Thursday, April 2, 2020

Utilitarian Response

            With the shortage of hospital beds, respirators and other vital medical supplies, health providers are being forced to make difficult decisions about who is to receive these life-saving services and who is not. Who is to live, and who is to die? I thought the decision-makers might be enlightened by my discussion of the matter.

            It has been suggested that we might have to go to a utilitarian criterion: Treat the person who is most likely to create the greatest happiness, or greatest benefit (there is some disagreement here among phiiosophers), for the greatest number of people?

            There are, of course, some ethical problems. Do you give priority to a rich guy who promises to donate money to build a hospital if you treat him first? That would certainly provide the greatest benefit for a lot of people – unless you have a big subtraction for how pissed off people are at the privileged guy who cut in line. Or, using similar logic, do you give priority to health care workers because they are also in short supply and are more essential than hospital beds and other supplies? This is not as easy to reject as the wealthy donator, except it may be these same health care workers who are making decisions to treat themselves.

            And teachers, of course, need to be treated first, for obvious reasons. I’m still trying to come up with a rationale for treating retired English teachers.

            But some questions remain. Here are some hypotheticals:

·      In order to increase the average level of human happiness on the planet, per capita, do you deny treatment to unhappy people?

·      Do you give priority to sick people with large families because saving them would make more family members happy? But of course, in some families the math does not work that way . . ..

·      Do you deny treatment to politicians who, if elected, in your judgment would create widespread unhappiness and would not benefit people?

·      Choose one seriously ill teenager to treat:
o   poor, a high-school dropout, no job
o   wealthy, accepted at Harvard, plans on pre-med
o   very bright but arrogant and selfish

            Perhaps it’s best to sidestep the utilitarian quicksand and go straight to triage, a method of deciding that goes back to the ancient Egyptians but is best known from its application in World War I. Triage, according to Wikipedia, divides the sick and wounded into three categories:

·       Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
·       Those who are unlikely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
·       Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.
Easy, right, given enough medical knowledge? Forget trying to create the greatest benefit or the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Forget privilege.
            But how about this: You have two sick patients and one respirator. The one who gets the respirator has an 80% chance of surviving. The one who does not get it has a 20% chance. But if you come up with a way to have the two of them share a single respirator, each has a 50% chance. Who gets it? Does your decision change if the shared respirator gives each a 40% chance of survival?
            You may feel that this essay is flippant and in bad taste, given this very real suffering caused by our pandemic. Believe me, I am writing from the heart. Decisions similar to the ones I present are being made daily, and what are the chances that a person in her 70s with stage 4 cancer would make the cut?
            When Kim read this, she said that she would give up her respirator to a young person, “but it wouldn’t be easy.”

Thursday, March 26, 2020


            I used to think that a bad virus was something that could happen to my computer. Those were the good old days.

            Our commitment to social distancing is not terribly big inconvenience, as we don’t have many neighbors here until May. But because of Kim’s compromised immune system, a consequence of her cancer meds, we are taking it very seriously. I will make “emergency” trips to buy groceries, most likely to our small local Eastport Market where it is easy to keep 6 feet from shoppers. We went to Traverse City for Kim’s monthly cancer treatment, but we’ve cancelled all appointments for the next six weeks – haircuts, doctors, a CT-Scan. We can stay home.

            People need their routines. Especially me. So – what do we do at home? More importantly (for me, not for Kim), what routines can I use to structure my life? I can begin my day with a structure similar to my pre-virus structure: Leftover coffee while I check email, news headlines and weather. Make the bed, feed the birds. Second cup of coffee on the porch to watch the grateful chickadees and blue jays. Dry the breakfast dishes that Kim washed. Shower. Teeth maintenance.

            And I can end my day with a familiar routine: dry the dinner dishes (sometimes wash them if Kim is tired), watch local weather on television and then the national news, and after a bit more computer time (as when I am writing this, now), watch a movie, often punctuated with the cherry juice / cocktail decision. Bed.

            Missing from my new daily routine is the daily trip to the post office, now reduced to once or twice per week. I still have some chores scattered through the day and week – vacuuming, dealing with garbage and recycling, yard work (Is that all? Really?) but that’s not structured time. We used to venture out to eat about once a week, and about once a week we drove to Traverse City for numerous errands, including, as often as we could, lunch with Fleda and Jerry, but that’s out.

