COVIDISMS: There’s Got to Be a Morning After

Well, it’s been six months since this hell began for most of us. Life changed about mid-March. The pressures of pandemic life and racial unrest and climate change and monster storms and COVID-19 and political upheaval and all the rest of the plagues that currently beset us are almost too much to bear. Almost. But bear them we do, baring our souls when we need to, our teeth when we must and our hearts, always. As Master Yoda wisely taught us, in times like these, “No! Try not. DO or DO NOT. There is no try.”

Yesterday was the nineteenth anniversary of the brutal terrorist attacks on our country on September 11, 2001. Like many of you, I can remember the exact spot I was sitting in, the exact thing I was doing, the exact sameness of that morning, until someone told us to step into the next room. A group of caregivers, patients, doctors, counselors and family members were glued to the small television on top of the rolling cart, watching in disbelief as a plane hit the World Trade Center. A tragedy. A fluke. An accident. Until it wasn’t. Until another plane took that elegant, sweeping, graceful arc of death into the second tower in a ball of fire and melted glass and metal and a second plane full of people lost their lives in an instant. I listened to some of the phone calls from the planes and the towers last night, against my better judgment, and was absolutely devastated by the sadness, the finality and loss of it all. Lives and families shattered, a city reeling, responders who had been trained to handle anything that could ever happen, except this one thing. No one had ever used planeloads of people as weapons of war. I know that it is not good for me to watch and listen to histories of tragedies such as 9-11 after long weeks of work and stress, especially when I am home alone, but how can I not? How can we not hearken back to that time, that era, that innocence lost for us and for our children? NEVER FORGET.

Today is September 12th, and the thirty sixth birthday of a woman who I admire greatly. (Happy birthday, Greer. I love you!) My oldest daughter, who bears the Scotch feminine form of my first name as her own, has become a force to be reckoned with. (From Houseofnames.com: The old Scottish-Dalriadan name Greer is derived from the given name Gregor. The personal name Gregor, which is the Scottish form of Gregory, is derived from the Latin name “Gregorius” and from the Late Greek name “Gregorios,” which mean alert, watchful, or vigilant.) She is a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend, a political activist, a party planner extraordinaire, a home schooler, a sister, and aunt and so many other things large and small. As I have written about before, she was performing in a production of Oklahoma! in Augusta, Georgia when 9-11 happened, and was about to celebrate her birthday with friends and family that year. I am quite sure that she has vivid memories of that year as we all do. There was a morning after for Greer, a birthday morning after, and there have been September 12ths every day since that fateful attack. Birthdays must be celebrated, even as losses must be mourned.

My wife has worked for Delta Airlines for forty years. She is very good at her job. She is a people person, remembers details that are lost on most mortals, and can anticipate things that others need before they know they need them. I know, because she does this for me at home all the time. Every time that I see she has left the coffee pot ready to brew the morning coffee for me the day after she leaves for a flight, or manages to fit one more container of that German shower gel I like into her bag on the way home from Frankfurt or fills up the fridge with just the soft drink that I have been craving this week or any number of things, I feel the love that she shows through her actions every day. She has gone back to flying after a voluntary two month furlough. Delta’s business plummeted ninety percent when this pandemic started, and some of her flights have less then three dozen people on them even now. The airline industry will survive, Delta will go on serving the transportation needs of many, but it’s going to be slow going. Some estimates say that the industry as a whole will not be anywhere near back to prepandemic levels of business for four to five years. In this time of COVID-19, political unrest, and commemorations of 9-11, do I worry about her as she flies from Atlanta to Amsterdam to Frankfurt to London to Dublin to Seoul and back again. I would obviously be a liar if I said I didn’t. We don’t dwell on it. It’s her job, it’s been her job for forty years, and she’ll keep doing it for another half dozen or so years and then retire. That is the plan. I believe in the plan. We simply cannot live our lives in fear of terrorists, viruses and world political unrest. We cannot, and we will not.

One cannot be a writer of any kind without reading.

