Roller coaster

This has been a big weekend, with some huge highs and lows.

On the high side:

  • Kathryn and I celebrated our nineteenth wedding anniversary. Hard to believe; it feels like a short time ago we were in Scotland for our wedding. We had an excellent day and a great celebration meal on our deck.
  • SpaceX’s successful launch. I’m ecstatic that the US space program is coming back and may have a future.
  • I completed all plans for my upcoming trip to KY to see Jessamine and the rest of the family.
  • Talked with my Dad a lot. He’s a new man these days thanks to medication management. I’m grateful for that.

On the low side:

  • The extensive national violence triggered by the George Floyd killing. The US is tearing itself apart, and there’s no Federal leadership in sight.
  • An unexpected bout of sciatica for yours truly. I’ve had it off and on for several years, but this was a whole new level. Debilitating.
  • I learned that my big plan to go ahead and take my social security benefits early (while they’re still there) won’t work. Turns out my part-time consulting and board work generates enough income to disqualify me. There’s always a catch…

I need to work hard and rest well this coming week to make sure I’m in good shape for a cross-country drive.

 

Liftoff!

Big day today. SpaceX and NASA launched two astronauts into orbit, the first US launch of astronauts in nine years. SpaceX managed to retrieve the Falcon 9 first stage with an autonomous landing aboard the robot barge “Of Course I Still Love You”. The barge’s name is taken from my favorite science fiction author’s Culture books. Thanks and we miss you, Ian M. Banks.

Musk is a flake, but getting SpaceX and the US back into the launch business is one of the great achievements of the 21st century. Gotta give him credit for that.

Now if we could just figure out how to run a country without all the craziness…

Five years ago this week

Every single person who answered the interview question “Where do you see yourself in five years?” got it wrong. Very wrong.

Everyone had a good laugh at the notion that Donald Trump might run for President.

Emily and I visited her soon-to-be new house in Louisville (picture above).

Kathryn and I jetted off to Torrington Wyoming for a country wedding.

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Looking back at my pictures, in the course of just 2-3 months we were in Kansas City, Louisville, Chicago, Seattle, Wyoming, Atlanta, Louisville again, Mackinac Island MI, and Scotland! We were traveling fools.

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My, how things have changed.

TMB syndrome

Some interesting news making the rounds today.

From MIT Technology Review: “Nearly half of Twitter accounts pushing to reopen America may be bots. Bot activity has become an expected part of Twitter discourse for any politicized event. Across US and foreign elections and natural disasters, their involvement is normally between 10 and 20%. But in a new study, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have found that bots may account for between 45 and 60% of Twitter accounts discussing covid-19. Many of those accounts were created in February and have since been spreading and amplifying misinformation, including false medical advice, conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, and pushes to end stay-at-home orders and reopen America.” Pretty interesting agenda being pushed by these bots, right? I’m sure whoever launched them has America’s best interests in mind.

Picked up in a random comment on the web: “I’m in a high-risk cohort due to chronic TMB (Too Many Birthdays).”  That’s me all right. TMB Syndrome.

The common cold, many of which are caused by coronaviruses, may turn out to provide a measure of immunity to COVID-19. Remarkable study, but the emphasis is still on “may provide”. No magic bullets.

Inspiration

I’m trying to stay focused on positive things these days. Things that inspire me to do better, to be better. Here are a few of those things.

First has to be my daughter’s newly-expanded family. Her and Greg’s new son Jessamine, born during the pandemic, is healthy, cute and makes everyone smile. That’s him (obviously) in the featured photo above. The fact that they’re all healthy and happy during this weird time is inspirational. I’m thankful for that.

Next is the latest Bruce Springsteen recording, Western Stars. Especially the movie version. This is the Springsteen I remember, a poet, a consummate musician and someone who pours his soul out in his craft. At age 70 he’s as good as he was at 20 – he looks strong and his voice is rounded out with experience. Bruce isn’t everyone’s cuppa tea, but he’s been a constant for me through the years. I saw Bruce and the East Street Band on April 2nd, 1976, up close and personal in the tiny Macauley Theater in Louisville KY. My buddies and I traveled from college in Lexington to big-city Louisville in my tiny Toyota pickup truck, two of them riding in the truck bed. The concert was part of the Born to Run tour and was unforgettable. Four hours of absolute power pouring off the stage. I was unlucky in one respect –  every concert I saw after that suffered by comparison. So yeah, seeing Bruce knock one out of the park in 2020 with Western Stars is an inspiration. I watched it once all the way through, in awe, and now I’m watching it again a little at a time.

Then there’s Masterclass. Emily and I decided to split a 2-for-1 deal on an unlimited Masterclass subscription, and it has been great. I’ve finished a writing class by James Patterson, the world’s best-selling author. He’s interesting – he’s not so much an author as the creator of a writing factory and brand. Not inspirational, but interesting and definitely credible with his advice. But my current course, taught by Neil Gaiman, is truly inspirational. Gaiman has that soft-spoken Scottish-British accent thing going for him, and his passion and delight at talking about writing just shines through. He’s a natural in front of the camera – you could swear he’s talking directly to you. I just love hearing and watching him talk about writing. I don’t know if his class will make me a better writer, but it sure makes me want to be a better writer. That’s something.

