Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Book Review -- Why We're Polarized

Ezra Klein is flat out brilliant. He has his own great ideas, but his magical power is synthesis. For his book Why We're Polarized, he read volumes and volumes of material and interviewed countless experts. And then he analyzed, synthesized, and organized all of that information into a coherent story. And he made it easy to read -- digestible -- without sacrificing reference to the underlying research and analysis that supports his work. 

I've read many of the books and articles that he references. Most of the concepts he highlights are familiar to me. The new ground he paves is in the logically constructed big picture where all the pieces fit together and make sense -- even if the big picture isn't particularly attractive.

He starts with historical context and how the supposed "golden age" (when both parties were on average more moderate and willing to compromise) was the result of a devil's bargain with southern racists. When that bargain fell apart after the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960's, we began to sort ourselves into liberals and conservatives aligned by party.

Klein's pillar premise is that we are living in Identity politics with a capital "I." Most of our identities are stacked and aligned with our political party so that our party affiliation becomes a mega-identity. And the other party becomes Other with a capital "O." Our party's success and the other party's failure become equally important (which is how our hard-coded group think works). 

He spends a lot of time exploring how Trump won the nomination and ultimately concludes that in some ways, it didn't matter. Many Republican party leaders were terrified that Trump would win the nomination but helpless to prevent it. And in the end, their hatred of Hilary and everything she stands for trumped their disdain for Trump. That's fundamentally important to understanding our polarization -- being against is just as important, if not more so, as being for.

Klein examines the media's role in fostering the polarization and ultimately enabling Trump. And he highlights stark differences in how Democrats and Republicans consume media. An important part of the Democrat's identity is embracing diversity -- width rather than depth. Republicans are precisely the opposite. Depth explains Fox News. Breadth explains a Democrat's willingness to read much more broadly (but not Fox News).

Klein also talks about how the idea of balance written into our Constitution was built around the idea that the individual states would have competing interests. They would have to compromise to achieve results that a majority of states could accept. Seeking compromise among many states is far different from trying to seek compromise between two nearly equal, diametrically opposed political parties. Nor did the Founding Fathers conceive of a time when population would be spread so unequally among the states. Their notion of balancing geography and the competing interest of the various states has, in our time, lead to gross inequity in representation.

I've only scratched the surface of Klein's analysis. His book is eye-opening and sobering. Although he has suggestions that might soften the hard edges of partisanship or blunt its effects, basically it is hard to see an optimistic way forward.

Quote of the Day --Francois de la Rochefoucauld

The temperament that produces a talent for little things is the opposite of that required for great ones.
-- Francois de la Rochefoucauld

Monday, March 30, 2020

A Taste of Greece

I don't remember exactly when we started country counting. At some point, we realized we'd been to quite a few and perhaps we should start keeping track. And we also entered into a competition, of sorts, with our younger daughter Christie. We've visited quite a few more countries than she has, but she always seems to have one or two on her list that we have yet to see.

It started in the summer of 2002, when she went on a People to People trip to Europe with a group of fellow junior high students. It was an amazing trip that started in Athens and ended in London. She'd been to London once before, accompanying me on a business trip when she was 9. She quickly acquired a taste for new experiences, and the People to People trip sealed the deal for her. She's been an eager traveler ever since.

And her trip included Greece, which was on our wish list! And thus started the "competition."  Finally, in 2009, we sailed on an eastern Mediterranean cruise that started in Rome and ended in Athens. At this stage, we were still more tourist than traveler (focused predominantly on the sites and some history, more than the people and the culture). And we hadn't yet discovered the joys of small ships and, even better, small groups on the ground.

We fell completely in love with the blue Med and the bright white and blue of Santorini, despite the incredible heat. We learned that in the future, we should take advantage of not being tied to summer vacation months. The "shoulder season" so valued by retired folks features cooler weather and smaller crowds. (As a side note, I've lost 25+ pounds since that picture was taken.)

Speaking of crowds, we experienced them at their worst in Athens. Our day tour included a visit to the Acropolis. It was so crowded that they periodically closed the gates to prevent people from entering until others had left. In the meantime, we were crushed against the gates and nearly stampeded when they finally reopened. So we did see the Acropolis, an important monument and bucket-list item, but the crowds definitely diminished the pleasure of the experience. I can see why many European cities are discussing options for reducing crowds without damaging tourism too much. Of course, they might find that COVID-19 takes care of their crowd problem for the foreseeable future. 

