Fiddling

The passage of time does some strange things. This morning I am grateful to former president Cluck. It is similar to the situation in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, where the rabbi is asked if there is such a thing as a blessing for the Czar.

I am grateful that since he was going to become our bigot-in-chief and a traitor (isn’t that what he is, really?) to our democracy that Cluck wasn’t any better at it than he was. His narcissism prevented him from looking much further ahead than any day’s newscast, and his careless tossing aside of one aide or staffer after another kept him perpetually weaker.

Weaker, say, than another would-be-autocrat of the past, Richard Nixon, who was potentially more dangerous because he aligned himself with two capable lieutenants in Haldeman and Ehrlichman. This trio could have gone on to do even more harm than they did to our Republic if they hadn’t developed the unfortunate habit of telling fibs and being caught at it.

What we are seeing finally on the national stage is the slow unraveling of the noose that Republicans tied around their own necks, where one of them after another is finally finding the drawer where they had put their backbones and the ragged remnants of their integrity and saying “No, that’s absolutely wrong,” to His Perpetual Orangiosity. Gratifying, at long last, to hear.

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As long as I’m tossing video clips at you, here’s another from “Fiddler.” As it begins, the milkman Tevye has just been told that daughter Chava has eloped with a Russian man and married outside of Judaism. What follows is for me one of the most moving passages in any movie I’ve ever seen.

There is much wisdom sprinkled throughout this film. This passage, however, is purest heartbreak. “If I bend that far, I’ll break.”

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The old Washington Avenue bridge across the Mississippi River had no cover and a rather easily scaled guard rail. The “new” one has a plexiglass cover from one end to the other. Walking to campus from the West Bank was much more pleasant using the new one, since the wind and whatever was falling from the sky couldn’t get to you until you were across and on campus, where ducking into warm buildings became a possibility.

There was one added benefit of that cover in that it made jumping off into the frigid waters of the river impossible. Why bring this up now? Because in the old uncovered days February was statistically the month of the jumpers. I never had a problem understanding this, because who isn’t sick of winter in Minnesota by February? If one’s mental health was a bit shaky in November, it was not benefited by seemingly endless gray skies, sooty snow everywhere, cars that wouldn’t start, repeated episodes of frostbite, and having been shut into small spaces by the cold for many weeks. So suicide by freezing leap was somewhere between commonplace and unheard of in frequency.

Sometimes when I was crossing the bridge to campus, collar turned up against the wind that seemed to be forever howling down the river in the winter, I would look over the railing into the dark brown water at that strong current and say to myself no way. To spend my last moments of consciousness even colder than I was at the moment I was peering over the rail … it was never going to be my choice for ending it all. If push came to shove I would always opt for something more genteel and above all, warmer.

Theme Song from the movie M*A*S*H, by Johnny Mandel

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Robin and I just finished watching Women of the Movement, one of Hulu’s offerings for Black History Month. This limited series dealt with the lynching of Emmett Till, and of his mother’s life after that horrific tragedy. Her name was Mamie Till.

I won’t put in any spoilers here except that by the end of the series if you could pass through that television screen and get at the killers and their smarmy protectors … you might be tempted to commit a couple of felonies yourself. The state of Mississippi in general does not come off well as it is portrayed in 1955, when the murder and subsequent trial of the killers took place.

When this incident was front-page news and that news reaching even as far North as Minneapolis, I was fifteen, only one year older than Emmett was when he died. And yet back then for me it was a dark story coming out of what I saw as another country altogether, the South. I had a lot to learn and a long way to go.

Retracing the events in the series, when Till’s damaged body was returned to his mother in Chicago, she declared that there would be no closed casket wake for him. She said “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” Tens of thousands of people filed by the casket over several days. Millions of people saw the photographs of the body that journalists were asked by Mamie Till to take. As I relive the whole thing now through this series, it resembles nothing so much as scenes from some ancient play, where a mythic woman accompanies the corpse of her slain soldier-son as his funeral cortege rolls into Rome, or Athens.

About a hundred days after the funeral, Rosa Parks took her stand.

