Ebola, the flu and other health risks

I just got my flu shot.  I get one every year.  While it might not keep me from getting sick this winter, in all likelihood it will keep me from getting really sick.  I just hope that everyone else I interact with has also gotten a flu shot.

Frank Bruni wrote about this in this morning’s New York Times.

During the 2013-2014 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 46 percent of Americans received vaccinations against influenza, even though it kills about 3,000 people in this country in a good year, nearly 50,000 in a bad one.

These are deaths by a familiar assassin. Many of them could have been prevented. So why aren’t we in a lather over that? Why fixate on remote threats that we feel we can’t control when there are immediate ones that we simply don’t bother to?

On matters exotic, we’re rapt. On matters quotidian, which are nonetheless matters of life and death, we’re cavalier. Tens of thousands of Americans die in car crashes annually, and according to a federal analysis from 2012, more than half of them weren’t wearing seatbelts.

I think part of the reason people are so panicked about Ebola is because so far the medical community in the United States seems very inept at treating it and, particularly, in preventing its spread.  Amy Davidson’s piece “Amber Vinson’s Airplane Ride” in the New Yorker is particularly instructive.

Amber Vinson called the Centers for Disease Control, on Monday, to say that she had a temperature of 99.5 degrees and planned to get on a commercial flight from Cleveland to Dallas; should she? Vinson, a nurse, had cared for Thomas Eric Duncan, a patient with Ebola, in Dallas—she had put a catheter in him and been in close contact when he was vomiting and in the throes of diarrhea. The day before Vinson made her call, one of her colleagues, Nina Pham, had tested positive for Ebola. There was, supposedly, a system in place for monitoring Duncan’s contacts. And yet, as the C.D.C. confirmed late on Wednesday, the official Vinson spoke to cleared her to fly. Vinson got on Frontier Airlines Flight 1143, with a hundred a thirty-two other passengers. She landed in Dallas at 8:16 P.M.. The next morning, her fever was worse; around midnight, she tested positive for Ebola.

There is much that is seriously wrong here. The first is that Pham and Vinson, who are both in their twenties, were so exposed. Their hospital, Texas Health Presbyterian, sent Duncan home the first time he showed up in the emergency room, with a fever and pain and the information that he’d just been in Liberia. But it’s also emerging that, in the first days after he was admitted for the second time, on September 28th—with his family saying that they thought he had Ebola, and all the full-blown symptoms on display, but as yet no laboratory test confirming it—he was not properly isolated, according to records obtained by the Associated Press. The nurses caring for him had to improvise their own protection.

Tom Frieden, the director of the C.D.C., addresses the media on the Ebola case, on October 5th.

Tom Frieden, the director of the C.D.C., addresses the media on the Ebola case, on October 5th.

Thomas Frieden, the head of the CDC, has said they should have had people there to help them “do it right”, but then someone from his own agency told Amber Vinson it was OK for her to fly.  And we are left to wonder who is in charge and if anyone knows what they are doing.  If President Obama wants to do something to help regain public confidence that the health care system here can deal effectively with Ebola, maybe Mr. Frieden’s departure would be a good start.

Amy Davidson writes

Frieden himself represents an even bigger problem. His account of how Vinson got on the plane, related in the conference call on Wednesday, was at least evasive and, depending on what he knew and what exactly Vinson was told, may have been worse. He was asked three different ways if Vinson had been told not to fly, and each time dodged the question in a way that left the impression that Vinson was some sort of rogue nurse who just got it into her head that she could fly wherever she wanted. He talked about her “self-monitoring,” and that she “should not have travelled, should not have been allowed to travel by plane or any public transport”—without mentioning that his agency was who allowed it.

It is things like this, and the lack of protocols at Texas Health Presbyterian, that create fear, probably unwarranted, among the American public that there will be a major outbreak of Ebola here.

As Bruni says

I’m not dismissing the horror of Ebola, a full-blown crisis in Africa that should command the whole world’s assistance. And Ebola in the United States certainly warrants concern. We’re still searching for definitive answers about transmission and prevention.

