A brief and pointless observation

One night last week I wanted to fill an hour with mindless entertainment and scanned the DVDs on the shelf for something that would be less than a feature-length movie but more than a half-hour episode. (Yes, I could have watched two half-hour episodes, but never mind about that.) On a whim, I grabbed my set of Van Dyke & Company DVDs and selected episode six. If anything brought about that particular choice (aside from ethanol-induced randomness), it was the Justin Timberlake song “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” that I have heard too many times on the radio in recent days.

Let me explain. For reasons that elude my thinking even on ethanol-clear days, Justin Timberlake chose to record and release a song that strongly resembles the disco anthems of the mid-1970s. Van Dyke & Company was recorded and broadcast in 1976 and 1977. Being a variety show, it had musical guests, and some of those musical guests performed disco music. Trying to understand why anyone would want to revive said music, I chose an episode that features a performance of one of the original perpetrators of disco music—namely, KC and the Sunshine Band.

Van Dyke & Company was more than just another variety show. Seventies television was crowded with variety shows—some of them great, including Carol Burnett’s shows, but many of them average to poor. Dick Van Dyke was already a very popular entertainer; he had hosted his own situation comedy (sitcom) and had appeared in classic movies such as Mary Poppins. Everybody knew Dick Van Dyke. Rather than create just another variety show, Van Dyke chose to risk a parody of variety shows. Several running jokes fed subtle humor into Van Dyke & Company. For example, Dick Van Dyke presented himself as a star who was completely in control of his own show, yet he continually found himself forced to change his plans by the producers of that show. (One of those producers, also a writer of the show, was the comic genius Bob Einstein, who also played his character Super Dave Osbourne in two of the episodes of Van Dyke & Company). In episode six, Dick Van Dyke complains to the studio audience and viewers about a letter received by the show claiming that he only provided space to popular music performers to enhance the show’s ratings. Van Dyke emphasized that he personally chose the music performers and was close friends to all of them; he then completely garbled the name of KC and the Sunshine Band, leading to corrections from off-stage by Bob Einstein. Later in the show, Van Dyke complained that the producers had promised KC and the Sunshine Band two musical segments; Van Dyke went on to say that he was not consulted about that promise and that he demanded the second musical segment for his own song. As he began his song, his seat was wheeled off-stage and a curtain lifted to reveal KC and the Sunshine Band, who proceeded to perform their second song—a disco anthem which repeatedly informed the hearer, “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.”

Andy Kaufman appeared on most of the twelve episodes of Van Dyke & Company. Any fan of Andy Kaufman should own the recordings of this show, since they include Andy Kaufman performing before audiences who did not yet know what to expect from his act. In this sixth episode, Andy appeared as a cowboy. Dick Van Dyke had already selected four volunteers from the audience before Andy appeared. When he came on stage, Andy started a record and convincingly lip-synced the performer on the record, who was leading four children in singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Part of the joke was that the four volunteers apparently had no indication, when they were chosen from the audience, that they would be expected to lip-sync parts of a song. Andy was able to appear totally in control of the act, to the point of pushing his four volunteers into place and backstage as they performed for the audience in the studio and at home.

Unintended (I think) additional humor contained in this episode lies in the fact that KC and the Sunshine Band were also lip-syncing their two songs, but Andy’s lip-syncing talents completely blew them out of the water. Especially notable are KC’s hands on the keyboards—he appears to be striking the same chord repeatedly throughout the entire song without any change in hand position. (Given the lyrics of the songs, it’s entirely possible that they also involved only one chord.) Andy’s lip-syncing as a joke contrasted with KC’s lip-syncing as a serious attempt to entertain made this episode of Van Dyke & Company even more amusingly surreal than the writers and performers had intended.

Viewing this episode did not help me to ascertain why Justin Timberlake would care to revive a style of music that quickly became obsolete and deserves to remain forgotten. This noon in the car I heard once again his rendition of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and I thought I could hear one of the background singers slipping into “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.” J.

Tropical depression Beta

I have already used all my tropical depression jokes. The rain began before dawn yesterday, brought by Beta, and it has continued right up to the present. The gentle splatter repeats drop by drop, minute after minute, hour after hour. Already autumn has begun. Mornings are dark and cool. We won’t change our clocks until November, in the senseless pretense that we are saving daylight to use in the evening. It would be easy to remain in bed, listening to the rhythm of the falling rain. But there are tasks to accomplish, deeds that must be done, and a tropical depression is no excuse to be lazy.

