You heard it here first.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia has always seemed dangerous, and somewhat demented, to Western eyes, and his invasion of the Ukraine seems to bear out that impression.
Commentators delight in explaining how deluded the Russians were at every level, expecting to find Nazis on every corner and a hero's welcome from the Ukrainian people. How is it that they had only pre-Chernobyl disaster maps and thus had no idea what they were walking into when they dug into highly radioactive soil? Why do the soldiers and officers so often act like poorly trained recruits? And why is their military equipment so old, sometimes almost half a century out of date?
Everyone knows by now that COVID isolation has driven mental health crises through the roof, and anyone who watched the Olympics knows that Putin has taken those recommendations to the extreme. Is it possible that the president of Russia has simply been driven batshit crazy?
On the other hand, there could be another explanation.
Suppose you're the president of a country with expansionist ambitions and a burning envy of Western military technology. What do you do?
- You could pour a lot of money into developing and building modern equipment for your own military
- You could ramp up your espionage network and steal the technology and then build your equipment
- You could buy captured American military equipment from the Taliban
Maybe your economy won't stand up to a large increase in military spending. Maybe you don't have the resources to build what you need. Maybe you resent the time it would take to do the job well. So what do you do?
Maybe, just maybe, you invade a nearby, relatively defenseless country. And you do it very poorly. Like the Duchy of Grand Fenwick,* you aren't hoping to win. At least not yet.
You send in your greenest troops and your vehicles and guns otherwise destined for the scrap heap. You lose no opportunity to tweak the rest of the world with your arrogance, your obvious incompetence, and your crimes against civilians, thereby raising the hackles of countries with the greatest array of the most advanced military technology in the world. You allow the war to drag on and on, giving these countries plenty of time to pour billions and billions of dollars worth of advanced technology and powerful equipment into the land you have invaded but not yet captured.
Then you bring out your A team, your first string, your best and most experienced soldiers, along with the most modern equipment you can muster, all of which have been held back just for this moment. In one fell swoop, you crush the opposition and capture all that lovely best-in-the-world military might.
You lost some inferior soldiers and a bunch of scrap-metal tanks. So what?
Well, okay, you didn't count on the damage a massive embargo would do to your economy. In the end it might have been cheaper to do the work yourselves.
Then again, with all that captured equipment and intellectual capital, the next invasion is going to go a lot more smoothly....
*No relation to Fenwick, Connecticut, as far as I know
My constant prayer during Pandemic-tide has been that we would learn to think outside our traditional, largely unquestioned, boxes of life. And so we have.
Many more workers—and their employers—have discovered that remote work can be a good thing. This is not new; back in the day we called it "telecommuting" and it came with both blessings (work from anywhere at any time) and curses (work from everywhere all the time). But, thanks to the pandemic restrictions, the number of people exercising this option has grown to where it's having a significant effect on the demographics of the country. Just ask the citizens of New Hampshire, whose real estate prices have been driven through the roof by pressure from Boston- and New York City-dwellers who no longer need to live in an expensive city to work there. Again: blessings and curses.
More exciting to me is the surge in home education.
A friend sent me this Associated Press article from mid-April, confirming what I've been hearing elsewhere: Homeschooling Surge Continues Despite Schools Reopening.
The coronavirus pandemic ushered in what may be the most rapid rise in homeschooling the U.S. has ever seen. Two years later, even after schools reopened and vaccines became widely available, many parents have chosen to continue directing their children’s educations themselves.
Families that may have turned to homeschooling as an alternative to hastily assembled remote learning plans have stuck with it—reasons include health concerns, disagreement with school policies and a desire to keep what has worked for their children.
[A Buffalo, New York mother] says her children are never going back to traditional school. Unimpressed with the lessons offered remotely when schools abruptly closed their doors in spring 2020, she began homeschooling her then fifth- and seventh-grade children that fall. [She] had been working as a teacher’s aide [and] knew she could do better herself. She said her children have thrived with lessons tailored to their interests, learning styles and schedules.
Once a relatively rare practice chosen most often for reasons related to instruction on religion, homeschooling grew rapidly in popularity following the turn of the century before [it] leveled off at around 3.3%, or about 2 million students, in the years before the pandemic, according to the Census. Surveys have indicated factors including dissatisfaction with neighborhood schools, concerns about school environment and the appeal of customizing an education.
As usual, even a good article gets some things wrong. Home education is no new phenomenon, but as old as the hills. Abraham Lincoln was just one of many homeschooled presidents, though in those days they called it "self-educated." And for a very long time it had nothing in particular to do with reasons of religion. Children were home-educated by necessity (schools unavailable, or children needed at home, e.g. Lincoln), because of an intellectual mismatch between child and school (e.g. Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein), because the atmosphere and philosophies of the schools differed significantly from those of the parents (sometimes associated with a particular religion, sometimes not), or simply because parents and/or children were dissatisfied with what the schools had to offer. In the last quarter of the 20th century, it is true, homeschooling ranks were swelled by Evangelical Christians who had discovered that the Amish were right: home education could meet their needs better than public or even Christian schools. This raised the public's awareness of an educational phenomenon whose adherents had mostly been trying to fly under the radar, and led to home education's establishment as a valid and legal educational approach—at least in the United States. This new familiarity—nearly everyone now knew a homeschooling family—opened the field to many others, with varied reasons for their choices.
The proportion of Black families homeschooling their children increased by five times, from 3.3% to 16.1%, from spring 2020 to the fall, while the proportion about doubled across other groups. [emphasis mine] ...
“I think a lot of Black families realized that when we had to go to remote learning, they realized exactly what was being taught. And a lot of that doesn’t involve us,” said [a mother from Raleigh, North Carolina], who decided to homeschool her 7-, 10- and 11-year-old children. “My kids have a lot of questions about different things. I’m like, ‘Didn’t you learn that in school?’ They’re like, ‘No.’”
[The mother from Buffalo] said it was a combination of everything, with the pandemic compounding the misgivings she had already held about the public school system, including her philosophical differences over the need for vaccine and mask mandates and academic priorities. The pandemic, she said, “was kind of—they say the straw that broke the camel’s back—but the camel’s back was probably already broken.”
