Season’s Greetings to all people of goodwill

Season’s Greetings to All!

I’d like to offer a Merry Christmas to everyone celebrating today, but also Warm Winter Wishes to the rest.Mom's idea of a restrained Xmas with dozens of gifts piled high under tall tree

I believe we all win when we give others the benefit of the doubt: if I tell you Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, I don’t intend to denigrate your savior. Instead, I hope you recognize that my own beliefs differ, but you have my respect for your Joyeux Noël.

My favorite Christmas lyric is “peace to men of goodwill!” May this message find every reader safe, secure, feeling cozy and full of joy.

A December 23rd article in the New York Times informed me that for many—especially women, people aged 18-44, and independents or Republican voters with modest incomes—2021 might be the source of even more stress over the holidays than 2020.

So many are exhausted and demoralized.

I immediately sent a text to my sister-in-law upon reading that story. I thanked her for all that she does, especially when I’m on the other side of the country, and told her how grateful I am that she married into our family. What a delight to enjoy—and like!—one’s relatives.

It’s easy to overlook kindness when life feels hectic. Extending a hand to someone else is a surprisingly effective way to find one’s own balance.

Let someone know they are appreciated today, and perhaps you can ease some of that holiday stress afflicting a loved one or yourself. If your home is beautifully decorated or you’re dining in relative splendor, make sure whoever provided such bounty to you knows it matters.

And offer to do the tidying up if someone else arranges most of your holiday cheer! A shout out to my kids who washed all the dishes after our festive dinner last night.

For all that I am firmly aware of the rising caseload of the Omicrom variant, and the lingering specter of inflation punishing our pocketbooks, December of 2021 offers good news that I feel compelled to acknowledge. Let’s look at those sunny spots on the horizon.

Without being totally divorced from reality, it is definitive that we are seeing some of the highest daily COVID-19 case rates of the entire pandemic. I agree that this sucks! Omicrom is a rip-roarin’ beast of infection; it’s many times more infectious than Delta, which superseded those original strains of SARS-CoV-2 from early 2020.

In spite of that ugly, hospital-cramming fact, the amazing step forward of mRNA vaccinations means that the novel coronavirus is now, finally, actually only approaching the flu in terms of order of magnitude of lethality.

According to David Leonhardt’s Dec. 23rd article in the New York Times, here’s some hard data on the current degree of risk from COVID-19:

The risks here for older people are frightening: A rate of 0.45 percent, for instance, translates into roughly a 1 in 220 chance of death for a vaccinated 75-year-old woman who contracts Covid.

You’ll want to view the article to see its excellent graphs to get the fullest picture.
That is frightening, but what about when we consider other common ailments? From the same article:

One reassuring comparison is to a normal seasonal flu. The average death rate among Americans over age 65 who contract the flu has ranged between 1 in 75 and 1 in 160 in recent years, according to the C.D.C.

Until I read this story, I wasn’t aware that COVID-19 has become, for a vaccinated senior citizen, less deadly than an average flu. What a powerfully reassuring data point! I find this a reason for great hope.

bandage on upper arm

Before I go on, allow me to make obvious this other point: the unvaccinated are not nearly so safe. COVID-19 is much deadlier for the unvaccinated than flu is.

The last flu outbreak to kill millions, plural, was the “Asian flu” of the mid-1950’s, with a total death count estimated around 2 million souls worldwide.

An otherwise similar unvaccinated elderly woman is 13 times more likely to die of COVID than the vaccinated hypothetical person above. There remains a much, much higher probability of death for that unvaccinated 75 year old woman than she would face in a typical flu season.

COVID-19 leaped onto the charts as the third leading cause of death for Americans in 2020, and the elderly bear the brunt of this burden. We lost 1.8 years of life expectancy last year; that’s the worst decline in over 70 years, since WWII saw so many killed between 1942-43.

