Still focussing on little things

An Australian prime minister got into much trouble for quoting (many, many years ago) that “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.” We’re so busy focussing on the big picture and the life-threatening health issues that sometimes the small pass us by. I’m a constant reminder to others that the small is also important. And that life is not always easy and it’s seldom simple or straightforward.

I turned sixty on 25 April, and had a good (but small and quiet) birthday. I wanted to do All the Things, but pandemic is pandemic. It’s just as well I wasn’t impossibly ambitious because I had a bit of an infection in a joint on my right hand. It became quite severe very quickly and I’m still on antibiotics for it. Today is the first day I’ve been able to type anything that long since then. Everything hurt, including sleep.

That’s my reminder. Turning sixty is no big deal. Ignoring a sore finger can become one, if one doesn’t take care.

I needed the reminder, because around me all kinds of people have moved back into normal life… and I can’t do anything like that until I’m vaccinated. I receive my first shot on 21 May.

I’ll be very busy the next few days, for I have until Friday to catch up on everything delayed due to the hand-that-would-not work. I can’t put any of it off, for the edits of a novel are about to come through. The novel was delayed by pandemic ramifications (it affects our lives in so many ways) and I’m really looking forward to seeing what a US editor makes of my Australian voice. So I’m going from bad to wonderful, via a busy path.

Today was an in-between day. I was well enough to do an hour’s work and three hours of meetings. The rest of the time I complained at people, obtained more medication, and told everyone “May the Fourth Be With You.” I watched a bit of Star Wars, for it seemed the right thing to do.

I started writing this after midnight. This post, then is my first step towards much writing of various kinds.  In fact, you are the first readers of anything more than two painful sentences in nine days.

I’ll report back in a fortnight and let you know how everything went. In the meantime, don’t do what I did! If something hurts and you have no idea why, take it to the doctor as quickly as possible.

Because of the pandemic, I planned to celebrate my birthday for as long as it takes. I’ll start again when I stop hurting. Soon. Very soon.

Our prime minister complained for the rest of his life that we’d all missed the critical second part of his quote. Malcolm Fraser had paraphrased George Bernard Shaw and was trying to tell us all that life could, nevertheless, be delightful. Like my birthday. Like seeing friends through Zoom. Fraser made a tactical error in assuming that the press cared about communicating the second half of his quote but right now… his idea wasn’t far removed from my everyday.

Get Your Vaccine!

My reaction to the pandemic was intensely personal. I saw no reason to believe that I couldn’t get the virus and no reason to believe that if I did get it I would survive.

Not only was I frightened, I was furious at the incompetent and maliciously dangerous handling of this crisis. People like the criminal who occupied our White House for four years were actively trying to kill me and a lot of others.

Some of them even said so, like Dan Patrick, the “lite gov” (lite in all senses of the word) of Texas, who said people over 70 should die for the good of the economy, by which he meant Wall Street.

Getting the vaccine made my personal fear go away. I no longer worry that I’m going to end up dying alone in an ICU every time someone gets too close. I could feel the difference in my gut from the first shot.

But it did nothing about my fury. So many people dead for no reason. People still dying even as the vaccine is becoming widely available because those in authority insist on opening things that should stay closed or performing hygiene theater instead of dealing with issues like indoor ventilation.

I was never just angry on my own behalf. I was frightened on my own behalf, but I was angry on everybody’s. We could have done so much better.

Bad leadership was an obvious problem, but there’s a deeper one. We seem to have lost any concept of taking care of ourselves as a public. Continue reading “Get Your Vaccine!”

Down a Pint

I don’t remember why I first donated blood–it may have been part of a blood drive when I was working at Harvard (doesn’t that sound glamorous? It wasn’t–I was part of the clerical staff at an institution that eats clerical staff on toast points with sherry before dinner). I do remember that the drive was held in Memorial Hall, and it was drafty and cold. The technology–this was the 1970s–was all rubber tubing and rather punitive looking needles. Afterward they gave us canned orange juice (remember canned orange juice? It is a unique flavor not to be confused with actual orange juice) and cheese crackers, and stickers that allowed all of us public spirited folks to recognize each other on campus–at least until the end of the day, when the adhesive failed and the stickers fell off.

