From the Skies

I don’t know if you missed it or not, but a couple of days ago there was a news item that stated there had been more than 12,000 lightning strikes in California in one week, which seemed to me to be an astoundingly high number. Especially since lightning strikes and wildfires go together. And there is no state that knows more about wildfires than California.

Then I thought … how do they know that there were 12,000? A couple of computer clicks and a phone call or two and I had my answer. There is a small office at the state capitol in Sacramento with lettering on the door that says Department of Revolting Environmental Developments, and yesterday I had a Zoom conference with the man who sits behind that door. His name is Arthur Schwarzenegger, who is a third cousin to the more famous Arnold, and is a holdover from that administration.

Mr. S. (we’ll call him that because Schwarzenegger takes way too long to type out each time) is a small balding man in his late fifties. His remaining wispy hair mostly sticks out from his head, forming a gray halo of sorts (and this is unnerving) and the hairs seem to almost writhe as we converse. His eyes dart constantly about the room, and he taps with a pencil on the desktop rapidly and without interruption. The muscles of his face twitch throughout the interview, independently of one another.

His shirt is badly buttoned and his cravat is tied poorly, which gives him a decidedly untidy appearance. We spoke under the condition that I not publish a word of the conversation, a promise that I fully intended to break at the time I made it, and this is the result.

Interviewer: Thank you for meeting with me, Mr. S, I know that you must be busy at this time of year. Am I correct in assuming this?

Mr. S.: Yes, yes, terrible busy. I can only give you five minutes.

Interviewer: Well, let’s get to it, then. I read that your state recently had 12,ooo lightning strikes in the space of a week. Is that number accurate?

Mr. S.: Yes, it is.

Interviewer: How do you know that?

Mr. S.: I count them.

Interviewer: You mean your office counts them?

Mr. S.: No, I do. Me. I count all of them.

Interviewer: Do you not have office staff to help out? Some sort of technology to assist you in this endeavor?

Mr. S.: No … it’s just me and a clicker.

Interviewer: But how … ?

Mr. S.: I sit out in thunderstorms at the place in our state that has the most strikes and click each time one comes.

Interviewer: And this is accurate?

Mr. S.: Very. I am warned of each upcoming blast by the fact that my hair sticks straight out from my head. So I never miss a one.

Interviewer: But, sir, you can only certify the lightning you can see around you, and California is a very large state. How can you …

Mr. S.: I extrapolate. Whatever number of bolts I see, I multiply by a factor to get the total for the entire state.

Interviewer: Is this factor a scientifically derived value?

Mr. S.: No. I made it up. Whole cloth and all that.

Interviewer: So this is a very soft number indeed.

Mr. S.: The softest.

Interviewer: Aren’t you worried about this? Your job, for instance, is that secure with you making things up as you go along?

Mr. S.: Look, I work out of this crummy office, by myself, with an ancient computer running Windows 95. When I am in the field, and I mean literally in the field, I wear rubber clothing, rubber shoes, rubber underwear, run wires from my hat to the ground as a precaution, and still I have been knocked down by lightning 37 times as of yesterday. What are they going to do to me?

At that, there was a crashing noise in the hallway outside his door, and Mr.S. dove under his desk with surprising alacrity for a man of middle years. He would not come out from under, and so we terminated the interview.

Even though my confidence had been shaken quite a bit, I was still impressed … 12,000 … that’s a lot of lightning, soft count or not.

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Paul Simon is one of those artists whose music has been part of my personal soundtrack, always playing there somewhere in the background, and coming up louder whenever needed. This has been so since the day Sound of Silence flowed out of my car radio, and when Bridge Over Troubled Water was released … Hoo Boy … he and I were off and we never looked back.

Then the Graceland album – totally excellent, nest-ce pas? – yes it was and the title tune was so upbeat and all that it was perhaps a year before I really listened to the lyrics. And then, I thought Paul – you really suckered me there, didn’t you? That’s a darned sad song with words to make you think about your own … but, hey … so I waited for someone to slow the tune down and let us in on the feelings held in those naked words.

And I found someone who did just that, and did it beautifully as well. Her name is Kina Grannis and I put her version up there with Paul’s.

Might as well add the lyrics, here … you can’t tell the players without a program

The Mississippi Delta
was shining like a national guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War

I’m going to Graceland, Graceland
Memphis, Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland

My traveling companion is nine years old
He is the child of my first marriage
But I’ve reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland

She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said, “losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow”

I’m going to Graceland
Memphis, Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland

And my traveling companions
Are ghosts and empty sockets
I’m looking at ghosts and empties
But I’ve reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland

There is a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I’m falling, flying
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
“Whoa, so this is what she means”
She means we’re bouncing into Graceland
And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Well, everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

Ooh, ooh, ooh
In Graceland, in Graceland
I’m going to Graceland
For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see
Graceland
And I may be obliged to defend
Every love, every ending
Or maybe there’s no obligations now
Maybe I’ve a reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland

Whoa, oh, oh
In Graceland, in Graceland, in Graceland
I’m going to Graceland

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… Not The Motorcycle

Among all the stories and articles dealing with Covid-19 there are sprinkled individual reports of a disease in young children who’ve developed inflammation of blood vessels in locations all around the body. Some of these kids have died of heart-related problems, and many of them are Covid-19 positive.

There is mention of the disease Kawasaki syndrome in some of these articles, because of many similarities between the two conditions. The pic below is of a child with Kawasaki syndrome, and he is obviously displeased with his diagnosis.

This disease was first described in 1967 in Japan, later spread across the globe, and as of today we still don’t know its cause. Which is what is so intriguing about the newer syndrome and its relationship to a specific virus.

I have a Kawasaki story. Well, two of them, really.

