Still Wearing a Mask?

“How come you’re still wearing a mask?”  The question came out of nowhere from the man sitting at the other end of the shopping-mall bench.  I was waiting for my wife to exit one of the shops, and I assumed he was waiting on someone, too.

“Why do you care?” I replied, touching my mask self-consciously.

He shrugged.  “Don’t really care, I guess.  None of my business, really, but I’m just curious.  You’re ‘bout the only one in the whole mall who’s wearing one.  They say Covid’s over, right?”

I followed his gaze, noticed a few maskers among the passers-by, but not many.  “You really want to know?” I asked.  “Or are you just trying to hector me?”

“My name’s not Hector,” he said with a tiny grin, and we both laughed.  “Hey, I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want an answer.”

“Okay,” I said, encouraged to engage.  “You ever been hit by a train?”

“A train?  Not that I recall, and I think I would.  Why?”  The grin lingered.

“Do you ever walk along rail-lines or across trestles?” I asked.

“Of course not.  Train-time is anytime, right?  That’s what the signs say.”

“Would your odds of being hit by a train be higher or lower if you did choose to walk the tracks, ignoring the signs?” I asked.

He looked around for a moment, puffing his cheeks.  “Higher, I guess.  What’s that got to do with wearing a mask?”

“I think my odds of catching Covid are higher if I don’t wear a mask,” I said.  “I’ve never been hit by a train, either, and like you, I don’t tempt fate by walking along the tracks.  Nor have I had Covid, so I’m just looking to lower the odds of catching it.”

“You can still catch it, even wearing a mask,” he said.

“You can,” I agreed.  “Even though, as you mentioned a minute ago, they claim it’s over.”

He looked at me, didn’t reply.

“I’m not sure who they are, but despite what you might’ve heard, Covid is not over,” I continued.  “According to what I read, it will never be over, just like smallpox, cholera, diphtheria or polio aren’t over.  Those viruses will always be with us, and it’s up to us to protect ourselves.  Vaccinations and masking are two of the best ways of doing that.”

“You vaxed?” the man asked.

“Four times,” I said.  “And I’ll get another shot when my doctor recommends it.”

“Me and my wife are double-vaxed,” the man said.  “They told us that’s all we needed.”  He smiled as he said it.

“I know vaxes and masks don’t guarantee I won’t get it,” I said.  “But I think they affect the odds in my favour.”

“Some people think the government’s got no right to make everybody wear masks,” the man said.  “They say it’s a free country and they got free choice.”

After pondering that for a bit, I said, “I could agree with them, I suppose.  You’ve made your choice, I’ve made mine, and both of us have the right to do that. But we will face the consequences of our choices.  Still, nobody has the right to infringe on the rights of others, either.”

“Meaning what?”

“You ever get on an empty elevator and smell cigarette smoke?” I asked.

“Not lately,” he replied.  “Can’t smoke indoors now, remember?”

“But what if some jackass doesn’t follow that rule?  What if they do smoke in an elevator, and then you get on after they’ve left?  You enjoy the smell of second-hand smoke?”

“I gave up smoking years ago,” the man said.

“Okay, good!  Now suppose that guy, instead of being a smoker, has Covid,” I continued.  “He’s on the elevator you’re going to get on, maybe on his phone, so the droplets and aerosols from his talking and breathing are being released into the air.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So those aerosols hang around when he gets off,” I said.  “Like second-hand cigarette smoke, except you can’t see or smell them.  And science has told us the Covid virus is attached to those aerosols, which is how the disease spreads.  You breathe them in, even if the sick guy has gone, and next thing you know…”

“If that’s how Covid spreads, why are they always telling us to wash our hands?” the man asked.

“Exactly!” I exclaimed.  “Why do they tell us that?  Hand-washing is good for overall hygiene, no question.  But that’s not how Covid spreads.”

“How do you know?”

“I know because I choose who to listen to, who to read,” I said.  “Epidemiologists and immunologists are more reliable, as a rule, than politicians or others with vested interests.  I could follow all the advice from the best experts and still get Covid, I know that.  But again, it’s all about rigging the odds in my favour.”