(“Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

To write, you must get out in the world and experience things that compel you to write and you must read. A lot. Widely. As I age, I find that for some reason my mind takes in the written word better in an audio format than it does by holding physical books or magazines or papers in my hands. Now, I still have stacks of books and reports and papers in every single physical space that I occupy in this life, from the living room to the bedroom to my home office upstairs to my office at the clinic. I pare these down excruciatingly slowly most of the time, and I severely chastise myself regularly for not being more diligent in doing so. Be that as it may, I have loved audiobooks since a physician colleague of mine turned me on to those long cardboard boxes of cassettes that got shipped to me regularly and that I would play in the car on my daily commutes starting back in the eighties. Now, of course, having passed through the cassette and CD phases, the industry is almost purely digital and portable and held conveniently in your phone, computer or tablet. I love this, in that I always have a book or essay or article at hand and there is little excuse for lack of time to read. What do I read? I love political books lately, given our collective angst in that sphere, as well as biographies, novels, and histories. Some of the titles I have enjoyed this year include Me, by Elton John; Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson; A Very Stable Genius, by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig; You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington, by Alexis Coe; The Hardest Job in the World, by John Dickerson; Blindness, by Jose Saramago; and Front Row at the Trump Show, by Jonathan Karl. I am currently listening to The Second Mountain, by David Brooks. I also listen to podcasts, mostly on politics, but sometimes on other topics, on a daily basis. The pandemic has caused me to really sit down and evaluate how I use my time, every day, and the results have been eye opening. We waste a lot of time on things that, to use a football metaphor since it is finally fall, do not move the ball down the field. I am trying to rectify that in my own life.

It is Saturday morning as I write this, and football is starting back. I love football, but somehow this year I’m just not feeling it the same way, you know? Life is moving on, and time with it, and traditions and markers too, but things are different. Time will tell if we get back to normal, pre-pandemic normal, ever. One thing I am sure of is that life will go on. We will continue to live and love and work in some fashion, there will be babies born and some of us will die. As my wife and I have been learning by listening to The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry, things are bad now, but they could be orders of magnitude worse. All pandemics end, and the world will continue to turn.

A last thought. There were some good things about the seventies. This song was one of them that pertains to us now, more than ever.

Enjoy your weekend, and thanks as always for reading my Musings.

Three Little Words

As Chris Brogan and others have made customary in the blogging world, I offer up my three little words for 2015.

1) Books

I have thought about how I spent my time in 2014 and the recent years before. I found that a lot of my “ear time” was taken up by listening to music, but sometimes even more time was taken up by listening to podcasts. Tech podcasts. Mac podcasts. News podcasts. Productivity podcasts. A lot of time. Like hours and hours. Some of these podcasts are one and a half hours long or longer. Geez.

The fact is that the ear candy that is podcasting is a pleasant diversion akin to mental masturbation. Like the real thing, it feels very good but it’s not nearly as satisfying as a real relationship.

Enter books.

Remember those? Real ones with covers or audio ones on audible.com or your collector and distributor of choice. I have always loved books and I used to be an avid reader. Somewhere along the busy byways of life I lost that ability to really get into a good book, to focus and concentrate and enjoy the character development and the plot and the suspense of disbelief. I lost the pleasure I got from reading biographies of great men and women in history. I lost my passion for the many big, colorful, detailed Civil War books that used to litter my desk.

I want that back.

In 2015, I will read. Real books. Audio books. Books.

2) Breaks

Give me a break!

I’ve got news for you, kiddies. Nobody, I mean nobody, is going to give you a break. Not a leg up. Not a moment in time. Not a promotion that you don’t earn by busting your butt.

Now, in 2015, the word break is going to mean two things for me.

One is that I am going to make my own breaks, things that help me get along, move on up, get ‘er done, and make my mark. I’m going to “carp the diem” (Yes, Rob, of course that is for you-Happy New Year!)

The other side of the breaks coin will be the actual breaks that I take to recharge and rejuvenate this coming year. I’ve already had a good running start at this year-long goal in 2014 with my three week, seven thousand mile cross country trip and the several little mini-vacations I took to the coast to relax, Christmas shop and have coffee by the river, just because I needed to and I could.

This year, I intend to travel, see some new places, eat some different food, and enjoy the company of friends new and old alike. Break time is necessary to stay sharp, stay focused and stay happy.

3) Brinks

Now, what is this brinks thing, you’re asking?

One can be on the brink of a new discovery, at the brink as in getting ready to fall off a cliff, or on the brink of a major life-changing event.