The first one is very short. My first motorcycle was a 400cc Kawasaki street bike. I loved it and would have kept it forever but one day I saw a Honda Gold Wing on the dealership sales floor and she twisted my mind and I followed her and left that marvelous KZ400 behind. I wonder whatever became of her.

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The second story follows.

I was living and working in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when I first read about Kawasaki syndrome. That was in 1974, and the article was in the journal Pediatrics. Part of the disease’s presentation was a fairly dramatic rash, and the idea that babies with this condition were dying of “heart attacks” was alarming. I looked at the color plates accompanying the reports, and mentally filed them away.

Initially all of the cases were in Japan, but then there were reports from the Philippines, later Hawaii, and finally in 1976 there were kids on the west coast with the disease. It had traveled and been tracked making its way across the Pacific Ocean, and behaved much as an infection would.

And then there came a day in 1977 when I walked into an exam room in my office in remote Hancock MI and saw a child who had presented with a florid skin rash and a fever. My first reaction was “What the hell is this? I’ve not seen anything like … wait … yes, I have seen that rash somewhere before.” So I dug out the articles and yep, this child turned out to be the first case of Kawasaki syndrome diagnosed in the Upper Peninsula, sitting right there in a small room in the middle of the continent.*

By then several things were known about the syndrome. First, that unless you had heart involvement you were going to be miserable for a week or two but would most likely make a complete recovery. And second, if the vessels in the patient’s heart were inflamed, treatment with intravenous gamma globulin was very effective in reversing these lesions.

Since the UP was a pediatric cardiologic desert, I immediately sent the boy downstate to Ann Arbor, where they found that his heart was involved and the child was soon treated with IVGG, with a happy outcome.

So I will watch the present situation with both old and new interest.

*[This story is not told to point out how wonderful a clinician I was, although that is certainly true and I will be the first to admit it, but that the information necessary to make such a diagnosis was available to physicians even in remote and unlikely locations.]

*

When I was a pediatric resident, on Saturday mornings we attended Dr. Good’s Rounds. Dr. Robert A. Good was one of the few true geniuses that I’ve met, and each week we would present him a case as an unknown and try to stump him. We never did.

On one occasion, after the resident had laid out the clinical aspects of a case, Dr. Good began: “Well, the most interesting part of this child’s problems is the presence of those vascular lesions …” and he stopped to look around at our group. He began again: “By the way, you do know that eventually all diseases will be found to be infectious in origin, don’t you?” We nodded dutifully, even though of course we’d never heard such a statement before.

Kawasaki syndrome reeks of being infectious in origin, and the recent Covid experience only adds to that odor. So why haven’t we found the cause of Kawasaki syndrome after all this time? Because we need a new flashlight, obviously.

Let’s say that at some time in your life you went camping. Exactly an hour after everyone has settled down and is sleeping, you wake to find that you require the sort of comfort that a privy can provide. You reluctantly leave your warm sleeping bag and turn on that little easy-to-carry flashlight with the anemic amount of light that it provides and make your way to the outhouse, tripping over every root and rock in the path because you can’t see them clearly.

But you learned something from that negative experience.

So when you return to civilization, you make a trip to a hardware store and buy the biggest, brightest flashlight you can afford, and the next time you make that chilly trip to the toilet you see everything. The roots, the rocks, the raccoons, something ominous that slithered away into the underbrush – it’s all out there. Technological progress has improved your life.

*

It’s the same in medicine.

As a junior medical student I was required to attend a series of lectures on physical diagnosis. We were learning the art of eliciting information through touching patients’ bodies, listening to their hearts and lungs, and asking them to perform certain tasks. All terribly important stuff. Skills and knowledge that had been basically unchanged for a hundred years.

One day, after an hour of talking to us about stethoscopes and the alteration of the sounds you hear caused by diseases of the lungs, and of the art of percussion of the chest (the tapping while listening), the lecturing pulmonologist paused.

“Now,” he said, “I must tell you that everything I have talked about so far this morning is not worth the diagnostic value of a single chest x-ray.” And he closed his notebook and left the room.

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The discovery of x-rays was a revolutionary thing. It was the newest and best flashlight of 1913. But what amazing ones were to follow – the CT scan, brain scan, PET scan, MRI, etc. And that was just in the radiology department.

Each time there is a technical advance, we learn new stuff. Not just about what we might have been studying at the time, but other things as well. We’re unfortunately accustomed to the term collateral damage, as when a weapon kills innocents along with the intended target.

Well, there is such a thing as collateral learning as well. This occurs when a tool is developed and all of a sudden uses are found for it far from the original plans.** As an example, all of the diagnostic testing now being done for Covid-19 uses technology that didn’t exist when I started out in medicine.

Each time we get one of those new flashlights, people begin immediately shining them everywhere and oh, what things we learn. But so far, no new beam to shine on Kawasaki syndrome, not yet.

**[Steve Jobs was particularly conscious of this phenomenon. When he first presented the iPhone, he knew that it was a remarkable technical achievement, but that neither he nor anyone else could know how it would eventually be used. That was where we came in. And who could have imagined how useful it has become?]

*

BTW, as long as we’re on the subject, you do know what the world’s most powerful diagnostic instrument is, don’t you? And it’s been around for a thousand years?

It’s the retrospectoscope. With it you can look backward in time, and declare “I knew it all along!” to everyone who is within earshot and you believe may be susceptible to your unmerited self-praise.

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Never Have I Ever …

We finished up the first season of Never Have I Ever, on Netflix, and get this – there were no bad people on the screen in this series. Not one. The parents weren’t unbelievably stupid and the teenagers weren’t unbearably smart. There were minority characters galore, but nobody made fun of them or resorted to stereotypes.