All year I’ve been working on a book about depression—the inner kind, not the weather kind. My working title remains The Child of Light and the Black Dog: Depression and Christian Faith. Thinking about depression, analyzing depression, describing and discussing depression: these are depressing things to do. The first draft is nearly done, but I expect to do a lot of rewriting, reorganizing, and other editorial work. Yesterday I tried to summarize the ideas found in The Dark Night of the Soul, and I realized that I will have to sit down and read the entire book again to be able to share it properly.

Last night I was reading in the family library. On a whim, I reached out and grabbed a biography of Ernest Hemingway and read the last fifty pages. His own story, as you may recall, does not have a happy ending. In some ways I relate to Hemingway—we were both born and raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, and both of us write. Of course his writing brought him fame and fortune, something my writing has not been able to achieve. He traveled and saw more of the world than I have seen. Also, I don’t own a gun. But I’ve read Hemingway’s novels and short stories. Even though we disagree about some important matters, I admire Hemingway’s ability to see the world and to describe it vividly. I also admire his ability to see into people’s thoughts and feelings and to describe them vividly too.

Twenty-five years after Hemingway died, his publisher printed an edited edition of one of Hemingway’s unfinished projects. Garden of Eden is a powerful novel, at least in its abridged form. It describes sordid and ugly actions by sordid and ugly people, but its narrative is not easily forgotten. Ten years ago a movie was made from the novel, although it was not widely distributed. I happened upon a description of that movie recently, which may have contributed to my impulse to read again about the author.

Many things combine to create a tropical depression. Clouds and rain and wind are only part of the story. We are what we eat; but we also are what we read, what we remember, and what we ponder. We cannot always choose our frame of mind; often it is imposed upon us. Some days we can do no more than take one step at a time, firmly confident that each step measures a little more progress toward our destination. J.

Is virtue its own reward, or do nice guys finish last?

Yesterday afternoon I stopped at the bank on my way home from work. I put on my mask and got out of my car. A man who arrived in the parking lot just before me was getting out of his car; when he saw my mask, he realized he also needed to wear a mask and returned to his car. Closer to the door, I walked past a frail-looking white-haired woman with a cane. She was fumbling to get her mask adjusted. I could have gotten inside ahead of her. Instead, I waited at the door and held it open for her.

Two tellers were at their windows and there was no line. But one of the tellers was doing bank business on the computer and was not ready to work with customers. The woman I had allowed in front of me went to the other teller, and I waited in line on the red box, as the bank requires these days.

And I waited, and waited some more. The woman merely wanted to withdraw some cash from her checking account and also verify the balance in that account. But every step of this simple process took extra time, starting with finding her card and putting it into the banks machine. She had to take off her sunglasses, find her other glasses in her purse, and put them on. When the teller verified her balance, she asked also to confirm that another payment had already been processed. Even when she had gotten all the information she wanted and had received her cash, she continued to visit with the teller (who gently pointed out to her that other people were waiting in line). Still, she had to take the time to put her glasses back in her purse and put on her sunglasses before she left the spot in front of the teller.

I’m not complaining. I wasn’t in a hurry. I felt sorrier for the man who could have been in front of both of us, instead of fourth in line. (Another woman entered the bank behind me before he arrived with his mask.) But I did reflect on the choice I had made, holding the door open for a frail white-haired woman when I could have been first in line instead of having to wait. It further happened that, the instant the woman left and I took her place with the one teller, the other teller finished his task and called for the next customer.

“Virtue is its own reward” came to my mind. In a fairer universe, some privilege or blessing would have come my way because I held the door for the woman and let her enter the bank first. My courtesy was not rewarded; my time was wasted standing in line at the bank because of my choice to let her go first. A second phrase later occurred to me: “nice guys finish last.” Remembering that saying produced another rabbit hole to explore.

The saying is attributed to baseball manager Leo Durocher. I remember Durocher as manager of the Chicago Cubs, who for many years deserved their nickname of “America’s Lovable Losers.” Checking the Internet to see if Durocher indeed said, “nice guys finish last,” I discovered several boring and pointless facts. First, the saying is a brief summary of a longer statement he made about nice guys playing baseball and how they rank in the standings. Second, he did not say it about the Cubs; he said it about the New York Giants while Durocher was managing the Dodgers in 1946. Third, the expression “nice guys finish last” is linked to copious literature about human relationships and dating, including many scientific studies seeking to prove or disprove the adage that “nice guys finish last.” Connected to the saying and to the studies are observations that “nice guys” may be overlooked in the dating game, that “nice guys” often seem less assertive and confident and masculine than other guys, and that many men think they are “nice guys” when they are merely losers.

