Poem: On the Fine Art of Collecting in Aid of Mental Stability #NaPoWriMo

Some of us get lost in details.
Minutiae absorb our minds.

I could never,
perhaps because I never wanted to,
find myself so lost in statistics,
dates, patterns, smells, and materials.
I never really cared who signed what and when
or what colours were used in any particular year.
I didn’t have the focus.
Anyone who ever tried to teach me
complained that my mind wandered off,
and I could not be present.

So, I envy the others who are so lost
in learning and remembering exactly
what shades of blue were in use in 1872.
They seem so untroubled as they delight
over the 1919 edition they found on Ebay for
only $35, less than dinner at a mediocre restaurant.

They get such pleasure from harmless hobbies,
while I stay shackled in the torture room,
collecting nothing but my own thoughts
of eternal suffering presaged by infinite dread.

Photo by Kelly Lacy on Pexels.com

Poem: On the Relativity of Badness and Things (in the most general sense of the word) #napowrimo

It was supposed to be ironic
to say bad things will happen.

You were thinking of things like
an unauthorised charge on the credit card
or a stock broker dating your daughter.

You felt so secure that you could laugh
at the anxiety and insecurity of your peers.
Hey, we all have problems, you’d chuckle,
But it all works out in the end.

You’d accumulated both assets and insurance,
and you planned carefully for an uncertain future.
You had lectured others on the importance of savings,
healthful living, and sound investments.

But the history of the world is nothing
if not a lengthy narrative of people
experiencing the unimaginable
unaided by immaculate preparation or
salvation from a merciful God.

Sinners suddenly remember God
holds them over the pit of Hell as
one might hold a spider over a fire.*

As they emerge from the ashes,
anxiety cripples them until,
slowly, they become steadily
more complacent, even arrogant,
until vengeance meets them again.

*Thanks to Jonathan Edwards.

Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Poem: Doors in Dreams (#NaPoWriMo)

Dreams save time.
You never really have to travel.
Just pass through a door
and you are in a new place and time.

Maybe even a different body.
You could be an old person in a hospital
one minute
and then an anxious child in school
the next.

The doors could always be an escape,
but for some of us,
the unlucky few,
they always seem to lead
to danger
and a violent wakening.

Photo by Tim Savage on Pexels.com

Poem: Center Drugstore (#napowrimo)

You would open the door to mingling aromas
of coffee, toast, perfume, and disinfectant.
After the shock of the olfactory assault,
You’d see a few toys to attract the kids
alongside perfume and various toiletries
to attract their moms. Three aisles
pretty much stretched the length of the store.

Items became more personal as you made your
way to the back. After the toys and toiletries,
you’d find grooming products, followed by
over the counter medications, with “feminine”
products, haemorrhoid creams, and laxatives
at the absolute end of the aisle. To get condoms
or prescriptions, you’d have to go to the counter
that stretched across the back of the store.

These were the earliest days of the birth control pill,
and it was only purchased in silence with no hint
given to prying bystanders that the customer at
the counter might be in search of childless sex.

To the left of the three aisles of products, you
would find two fairly comfortable booths,
big enough for six people to slide in,
three on either side with room to read a paper
or magazine while eating breakfast or lunch.

Behind the booth was a long counter with
bolted barstools inviting a brief reprieve,
but not comfortable enough to encourage lingering.
Behind the counter, you’d find the usual:
Soda fountain, griddle, toaster, sandwich counter.
You could get a standard assortment of bacon, eggs,
toast, coffee, soda, grilled cheese, or maybe a tuna sandwich.

No one complained about the menu. People rarely
complained, except to get a rise out of the soda jerk,
just for amusement and to pass the boredom.

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

Poem: The Shame of Engine Sludge (#napowrimo)

I always dread this task,
emptying the oil and
replacing with clear and shiny
fluids flowing through fresh filters.

I should say I don’t mind
most of it—it’s refreshing
to screw on sparkling protection
and fill the block with lubrication.

It’s the old detritus that vexes me.
I’ve done this thousands of times,
but I still leave spots on the pavement,
evidence of attrition and abuse slowly
wearing away the efficiency of my engine.

I know others see the harm I’ve caused,
and neither power washer nor industrial
soap can spare me the injury of a shameful past.

Photo by Malte luk on Pexels.com

Pandemics, Climate Change and the Threat of Innumeracy

Photo by Pranidchakan Boonrom on Pexels.com

Among other things, this pandemic has shown the danger of innumeracy. Over the past few weeks, many have tried to minimise the effects of the pandemic by posting blogs and memes listing absolutely accurate statistics that are also terrifying to the specialists tracking the number of infections. Just for example, many people said a fatality rate of 2.0 (or even 1.0) was about the same as that for influenza. Of course, a fatality rate of 2.0, would be 20 times as bad as the seasonal flu, and even 1.0 would be tens times as bad.