I find it especially exciting that minorities are discovering that they are not locked by their circumstances into an educational system that is not meeting their needs. The pandemic restrictions have given families of all descriptions the opportunity to taste educational freedom*, and many, having made that leap unwillingly, have chosen to stick with it.
Choice is the thing. If the great relief expressed by many parents at the re-opening of schools is any indication, I'd say that home education is unlikely to become a majority educational philosophy in America. But it works so well for so many families, including those who opt for different educational choices at different times in their lives—we ourselves made use of public, private, and home education at one time or another—that I'm thrilled to see homeschooling on the rise all over the country, and even the world.
Our established educational system is understandably threatened by any challenge to its power. (Nonetheless, we had many teachers who cheered on our own homeschooling efforts.) But powerful monopolies—in education as well as government, medicine, transportation, information, and all other essential services—are dangerous, even to themselves. Healthy competition can only make our public education better.
One new homeschooling mother summed it up well:
It’s just a whole new world that is a much better world for us.
*I realize that many homeschoolers are cringing at the idea that the at-home learning offered by schools (public and private) during the pandemic bore any resemblance to the true freedom of home education, since it usually attempted to replicate as much as possible the restrictions inherent in formal, mass instruction. Nonetheless, it opened eyes ... and doors.
Ever since my daughter gave birth to her first child in Switzerland, I have been amazed and amused at how different "this is the way it must be done" can be between American and European standard medical care for children (vaccine recommendations, for example). It gives one perspective.
Our recent experience with COVID while we were in Europe have made me more sensitive to similar differences between American and European medical recommendations in that area, too. For example, here's the European recommendation about getting a second vaccine booster:
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and EMA’s COVID-19 task force (ETF) have concluded that it is too early to consider using a fourth dose of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines ... in the general population.
However, both agencies agreed that a fourth dose (or second booster) can be given to adults 80 years of age and above after reviewing data on the higher risk of severe COVID-19 in this age group and the protection provided by a fourth dose.
ECDC and EMA also noted that there is currently no clear evidence in the EU that vaccine protection against severe disease is waning substantially in adults with normal immune systems aged 60 to 79 years and thus no clear evidence to support the immediate use of a fourth dose. [emphasis mine]
Thus, although we jumped fairly quickly on the bandwagon of vaccination—being, you know, "old"—I feel free to ignore the pressure from American authorities to rush out and get a second booster. Besides, even the CDC acknowledges I have good reasons for at least postponing another shot.
Even if you are eligible for a second booster, you may consider waiting to get a second booster if you:
- Had COVID-19 within the past 3 months
- Feel that getting a second booster now would make you not want to get another booster in the future (a second booster may be more important in fall of 2022, or if a new vaccine for a future COVID-19 variant becomes available)
So, no hurry. I'm good with that. If the immune response of Europeans my age is still good, I'm pretty sure mine is also.
Amongst the devastating consequences of the Russo-Ukranian War is the disappearance from public eye of the power grab by Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and his tyrannical handling of the Freedom Convoy protest in Ottawa.
Actually, a few European politicians did make note of it, calling out Trudeau for his hypocrisy in condemning Russian president Putin while trampling the rights of his own citizens back home. But largely that is yesterday's news.
So today I remember.
This beautiful 14-minute tribute by JB TwoFour (about whom I know nothing but this) bought tears to our eyes as we saw the familiar scenes replayed: the love, the joy, the unity of Canadians in all their diversity, and the support from other nations. Followed, alas, by replacement of the friendly interactions with local law enforcement by an irrational show of force from the government and imported police agencies.
(Yes, the misspelling of "Israel" also brought tears to my eyes, but that's just me.)
May history remember the Freedom Convoy as the turning point in Canada's return to sanity, respect for basic human rights, and constitutional protection for its citizens—instead of the minor footnote Prime Minister Trudeau and his supporters are counting on.
The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher (Sentinel, 2017)
I read Live Not By Lies first. The Benedict Option was written three years earlier, and the two make good companion pieces for asking vitally important questions about our lives, our priorities, and our actions. In Live Not by Lies I preferred the first half of the book to the second; with The Benedict Option my reaction was the opposite. I find myself quarrelling with Dreher in a number of places, but nonetheless highly recommend both books, because he is observant, and he is asking the important questions. Dreher predicts very hard times coming for Christians—and others—as our society diverges more and more radically from its classical Western and Christian roots and values.
In my review of Live Not by Lies I mentioned that despite being specifically written for Christians, it's an important book for a much wider audience. The Benedict Option is less comprehensive in scope, especially the first part, but still useful, I think. As of this writing it's $12 for the Kindle version, but I've seen it as low as $6.
You know I'm not in the business of summarizing books. I don't do it well, for one thing. When one of our grandsons was very young, when asked what a book was about, he would instead rattle off the whole thing, word for word from memory. I'm like that, minus the superb memory. But secondarily, I don't think summaries do a good book any favors. The author has put together his arguments, or his plot and characters, in the way he thinks best, and trying to pull it apart and reduce it seems to me rude and unfair. Or maybe I'm just trying to justify my weakness, I don't know.
But if I were forced to write my simplest take-away from The Benedict Option, it would be this: Riding along with the current of mainstream culture may have worked all right for us when American culture was solidly rooted in Judeo-Christian and Western ideals, but that time is long gone. Doing the right thing—whatever that might be in a given situation—might never have been easy, but it's harder than when I was young, and it's on track to get much worse.
With that cheerful thought, here are a few quotes. Bold emphasis is my own.
Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation. (p. 12).
I agree wholeheartedly about building communities, institutions, and networks. However, I don't think we should abandon political work. After all, for half a century, Roe v. Wade looked absolutely unassailable, and now there's at least a small crack. Prudence would say to do both: attend to politics (a civic duty, anyway), without putting our faith in political solutions, and at the same time prioritize the building of helpful communities, institutions, networks—and especially families.
The 1960s were the decade in which Psychological Man came fully into his own. In that decade, the freedom of the individual to fulfill his own desires became our cultural lodestar, and the rapid falling away of American morality from its Christian ideal began as a result. Despite a conservative backlash in the 1980s, Psychological Man won decisively and now owns the culture—including most churches—as surely as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, and other conquering peoples owned the remains of the Western Roman Empire. (pp. 41-42).