Not that any of this matters. More than anything else, I am flailing about, hunting for something to say on my blog, at a time when creative juices seem to have run dry. Not wanting to address the topics that preoccupy most of our minds (mine included) leaves me stuck in neutral, revving my engine at the red light, losing readers by my inactivity.

How is your day going? J.

Do you remember the Pepsi Challenge?

In the late 1980s, competition between the two largest brands of cola was fierce. Pepsi Cola ran a campaign they called “the Pepsi Challenge.” Their workers set up booths in public places and invited passerbys to taste two colas—Pepsi and Coke. The labels would be hidden, so samplers would not know which cola was which. They would take a sip of each cola and report which they preferred. According to Pepsi, a large majority preferred their product to that of their rival, Coca Cola.

I took the Pepsi Challenge once at the DuPage County Fair. After tasting both samples, I truthfully told the worker that they tasted the same, that I had no preference. However, I also stood by and watched them work. Each time someone agreed to take the challenge, the worker would pour about an ounce of cola from bottle A into a cup, then would pour the same amount from bottle B into another cup. The worker would then hand the cup from bottle B to the sampler, and after he or she had tasted that cola, he or she would receive the sample from bottle A.

No wonder more people thought they preferred Pepsi! Invariably, bottle A was Coca Cola and bottle B was Pepsi Cola. The Pepsi sample would always be fresh from the bottle still bubbling, while the Coke sample would have had a little time to go flat. The contest was rigged; yet, most people who took the challenge probably left the booth convinced that Pepsi tasted better than Coke because of that single experience.

People are easily fooled. Studies and surveys and polls offer copious amounts of information, but often they are skewed by procedures as subtle as the Pepsi Challenge. Average people are not often able to observe the way information is gathered the way I was able to observe the Pepsi Challenge. Professional surveys contain many kinds of data that help a person to determine the reliability of the results, but that data is not distributed as widely as the results themselves. Without that data (and knowledge of how to interpret it), a person has little chance to know which surveys and studies are accurate and which are rigged. Healthy skepticism is always recommended. J.

The oxymoron of subatomic particles

Science, like money, is a human invention that is very useful when used properly and very dangerous when misused. Both money and science can be very useful; on the other hand, a lack of either can be very problematic. Neither science nor money has the strength and significance to be the foundation of a person’s life. A human life based only on science, like a human life based only on money, is sadly crippled and unable to handle the crises that can strike a life emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

One of the strengths of science is also one of its weakness: science continually changes. The more effort people put into studying the world, observing the world, experimenting with things in the world, and making predictions based on those experiments and observations, the more likely it becomes that new theories will shape science and direct scientific inquiry on paths that, until that time, were unexpected.

Science was practiced in ancient Egypt, Babylon, India, and China, developing differently in different places. Western science (which drew upon scientific observations and theories from Egypt, Babylon, and India) began roughly twenty-four centuries ago with the philosophers of ancient Greece. Among their efforts was an attempt to determine the basic building blocks of the physical, or observable, world. One early philosopher suggested that everything material is made of water—a reasonable guess, since water can assume so many forms, from ice and snow to liquid water to vapor. Others suggested different basic materials rather than water. Pythagoras and his followers proposed that everything observable consists of numbers. Greek philosophers tended to seek internally consistent explanations of the world, even when those explanations seemed contrary to observation. One group, for example, insisted that motion is logically impossible and is only an illusion—that the true universe is stable and unchanging. Until the invention of calculus many centuries later, scientists and philosophers were not equipped to refute the logic that suggested that motion cannot happen in the world.

A basic teaching of western science since Greek times has been the assumption that all physical items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces. These were named “atoms” from the Greek word for “unbreakable.” For many centuries, most western scientists considered four elements to be represented among the atoms: water, earth, air, and fire. Alchemy—the predecessor to modern chemistry—observed and experimented with physical items with the assumption that all such items consist of tiny unbreakable pieces of water, earth, air, and fire. Modern western science would never have developed without the alchemists of medieval Europe. Far from living in “the dark ages,” the medieval alchemists were at the forefront of science, culture, and civilization.

Chemists eventually demonstrated the existence of far more than four elements—for example, that water is not a basic building block, but water can be divided into hydrogen and oxygen. As they continued to experiment and observe, chemists developed a series of mathematical relationships among the elements, re-suggesting the possibility that number is the most fundamental building block of the universe. Modern physics grew out of modern chemistry; roughly one hundred years ago, western scientists began to find particles that seemed to be building blocks even of atoms.

