This art called life…

True understanding is to see the events of life in this way: ‘You are here for my benefit, though rumor paints you otherwise.’ And everything is turned to one’s advantage when he greets a situation like this: You are the very thing I was looking for. Truly whatever arises in life is the right material to bring about your growth and the growth of those around you. This, in a word, is art– and this art called ‘life’ is a practice suitable to both men and gods. Everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing; what then could be strange or arduous when all of life is here to greet you like an old and faithful friend.

Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor from 161 to 180 and a Stoic philosopher

This is a really cool and healthy way of looking at life. As much as possible, I’d like to cultivate this attitude in myself.

Traveling in the Time of COVID-19

I was just thinking to myself that I’d like to go to Georgia to visit family. Especially some of my family members that are starting to get a bit older. I’d like to see them while I still have the chance. I’ve been meaning to go see them for a while now.

I looked up the cost of a bus ticket. $106 one-way. Then I checked the price of an airline ticket. $126 round-trip. Wow. What a deal! But then I remembered that I’d heard about needing a COVID-19 test to be able to travel. I wonder how much that costs?

And then I realized that I’ve probably been exposed to the virus and that my desire to see my relatives before it’s too late really isn’t in their best interests, health-wise.

Plus, there are quarantine requirements there and here if I remember correctly.

The ability of the average person to freely travel is really being locked down. How much of these precautions are legitimate? How much is government overreach? Why was there never a huge bump in numbers after the closely packed protests and riots? When do things go back to normal? Next year? Next month? It’s really amazing and fascinating how questionable reality has become in the last 4-5 years.

It’s a testament to the power of the media to shape our understanding of the world. And probably a testament to the dangers of building profitability for a “news” site around ad revenue rather than subscriptions. Things probably went truly wrong with Facebook and Twitter, though. It became too easy to boost misleading and untrue narratives into the national consciousness.

Anyway, I’ll have to put off my travel for a bit longer. Until I’m sure I’m not going to ride into my relative’s homes on a white horse.

Harry Potter and the Model Weasley Family

The Weasley Family at breakfast

I’m really late to the party, the first book in the series having been published in 1997 when I was still in high school, but I’ve been borrowing the audiobooks of the Harry Potter series from the New York Public Library and I’m really enjoying them. I think I would have loved them as a kid but I was going through a phase where I was really into church dogma and the Harry Potter series was said to be evil and demonic because it supposedly encouraged children to engage in witchcraft.

Putting aside the question of whether witchcraft is real or not, I can see how the Harry Potter series was threatening to organized religion. It provides an alternative fantasy world that presents a set of moral values in a compelling way and, even when it doesn’t conflict with the church’s vision of morality, it competes for attention. I’d guess Harry Potter is probably winning that contest too, given the success of the books and movies and the ever dwindling levels of church attendance.

I wonder how much of the church’s problems these days comes from an insistence on biblical literalism? It’s been a while since I studied the Bible, either academically or religiously, but I do recall that many of the stories have parallels in other nearby cultures. For example, the story of Moses and the flood is essentially the same story as the Epic of Gilgamesh with modifications to fit the local culture. That alone should tell us that stories in the Bible were meant to be educational rather than literal history. It makes more sense to tell someone that they should be looking at a story in the Bible for moral guidance than to tell them to take it as literal word from God history and expect that story’s relevance to endure over any length of time.

And maybe that’s why Harry Potter does so well. We know it’s not word from God and we don’t face the choice of having to either swallow it whole or throw it out. We can instead appreciate it and think about it and try to apply it to our lives if it makes sense in relation to what we understand to be good and bad.

All of these thoughts congealed in my head as I started to realize how the Weasleys were being presented in the books. They may not have fancy clothes and they may not always get along but they value what’s important in life: their kids, each other, friendship, and (in Molly and Arthur’s case) their kids’ education. In addition, even though they’re struggling they essentially adopt Harry into the family, so there’s a lot of love and charity being displayed there. They share even when there’s not much to give. They’re loyal. They do things together. It’s sort of a model for the proper behavior of a family, especially when it comes in such stark contrast to how Harry is treated by his aunt and uncle. The fact that both Harry and Hermione later marry into the Weasley family reinforces the idea that they represent an ideal family.

I’m only partway through the fourth book and I wasn’t really thinking about the story too deeply until now, but there’s really more in these books than shallow entertainment. I’m not really surprised. I don’t think they would have done so well if they didn’t have something substantive to offer readers.

Cabin in the Woods

I used to think that needing a cabin in the woods to do any serious writing was over-dramatic and a little elitist. I’m thinking of people who have a summer cottage or any separate dwelling that they can go to for weeks at a time to tune out the world and just focus on writing.

