Sunday, August 30, 2020

Under pressure (washer)

About 30 minutes into pressure washing the dirt and mold off my white picket fence, I had a Tom Sawyer moment.

The next time my neighbor came out of his house, I thought, I was going to tell him how much fun I was having, and did he want to give it a shot?

Getting ready to pressure wash my picket fence. Oh, boy...
 Let me back up for a moment. I don't own a pressure washer. The one I was using actually came from my other neighbor (I live in a great neighbor-hood, where we not only borrow each other's garden tools, but also their talents). The white picket fence enclosing my backyard needed immediate attention, since it was time to be painted.

So TJ (or Teej, as he prefers) let me borrow his pressure washer with the only stipulation being that I return it with a full tank of gas.

The thing is, I actually enjoyed pressure washing my fence – for about 10 minutes. Sure, there is a sense of exhilaration and satisfaction when the dirt is washed away under 2700 pounds of pressure per square inch right before your eyes.

The fence after its cleaning. Maybe I'll just keep the distressed look...
It's almost like magic.

But it's also like work. Teej warned me that this would happen.

It wasn't long before my lower back started aching. And the initial exhilaration was replaced by tedium.

Plus, I was getting soaked.

I also found myself getting distracted. After washing 10 or 12 pickets, I'd see a garden paver, or a section of my driveway, that called out to me. So I'd pressure wash it until I yelled at myself for wasting gas washing something that wasn't important. Then I'd go back to doing 10 or 12 more pickets before I got distracted again.

Is that what adult-deficit hyperactivity disorder is? I don't know. Great. Something else for me to worry about.

Anyway, I did this for about two hours on Thursday and almost three hours on Friday, and I'm less than halfway done. I figure there's about another five or six hours of work ahead, and then, as long as I can keep gas in it, maybe I can clean off my patio or sidewalks before I return Teej's pressure washer.

The next step is sanding off the pickets to clear off any loose hanging chads of stubborn paint (my first neighbor, Billy, has offered me his electric sander, with the only stipulation that I have a loooooong extension cord. What a neighborhood.) and then the actual painting can begin.

I can't tell you enough how much fun I'm having. Anyone want to give it a try?

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Don't mess with my mail

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

                 – Dr. Charles W. Eliot, "The Letter"

Back in 2006, a lame duck Republican Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), a law that required the U.S. Postal Service to provide $72 billion pre-funding for post-retirement health care costs 75 years into the future. It had to meet that funding within the span of 10 years.

Think about that: potential postal employees not even born yet are guaranteed health benefits. No other government agency, and most private corporations, are required to provide such a benefit. Most benefit programs are pay-as-you-go.

That law basically took a self-sufficient and self-sustaining operation to the brink of bankruptcy with 13 consecutive years of million-dollar (perhaps more) losses.

In 2019, the USPS was required to pay $4.6 billion into the fund. But already crippled by the law, the USPS has defaulted on its payments since 2010.

There is some conjecture that the PAEA was designed to bankrupt the USPS in order to institute privatization of mail delivery.

Not only that, funds intended for that program have been diverted to help pay off the national debt.

In February of this year, the House of Representatives passed the USPS Fairness Act to repeal the PAEA. The bill currently sits idle in the Senate.

Fast forward to now. Under newly installed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a megadonor to President Trump (thus raising a conflict of interest in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan appointment) and who has no USPS experience, claims a mandate to make the service more efficient and to operate more like a business (It's not a business; it's a service). In doing so, he has removed almost 500 sorting machines throughout the country, limited (or perhaps eliminated) overtime, and even attempted to remove some of those familiar blue-box mailboxes.

One argument we hear for reorganizing the Post Office is that overall first-class mail volume is down overall. And that may be true. But coming less than 80 days before an election, it's also abominable. And guess what? Christmas is coming. I don't see how this makes America great again.

The obvious consequence of all this is that mail delivery is inevitably slowing down. This is critical, coming as it does in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of an election year in which mail-in balloting seems to be more popular than ever as people hope/try to avoid possible Covid-19 infection while waiting in long, slow-moving voting lines. The moves to deconstruct the Post Office appear to be insidiously intentional and obstructionist.

