May 16, 2020

Relax, it’s a stock photo…

I’m just back from a four mile constitutional and I can tell you that indeed, Sumer is icumen in. It’s 86 degrees and this is the first day I’ve really started to feel the seasonal humidity. I’ll have to change my walks to evening or early morning (fat chance of that…) Time to open up the laptop, check the handy dandy Corona Virus counter that I keep open in my browser window, and launch into yet another edition of Andy’s accidental plague diaries. Anything to distract a bit from the fact that the house is now about 80% packed and I won’t be able to find much of anything for the next several weeks. If everything goes according to latest plan, the repairs finish up early next week and the painting should be the middle of next week. Give it a few days to dry and then things can start making the journey over. My out of work theatrical packing crew have done a stellar job. Shout outs to the lot of them.

While scrolling through some social media or other this morning (I woke up at usual alarm time despite it being a day I could sleep in if I desired), I ran across a quote from Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, that seminal study of human behavior under uncontrolled pandemic illness conditions. ‘stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves’. I could not think of anything more apropos to the historical moment in which we find ourselves. The idiotic notion that viral epidemiology can somehow be influenced be political ideology that’s running rampant at the moment leaves me entirely befuddled. I guess I’m too well trained in the sciences. I’ve tried to balance right and left brain over the course of my life but degrees in biology, chemistry, and medicine do leave a mark. Of course, Camus wrote his original words in French, but I’m too lazy at the moment to look them up.

Recent photo of Marie-Pierre Koban at age 87 with her friend Margaret Hardin age 102

Speaking of French, I heard through The Lakeside School grapevine that Marie-Pierre Koban died a few weeks ago. She was the long term middle school French teacher but she and I went back long before she came to Lakeside. My quasi-aristocratic grandfather decreed that all educated folk of European background should have a working knowledge of French, so a private tutor was sought for the Duxbury children. I don’t know where my mother found her, but from mid-elementary through middle school, off I went to Mme. Koban’s house in the University District for lessons. I was quick with the vocabulary and picked up reading skills without difficulty but I was, at best, an indifferent grammarian. Having learned it young, it’s still in my brain and, when I am around Francophones, it comes rushing back. I understand spoken French quite well (and rarely have to use the subtitles for a French language film), I can read it without too much difficulty as long as it’s not too technical or wordy. I can speak it back haltingly, but it gets more fluent with a little practice. Don’t ask me to write it. I know my verb tenses because of what sounds right in my head but I am incapable of translating that into the written word. I finished my tutorials about the same time she took the job at Lakeside. We would run into each other at school functions where I was always le petit Andre – not to be confused with le petit Nicolas to whom I was sometimes compared. When I hit high school, I switched to Latin with Lindsay Heather and Ken Van Dyke. But that’s another story. I will say my Latin studies gave me a much better knowledge of the way language actually works and the ability to sit here and tap out these essays with at least a modicum of clarity.

Back to Covid 19. A friend of mine brought up a situation in her family where a cousin and his family had made the decision to go visit his elderly mother and traveled out of state to spend a week with her so she could have some grandchildren time and wanted to know what I thought of that decision. My response was that life is risk and that you always have to compare risk for reward. As mom lived alone, and not in a group setting where others could be endangered, if she thought the reward of family time was greater than the risk of possible contagion, it was her decision to make. Ditto the decision on the part of the cousin and his family. Every individual, family system, set of circumstances, beliefs, et al. are different for each such decision, and trying to impose arbitrary judgments usually fails. So what should we do as responsible individuals as things start to open up? I think we need to learn better risk stratification.

Americans are terrible at understanding risk. Culturally, we except incredibly risky things if we think we have some control over the risks involved and we are outraged by not so risky things where we have no control over the outcome. The classic example is how we think about cars. In 2018, the last year for which there are complete numbers, 39,404 people in the US were killed as the result of motor vehicle accidents. This means the chance of being killed in any given year is roughly 1/8,300 and the cumulative lifetime risk is about 1%. Most of us don’t think twice about getting in a car as we know we’re good drivers and we obey traffic laws and we can control unexpected situations. We worry much more about shark attacks at the beach (32 in 2018 with one death), plane crashes (393 fatalities in 2018, only one of whom was a commercial passenger), or salmonella contaminated food (420 deaths in the US in 2018). By the way, the leading cause of accidental death? poisoning – lifetime risk of 1/71 so don’t drink the bleach. I have long had a rule of thumb regarding choices. Is it riskier than getting in a car? The problem at the moment is, as this virus is so new, that we really don’t know what’s risky and what’s not. The federal agencies that usually would calculate and disseminate this information are in disarray. We’re essentially going to have fifty states going fifty different directions which should start to give us some data about which strategies work and which are disastrous. Until the data starts to make some sense, I’m continuing to stay in unless I have to go out for something. I’ll wear my mask in enclosed public spaces. To me, wearing a mask says to me ‘I see you and I care about you and all of us’ and not wearing one says to me ‘I’m a selfish Ayn Rand devotee’. As people are packing and moving for me, we’re keeping as much distance as possible, wearing masks, and sanitizing frequently. Risk mitigation until risks are better understood.

Be safe, be well, wash your hands.

One thought on “May 16, 2020

  1. Andrew wrote “To me, wearing a mask says to me ‘I see you and I care about you and all of us’ and not wearing one says to me ‘I’m a selfish Ayn Rand devotee’.” — thanks Andy, I’m definitely going to use that one myself from here on out!


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