Sexuality is a big topic in this show. The main characters are adolescents, after all. But no one is exploiting or abusing anyone else. So is it a too-nice universe? Not to Robin and me. This is a light-hearted comedy, yet one that touches on many serious topics, including the death of a parent, expectations of mothers vs. those of daughters, coming out as gay, the confusion of being an adolescent, cross-cultural rough spots, et al.

It never preached at us, grossed us out, made us depressed, or patronized us. Pretty darn good for 2020.

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So far using Zoom has been refreshingly free from melodrama. Until Tuesday, that is. The service underwent a major update a couple of days ago, and friends Bill, Sid, and I bumped up against some significant confusion in our third shot at videoconferencing.

We finally gave it up for the day after a trying 45 minutes, and went back to our drawing boards to prepare for a future session. Too bad we didn’t have a video recording of what went on, it was a classic demonstration of three senior amigos doing their best to pry open the doors of the electronic age one more crack. And finding this face peering back at us.

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When I saw this photo on the CNN website this morning, I immediately knew I was going to steal it. It’s a full frontal of a cassowary. You know, that large flightless bird with the enormous claws on its feet? That highly dangerous feathered friend? The article went on to discuss interesting things about its feather structure, but it was the picture that nailed me.

It’s a mad, mad, mad gaze if there ever was one. Merciless. If you could choose what the last thing you’d ever see in this life would be, what image to carry with you into eternity, I doubt many would pick the cassowary’s face.

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I’m so confused. Somewhere in my past I received the instruction that one should place two spaces after a period and before the next sentence. My right thumb does that automatically. Double tap.

A few months ago I read an article that discussed the origins of that practice and its uselessness in modern writing. I ignored it, and kept on with what I’d always done. Double tap.

But now no less an expert on things typographic than Microsoft has decreed that if I do it while using their product, it will be flagged as an error. One space is all that any self-respecting writer should need, and there’s no need to continue with this nonsense, says the software giant. You must follow their lead if you want to avoid that squiggly correction line appearing on your page.

Regard the above three paragraphs. I’ve used two spaces on the first two, and a single space on the third. Which looks best?

I’m was going to stick with two. Squiggly lines be damned. A guy can only be pushed so far before a stand must be taken. Besides, we Macintosh people have always known that Microsoft was The Evil Empire, and instinctually avoid them whenever possible.

But then I ran across this graphic, strongly suggesting that I was not only wrong, but that I was a cliché.

I wonder if the rest of my day can be salvaged? Quite a setback, this is.

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Walking the Walk

The snow has melted from one of our mainstay hiking paths so it is finally open for business, and we took it yesterday. It’s up at the Black Canyon, and the only snow/mud we encountered was back in a niche in the canyon wall that never sees the sun. If you like to walk, this is a good one. Starting at the abandoned Visitor Center you make your way down a steepish path that drops you around 300 feet down into the canyon. Further on you have to climb back up that 300 feet, and that’s where the fun comes in, as you try to find enough oxygen molecules to sustain life.

[BTW – if you like your adventures with a little hair on them, at one point in this same hike you can choose to take a right fork and go all the way to the bottom of the canyon, which is 1800 feet down. About a third of the way to the bottom, it’s so steep you descend hand over hand down an 80 foot chain. I have not done this “trail, nor will I. I might be able to get down, but there is little chance I could climb back out, and how then would I get groceries?]

All in all our hike is just under four miles in length, and there are only a half-dozen ( mercifully brief) narrow stretches to make the hearts of acrophobes like myself speed up slightly.

Without an indoor exercise venue to attend, such places have become more important to us. When I was twenty, the phrase “use it or lose it” didn’t have much meaning to me, as my body was pretty much always ready for whatever. But at this stage of life, I should have that phrase stenciled in big letters on all of my pajamas in reverse so that whenever I pass a mirror I am reminded to get out of those sleep-duds and do something.

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Ay ay ay, as if there wasn’t enough to worry about. The latest addition to things that are nasty and coming to America from Asia is a species of hornet that attacks and destroys honeybee colonies wherever it can find them. It’s sting can also cancel a human’s lease on life under some circumstances.

Fortunately it has been given a pleasant name so as to not unduly frighten the timid among us. They call it the “murder hornet.” Read all about it in the Times of New York.

There is some good that can some from this news. For as long as the situation permits, no matter what mayhem is going on about you, you can always say to your friend or neighbor: “Well at least we don’t have murder hornets to contend with.”

Until you do, that is.

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At out home we have a couple of strings of Buddhist prayer flags going from the ash tree to the board fence. They are feather-light squares of cloth that flutter in the slightest of air movements.

Which makes them a valuable weather guide. Not as predictors, but as weather-tellers. You know what those are. You get out of bed in the darkness, stumble to the kitchen to make coffee, crank open an eye to peer out the window to see what sort of day it is, and the weather-tellers are there to help.

If it’s white out there, it snowed or is snowing. If it’s wet, it rained or is raining. If the prayer flags are standing straight out from the line, there is a stiff breeze blowing, and you can forget about spraying for weeds, unless you want the wrath of your neighbors coming down on your head as the herbicide drifts across their orchid patch.

Predictors can occasionally be wrong, but tellers never lie.

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Here’s an example of a weather-teller that you used to be able to buy in gift shops, taverns, gas stations, or anywhere unsophisticated people gathered. (Which category included pretty much everyone I knew)

I owned one of these when I was ten years old. Thought it was the funniest thing in the universe for about a month, showed it to every visitor to our home, then forgot about it till now. Its present location is unknown, but I strongly suspect a landfill figures in.

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Dave Eggers has done a great job of pulling together all the information we think we know about coronavirus and Covid-19. He’s put it together in a faux interview which will make you smarter and/or drive you bonkers, depending on your tolerance for contradictions.

It’s called Flattening the Truth on Coronavirus.