In Montgomery, Rosa Parks attended a rally for Till led by Martin Luther King Jr. Soon after, she refused to give her seat on a segregated bus to a white passenger. The incident sparked a year-long well-organized boycott of the public bus system. The boycott was designed to force the city to change its segregation policies. Parks later said when she did not get up and move to the rear of the bus, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”

Emmett Till, Wikipedia
My Name Is Emmett Till , by Emmylou Harris

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I’m being a good boy with regards to my visits to our local recreation center. Robin gets me moving and we’re out the door in the dark for a cold car ride to the gym. Once there I run the gantlet from machine to machine, sometimes with the numbers on the weights used being embarrassingly small. But hey – I’m moving, just the same.

Yesterday I visited all but one of my self-assigned torture devices, missing only the abdominal crunch. This was because the apparatus was occupied by an ancient citizen who seemed incapable of movement. Alarmed, I checked him only to find that he was indeed breathing and conscious to boot, but he required the passage of an eon between reps of the exercise. I finally gave up and went home. If I go back today, it wouldn’t surprise me if he is still there, laboring to bend the machine to his will. I gave him a perfect 10 for determination, and a lesser score for execution.

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Let us finish this today with some self-observation. In Tuesday’s Science section of the NYTimes was a piece which began with this paragraph:

It’s a dubious distinction in the fossil record: For the first time, a vertebrate has been found with fecal pellets where its brain once was.

NYTImes, February 8, 2022

I will let this sink in for a moment.

Imagine, if you will, that you have a satiric frame of mind in general, and a sarcastic one on occasion. Imagine that you are served up this savory bit of intelligence one morning, like a bit of meat tossed to a big cat, and are rolling it about in your mind, savoring it and wondering exactly what to do with it. Imagine further, if you can, that you have no journalistic standards or ethics, and are well-known for dipping into areas of bad taste when it suits you. So what are your choices?

Here are mine.

Ignore it … absolutely not.

Clean it up for readers … not today, son.

Exploit it … now we’re cooking, baby.

From my personal perspective, the crucial part of the sentence is “in the fossil record.” Crucial because we likely have scads of examples of just this problem right in front of us, not in fossils, but in humans walking around and going to work and eating and breeding and generally making a mess of things.

Of course we haven’t the luxury of popping open the crania of these men and women to examine the contents of their skulls, but we can certainly make some inferences from their behavior, can’t we? And it’s not as if we’d never suspected that something like this wasn’t happening. There is even a common vulgar phrase that goes: “S**t for brains.”

How can this knowledge be helpful? Perhaps mostly because it explains so much of what is puzzling about modern life, as it answers the questions: How could anyone believe that or act that way? Not having to wonder about this any longer will be a great timesaver for many of us, since we don’t have to waste precious hours trying to think through what seem to otherwise be inexplicable contradictions.

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The Bar Keeps Gettin’ Lower

I don’t know if Lauren Boebert is the dumbest Representative in Congress, but If there is someone less capable, I’d hate to think about who that might be. She is from western Colorado and makes my head ache whenever I think about her at all, so I had to take a couple of ibuprofen this past week when the two videos started being news. You know, the videos where she tells a bigoted and racist story involving Representative Ilhan Omar to two different small groups of people. In both of them she all but directly accuses Omar of being a terrorist. The thing is, the two stories don’t agree with one another, and apparently describe a meeting that never happened. So she is not only a racist and a bigot and a dumbass, but a liar as well.

It reminds me of an old saying (I am paraphrasing Mark Twain here): If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember what you say. I would say that she is an embarrassment to the Republican Party, but we all know that this isn’t presently possible. To embarrass that party, that is. It is at a very low ebb indeed. But in another few months we’ll get to see if the GOP can find somebody less offensive and more credible to run in that district. You are free to use Boebert as a sign of the health of the party if you want to. It would be like taking its temperature. If they run her again, shame on them. If she is elected again, shame on us.

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From The New Yorker

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When will these golden days of Fall ever end, and we can get down to the business of shivering and scraping the sleet from our faces? If the trials posed by Winter are good for me because they build character, I am afraid that my character is probably slipping quite a bit this year.