It is wonderful that we’re moving toward taming the novel coronavirus from killer of millions to “only” fatal to hundreds of thousands. While not enough, that is good, and it should be appreciated…when it actually happens.

As of November 22, we’d lost more Americans in 2021 than we did in 2020. No one should ever forget that.

Yet savor the positive news as much as you dwell on the negative and your life will be better. If you are fortunate enough to have been vaccinated, your personal risk now pales compared to those who’ve mostly been tricked out of taking a life-saving inoculation

happy face smile
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In addition to the lifesaving wonder of vaccines that measurably reduce deaths amongst our most vulnerable population, we’ve also seen two new drugs approved as treatment options for COVID-19 in the USA this week. Where the latest variant has rendered ineffective some of our most effective earlier therapies, these new treatments arrive just in time.

They could also save us a lot of money.

To have new treatments people can self-administer at home—thus sparing exhausted, overburdened hospital staff while our total case numbers reach record heights—is another blessing. It’s hard for me to quantify how much I would prefer to pick up a prescription from my local pharmacy for a few days’ worth of pills if I had COVID over making repeated visits to a hospital or clinic.

The antiviral COVID pills from Pfizer and Merck will initially cost the federal government around $700 per dose. This represents an enormous savings spread over millions of doses vs. pricier monoclonal antibody treatments all of which cost $1200 or more at the heavily discounted government bulk purchase rate.Pile of money
Patients will also be spared unpredictable fees for visiting those staffed locations necessary to administer IV therapies. In an era of high inflation—and personally facing a mandatory switch to a new health insurance plan from a different provider starting January 1st—I find this a great relief.

I’ve never had a confusing or even shocking bill after visiting a pharmacy, unlike every time I’ve been a patient at a hospital. Reflecting on the fact that I’m so incredibly privileged that I’ve never had a gap* in my insurance coverage, it seems likely that others fear surprise bills far more than I do.

The pandemic isn’t over. Thoughtful individuals should still be wearing masks and making efforts to improve ventilation while meeting with those outside their households. That said, we understand more than ever about how COVID-19 spreads. Many of us are vaccinated, thus protected against the worst outcomes of the disease. Available treatments have expanded from desperate guesses to multiple effective therapeutics.

This ugly, lonely, uncomfortable period in history will end, though those of us who’ve lived through it may well spend the rest of our lives processing the experience. For example, many of us grew up with grandparents whose behavior was permanently affected by surviving the Great Depression.

Right now, on Christmas Day, 2021, I encourage you to look for the positive anywhere you can. Experiencing terrible events isn’t the only predictor of future suffering; so is how one responds to those challenges, and what one makes with the memories.

Things could be better, but, of course, they could also be worse. Having made it to my father’s house and remained in good health in spite of the journey, I find so much to celebrate this year.

May all these little celebrations be less fraught in 2022.

Wishing every reader good health, good cheer, and a large measure of optimism for the year ahead!

It was a painfully frustrating message replete with disinformation from an old friend the other day that prompted me to research and think about these comparisons. For the vaccinated, COVID may now be similar to a “mere” flu; for the unvaccinated elderly, endemic COVID-19 is still a virulent threat to be taken seriously.

Publicly available data makes all of this very clear. In 2020, 3 million people died from COVID-19. In a usual year, flu kills between 290,000 and 650,000 around the world. No math degree is required to calculate that somewhere in the ballpark of four to 10 times as many deaths occurred in 2020 than we would have expected from “mere” influenza.

The two most commonly prescribed antibody treatments, those made by Eli Lilly and Regeneron, don’t work against the Omicrom variant. Only GlaxoSmithKline’s sotrovimab—the most recently approved monoclonal antibody therapy—offers protection from Omicrom. These therapies cost thousands of dollars per dose (retail of ~$3000-5000 according to this news story, though other sources state that the federal government bought in bulk for $2100 per Regeneron dose and $1250 each for Eli Lily’s) and are administered intravenously, requiring a trained health care professional’s presence for every dose.