But Americans already have such answers about a host of other, greater perils to our health, and we’d be wiser to reacquaint ourselves with those, and recommit to heeding them, than to worry about our imminent exposure to Ebola.

So, use seat belts, get a flu shot, get your kids vaccinated, don’t use your cell phone while driving and use sunscreen.  And try not to worry about getting Ebola.

 Photograph by  KEVIN C. COX/GETTY

Like a speeding locomotive

That’s the image that comes to mind when I think of how quickly things have moved when it comes to marriage equality.  It has only been 10 years since same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts.  And only a few years longer that that since Vermont adopted civil unions.  For a while I was keeping track and blogging every time a state was added, but I just couldn’t keep up – or keep track.  Now Federal benefits are available to all legally married couples regardless of the state in which they reside and the Supreme Court is letting stand Appeals Court decisions ruling prohibitions unconstitutional.

According to a post in the Washington Post’s “The Fix”, most gay Americans now live in states with marriage equality.

As the map of where gay marriage is legal has shifted and changed over the past few years, we’ve tracked a harder-to-measure component of the new laws: How many gay Americans live in states that allow them to marry.

In June, we anticipated that the tipping point was imminent. Based on data from Gallup surveys in 2012, a higher percentage of the country’s gay population already lived in gay-marriage-legal states than the population on the whole. With Monday’s Supreme Court non-decision, the percentage of gay Americans and Americans on the whole living in states where gay marriage is legal topped 50 percent.

Gay Marriage map

I am unclear as to how Gallup determined the percentage of person living in a state who were gay or lesbian, but given the way Gallup polls, I assume it is by self-reporting in response to a question.  According to the Fix, marriage equality has arrived in states with a lower population of gay residents.

So what happens next is anyone’s guess but with the growing numbers of same-sex marriages, I’m not sure how a Supreme Court ruling to the contrary could be implemented without chaos.  A more likely scenario is a decision like the one in Loving v. Virginia.  When the Court finally ruled on interracial marriage, the majority of states already allowed such unions.

This does not mean that the opposition will not fight on.  A story in the New York Times today reported that

Leading opponents of same-sex marriage vowed on Wednesday to push ahead with their legal fight, noting that several federal appeals courts had not yet ruled on the issue and that the Supreme Court could still decide to leave it up to the states.

Even as the list of states authorizing same-sex marriage swells, the opponents noted Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s order on Wednesday totemporarily block a federal appeals court ruling striking down the marriage restrictions in Idaho. The temporary order came as a surprise to many advocates on both sides of the issue, since the Supreme Court on Monday had allowed similar decisions from three other appeals courts to take effect.

“The marriage battle will continue,” said Jim Campbell, a senior legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group that has defended marriage restrictions in several states.

Opponents seem determined that each state should have a right to define its marriage laws, but that just doesn’t seem likely to me given the Loving decision as a precedent.

“If the liberals on the court had the votes to declare same-sex marriage a constitutional right, why didn’t they take any of the cases on offer Monday?” asked Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage.

“That gives hope that the Supreme Court will not launch another Roe v. Wade,” Mr. Brown said, referring to the 1973 decision legalizing abortion nationwide.

Mr. Brown also rejected the argument that, once same-sex marriages had been allowed in many states, the law could not be rolled back if the voters wanted to do so.

But most legal experts drew the opposite conclusion from Monday’s action.

“We know, from the court’s willingness Monday to allow all these marriages to go forward,” that opponents of same-sex marriage “are virtually guaranteed to lose” before the current Supreme Court, said Michael C. Dorf, a constitutional expert at Cornell Law School.

In the meanwhile, I have friends getting married, both same-sex and opposite sex.  I also have friends in both categories who have or are getting divorced.  All people want is to live their own lives and to have the legal protections due them.  I think the opposition needs to get out of the way of the speeding locomotive.

Map:  The Washington Post

 

 

Remembering Poe

Edgar Allan Poe died today, October 7, 1849 in Baltimore.  He was 40 years old.