I have become too used to this soft life where my choice of coat to wear when I leave the house doesn’t determine my survival. Why, just this past Wednesday I accompanied Robin to her physical therapy appointment wearing only a pair of shorts (cargo) and a light fleece sweater. And I was fine. And it was December.

I know in my heart that this blissful weather won’t last forever, and that I can once again begin my annual period of kvetching about how cold it is and won’t the wind ever stop blowing and how my back aches when I have to shovel snow. But right now, daily life is no trial at all.

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From The New Yorker

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Since I am definitely in a reverie frame of mind, another medical student story. When I rotated as a junior student to Ramsey County Hospital in St. Paul for the internal medicine clerkship, our group was oriented by the assistant chief of medicine. His speech started out like this:

“In the last group of students we had some problems with a couple of your classmates who were rude and arrogant in their behavior toward members of our nursing staff. Let me be clear on this point. We work hard to attract and retain excellent nurses here on the medicine wards. We have no trouble at all getting medical students. Do you catch my drift?”

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I accompanied Robin on her visit this week to see Dr. Judkins, the orthopedic surgeon who did her knee reconstruction. He took several X-rays to check on things, and as soon as I saw them I asked for copies, which he kindly provided. I thought you might be interested in what a total knee replacement looks like on X-ray.

The first picture is taken from the front, and compares the operated knee with its mate on the left. The second view is from the side.

NB: I had the patient’s permission to share these images with you, of course. To do otherwise would be to court havoc.

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Christmas is upon us. The first flakes of it start falling these days a little before Halloween, followed by flurries leading up to Thanksgiving, but after that … the gloves are off and it’s a by-god blizzard from then on. There are days when I get two different catalogs from the same company.

Our home decorating for the holiday has gradually simplified over the years to where now we purchase a red candle and a green candle and put them on the dining room table and call it a job well done. (Well, maybe just a bit more than that). Gone are the days when one agonized over garlands and which Christmas Village building to add this year and what box did we put those Fitz and Floyd pieces into last year anyway? I don’t miss them much.

My grandparents Jacobson, whose way of life still informs my own in so many ways, decorated for Christmas by bringing out a box from the attic that contained perhaps a dozen small items. Ida would distribute them around her little home each year, never adding new ones, always caring carefully for the old. Each piece had some meaning to her and Nels, and a story that went with it.

There was only one thing that was electrified, nothing that blew up into monstrous size to be maintained by a roaring air pump, nothing that had a famous maker’s label, nothing that said “Look at what special things I have done with my house.”

I remember two garlands, each six feet long, one red and one green, a very small créche, a ceramic wall plaque of Santa’s smiling face, and a pair of candlesticks representing angels. There was only a handful of other treasures, but when you walked in their door and saw these few items out in the living room, it was instantly Christmas.

I almost forgot the tree.

Since their home was too small for a real tree, there was an inexpensive plastic one about a foot and a half high, that stood on an end table and was in no way trying to look realistic.

A placeholder is what it was, indicating where a dramatic Fraser fir or a luxurious Colorado spruce might have stood if there was room for it. Or if Nels and Ida felt it was needed.

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Discontent

Now is the winter of our discontent.

What? Plagiarism? Moi? Just as I was congratulating myself on appropriating this well-turned phrase and putting it out there as my very own, people began mentioning Mr. Shakespeare and his play Richard III, and so I guess that particular jig is presently up.

But doesn’t it apply well to today’s headlines? Is there anyone reading this, right now, that is content? Take away the pandemic and we still have a historic chill seemingly everywhere at once. Even worse, when you find that your furnace has died and you turn on your electric space heater the darned thing doesn’t work because when you look out your window the wind turbines on your back forty have frozen up. Who knew that could even happen?

And the Whack-A-Mole character of American racism and bigotry has never been more obvious and blatant. Right now it is Asian-Americans who are being singled out (at least in the headlines) for violence perpetrated by drive-by thugs. Which was preceded by last summer’s rash of violence against black Americans, which was preceded by a serious uptick in anti-semitic nastiness. Of course, brutality leveled against these groups never goes away. Not even close.

There are moments when it seems as if the Ten Plagues of Egypt were happening all over again, but simultaneously rather than sequentially.