*Though the Affordable Care Act has led to a major increase in how many Americans have health insurance at any given time, in 2020, 9.5% had some coverage but also experienced a “gap” in continuous care, whereas another 12.5% remained completely uninsured.

When is a box really a coffer?

My father-in-law is a gentleman of the Old World whose interest in art often takes him to local auctions. For himself, he attends auctions in search of under-valued original works of art. But, when he finds a good deal on housewares that are antique, delightful, and a bit too fancy for his own table, he often thinks of me.

Yay!Silver box etched with floral ang geometric patterns

He gave me this silver plated box a few years ago.

Maker's mark indicating James Dixon & Sons, Sheffield, EPBM 1155My fairly brief investigation into the hallmark engraved on the bottom gives me the impression that this box is not too fancy, and not so valuable. It is electroplated silver over base metal, made by James Dixon & Sons, of Sheffield, England.

Regardless, I find it quite fetching.

2 lit tapers on wooden table next to open silver chest containing beeswax candlesI immediately put my little silver box to good use. I store my Shabbat candles inside.

There is a notion in Judaism of Hiddur Mitzvah, whereby the act of beautifying a ritual enhances its spiritual significance. I find myself in complete agreement with this idea: to engage all of the senses in worship seems, to me, an obvious acknowledgement of the beneficence of the ultimate Creator.

One day, during the pandemic, I asked my child to fetch the coffer so I could put out the Shabbos candles. This led to the sort of inane conversation with which all parents are likely familiar.

“Please bring the silver coffer out of the cupboard, my darling,” says Mother, “so that I can get the candles for Shabbat.”

“The what?” asks Punk Kid #2.

“There is a shiny silver box inside the Kitchen Queen in the dining room,” replies Mother, still beaming with the sabbath peace. “The candles are inside.”

“What’s a Kitchen Queen?” responds Punk Kid #2.

“The Kitchen Queen is the antique wooden cabinet in the dining room that came from my grandmother, of course,” says Mother, rapidly losing her cool.

“Some people would call it a Hoosier Cabinet,” I offer as the steam billows out of my ears, my dear child looking on, taking no action, drooling, and perhaps going a bit cross-eyed…

Shalom bayit recedes into some future Shabbat during which I fail completely to engage with my own children and therefore achieve inner peace…

We could go on at some length describing how not one, but two, intelligent children failed to find a quite visibly special box containing the ritually important candles used to usher in the day of rest in a Jewish home, but, well, what value is there in teasing my kids?

I found it fascinating how definitely I defined my silver box as a coffer, and how my younger child immediately latched on to his own mental definition when I asked for one.

He was looking for a “box full of gold,” by the way, which is not a ridiculous notion for what a coffer might be.

Dictionary defining coffer as a chest or strongboxMy little box—it is about 6″ tall and 6.5 × 8.5″ at the base—may not be as imposing as a medieval lord’s strongbox. The lion heads at the sides, however, imbue a certain gravitas. Their noble expressions may be my very favorite part of the box!Lion head holding ring handle on side of silver box

Candles were a scarce, valuable resource in the not-so-distant past, needing protection from nibbling* by mice or rats. It’s not ridiculous to guard them with the mightiest of cats. They deserve to reside in a finely decorated coffer.

Though my children had managed, somehow, to not even notice my box’s presence, it has become an integral part of my celebration of the weekly joy that is Shabbat.

The idea of a holiday, every seven days, given to us to break up the monotony of a lifetime of work? I find the very notion miraculous. I’m eternally grateful for it.

During a pandemic, the relief of such a holiday is even more wonderful. Where one day piles up upon the next in a potentially never-ending heap, a simple break is a gift in a web of byzantine complexity!

Jewish menorah and hanukkiah candelabrae

Coming up soon, of course, for some of us, is another very light-specific and candle-involved holiday: Hanukkah. My photo here shows a Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, next to a standard Jewish menorah with only seven branches.