In the midst of that enormous crowd, we lost track of our tour group. We felt a bit panicky as we raced down the hill to arrive -- hot, sweaty, and breathless -- at our lunchtime meeting place. Fortunately, we squeezed in a few minutes after lunch to visit a lovely gift shop and acquire an iconic vase to commemorate our short visit to Athens.


Overall, the trip was enjoyable and memorable. And we learned valuable lessons for future travel: shoulder season, small ships, small groups. And as far as the "competition" with Christie... We're still way ahead on total count, but she keeps adding a few unique destinations. She got to South Korea in 2009. We didn't get there until 2019. She's been to Brazil, and Jim hasn't. She's been to Israel, which was part of the trip we just canceled because of COVID-19. She got to Colombia a few months before we did. And this year, she added Indonesia, Singapore (which I've visited but Jim hasn't), the Philippines, and Kenya. We can thank Christie for adding to are ever-growing bucket list. Game on!

Quote of the Day -- Heraclitus

Much learning does not teach understanding. 
-- Heraclitus

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Emerging from Hibernation

Our president has foolishly floated the idea that our economy can be roaring again by Easter (just a few short weeks away). Public health officials are horrified but trying to temper their responses to avoid an unequal but opposite over-reaction to their advice. But to the president's credit, he has at least started a conversation about how we begin to get back to normal when the time is right.

Economists write that our economy was very strong going into this crisis, and it is logical to assume it will bounce back to a strong position. But I started to think about this on a micro-level, from the perspective of one company that I know and love. Emerging might, in fact, be very challenging. For some organizations, it might feel very much like starting over.

I mentioned in a previous COVID-19 post that our favorite travel company, Overseas Adventure Travel, canceled all trips departing in March and April. Based on the current state of affairs around the world, I think it is more likely to be July at the earliest, before anyone even thinks about international travel.  So, that means OAT will have been essentially closed for at least 4 months. With a stretch like that, resuming trips is by no means a trivial exercise.

Let's take the example of a trip we're considering in the future to Tunisia. It's a pretty typical OAT trip, 16 days long, including the two over-the-ocean travel days. The issue for OAT becomes how quickly they can reassemble all the elements that it takes to make this trip a success. How many of the people and organizations that they rely on are still in business and available? Here's what's needed:

  • One flight on a domestic airline
  • Two buses with drivers; one for 12 days from Tunis to Djerba; another in the vicinity of Tunis for 2 days
  • 5 hotels, most for several nights -- ~16 travelers, including several singles, probably translates to 11 hotel rooms
  • Most meals are provided -- so assume 10 locations for lunch and 10 locations for dinner
  • A high-quality Trip Experience Leader
  • Local guides for some cities
  • And the activities -- museums, visits to local artisans, schools, markets
As a tour company with a reputation for high quality experiences, OAT will have challenging decisions to make. They need revenue, obviously. They want to start working with all their foreign vendors as soon as possible to provide them with revenue as well. And people (at least some people) will be eager to travel as soon as it seems feasible. But how many of the pieces of the previously well-designed trip need to be in place before they are willing to run the trip again? How do they balance speed versus quality and preserve their reputation and their livelihood?

This is just one example that I can envision because of personal experience. Now multiply that by all the different businesses that will be trying to emerge from hibernation. It's a complex set of interdependencies that might be very challenging to manage well.

Quote of the Day -- Benjamin Franklin

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.  
-- Benjamin Franklin

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Sarajevo -- Where East Meets West

In the fall of 2017, we visited the Balkans and saw firsthand what Samuel Huntington called the fault line between civilizations. In the Balkans, people from what we now know as Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East met at various moments in history to trade -- both goods and ideas. The Balkan states were occasionally independent, more frequently overrun and ruled by others. And many of them look back with a certain fondness to the former Yugoslavia, when they were independent and united.

This year we visited Panama and learned that the mixing of people from all over the world that happened there (because of the desire to build first a railroad, then a canal) was ultimately positive. Panama is a melting pot that celebrates its diversity. The results in the Balkans is quite different. Particularly in Bosnia and Herzogovena, people from several cultures met but they didn't really melt or combine in any meaningful way. They fought a bitter civil war, which ended in a fragile truce. Dividing the country -- splitting it -- wasn't really an option, because as you see from the map, the people of different ethnicities and religion haven't integrated but they've intermixed physically. So instead of splitting into three countries, they've solved the problem with uneasy coexistence. Their constitution, for example, requires three presidents, one from each ethnic group, to serve simultaneously.