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From The New Yorker

Holding The Baby

This Sunday evening Colorado’s version of shelter-at-home expires, and some official loosening-up is expected. We’re not entirely sure which establishments will be allowed to open and which will remain shuttered, but we’ll be taking a small step toward … what? Normal?

I’m not sure that “normal” will be allowed us for a good long time to come. All of what’s happened the past several months has been too big a hit to just say “Well, that’s that. I’m going out for a haircut, dinner, and a movie. Maybe we’ll play Twister afterward. See y’all later.”

There are the restrictions that our governments have wisely put in place, and there are those that we added on for ourselves. What we’ve been so forcefully reminded of recently is something that was always true, we just chose to play it down, to ignore it.

We live in a world of hazards. Some of them are big, like automobiles and crazed moose. Some of them are so small as to be invisible. A car and a novel coronavirus can both hurt us, but you can at least see a car coming (sometimes) and try to get out of its way. If we were to take all of the possible threats that exist into consideration every day I don’t know who would have the courage to step outside their front door.

But how do we go from wondering whether we need to wash our cans of tuna or not, to happily sitting elbow to elbow in the bleachers at a baseball game holding our plastic cup of soda that’s been well-handled by many people? In one big step or thirty small ones?

How long will it take before a new mom can easily say to a friend or relative: “Would you like to hold the baby?”

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From The New Yorker

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Robin is going to be teaching a class on the Montrose campus of Colorado Mesa U this fall, and is already doing what thoughtful teachers do – the grunt work of prepping for the class. In her search for materials she bought a copy of Greta Thunberg’s small book, and has already nearly finished it.

Thunberg is such an interesting person. Even more interesting is the outsize effect one small individual has had on how we talk about climate change, at least those of us who think that Sir Isaac Newton really put his finger on something there with the falling apples and everything. Those of us who still kinda like science.

We can ignore climate science. We really can. Millions of Americans are doing it as I write this. What we can’t do is ignore it without causing harm. The teeth of the beast don’t become less sharp when we turn our back on it. All that happens is that the bite comes from behind.

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I read yesterday that two cats have been diagnosed recently with coronavirus infection. The cats had the sniffles. Don’t ask why the vets tested them, I don’t know. Don’t ask if it’s the same strain we humans are having so much trouble with, I don’t know.

The cats were in different states out East, and are allegedly making a good recovery. There are no worries about transmission to or from people, the article stipulated.

While I was reading the piece, there was a sudden sneeze and cough behind me and I whirled around, startled, to see Poco sitting there on the couch at my shoulder with a mischievous grin on his face. He then raised his eyebrows as if to say “What?,” before he jumped to the floor and walked away. He has not coughed since.

I think I’ve been punked. I had no idea he could read.

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Here Kitty, Kitty

For a few months now I’ve been making food for our cats here at home. I should say “cat” because at first Willow basically treated it like it was a dishful of dreck and waited patiently until I would open a can of commercial cat food, as I was supposed to do in the first place. At least as far as she was concerned.

But I kept putting a bit of homemade in her bowl alongside the primo material, and now she will take it in preference some of the time. The women (including a veterinarian) who concocted the recipes that are online and that I follow basically have me putting a chicken back together, sort of. It’s a mixture of chicken thighs and giblets ground up with egg yolks, bone meal, B vitamins, fish oil, vitamin E, and an amino acid, taurine. Poco, especially, seems to be thriving on it, and although age is still his daily burden he moves about more easily and even jumps a little higher (not all that high, I admit).

Any time I serve up a bowlful and the cat involved looks the slightest bit askance at it, I simply say “Ivory-billed woodpecker,”or “passenger pigeon,” and they dive right in.** Willow has stopped her distressing habit of occasionally catching small birds and is now completely focussed on mice when she goes hunting. Maybe my reconstructed Franken-chicken is filling the ornithine space in her diet. Or perhaps mice are just easier to catch.

**A blatant falsehood.

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Our videoconference on Easter Sunday went swimmingly. Everybody showed up, and there were no problems managing who should talk when. The techno-children kept changing the background images on their devices, which made it interesting and even a little festive. At one point most of us were “at the seashore” together, although several different oceans were involved.

By forty minutes in we were all caught up on our lives to the moment, and goofiness started to creep in around the edges, as evidenced here:

Obviously, it was time to fold our tents and steal away.

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We had a freeze Sunday night in Paradise, not exactly a record-setting event, but still an unwanted one. Once the whole Spring thing gets started, any setbacks are treated by the precarious pudding that I call my mind as personal affronts.

“Come on, let’s get linear,” I’ve been heard to say. “No more of this back and forth,” “What a wishy-washy way to run a universe,” and “This sucks” are other examples of the elegant pithiness of which I am capable. If none of these are aphorisms worthy of being printed on a T-shirt, they are at least honest.

When I’ve decided that it is Spring, the Gods interfere at their peril.

Did I hear a gasp? Are you waiting for me to be chained to a rock like Prometheus or rolling a boulder forever up a mountainside Sisyphus-style?

It’s not happenin’. My liver is safe and intact exactly where it’s supposed to be, and I think Sisyphus’ troubles are much like ordinary life, n’est-ce pas? I don’t know about you, but I can’t count the times I’ve been sent back to square one already, and I have reason to expect that some more such moments are up ahead.

So, if any celestial occupants are listening, here’s the drill. Warm nights, leaves and blossoms bursting forth without fear of harm, and chaise lounges on patios with minted iced tea in the cupholders. Let’s get it done.

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Here is a graphic that is nothing short of scandalous. It compares the death rate in two countries, one whose leaders took the Covid-19 onslaught seriously and one whose leaders dithered. You don’t need to have had a class in statistics to see that something’s wrong here, and the wrong is the orange guy, the narcissist, the huckster, and the pathologic liar. No, that’s not four different men, it’s all one person – President Cluck.

