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.

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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.

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Pandemics, Climate Change and the Threat of Innumeracy

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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?

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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.

 

Reclaiming My Voice

I guess some people thought (and I was one of those people) I might lose my accent after moving to the UK. I was sort of hoping I might lose it, because I associated my East Texas accent from my youth with ignorance, bigotry, and violence. And, yes, I have been assaulted more than once or twice by someone dripping with the twangy tones of east Texas intolerance.

I always knew, but tended to put aside, the fact that my suppressed accent was similar to the voices of people like Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, John Henry Faulk, Ann Richards, Robert Earl Keen, Dr. Red Duke, Ray Wiley Hubbard, Joe Ely, and many more. Now that I’m further away from the KKK-loving shit-kickers, I often miss the sounds of home. I miss a voice I strangled more than 40 years ago.

Lately, I’ve been trying to write and speak in the voice I lost so long ago. Coming out of the closet, so to speak. I’m stepping from the shadow of shame, I guess. It turns out you can sound like that and not be a total asshole. You can be queer, embrace religious tolerance, celebrate your neighbours’ differences, and just try to be a decent but hopelessly flawed individual (just like everybody else).

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Poem: The Problem with Irony

Nobody really liked Connor’s poetry,
anyway. It didn’t really even seem like
poetry. It just seemed like someone
rambling around trying to tell a story
the way Connor did every time we
tried to get a cup of coffee with him.

Anyway, he said that’s what he wanted
from his poetry was for it to sound real
natural like he was just talking to his readers,
and he figured he had a few things he
wanted to say and what better way to say
a few things than in the context of a poem?

But honestly no one ever knew what he was
going on about because he just sort of
started talking and then went around in
circles for a little while with no kind of
point that anyone could see. And instead
of an ending, he’d just sort of trail off.

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Poem: Your Face

Jesse Bernstein died after he stabbed himself
in the neck, and it was all because there was
something wrong with his face.

That’s what he said.
He said there was something wrong with his face.
Something just wasn’t quite right.
It’s sad when something is wrong with your face,
because you can’t do much about it.
It’s your face and you’re stuck with it.

When people look at you,
you can tell they’re uncomfortable with your face.
When you look in the mirror, you always feel a little
nauseated and you have to look away.
The worst part is that you can’t figure out
what is wrong with your face.

It’s just a face everyone hates.
A face you hate.
And people make all those face jokes.
You know, like they’ll talk about something horrific
and then say it reminds them of your face.

And that’s so fucking funny it takes your breath away.
And you don’t know what to do, so you end up sticking a knife in your neck.

But I found something I love. Something that brings me joy. Even if you can’t bear to look at me, listen. I found something that gives me hope:

Your face.

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