The Ephemeral Constant

Looking back at 2022, and forward to 2023.

Well, it’s that time of year again. The time when we look back at the closing year, and make tentative plans for the upcoming one.

Most people agree that 2022 was an eventful year, especially on the national level. Between the surprising outcome of the mid-term elections and the findings of the January Sixth Committee, the news has never been stagnant. From my perspective, some of the divisive partisan trends seem to be receding, so perhaps the insanity that has defined this country for much of the last decade is coming to a close. I hope that’s the case, though I’m not willing to place any bets on it, and I won’t fully believe it until I see it. But that’s all I want to say about the national political scene today. I’m sure I’ll go back to parts of it in more detail sooner or later.

I’m looking at things on a more personal level. For me, 2022 saw a lot of self-discovery, and re-evaluating a lot of long held beliefs. Most of these were not what would be considered drastic or life changing, because they tended to deal with specific topics and issues. But there were a lot of them, and their cumulative effect has been, shall we say, comprehensive. Social issues that I didn’t give much attention to in the past were pulled to the forefront, and their importance and relevance in many areas is very apparent to me now. Issues with my mental and physical health, which didn’t overly concern me, surprised me (any my family!) in some very unsettling ways. As a result I’m gradually re-arranging many aspects of my life, and am actually starting to take better care of myself. This is also something else I hope to delve into later.

Change is everywhere. There is a cliché expression about change being the only real constant in life. All kidding aside, there is a lot of truth to that. The Buddhist tradition often speaks about how ephemeral the world around us is. The word the core writings like to use is “impermanent.” What seemed like an absolute truth on Monday is written off as a passing illusion by Friday. What seemed like a trivial issue on Saturday turns out to be something of paramount importance the following Tuesday. Elaborate plans made on Tuesday needed to be changed around by Wednesday, re-organized and re-structured again on Thursday, and then postponed or even scrapped on Friday. Day to day events, even small ones, can have lasting effects on our lives in ways we can’t really anticipate, control, or immediately notice. But when we do, the only real option we have is adjust.

One thing to remember is that our perception of things at a specific moment isn’t necessarily wrong. On Monday, we may have a picture perfect take of the world around us, and the plans and reactions we set forth make perfect sense. But by late Tuesday we realize that our plans either need to be adjusted because something changed, or something new entered the picture. We may ask ourselves if we made a “mistake” somewhere, by not anticipating changes, or by not having contingencies for it. But did you actually make a “mistake” on Monday? Could you have anticipated everything that could have happened on Tuesday? Or even events on Monday that you had no way or knowing about, or even have any reason to consider? Could you have possibly anticipated every possible change or had a contingency for every possible variation of every circumstance? Of course not. These new and unknown events are what forced you to re-design Monday’s plans. It doesn’t have anything to do with your life management skills.

So I guess if you’re going to make big plans for the future, it’s a good idea to have flexibility in your overall schedule. Plan things so that the specific day to day details can be adjusted without notice, and allow for flexibility in your timetable, should one detail or project need to go on hold so as to make room for another. If you keep most of your wits about it, you should still eventually reach your final goal. Though you may end up taking a route you didn’t expect.

This idea of impermanence is not an easy one to describe or explain, and I don’t have a good history of dealing with it. One of the things I discovered about my self during the past year, was that I’ve made some downright stupid decisions along the way, and I often didn’t handle change well. Now that I’m more aware of this fact, perhaps this year will be different. For example, once again I hope to update this blog on a weekly basis. I’ve tried this before but never maintained it, but I’m going to try again.

Let’s see what 2023 compels me to talk about.

Frightful Weather

The new year started with what could be called a “psych out.” New Year’s day itself, and the day after, had mild, unseasonably warm temperatures. On January 3, central Virginia, and much of the mid-Atlantic states, were hit with a massive snowstorm. Having been born and raised in upstate New York, I’ve been through many winter storms, and in terms of temperature and snowfall, this one was fairly standard. What set it apart is that we had very little warning. The weather services knew that a blizzard was possible, and had been saying so for several days. But it wasn’t until the day before the storm actually hit that they started saying “this is not a drill!”