Read David Leonhardt’s newsletter, or better yet read the paper published last week in the New York Times. This is what you get when you elect incompetence in its purest form. His first real test, and thousands of Americans may be dead unnecessarily as a result.

David Leonhardt: Trump’s Role in the Death Toll
New York Times: He Could Have Seen This Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus

We need to dis-elect this malignant fool, toss out anything he’s touched in the White House, swab the whole place down with Lysol, and get about cleaning up the harm he’s done in the past three years. It won’t be hard to see what to do – stop at everything we see that’s completely covered in orange guano and hose it clean before we move on.

And while we’re at it, let’s help end the political careers of every single one of his enablers by voting blue in November.

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On a more positive note, I would like to say hello and goodbye to Oumuamua, the first (known) visitor from another solar system, and wouldn’t you know – I completely missed it! Oumuamua flew past us in 2017 when I was busy … I don’t know … probably trying to figure why my basil plants were dying off at a depressing rate.

You can read about it here, but the real question that I have this morning is – why didn’t anyone call me? Like those astrophysicists are so busy they couldn’t pick up a phone and let a person know?

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Obligate

A little bit about viruses. They are very extraordinary things, these tiny particles, which usually cannot exist outside of the host (in the case of this new coronavirus, the host is us) for more than a few hours or days. And their only true place of residence is inside of our cells. The technical name for them is obligate intracellular parasites, which is a mouthful.

Someone coughs in my direction and a viral particle sails toward me, eventually coming to rest in my respiratory passages as I breathe in. Once there it grabs onto a cell and burrows into it. Now the virus commandeers the machinery of that cell, pushing aside all normal operators, and turns the cell’s activity to … guess what? … making more virus.

Our present Staying in Place restrictions have a good chance of breaking up this pandemic, or at least limiting the harm. Theoretically, since we are the virus’ only “food,” dividing us up into small groups should work well. If by mischance I somehow contract the viral agent and bring it home with me, basically there is only Robin to give it to, as long as I am following the guidelines with regard to human contact. So poor Robin becomes ill, we both recover (Oh Happy Day!), and that’s it for our particular branch of the tree. We are now immune. We don’t pass it along. We have become a dead end.

So for the present – no restaurants, movie theaters, church services, major league baseball … basically no amusements that involve large groups of people. I can live with that.

A couple of days ago I read of an evangelical pastor who was, by God, not going to let coronavirus keep him from spreading the Word on Sunday mornings, so services were being carried out as usual.

Not a terrific idea, to say the least. The odds are pretty good that his congregation will be a younger and smaller one when this is all over. But it will also be a smarter one. Because the brighter lights among the faithful will have stayed home as they knew they should.

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Robin came across a site claiming to have links to forty of the greatest essays of all time (No hubris at all, is there?). The very first one was by David Sedaris, who is a favorite of both Robin and I.

It’s title is Laugh, Kookaburra, and I’ll bet even money you will smile repeatedly as you read it. You may also chuckle, but probably not guffaw.

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I am an absolute sucker for articles written about wolves. Especially those with an encouraging outcome. Each time I visit Ely MN for a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters, I spend some time in the International Wolf Center there, being totally caught up in what I am learning about these creatures.

Wildness is what they bring to the conversation. A sense of what was and should be if our own species was not so voracious.

So when I found this piece this morning in the Times of New York, I fell upon it like … wolves. It’s about the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park.

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Inoffensive Care Unit

Well, it had to happen. The number of cases of Covid-19 quadrupled over the last two days in Montrose County. From 1 to 4.

All of the patients were taken to a remote line camp on a ranch in an undisclosed location up on the Uncompahgre Plateau, along with 20 pounds of dried rice and beans, a good Coleman stove and lantern, four excellent (zero degrees-rated) down sleeping bags, and enough back issues of True West magazine to last them at least a month.

Some of the boys who rode up with them chopped enough wood to last the unfortunates for a solid week, and set the pile up right against the cabin where they could get at it easy. We don’t pamper our patients here in Paradise like they do in some other places. We sympathize, but by God, iffen you can’t take care of yourself in this world of trials and troubles, we don’t think you’re much of a cowboy.

We’ll check on them every couple of days …

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You could see it coming. This morning (Thursday) at 0600, by decree of Governor Polis, we are officially under a Stay At Home policy. From what I’ve been able to garner so far, it will not be much different for Robin and I, except it will be even harder to get a haircut than it was, and it was already impossible.

Details as to how it will be enforced aren’t clear at all. Probably not as vigorously as in daughter Maja’s situation in Lima, where she would be stopped and asked to show her papers on her way to a bodega. And where she saw people being hustled into military vehicles and carted away.

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David Brooks is not given to emotional outbursts. He is the very soul of responsible and thoughtful conservatism, and wouldn’t be caught dead with an epithet in his eminently sober mouth. No way. Too cool for that.

So when I saw the title of his latest piece in the Times of New York, I just had to read it, and I offer it to you here. Click on: Screw This Virus!

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And while we’re citing op/eds, this essay by Leonard Pitts was so beautifully written … a small but humbling story. Click on: Coronavirus crisis reveals the depth of our grace — and our greed 

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Robin has discovered a new (to us) communications software called Zoom. (As if senior citizens needed more than FaceTime and Skype.)

But this one seems a little easier to use, and is very straightforward in its rules and regulations. It is cross-platform and allows conference calls of up to 100 participants, which in the era of social distancing is not to be sniffed at. Robin used it a couple of days ago for a meeting of her book club, and those who participated thought it fun and very workable.