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Just in case you’ve forgotten what those plagues were, I list them for your enjoyment and edification:

  • Water turns to blood
  • Frogs everywhere
  • Lice or gnats everywhere
  • Wild animals everywhere
  • A pestilence in one’s domestic animals
  • Boils
  • Thunderstorm of hail and fire
  • Locusts
  • Darkness for three days
  • Deaths of the firstborn

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From The New Yorker

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I’ve been a voracious reader since tot-hood. Books, newspapers, Sears catalogs, milk cartons … anything with print on it was fair game. Usually it was a quiet and personal vice, and the grownups pretty much left me alone in my literary wanderings. They had no idea what was streaming through my eyes and into my little brain. Mostly that worked out well … they got to be left alone and I got to read what I wanted.

But occasionally there were brief dustups, like this one.

I was probably about six or seven years old, and it was evening on my grandparents’ farm. Grandma Ida and Aunt Norma were in the kitchen chatting, and I was alone in the living room which was just off the kitchen. We were out of sight of one another. I don’t know what I was reading, but I came across a word that I didn’t recognize. There was no dictionary handy, so I called out to the adults in the next room:

Grandma, what does rape mean?

My question was met with total silence.

Now kids are pretty good at reading adults. And so I knew that this unnatural and pregnant pause meant that I had wandered into a taboo area, and I instantly wished to God that I hadn’t brought it up. Because now the adults had a window into my activities and that was not always a good thing. Better to be ignored and left alone was my motto. I could just have waited until I found that absent dictionary and everything would have been fine. But noooooo, I couldn’t wait, I had to know now.

Finally there was a response and it was Aunt Norma’s voice asking “What are you reading?” OMG, I thought, it’s even worse than I imagined. They have answered my question with a question. What sort of can of worms have I opened? And suddenly there was Norma, standing in front of me, with her hand out. “It means hurting someone,” she said. I dutifully passed whatever the written material was along to her, and she disappeared back into the kitchen with it firmly in hand. No more questions tonight, I thought.

That was it. Days later I got my answer, after I had returned home and through a much safer method of research. I looked it up. Sometimes it was just plain awkward being a curious kid. There were minefields everywhere.

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“The Problem We All Live With”

[An article Saturday on CNN online was prompted by the 60th anniversary of a little girl’s walk to school. It is both a description of some horrible behavior and a testament to personal courage. I reprint it here.]

60 years ago today, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges walked to school and showed how even first graders can be trailblazers

By Leah Asmelash, CNN

 Ruby Nell Bridges, 6, was the first African American child to attend William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans after federal courts ordered the desegregation of public schools.

Ruby Nell Bridges, 6, was the first African American child to attend William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans after federal courts ordered the desegregation of public schools.

(CNN)Sixty years ago, Ruby Bridges walked to school escorted by four federal marshals as a White mob hurled insults at her.Bridges, just 6 years old on November 14, 1960, was set to begin first grade at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. As the first Black student to attend the school, Bridges carried integration on her small shoulders.Her first day at William Frantz came four years after Black parents in New Orleans filed a lawsuitagainst the Orleans Parish School Board for not desegregating the school system in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which determined in 1954 that state laws establishing segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. The year Bridges walked into the school, Judge. J. Skelly Wright had ordered the desegregation of New Orleans public schools. The Orleans Parish School Board, however, had convinced the judge to require Black students to apply for transfer to all-White schools, thus limiting desegregation, according to the Equal Justice Initiative

US deputy marshals escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.

US deputy marshals escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. 

That year, only five of the 137 Black first graders who applied to transfer were accepted, and only four agreed to attend, according to EJI. Bridges was among them. “For me, being 6 years old, I really wasn’t aware of what was going on,” Bridges, now 66, told NPR in 2010. “I mean the only thing that I was ever told by my parents that I was going to attend a new school and that I should behave.”

