Wednesday, September 23

Needless suffering

It was well documented in early April: Nations that acted swiftly to contain the spread of Covid-19 could lift economic restrictions more quickly. 

And most individuals  can exercise great control over preventing the illness for themselves, their loved ones and anyone they contact. Preventive measures include wearing masks and practicing social distancing, at least 6 feet especially when indoors along with avoiding crowds and staying home when displaying symptoms including coughing or fever.

Again, this was well documented in mid-March after governments in East Asia responded swiftly with discipline to the virus.  

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world's population and represents more than 20 percent of global Covid-19 cases and 20 percent of deaths. Analysts offer a mix of reasons for the country's high Covid-19 rates: impatience and, in some cases, desperation to open businesses and return to normal; failure of leaders to allow public health officials to establish timelines for reopening; a yearning quick fixes including vaccines and medicines; assumptions that healthy, comfortable and young Americans could not possibly succumb; inattention to lag times after infection and exponential rise; and politicization of the simple precaution of wearing a mask along with a lack of self-discipline or consideration for the elderly and others who might be vulnerable.

Ed Yong writes for the Atlantic:

"Many Americans trusted intuition to help guide them through this disaster. They grabbed onto whatever solution was most prominent in the moment, and bounced from one (often false) hope to the next. They saw the actions that individual people were taking, and blamed and shamed their neighbors. They lapsed into magical thinking, and believed that the world would return to normal within months. Following these impulses was simpler than navigating a web of solutions, staring down broken systems, and accepting that the pandemic would rage for at least a year.

"These conceptual errors were not egregious lies or conspiracy theories, but they were still dangerous. They manifested again and again, distorting the debate around whether to stay at home, wear masks, or open colleges. They prevented citizens from grasping the scope of the crisis and pushed leaders toward bad policies." 

Denial and political polarization have disrupted the Covid-19 response, this despite the many future unknowns anyone infected, even those who are asymptomatic, as warned by researchers since the pandemic's beginning.

The pandemic will continue throughout the winter, and a new normal is unlikely before spring of 2021. Still, as other countries demonstrated earlier this year, individuals hold immense power over preventing the rapid and deadly spread of this disease. Hundreds of new cases and deaths each day are simply unacceptable and unnecessary.

Source for data in graphs: Worldometers

Thursday, August 27


For marketing, color is said to influence mood and atmosphere. yet Gregory Ciotti writing for Psychology Today has suggested such analyses of color's influence can be controversial. “The reason: Most of today’s conversations on colors and persuasion consist of hunches, anecdotal evidence and advertisers blowing smoke about 'colors and the mind.'" The influence of colors on human behavior is an inexact science.

 Another reason? Many studies on color psychology focus on standalone colors – red or blue, black and white – rather than combinations and patterns that are key to the beauty of a quilt or a stained glass window.

 Vivid displays of color fascinate people, and a glorious mix can become an indispensable whole. The world is full of brilliant scenes – some natural and others formed by human hand. Combinations and juxtaposition, patterns and chaos, attract and command attention.

And such is the allure of a diverse community. “We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry," noted Maya Angelou, "and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”  

No color thrives on its own in the most pleasing presentations. When encountering a colorful collection, most individuals will struggle to select just one – whether a quilt, scarf, flower or vase.  

Even an endless stretch of beach, ocean, canyon, meadow or sky is composed of multiple if subtle shades.  

Diversity should be treasured, especially in the United States, a nation of immigrants. Too many have forgotten the value in differences and the contributions of many.

“We need healing,” noted Julia Jackson, whose son struggles for his life after being shot seven times in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “I’ve been praying for the healing of our country. God has placed each and everyone one of us in this country because he wanted us be here….

"How dare we hate what we are. We are human. God did not make one type of tree or flower or fish or horse or grass or rock. How ware you ask him to make one type of human that looks just like you. I’m no just talking to Caucasian people. I’m talking to all people… no one is superior to the others.” 

How Americans handle diversity will determine the nation's destiny. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and test of our civilization."

Photos: Underground railroad quilt, Smithsonian; glassware, Susan Froetschel; wildflowers, American Meadows; and sunset, Petr Kratochvil Public Domain Pictures.

Thursday, August 20

Thoughts on suspense

The yearning to read and learn, constantly seeking truth and better ways, may be as crucial as any number of years spent in a classroom, earning grades and credits. The path to improvement depends on a willingness, even eagerness, to absorb and analyze new bits of information by any means necessary. People who want to learn more and solve big problems that others might avoid are stronger, more prepared to encounter inevitable change. They embrace rather than avoid uncertainty or feign to know it all.

Action and emotion intersect as emotions drive actions and actions drive emotions.  Likewise, there is intersection between emotion and reason in driving human judgment, as explained Chelsea Helion and David Pizarro in an essay for Handbook of Neuroethics: "The inner conflict that humans experience between their moral selves and their more unrestrained, egoistic selves has been a consistent theme in literature for centuries. While (largely) discarding the good-versus-evil aspects of this dichotomy, moral psychology has nonetheless embraced the basic division of mental processes into two general types – one mental system that is cold, rational, and deliberative, and another that is emotional, intuitive, and quick." 