Even at the time I felt like this was a remarkably simple way to go about helping my fellow humans. So in Boston, and in New York, and in San Francisco, I have been a blood donor. After 9/11 I went down to give blood only to be turned away–for the first time in ever, they had more donors than recipients (for much the same reason that hospitals that expected a massive influx of patients didn’t get one, because in so many cases victims simply didn’t make it out to be treated). When we moved to San Francisco I didn’t know where to sign up–until a bloodmobile set up shop in my neighborhood. I would have donated right then, but my daughter–who raises needle-abhorrence to an art form–was with me, and threatened to swoon at the thought.

Eventually I got hooked up with Blood Centers of the Pacific, and became a regular donor. About five years after we moved out here I was asked if I’d be willing to donate plasma rather than whole blood. With a spirit of adventure I said sure, and was introduced to a whole new level of technology. Apheresis–the process whereby blood is extracted and blood products–platelets and plasma–are spun out before the blood is returned to you–is… well, I think it’s cool. But then, I love the fact that there is an industry devoted to everything from making little one-use stabby tools that allow the techs to draw one drop of blood for testing beforehand, to one-use cleaning swabs to ensure that your elbow is squeaky clean before it is punctured, to the machines that permit the blood products to be extracted, is really really cool. Apheresis takes between 1-2 hours, during which time I was wrapped in warm blankets, fussed over, and given movies to watch. Sort of like a spa day with less fussing about my toenails and more cooing over what a Virtuous Person was was.

Sadly, after about five years they discovered that women who have been pregnant tend to have a factor in their blood which, in plasma or platelets, some recipients react to very badly. No one wants that. So it was back to regular blood donation.

It used to be that my blood pressure was low enough that I’d run up and down the block before I came in, because too-low blood pressure would disqualify me. Or sometimes I didn’t have a sufficient hemoglobin count. I always felt a little ashamed on days when I couldn’t donate, but lately all systems have been go. And even during COVID, the blood center is somewhere where I’m reasonably certain they are taking All the Precautions–and then some.

The snacks are never very good–except for Oreos, which are a constant in a wicked world–and the juice is dispensed by a machine. Mostly I have water or tea (the coffee does not bear mentioning). But everyone at the blood center, from the woman at the front desk who checks you in, to the Historian who runs you through the intake procedures, to the phlebotomy tech who does the needle stick and sets everything up to draw the blood in a businesslike manner–appears to like their jobs and feel good about what they’re doing, and so do the visitors.

So I’m down a pint today. And in eight weeks I’ll go back again, because honest to God, it is quick, close to painless, and such a great way to be part of the community in which you live.

Even in a Little Thing: On Turning Sixty

We were talking in the Treehouse. The things we were talking about were important, and they got me thinking about a bunch of decisions I’ve made incrementally over the last two months and why I made them.

First, let’s start with next Sunday. I turn 60. I have some physical mobility, but not a vast amount, so I had planned to go overseas and celebrate my birthday with 60 events. I wanted to see friends, attend science fiction conventions, eat new food, visit museums, take pictures of interesting places and a whole lot more. Sixty fascinating events, all of the kind that I would treasure forever. Part of it was going to Italy for Eurocon, which would have given me about thirty events, for I’ve never been to Italy and I have a long list of places I want to see and things I want to do there. I was brushing up my Italian for it, for I can read the language but can’t speak it.

Then the pandemic happened. The pandemic is still happening. No big parties. No travel. This led to my decisions.

What were they?

First, I’m still going to have sixty joyous moments. Three of them are planned for this weekend, for my actual birthday. If I’m lucky, I’ll get more.

For the other events, I’m not putting a ‘finish’ date on it. I won’t get them within three months. They may take three years.

I’m about to hunt for the prettiest notebook I possess (I collect notebooks for my fiction and use the right one for the right project, so I have some choices) and when I find it, I will take my calligraphy pens and create a pretty front page. After that, every time I have a wonderful time, I will write it up, and that notebook will be a record of my birthday.

Why am I doing this? Why am I not just saying, “I’ll have a nice weekend, and that’ll do?”