The amazing thing for all three of these programs is how much utility they provide the occasional user like ourselves, for free. Yes, friends, for the low low introductory price of only zero dollars, that’s zero down and zero per month, you too can start your own communications empire.

If this interests you at all, you can start your journey at zoom.us.

[Disclosure: we received no funds from Zoom.us for this endorsement. We tried like hell to get some, but failed miserably.]

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The music today is definitely not cool. I started to pick out a couple of tunes to go along with the first item in today’s post, but as I listened to them it became more than that.

They are from the pre-rock and roll part of my existence. From the Saturday movie matinees where Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and all of their buddies did improbably brave things while wearing fancy outfits that never got dirty. Whose silver-plated guns glistened enough to blind adversaries, but which never ever killed anyone. And these songs, corny as they might seem now, were played straight in all of those films.

They were the background music for a time when I believed in everything. The world was fair, courage and honor always won the day, and tragedy – why, what was that? If a guy knew he was about to pass into that great pasture in the sky, there was nothing for it but to smile bravely as you saddled up ol’ Buckskin, or ol’ Paint, or ol’ Trigger or Champion and rode out into the sunset.

I’ve had to temper some of those ideas since that uncomplicated time, but listening this morning I could remember exactly how it was when I first heard these songs by the Sons of the Pioneers. Like uncorking a wine bottled in 1948.

Still tastes good, actually.

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This week Colorado abolished the death penalty, becoming the 21st state to do so. In the graphic below, which is now obsolete, our state’s color has gone from blue to green.

There were three men on our death row, whose sentences were commuted to life without parole. Looking at the graphic, in general it would seem that the closer a state is to Canada the more likely it is to be enlightened on this issue.

No matter what a person’s feelings are about the morality of the death penalty, there are two facts that stand out. One is that it is basically a penalty reserved for the poor. If you can afford Alan Dershowitz’ services (and others of his high-billing breed), you are not going to be hung, gassed, shot, guillotined, drawn, quartered, or given a lethal injection. Period. Never, ever happen.

The second is that it is not a rare thing for a person to be wrongfully convicted and executed. Anyone who labors under the delusion that our justice system is completely trustworthy and that everybody on death row deserves to be there … lord have mercy, I just don’t know what to say!

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Messages From Tatooine

My candidate dropped out of the race on Monday, Super Tuesday came and went, and somehow the earth is still rotating in the usual manner.

In the past 48 hours I neither lost nor gained weight, it continues to be winter in my neighborhood, the laws of gravity remain enforced, and toes still get stubbed in the early morning hours as we make our way in the half-darkness to the coffeepots of America.

Ergo, if we can break away from the breathless ones on political broadcasts, there are some reliable elements in this world of ours.

Temporarily, our lives here on Earth are being enhanced by something we can’t see with unaided eyes, and that is our second moon. It’s only the size of a VW mini-bus, and will probably be gone in a week or two, but if you really try you can imagine that you’re young Luke Skywalker … .

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Last year Robin and I read a book about the Manhattan Project, 109 East Palace, which told an absorbing tale. It recounted the story of the humans (as well as the bomb) who lived up on the hill in the group of huts and tents and trailers that eventually came to be the town of Los Alamos.

So on one of last summer’s trips to New Mexico we visited Los Alamos and took in one of the museums there. It was fascinating and immersive and enlightening, so when I discovered a new series on Hulu entitled Manhattan, we couldn’t resist taking a look. (Actually, it’s not really new at all, but apparently originally aired on WGN America in 2014.)

The first couple of episodes were pretty good, so I guess we’re in it for the duration. If there ever was a time and a situation that was a culture medium for growing drama, it was this one.

Take a large group of the most brilliant scientists in the world along with their families, put them in a primitive town created just for them up on a lonely mountainside, isolate the group from the rest of the world and all they knew, surround them with lies and subterfuge, and give them the job of creating the most horrible weapon ever devised by mankind.

Even I could come up with a good storyline or two, I think, given these ingredients.

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I’ve added a link over there on the right to one of the better sources for song lyrics that I’ve found (lyrics.com). It’s not a rare thing for me to need help deciphering the words of some tunes.

And that would be true especially for artists like Tom Waits, who often sounds like he’s pulled his sweater and jacket over his head and is singing through several layers of material.

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I mentioned the other day that we were simplifying, didn’t I? Well, yesterday I found some things in a box within a larger box upon a shelf in the Rubbermaid shed in the backyard that set me down to reflect. Brought things to a halt, actually.

The first was a small piece of driftwood that I had picked up on an overnight backpacking trip that I took with daughters Kari and Sarah in the autumn of 1975. We had set up our tent on an isolated part of the shore of Lake Superior, and it was just the three of us in an idyllic setting if ever there was one.

Into that piece of wood I had carved our names and the year, and then set it aside. This fine example of the woodcarver’s art had found its way to the bottom of a box and followed me from the UP of Michigan to South Dakota to Colorado, and had been lost to view until it surfaced again yesterday.

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Then there were two scraps of paper from the time of my son’s funeral on July 2, 1993. One was the leaflet from the service itself and the other a poem I had written the night before the funeral on motel stationery.

On the inside cover of the leaflet was this passage from a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis that at the time I thought suited the occasion so well, and looking back I still do.

The name of this fine young man was written on the snow; the sun has risen, the snow has melted and has borne his name upon the waters.

Nikos Kazantzakis, The Greek Passion

And the poem … well, it was a time of great emotion and sadness for us all, and it imperfectly captured a part of what I was feeling that night.

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We finish today with this excellent piece of cover art that really says it all, I think.

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Interesting Times …

Well, this is a political season like no other in my lifetime. It absolutely brings to mind that old ( Chinese? Jewish? ) curse: May you live in interesting times!