People today who are nostalgic for the 1960's are mostly those who didn't live through them, I think. It was not a nice time.
Legend has it that in an argument with a cardinal, Napoleon pointed out that he had the power to destroy the church. “Your majesty,” the cardinal replied, “we, the clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last eighteen hundred years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”
You can achieve the peace and order you seek only by making a place within your heart and within your daily life for the grace of God to take root. Divine grace is freely given, but God will not force us to receive it. It takes constant effort on our part to get out of God’s way and let His grace heal us and change us. To this end, what we think does not matter as much as what we do—and how faithfully we do it. (p. 52).
[T]he day is coming when the kind of thing that has happened to Christian bakers, florists, and wedding photographers will be much more widespread. And many of us are not prepared to suffer deprivation for our faith. This is why asceticism—taking on physical rigors for the sake of a spiritual goal—is such an important part of the ordinary Christian life. ... [A]scetical practices train body and soul to put God above self. ... To rediscover Christian asceticism is urgent for believers who want to train their hearts, and the hearts of their children, to resist the hedonism and consumerism at the core of contemporary culture. (pp. 63-64).
For most of my life ... I moved from job to job, climbing the career ladder. In only twenty years of my adult life, I changed cities five times and denominations twice. My younger sister Ruthie, by contrast, remained in the small Louisiana town in which we were raised. She married her high school sweetheart, taught in the same school we attended as children, and brought up her kids in the same country church.
When she was stricken with terminal cancer in 2010, I saw the immense value of the stability she had chosen. Ruthie had a wide and deep network of friends and family to care for her and her husband and kids during her nineteen-month ordeal. The love Ruthie’s community showered on her and her family made the struggle bearable, both in her life and after her death. The witness to the power of stability in the life of my sister moved my heart so profoundly that my wife and I decided to leave Philadelphia and move to south Louisiana to be near them all. (pp. 66-67)
Dreher wrote about his sister's struggle and the effect it had on him in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, which I have also read, and may eventually review. As with all of his books, I have mixed feelings about that one. He idolizes his sister and her choices in a way I find uncomfortable, and reduces almost to a footnote the damage those choices did, to him and to others.
Saint Benedict commands his monks to be open to the outside world—to a point. Hospitality must be dispensed according to prudence, so that visitors are not allowed to do things that disrupt the monastery’s way of life. For example, at table, silence is kept by visitors and monks alike. As Brother Augustine put it, “If we let visitors upset the rhythm of our life too much, then we can’t really welcome anyone.” The monastery receives visitors constantly who have all kinds of problems and are seeking advice, help, or just someone to listen to them, and it’s important that the monks maintain the order needed to allow them to offer this kind of hospitality. (p. 73).
Father Benedict believes Christians should be as open to the world as they can be without compromise. “I think too many Christians have decided that the world is bad and should be avoided as much as possible. Well, it’s hard to convert people if that’s your stance,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to help people to see their own goodness and then bring them in than to point out how bad they are and bring them in.” (p. 73).
Though orthodox Christians have to embrace localism because they can no longer expect to influence Washington politics as they once could, there is one cause that should receive all the attention they have left for national politics: religious liberty. Religious liberty is critically important to the Benedict Option. Without a robust and successful defense of First Amendment protections, Christians will not be able to build the communal institutions that are vital to maintaining our identity and values. What’s more, Christians who don’t act decisively within the embattled zone of freedom we have now are wasting precious time—time that may run out faster than we think. (p. 84).
I know the book was written for Christians, but I wish Dreher had also emphasized how important this is for everyone. No one can afford to ignore the trampling of someone's Constitutional rights, even if they don't affect us personally. If Christians lose their First Amendment protections, no person, no group, no idea is safe.
Lance Kinzer is living at the edge of the political transition Christian conservatives must make. A ten-year Republican veteran of the Kansas legislature, Kinzer left his seat in 2014 and now travels the nation as an advocate for religious liberty legislation in statehouses. “I was a very normal Evangelical Christian Republican, and everything that comes with that—particularly a belief that this is ‘our’ country, in a way that was probably not healthy,” he says. That all fell apart in 2014, when Kansas Republicans, anticipating court-imposed gay marriage, tried to expand religious liberty protections to cover wedding vendors, wedding cake makers, and others. Like many other Republican lawmakers in this deep-red state, Kinzer expected that the legislation would pass the House and Senate easily and make it to conservative Governor Sam Brownback’s desk for signature. It didn’t work out that way at all. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce came out strongly against the bill. State and national media exploded with their customary indignation. Kinzer, who was a pro-life leader in the House, was used to tough press coverage, but the firestorm over religious liberty was like nothing he had ever seen. The bill passed the Kansas House but was killed in the Republican-controlled Senate. The result left Kinzer reeling. “It became very clear to me that the social conservative–Big Business coalition politics was frayed to the breaking point and indicated such a fundamental difference in priorities, in what was important,” he recalls. “It was disorienting. I had conversations with people I felt I had carried a lot of water for and considered friends at a deep political level, who, in very public, very aggressive ways, were trying to undermine some fairly benign religious liberty protections.”
Over and over he sees ... legislators who are inclined to support religious liberty taking a terrible pounding from the business lobby. (p. 84-86).
Nothing matters more than guarding the freedom of Christian institutions to nurture future generations in the faith. (p. 87).
Agreed—except that I would put "Christian parents" or just "parents" ahead of "institutions." Dreher is a strong advocate for Christian schools at every level, especially the so-called Classical Christian schools with their emphasis on rigorous academics. However, he gives short shrift to home education, an option that is at least as important and in need of support.
Because Christians need all the friends we can get, form partnerships with leaders across denominations and from non-Christian religions. And extend a hand of friendship to gays and lesbians who disagree with us but will stand up for our First Amendment right to be wrong. (p. 87).
Over and over again I have seen the importance of these partnerships. In all the "fringe" movements I've been a part of, from home education to home birth to small and sustainable agriculture, this collaboration with others with whom we had next to nothing else in common both made progress for the movement and—which was perhaps even more valuable—forced us to work beside and learn to appreciate the people we would otherwise have seen as our political opponents.