While the pandemic pounds the normalcy out of so many of our experiences in 2020, it has little influence on the celebration of a small band of guerilla fighters against the greatest army in the world during the second century BCE.

When I take a candle from my coffer to kindle against the darkness on 25 Kislev (10 December, 2020), I will commemorate and publicize a miracle. I will battle darkness with my own small light. I am good, and I will defeat that which is wicked.

May humanity deal COVID-19 a similarly devastating blow in 2021, offering us a future of uncovered faces and robust health for the multitudes.

EPBM stands for “Electro-Plated Britannia Metal,” which is a cheaper version of the electroplated nickel silver that was, itself, a cheaper imitation of sterling silver goods.

*Remember that early candles were made of tallow, or beef fat. For a rodent, that stuff is like caviar or manna from heaven.

My country ’tis of thee on Election Day, 2020

My country ’tis of thee,

Sweet land of libertyUSA flag - 1

“My country ’tis of thee / sweet land of liberty…”

Most Americans are familiar with these opening lyrics penned in 1831 by Reverend Samuel Francis Smith for his hymn, “America.” To this day, I thrill every time I hear a recording of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he repeatedly quotes Smith toward the thundering conclusion of his great oration.

brass bell ringing on chain

“Let freedom ring!”

“Let freedom ring” should stir the hearts and souls of every American. It represents the absolute best and greatest potential of the United States of America, no matter how human and imperfect we may be at a given moment.

But the less well known third verse speaks loudest to me today as my fellow citizens go to the polls. I already voted by absentee ballot this year due to the pandemic.

Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake…”

I voted Election sticker - 1

“Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom’s song.
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.”

This election has been more rancorous than any other I’ve known. For the first time in my life, I fear a night of violence and civil unrest instead of an evening of more-boring-than-average television viewing as the polls close and results roll in from the East Coast to the West.

And yet! In spite of! I carry hope like a tiny flame in my cupped hands against the breeze. I can hear sweet freedom’s song over a susurrus or a partisan gale.

USA flag flying on pole WA San Juan American CampI believe that mortal tongues will waken, and that my countrymen and -women will, in fact, partake of the opportunity to raise their voices today and be heard. We will vote, and we will take notice of those bad actors who stand between the populace and each one’s right to cast his or her ballot free from interference.

I reject and repudiate those wicked cynics who would choose to disenfranchise others in hopes of clawing back power being lost to legitimate changes in our nation’s demographics and priorities. Those who prefer to enforce their will upon an enslaved population should take up residence in a country built upon the primacy of an all powerful dictator. The United States of America was founded in direct opposition to such despotism.

Here’s to the prolonging of sweet freedom’s song today, and every day, in the USA, and around the world. May peace and justice prevail for everyone.

Until I did a little research for this post today, I was only vaguely familiar with the much longer back story of the melody to which we sing Smith’s lyrics. I knew about “God Save the Queen,” of course, but not earlier American adaptations of the tune and its use by classical greats such as Haydn and Beethoven. This Library of Congress page was my main source.

*It’s not a new phenomenon—Paul Weyrich, the conservative who founded a group laughingly calling itself the Moral “Majority”—was filmed addressing a group of religious leaders in 1980 and literally admitting that his bullying minority’s “leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” That’s an insult to mathematics as well as to our founding fathers’ stated intent in the Declaration of Independence to create a new nation in which:

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

It is clear to me that any true patriot must balk at disenfranchising other citizens.

Profound joy alongside grief when accepting unavoidable loss

My sincere hope is that I bring more positive thoughts to the world than negative ones. My choice of domain name, ReallyWonderfulThings.me, reflects that impulse and intent.

Lately, however, I’m mired in a slowly unfolding crisis that looms inexorable. Here is one of those snafus inherent to life. I can’t avoid it. I can’t fix it. The best I can do for myself is to endure with a measure of grace.