Understand that subatomic particles are an oxymoron. Atoms are supposed to be unbreakable—the word “atom” was created to communicate that important idea. Finding that atoms contained protons, neutrons, and electrons changed the rules of science; evidence of quarks and other subatomic particles continued the process of demonstrating that atoms, though important, are among the worst-named ideas in all of science.

Huge powerful machines have been built to study the tiny pieces of atoms. Smashing atoms to observe their particles has been compared to smashing an old-fashioned watch to try to guess how it functions. One scientist, Leon Lederer, joked that God “seems to be making it up as we go along,” since every layer of discoveries suggests a new layer of tiny pieces even smaller than those already demonstrated.

Scientists continue to study the world, to try to understand how things work. They observe and experiment, not only with subatomic particles, but with viruses and other disease-causing agents, medicines, genetics, and the climate of the planet. Sometimes most scientists agree with each other about how things work; other times their research seems to contradict the research of their peers. We are all familiar with the constant revision of nutritional studies—first eggs are good for us, then they are bad for us, then they are good for us again. The old tradition of individual scientists plugging away in their laboratories to manage great discoveries has long been supplanted by teams of scientists funded by government grants and by corporate investments. Political agendas and the hope to generate a financial profit inevitably shape the work of today’s scientists. Their work is important and should not be curtailed; but every scientific discovery must also be accepted with the proverbial grain of salt. That salt is as important an ingredient as any other contribution to scientific investigation. J.

Science: likable, but limited

I like science. All through school, I got As in science classes. My book collection has several books on science.

Granted, some of those science books are old… nearly as old as I am. Back in the 1960s, my parents collected the Time/Life collection of books on nature and on science. I was later able to acquire a copy of the same collection. While their information is not up to date, the books are valuable to me for three reasons: they make an attractive display on the living room shelves, they bring back childhood memories, and they allow me to compare current scientific statements with those made a generation ago. The history of science can be as enlightening as its current status.

My library has more recent scientific books. When I see news stories about scientific topics, I click on their links to the source papers behind those articles and read the summaries that the scientists themselves published. I believe that my understanding of science is equal to—and probably greater than—that of the average American citizen.

I dislike seeing science (and accusations of being “unscientific”) used as a political weapon. I dislike seeing science (and accusations of being “unscientific”) used to control conversations about religion and about morality. Science observes the world around us, experiments with elements of that work, and seeks to understand what the world contains and how its contents work. Science cannot measure or evaluate anything outside the material world. Science cannot make ethical decisions about how data regarding the world is used. Science tells people how to create bombs; science cannot tell people whether they should use those bombs.

Science cannot tell us whether we exist in a computer simulation rather than what we would call “reality.” Nor can science tell us whether our lives and surroundings are elements of someone’s dream. Using the scientific method, people measure the world around them. They assess changes in that world. They seek rules to explain those changes. They make predictions about the future, based on those rules, and the accuracy of their predictions measures the accuracy of their rules. Science is based on observation, experimentation, and careful consideration of what has been observed. Considerations of what is right and what is wrong can be based on scientific observations, but those moral considerations are not, themselves, scientific.

Science changes. Scientific rules are adjusted based on new information, new observations, and new experiments. Flexibility is a strength of science. It allows knowledge and understanding of the world to grow and to become more accurate and more helpful. But flexibility is also a weakness of science. People cannot make science the foundation of their lives, the source for meaning of their existences, precisely because science is constantly changing, adjusting, and reacting to new information and new interpretations of information.

Therefore, calling a person’s religious beliefs or political beliefs “unscientific” is pointless. Using science as a measurement of truth or of value is unscientific—using science for those purposes is an act of faith, not an act of science. People who trust science to lead them to all truth have made science the center of their religion; they are no longer thinking and acting scientifically. People who judge the opinions and beliefs of their neighbors according to scientific measures of the world are not acting like scientists. Putting faith in science alone is the kind of intellectual suicide which some devotees of science accuse religious people of committing.

I like science. I enjoy technology, medicine, and other benefits that have come from science. I am grateful to have a scientific understanding of the world in which I live. But my faith is not in science. My faith is in the God who create those things that science studies. My faith is not limited by science; my faith transcends the limits that science cannot break. My world is larger than the world of those who limit themselves to what science and measure and observe. For that I am also grateful. J.