Sarajevo is the capital and cultural center of Bosnia and Herzegovena. Memories of the pain of war lurk just below the surface, with memorials and reminders scattered throughout the city. But at the same time, it's a normal European city, with a delightful mix of old and new. Very walkable (as long as you carry an umbrella). It prides itself on being the place where east meets west (meaning the cultures of Europe and the Near East), even highlighting it on the pavement on the pedestrian street. 

People cross from one side to the other nonchalantly. They work and shop on both sides of the divide. But the contrasts are very visible. The east side feels strongly Ottoman, Muslim, and Old World. The shops are different, the restaurants serve different food, the people are often dressed differently. It's much more pronounced than an ethnic enclave, like Chinatown in San Francisco or Little Italy in New York. It's not an interesting minority. It's half the city.

This strongly Old World part of the city was a bit jarring at first, but ultimately delightful. It was a bit like wandering through a souk. We loved exploring the shops and sampling the food. We discovered that coffee drinking (really espresso) is a vital, ceremonious part of the culture, just as it is in many parts of the world. Sarajevo is also noted for its fine bronze work. So what better way to commemorate our visit to Bosnia and Hertzegovena than with a bronze and porcelain coffee set?


Quote of the Day -- Mark Twain

Why not go out on a limb?  That's where the fruit is.
-- Mark Twain

Mrs Palfry at the Claremont

Author Elizabeth Taylor is a new discovery for me. I receive book recommendations from a variety of sources... friends, newsletters, Goodreads. I add many to my "to read" list in Goodreads, which has ballooned ridiculously to over 900. And I add some of them to my reserve list at the library. I don't know when or why I added Mrs. Palfry at the Claremont, but it arrived just before the library closed for the COVID-19 lockdown. And, serendipitously, it arrived in the same batch with Susan Moon's this is getting old. (Or perhaps I read a newsletter about aging and that's why they both ended up on my reserve list?) But I digress...

Susan Moon's collection of essays addresses the challenges of aging with wry good humor. I saw myself in many of her vignettes, and they made me nod and smile. I found Taylor's fictional treatment of aging far more difficult to read. Her characters are a group of eccentric, lonely old people, living in reduced circumstances in a hotel in central London. Their lives are very "small" with minimal interaction beyond their little circle. 

Mrs. Palfry, the central character, is recently widowed and profoundly lonely. She has a strained relationship with her distant daughter and grandson. She doesn't feel any real connection to her fellow inhabitants at the hotel. But she does establish a relationship, of sorts, to a young man she meets while on a walk.

Some of the reviews talk about humor. And, apparently, there was a movie a few years ago. The book jacket that features a scene from the movie shows Mrs. Palfry looking well-groomed and not all that old and feeble. She smiles while her young friend laughs. I find this image almost offensive because it so completely contradicts my impressions of the book. For me, the few moments of laughter in the book bordered on pathetic. The overall impressions that stay with me are shabbiness, loneliness, and pain (both physical and emotional). This is simply not a happy book.

That being said, I do recommend it. Taylor writes masterfully, capturing the eccentricities of the Claremont inhabitants with spare but elegant prose. Following in the tradition of Jane Austen, Taylor gives us a story in which very little happens but we gain powerful insights into the indignities of aging and of human nature in general. What the heck. I guess I will add another Taylor book or two to my "to read" list.


Friday, March 27, 2020

COVID-19, the Media, and the Adults in the Room

We live in the Information Age. Compared with major health crises in the past, like the 1918 Spanish flu or even the 1957 "Asian flu" (which I had), we are blessed with good access to information. We have the ability to know what is going on, minute-by-minute, case-by-case, death-by-death. We can read analyses of how we got here and what the trajectory and possible endpoint look like. We can see how we stack up compared to other countries fighting the outbreak. This drives our president crazy, as he performs contortions to interpret these charts to make us look "the best."

My husband and I came of age in the golden era of the nightly news. Everyone watched. Everyone had their favorite network anchor. And regardless of which of the three networks you preferred, you watched basically the same version of the facts. There were commentaries with different slants, to be sure, but everyone agreed fundamentally on the facts of the major stories. We still enjoy watching the nightly news, like many in our generation. In this time of crisis, we appreciate the newscasters' efforts to be calm and factual, to provide well-considered analysis, and to give us the opportunity to hear from the experts.