Among those posting information to minimise the effect of the pandemic were healthcare providers, including doctors who work with infectious diseases. Doctors trained in medicine and not risk assessment are not better at assessing risk and probabilities than the general population. The 1982 book, Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, edited by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and Paul Slovic, examined the ability of people, with several chapters devoted to medical professionals including doctors, to assess risk based on probabilities. People in general, including doctors, just aren’t that good at it.

Subsequent research in medicine has shown similar results. Without specific training in assessing risk based on statistics and probabilities, doctors are no better than the general public at making decisions. We all need a more robust understanding of statistics, probabilities, and risk assessment.

It would help us better understand the risk of pandemics, and it may help us better understand the risk posed by climate change. Many people still think it isn’t a big deal to have the average global temperature increase by 1 degree.

Assessing Pandemics

As pandemics go, a virus that produces a lower average mortality rate can have greater overall lethality than a much deadlier virus because of its ability to spread. As Nathan Wolfe puts it in The Viral Storm, “A very deadly epidemic that doesn’t seem to be spreading is less worrying than a nominally deadly pandemic that’s moving at a fast clip.” The fatality rate for Covid-19 is estimated anywhere between 1 and 3.4 percent. For a comparison, Wolfe says the mortality rate for the 1918 epidemic (called the “Spanish” flu), “may be even lower than 2.5 percent, as many deaths were probably caused by secondary bacterial infections.”

Wolfe’s book was published in 2011. Virologists have been warning of the near certainty of future pandemics for many years now. Increased travel, industrial farming methods, loss of habitat for wildlife, and climate change all increase the risk of pandemic in various ways.

Covid-19 may quietly fade away as new cases decrease, or it may become much less deadly to the point that it causes few symptoms, or it may continue to spread rapidly and kill many people. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I do know we (meaning the human race) must prepare for ongoing pandemics, because they are not going away.

Pandemic, Panic, and Complacency

Crudely, generally, and absolutely not universally, deadlier viruses are easier to contain geographically than milder viruses. Ebola, MERS, and SARS all have much higher mortality rates than Covid-19 and were limited to smaller regions. The obvious reason for this is that sicker people are too sick to spread a virus to the community and the world at large. Covid-19 spreads easily because it appears to be spread in the absence of symptoms and for an extended period of time. People who are infected travel, go to work, go shopping, visit hospitals, and so on.

Quite a few people point out that the mortality rate for Covid-19 may be overstated because an unknown number of people probably contract the virus without ever showing symptoms, so these survivors are not a part of official counts. That’s true, but it is also true that people who have died of pneumonia and other infections may also have had undiagnosed Covid-19. No one knows which group of people is larger, so estimating the mortality rate is still just a guess.

Given that the mortality rate is only a guess, experts have made their best guesses at somewhere between 1.0 and 2.7 percent. The mortality rate for seasonal flu is 0.1 percent. Based on this, Covid-19 will cause from 10 to 27 times more deaths than the flu. 646,000 people die from influenza annually. If Covid-19 reaches a similar saturation, that will mean deaths from 6.5 million to 17.5 million people.

Each year, hospitals and surgeries strain under the burden of treating complications related to seasonal flu. Add a few million cases of pneumonia to the mix, and you have the potential for a fairly daunting problem. Panic doesn’t help anyone, but this is a serious global health event.

Poem: QED (for WCW)

To us this is not so, not so if we prove it by writing a poem built to refute it—otherwise he wins!! ~William Carlos Williams

What if you wrote the poem
that proved everyone wrong,
but they refused to accept
the conclusion and continued
to walk with invariance
on metered and predictable feet?

What if they never learned to
breathe and step down
to a natural rhythm?

What would be the point
of walking under the
white disc of the sun
and counting
the steps to
death?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Poem: You Tried to Keep Your Head Up (for James Byrd)

You lived a life that made your family proud,
But the weak-minded hated the colour of your skin.
You lived a life that made your family proud,
But fuelled master race fantasies for neighbour kids.

You trusted the boys who claimed supremacy.
To be generous and relieve your heavy burden.
You trusted the boys who claimed supremacy
as they brought your death and your ascent began.

You tried to keep your head up,
as those bastards laughed through your screams.
You tried to keep your head up,
with pain and blood in free flowing streams.

You were the only man there
as you were tortured by these boys.
You were the only man there,
Your body drug through gravel like a toy.

You lived gently and kept your head up,
And you died in excruciating pain.
You lived gently and kept your head up,
So we must ensure white supremacy never rises again.

Other works inspired by the murder of James Byrd, Jr.