These are not your grandparents’ Sixties

I suppose you could call me a child of the 1960s. I was born in the early 60s, too young to remember the assassination of President Kennedy or the start of Beatlemania, although I have studied both extensively. I remember watching on television as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. I remember classmates upset when they heard that the Beatles were breaking up. I also remember hearing something about a hippie concert in New York. (That summer I saw my first hippies. Several of them were in a car that drove down the road—long hair, colorful clothes, the car may have been a VW bug. One of them flashed a peace sign at me… a little short-haired boy standing in the front yard of his grandparents’ house.)

Last night I experienced two hours of that hippie concert in New York, thanks to a DVD player and a flat-screen stereo TV. Woodstock marks a high point for 60s nostalgia, combining peace, love, rock-and-roll, young people, drugs, sex, and politics. Plenty of timely idealism was on hand, as the organizers, musicians, and attendees showed that they could have a peaceful gathering to celebrate their culture (or counterculture, as the case may be). Yet the gathering also revealed contempt for authority (parents, police officers, and elected officials, among others), deliberate lawlessness (though it was nonviolent), poor management of the environment, and the arrogance of thinking that they were right and everyone else in the world was wrong. On the bright side, much of the music of Woodstock was epical and some was even profound; and the reaction to inconveniences of crowding, rain, and mud were largely hopeful and humane. On the dark side, much of the music of Woodstock was poorly performed due to poor planning and less than optimal conditions; and most of the investors lost money on the concert (except for those lucky enough to include recordings and the filmed documentary in their investment).

Some people older than me seem to want to bring back the 1960s in the summer of 2020. Many people younger than me seem to want to recreate the 1960s in the summer of 2020. Both groups are misguided. Donald Trump is neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon. Nothing happening this summer compares to the Vietnam War. Rioting and violence are as counterproductive now as they were back then. From Birmingham to Ferguson, American citizens have gathered to protest racial inequality and injustice. When these gatherings are hijacked by vandals, arsonists, and looters, the protestors’ message is distorted and justice does not prevail.

Street protests did not end the Vietnam War. If anything, they lengthened the war, as the communist government of North Vietnam stalled negotiations to end the conflict, hoping that America would lose the will to fight and would withdraw unitarily. President Nixon brought an end to the war, keeping his promise to provide peace with honor, but serious negotiations only happened after his prospects for reelection became obvious in the summer of 1972, and they were concluded only after his determination to prevail was tested following the election late that year. Tragically, the United States Congress handed victory back to North Vietnam in the 1970s by refusing to enforce the treaty agreements that ended fighting in January 1973.

Fighting in Vietnam was part of the Cold War, pitting capitalism and freedom in the West against communism (actually socialism) and totalitarianism in the East. Both sides fought militarily, economically, and intellectually for decades, trying to prove that their way was right and the other way was wrong. Socialism and communism received support from many people in the United States in the 1960s, principally those who were also rallying under the banners of civil rights, anti-war, and rock-and-roll. Only one side in the Cold War had to build walls and guard borders to prevent its citizens from escaping. Over a twenty-four month period in 1989 through 1991, the Cold War ended, due to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Ironically, in 2020 some prominent Americans are speaking in support of socialism and of stricter government controls over the population, even though the bankruptcy of those ideas was clearly demonstrated thirty years ago.

Many of my favorite songs were written and recorded in the 1960s. I regularly feed my nostalgia for that time, the years of my childhood. But the legend of the 1960s created by our entertainment industry exaggerates the peace and love and artistry of those times, minimizing the fear and hatred and violence that also characterized those same years. The same entertainment industry wants to topple our present government. Again and again it insists that capitalism is bad, that freedom belongs only to the oppressed (and those who can identify themselves as oppressed), and that free speech belongs only to people who say the right things. Their arrogance resembles that of the Woodstock generation. Their legacy will be equally ephemeral. J.

Masquerade

Since early times, masks have been used by human groups for various purposes. Indigenous groups have used masks in dramatic portrayals, often of a religious significance. Hollywood perpetuates a myth that masked priests portrayed gods to fool their audiences. Rather, indigenous audiences know that the masked performers merely represent supernatural beings; however, those beings are often thought to be present in a mystical way while they are being portrayed by their priests.

In the Middle Ages and into modern times, Christians have continued to produce Passion Plays, lives of the saints, and other dramatic presentations of religious significance. Rarely, though, do Christian performances rely on masks or assume a mystical presence of Christ and the saints. Instead, masks have been diverted among Europeans and North Americans to entertainment. Partygoers assume masks and costumes as part of their revelry. European traditions associate masks and costumes with Carnival, a pre-Lenten celebration also called Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday. Carnival is represented in such productions as An American in Paris and Phantom of the Opera. In North America, masks and costumes are associated more with Halloween, a time when children go door-to-door wearing masks and costumes and asking for treats, while adults frequent holiday parties in similar outfits of masks and costumes.