When we listen to the renowned, well-respected public health experts, it has become apparent that they're being asked to play a role they probably never anticipated. In addition to laying out the facts and providing recommendations based on their expert analysis of likely scenarios, they also need to placate a tantrum-prone president. It's obvious that they are choosing their words carefully to avoid "setting him off" and causing him to take more irresponsible actions. They're dealing with him like you would deal with a high-strung recalcitrant teenager. We've watched in horror as the few "grown-ups" in this administration have left or been fired, one by one -- Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, John Kelly, to name just a few. Fingers crossed that these new grown-ups in the room, the public health experts, will be able to navigate the storms of their moody boss and remain effective.

We've also noticed that mainstream media (not Fox news, of course) is limiting their coverage of Trump's press briefings. Some have directly said that his inaccuracies and false claims are just confusing people. I think the media has gradually recognized that they were unintentional accomplices in Trump's election because they broadcast and wrote about every outrageous thing he said and did. In this time of crisis, they've taken that lesson to heart and are focusing on the facts and the genuine experts. The image is from an article on the Washington Post web site that makes recommendations about how the press should handle covering President Trump. To consider limiting coverage of a president because so much of what he says is misleading or dishonest is both unprecedented and necessary.

By contrast, we feel very grateful that in Minnesota we are lead by a whole group of adults-in-the-room, starting with our governor. In his press briefing on Tuesday, when he announced a two-week "stay at home Minnesota" order, he used charts to explain the scenarios and the thought process behind the decision. Not everyone responds to charts and graphs and factual analysis, but no one can doubt our governor's commitment to protecting Minnesotans, even if it costs him the next election. 

We have no idea what the next two months or six months or even eighteen months will look like, but capturing what it looks like and how we feel today seems like a worthwhile exercise.

Balancing Input and Output

Ever since my early days as a "working mother," I've thought a lot about balance. Work-life balance, as we called it then. Work-life integration as it's more commonly called today (recognizing that for working mothers the notion of real balance is a pipe dream).

As our children grew older and the demands of parenting lessened, I began to think of balance more broadly. I realized that I had, by necessity, become basically two-dimensional -- a mother first and foremost, following closely by "career woman." I'd neglected everything else. I turned my attention to trying to achieve balance between mind, body, and spirit and to balancing my typical inward-focus with nurturing relationships. 

Balance comes in many flavors. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the balance between input and output. In these last several years, I've shifted dramatically to the "input" side, leaving me feeling very unbalanced and even selfish. It is true, as Joubert says, that some of us are better suited to observing and admiring, rather than producing. Still, a woeful lack of output can feel very unsatisfying. I'm reading voraciously, but to what purpose?

At certain phases of our lives, the scales tend to tip heavily in one direction. Childhood, for example, is all about INPUT.  Like Johnny5, the robot who "came alive" in the iconic movie Short Circuit, children are faced with a big, complex, often overwhelming world and need vast amounts of input to make sense of it. But even for children, the balance is starting to tip toward more output. Educators understand that mastering a set of facts or skills and regurgitating them on a test does not guarantee that the input has been properly assimilated. Even very young children are being encouraged to consume input selectively and analytically, and to produce quality output.

Our work lives, on the other hand, focus primarily on producing output. Despite the orders-of-magnitude increase in the amount of information available on any topic, workers often feel pressured to produce output without adequate opportunity to select and analyze input. For almost everyone, your value and success is measured by what you produce. You might need input to produce output, but really, with few exceptions, no one cares about the input side. No one is checking the quality of your income as long as they are satisfied with the output.

Which brings me to retirement. Our formative years are focused primarily on input. Our career-building years are focused primarily on output. And then? In retirement, we have the opportunity -- the luxury -- to tip the scales back toward input. Reading, going to lectures, attending theater and concerts, even travel. All input. And there isn't anything inherently wrong with any of that. But, as E.L. Konigsburg wisely observed, sometimes all that input just needs to come out:
I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It's hollow.  
And that's why I'm writing again. The luxury of reading voraciously has started to feel like an indulgence. And it feels ineffective because I'm not taking the time to analyze and internalize it. Output doesn't have to mean producing content for the world. People have used journals for eons to record their thoughts and process the day's "input." Perhaps a silver lining of sheltering at home during this COVID-19 crisis is that I'll achieve a better input-output balance.