“So you don’t think Covid is over?”

“No one thinks it’s over,” I said.  “Even they—the people who keep telling us we don’t need to mask up—even they don’t think it’s over.  Instead, they tell us it’s time to get on with our lives, learn to live with it, make our own risk-assessments.  The problem is, they no longer provide us with the information we need to assess our risks effectively.  No testing and no reporting, even though they know the Covid variants are here to stay, in one mutation or another.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about variants,” he said.  “What one are we on now?”

“Based on what I’ve read,” I said, “the dominant variants here now are Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, which are highly transmissible and perhaps as severe as the original BA.2 variant.  Rather than attacking the upper-respiratory tract, they go deeper into the lungs like that variant did, and they’re more likely to evade immunity.”

The man watched the people marching past us for a few moments.

“I agree we do have to learn to live with this disease,” I said, “because it’s not ever going away.  And until we achieve some sort of immunity, if we ever do, wearing a mask is one excellent way I have to protect myself and others around me.  Staying up to date with vaxes is another, and testing is a third.  And when I do any of those things, it doesn’t impinge on your rights at all.  But people who don’t do any of those things, if they become ill, can infect others around them—which is an infringement on the rights of those affected.”

“I can see that, I guess,” the man said.

“And contrary to what people might tell you,” I said, “you can get re-infected—more than once—and the effects of long-Covid are only now beginning to be realized.  The consequences of ignoring simple precautions like masking can be awfully severe.”

“So how long are you going to keep wearing the mask?”

I shrugged.  “How long are you going to refuse?”

He shrugged, too, the tiny grin returning.  “Until the facts convince me it’s best to wear one, I guess.”

“Same here,” I said, rising to join my wife who I’d spied coming out of a store, bags in hand.  “I’ll wear it until the facts tell me it’s not needed anymore.”

The man waved farewell.  “Thanks for the TED talk,” he grinned cheerfully. 

“My name’s not Ted,” I said, and we both laughed again.

As I walked away, I heard him start to cough.

Until It Isn’t

They were twenty years old, two houses across the road from one another in the Florida golf community where my wife and I live for six months of the year.  Identical models—two bedrooms, two bathrooms, den, double-car garage, large screened-in lanai—the stucco walls of one were painted mist-green, the other taupe.

I was surprised one day to see the green house completely shrouded in plastic sheeting, two large hoses snaking from a truck parked in the driveway to the house.  A neighbour told me the owners had discovered termites and had promptly called in the exterminators to ‘tent’ the house for fumigation.  It was a week or more before the residents could move back in, by which time we had gone back north.

Six months later, after arriving back in the community, I drove down the same street, only to discover the taupe house was completely gone.  All that was left was a starkly-white concrete pad between the adjacent houses, the paving-stone driveway leading to where the garage had been.  Weeds were sprouting between the pavers, and the scene was sadly incongruous, like a missing tooth in an otherwise-gorgeous smile.

The same neighbour told me that during the summer, the roof over the spare bedroom had collapsed.  No one was home at the time, fortunately, but an inspection of the house led to its being deemed inhabitable.

“Termites!” the neighbour said.  “All through the place.  Little buggers had likely been gnawin’ away for years, accordin’ to the insurance adjuster.  When the studs couldn’t support the roof any longer, down she came.”

I had long known of the perils of termite infestation, and was conscientious about looking for signs in our own house.  But they are hard to find—windows or doors that jam unexpectedly, mud tubes around the outside foundation, tiny pinholes in the painted drywall indoors, small piles of sawdust.  An awareness of the prospective danger is needed, and diligence.

The neighbour shrugged when I asked him if the owners were planning to rebuild their home. “Eventually, I guess, if’n they get the insurance money to cover it.  Otherwise, somebody else will prob’ly buy ‘em out an’ put up a brand new place.”

It seemed so unfair to me that those two lovely homes, both of which had steadfastly withstood numerous external threats for years—blistering sun, torrential rain, flooding, hurricane-force winds—had been attacked by stealth from within.  And only one had been saved, perhaps providentially, while the other had been destroyed.