My first introduction to Poe was “The Tell- Tale Heart”.  I think was in maybe the 5th or 6th grade when the teacher read it to us.  I found it frightening.  And then there were his other storied like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and his very bad poetry.  I had always thought he was from Richmond – or maybe Baltimore, but have since learned he actually lived all over and went to school both at the University of Virginia and West Point.  After I moved to Boston, I found out that he had been born there.  I went looking for the tiny plaque in an alley honoring him.  There was also a reference in one of Linda Fairstein’s mysteries to the Poe cabin in the Bronx which is how I first learned of his New York connection.  So lots and lots of places claim him and there are at least three Poe historical sites:  Richmond, Baltimore and the Bronx.

But he and Boston had a terrible relationship.  According to the New York Times

Poe sneered at the city’s luminaries. Riffing off the Frog Pond in the Boston Common, Poe called the local swells “Frogpondians,” their moralistic works sounding like the croaking of so many frogs. As for residents here, they “have no soul,” he said. “Bostonians are well bred — as very dull persons very generally are.”

The Boston Globe explains that his relationship with “…with the city’s literary elite was famously tense…”

But now Boston has joined Baltimore, Richmond and New York with a tribute to Poe.  The New York Times quotes Boston’s Mayor

“It’s time that Poe, whose hometown was Boston, be honored for his connection to the city,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said.

The bronze Edgar Allen Poe’s briefcase overflows with the symbols that made him famous: a larger-than-life raven, and a human heart.

The bronze Edgar Allen Poe’s briefcase overflows with the symbols that made him famous: a larger-than-life raven, and a human heart.

The Times describes the statue

Now the city is burying the hatchet, and not in Poe’s back. On Sunday [October 5], civic and literary folk, including Robert Pinsky, a former national poet laureate who teaches at Boston University, are to unveil a bronze statue of Poe near the Boston Common and, they hope, usher in an era of reconciliation.

The statue captures the writer in a purposeful stride, his cape billowing out to his left. On his right is an outsize raven, uncoiling for flight. Poe is toting a suitcase so overpacked that various manuscripts — “The Tell-Tale Heart” among them — are spilling out. Also popping out is a heart.

He is heading toward the house, two blocks away, where his parents lived around the time he was born, though it has since been razed.

So the only person to write a poem that became the name of a football team, the Baltimore Ravens, has finally been honored in the city of his birth.  I wonder what Poe would make of it.

Photograph:  DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF

 

 

 

Professor Borges on reading

Jorge Luis Borges taught a course in English literature in 1966.  The lectures were recorded and transcribed (albeit not always accurately when it came to names which were rendered phonetically into Spanish) by some of his students.  The lectures have been translated from the Spanish and edited for clarity, but one can tell they were spoken and not written for publication. So far, I have only read a couple of them:  on Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson.  Borges’ take on their lives and writings is unique to say the least and offers much room for new ideas.  It the kind of book where one can pick a lecture topic that is of interest and just read that section.

But it is Epilogue to the book that I want to post today.  It is not from a lecture, but an interview with him at the National Library in 1979.

I believe that the phrase “obligatory reading” is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory.  Should we ever speak of “obligatory pleasure”?  What for?  Pleasure is not obligatory, pleasure is something we seek.  Obligatory happiness!  We seek happiness as well.  For twenty years, I have been a professor of English Literature in the School of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires, and I have always advised by students:  If a book bores you, leave it; don’t read a book because it is famous, don’t read it because it is modern, don’t read a book because it is old.  If a book is tedious to you, leave it, even if that book is Paradise Lost -which is not tedious to me – or Don Quixote – which is also is not tedious to me.  But if a book is tedious to you, don’t read it; that book was not written for you.  Reading should be a form of happiness, so I would advise all possible readers of my last will and testament – which I do not plan to write – I would advise them to read a lot, and not to get intimidated by writers’ reputations, to continue to look for personal happiness, personal enjoyment.  It is the only way to read.