We have a mentally defective would-be-king in the White House and a Republican party that has completely lost its way and whose behavior is anything but democratic. Add to that a Democratic Party presently going through its winnowing process to find their candidate, and starting out with a field that was at first very broad and interesting but is now rapidly on its way to becoming once again a group of old white men to choose between. But the old white men are even older this time.

And now season this spicy stew with today’s version of the plague* hovering around the edges of our visual field, inching its way toward center stage.

*[Really, it’s nothing like the Plague at all. Maybe it is worse than influenza, which we deal with every year, maybe not. But its hype has certainly been more dramatic.]

Let’s take a moment to revisit another time, and another story of panic about a different infectious disease. Before the vaccination for it came into being, every summer was a time to worry about polio. When cases began to appear in a town, schools were closed, swimming pools were shut down, and people were cautioned against getting together in large groups lest they come into contact with a person who could leave them paralyzed.

Some small towns even put up barricades blocking the roads in and out of their village to keep strangers away. All of this because since we didn’t have all of the information we needed to make informed decisions, we frequently gave into hysteria in all of its colorful forms.

Then came the scientists who developed the tools to study the disease in the laboratory, and they found something startling. Every American, from young adulthood onward, had been infected with poliovirus at some time in their lives. Every bloody one of them. It was a truly universal infection.

Think about it for a moment. This meant that since we all got polio, it was only a tiny segment of the infected population who went on to have paralytic disease. It meant that blocking the roads was a useless gesture, since the virus was already present on both sides of all of the barricades.

The focus then came down to a proper one, that of finding a vaccine. When that was done, all versions of polio nearly vanished from the planet.

So now we are putting up the barricades once again. This time they are in airports and … wait … what’s this? … where did this case come from? … and that one … and that one … ?

Until the scientists can provide us with the data we need, we will probably worry ourselves into all sorts of frazzles, just as we are doing right now. Perhaps a vaccine will come along eventually, but that certainly won’t happen for at least a year or more, well after this season has passed.

In the meantime I’m going to wash my hands, try to stop scratching my nose, and not visit the Louvre this spring. I’m going to focus on what is important, and that means living my little life, doing the least harm to the world that I can, and trying to keep my wits about me.

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Plague? Black Death? Here’s Monty Python to help us put things into perspective. Or maybe not, I dunno.

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Robin and I are about another round of simplifying. For us this means letting go of more things, more stuff.

Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

Henry David Thoreau

I wish that I could say that we are in synch with some established wisdom, but our motive is much plainer. We are moving from “How can we build a bigger storage shed?” to “Do we need a shed at all?” The answer, of course, depends how much are we willing to leave off.

Simplify, simplify.

Henry David Thoreau

Fortunately for us in all of this, there existed a certain Mr. Thoreau who has published a guidebook to the process. Not so much in the particulars as in the when and why.

We might do well to keep his words in front of us as we begin.

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.

Henry David Thoreau

My first step when we began yesterday was to take several objects from the shelves in the garage and transfer them immediately to the trash barrel. At first I could hardly stop congratulating myself for being so forceful and effective. That is, until I realized that all of those items were pieces of junk that I was supposed to have tossed out months ago, but never got around to it.

I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.

Henry David Thoreau

We’re thinking of selling off my motorscooter which has been sitting outside all winter under a cover, which protected it completely from wind and snow but somehow did not prevent the battery from going completely dead. So I plugged it into a charger for a few hours, put a key into the ignition, and it sprang into life in a flash.

When I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all — looking like an enormous wen which had grown out of the nape of his neck — I have pitied him, not because that was his all, but because he had all that to carry. If I have got to drag my trap, I will take care that it will be a light one and do not nip me in the vital part.

Henry David Thoreau

I have never owned any device of any kind that was so reliable, so bullet-proof, as this little scooter. It asks almost nothing of me in the way of maintenance or upkeep, but only sits quietly waiting for another chance to be of service. Much like a Labrador retriever with a 49cc piston displacement. It is only missing a tail to wag.

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The latest pet food recall by Purina is instructive. This time the abnormality was elevated calcium levels in a handful of products intended for rabbits and poultry. Too much calcium = stones in the urinary tract = illness and death.

If I were a group of turkeys pecking around the trough this morning, I would be seriously considering filing a class-action suit against Purina. When you are completely dependent on a limited array of foods and one of those foods is found to be dangerous, what’s a gobbler to do? The supplier needs to be held accountable.

A problem for these creatures is that historically such suits filed by turkeys have not done well in the courts. When you weigh thirty pounds and have a brain the size of a green pea, the legal system really doesn’t want to hear from you, no matter how valid your cause may be. And even if you do win, the judgements tend to be around fifty bucks at most, which does not attract the sharpest legal minds.

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From The Horses’ Mouth

Friends, today I am just connecting you with some information about coronavirus. I was prompted by two events. The first was listening to part of President Cluck’s news conference the other day, and the other by a rumor circulating here in Paradise.

About the first. In those dear dead days almost beyond recall, whenever a public health issue became alarming, administrations would find the most knowledgeable and authoritative person they could find, someone with impeccable scientific credentials who would meet with reporters and thereby get the straightest information out directly to the public. Such conferences were examples of how powerful responsible communication about the public health could be.

The idea that substituting the most famous liar in the country, a man who brags about his ignorance and abhors reading, and whose administration has consistently cut funding for science in general could accomplish the same goals is a perfect example of cluelessness.

Really, perfect.

The second instance was when a woman at a local AA meeting reported that “someone” had died of coronavirus infection here in Paradise, but it was being hushed up. Ay, ay, ay. Small unhappy people do love their conspiracy theories.

Sooo, how should we get our news about this looming threat? Where can we turn to when we know that our leaders are ignorant boobs? My suggestion would be the Centers for Disease Control, which has been doing this for decades, and in spite of the budget cuts they have been rewarded with for their good works still manage somehow to do their job, although at necessarily reduced levels.