Quote of the Day -- Wendell Berry

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It's proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or "accessing" what we now call "information" - which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first. 
-- Wendell Berry

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Book Review -- The Three-Body Problem

Star Wars or Star Trek? Science fiction aficionados immediately understand the question and are ready with their response. Mine -- I like them both but definitely prefer Star Trek. I'm very particular about science fiction and typically only enjoy books, series, and movies with a fairly strong "cultural anthropology" bent. I cut my teeth on Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy and Poul Anderson's Boat of a Million Years. Actually, my interest started much earlier than that -- A Wrinkle in Time was a sensation when I was exactly the right age. The idea of other worlds and an entire different race of people fascinated me.

The book cover of The Three-Body Problem has a reviewer's summary: "The best kind of science fiction, familiar but strange at the same time."  Exactly. It's rooted in recent history, particularly in China. It's built on current theoretical science exploration. At least I think it is -- a lot of the physics and mathematics is way behind my ability to comprehend. And a role-playing video game is a key component of the story. All familiar until the author gradually reveals that the video game is real and the players' reactions to real-world events have set in motion a clash of different worlds.

Good historical fiction helps us understand the past in a way that history books don't. Understanding the people and how they experienced the events is far more effective than simply and factually describing the events. Similarly, science fiction enables us to envision a possible future and its implications much more powerfully than an article in a scientific journal. 

The central theme of The Three-Body Problem is the existence of another intelligence "out there" and what it might mean for us. To author Cixin Liu, it's critically important to examine this possibility and what it means for our world. In his postscript of the English edition, he writes:
I've always felt that extraterrestrial intelligence will be the greatest source of uncertainty for humanity's future. Other great shifts, such as climate change and ecological disasters, have a certain progression and built-in adjustment periods, but contact between humankind and aliens can occur at any time. Perhaps in ten thousand years, the starry sky that humankind gazes upon will remain empty and silent, but perhaps tomorrow we'll wake up and find an alien spaceship the size of the moon parked in orbit. The appearance of extraterrestrial intelligence will force humanity to confront an Other. Before then, humanity as a whole will never have had an external counterpart. The appearance of this Other, or mere knowledge of its existence, will impact our civilization in unpredictable ways.
 There's a strange contradiction revealed by the naivete and kindness demonstrated by humanity when faced with the universe: On Earth, humankind can step onto another continent, and without a thought, destroy the kindred civilizations found there through warfare and disease. But when they gaze up at the stars, they turn sentimental and believe that if extraterrestrial intelligences exist, they must be civilizations bound by universal, noble, moral constraints, as if cherishing and loving different forms of life are parts of a self-evident universal code of conduct.

I've occasionally imagined that our world -- our universe -- is a small sphere in a much bigger universe. We're a crumb being pushed along by an ant in that much-larger universe, until someone thoughtlessly steps on the ant. In Three-Body Problem, the psychological warfare conducted by the Other before they arrive on Earth includes a chilling message: You're bugs!

I'm looking forward to reading the second book in this trilogy.

Quote of the Day -- Hannah Arendt

Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it. 
-- Hannah Arendt

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Book Review -- this is getting old

Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity. I love that. It captures what I and so many of my friends are trying to do. Keep our sense of humor. Maintain our dignity for as long as humanly possible. (Losing my "dignity" is probably the aspect of aging that most frightens me.) Not taking ourselves too seriously -- maintaining dignity is not the same as being stuffy and "dignified." And, above all, being Zen -- accepting, being present, not focusing too much on the future.

In her introduction to this wonderful collection of essays, Susan Moon says:
It annoys me when people say, "Even if you're old, you can still be young at heart!" in order to cheer up old people. Hiding inside this well-meaning phrase is a deep cultural assumption that old is bad and good is young. What's wrong with being old at heart, I'd like to know? "Old at heart" -- doesn't it have a beautiful ring? Wouldn't you like to be loved by people whose hearts have practiced loving for a long time?
Moon voices a sentiment similar to Ursula Le Guin's lament in No Time to Spare. Both women celebrate getting older, even while they bemoan it, and they both resent the ageism in our society. Not only have we lost respect for our elders but we're rapidly losing the desire and ability to learn from their wisdom. And soon, all of us "elders" will be gone.

I'm not particularly conscious of experiencing ageism -- being invisible or underestimated. Occasionally, a young male waiter or store clerk will call me "miss" instead of "ma'am." I'm sure that's how they are trained -- that it's offensive to call someone ma'am because it's means you think they are old. But good lord, I'm old enough to be this boy's grandmother. Having him call me "miss" is offensive and patronizing. And what's wrong with being old anyway? (So I guess maybe I am conscious of it...)