For my ill loved one whose prognosis is likely death within two years, I’m also aiming to provide comfort and support to any extent that I can. I am wholly inadequate to the task.

I’ve shed plenty of tears and pitied myself because I’m human and so damnably, unrelentingly flawed. I’m already grieving a loss that hasn’t happened yet, even as I nurse the tiny flame of hope that we will defy the statistics, beating the odds and the fallibility of every living body.

Facing my fears one at a time and bringing my intellect to bear on the process is a large part of how I cope. I read studies, research long shots, and struggle with my fundamental powerlessness.

And yet! I have also experienced a shocking and rather profound blossoming of a calm state of resigned joy. I never, ever expected that.

Don’t mistake me; it’s bittersweet. I could talk about my sadness or my fear, and typing these words has already brought a fresh wash of tears. None of that surprised me, though. The joy sure as hell did.

Somehow, staring straight in the face of one of my worst fears brings with it a resolute peace as I’m forced to live in each moment, because, really, that is all that I actually have. It’s easier to savor sharing good times with someone when you know each event is precious, limited, and won’t ever come around again.

There is nothing I can do except live my life as best I can. What a relief to give myself permission to do so in the absence of guilt. How freeing to accept* what I cannot change. I never thought I had it in me.

May good fortune and robust health find you and everyone you care about.

*As the serenity prayer sagely advises. One needn’t be a true believer to accept good advice. I’m pretty sure a number of gurus are preaching along the very same lines.

Holiday wishes for readers of every stripe: why I may wish you Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Good Yule, too

Looking forward to a holiday season that promises merriment and stresses, joys and missed opportunities, I send my sincere wishes for a healthy, happy, well-balanced Celebration of Your Choice to every reader.

X New Year - 1

Beginnings of a feast to welcome the New Year

Contrary to what some pundits believe, I am not partaking in a “War on Christmas.” I just happen not to be one of the Americans who makes a Christmas holiday in her home. I am delighted by the fact that so many do, however, and honored to be invited to participate in Christmas and alternate holiday parties held by friends, family, and my community.

I cherish every card I receive wishing me the best, whether the sender is joyfully recounting the birth of Jesus or illuminating the darkness in remembrance of a miracle of light. Some of the greetings are silly cartoons and puns, and I like those laughs, too.

I’m especially fond of the irreverent ones because they tickle my fancy, though I don’t think most who know me would accuse me of a lack of reverence in my personal or spiritual conduct.

Xmas - 1

Ёлка (yolka)

I even appreciate the commercial cards from my dentist or the auto repair shop, especially when an employee took the time to sign his name; it may be advertising, but it is also a human expression in an age when some would call corporations “citizens.” Ahem. It’s an effort to spread joy. I’m all in favor of that.

Counting your blessings, sharing glad tidings, and lighting up the darkness are Really Wonderful Things.

I begrudge no one her wish to draw her family close and celebrate the season as she sees fit; I wish for everyone the comfort of being embraced by his family and friends during these darkest days of the year.

It is human nature to need a bright and warm “coming together” in the heart of winter. I hope every reader finds that, whether the bosom that welcomes you is secular or holy, crowded or solitary.

May each of us find the love we need to keep our spirits lifted, now and going forward.

And I pray for extra doses of relaxation to find their way to all of us who join in multitudinous cultural festivals due to the rich complexity of our intermingled lives. Let all the in-laws and outlaws* revel together in harmony this season.

Shalom! Peace be with you and yours. Happy holidays. Blessed be.

X Hanukkah - 1

Homemade hanukkiahחַנֻכִּיָּה, only slightly flammable. Adult supervision required!

 *Outlaws may be a distant possibility unless you celebrate a real, old-fashioned Saturnalia. Enjoy a law-abiding holiday season… unless you are living in place that suppresses your religious freedom. Secret personal observances in defiance of culture police? Yes. Drunk driving? No!