The snowfall averaged around seven inches, and it was the wet, heavy snow that I tend to associate with lake effect snow. Around here, such snow is uncommon, because the nearest body of water large enough to create the necessary conditions is the Chesapeake Bay. It lies almost 100 miles east of us, and there are a lot of hills in between. For a storm to be coming from the east, and carry that much moisture over such a distance, it would have to be a powerful storm.

And this one certainly was. I am writing this on January 9, and the effects of this storm are still being felt. Electrical and telephone service was out for most of the area, and wasn’t fully restored until the end of the week. We lost power on Monday morning, and didn’t get it back until late Thursday morning. Trees were broken all over the place, numerous utility poles were weighed down with snow and ice, and many roads had a dangerous layer of black ice under several inches of snow. This combination of circumstances made it very difficult for the utility crews to get done. Needless to say, the public schools were closed, and many businesses were closed or were using emergency protocols. My own company went into the same mode it did when the Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak, almost a year ago.

We used a gasoline generator to provide electricity for our refrigerator and a few minor appliances. At night it also powered my CPAP machine. This is important, because without it, I can’t get any real sleep, and succumb to sleep deprivation very quickly. We also had a space heater to keep at least one room of the house warm enough to prevent us from catching pneumonia. It was a bit uncomfortable having three people crammed into one room for most of the week, but we managed. And besides, for centuries it was normal for an entire family to crowd into one room at night. It also allowed us to just sit and talk as a family, which can be difficult to set up these days.

Why am I talking about this storm? So I can extend some friendly advice. Everybody should have some emergency supplies available for when nature decides to get nasty. At the very least you should have the following:

  1. If you live in an area where weather related power outages occur, get a generator. And make sure you have a supply of gasoline (or diesel fuel) on hand to power it up at a moment’s notice. Also make sure you have whatever tools and supplemental materials, like machine oil, on hand. Our generator was running for over three straight days, and needed frequent tweaking.
  2. Have some bottled water and canned food available. If you aren’t able to cook, or if your access to water is compromised, you’re going to need this. This is pretty self-explanatory.
  3. Make sure you have transportation available at all times. This one can be difficult, because the state of the roads can affect everything. But do whatever is necessary to make sure you can get a car out of your driveway, a snowmobile down to the road, a tractor across the snow field, or whatever. So long as you can get to a place where essential food and supplies are available, even if it’s just the local Seven-Eleven, you’ve got this one covered. It was during a blackout that I came to understand why horse theft was historically such a serious crime. If you stole someone’s horse, you were taking away their ability to get the supplies necessary for life. If we didn’t have a car available to get back and forth from the outside world, we would have been thoroughly hosed!

Emergency preparedness varies from one location to another. So wherever you live, do some reading up on what is considered essential for your area. But I’m willing to bet that these three items are pretty universal.

Since the Blizzard of ‘22, we have had a second major storm. And we are expected to have a few more over the next few weeks. But now we’re in a better position to deal with them. People either have, or are acquiring emergency supplies, and the various utility crews are ready to move at the drop of a snow hat. I’m hoping that the upcoming storms aren’t on par with the big one, but I lived in the snow belt long enough to know that unnecessary risks shouldn’t be taken.

Be safe out there.

Photo credit: New York Post

Travel during a pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major effect on many aspects of everyday life. One thing that has been particularly hard hit is travel. The virus moves wherever people are in large groups, and the more groups people move in or through, the more vectors the virus has. So, travel has been actively discouraged across the board. On many occasions the government, CDC, or both, have advised citizens to cancel or postpone whatever travel plans they may have. Some areas have actively prevented travel for all but emergency respondents, and even they have restrictions. Regions of the USA, especially California and New York City, are in full scale quarantine. Simply put, traveling is a pain these days.