Once Bridges entered the school and arrived at her classroom, all the other students had withdrawn. The rest of the school year, it was just her and the teacher, she said. And crowds continued to show up, at one point bringing a small baby’s coffin with a Black doll inside.”I used to have nightmares about the box,” Bridges said. “Those are the days that I distinctly remember being really, really frightened.”But Bridges stayed at the school despite retaliation against her family. Grocery stores refused to sell to her mother, Lucille. And her father, Abon, lost his job, according to the National Park Service. The toll was so hard on their marriage that by the time Bridges graduated from sixth grade, they had separated, she told NPR.Eventually, though, Bridges made it to second grade. And when she did, the school’s incoming first grade class had eight Black students, the EJI said. 

Ruby Bridges speaks onstage at Glamour's 2017 Women of The Year Awards at Kings Theatre in November 2017 in New York.

Ruby Bridges speaks onstage at Glamour’s 2017 Women of The Year Awards at Kings Theatre in November 2017 in New York. CNN reached out to Bridges for comment but did not receive a response.

Bridges continues to be an inspiration for many. In 2011, she was invited to the Oval Office, where the painting commemorating her walk by Norman Rockwell — criticized when it first appeared on a magazine cover in 1964 — was on display.”I think it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be here today,” then President Barack Obama told Bridges during her visit, according to the White House archives. Lucille, who Ruby says pushed her to attend the school, died this week at age 86. In an Instagram post, Ruby called her mother a “champion for change,” adding that her actions altered the course of many lives.

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This is the Look magazine cover referred to in the article. It is of Ruby Bridges and her journey to school, and was painted by Norman Rockwell. Its title is “The Problem We All Live With.”

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Poco came to us as an outdoor kitten that we coaxed into our home. Later on, when we would attempt to retrain him and deny him access to the outdoors, he was so unhappy that it was a difficult time for all concerned, and we eventually stopped trying.

Case in point. In this pic, the outdoor temperature is a chilly 38 degrees, the wind is a blustery 20-25 mph, and here he is, sleeping out along the backyard fence. Even though the pet door is wide open to him, and only 25 feet away. Inside that pet door is warmth and loads of comfortable furniture to lie about on. But you see where he chooses to be.

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Garbage In, Garbage Out

All of us who love movies, we who have been lucky enough to sit in darkened theaters of an evening and were changed by what we saw, can draw up a list of those films that were transformative for us. In my own case, these were films that went beyond being entertaining and taught me something powerful through the artistry of the army of people who contribute their talents to such an enterprise. One of those was Judgement at Nuremberg, which was released in 1961.

The other day I learned a new number, and it was 545. This is the number of children who were separated from their parents by immigration personnel and who have still not been reunited with their parents. As Stephen Colbert said it in the clip I posted on Thursday: “Cruelty was the plan.” It is a shameful number and the size of that number stands out. But the shame and the unnecessary suffering began with the first child who was treated in this way. With the first family that was deliberately divided by policies of our own government.

It called to mind a scene from the movie I mentioned above. Spencer Tracy plays an American judge at the Nuremberg Trials. Burt Lancaster plays a German judge, a man who in his official capacity went along with some of the Nazi injustices. Who believed that by going along over here you could prevent greater harm over there. When I first saw this scene I was stunned, and left the theater not ready to talk about it until I had some time to process what had been presented to me.

It changed the way the 22 year-old man that I was looked at life. As it turned out, that change was permanent. So much for a simple night out at the movies, eh?

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The above is an example of the randomness of how we learn and what we learn. Perhaps I should use a different pronoun, to stop using the “we” and substitute the “I,” but I suspect that many of you might have found it to be true in your own lives as well. A small part of my moral education was acquired in churches and during talks with my parents, but the greatest part of it was from movies, books, and the slogans I read on T-shirts in the Sixties.

My world view was pieced together like a tuna casserole from the ingredients at hand and baked at idiosyncratic temperatures. The result is me. A hodgepodge of ideas and prejudices and pronouncements, both good and bad, that embedded themselves into that pudding I carry around atop my neck. Did I set out to learn about personal responsibility when I bought the ticket to “Nuremberg?” Nope. Was I seeking a lesson on the fragility of life and the importance of childhood relationships as I watched the opening credits roll on Stand By Me? Not on your life. Did I have any idea when I picked up Kazantzakis’ novel Freedom or Death that it would color my landscapes from then on? No way.