Aside from holiday parties, masks are largely associated with crimes and with crimefighters. In the movies (and sometimes in real life), robbers wear masks to disguise their identity while robbing banks, stores, stagecoaches, and homes. But many famous crimefighters, from the Lone Ranger to Batman, also wear masks to hide their identity. Their success capturing criminals and foiling crimes somehow depends upon remaining disguised, hiding their true identity behind their masks.

Meanwhile, in the nineteenth century scientists began to understand the role of one-celled creatures (bacteria, or germs) in causing illnesses, including infections, in humans, other animals, and plants. Washing hands and wearing gloves and masks became increasingly common in medical circles to reduce the chance of infection. Similar precautions have proved effective against viruses, which are even smaller than bacteria, but which often travel in drops of moisture produced by bodily fluids. Masks and gloves are familiar in hospitals and other medical facilities. Early in the twenty-first century, medical masks appeared more on city streets in east Asian cities as an attempt to curb various infectious diseases that had appeared in Asian populations.

This year masks have been recommended in the United States and most other countries to combat the spread of COVID-19. More than any other preventative measure, masks have become an emotional symbol of the virus crisis, of attempts to combat the virus, and of government overreach into the lives of citizens. Several months ago, wearing masks in certain situations was one strategy to battle the disease—others were washing hands frequently and thoroughly, avoiding or preventing large gatherings of people, remaining home as much as possible, and refraining from touching one’s face, especially eyes and nose and mouth, with one’s hands.

Washing hands frequently and not touching one’s face have always been recommended to reduce the spread of colds, influenza, and other diseases. Arguably, effective pursuit of these two practices could make other hygienic practices, including masks, redundant and unneeded. Instead, masks have become the focal point of discussions (often heated) about disease prevention. Closely related to the practice of wearing masks to prevent disease are questions about the government’s role in keeping citizens safe from harm—questions that have focused, in the past, on seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, sneeze guards over salad bars, and the like. Each episode reflects are larger social and political debate about freedom and safety, about individual choices and compassion for one’s neighbors.

At one extreme, some people are convinced that “masks save lives,” that refusing to wear masks demonstrates callous unconcern for other people, and that the government should require all citizens to wear masks and should punish all citizens who refuse to wear masks. At the other extreme, some people view mask requirements as the government’s greatest experiment in controlling the thinking of a population since we were all persuaded to change our clocks twice a year to “save daylight.” Many people fall into a middle category: they are willing to wear masks when required by an employer or a host (including restaurant managers, store owners, and congregations) but do not wear masks at home, in the car, or when walking outdoors.

Some stores post signs saying that they require masks but take no action to enforce that requirement. Others have their employees to ask people to leave if they are not wearing masks. Some restaurants require customers to wear masks while walking to their tables but allow them to remove their masks at their tables. Others have seating spaced widely enough that masks are not needed in the building. Some congregations ask all worshipers to wear masks, others make masks optional, and still others have some services when masks are requested of all and others when masks are optional. Businesses and churches seek ways to meet the needs of the largest number of people while offending or inconveniencing the smallest number of people possible.

As a few people are disturbed by seeing spiders or snakes or clowns, so a few people are disturbed by seeing masks—especially by seeing groups of people wearing masks. Little has been done to respond to these people’s concerns. A search on a popular search engine for “fear of masks” led to articles about helping children not fear wearing masks, but no acknowledgement that adults may also fear masks. Likewise, searching for articles (and they have been published) indicating that masks are not helpful and may even be harmful in overcoming the virus crisis leads only to articles attacking opponents of masks and offering arguments in defense of masks and of requirements to wear masks.

I’m in the middle position, willing to wear a mask if it makes someone else feel safe, happy to go without a mask if no one else expects me to wear one. I am concerned, though, that our trusted sources of information are leaning toward one extreme and away from the other. The more the opinion-shapers of our land promote the wearing of masks and disparage those who disagree, the more I wonder what other goals these opinion-makers are pursuing: perpetuating a climate of fear and worry, separating people from one another by encouraging us all to hide our faces from each other, giving us a petty reason to argue and disagree and fight while more important issues are swept under the rug. More than health and the control of disease may be at work when it comes to masks. If that is the case, the year 2020 may be an even larger watershed than we have already noticed. J.