Too many big things have been made small and a bit dark by the pandemic. I’ve won awards, for instance, and been unable to go to the ceremonies and have yet to see the actual trophies. The pandemic has caused so many friends to miss so much, that I see, every day, how people are dealing with the slight tarnishing of the everyday that creates our pandemic year. We have more sorrow (I’ve lost so many people I care about) and more stress and… this is where I introduce you to one of my favourite poems. It begins, “Even in a Little Thing” and you can find it here: https://starrigging.blogspot.com/2015/11/return-to-islands-by-arthur-grimble.html

My events are a reminder to me that this is a difficult decade, but that, since I find much of my joy in small things, I can still be happy. I need the reminder. I need sixty reminders. I need them because I was losing sight of the joy of jumping in autumn leaves or of drinking hot chocolate. Sixty larger occasions representing one big life change will push my mind back to where it has found joy in darkness at other times. I will return to myself.

This is the best gift I can give myself this year.

The best gift I can give you at this moment is to include you in my celebration. If you’re reading this (whether or not you know me) and you send me an email address, I will send you one of my stories and maybe a little cookbook I made for this same purpose when life took a turn in the 1990s. If you’re in Australia, I will send the story (without the cookbook) by snail mail if you send me a street address. In with the story there may be a couple of trinkets. I’m happy to send stories (and cookbooks and trinkets!) to sixty people, so feel free to share this with someone who would smile at this little thing.

You can send me contact details through the form on my website or through DMs on Twitter or Facebook.

Tea and Silence

The past year has brought many changes to our lives. Almost everyone I know has let go of something that was no longer valid in their life. So have I, and I expect this will continue. We will emerge from the isolation we’ve endured (some of us more comfortably than others – I’ll get to that in a minute), but we will not go back to the way life was before. Instead, we will go forward.

For me, sheltering at home did not make a huge difference. As a writer, I already worked at home. I’m an introvert, so I don’t mind isolation. The biggest difference was that my spouse began to work at home also, and this has now become permanent for everyone at his company who used to commute to an office building. That office, we recently learned, will not reopen. My spouse will continue to work in his home office across the hall from mine. The change, for me, meant loss of alone time. As an introvert, I treasure alone time.

That’s why I’m grateful for my daily practice of tea and silence. Each morning, I feed the cat, then make myself a pot of tea and sit in the sun room with it. The first cup I drink while gazing out the windows at the morning sky, the trees, the birds, and the clouds. This connection with the natural world around me is so important to me – it sets the tone for my day. It reminds me of the world of which I am a part.

The cat comes and sits in my lap. I write in my journal, I usually color a bit (I decorate my journal with art), and I often write a note to a friend. Most days I spend about an hour with tea and silence, though it could be as little as fifteen minutes. I always conclude my writing with a statement of gratitude, and I spend a few minutes in meditation.

This is a practice I will not be giving up. It has helped me cope with the loss of alone time, and with the stresses and uncertainty of the pandemic. I recommend it to anyone who wants to start their day with a moment of quiet, rather than immediately jumping into activity.

 

On the Need to Shelter Behind Books

I think the world is waking up. Around me people are talking and doing things and… all I want to do is sleep. It’s autumn here and my ear-worm isn’t some mad song about hyperactivity or achieving goals, it’s a poem by Paul Verlaine. I can hear the autumn violins.

Despite this, I’m busy. I had a wonderful time at an online science fiction convention over the weekend, but the time differences between me and them left me tangling days and dates and times. I’m still tangling them.

I had a deadline today and I met it and I am now looking around and thinking “Can I sleep yet?” Each deadline leads to the next and I’m still working late. Next week may be better. Next year my tax may be finished, all my essays done, and I may simply be doing research.

My research is very cool. I’ve finally reached the stage where I can see what shape it might take. After it takes its full shape, all I have to do is work through each section, methodically and carefully, and at the end of the research the writing will be done and lo, I shall have a book. Also another PhD. That’s why I’m not writing much fiction at the moment. My mind has two concepts for novels arguing bitterly with each other about which one will be written (or maybe written first, I don’t know yet!) but I can’t arbitrate or solve the squabble by scribbling. I have fiction coming out this year and a novel that needs a home, but the rest of the week is devoted to research and taxes. It’s just as well that the research is so very cool, given that the same does not apply to taxes…

Last week my research time was spent wrangling an approach to look at power differentials in a particular type of novel. This week I’m sorting out how everything fits together. Also I’m doing bibliographic work. My tables and chairs were piled high with books to help my brain work.