Most American Christians have no sense of how urgent this issue is and how critical it is for individuals and churches to rise from their slumber and defend themselves while there is still time. We do not have the luxury of continuing to fight the last war. (pp. 87-88).
Permalink | Read 161 times | Comments (0)
Category Reviews: [first] [previous] [newest] Education: [first] [previous] [next] [newest] Hurricanes and Such: [first] [previous] [next] [newest] Children & Family Issues: [first] [previous] [next] [newest] Last Battle: [first] [previous]
I think I will tell the story of our recent trip to Europe in topical segments rather than strictly chronologically. The COVID pandemic, being so intimately woven throughout, seems a good place to start.
Our last trip to Europe before the pandemic shut down travel had been in September 2019—to Switzerland (of course) with a side trip to Rome. Then 2020 and 2021 broke our 13-year streak of annual (sometimes more frequently) international travel to visit our international daughter and her family.
Our planned Viking river cruise of 2020 was postponed twice—and then drastically altered thanks to the fact that one of the stops was to have been St. Petersburg (not the city on the west coast of Florida). As part of Viking's compensation for the inconvenience, we acquired along the way a one-week cruise up the Rhône River in France, with an extension that gave us two weeks in Switzerland. Much to my surprise, that one survived.
It seemed fitting to remove, at least temporarily, my Facebook profile picture, which prolaimed—in response to Facbook's pressure to brag about having received the COVID-19 vaccine—that "My vaccination status is none of your business." Because suddenly my vaccination status had become everyone's business. First it was Chicago, where we couldn't attend a concert, visit a museum, or eat in a restaurant without out photo ID and proof of vaccination. This time it was international travel.
I've said many times that I deplore the division of our society into the "clean" (vaccinated) and the "unclean" (unvaccinated), with its harmful (sometimes hateful) discrimination against the latter. I've also admitted that my scruples only go so far. I may willingly cut back on my restaurant meals and museum visits, but seeing friends and family is another issue. We were willing to go through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops to make that happen.
The problem was that those hoops kept changing. Europe started opening up drastically, and so did some of our states. But America's rules regarding international travel remained stuck where they were the first week in December. And Viking chose to keep its own rules very strict. (Wisely, I think, much as I hated them, because how were they to know when the countries involved would change their minds again?) Plus, as we all know, websites are not always kept up-to-date, and we found that one page on a given informational site would contradict another.
But finally, with tests taken, documentation in multiple formats, and unwanted apps installed on our phones, we thought we were ready. The most stressful part was the required pre-travel COVID testing: there's nothing like knowing all your plans could be so easily trashed at the last minute to bring home, once again, the sub conditione jacobaea warning.
Our results were negative, and we boarded the plane for the first leg of our journey, to Montreal. All looked to be going well, as they pronounced all our paperwork to be in order as we waited to board the next flight, this time to Brussels. But at the very last minute (boarding had already started), they decided that our European Union forms were not sufficient, and that we needed special forms for Belgium. (Which, last I knew, was still in the EU.) These had to be filled out online (one for each of us) and we had to wait for e-mail confirmation of approval. Miraculously, both our e-mails came through in time and we were able to board the plane.
As it turned out, neither the form for Belgium nor the original EU form were ever looked at.
Masks, by the way, were required at every stage of the journey. We had been told that ordinary masks would not suffice, and that we had to acquire and use N-95 masks—another requirement that turned out to be false.
The rest of the journey, from Brussels to Marseille to the awaiting Viking ship, went smoothly. Once on board we were subjected to another COVID test, as we would be daily for the rest of the cruise. Once this was confirmed as negative, we were allowed to remove our masks. The one guest whose test came back positive was quietly "disappeared."
The cruise up the Rhône was lovely; I'll save the details for another post. Only two things bothered me: The substantial dinners never started till after 7 p.m. and lasted till 9, perfect conditions to provoke reflux; thus I soon developed a mild sore throat and post-nasal drip. This was made worse by the plane trees, which were in bloom everywhere, shedding pollen in blizzards and creating "snowdrifts" that we shuffled through on our frequent city walks. This, of course, exacerbated my symptoms, and added itchy eyes to the mix. Still, it wasn't that bad, and I could somewhat mitigate the problem by wearing a mask when we were outside. (France has done away with masking rules, but wearing one helped with the pollen and additionally kept my face warm in the brisk mornings.)
At least, I assured myself, I knew for a fact that what was bothering me was allergies, not COVID. Not if testing means anything, since every one of my daily tests came back negative.
Until one didn't.
On the very last evening of the cruise, as we were packing and preparing to disembark at 4 a.m. the following day for our flight to Zurich, there came a knock on the door.
"Mrs. Wightman? Are you all right?"
"Yes, of course. Why do you ask?"
"Because you have tested positive for COVID."
Porter's test had come back negative, but that made no difference: we would both be whisked off to an unnamed hotel for isolation and quarantine.
It's a pity that we had already filled out and turned in our customer satisfaction surveys, because at that point our very happy experience with Viking turned into somewhat of a nightmare of unanswered questions. Since Janet & family were expecting us the next day, we had to start making plans, but Viking could not or would not tell us anything. Not where we were going, not what would happen, not how long we'd have to stay isolated. Their best guess was 10-14 days. Once we arrived at the hotel, we were told, a Viking representative would explain all of that to us. Could we please have that person's phone number so we could explain our specific situation and include our waiting family in the plans? No, we could not. Nothing could happen till we were settled into the hotel. Finally, they promised to give us the phone number as we were leaving the ship. Which for some reason took until after noon the next day (at least they served us breakfast).
At that point we were treated to a 350-euro taxi ride (paid for by Viking) from Lyon, where we were berthed, to ... wait for it ... Geneva, Switzerland! To the InterContinental Hotel, to be precise. My guess is that Viking, headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, has some sort of relationship with the InterContinental. The name of the hotel only matters in that it turns out that I had stayed there once before, in 1969, when for reasons I never knew, our Girl Scout troop, which otherwise lived as cheaply as possible during our European tour—i.e. sleeping at youth hostels, convents, and the like—spent our last night before flying home at this incredible luxury hotel. It wasn't the least bit familiar to me, but then again, a lot would have changed in more than half a century, and besides, we weren't allowed to leave our room.