Sunday food for thought

Scientific American published an article describing new findings on exoplanets in the Milky Way (BTW, this has always struck me as a particularly lame name for our galaxy – “The Milky Way” – that’s the best we can do?). One statistic that struck me in the article is that astronomers now estimate that there are a trillion planets in our galaxy. A thousand-billion planets in just one galaxy. The idea that we’re the only intelligent life among that stupendous number is laughable.

Another 200-ish Earth species will go extinct again today, just like every day lately. Due to human action and population pressure, plants, insects and animals are dying off at more than 1000 times the “natural” extinction rate. This leads to real worries about the viability of Earth’s ecosystem in 50-100 years. Will new grandson Jessamine (see featured image above) have to experience the bitter end of…everything? The optimist in me says no, that things will work out just like they always have. But the numbers-driven rationalist in me says whoa, this is seriously awful. Horrific. But I won’t be around to apologize.

Seeing all the “open up America” protestors with their flags and signs proclaiming their loss of freedom has made me think hard about the definition of “freedom”. My definition of freedom is my ability to live comfortably within a system of rules that keep me (and my neighbors) safe and healthy. It seems that a lot of the protestors’ notion of freedom is “no one can tell me what to do (or not to do)”. They think the laws and US Constitution give them the right to do and say pretty much anything they desire. There’s a huge difference between “freedom to act within a system of rules” and “freedom from any rules”. The latter is anarchy. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of anarchy.

When you think about it, we never have complete freedom. There are laws of science, physics and biology that define our limits. We can’t just wish for wings and fly. And a civilization is defined largely by the set of rules that people agree to (or are forced to) follow. What the coronavirus has illustrated is that a large number of people in America have not in fact understood and/or agreed to the rules after all. That’s a pretty big problem we have to deal with, virus or otherwise.

I watched a new Bruce Springsteen movie/concert yesterday on HBO – Western Stars. It’s the best work Springsteen has done in years, and the concert – featuring all 13 new songs from the album of the same name –  is superb. At age 70 Springsteen is a master at work, with stories, lyrics and music that both inspire you and break your heart. IMHO Springsteen is a national treasure. As an aside, NPR hated it. Their reviewer must have had a bad day.

Life springs eternal

I realize I’ve been posting a lot of gloom-and-doom messages lately. I guess that’s my unconscious mindset as of Day 70 of The Disruption. But there is good news – correction great news! Here’s a picture of our newest family member, Jessamine Memphis Monsma. Born May 14, 9.5 pounds and healthy.

What a life story he will have. Born during a pandemic, he will see a world we can scarcely imagine. In addition to all the technological change he will see, there’s now the societal change that The Disruption will bring about.

We’re so grateful that Jesse, his mother and father and everyone in his circle are safe and healthy. That’s something to celebrate!

The best-laid plans…

Today is a big day. Big day! Our second grandson will be born today in about three hours. I won’t post this until I hear good news…don’t want to tempt fate. It’s a strange, strange time for Emily to be bringing a new child into the world. New risks, unknown risks and generally a lot more to worry about. But “who knew” nine months ago?

Update #1, two hours later. I find that in this period of waiting to hear the news I’m manic. Can’t sit still, can’t focus on reading or anything else. Just doing shit to get through the moments. Not surprising, I guess.

Update #2, a few hours on, Jessamine Memphis Monsma is born, healthy and big! 9.5 pounds. Everybody’s healthy. Photo above from Malta is in JMM’s honor.

Aside from the big day news, today also is the day I’ve come to grips with the idea that my plan for the future is in trouble. For years I’ve been making plans to have a bimodal life, going back and forth from CA to KY at will via Southwest airlines. I figured I could have a life in CA plus be in KY enough to stay close to the family there, particularly the grandsons. I’ve bought property in Louisville, placed all my credit card and travel leverage on SW and generally become an expert at that commute. And now COVID has made that plan untenable for at least 2020 and maybe beyond.

I see no way to get comfortable flying again until (a) it’s proven that I’ve already had the virus and/or (b) there’s an effective vaccine or therapy. That’s just not likely in 2020 and is 50-50 for 2021 – except for the “getting COVID and surviving” option, which I can’t really calculate the odds of.

So…if I want to see the new grandson this year, I’m going to have to drive cross country, at least one round trip and likely more. It’s doable, but it’s a big mental shift. It’s been maybe 35 years since I’ve done a 2000+ mile road trip one way. I’ll need to rent an RV to travel without hotel rooms and exercise extreme COVID hygiene whenever I stop.

Longer term, let’s say mid-2021, the chance of being able to fly again increases, but the cost may be quite high. I can probably deal with that, though there’s also a chance that SW would stop flying to Louisville entirely as their fleet and routes decrease. In that case getting to Louisville becomes more complicated, a longer trip and more expensive. Not a great scenario.