On the other hand, I look at our presidential candidates, all of whom have at least 5 years on me, and it terrifies me (and not just because one of them is Donald Trump). I'm in relatively good health and still mentally sharp, but i know that I don't have the same energy I once did. Nor is my ability to quickly analyze alternatives as acute as it was 10 or 20 years ago. I can't believe any of these elder statesmen has significantly more energy than I do. The body and mind start to wind down toward their expiration date as we round the corner after sixty. None of us can escape it.

I love Moon's whimsical description of a senior moment, but it's not so funny when you think of it happening to an important leader:
It's not my fault when I have a senior moment any more than it was my fault when my hair turned gray. I'm just a human being, after all.  I've had a lifetime of junior moments, when one word follows another in logical -- and boring -- succession, when each action leads to the next appropriate action. For countless years, I have remembered to bring the pencil with me when I go downstairs to use the pencil sharpener.  I think I've earned the right to break free from the imprisonment of sequential thinking.

A senior moment is a stop sign on the road to life.  It could even be a leg up toward enlightenment.  So I stay calm, let the engine idle, and enjoy the scenery.  What happens next will be revealed in due course.
Moon's book is both a delightful journey and a cautionary tale. Those of us in the second half of life need to do our best to battle the slow descent of aging while at the same time embracing it. Being old at heart isn't such a bad thing.  

Quote of the Day -- Aristotle

Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy. 
-- Aristotle

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Bucket Lists and Country Counting -- Revisited

I've been scrolling back through my blog, doing some clean-up. I'm rediscovering the fact that I like to write (when I overcome inertia and do it), and although I'm not a rock star, I'm a reasonably competent writer. Which means I need to get back at it after a pretty long hiatus (again).

In my journey through my archives, I discovered an entry from 2016 about my bucket list. Back then, I had a few specific things on my list and a general goal of seeing the world. Today, faced with the reality of COVID-19 and the possibility that future travel will be significantly curtailed, I feel very fortunate that we've been able to really fill our buckets to overflowing in the last four years.

My list from 2013 and how I've done:
  • Machu Picchu -- fall of 2016
  • Panama Canal -- January 2020
  • Great Barrier Reef -- Spring 2017
  • Easter Island -- this fall (we hope)
In the past four years, I've been to 28 new countries plus revisiting a few old favorites. (Jim added 1 more -- Poland -- which I had already visited on business years ago.) That brings the total to 85 for me and 79 for Jim.  And that makes us incredibly lucky people!

Friends sometimes ask if we have any place else on our list or if we've seen everyplace worth seeing? We've ticked off most of the major sites people want to visit, but we haven't begun to exhaust the list of possibilities. So assuming it becomes possible to travel again and that we're still physically and financially able to do it, here's my current bucket list (in no particular order):
  • Easter Island
  • Rwanda and the gorillas
  • Uganda
  • Caucasus (Georgian, Armenia, Azerbaijan) 
  • Japan (I've been there, but only on business)
  • South Pacific islands
  • Nova Scotia
  • Turkey (beyond Istanbul and Ephesus)
  • Ethiopia
  • Israel
  • Ireland (people can't believe we've never been there!)
  • Indonesia and Bali
  • Southern Spain
  • Tuscany and the Italian coast
  • Greenland and the northwest passage
  • The parts of the Persian Gulf / Arabian peninsula that it is possible to visit
  • And of course, I'd like to reach 100 countries
Definitely an aspirational list that continues to grow. As we get older, we need to prioritize the more difficult trips ahead of the easier ones. We need to trek to see the gorillas in Rwanda sooner rather than later. Perhaps relaxing on a ship in the South Pacific should wait a few years. We've also discovered the tremendous pleasure of traveling with friends so that factors into our choices. 

At this point, the future in general and the future of international travel in particular, is very uncertain. But in times of uncertainty, it is still good to have dreams.

Quote of the Day -- Simone Weil

The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.
-- Simone Weil

Monday, March 23, 2020

Quote of the Day -- John Ruskin

The highest reward for a person's toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.
-- John Ruskin

Sunday, March 22, 2020

COVID-19 and the Economy

Coronavirus isn't new. We've experienced a number of flavors of this virus through the years. But the virus that is ravaging populations around the world is being called COVID-19 (for the year it appeared) or novel coronavirus. "Novel" because no human body has seen this virus until now, and thus no one in the world has immunity.

Scientists believe it jumped to humans in a market in Wuhan China, probably when some kind of wild animal being sold for food was bitten and infected by a bat. The infection spread to humans and quickly adapted to achieve human-to-human transmission. From the perspective of the virus -- nirvana. A new target with zero built-in immunity.