During the long taxi ride, Porter had called the number Viking had finally provided for our contact, only to find out that it was some other Viking representative's number, not that of the person dealing with our problem. They wouldn't give out the number of the right person, but assured us she would be waiting for us at the hotel.
She wasn't. Our taxi driver checked us in and walked us up to our room.
We were in some sort of hotel "isolation ward," with at least 18 rooms filled with people from our ship. Considering there were only some 145 passengers on the cruise, and most of the hotel rooms probably housed two people, that's a pretty impressive percentage. And to think that if I could have held off for just one more day we'd never have known. I'm pretty sure that if there had been one more day of testing, Porter would have been positive as well, as it seems he was no more than a day or two behind me.
As prisons go, it could hardly have been better. We were required to stay in our rooms and get our meals via room service. The room service prices were absolutely sky high, but as we were told we had an allowance of 140 francs per person per day, that was okay. (Or so we thought.) If we hadn't been so busy trying to pry information out of Viking, we could have enjoyed it.
To shorten the story, in the end it was the "wrong number" person who eventually helped us the most. The official contact had finally called, much later; she refused to give us her phone number, and would only say that she'd be by the next morning to deal with us. By now you are sensing the pattern: We never heard from her again, despite having told her that we needed to let our family know our status before 9 a.m.
There was no reason for them to keep us in isolation. Switzerland now has no isolation/quarantine requirements, so they couldn't hold us. As far as I can tell, most people in Switzerland either have already had COVID or consider it nothing to worry about.
The only thing holding us back was the need to fulfill Viking's requirements, since they held us hostage by virtue of being the ones who were taking care of our flights back to the U.S. Finally, the "wrong number" Viking contact faxed the hotel a paper for me to sign releasing Viking from all responsibility for my medical care, and Stephan generously made the three-hour drive to Geneva to rescue us.
There was one more unpleasant surprise: just as we were leaving, a hotel employee came running up to inform us that Viking required us to pay the hotel bill in full. We didn't hesitate, though it was over $400 for the few hours we were there. (So much for the food allowance we thought we had!) Porter will be seeing what he can do about reimbursement through either Viking or our travel insurance, but at the time the only thing we were thinking of was getting where we belonged: with family.
And finally we were, having lost only one day of our planned, very busy, schedule. Again, that's material for another post.
From that point on, our only COVID worry was getting the negative test results needed to fly home. Before we left, there had been some speculation that the U. S. would lift the requirement before our return, but alas that did not happen. Our chief concern was that some people continue to test positive long after they've recovered. In hindsight, we probably should have gotten Porter's positive status diagnosed officially, so that we could both get the "recovered from COVID" documentation, but at the time it seemed like an unnecessary expense and, more importantly, disruption to our schedule.
Fortunately, a good collection of at-home tests was available to us. Our first tests, taken 10 days after my initial positive result, came back still positive for both of us. Mine was a little lighter than Porter's, giving me hope that we were progressing in the right direction.
Four days after that, we tested again.
One down, one to go.
Two days later, Porter followed.
Of course, this was not good enough for the U.S. government, which requires tests to be properly documented by an official medical facility, but Stephan found us a place for that purpose and graciously accompanied us for testing. The price was very reasonable, and in less than an hour we had our coveted paperwork, and could pack in earnest. We flew out early the next day, as originally scheduled. The timing was a little too close for comfort, but all's well that ends well.
As much as we love visiting our family, the prospect of an indefinite stay wasn't pleasant for any of us, and the thought that our government could suddenly decide we were not permitted to come home was disconcerting and disorienting. I haven't been so glad to be back on U. S. soil since returning from Venezuela years ago.
As for COVID itself, what was our experience? I'm not certain. The only reason we know we had it is that we were tested. If we'd been at home, we wouldn't have had a clue. For me, the symptoms were very mild and indistinguishable from normal seasonal allergies. Porter's were much milder than an ordinary cold. Neither of us had a fever, lost sense of taste/smell, or had any hint of difficulty breathing.
In hindsight, the day after my positive test was the worst for me. (I didn't know I had COVID at the time.) That was Palm Sunday, our most strenuous day of the cruise: over 16,000 steps (according to my phone), up and down hills, at a pace so brisk I could not stop to take photos without falling significantly behind. I was exhausted by dinnertime, and left the table before dessert was served. (Perhaps the latter should have been a clue.) After that, I found I tired more easily (not uncommon when visiting grandchildren!) and experienced occasional light-headedness. Then one day I suddenly realized I had more energy—and later that day I tested negative. Porter's lingering symptom was a sore throat and tiredness—not that that stopped him from repeatedly playing soccer with our grandsons.
It took us ten to fourteen days to test negative; could we have shortened that by taking to our beds and resting? Maybe. I'm not convinced—though had we been at home I wouldn't have minded a few days of lounging around with a book and copious cups of tea. I'm just so grateful that we were not slowed down either on the cruise or in our family activities. If we had to catch COVID while on vacation and out of the country, it's hard to imagine the timing and course of infection working out better than they did. I'm told the French healthcare system is very good, but I'm happy not to have put that to the test.
Now my vaccination status is once again no one's business but my own. Maybe I'll put back my Facebook profile picture to that effect. Nonetheless, I'm reveling in what I call my super-vaccination: three shots, and recovery from the disease itself. The protection may be temporary, but for now, no one can ask for more.
And no one can blame Florida's relaxed COVID restrictions for our illnesses. This was no ordinary Southern-style virus, but the high-class, COVID-française. Nothing but the best pour nous!
The Virus and the Vaccine is a cautionary tale about the hasty development and widespread, rapid distribution of a vaccine against a devastating virus, created using a brand-new technology. It's a fascinating and frightening story, and my review is here.
I posted that review in 2005; the story has nothing to do with COVID-19.