Great advice for a retired person maybe, but not really the St. John’s College approach.  I believe it is in the famous Saturday Review of Literature article on St. John’s from the early 1960s that the phrase, “at St. John’s readings include some of the most boring books written” or something like that.  But if I hadn’t had to read Galen or Kant, I believe my life would be less rich.  Not true for everyone, probably, but true for me.  Sometimes plowing though something boring is good discipline.  But when it comes to reading for pleasure, I agree with Professor Borges:  Read only what you enjoy.

Borges

The book is Professor Borges:  A Course on English Literature.  Edited by Martin Arias and Martin Hadis.  New Directions, 2013

The People’s House

Julia Pierson, head of the Secret Service, testified before Congress yesterday on the security lapses that resulted in a fence jumper making it into the White House and then into the East Room.  But Omar Gonzalez in just one in a long line of uninvited guests.  Anyone remember the couple that got through security into a state dinner?  Peter Baker had a nice history of the uninvited in the New York Times.

Long before the latest fence jumper captured international attention by getting as far as the East Room, the history of White House security breaches was vast and varied. One intruder in a white karate outfit carried in a knife hidden in a Bible. A stranger slipped in to watch a movie with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And a pilot crashed his Cessna into the mansion.

Theodore Roosevelt once agreed to see a man who identified himself as “Mr. John Smith” and insisted he had an appointment, even though the president did not recognize him. But after talking with him for a bit, Mr. Roosevelt quickly changed his mind. “Take this crank out of here,” he ordered an usher. In the man’s back pocket, it turned out, was a large-caliber pistol.

Pierson herself pointed out

…that before the most recent incident, 16 people had jumped the White House fence over the last five years, six of them this year alone. Many of them do not seem intent on harming the president, but are eager to draw attention to some issue or cause. One this year was a toddler who had slipped through the fence.

We seen to want the impossible.  We want our President and his family to be safe, but accessible.  And for much of our history, the President and the White House have been much more accessible than they are today.

During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt had just finished watching a movie when the lights came on and he discovered a stranger standing nearby. His predecessor, Herbert Hoover, came downstairs for dinner one night to find a man in the Blue Room who said he was just a sightseer. On another occasion, Mr. Hoover was having dinner with a movie producer in the State Dining Room when an intruder marched up, demanding an appointment.

During Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration, a man followed the Marine Band into the White House and wandered around for 15 minutes before being discovered. And of course, President Obama found himself with a couple of extra guests for a State Dinner in 2009, when the party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi managed to get past White House aides and the Secret Service even though they were not on an invitation list.

There have been shots fired (so far without hitting anyone) and President Tyler had stones thrown at him by an intruder in the White House garden.  But more disturbing are the aircraft that manage to penetrate the White House airspace.

A helicopter stolen from nearby Fort Meade by an Army private landed on the South Lawn of the White House in 1974.

A helicopter stolen from nearby Fort Meade by an Army private landed on the South Lawn of the White House in 1974.

With all the ground protection, several men have tried to pierce the White House perimeter by air. An Army private stole a helicopter from Fort Meade in 1974 and flew it to the White House, where he landed on the South Lawn, took off again and then returned. Secret Service officers eventually opened fire on the chopper, forcing it down. The private survived and was sentenced to a year in prison. That same year, a failed businessman tried to hijack a Delta passenger jet at Baltimore-Washington International Airport with a plan to crash it into the White House, but was shot by the police while in the cockpit before takeoff.

In 1994, an unlicensed pilot who had spent an evening drinking and smoking crack cocaine stole a Cessna 150L and crashed it on the South Lawn in the middle of the night. The plane skidded across the ground, smashed into a magnolia tree and eventually came to a halt against the wall of the mansion. The pilot was killed, but the building was not seriously damaged and Mr. Clinton was not at home at the time.

President Andrew Jackson famously called the White House “the People’s House” but in the current climate, protection and screening would seem to be most important.  Perhaps President Obama should take satirist Andy Borowitz seriously.

President Barack Obama has decided to move his family into a full-service doorman building in Washington, D.C., saying that “it just makes more sense right now.”