I do not know why I use piles of books, when most of my bibliographic work is on the computer. Maybe my brain needs three dimensions to think things through. Maybe I just like books. Maybe the books give me fort in which I can hide, when the world becomes frenzied.

Beware Fake Science News!

Barbara McClintock, geneticist

Science news articles abound, everything from the results of carefully designed peer-reviewed research studies to fear-based rumors and anti-science biased conspiracy theories. How are we to discern which are reliable, which are hype based on misinterpretation, flawed studies, and the like, and which are clickbait nonsense?

The first thing I do is look at the source. Mediabiasfactcheck and other sites provide information as to the right-left biases and factual accuracy of a given source, although not of a particular story. Science Based Medicine is also helpful. I’ve been known to search under “Is Dr. So-and-So a quack?” and get useful answers.

I also check my own reactions: Is this too good to be true? Is it at odds with what I understand about science (my academic background is biology and health sciences)? Have I seen an article in a trusted source (such as the newsletter from Center for Science in the Public Interest) debunking this or similar claims? I’ve been also known to check with friends with special expertise in the field.

The Conversation offers some guidelines on assessing the quackery scale of science new stories. Their suggestions:

1. Has the story undergone peer review?

Scientists rely on journal papers to share their scientific results. They let the world see what research has been done, and how.

Once researchers are confident of their results, they write up a manuscript and send it to a journal. Editors forward the submitted manuscripts to at least two external referees who have expertise in the topic. These reviewers can suggest the manuscript be rejected, published as is, or sent back to the scientists for more experiments. That process is called “peer review.”

Research published in peer-reviewed journals has undergone rigorous quality control by experts. Each year, about 2,800 peer-reviewed journals publish roughly 1.8 million scientific papers. The body of scientific knowledge is constantly evolving and updating, but you can trust that the science these journals describe is sound. Retraction policies help correct the record if mistakes are discovered post-publication.

Peer review takes months. To get the word out faster, scientists sometimes post research papers on what’s called a preprint server. These often have “RXiv” – pronounced “archive” – in their name: MedRXiv, BioRXiv and so on. These articles have not been peer-reviewed and so are not validated by other scientists. Preprints provide an opportunity for other scientists to evaluate and use the research as building blocks in their own work sooner.

How long has this work been on the preprint server? If it’s been months and it hasn’t yet been published in the peer-reviewed literature, be very skeptical. Are the scientists who submitted the preprint from a reputable institution? During the COVID-19 crisis, with researchers scrambling to understand a dangerous new virus and rushing to develop lifesaving treatments, preprint servers have been littered with immature and unproven science. Fastidious research standards have been sacrificed for speed.

A last warning: Be on the alert for research published in what are called predatory journals. They don’t peer-review manuscripts, and they charge authors a fee to publish. Papers from any of the thousands of known predatory journals should be treated with strong skepticism.

2. Be aware of your own biases.

Beware of biases in your own thinking that might predispose you to fall for a particular piece of fake science news.

People give their own memories and experiences more credence than they deserve, making it hard to accept new ideas and theories. Psychologists call this quirk the availability bias. It’s a useful built-in shortcut when you need to make quick decisions and don’t have time to critically analyze lots of data, but it messes with your fact-checking skills.

confirmation bias can be at work as well. People tend to give credence to news that fits their existing beliefs. This tendency helps climate change denialists and anti-vaccine advocates believe in their causes in spite of the scientific consensus against them.

 3. Correlation is not causation! Continue reading “Beware Fake Science News!”

Women’s History Month

I’m a bit late with my post this week because I’ve been finishing up things. One of the things I was finishing up was a month’s worth of wonderful guests on my personal blog.

I was one of the group of women who set up a Women’s History Month in Australia. I moved on and others took over. Those years were special to me and most years I do a celebration all March of women’s history. I ask writers and historians to be my guests, set a theme and sometimes they stick to the theme and sometimes they don’t and every year brings much joy. This year was no exception.