The virus was poliovirus, and the vaccine was the Inactivated Poliovirus Vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk. The new technology was growing the polio virus in cultures made from ground-up monkey kidneys, instead of the traditional time-consuming process of using living monkeys. This sped up the research enormously and made the rapid development of the vaccine possible.
Polio was in the midst of a tremendous surge at the time, and parents welcomed a vaccine against the terrifying disease, which killed and paralyzed and particularly targeted children.
But there was a time-bomb hidden in the vaccine: SV-40, a monkey virus that survived inadequate purification procedures to contaminate nearly every dose of polio vaccine between 1954 and 1963, affecting about a hundred million people in the United States alone. (I was undoubtedly one of them.) Even after the contamination was discovered, the dangers were downplayed—contaminated batches were not recalled, but continued to be used—because it was widely accepted that the monkey virus, being from a different species, would do no harm.
Unfortunately, that proved to be a false and costly assumption. SV-40 is now known to be carcinogenic, and since the mid-1990’s has been discovered in many formerly rare brain and bone cancers, as well as lymphomas and leukemias. Is this a cause and effect connection, or a coincidence? The government and medical authorities are still downplaying the issue, because it does not concern the present-day polio vaccine. But even though the Centers for Disease control say in one place on their website that there is no connection, research reported on another page flatly contradicts that.
Does it matter now? SV-40 is no longer contaminating the polio vaccine. As calamitous as these cancers are, when weighed against the devastation caused by the polio virus itself, it is a reasonable post-facto conclusion that the benefits of continuing to administer the contaminated vaccine outweighed the risks.
What does matter is that the authorities of the time were wrong about the science, and knowingly exposed over half the population of the United States to the contaminated vaccine.
Polio was such a devastating and commonplace childhood disease that parents willingly, nay eagerly, accepted the assurances of the authorities and authorized the vaccine for their children.
Back in 2005, I ended my review of The Virus and the Vaccine with a pro-vaccination message, which I still believe today. But my confidence in the governmental and medical authorities is now at an all-time low, and Big Tech has joined that list. Our vaccine production may be safer today—though maybe not, given that many vaccines are produced in China—but it's abundantly clear that we still get the science wrong, we still suppress information, and we still interfere unreasonably in the medical decisions of others.
After some pondering, I think I now understand better why some people go overboard when it comes to wearing masks.
Let me clarify one thing first: I don't apologize when I wear a mask; I don't apologize when I don't wear a mask. God knows I have enough to apologize for, but masks are not one of them. Please don't apologize to me for your own mask status; it's your decision, and absolutely none of my business.
Another thing: I am not talking about people wearing masks because they or someone close to them are at special risk. Or want to take extra care because of an imminent event, such as surgery, or travel. Or because it's oak pollen season, or even in hopes of filtering out someone's cigarette smoke.
But aside from all that, there are definitely people who seem to see wearing masks as talismans, or some sort of religious duty independent of risk of disease. Wearing a mask while driving alone with the windows up. Wearing a mask outdoors with no other human being within 100 yards. You know what I mean; I'm sure you've seen it yourself.
My question was, why? And I think I have an answer.
For 62 years, my eyes were protected from flying objects—bugs, dust, wood chips, branches that fly back and slap me in the face when hiking—by my eyeglasses. And then I had cataract surgery, and suddenly didn't need glasses anymore. Not for distance vision, anyway. Until my eyes were stable enough after surgery to get progressive lenses (a few months), I only wore glasses for near-distance work. And you know what? It drove me crazy. Oh, it was wonderful to be able to see without glasses! But I became paranoid about my eyes, because they no longer had their protective shields. No matter how many times I reminded myself that nearly everyone in the history of the world has managed just fine without glasses, it still freaked me out.
Other things, too. For most of my life I managed just fine without a cell phone, and now I become quite anxious if I discover I've left the house and forgotten my phone. Even though in an emergency there are sure to be many other people with phones around to help out.
When we moved back to this house after living in Boston for a while, we found that our tenants had installed chain locks on our doors. We had never had them before, never wanted them—but now we use them, because they're there. It doesn't seem quite safe not to, even though it always was.
You can think of your own examples, I'm sure. Auto seat belts. Bike helmets. Freaking out if a baby is put down on his stomach instead of his back. The certainty that the unvaccinated person on the subway is going to give you a fatal case of COVID.
Anytime our awareness of risk has become heightened, we fear to deviate even slightly from that which we associate with protection.
I remember vividly, though it was decades ago, when a friend, an ambulance driver, firmly assured me that child car seats are good, but they are not magic. Unfortunately, we humans have a tendency to respond better to superstition and magic than to reason and logic.
Our first reaction on hearing of misfortune is not one of sympathy, but to ask the questions that will separate ourselves from the unfortunates: Was he wearing a seatbelt? Is she a smoker? Were they vaccinated? If we can draw a line that places ourselves on the righteous side, we assure ourselves that the victims have only themselves to blame and it will never happen to us. As my friend pointed out, this is 100% the wrong attitude. It is both inhumane and inaccurate.
I've even caught myself putting on a mask in a low-risk situation because I knew I'd blame myself if I got sick and had to cancel an important occasion. Even though the chance of that being the case was infinitesimal, and I knew it.
But I didn't catch COVID in the "free state" of Florida, which much of the rest of the United States thinks oh-so-dangerous because our COVID rules have always been on the relaxed side.
I caught it in France, a country that doesn't even let you cross the border if you are not fully vaccinated, and in a situation were the people I was with were COVID-tested every single day.
You just never know. Things happen.
Perhaps the best thing we can do is be patient with each other, even if our paranoid tendencies manifest themselves in different ways.
The first step in taking control of a nation is the simplest. You find someone to hate. ... You will find that hate can unify people more quickly and more fervently than devotion ever could. — Brandon Sanderson (Elantris)
Hatred is not an emotion that is foreign to us. Its presence in the world does not surprise me. What I find shocking is how easy we are manipulated into hating.
No one has to convince me to root for the Ukraine in the current conflict with Russia. After all, I'm a child of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was always our number one enemy. In this case, they are obviously the invaders, perpetrating atrocities, and even threatening nuclear war. We remember Georgia, Crimea, Belarus, and ask, "Where will it stop if it doesn't stop here?"