I will be at the brink in the coming year, and I know it. Work, career path, relationships, all may see me walking right up to the edge and deciding whether it is a good idea (or not) to step back and think a while longer, to put one toe in and test the waters, or to simply decide that it is time to jump off and see if I can fly.

The rush of adrenaline that comes from pushing yourself to the brink, and then deciding how to negotiate that predicament and come out feeling happier, stronger and more alive, can be powerful indeed.

So, there you have it. My three words for 2015.

Books.

Breaks.

Brinks.

Three little words that over the next 365 days will guide me, remind me, and help me to be the best I can be in the new year.

What are yours?

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High in the mountains above Golden, Colorado, October 2014. Photo by Chelsea Smith.

Now I Know My ABCs

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So what is the one thing that I see over and over and over again in the management of emergency room psychiatric patients that makes me fear for our survival as a country and even as a species?

Is it the severity of psychotic illness? The rampant drug and alcohol use that starts now when kids are pre-adolescent? Is it the broken families that are producing another generation of children who have one parent or no parents and are raised by distant relatives? Is it financial poverty? Is it reliance on government assistance?

Well, I could write about any of these and make a case for all of them, but that’s not what keeps hitting me right between the eyes most days that I sit in my chair and talk to people via the Polycom screen.

The problem?

Lack of education.

One of my standard questions when taking a medical history is “How far did you go in school?” I ask everyone this question because it is so very important in understanding someone’s frame of reference and their ability to assess a problem and deal with it realistically, be it a kidney stone or an episode of depression. I get answers to this question that are all over the map. I have seen teens who have graduated college already. I see old women who never graduated high school but raised entire families on their own. I see proud aging men who ply their trades, hard workers with calloused hands who had formal schooling up to the third grade and no further. I have seen professionals with decades of formal training and multiple degrees who are as psychotic as they can be, completely out of touch with reality due to drug use or mental illness.

Two things come to mind here of course. One is that mental illness is no respecter of educational level. I have written about this before and I will write more about it I’m sure. The other is that many people do not see the need, or are not given the opportunity, to further their education beyond the very minimal level that gets them by in the world.

This is not a prescription for growing a strong, healthy society.

Often, the answer to my question about education, “How far did you go in school?”, is answered exactly like this:

“All the way.”

That person almost always means that they finished high school.

In many parts of our society, and among many sociocultural levels, finishing high school is the ultimate achievement. The peak. The Holy Grail. You are expected to make that level of education and then to get out, find a job, make your own living and support yourself in the world. Many of the families I see are more than happy to kick their kids out of the front door and onto the street the minute, the second they turn eighteen, never thinking twice about it. The problem is that economic considerations, lack of parenting, lack of role models, early drug and alcohol use, the necessity of working to help support the family and other issues get in the way and take precedence over getting a good education. Kids are passed to get them out of one classroom and into another to avoid further negative behavior. They are still socially promoted, something that might eventually get them a degree but that might be worse than useless to someone who cannot read, problem solve or think critically.

When one thinks nowadays that getting a high school degree is going “all the way”, educationally speaking,  then we have a real problem. There are many other countries (Japan, China, and India immediately leaping to mind) who are producing generations of kids who are hungry to gobble up degrees from our colleges and universities and take high-level and high-paying jobs that Americans are not aspiring to at all any more. It is a sad state of affairs indeed.

It breaks my heart to see a hardworking middle aged man, my own age, in the emergency room, who has a third grade education and is embarrassed to tell me that he cannot read or write.

We have become a nation of people who value smart phones more than we value smart people.

I know that mental illness is a strange beast, hard to ferret out and even harder to diagnose and treat some times. I know that its causes and precipitants are multiple, some genetic, some economic, some cultural. I know all this. I also know, as surely as I know my own name, that if we do not pay attention to the education of our society in America, and our society globally, that we are going to slowly slide down the slippery slope of ignorance, class warfare and division that will be the end of us.

We must turn this around.

We must make it a priority, starting now, to educate our children.  We must teach them to see things as they are, think critically about problems, think creatively about solutions, invent new wonders, and leave the world a better place than they found it.

This is not a luxury for us in the twenty-first century. It is a necessity.