And you can get to this information just by clicking on the image above, and then bookmarking the site it takes you to.

This is not some static site where the information never changes, but is one of fluidity and rapid response. Given the amount of public concern about this virus, it will continue to be the most authoritative place to go.

So if we are to seek good information about coronavirus, I respectfully suggest that we go to the horses’ mouth, as opposed to its other end.

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While you’re at the CDC website, take a look over at the right side of the page, just below the picture of the airplane, where you can subscribe to a newsletter about coronavirus disease. Be the most knowledgeable person on your block, or at the water cooler.

You will also find a very long list of newsletters on a wide variety of public health topics that are available to all of us for free.

It’s how government at its best can work.

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80 Verses, 300 Covers

Yesterday it snowed off and on nearly all day. Those big flakes that are mesmerizing to watch, tumbling in the wind and blowing up along our street. But because it was around 40 degrees out there, each flake melted nearly as soon as it touched down, so the ultimate effect was that of a light rain falling.

And you don’t have to shovel rain. Can I have a Hallelujah, brothers and sisters?

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Speaking of Hallelujah, has that song been done too many times, for you? As for me, I haven’t tired as yet. Doubt I ever will. The Wikipedia entry for the song says that Leonard Cohen originally wrote 80+ verses for it, and it has been covered by more than 300 artists.

Three hundred covers! That’s amazing. That’s as if every single person in Pukwana, SD recorded their own version. And then some.

I’ve not heard them all, but there are a few that stand out. One is this live performance at Cohen’s induction into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2006, as sung by k.d. lang with that gift of a voice she has.

(If you do watch it, carry through to the end, there’s a sweet moment there.)

Aaaaaahhhh, take me now, Lord.

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There’s a piece in this month’s issue of Consumer Reports that deals with leafy green vegetables and the problems of bacterial contamination. The perennial bad guys are E.coli, Salmonella, Listeria, and Campylobacter. The usual suspects, eh?

There’s some good news and some bad news. Which would you rather read first?

Okay, the bad news. If you want to eat greens raw, no matter what you do, there is a risk to eating them. While proper cooking will kill the pathogens, a nice plateful of iceberg lettuce/mush doesn’t hold much appeal for most people, although I wouldn’t presume to speak for thee.

All the washing in the world can get the dirt and sand off of the vegetables, but not all of the bacteria.

Our food distribution system needs some tuning up, but I don’t believe that any supplier of salad greens wants to see their name in the paper as having provided the food that caused illness and/or deaths. However, if a bird flying over your romaine field and pooping pathogens onto it can sink a batch, what’s a grower to do?

The takeaway from the CR tale seems to be, these foods are so nutritious that let’s all take our chances and have a salad for lunch, shall we? Think of it as high adventure, for the gourmandic adrenaline-junkies that we are.

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When I was a sophomore med student Patrick Bouvier Kennedy was born. He was a premature infant of 34 weeks gestation and he weighed 4 pounds, 10 ounces. Patrick immediately developed respiratory problems, and died 39 hours later of what was then called by several names, hyaline membrane disease, or idiopathic respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) being among them. In that year of his birth, 1963, all that could be done for premature babies, even the son of the President of the United States, was to keep them warm in an incubator, pipe in some supplemental oxygen, and drip IV fluids into small veins.

By 1968, when I was a second year resident in pediatrics, there was only a single neonatologist in all of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. She practiced at St. Paul Children’s Hospital, where they had primitive intravenous fluid infusion pumps and ventilators that could be used for premature infants, though they were machines built for adults, not babies. But even with their clunkiness these tools made possible a few hard-won survivals in small infants.

Without going into the physiology, something is missing from the lungs of preemies who develop RDS, and it wasn’t until 1990 that the first commercial product became available which could replace that missing substance (surfactant), at which point you would have seen a graph of the survival rate for infants with this disease rising nearly straight up.

At any rate, my professional lifetime included all of these stages, and it was a fascinating story along the way. So it occurred to me that it might be worth writing it up for the general public to read, since for that the last sixty years there has never been shortage of interest in anything that happens to a Kennedy, big or small.

I began to do the research, and after spending a few weeks collecting information I ran into something horrible. In 2015 a neonatal respiratory therapist had written exactly that story and published it as a small book. And worst of all, it’s well done.

So if any of you are interested, the author is Michael S. Ryan, and the title of the book is: Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, A Brief Life That Changed the History of Newborn Care.

I can recommend the damned thing wholeheartedly.

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This piece from Wednesday’s NYTimes brought back memories and tears to my ears. It is about the Indian government’s attempts to cut down on honking. Yes, of all the problems that the country might have, there is presently a focus on the bedlam produced by thousands of cars honking together.

Two years ago Robin and I spent a lovely few days visiting daughter Maja in Lima, Peru. Maja doesn’t drive her own car, much preferring using Uber, and letting somebody else get the nervous tics that piloting automobiles in that nation’s capital produces.

What Robin and I noticed is that every car in downtown Lima seemed to be honking at the same time. Including our driver.

Think about this for a moment. If there are warning sounds going off constantly in a 360 degree pattern around you, do you pay attention to them? Or do you tune them all out?

As a passenger, I found myself tuning them out, which meant they were nothing but useless noise. Like a bad song on the radio that you can’t turn off.

So I found the attempts to cut down on the use of horns as outlined in this article to be pretty funny. At some intersections in India, until the cars stop honking while everyone is waiting at a red light, the light stays red. Sensors do the job. It’s ingenious, but I wonder … if it happened everywhere in India (or any country, for that matter), how long would it take for the psychopaths out there behind the wheel (and honey, you just know that they’re there) to start ignoring those signal lights?

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