But two thoughts give me pause.
First, the level of anger and hatred I see, directed against anything Russian (even harmless Ukrainians with Russian-themed businesses in the U.S.), exceeds reason—as I have seen increasingly on other issues in recent years. We are in grave danger of losing sight of the essential humanity of the Russian people, much as the people of Germany once lost sight of the essential humanity of their friends and neighbors.
Second, while the flame of anger arose naturally in our hearts, it has been and is still being unnaturally accelerated into this disastrous conflagration. Politicians, corporations, educational institutions, news organizations, social media, celebrities of all sorts, our own friends—the push is on to view the Ukraine as totally innocent victims and Russia as completely irrational, evil villains. Merely to suggest that Russia might have had legitimate fears and concerns that led to the move to "liberate" the Ukraine, or that the Ukraine might not be completely free of corruption and illegitimate actions, is to bring down the wrath of all who want to see (or who want us to see) this as a battle between absolutely good and absolute evil.
Even if that were true—and nothing in this world has that kind of clarity—it's bad policy. Unless you really want World War III.
But here's what's really concerning me: I am convinced that if "they"—used metaphorically, not specifically—wanted the completely opposite reaction, they could just as easily have engineered that instead. You don't need to posit a conspiracy behind the power of this behemoth conglomeration of government, media, academia, financial institutions, entertainment, big businesses, Big Tech, and ordinary peer pressure. Ideas themselves have power, and when all these very powerful entities align to push an idea, it becomes almost irresistible.
The beginning of resistance is to step back and ask, "Where did I get this idea? What is driving my response?"
We interrupt the story of our trip to Chicago to bring you something as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.
S. D. Smith, author of the Green Ember books, wrote:
I’m never sure what to say when world events are so intense and the words of an ordinary children’s author from West Virginia on social media feel so unnecessary. “Stay in your lane,” I tell myself. ... So, while ordinary men kissed their wives and children and turned to fight to protect their homeland from invasion, I wrote. I wrote thousands and thousands of words—in private—on a story that I’ve been working on for many months with my son. I kept at it while a new war in Europe intensified and drew the attention of the world. ... Though it feels relatively unimportant, I think creating and sharing soul-forming stories is of great long-term value. My lane is an avenue that goes straight through the hearts of children God made and loves and intends for his kingdom of light. No small thing. It’s a good little lane. So I write on.
Composing choral anthems is John Rutter's "good little lane." It's no surprise that his response to the tragedy in the Ukraine was to write music. He has made his A Ukrainian Prayer available to choral directors for free, with the suggestion that they make a donation to a relief organization serving the Ukrainian people.
Our choir sang it in church today. Based on the comments we received afterwards, the congregation appreciated both Rutter's music and the fact that we sang it at this time. I'll admit that both the alto and the tenor parts were weaker at the beginning than they had been in rehearsal, due to the fact that the two of us were unexpectedly hit in the emotional solar plexus as we started to sing—and I'm told we weren't the only ones.
Here's not-our-choir, with Rutter conducting. The video starts at the beginning of the piece, but if you want you can go back to the beginning and hear Rutter's commentary. This is sung in Ukrainian; the literal translation is "Lord, protect Ukraine. Give us strength, faith, and hope, our Father. Amen." Our choir sang the English version.
As our own choir director said, "It's not every musician who can just round up 300 of his closest friends to try out his composition."
Bonus for those who know: See if you can spot the point where I did a double-take and discovered our grandson's secret life as an English chorister.
After getting squared away at the Palmer House, the next order of business was food. We had planned only one meal ahead of time, having made reservations for "Afternoon Tea & Samovar Service" at the famed Russian Tea Time restaurant. Pricey, but an experience not to be missed. (At the present time, it seems worth noting that the owners are Ukrainian.)
All Chicago restaurants require you to show a photo ID and proof of vaccination, which they scrutinize with exaggerated care. It makes me wonder whether there are undercover spies ready to pounce on the hapless restaurant owner who approaches the task too casually, or if the citizens themselves are eager to rat out a business they think is shirking its duty. Or maybe the culprit is bad eyesight: Our granddaughter's vaccination certificate was an 8.5x11 copy of the real thing, and its easy visibilty made the gatekeepers very happy.
Our next move was to take the train to the John Hancock Center, then ride the elevator to the 94th floor and the 360 Chicago observation deck. (ID and vax pass required, again.) Here's the view looking north.
The view itself was worth the visit, but the real reason we came was for the TILT, which tipped us over for an impressive view down the side of the building to the street below. One of us opted to skip the experience and was thus able to record it.
Here's an outside view from a STRUCTURE magazine article.
For dinner, we chose to eat at Hot Woks, Cool Sushi. It was not spectacular, but close to the hotel and enjoyable enough that we returned the following night. Except for Russian Tea Time, our focus this trip was not on food. My only regret was not having any pizza at all. How can one go to Chicago and not eat pizza? I guess we'll need to return.
Having been up at a morning hour closer to three than four, followed by a busy day, our idea of great night life was a good night's sleep. Who am I kidding? My idea of great night life is always a good night's sleep. :)
Saturday would be quite a full day as well.
Who would visit Chicago in the middle of winter?
There are plenty of reasons to visit Chicago, but the spark that inspired this particular trip was wanting to see our beloved former rector and to visit his new church in the Rogers Park area. But why in January? Let's just say that an expiring Southwest Airlines ticket had something to do with it.
Because of the pandemic, we were able to get a great deal at the beautiful Palmer House hotel in downtown Chicago, the place where Porter had lived back when he was working in the city and IBM was paying the bills. Being able to get tickets for a baroque concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Riccardo Muti sealed the deal.
Lo and behold, there were two intrepid women from our church choir who chose to brave the weather and take advantage of Porter's travel-planning skills. Our thirteen-year-old niece from New Hampshire—who fears neither cold weather nor solo travelling—also chose to join us. We made a happy and compatible quintet for the adventure.
