims made about Ohio House Bill 164 are “unproven”, such a claim can only be made in ignorance both of the history of fundamentalist ideology and our specifically American romance with anti-intellectualism. Stifling as it would that most important thing human individuals have to spur us toward understanding, a naive awe and wonder at the unknown I experienced nearly 40 years ago, this is not only a threat to education. It is a threat to thought, to individual freedom, and our collective need to continue searching for answers, not only about our world but also about how we are to live together in ways that lift all of us.