This year it struck me that we were all making quite big history, even those of us confined to our homes and unable to explore the greater world. The small things in life are the history. That’s what I asked of my writer-friends – the small things in their lives. I wanted us all to have some insight into how all our lives are valuable in this pandemic time. My only regret is that I had to limit the number of writers I asked, due to my own physical restrictions. In my perfect celebration of women’s history, I would have been able to include triple the number of posts and to explore more writers’ understanding of what makes the small things in life special. Sometimes it’s research they’ve done, sometimes it’s someone’s everyday – I let writers make their own choices (as I often do) and the outcome is posts so varied and interesting that there should be something for every reader. You can find the posts here: https://gillianpolack.com/blog/

I wish we lived in less interesting times. At least, because we live now, we can understand how our apparently ordinary lives are part of something very big. In fact, they’re part of many very big things. We’re not alone and we’re not unimportant.

Pandemic Urban Renewal

Cities are palimpsests. Growing up in New York, I saw constant evidence of this: tear down a building and there would be a painted advertisement from the early 1900s, or the brick outline of an earlier neighboring building. Restaurants that were a feature of my childhood streets are barely a memory now: gone. In New York the only constant, really, was change.

I don’t know any city as well as I know my home town, but I’ve gotten pretty settled in San Francisco, after nearly 20 years here. So a few years ago I started potching around with an idea for a fantasy novel set in San Francisco, which gave me an excuse to go places I hadn’t gone, or revisit places I’d been before, and start weaving them into the book.

And then came the pandemic.

Continue reading “Pandemic Urban Renewal”

Another Rant on Vaccination

Back in April, 2019, I posted a personal rant, Why I Am Adamant About Vaccination. This was way before Covid-19 and the more than half million American deaths. The issue was childhood vaccination against measles, mumps, rubella, and the like. I shared a deeply personal story:

During my first pregnancy, an antibody titer that revealed I’d had rubella as a child. A series of conversations with my mother and sister put together the pieces of my own family tragedy due to contagious disease. In most cases, rubella is a mild infection, except when a woman is pregnant. Contracted in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, babies have an 85% chance of Congenital Rubella Syndrome, including deafness, cataracts, heart defects, neurological issues, and other significant problems. The risk goes down as pregnancy progresses.

This is what happened to my baby sister.

My mother had been mildly ill, and I had been, as well. My sister Madeleine was born blind and with heart defects. She lived only 6 months.

At the time (1950) there was no vaccine, but there is now. Today this loss would have been completely preventable by vaccination, not just for the mother but for all the people around her. This is a public health issue that involves us all.

So when I hear the anti-scientific justifications for refusing to vaccinate children, I think of the baby that could have lived and the grief that haunted my mother the rest of her life. I don’t care about personal choice or fears of governmental conspiracies. None of them count in my mind against the lives of my baby sister, and everyone’s sisters and brothers.

I honestly do not care what their reasons are. This is not a “tomaytoe, tomahtoe” discussion where understanding through respectful dialog is the goal. This is about whether we as human beings are capable of acting for our common good (which in this case includes protecting our most vulnerable from preventable severe disability and death itself), at the cost of a much smaller risk and a little inconvenience. Do not ever try to convince me that this area of public health is an infringement on civil liberties, or is a plot on the part of Big Pharma. My sister’s life was more precious than your conspiracy theories.

 

Fast forward to 2020. People are dying or suffering chronic, debilitating effects from Covid-19. Not a handful here and there but by the tens and hundreds of thousands. As much as 80% of all Covid-19 patients experience some degree of long-term symptoms. All we had to stem this dreadful pandemic were tried-and-true public health measures: wearing masks, social distancing, isolating the sick, hand-washing and disinfection. And the same anti-science nonsense is going on. People are refusing to wear masks. They’re gathering indoors, although every public health agency and responsible news outlet is telling them this is the way the virus spreads. Even as cases and deaths surge and surge again, they reject both logic and science.

It’s 2021 now and we have several effective vaccines. None of them is perfect in terms of absolute prevention of Covid-19, but all of them have proven remarkable in 100% protection against severe disease, hospitalization, and death. Even so, lies abound. Vaccine refusal, especially when coupled with rejection of public hygiene measures, threatens us all. Continue reading “Another Rant on Vaccination”