I still think it’s elitist. I mean, how many people can really afford a second place to live? Or in this case, a second residence to just have on call for when you want a little solitude? I imagine most people are lucky if they even have a separate room where they can lock the door and be alone for a while and that doesn’t really, fully separate you mentally from the day-to-day because you can always be interrupted.

I feel like a person needs some space to be creative. A place to truly relax and let their mind run wild, where there are no pets, family, routines, or chores insistently tugging at the edges of one’s consciousness.

My wife was pretty good about giving me space when she saw I was trying to complete writing assignments, but I sometimes wonder how I managed to get through college with such good grades on the papers I turned in.

The next time we move, I’d like to try to find a place with an extra room. Or, if it’s outside of New York City, a place with a garage or shed that I can convert into a study. That way, when I have time, it’s easier to focus.

COVID-19 Social Impact in New York City

I was thinking about the ways that the COVID-19 experience has changed the way we live our lives in New York City. Beyond the obvious continued closures I mean.

As a kid, when I would come here to visit family, the crowds and noise were part of the appeal. Staying up late and seeing and hearing the traffic outside was exciting. It felt alive and a little dangerous. It felt like there were endless possibilities waiting for you as soon as you hit the concrete outside your building’s front door.

Not so much now. A lot of businesses are reopening, but a lot will never open again. Businesses that are open are limited capacity. Same with restaurants. You have to book reservations for something you used to just walk into at will. You have to provide your name, ID, and contact information to dine inside. It feels arduous and invasive and kills the vibe.

To be honest, I never really did much shopping in person before, but I did like to wander around book stores and comic book shops. Old record stores sometimes too. And there was something fun about just sitting in a cafe, talking and people watching. You can’t really do any of those things now. You’re corralled and then rushed through the experience to accommodate occupancy restrictions. So, why bother? If I can’t enjoy the experience, why make the trek down to the store? With all of the traction that online retailers got during the lock down, I wonder how much in person retail shopping will come back in New York City over the long term?

Will people fall back into old habits or maintain new ones? I read somewhere that moments of change in people’s lives are the best opportunity for companies to change shopping habits. That’s why expecting mothers get bombarded with ads for example. The COVID-19 pandemic and lock downs were pretty big moments of change so it was a great opportunity to cement new shopping patterns.

With the lack of restaurant dining and easily accessible amenities like museums, art galleries, and theater performances, with being shut up at home all the time or going from home to work and work to home, it was like a curtain was drawn back. New York City without all of the extras is pretty unpleasant. High rent for a shoe box apartment to live constantly surrounded by high crime and filth isn’t that appealing when you can’t justify it with amazing dinners out and the ability to just pop in at a world class art gallery on a whim.

Movement control orders. Lock downs. Quarantines. Flying restrictions. Travel restrictions. I’m reminded of a book I read about the development of the passport in Europe during a time when travel beyond one’s own village was extremely uncommon and made a person suspect. It feels like we’re going back in time. It’s becoming ever more difficult to simply travel to another State or country after a long period of increasing mobility.

I wonder if there’s anything to that? Accustoming people to being ordered to remain in place in spite of Constitutional guarantees of free movement. Getting people familiar with receiving food rations. Making people feel like it’s ok to have their privacy invaded in exchange for a seat inside a 33% capacity restaurant. That’s a lot of extra government control of our personal lives.

And I get it to a large degree. It’s a trade-off between personal autonomy and collective well-being. There has to be a balance there. But I wonder if the amount of rights and information we’re being asked to give up is greater than the threat we’re facing? Are we doing good or creating an un-legislated set of PATRIOT Act style COVID-19 rules?

I keep coming back to how there was no spike in COVID-19 deaths after the riots and mass protests that started in June and have continued unabated in some areas of the country since. Shouldn’t all of those people congregating together have caused COVID-19 rates to skyrocket, if not among themselves then in adjacent vulnerable populations?

I understand that this is conspiracy theory territory. I know the virus is real. I’m not going to subscribe to the idea of the government using COVID-19 testing to insert microchips in people’s heads or bloodstreams, or to the idea that COVID-19 testing is actually COVID-19 infecting, but I can’t help but wonder if this was overkill.

The virus was in New York City since November or December of 2019 at least. Our numbers were high because the virus had time to spread before we started testing. If it was going to spread like the plague it would have caused a lot more damage before the city shut down in March, but it didn’t. Why were we fine on March 1st, but we suddenly needed refrigerated trucks for the deceased on March 31st?

Anyway, a lot of people are fleeing New York City or changed their minds about coming here in the first place. Unless things improve drastically in the next few months, I’m going to start looking at moving to another part of the country. I’ve been hearing news about COVID-19 spikes in Brooklyn and Queens and different news sources have been telling us for months that the virus could spike again in the Fall, leading to another round of shutdowns. I don’t know if I want to go through that again. Things haven’t been normal in the city since January already.