Even so, on this holiday season, my family did elect to travel, specifically to Louisiana, where much of Lisa’s family lives. Still we had to ask ourselves, did we really need to travel? In this particular case, I think we did. We had just started to recover from the loss of Michael when this pandemic kicked in. We have been trapped in our house, which was full of memories and associations. We needed a change of venue, and needed to get away from home for a little while. Speaking only for myself, I needed to step out of my routine for a few days so as to finally put the past year into perspective, and try to decide what to do next. So, when the opportunity to travel presented itself, we elected to take it. Fortunately, when the time to travel arrived, we were not in a state of national lock down.

Even so, we had to take some precautions. Wearing a face mask at all times it just the beginning. We also had to maintain the recommended six foot distance, avoid large groups where possible, not make extended small talk, and so forth. All of those things can give the virus opportunities to spread. So, as we waited for our flight in the Charlottesville airport, we kept our masks on and stayed in one place, largely away from others. The airport was largely empty anyway, and our flight was one quarter capacity at best.

Then had a near four hour layover in Atlanta. Being stuck at Atlanta international airport for four hours is a trying situation under the best of circumstances, but with social distancing practices in place, it was worse. Again, we stayed away from other groups of people, kept our masks on, and didn’t interact with others unless we had to. The flight from Atlanta to New Orleans was about two thirds full, but was uneventful. Everyone kept their masks on and kept to themselves. I dozed the whole time.

When we finally arrived in New Orleans, we were quickly picked up by my father in law. Once we arrived at their house, we immediately changed clothes. In Louisiana at least, that is recommended of travelers. The assumption is that if the virus is hiding in your clothes, the sooner they get into the washing machine, the better. So throughout our trip to Louisiana, we continued to exercise caution and obeyed local recommendations.

Then I made the mistake of mentioning our trip on Facebook. A few people scolded me for traveling, and said that my selfish choices could result in people dying. Our emotional health wasn’t as important as the health risk we were creating, and we should have stayed right where we were.

Even as we visit with family, we still keep our masks on and maintain the six foot distance where possible. When we visited one of Lisa’s sisters, we had the gathering on the patio, picnic style. The six foot separation and face masks were an inconvenience, but nothing more. Following these guidelines isn’t difficult, and I can’t think of a good reason not to follow them.

To my surprise however, roughly half the population of New Orleans did find an excuse! We made a day trip to the
Audubon Aquarium of the Americas[1] in downtown New Orleans, and then to Cafe du Monde for their famous beignets. The visitors in the aquarium were OK about masks and distancing, but many of the people in and around Jackson Square were not wearing masks, were congregating in tight groups, and generally throwing all social distancing guidelines out the proverbial window. New Orleans is famous for its food and drink, and it’s one of those cities where “what happens here, stays here.” But that doesn’t really apply to a highly contagious virus!

I was not amused, and my daughter was noticeably upset.

Anyway, we played by the rules, and still enjoyed our trip. We we returned Virginia, we again wore masks all day, avoided crowds, maintained a six foot distance, and started doing laundry when we got home. We’re also looking into where we can be tested.

So I can safely say that it is possible to travel these days, and that the social distancing guidelines are not a serious buzzkill. But if you’re going to travel, you should be socially responsible and follow the pandemic related guidelines.

As a final note, regarding those people who get upset about having to wear a mask, and claiming it’s a violation of personal rights and liberties? (Like roughly half the people we saw in New Orleans?) These people really need to calm down, pull in a deep breath, and consider taking a break. Perhaps even a vacation.

  1. I strongly recommend visiting this place if you like sea creatures and other things oceanic. The Audubon Institute also operates a very good zoo in New Orleans, which I also recommend. We only had time to do one of them on this particular trip, but if your time and budget permits, try seeing both.

Image credit: Megson Fitzpatrick.