            I find myself floating from one thing to another. I read. I provide some tech support for our ongoing phone and computer “updates.” (I recently updated the firmware on my router, not really sure what firmware is or what a router does.) I spend an embarrassing amount of time trying to come up with Netflix and Amazon stuff to watch. I check on the pandemic. I count my money. Kim is great about checking in on family and friends on the phone, but I don’t do good phone, preferring the safe sterility of email and this blog. For a while shoveling snow was part of my daily routine, but that only lasts about 6 months up here, and I am looking forward to yard work. Last week I raked our beach – it was about 40 degrees but sunny, and it seemed like a constructive thing to do. I climbed a ladder to dust the blades of our ceiling fan. I reorganized my library. Kim is looking for a hobby I might start.

            Kim has been more constructive, printing and preparing photographs for two galleries that want to show her work – provided galleries will be open this summer. She is currently making hummingbird nests. She does not experience the sense of drift. No, she has too many things going, including taking good care of her husband by structuring his life, their life, around three creative meals a day. She is more driven than drifting. She can live a full life at home.

            Things have changed, globally. It’s an opportunity to engineer the change, at least on an individual level, so it’s not simply something that happens to you. Phone somebody. Write a letter. Send money, if you have it, where it will do some good. Overtip. Greet strangers when you see them. When you speak with someone providing phone support (like my son), or answering the phone at the doctor’s office, insurance office or hairdresser, remember that they are human beings experiencing as much stress as you are, maybe more since they have to deal with people like you, so acknowledge them. Be creative in your good-heartedness. Acts of kindness can be contagious.

            We live in a thinly populated part of the state, so our experience with the pandemic is largely filtered through television and the internet. We have yet to have a confirmed case of the virus in our county, and we don’t know anyone who has tested positive. Yet despite this insulation, we are living in the shadow of death. Of course, as readers of this blog know, Kim and I have been living – and living well, thank you! – in that shadow since Kim’s diagnosis and multiple cancer surgeries and ongoing treatments. Living in the shadow is called “living.”

            I’ll stop writing now to wash my hands – one of my new routines.

Thursday, March 19, 2020


            I recently discovered that I am elderly. In fact, most of the people I know are elderly, but I don’t care so much about them. It’s all over the news that we elderly are especially at risk from the corona virus, and that’s upsetting – almost as upsetting as realizing that I am elderly. Being an “elder” sounds OK, because that suggests wisdom and, in some tribes, leadership grounded in that wisdom (not exactly the case nationally, but I digress . . .). But “elderly”?

            So it goes. (The elderly among you may catch the literary reference.)

            With that in mind, Kim has unearthed some word games to help us elderly shut-ins pass the time. Or, if you are looking after grandchildren while their parents work, you can try to unplug them for a while with these. Kim’s Aunt Vivian either created or collected them, and Kim found them in an old file.

            Here’s one called Hink Pinks:

Fill in the blanks with words that rhyme and mean the same as the clue.

1.     obese rodent                                       FAT______     RAT______
2.     wet hobo                                             __________   __________
3.     odd set of whiskers                            __________   __________     
4.     intoxicated clergy                               __________   __________
5.     befuddled canine                                __________   __________
6.     cool soup of Spanish origin                __________   __________
7.     license to live alone and like it           _________   __________
8.     tame dinosaur                                     __________   __________
9.     cleans eyeglasses                               __________   __________
10.  unmarried Santa Claus                       __________   __________
11.  faulty private eye                                __________   __________
12.  this one tried to cross the road.          _________   __________
13.  butter on a small napkin                     __________   __________
14.  twelve men who have to be shown   __________   __________
15.  Christmas gem                                    __________   __________
16.  terrible pancake with tread                __________   __________
17.  silly hen                                               __________   __________
18.  young girl cow whose hearing is worse _________   __________
19.  careful buyer                                       __________   __________
20.  soothing, kind laundryman                 __________   __________
21.  murderous tunes                                __________   __________
22.  all white wild beast                             __________   __________
23.  wet canine                                          __________   __________
24.  ad-men-with-ulcers-gathering           __________   __________
25.  hilarious rabbit                                   __________   __________

I have about 60 more of these, if you are interested. And no, Kim and I could not figure them all out. Let me know if you want more or if you are stuck on some -

NOTE: If you do these with grandkids, you may have to explain what a “rhyme” is. And if they do it with paper and pencil, you may have to explain what a “pencil” is. We elders know these things.