“It really will work better for us,” Obama said in a press conference Tuesday morning. “In addition to the doorman, there’s a guy at the front desk, and, if anyone comes to see you, the desk guy will call up to your apartment first to make sure it’s O.K.”

 Photograph:  Charles Tasnadi/Associated Press

Thinking about knots

I have to admit that I generally don’t read those fancy magazines that often come with the Sunday New York Times.  I may flip though them and look at some of the ads – I like reading about fancy $60 million penthouses with views of the Hudson or palatial estates with zillions of bedrooms – but I rarely read any of the articles.  But this morning I was leafing though the magazine that came yesterday and saw the article by Jody Rosen about knots.  Yes, knots.

Knot enthusiasts like to say that civilization is held together by knots. It sounds like a wisecrack — but if you take a look around, you may begin to see the truth behind the quip. You could start by scrutinizing your shoes. They’re tied, undoubtedly, with the first knot that you ever learned, the famous shoelace knot, or bowknot, or as some knot experts prefer to call it, the double-slipped reef knot: a knot that combines a simple half-hitch with those two bunny-eared loops to create an ingenious little mechanism, taut enough to keep your feet snugly sheathed but with a built-in quick-release that can free them in an instant, with a single tug on a string. Glance in the mirror and you may find more knots: the one in your necktie, perhaps, or the one made by the elastic band that is wound around to hold your hair in place. Your hair itself might be plaited into a braid: another knot.

Now consider the clothing you’re wearing. What is your cable-knit sweater but a whole lot of knotting? Your shirt, your pants, your socks, your underwear: These sewn or knitted or woven garments are likely held together by knots, and what’s more, the materials from which they’re made — cotton or wool or acrylic or what have you — are themselves glorified knots, fibers that have been twisted together to form stronger tensile strands. Knots, it seems, are the only thing standing between you and an indecent-exposure charge.

And that’s just the beginning. There may well be a knot in the cinnamon bun on your breakfast table. There were definitely knots in the fishing net that caught the halibut on your dinner plate. Doctors staunch the bleeding in an open wound with tourniquets bound by knots, and they employ knots when stitching up a body after surgery. Knots are used in the construction of houses and skyscrapers; the cables supporting suspension bridges extend time-honored principles of cordage and knotting to “ropes” of galvanized steel wire.

There are even knots on the Mars Rover.

I learned about knots as a Girl Scout when we had to learn a particular number as a requirement for one of the badges.  I even learned to splice rope from my father when he was preparing the lines for one of our sailboats.  And, pre-frozen shoulder, I used to knit all the time.  I want to learn to braid bread dough.  So, like most people, knots are part of my life.  One just doesn’t think of them very often.

In other words, knots are ubiquitous — so threaded, as it were, into the fabric of everyday life that they are easily overlooked, hidden in plain sight. In certain quarters, though, knots command center stage. One such place is a house that sits along a well-trafficked residential through street a couple of hundred yards from the River Orwell in the town of Ipswich, in Suffolk, southeast England. It is a modest two-story brick building of Edwardian vintage, distinguished from neighboring houses only by a telling detail: a forged iron door knocker in the shape of knotted rope. Use that door knocker and you will be greeted by Des Pawson, a vibrant 67-year-old man with large round eyeglasses, a white beard worthy of a biblical patriarch and hair that stretches down nearly to his shoulders. Pawson’s mane is partially concealed beneath a red Kangol cap. “I’m a socialist, of a sort,” Pawson says. “I want the rope makers, I want the riggers, I want the sailmakers to be recognized for their contributions. They are a huge part of the story of knots.”