Be gone 2020

I’ve said it before: New Year’s Day has never been one of my favorite holidays. But this year, I’m fine with it. As I write this, 2020 is in its final death throws. In less than 72 hours it will be added to the ever growing scroll of history, and good riddance to it. In the course of the last 12 months the world has seen all kinds of crazy stuff, and many of us are at a breaking point.

The one aspect of 2020 that has dominated the collective conscience more than anything else is the pandemic of Covid-19, also known as the corona virus. It has disrupted almost every facet of all people’s lives, and the residual effects are going to continue well into the future. I don’t have to go into how the partial quarantine has altered things. People grumble about it all the time. We have also seen how the social distancing guidelines have thrown us for a loop, often in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

We have seen that we can survive without certain luxuries. Frequently eating at nice restaurants is fun. But it’s also expensive, and with social distancing guidelines in place it can be very rather risky. Going shopping can be fun, but the typical shopping mall is a serious vector for C-19, and probably best avoided. Many popular entertainment venues, like movie theaters and amusements parks, have been silent since April. And as it turns out, we can live without them. But we don’t really want to. These luxuries are some of the things that make life enjoyable, so it would be unfortunate if they went away forever. Sadly, in some areas that is happening. The economic fallout from eight months of low activity is proving too much to handle, especially for places with high operating or maintenance costs.

OK, so those of us who enjoy some of life’s perks have been getting by with less. Fine and good, but other things have become apparent. There are many people who never had the resources to enjoy these luxuries. They have been living from paycheck to paycheck for years, so extravagances like the ones I mentioned were never on their docket. And then there are the people who worked in service industries that were closed down during the pandemic, and are still not expected to full re-open until spring of 2021. All of those restaurants, shopping malls, entertainment venues and the like, provided people with jobs and livelihoods. When the pandemic went into full swing, they were suddenly unemployed or under-employed.

I experienced some of that myself. My company provides logistical support to a variety of other companies, including restaurants and shopping venues. When a large portion of our client base went dormant, our workload dropped. For almost three months I was working at reduced hours. Given that our clients also include hospitals and grocery supply chains, we were considered an essential workforce component, so we kept working. But even so we were under-employed, and that created some financial strain. I have to cringe when I think about those who completely lost their jobs.

We also saw how inefficient our health care system really is. Hospitals and clinics did their best to manage and control the spread, flow, and treatment of Covid-19. But shortfalls in logistical management, and some very poor leadership from the government, often meant that these facilities didn’t have the resources they needed. Of all the world’s nations who have had to struggle with Covid-19, it can be argued that the United States has handled it worse than anyone else. At this writing (30 Dec 2020, 11AM), 339,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 (according to the New York Times, via Google). The unemployment rate is 6.7%, which is lower than I expected, but still rather alarming. However, the under-employment rate is 13.7%, which doesn’t surprise me. Mind you, measuring “under employment” is inherently subjective, so there may be some flawed statistics in there. But just the idea of more than one out of every ten people is under-employed is enough to give pause.

We’ve also seen how selfish some of us can be. While finances get tighter and tighter for the average worker, a very small percentage acted like war profiteers and made billions during the pandemic. Prices for many goods and services have gone up, while the cash flow to the average worker remained stagnant. We even had some civil leaders say it was more important for the average worker to risk contracting Covid-19 by returning to work, than it was for the economy to remain stalled. There were those who decided it was more important that they continue to enjoy life’s luxuries, than allowing those less affluent to be safe.

A Covid-19 vaccine is starting to be circulated. It will take three or four months for it to work it’s way through a sufficient portion of the population to be effective. But even so, an end to the pandemic seems to be in sight. Then, as the saying goes, we can get back to “normal.” I am going to join those who have been saying that we shouldn’t go back to “normal,” because we’ve seen what a mess “normal” can be. Something like this pandemic is likely to happen again, be it another disease, a natural disaster, or a massive social upheaval. We need to be better prepared for it, and we should learn from our mistake.

Can we learn from our mistakes?

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