Although specialists in infectious diseases started to express concern, most of us hoped (assumed) it was a flare-up in a few places -- first China, then Korea, and then Italy. We thought it could be contained, like Ebola and SARS. But about two weeks ago, it became obvious to people all over the world that the window of opportunity for containment was closed.  So now, we are all focused on suppression -- flattening the curve -- so that our medical systems don't get completely overwhelmed while we are developing treatments and a vaccine and building herd immunity.

Just two weeks ago, life was still fairly normal,and then suddenly, it wasn't. As we watched the number of cases rise exponentially and traverse the globe, governments around the world began to take drastic action. Italy, still the worst-hit place, went into lock down -- confining everyone to their homes except for necessary excursions for buying groceries and medicine. A hard-hit area northwest of NYC did the same. Countries began instituting 14-day self-quarantine for all arriving foreigners, with many ultimately closing their borders. 

In the US, the focus initially was on eliminating events where large numbers congregate. The NCAA canceled March Madness. When an NBA player tested positive, the league chose to cancel the rest of the season. Openings for baseball and soccer were postponed indefinitely. Soon, the focus moved to smaller events -- live theater and concerts. All this happened in just a few days -- the advice changing from "no groups greater than 250 people" to "no groups greater than 10 people." Then, about a week ago, many states closed schools and ordered restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and gyms to close. In the hardest-hit states (New York and California), they have basically gone into "shelter in place." All retail is closed except grocery stores and pharmacies. 

Our consumer-driven economy hit a brick wall or drove off a cliff -- pick your image. We went from 60 to 0 in the course of two weeks. The travel industry is virtually shut down. Most retail has closed its doors. And while many knowledge-workers can telecommute, that isn't an option for the vast service industry. Unemployment is expected to reach 20% in the next few weeks.

Right now, we're in a waiting game. Most people have been self-isolating for 10 days or so. It will be at least several weeks before we start to get an indication about whether it is working and we are flattening the curve. In the US, the situation is complicated by the lack of adequate ability to test. That makes it hard to measure how big the problem is and to know when and if we have turned a corner.

We all know the market hates uncertainty.  Economists are in agreement that this is both terrible and unprecedented. Basically, large segments of the economy have suddenly come to a complete standstill. And no one knows how long self-isolation will last. Optimistic predictions take us to the end of April before some easing. Others think the virus and its economic impact will ebb and flow for about 18 months. That's how long it will take to build some kind of herd immunity through the combination of exposure and vaccines. And no one really knows what a recovery will look like. We are all in uncertain times, both for our health and our pocketbooks.

Governments around the world are exploring options for shoring up their economies and preventing collapse. In many ways, this crisis, like a war, will test what we are made it. Do we try to protect businesses and the nest eggs of their investors? Or do we focus on ensuring that we provide a safety net for the "everyday people" who will be hit hardest by this economic catastrophe? I hope I can look back a year from now with the knowledge that we did the latter.

Quote of the Day -- Daniel Kahneman

A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.
– Daniel Kahneman

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Quote of the Day -- Harry S. Truman

...not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.  
-- Harry S. Truman

Friday, March 20, 2020

Quote of the Day -- Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
-- Dylan Thomas

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Settling in to a New Normal in the Age of Coronavirus

It's easier for us. We've been retired for awhile. We're used to filling our time with (mostly) worthwhile things so we can reach the end of the day without feeling we've wasted it. 

What's noteworthy for me isn't the social distancing, it's the digital coming together that's happening. And Zoom is proving to be one of the stars in this crisis. Monday night, my book club met via Zoom. Tuesday, we did "Grandma and Grandpa story time" with our granddaughter in Seattle. Wednesday, our whole family got together for a "welcome home party" for Christie, who is safely back from Africa. Today, I did "Grandma leads yoga" for our grandkids in Minnesota.

One of my former work colleagues set up a Facebook group where people can share ideas about what to do with all your new "social isolation" time. People are very creative, and they are sharing some great resources. For example, I had no idea that Broadway HD is available. Last night, Jim and I watched "She Loves Me." It was delightful.

I think that as people (adults at least) adjust to the new normal, they will find that filling their time isn't a problem. Almost 10 years into retirement, I haven't begun to run out of things to do. But I find the support people are providing as we all adjust is truly heartwarming and encouraging.