I’ve been reflecting on that lately, considering how the scenario might be analogous to the state of our democratic form of governance.  In both Canada and the U.S., most of us appreciate the freedoms we enjoy—although some of us might too often take them for granted. But fewer of us, it seems, recognize the responsibilities that accompany those freedoms.

A partial list of such rights might include the right to elect those who govern us, to assemble peacefully, to speak freely, to enjoy an unencumbered press, to worship according to our conscience, to receive equal treatment under the law, and to be safe in the privacy of our homes.

Alas, in both countries, our history shows that not everyone has benefited from an equal application of those rights, although as Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Our two democracies have, so far, successfully repelled all attacks on us launched directly or indirectly by malign forces from abroad.  We are aware of, and perhaps readying to defend ourselves against, future existential threats like climate change and pandemic diseases.  Despite our individual differences, we have always rallied together to defeat external foes.

But what of the stealthy foe from inside the house, the metaphorical termite gnawing away at the foundations of our democracy?  Are we ready for that fight?

Even in hitherto strong democracies such as ours, there seems to be a growing threat of authoritarianism, a drift toward mis- and disinformation, a widening chasm between people of different political persuasions, a greater tendency to hurl insult and vitriol at one another, rather than listening to each other’s respective points of view.

Too many of us appear to be increasingly adopting and promulgating viewpoints that reflect our preconceived notions—confirmation bias—instead of keeping our minds open to alternative opinions that might modify our thinking and help us to learn and grow—and most importantly, to understand one another better.

So many are becoming increasingly tribal in our affiliations, whether based on race, religion, politics, or culture.  We are growing ever more selfish about, and protective of, what we deem our rights, too often without an acceptance of the responsibilities we bear in the exercise of those rights.  Too many of us seem willing to violate the rights of others in pursuit of our own self-centred aims.

For too many of us, the distinction between fact and falsehood, between integrity and mendacity, has become blurred to the point where we begin to declare the only truth is ‘my truth’.

The choice our countries are facing, in my opinion, is threefold:  1) we blithely allow ourselves to be attacked from within by those who would dissuade us from our most precious assumptions about democratic governance; 2) we choose to ignore, despite the signs, that the attack is occurring; or 3) we acknowledge the attack and take appropriate measures to deal with it.  

As Abraham Lincoln said in 1858, drawing from the Bible, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  The enemy from within is always the more dangerous, and the termites certainly proved the truth of that in the destruction of the taupe house in my community.  I cannot imagine that the owners of those two houses blithely allowed such an attack, but it is clear the owners of the green house took effective action as soon as they became aware of the problem.

With similar due diligence and swift measures by its owners, the collapse of the taupe house could have been stopped.  But it was not.

And in the same way, the insidious attack on our democratic form of governance from within is preventable. 

Until it isn’t.

Logical Consequences

Throughout my professional life, beginning as a classroom teacher, finishing as a school district CEO, I always believed in the wisdom of allowing people the freedom to make their own decisions, their own choices.  It was difficult at times to put that belief into practise, and it did not always lead to happy outcomes, but I never lost faith.

The corollary to this belief was that those making the choices had to accept the consequences of their actions.  Students who chose not to study generally received lower grades than those who did; employees who chose not to pursue professional development opportunities generally languished in comparison to their peers.

With both students and employees, I had to make hard decisions as to how I would grade their effort or evaluate their performance, and I, too, had to accept the consequences of my choices.  Reluctant students received a failing mark—although always with the opportunity to try again, to learn from their poor choices.  Teachers disinclined to improve of their own volition were instructed, provided assistance, and given time to do so; in cases where they proved unable or unwilling, their employment was terminated.

As a parent, I endeavoured to allow my own children to make choices along the way, but always stressing their responsibility to accept the consequences, and holding them to whatever those might be.