Keep your soul diligently

We’ve all seen those memes on Facebook and other places where the letters of each word are scrambled, but the first and last letters are kept unchanged. Sometimes these memes are accompanied by statements such as, “Only intelligent people are able to understand this message.” Actually, most adept readers are able to read them; as we learned to read, our brains developed shortcuts that recognize words even when the internal parts of the words have been changed.

But, by the same token, sometimes we mistake one word for another. The slip-up can be amusing, such as confusing “immorality” and “immortality.” Usually a second glance fixes the misreading. But this morning in my Bible reading, I faced a misreading that indicates just how overwhelming our current virus crisis has become.

I was reading Deuteronomy chapter four. I got to verse nine, which says, “Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your hearts all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” This is a trustworthy saying. But when my eyes first scanned the verse, my brain changed the beginning to, “Only take care, and keep your social distancing.”

Of course a second glance fixed the misreading. I suppose the words “take care” only added to the tendency to expect s…l d……..y to be “social distancing.” But my mildly amusing experience only shows how overwhelming this virus crisis has become, that I even expect the holy Word of God to command social distancing.

My experiences with the virus crisis are like those of most people. As an introvert, I don’t mind keeping my distance from other people. Three times a week I take a two-mile walk through the neighborhood. I do what I was taught as a child: I walk on the left-hand side of the road, facing the traffic. But now, with social distancing, if someone is coming toward me on the same side of the road, I cross to the other side to avoid that person. I’ve always wanted to do that. Now, not is it not rude to cross the road to avoid people—it’s recommended.

I’m very much blessed to have three jobs that all paid me my regular salary while I worked from home. Every week I write a sermon, and every Saturday I email it to the members of the congregation. Our church musician presents a concert of church music on Facebook every Sunday. We mail in our offerings, and my check comes in the mail. My history class was changed from classroom to online. Some students dropped out, and a couple have fallen behind on the work, but several are faithfully taking their quizzes (open book, since we don’t have the classroom discussion before the quiz) and—I expect—writing their essays that are due next week. But my full time job at the library raised the biggest concerns. How can a library function when the doors are locked and the workers are told to stay home?

The first week the library was closed, we were told that it was like snow days—we would stay home and be paid. The second week, they began encouraging us to do tasks at home that were somehow job related. Since I am an archivist, I began sorting and arranging the family pictures I brought from my father’s house several years ago. After they were arranged, I even started putting them on Facebook and tagging family members. I also explored the family genealogy. More than half the people who visit our research room in the library are doing genealogy—some in great depth, others just getting started. I’ve always been able to guide people to resources, but now I have much more experience in genealogical research and will be more helpful.

By the third week, we had a process of reporting how we were spending our time “on the clock.” But after that, the library decided that 75% of our hours had to be of direct benefit to the library system; the other 25% could be for learning and wellness activities. Some library branches began experimenting with curb-side services. Four branches are providing free meals to neighborhood children who usually get fed at school. My department remains locked up; but we are taking turns being in the building to answer the phone and help patrons.

Last week, with the phone-answering system in place, I was invited to return to my desk and continue processing archival materials. I must wear a mask everywhere in the building except at my desk; I must wash my hands frequently and wipe down surfaces often. This procedure might last for the rest of the summer.

Since it is losing some money—parking and meeting room fees, and overdue fines—the library director decided that he would reduce or eliminate some positions temporarily to save the library money. All positions will be restored when the crisis is over. People in eliminated positions retain their health insurance and other benefits but must apply for unemployment. Those who are reduced will—if the state government allows—work only part-time and receive unemployment money for the hours lost. I have been placed in the second category.

I do not feel comfortable with the likelihood that I will be receiving unemployment compensation for ten weeks or so. It’s not that I don’t need the money. It’s that every person thrown into the unemployment system is added to the financial burden that taxpayers like me and my children will be reimbursing for years to come. I disagree with the library’s decision to lower its costs by putting its workers temporarily into unemployment. In fact, I cannot help but view this as a cynical political ploy to deepen the crisis (and the feeling of crisis) at the expense of the current administration.

We will all get through this together. Stress and anxiety are high right now. (I spend little time on social media precisely because I rapidly tire of all the talk of virus and quarantine. It makes me shaky and queasy.) Meanwhile it’s important for each of us to take care, and keep our social distancing… I mean, keep our souls diligently. J.