Book Review -- I Miss You When I Blink

I was a bit confused when my reserved library book arrived. It's categorized as "biography," but the subtitle is "Essays" and several of the reviews on the back cover describe it as "memoir." In an interview that author Mary Laura Philpott did with fellow writer Ann Patchett, she talked about a similar discussion she had with her publisher -- essays or memoir? She chose essays but in at least one other country, they removed the "Essays" subtitle and called it a memoir instead. Philpott really didn't care either way.

Delightfully, it is both. Philpott's collection of essays -- sometimes poignant, sometimes painful, always with wry, self-deprecating humor --is a wonderful way to write a memoir / autobiography. The essays are arranged in a loose chronology without any sense of marking events ("then this happened, followed by this"). Instead, they capture moments and their importance from the perspective of her future self, or sometimes their ultimate lack of importance in the greater scheme of things. 

As Philpott points out time and again, perspective is everything. For example, here's a wonderful passage about child-rearing looking back from the viewpoint of the mother of teen-agers:
If you believe there's one right answer to every child-rearing question -- and I may not so much anymore, but I sure did for a least the first decade of parenting -- then you're prone to extrapolating every choice you make. What if Junior doesn't get into the 'best' baby music class, the one where they put all the maracas and ukuleles and xylophones out on the floor and let the tots gravitate to the instrument that calls them? Then what? He'll never learn to play music, which means he won't develop language and spatial skills, which mean he'll surely fail both English and math and never get into college. His hand-eye coordination will stall out, and he'll be unable to hold a fork. All the other kids will be conducting orchestras and building robots with their amazing fine and gross motor skills, but Junior? No, Junior will eat with his hands, miss his own mouth, and stumble through the world in Velcro shoes with peanut butter on his face. All because he didn't get on the waiting list for the music class fast enough.
I laughed and cried at the same time. That spiral was both ridiculous and realistic. It tugged at my heartstrings and tickled my funny bone. Which is Philpott's genius through the book. When Philpott examines her life, I feel like she is examining my life, except that she's able to see with so much more clarity and humor. 

Philpott addresses the ongoing debate about whether women can indeed have it all in her own unique way. And she nails it:
Deciding what you won't have in your life is as important as deciding what you will have. Trying out something you expect to love, realizing you don't really love it, and giving it back, that takes guts... It takes letting go of the idea that living right means racking up every honor you can get. It means understanding that success isn't about nailing every role; it's about choosing the roles you'll play and how well you want to play them. It's about refusing to see yourself as the passive recipient of a life someone else wants for you.

I'm sad that this is a library book. I may just buy it and revisit it from time to time.

Quote of the Day -- Willa Cather

Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is. 
-- Willa Cather

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Leadership in the Time of Coronavirus

Our Minnesota governor rocks. Plain and simple. This past Sunday morning, he held a press conference to announce that all Minnesota schools will close from March 18 to March 31. He spoke with solemnity and compassion. He described in the detail all the discussions that took place in the days leading up to this announcement, the many details ironed out to make it as effective as possible and to mitigate the impact as much as possible. And I am 100% sure that not once in all those discussions did he ponder how it might effect his reelection chances. This is what leadership looks like in a time of crisis.

So many people are writing about Donald Trump and how his flaws and failures are magnified by this crisis. He is a leader whose character (or lack of character) will ultimately cost many lives. But that wasn't obvious to many people until now. I remember a discussion with my husband about a month ago. I argued that the damage we all thought the Trump presidency would cause just hadn't happened. My husband listed off the terrible, short-sighted actions -- the unqualified sycophants filling many government positions and the vast number of vacancies in other important spots. All true, I argued. We know that, but what empirical evidence do we have, what facts, to demonstrate that it has caused serious problems? Now, unfortunately, the results are in.

In times of crisis, character is far more important than politics or policies. Is a leader willing to face hard truths and convince the people to face them as well? Is he willing to make the tough choices and take responsibility? Sadly, our president is fundamentally lacking in character. He's a narcissist who is able to view events only through the prism of how they affect him, whether the world respects him, and his chances for re-election. And he's a pathological liar. He just can't help himself. He's incapable of telling the truth.

In the past several days, he is attempting to look solemn and presidential, to ensure that everyone knows he has always taken this crisis with the utmost seriousness. The fact that his previous words are enshrined in news tapes and Twitter just doesn't penetrate his brain.  But, for the record, here's a short history of how seriously he has taken this crisis for the six weeks:

As the saying goes, hoisted by his own petard.

Quote of the Day -- Sydney J Harris

The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.  
-- Sydney J Harris