After meeting up at Midway Airport, we took the L downtown, being thankful for Porter's previous experience with the system. That trip began with a humbling experience for me. I had not yet learned that Chicago L drivers are prone to leaving their stations with substantial lurches and no regard for whether or not their passengers have actually found a seat. I was in the process of moving into one when suddenly I found myself flat on my back in the aisle. I consider my balance to be very good, and actually practice recovering from such jerking about when I can. In this case, however, I had neglected to take into consideration that the substantial backpack-suitcase I was carrying had altered my center of gravity. Boom—there I was, as helpless as a turtle and in noticeable pain. My fellow passengers came to my rescue, and very soon the physical pain was much less obvious than the embarrassment. I blessed our thrice-weekly water aerobics classes with their emphasis on strengthening exactly those muscles that had sprung immediately into play to protect my spine. It turned out to be two weeks before those muscles fully recovered, but outside of a little stiffness, the injury gave me no problems the rest of our trip.
Checking into the Palmer House went smoothly—almost. That's when I ran into a problem of a different sort: a crisis of conscience. We had been warned to bring masks and vaccination certificates with us, but were still shocked at the reality that met us in Chicago.
We could have gone straight to our rooms without showing our cards, but that was all. Attempting to sit in the lobby and talk while waiting for our restaurant reservation time provoked an immediate response from a lurking vulture hotel official, who demanded our papers and, after closely scrutinizing them, branded us with a wristband like those you get at some amusement parks. I was not amused. To begin with, I hate those things. I don't wear necklaces, bracelets, or any ring except for my wedding ring; frankly, that kind of constriction Freaks. Me. Out. I hope I never have to break the law, because I will not do well with handcuffs.
But that's just me; it has nothing to do with my conscience. That comes in because I strongly believe that the division of society into Vaccinated and Unvaccinated, along with discrimination against the latter, is immoral. I like to think that in Nazi Germany I would have been among the brave gentile German citizens who chose to wear the yellow star to demonstrate solidarity with their Jewish brothers. But in this case, I caved.
After about five minutes of torment trying to find a way out of the wrist band, I decided to pretend I had entered a foreign country, instead of another American city. After all, when we visited the Gambia I wore a long skirt every time I went out in public, out of respect for the local customs. And I never wear skirts. Foreign cultures often make one do things that seem unreasonable. Armed with that insight, I was able to manage the rest of the trip, even though everywhere else we went, with the notable exception of church, public transit, and outdoor spaces, required us to show our papers (proof of vaccination and photo ID). Porter found the experience unnervingly similar to his visit to East Berlin in the 1960's.
That's enough about the bad part. In all other ways, our Chicago experience was fantastic! (More to come.)
Porter has been doing yeoman's work sorting through the information, misinformation, and distorted information available to us about the war in the Ukraine. I don't have the patience. But it is amusing, when it's not depressing, to listen to him watching the nightly news: "They're reporting as new something I heard about yesterday," and "that video is at least three days old."
In the process, he discovered Chris Cappy. He's an Iraq vet with an informative and entertaining style that goes so far as to make military history, weapons, strategy, and tactics interesting even to me. His updates on the war are—as far as in my ignorance I can tell—knowledgeable and fair, with a minimum of emotion and propaganda.
The following video (24 minutes) is a good example, which not only gives an update on the war (as of March 15), but makes a good case for why Big Tech's shutdown of Russian sources on social media is dangerous as well as insulting.
Remember 2019? Must have been at least a decade ago, right? Who'd have thought we could pack so much pandemic, riot, and war into two years.
Nonetheless, my post for March 16, 2019 is at least as appropriate now as it was then, so I'm repeating it.
Sandwiched between 3:14 (Pi Day) and 3:17 (St. Patrick's Day) is
3:16 (Greatest Love Day)
John 3:16, that is.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
In honor of which I present this beautiful anthem, John Stainer's God So Loved the World. No, that's not our choir. But Porter and I have sung this many times and it's one of our favorites.
Are you a person who prays?
Are you praying for the Ukraine, its people, and its leaders? Good. They need it, obviously and desperately.
But are you also praying for Russia? Are you praying for Vladimir Putin and his advisors?
I can't speak for any other traditions of prayer, but for Christians our responsibility is crystal clear: In addition to other Biblical precedent, we have a direct command from Our Lord to love and pray for our enemies.
If that isn't good enough, consider that the Russian people didn't ask for this. If we rightly fear domination of the people of Ukraine by Putin and the Russian oligarchs, we know that the Russians have been living that life all along.
Our sanctions may convince Putin to withdraw his forces, or they may drive him into desperate actions and alliances that will come back to bite us hard. That's not clear yet. What is definite is that they have tanked the Russian economy, and the Russian people are heading into financial hardship of a kind that has passed out of the living memory of our own country.
If their suffering is not enough to convince you to pray for them, consider what happened in Germany after World War I, when the winners of that conflict made certain that the German economy would be completely devastated.
Have I convinced you to pray for the Russians? Now, how about President Putin? It is so easy to fear him, and to hate him!
For Christians, again the command is clear: we must love him, and pray for him. (We don't have to like him.) Regardless of how we feel about him, he is as valuable in the eyes of God as we are. And if, as we'd like to believe, he were less worthy of our prayers, that would only mean he needs them more.
But if that's not enough, we must pray for Putin for our own safety's sake. (Did you catch the nod to A Man for All Seasons?) He's a man in command of a large and powerful nation, with his finger on the nuclear button. We all know from experience how much damage the last two years of pandemic isolation have done to people's mental health. From all accounts, Putin has taken this isolation to an extreme. If he was unstable before, what of now?
What's more, in our collective response to his invasion of the Ukraine, we have been backing him into a corner with no way to save face. We seem determined to defeat him utterly and humiliate him, forgetting that cornered bears are exceedingly dangerous. Finding a win-win situation is not capitulation; it's wise diplomacy, and much more likely to lead to a lasting peace.
I don't know how this dangerous and tragic situation should properly be handled. I don't know if we are being Neville Chamberlains or if we are being driven by the fear of making his mistakes into making more disastrous mistakes of our own. I don't see a Winston Churchill on the horizon.
I do know that the one thing we can do is to pray. For the Ukraine, and for Russia. For NATO, for the European Union, and for all the world leaders who don't know what they're doing and are doing it very enthusiastically.