Pawson is one of the world’s foremost knot experts, a co-founder of the International Guild of Knot Tyers, and a prolific author of knotting books. His home, which he shares with his wife, Liz, is a shrine to knots. In a sun-flooded library on the ground floor, there are pieces of rope and fish netting dangling from timber beams, dozens of nautical paintings and artifacts, and rows of old bottles of Stockholm tar, also known as pine tar, a substance used to weatherproof rope. The bookshelves that line all four walls are packed with what may be the world’s largest private collection of knot literature. There are 19th-century knot treatises and multiple copies of the knotter’s bible, “The Ashley Book of Knots” (1944), a monumental work of history, reference and how-to, written and illustrated by the American Clifford W. Ashley. There are also copies of books written by Pawson himself, which include basic knotting handbooks as well as more specialized monographs: “Sailors’ Rope Mats From Yarn, Strands and Sennit,” “Some Notes on the Rogue’s Yarn,” ” ‘Tom Bowling’ and the Book of Knots: A Bibliography and Commentary, Together With a Solution to the Mystery.”

Who knew there was an organization for knot tyers?

nside Pawson's Museum of Knots and Sailors' Ropework in Suffolk, England

nside Pawson’s Museum of Knots and Sailors’ Ropework in Suffolk, England

Pawson also has a museum which has limited public access, but is described in loving detail in the article.  Among the treasures in his collection is

…an improbably chunky piece of age-blackened rope, more than two feet in circumference, as thick and gnarled as a tree trunk. It is a part of the anchor cable from the H.M.S. Victory, the ship that Lord Nelson commanded, and died aboard, in the Battle of Trafalagar.

There are other knots that aren’t necessarily physical ones.  Like marriage – tying the knot.

Of course, you don’t need to be a satellite engineer or an artisan to be a knotter: We all tie knots. If you pause for a moment the next time you’re lacing up your boots, you might glimpse what Pawson and other devotees see in knot-tying: an exercise in physics and in metaphysics, a homely everyday activity that can also be a science experiment, a work of art and something along the lines of a spiritual practice. In “The Ashley Book of Knots,” Clifford Ashley wrote: “[The] simple act of tying a knot is an adventure in unlimited space … an excursion that is limited only by the scope of our own imagery and the length of the rope maker’s coil.” To which one might also add: Knots are damn useful. “Where would we be,” Pawson says, “without a knot in the pajama cord?”

So now I’m going to be super aware of knots when I tie my shoes or the belt to my bathrobe.  I may even try to take up knitting again.

Photograph:  Tobias Harvey

Baseball and Derek Jeter

Derek Jeter will play his final major league games this weekend against the Red Sox.  A while back there were some rumors that if the Yankees were out of the wild card race, which they are, he would skip Boston.  But they were just rumors.    The classy man he is will be in Boston to play out the season, but he won’t play short.

And what a way to end his career in New York last night.  A walk-off hit.  David Waldstein wrote the New York Times story.

He almost started crying as he drove himself to Yankee Stadium in the afternoon. He had to turn away from his teammates before the game when they presented him with gifts, so overcome was he by the emotion. In the first inning, he said, he barely knew what was happening, and later, in the top of the ninth, his eyes welled with tears to the point that he worried that he might break down in front of the crowd of 48,613.

But when the time came for Derek Jeter to get a game-winning hit, to add another signature moment to a long list of achievements over his 20-year career, he knew exactly what to do, and seemingly no one doubted that he would.

With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Jeter stroked the winning hit and ended his Yankee Stadium career the way he had ended so many games — with both arms raised in celebration. The 6-5 win over the Baltimore Orioles was his 1,627th regular-season victory as a Yankee.

Jeter celebrates

Jeter celebrates

Will he be the first unanimous pick for the Hall of Fame 5 years from now?  The speculation, which has already begun, will just build over the next few years.

After the game, Jeter was greeted on the field by his former teammates Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams, as well as his longtime manager Joe Torre, and he hugged them all.

When the congratulations were over, and with the Orioles standing in their dugout watching, Jeter walked out to shortstop for a solitary moment of reflection.

“I wanted to take one last view from short,” he said.

When the team goes to Boston for its season-ending series, he said, he will play in one or two games, but only as the designated hitter.

“I’ve played shortstop my entire career,” he said, “and the last time I wanted to play was tonight.”

It is the end of a career played with only one team, without scandal, without a hint of drug use.  I hope this isn’t also the end of that type of ball player.  Pedroia, are you listening? 

Photograph: ELSA/GETTY IMAGES