In fact, if I had suspected that any of these things were going to happen, I might well have avoided all of these works, and looked harder for something completely mindless. Mindless has always been my default position.

So what lesson? What goes in through our eyes and ears may take root in our brains, whether that’s what we intended or not. That old aphorism in the computing world of Garbage In – Garbage Out! holds as true for people as well as for machines.

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My old home state of South Dakota is out there in front of the pack with regard to new cases of coronavirus. For this you can give Governor Cluckette a lot of the credit. Even as the groans of infected people keeling over on the streets of the capital city of Pierre are keeping folks awake at night, she still insists that all citizens need to do is wash their hands and remember to floss.

She relays the Cluckian message of no-mask to her underlings, and when anyone says “Cluck” to a Republican, as we have abundantly observed, it cancels out normal brain activity and that person will now accept any old basket of horse-apples as a tasty dessert.

I do feel sorry for the innocents in that excellent state, those being the Democrats and Independents who have very little to say in its governance. I also feel sorry for any sensible South Dakota child over the age of eight years, who can look at what is happening and easily see that their lives and fortunes are in the hands of fools.

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When was the last time you worried about polio? Did you ever? The first form of the vaccine came out in 1955, and the oral form in 1962. So if you were a toddler during that period of history or later, you grew up without ever hearing it discussed at the dinner table, nor would your parents have ever had to tell you that there was no more going to the swimming pool at the park this summer. The polio boogey-man had vanished from the Western Hemisphere.

He was on the brink of disappearing from the entire world more than 15 years ago, and would have been but for fears raised by anti-vaccine hysteria in Africa and Asia. Just yesterday an article on CNN brought up the concern that with our focus on Covid we stand to let polio back into the Americas because of declining immunization rates. The wild form of the virus is still out there, and the only thing standing between us and its recurrence is our vigilance.

Yes, dear friends, when it comes to infectious diseases we have to be able to chew gum and walk. Just because we are hunkered down in our homes this year because of Covid worries doesn’t mean that we can ignore our other problems. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we do have people we can turn to for advice and help … they are called ID (Infectious Disease) experts and they use something called science as a powerful tool against such potential plagues.

All we have to do is let them do their job and help them where we can.

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P.S.A.

It’s the nineteenth of April, and I will now perform a public service by summarizing what we know to date about the novel coronavirus and Covid-19, the disease it causes. As an former medical professional, I believe that I am uniquely suited to this important task.

  • It may have come to the U.S. earlier than we first thought, or maybe it didn’t
  • It might be possible to re-catch it, but probably not
  • There might be a drug that is effective, but maybe it isn’t
  • A vaccine might be coming this year, or maybe not
  • It might be soon time to re-open things … but probably it’s too early
  • Masks might not be helpful for most of us, but we should wear them anyway
  • Unlike STDs, you might be able to catch it from doorknobs and toilet seats … or perhaps this isn’t true, and we should relax and go to a movie

There now, don’t you feel better?

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One of my favorite Buddhist stories came up recently at a recent online AA meeting, one where we were discussing pre-existing attitudes and how they colored what we saw and experienced.

The story goes like this.

A man was walking along a dusty road and saw a village off in the distance. At the side of the road a blind man was sitting peacefully with his begging bowl and bothering no one.

The traveler asked the blind man:

Are you from that village?

Yes, I am

What kind of people live in that village?

What kind of people live in the town you are from?

Oh, they were terrible. Grasping and greedy, gossiping and lazy.

Well, I think you’ll find the people in my village are much like that.

The first traveler grimaced and continued on his journey. A second pilgrim then came down the road. When he saw the blind man, he asked the same question.

What sort of people live in that village?

The people in the village you are from – how would you describe them?

Oh, they are lovely. Kind and generous of spirit. There are no lengths they wouldn’t go to in order to help a sufferer, even a stranger.

Well, I think you’ll find the people in my village are much like that.

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I will close today with these observations by Andy Borowitz, a man cursed with an unclouded vision.

Dr. Oz Fears That Coronavirus Comments Could Hurt His Credibility as Expert on MagicBeans

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