I was influenced in my thinking by the writings of Alfred Adler and John Stuart Mills, and Rudolf Dreikurs.  This brief essay cannot give even a rudimentary outline of these men’s theories, but the effect of their thinking on my own actions was significant.  Let me give an example from Dreikurs—

Dreikurs espoused that children behave inappropriately and make poor choices for four main reasons: a desire for attention; a need to obtain and hold power; a desire for revenge; to compensate for perceived inadequacy, the feeling that they are unworthy of anyone’s affection.  All four are legitimate human emotions, but the behaviours by which they are manifested through the choices children make are often problematic.

Misbehaving children are discouraged children.

It was my job as a teacher to provide opportunities for every child to pursue socially-appropriate activities that would gain them positive attention and praise, that would allow them to feel some semblance of control of their environment, that would re-direct them from activities designed to ‘get even’ for real or imagined wrongs, and to ensure they would come to believe they were loving and capable individuals in their own right.  And those opportunities had to encompass the academic, physical, social, and emotional needs of the children.

Today, many years into retirement, I have witnessed adults behaving in ways I consider socially-inappropriate during these long months of pandemic restrictions.  It seems to me that many of them are seeking attention for themselves and their views—perhaps in the only way they know how—by pushing themselves loudly and forcefully to the front at every opportunity.  We know our rights!

Others, I think, are looking to seize power from those they believe are currently wielding it, a power they view as compelling them to certain actions they believe it is their right to refuse.  Power to the people!

Others, probably fewer in number, might be seeking payback from authorities they feel have done them wrong—big government, unfair employers, the radical lefties, the lunatic right-wing, the fake media, or any other perceived enemy.  We’re not gonna take it anymore! 

And some, I’m sure, are there simply because they have nowhere else to go but to a crowd that, if not understanding of them, is at least tolerant of their presence.  Look!  I’m one of you!

Mill wrote: The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.  There are three key points here, I think.  First, he was referring to a ‘civilized community’, which might be defined as one which has a well-developed system of government, culture, and way of life, and which treats all people living in it fairly, with due regard for the laws and customs of the community.

Second, Mill’s stance is that power resides by default with the individual in a community, but may be overridden when that individual behaves in a manner deemed harmful to others.

And third, there is an implicit understanding that the decision to act against an individual’s will is to be made by the community itself—i.e. the majority.

As I witness the current unrest in our land regarding various pandemic restrictions, it seems to me there is a need to exert the primacy of the common good over the various claims of disaffected members of the community, not as a primitive display of the power of the state, but to ensure the continued well-being of the community itself.

For example, perhaps the government should not mandate vaccines for all, even in the current climate.  Not doing so would allow people to exercise their right, as they see it, to avail themselves of a vaccine or not.  Free choice for every individual.

But the government should ensure there are consequences for the choices people make—logical consequences.  I don’t believe a person who has the right to refuse to be vaccinated (a right which I support) should also have the right to attend in-person, congregant venues and events, or to partake of non-essential services, where their choice might place others in danger.  That impinges on everyone else’s right to a safe, healthy living environment. 

It is entirely logical, I submit, that such venues and services should require proof of vaccination from those wishing to take part.  For everyone, then—those folks who choose not to be vaccinated, and those who do—the consequences will be clear in advance.  Choice A leads to Consequence B; Choice C leads to Consequence D.  Informed decisions are almost always better decisions.

[I note, as an aside, that in jurisdictions where such proof of vaccination rules have already been put in place, the number of people who choose to be vaccinated has risen—surely a benefit to the entire global community.]

In any case, absent a mandate for everyone to be vaccinated, people desiring attention will still get it by proclaiming their decision to their family and friends, and on social media.  Those in search of power will still find it by exercising their inalienable right to make their own decision about vaccinations with no coercion either way.  Those who would seek revenge of some sort if forced to be vaccinated can still remain unvaccinated.  And those who feel inadequate, incapable of making such a momentous decision, can prevail upon family and friends to help them decide.

The concept of free choice has never meant freedom to do as one wants without consequences.  As surely as night follows day, every decision a person makes has an impact on someone—somehow, somewhere.  And that consequence, if it’s logical, can be a force for good.