The pursuit of knowledge is linked to suspense and R.J. Jacobs explains the allure of reading that provokes anxiety for CrimeReads. Readers seek a vicarious experience that offers a sense of control, the opportunity to explore possibilities in finding new methods to complete a story and the joy of solving problems.

Suspense spans a long list of emotions including fascination, hope, anticipation, envy, anger, rejection, hatred, anxiety, tension, fear and more. Aaron Smuts analyzes four theories on "The Paradox of Suspense" for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and points out points out that Robert Yanal suggests that "suspense is best thought of as a composite emotion," "better described as an emotional amalgam, comprised of fear and hope, where uncertainty, if it is required, is implied in the components." Smuts goes on to describe the broad nature of suspense: "The intensity of our feelings of suspense seems to rely on two features of an event's outcome: (1) its uncertainty and (2) the significance of what is at stake."  

Suspense novels encourage readers to form strong opinions and become invested in the narratives and characters. Sheila O'Neill graciously included Fear of Beauty in her video list compiled for a Ezvid Wiki - "9 Suspenseful Reads Full of Real Emotion." Sofi, the protagonist in Fear of Beauty, is desperate to learn how to read after finding some papers not far from a cliff where her son fell to his death. "Some mysteries and thrillers focus on emotionally detached sleuths and cases where the killer is simply after money. The titles on this list go a step further, tackling difficult relationships and characters facing hard truths, allowing readers to really get invested in the twists that come. Here, in no particular order, are nine books that are as emotional as they are thrilling."

Despite the prevalence of suspense in literature, the condition is rare in the modern world ... except maybe for the processes of learning and critical thinking. Learning serves as both trigger of suspense and antidote as people generally anticipate impending challenges and quickly discern possible approaches. Perhaps the readers who relish suspense literature are best adept at taming suspense, keeping this feeling at arm's length in everyday life. 

Friday, August 7

School safety

Chronic conditions among US schoolchildren: Diabetes	0% Heart and other debilitating conditions	2% Learning disabilities	5% Asthma	10% Obesity	19%

Public health experts suggest that school re-openings can go smoothly if parents and families prepare and heed precautions to prevent the spread of Covid-19. 
Yet schools cannot neglect the most vulnerable students. At least 25 percent of children in the United States aged 2 to 8 years have at least one chronic health condition – and as many of 30 million children with one or more of such conditions could be especially vulnerable to Covid-19 infection. Some families may not realize that their children are vulnerable as some ailments like heart conditions can go undetected for years. Heart disease is the fifth leading cause of death for US children ages 1 to 5.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports more than 300,000 cases of Covid-19 among US children, with rates rising by 40 percent during the last two weeks of July. Three states - California, Florida and Arizona - represent about a quarter of those cases. There are inconsistencies in how states collect data along with disagreements over the definition of a child. Most cases among children are asymptomatic but the long-term consequences are unknown. 

Mixed messages and inconsistencies in data collection do not help during a pandemic.

The UN Global Compact points out that the pandemic is “testing the world’s humanity and resilience at a time that is already marked by acute inequality.” Poor planning for the Covid-19 pandemic – and the failure of some communities to mandate masks and social distancing – could threaten learning and delay economic productivity for years to come.

All individuals must come to terms that schools, work and other social interactions will not return to normal any time soon, not until cases subside or public health experts develop efficient treatments and vaccines. Attempts to hide the pandemic’s consequences are futile as more families lose loved ones to the disease and communities confront ongoing hospitalizations and deaths.

crowded hallway in Georgia school in student photo
One high school in Georgia learned this after administrators made donning masks a “personal choice.” At least two students posted images of a crowded school hallway – no social distancing in effect. The school suspended at least two students before swiftly, warning the student body about "consequences" for such public posts. The school swiftly reversed the punishment after the story received national attention. Communities want to know what schools look like - and will hold those political and school leaders who rush economic re-openings and skimp on protections accountable.

One suspended student explained to CNN that she understood school rules prohibited recording and posting school scenes on social media during the day without an administrator’s permission. But referring to the words of the late Congressman John Lewis, she expressed concern for vulnerable students, staff members and family members and said she regarded posting the photograph as “good and necessary trouble.”

Secrecy is not protection. School children represent about 18 percent of the US population. Communities and families pay taxes, fees and tuition for education and want to ensure that schools engage in safe practices not only for the children in attendance but also the staff and parents, grandparents, neighbors and other family members who might care for them.  The school superintendent notified parents that the district will provide staff with masks and reduce crowding in school hallways, reports the Washington Post.

Children, parents and staff will speak up because their health is at sake. All are armed with phones and cameras. Protecting schools is essential as children represent the future of society. As Mohandes Gandhi noted, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

 This post was updated on August 11, 2020. 

Thursday, September 27


The testimony of Christine Blasey Ford before the US Senate Judicial Committee by is liberating, if not for her then for the millions of women and men who have suffered similar sexual assaults, harassment and humiliation.