Experiencing technical difficulties (a rambling update for my online friends)

My WordPress presence has been somewhat limited these last few weeks because of assorted (and unrelated) technical difficulties. At times I wonder whether these difficulties are a Sign that I should curtail WordPress activity and focus more attention on other writing.

(On a related note, I am awaiting shipment of my latest book, much of which appeared on this blog as meditations on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. I gave the book the title Blessed with Perfect Righteousness to emphasize the Gospel themes I identified in these meditations.)

As of the beginning of December, my job required me to spend considerably more time than before as a reference librarian in the research room. The new leadership of the library system decided that the department where I work was costing the library too much money, so our budget was cut, some employees lost their jobs, and the rest of us have to replace the missing workers on the schedule. Since I often spend two hours at the reference desk with no one to help, that seemed to be an opportunity to keep up with WordPress, both writing my posts and reading, liking, and commenting upon other posts. For a while that pattern was working. Then, one day, the computer at the desk stopped downloading WordPress correctly. I can still read posts, but all the interactive functions are kaput. Likewise, I can compose posts and publish them, but I cannot interact with readers through that computer. I don’t know what the problem is: it could be a security filter that IT has added, or it could be a fault within that one computer module. In either case, I hate to report the problem to IT since it does not impact the work I am paid to do for the library.

(Beginning today, the library computer is no longer an issue. To prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the library has closed its doors, locking out patrons and employees alike. We are being paid, just as if the library was temporarily closed for ice and snow. And some employees are still keeping the system functioning, but not in my department.)

Meanwhile, my home desktop computer is nearly eight years old, and it is very slow, especially connecting to the Internet. I can read a post, then might have to wait a minute or two before I can click the Like button. The frustration level with this computer was so high that my son donated his desktop as a replacement. It took a few days for me to transfer files from the old computer to the newer computer, but I finally got the new system up and running. I left the old computer assembled on a nearby piece of furniture in case any family members remembered something else that hasn’t been transferred. But last week the new computer began to malfunction. For some reason, the main computer is not corresponding with the monitor. When that happened on the old computer, I was able to fix the problem by removing the side panel and blowing out the accumulated dust. I did that this weekend with the new computer, and the first time I reconnected it, things started right away. Since then, it has become increasingly balky, to the point that today the computer system is not working at all. I am considering taking the computer to the nearest ubreakifix location to see if they can identify and fix the problem.

(Since I have competed the Sermon on the Mount book, my next project is to be a twelve chapter book, “Witnesses to the Lord’s Passion.” Each chapter will be the account of Christ in the latter half of Holy Week as seen from one point of view: Peter, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Barabbas, etc. Years ago I wrote and presented some selections for this book; these I have to find and copy (while editing and improving them), while others I will write from scratch.)

I am doing what I can on this older desktop computer. I am scheduled to teach a college class this spring. Ten students signed up for the class, but only four came to the first session last Tuesday, and only two were there last Thursday. Over the weekend, the school announced that all teaching would be done online, so I have to figure out how to give quizzes and other assignments through the school’s web site. Most teachers do this already, and I have had training sessions for online teaching. But I have always preferred the classroom experience, and it seems that the students who sign up for my classes feel the same.

(Meanwhile, we have had a wet, gray, and gloomy February and March, which is not good for morale. And our family’s fifteen-year-old cat, who was getting more frail, suddenly took a turn for the worse and was essential on hospice care last week. Family members in the area were able to visit her by the end of the week. On Saturday she was taken to the veterinarian, who diagnosed renal failure and recommended euthanasia, which was then done. So yesterday I buried a cat in the growing pet cemetery behind our house.)

My prospects for a new job still seem good, although I have not heard directly from those in charge of a decision. My guess is that they will wait until after Easter before moving to the next step, which would include interviews of prospective workers. That probably means that the position will not be filled until June or July, leaving a few weeks between the retiring worker and the replacement—which probably is healthy for all involved. This delay has not stopped family members from scouting new houses in the neighborhood of the church, while making lists of what has to be done to sell the house we have now.

(And I needed to jumpstart my car after church a week ago, so I stopped by the auto parts store on the way home and bought a new battery, which they installed for me. Plus I’m trying to get my income taxes filed, which has been complicated by these computer problems. Yesterday a lot of churches canceled their services, although I did get to attend the one I had been planning to attend. I’m not sure whether the cancellations will continue for many weeks on Sundays and Wednesdays, or if yesterday was a one-time event.)

So I will try to return to WordPress when I can to continue building my political platform, to comment on current events and on the life of the Church, and to keep up with my friends. God’s blessings to you all: Keep Calm and Stay Healthy. J.