Thursday, March 12, 2020


          As an unrepentant Word Person, I find it fascinating when something happens and I can never see a word the same way.

                           The Giraffe

The 2 f’s
in giraffe
are like
2 giraffes
running through
the word giraffe   

The 2 f’s
run through giraffe
like 2 giraffes

            --Ron Padgett



I vaguely remember reading an article, maybe in Harvard’s alumni magazine, about words that have two meanings that are opposite. The only example that I recall, out of the 20 or so listed, is “cleave,” which means “to adhere firmly and closely” and “to divide by or as if by a cutting blow.” I think the article had a name for the class of words with opposite meanings, but I don’t remember it. 

So I used google to fill in the lacuna. These words are called “contranyms,” and other examples include “dust,” “overlook” (I don’t agree – oversee is different), “screen,” and “sanction,” among others. Can you think of more?

Having done what passes for research these days, I still hold onto “cleave” as a special word for me. It has the two meanings, but, more than that, I enjoy the way it reminds me of how playful is our English language. “Cleave” also reminds me of how playful my memory is – really, I could only remember one word out of a list of twenty? Cleave? Why that word? Why did I cleave the others?


At a poetry reading, before saying the poem below, I improvised an exploration of the word “just” in a way that just occurred to me.

           Just So

     you turn to not quite see
     just after the splash
     breaks the quiet river

     greensilver circles grow
     just where a fish
     might have been

     the purple loose-
     strife bend just
     over the sheen

     here in the late morning 
     their tips just dried
     as the bees nudge in

     the sun warms your
     back the breeze cools
     your face just so

My little intro went something like this: “Just” relates to justice, of course, in the sense of a rightness, in both a legal and moral sense. But doesn’t it also suggest a falling short? “We are just friends” suggests that the relationship falls short of lovers, right? And “just” also suggests a kind of precision, perhaps with implications of rightness, even for something modest and slight – “just so.” It also suggests something fleeting and temporary has been witnessed, “just now.” Ever since my process of discovery as I explored the word, I don’t see the word “just” without thinking of my calm moment beside the Huron River.

            So these are three loaded words for me, giraffe, cleave, and just. Now, says the teacher, use them in a sentence.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

I Stay Home

I Stay Home

is the title of a poem
by my colleague, friend and neighbor
Andrew Carrigan, recently
deceased (pancreatic cancer)

and I wanted to present that poem
here, and then write my own version
with the same title, but
I can’t find his poem,
even in the half-dozen of his books
or the unpublished manuscript
of his Complete Poems,

so instead I’ll have to venture
uninspired by his poem but only
by my memory of his spirit, his laugh
and his slanted joyful view of the world,

though come to think of it, I don’t
really stay home (I wish I knew
what Andy meant when he said it,
if he said it, memory being slippery)
though my radius has shrunk to
about 30 miles, with plans for 200,
but my reading, my memory/imagination,
Netflix and Kim’s 30,000+ photos
mean that I travel frequently
even while I Stay Home, with Kim
and now, here, with Andy.

The poem below I wrote about Andy about 30 years ago. It does, in fact, recount a dream. You may pick up a note of envy.

            Dreaming of Carrigan

You are a prisoner in a hotel in a
foreign country near the border
and we help you escape from the guards but
you are trapped on the fourth floor and so you
choose to leave by a window, crawl along
a thin ledge around a corner and
apparently jump, for from the beach below
you call up that flying is great
we should try it.

You escape but cannot leave it at that.
From your hideout in the sand dunes below
your shaggy earnest grinning head appears
to call poems up to us, new ones that you’ve
just written this morning, and we tell you
to duck, they are looking for you, but you
smile and linger enough to show us how
and then disappear to write us more for later.

You swim around the border to a city and
are being chased by police though the night streets
with a girl held in one hand, more poems in
the other as you turn the chase into
a romp though they are gaining on your
casual pace, broken by stops to show strollers
your poems and await their interested response.

You do not take the drama of the chase
as seriously as we want you to, or perhaps
you do, for when they catch you and
you are handcuffed, smiling, the girl gone, in the
back seat of the squad car, from your pockets or
from your hand itself spring new poems
which you keep showing the dutiful police
who read them as they guard you and drive
and admire them and discuss them with you
a genuine poet as they take you away.