She wrote a note to her congressman in July describing an incident from 36 years ago. After a day at the country club, she joined a small gathering of teens at a Washington DC suburb. She had one beer and went upstairs to use the bathroom. Once upstairs, someone pushed her from behind into a bedroom. Two intoxicated young men entered the room with her, Mark Judge and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. She describes how Kavanaugh pushed her to the bed, placed his body on top of hers and held his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream. Perhaps they thought this was roughhousing or tom-foolery, but she described terror.

The psychologist in her testimony is credible in so many ways - providing specific and vivid details along with names of others who could corroborate her report. Specifically, she recalled running into Mark Judge shortly after the evening of the assault at his place of his work - the Potomac Safeway.

Yet Republicans declined to reopen an FBI investigation or invite potential corroborating witness to testify.

Most importantly, she explained the rationale behind her hesitation in reporting and motivation for coming forward as citizen. She tried to sound a warning before the candidate was selected from a short list. She understood that the president had a list of candidates, equally qualified, and she thought the president and the senators - not necessarily the general public - should know about her experience before making a decision. She did not want to destroy Brett Kavanaugh.

But now, senators may quietly wonder if Kavanaugh should remain on the federal appeals court. If he had been truthful about these experiences and extended a sincere apology, if he did not have a background that includes other descriptions of his intoxication and belligerence, then many Americans might understand and forgive, especially if he could provide evidence of an ability to curtail his drinking.

Ford endured a polygraph exam. Could Kavanaugh do the same?

Absent an investigation that includes questioning of Mark Judge and an apology from Mark Kavanaugh about inappropriate behaviors including intoxication, the nomination should be withdrawn. Kavanaugh should expect to answer more questions about whether he should remain in his position with the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Tuesday, August 21

No surprise

A pedophile scandal in Massachusetts - and more importantly, the response from church leaders - prompted me to abandon Catholicism in 1992. A decade later, I wrote about my decision in an essay entitled "The Church Must Change" for The Hartford Courant.

The decision was one of the toughest, but also best that I have ever made. I described growing up in a devout Catholic family in a Pittsburgh suburb, first in Ingram and Crafton, Pennsylvania, and later moving to another neighborhood that surrounded Our Lady of Grace Church in 1969. We attended church for about six months but soon afterward, my father, brothers, sisters and I started volunteering in a nearby county nursing home, Kane Hospital, assisting patients in wheelchairs to and from the Masses. The priest was one of the most compassionate men I have ever met - and in the essay, I described his tolerance and kindness. "We trusted and admired him completely and he never took advantage of that trust," I wrote, adding that many young Catholics had been less fortunate.

So I have only the vaguest memories of the parish priests assigned to Our Lady of Grace parish. The 900-page grand jury report released by the Pennsylvania state attorney general references Leo Burchianti at the church from June 1968 to May 1973: "Burchianti was alleged to have had inappropriate contact with at least eight young boys," reports the Grand Jury report, page 600. "These allegations included but were not limited to Burchianti: having anal or oral sex with them; inappropriately touching them; making suggestive comments to them; providing alcohol to them; allowing them to use drugs in the rectory; and inviting some to stay overnight to sleep in his bed with him."

Because of our volunteer work at the nursing home, I did not know Burchianti other than to watch him preside over a few Masses. I heard no stories of abuse. I had already come to view religion as more a practical means of reaching out to help others and less for personal introspection and prayer. 

I left the church years later while living in the suburbs of Boston. In 1992, the former Catholic priest James Porter was accused of molesting more than 100 children in Massachusetts New Mexico and Minnesota. Church leaders in the area did not respond well to criticism that they hid the actions of a pedophile by transferring him to new locales. In May of that year, Boston's then Cardinal Bernard Law lashed out not at Porter, but at the journalists covering the priest's crimes: "By all means, we call down God's power on the media."

That was the moment I lost all trust in the Roman Catholic Church. The leaders sought to protect an institution rather than little children. As a parent, I was immensely grateful for the media reports.

My essay for the Courant was published a decade later, March 24, 2002, when the entire nation and church reckoned with another more far-reaching scandal. I wrote about how religion, like everything else in the United States, must compete under the free-market system: "In this country, we have the privilege of free thought and speech, and we can decide which 'moral" rules imposed by religious leaders, mere mortals, should be kept and which are meant to be broken."

At the time, I was confident the Catholic Church would change: "I have no doubt that within this century, priests will be free to marry and women be encouraged to value life by using birth control." I also concluded that "if the Church waits very long, it will only be a shadow, a minor religion in this country, as it loses credibility and more Catholics discover that other religions can offer both spirituality and truth."

Ultimately, my books about religion, women and life in rural Afghanistan, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, were based on my own experiences with Catholicism and religious controls.

Once again, the church must change.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Monday, November 20


"What book have you read that makes you feel as if you've been on a the journey that the narrator has taken?" Julie Lawson Timmer asked on Reddit.

A good question for finding good books. My own personal favorite is Bound for the Promised Land by Richard Marius, a story of a young man who leaves his home in Georgia for San Francisco in the 1850s, in search of his father who left for the Gold Rush, and the many characters he meets along the way.

And I'm grateful that a commenter mentioned Fear of Beauty. It's an honor to be included with the likes of The Count of Monte Christo, Heart of Darkness and The Goldfinch.