The nascent teacher in me still believes it is possible to help people learn this quaint notion.

Metaphysically

During this pandemic lockdown in which we all are bound, it is all too easy to surrender to despair.  But, always, there are pathways to freedom we can find if we look hard enough.  Here are a few of mine, in haiku form—

physically bound,

but metaphysically

I wander freely

metaphysical 1

on wings of sweet song,

I rise above the earthbound

shackles of my life

singing 2b

my literary

scribblings whisk me to a world

that I alone know

writing 2

phantasmical dreams—

delights from which I awake

most reluctantly

dreams 2

omnipresent, too,

the love, which for sixty years

has sustained my soul

love 1

physically bound,

yes; metaphysically,

I am ever free

waiting-and-watching-a-sunset

 

 

Assailed from Within

For six months of the year, I am blessed to live in a beautiful home in the south of Florida.  The house is nestled up against a golf course, fronting on a safe street in a lovely, gated community.  Granted, it is not among the grandest of homes in size and extravagance, but it is certainly more than I might expect to have.

Despite its safe, secure location, the house is subject to various threats from time to time, almost all due to the whims of nature.  It sits in the path taken by a number of hurricanes over the past few years—Charley, Wilma, and Irma since the house was built in 2004.  Only minor damage was inflicted by each of those, fortunately, but the risk remains.

Flooding, loss of power, and compromises to safe drinking water are other external hazards, usually as a side-effect of those hurricanes.

However, the most insidious threats to the integrity of the house come not from outside, but from within.  The greatest danger is from mould, whose major causes are humidity and condensation, which can arise from leaks, poor ventilation, and general dampness.  Once it gains a foothold, it spreads rapidly.

Almost as bad is the threat from termites.  Working from the inside out, they can do a great deal of damage before they are ever detected.  The signs are there, of course—stiff windows and warped doors, papery or hollow-sounding wood, termite droppings, small piles of sawdust—but these are easy to miss in the early stages of an infestation.

Both mould and termites can destroy the structural integrity of a home from the inside more surely than any external threat.  Vigilance is required.

I find this analogous to the situation faced today by the remarkable nation of which Florida is a part.  This grand experiment in democracy, self-proclaimed as the greatest nation on the face of the earth, does face threats from outside its borders.  It has engaged in two wars with foreign adversaries on its home turf (1775-1781 and 1812-1815, plus a civil war from 1861-1865), but recent attacks have come mainly from terrorists, both foreign and domestic.

With what is widely assumed to be the strongest military capability in the world, it seems safe to say the country will not likely suffer an invasion from any foe.

But what of the threats from within?  The nation proudly touts itself as the leader of the free world, based on the pillars of its foundation.  What are those, and where might they be found?

The US Constitution of 1789 begins with these words—

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union,

establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common

defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty

to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution…

us-constitution

It has been amended and revised many times since then, but its basic premise has never altered.  Among its most important pillars are: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to bear arms, freedom from unwarranted search and seizure, the right to due process of law, and voting rights.

Its whole purpose was famously summed up in 1863 as ensuring that… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

No foreign threat has been successful, so far, in efforts to thwart the intent of the framers.  The greatest reason for this is that generations of elected representatives from both legislative and executive branches have honourably carried out their sworn oath to…support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic… [and] well and faithfully discharge the duties of [their] office…

It’s called integrity.

Is that changing, I wonder, in front of our eyes?  Has personal interest—whether political or financial—become more important to some than defence of the Constitution?  Has political partisanship on the part of some trumped the notion of duty to country?  Has the job of some elected officials become, not to carry out the will of the majority of the people, but to curry favour with wealthy lobbyists and sponsors so as to ensure re-election?

lobbying

The answers are for each American to decide for her- or himself, I suppose.  But it is worth noting that, although some of these threats are being mounted by foreign interests, they are being encouraged and implemented by some from inside the nation.

Even the strongest tree rots from the inside out.

Benjamin Franklin, when asked by citizens what sort of government the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had created, answered, A republic, if you can keep it.

We shall see.