Also, I realized yesterday that COVID is now threatening the investments I’ve made in Louisville rental property. Most of the property I have there is in the Highlands area, known for its great bar/restaurant scene. But what if most of those hot-spot bars and restaurants close down? Current estimates are that at least one-third of Louisville restaurants will be lost to bankruptcy or insolvency, and if it’s worse than that the area could become blighted. Those properties won’t be as attractive and rents / values will decline. Also a very poor scenario.

Finally, I assumed (calculated, actually, in excruciating detail) that the money I had saved and invested would be sufficient to support this bimodal lifestyle for the rest of my life. That still looks possible, but with COVID destroying small businesses in America and doing who-knows-what to the economy, cost of living and rates of return in the long term…anything can happen.

The gist of all this is that my long term life plans have been severely disrupted by COVID. (I know, I know, get in line with millions of others.) It’s not just a 2020 shelter-in-place inconvenience, it’s a set of changes that will affect us for most or all of the rest of my days. That’s a hard thing to come to terms with. But I’m working on it.

Rebooting the world

Featured picture above is Hudson, his superlative mom and his soon-to-be little brother.

I’ve read a lot lately about the difficulty in getting back to “normal”, and it’s not encouraging. In sector after sector, it turns out that restarting businesses just isn’t going to be as simple as saying “go” and having customers show up.

In the restaurant sector, every week that goes by with former employees dispersing, suppliers going out of business, owners declaring bankruptcy and so on means that a lot of the restaurants simply won’t survive. And those that do will have a tough time reconstructing their former business.

The airline sector is even worse. I’m just not sure how airlines survive another 3-4 months with no travelers. Making things worse, everything in the air travel supply chain is regulated, certified and synchronized. Pilots need air time and training time for certification, and they’re not getting it. Same for mechanics. Same for air traffic controllers. And once airlines get some kind of a “go” signal, they still need butts in seats. Very few people are going to fly if their life is demonstrably at risk due to COVID fears.

And then, how does normal business resume if air travel is crippled? How do salesmen get to visit their accounts? How do global businesses operate?

I could go on and on – leisure travel, the food supply chain, sports, trucking, education – each sector is fast approaching a threshold beyond which there’s just no return to normal. And that’s scary.

Bringing it close to home, my retirement plan was to spend a lot more time in Louisville with my two grandsons, yet maintain our home life in California. That’s an easy thing to imagine when I can fly from one place to another in a day, even half a day. But take that away and I’m looking at 3-4 days spent in tough road trips each way, for each transition. Not the retirement I had in mind and not sustainable.

A vaccine or effective therapy in the next three months (more likely the latter) would minimize the damage to “normal”, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that won’t happen. 2020 is lost, and many economy sectors will be damaged beyond recognition. So what’s next, and what does 2021 look like? That’s the question.

Downton Abbey, Trump-style

In a bit of a mood this morning, so this little item didn’t help. From CNN:

“White House valets, in particular, are often within spitting distance — if not breathing distance — of the President, Vice President, security details, and the President’s family. They are expected to be available and by his side, whether it’s in the White House or onboard Air Force One. Because they are responsible for the President’s personal needs, including serving him meals or helping him get dressed, it’s hard to believe Trump when he says he had “very little personal contact” with the infected valet.”

So it turns out that one of the President’s “personal valets” has COVID-19. That’s certainly news, and it doesn’t look promising for all the old men surrounding the President – his staff and cabinet. They’re prime examples of high-risk COVID cases. But that’s not my issue. My issue is why the hell does our President need a valet, or several of them? To help him get dressed? Seriously? When did the President become royalty? To be clear, my reaction would be the same for Trump and Obama. If Obama had multiple valets, he shouldn’t have. I’m pretty sick of reading about the hundreds of ways our tax dollars support a royal lifestyle for the President and the people who surround him. Or her. Or they.

I get it, it’s a big job with a busy schedule. I can see the chief executive of our country having a staff, including a killer executive assistant. But multiple valets? No. Just no. I want my money back.

Talking points for the 2020 election

OK, I’m breaking my “go light on politics” rule again. Because, even with the virus happening right now, we have a big decision to make in November. A decision probably as impactful as the virus itself. Feel free to use these talking points with your Fox-watching friends and relatives this year.

  • The United States has the worst coronavirus results in the world. The worst in the world. Who is responsible for that?
  • Are you better off today than you were four years ago?
  • In 2016 the Senate established a new rule for nominating Supreme Court justices in the last year of a President’s term. The Senate determined that the nomination should be held for the new President. I expect we’ll hold to that rule in 2020.
  • Harris County Texas, which includes Houston, has 4.5 million people and two Senators representing them (shared with the rest of the state). Twenty-five other states have less population than Harris County and have 50 Senators representing them. How does that make sense?
  • Should the President of the United States be subject to the laws of the land and be held accountable to those laws, no matter which party is in power?