It's bad enough that mail-in balloting could be hindered by DeJoy's actions, but delays in mail delivery for prescriptions is appalling, putting peoples' health at risk. And what happens when monthly bills not only arrive weeks late, but also past due? Are grace periods to be extended?

The seeds of our current postal system were planted by founding father Benjamin Franklin, when he was appointed Postmaster General by the Second Continental Congress on July 26, 1775 (before there was an United States). More than 245 years later, I can't imagine this current state of affairs is what Franklin had in mind.

It's almost un-American.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Did the earth move for you?

Tom Tussey and Jeff Miller, two former residents of Lexington's Park Place historic district and co-owners of the popular Main Street boutique Backyard Retreat, were calmly enjoying their second cup of coffee on the porch of their tiny getaway mountain house in spaciously sparse Sparta (pop. 1,770) this morning. The view from their chairs, as always, was splendid on this beautiful summer day.

Then, suddenly, the earth moved. Nobody ever expects the earth to move.

"The coffee just jumped out of our cups," said Tussey. "I didn't realize what was happening at first. But the thing I really didn't expect was the rumbling noise. It started off low, then built up louder, then went back down again, like a Doppler Effect.

An aisle in a Sparta Food Lion this morning.*
 "It was mind numbing and it took a short time to realize what was happening," added Tussey. "I never heard or experienced anything like it before."

It turns out that Tussey and Miller were just a few miles away from the epicenter of a significant 5.1 earthquake. Later reports rolling in this morning said the quake could be felt as far away as Alabama to the south and Virginia to the north, and was perhaps 5 miles deep in the earth.

In Lexington, less than 80 curvy back-road car miles away from Sparta, Kim and I were wondering what was going on, too. Kim was in the dining room on the laptop, and she said she could feel the house vibrate. I was in the next room, watching TV, and the 100-year-old windows of our bungalow just kept rattling for about 15-20 seconds. I went on the porch to investigate, thinking somebody was messing around. A neighbor or two came out of their homes and did the same, thus confirming each other's suspicions and affirming to ourselves that we were not going nuts after all.

"I've never been in an earthquake before," said Tussey. "We were looking out at the view, and when it came, everything went blurry, either because of the earthquake, or I guess it could be because I'm getting older.

"We didn't have any damage to our house, other then some bottles falling off of shelves and a few other things that fell over," said Tussey. "But nothing broke."

Some earthquake damage to a house in Sparta.**
There is some damage to downtown Sparta, said Tussey. Some streets are blocked off, with some broken glass here and fallen bricks there.

So far – and we're only in August – 2020 has been, well, a different year. In fact, it's been a different week, what with a hurricane hitting the North Carolina coast on Monday, and now an earthquake today. All of this in the midst of a pandemic in the middle of a contentious election year.

Tussey said he wouldn't mind experiencing another tremor or two. "I'm the kind of guy who runs toward a hurricane," said Tussey. Miller, on the other hand, has a different perspective. "My nerves are already shot," he said.

I have a brother, Scott, who lives near Tulsa, OK, where there is considerable earthquake activity of various magnitudes. "It's kind of a weird feeling when it happens," said Scott.

I have another brother, Dave, who lives in Alaska and where earthquakes can be part of the lifestyle. "Earthquake?" asked Dave. "Wow. What do those feel like?"

I don't know if we ("we" meaning Atlantic Seaboard) live near a fault line, but there was a major earthquake in Charleston, SC, in 1886. It measured somewhere between 6.9 and 7.3 on the Richter Scale before there was a Richter Scale (developed in 1935 by seismologist Charles Richter), and it knocked over more than 2,000 buildings and could be felt as far away as Boston, Milwaukee and New Orleans.

The theory behind that one was the quake was a millenium-long consequence of continental drift. OK, I'll buy it. What do I know? I'm just a retired sports writer.

My concern right now is aftershocks. Hey, this is 2020. Is an 8.2 just 80 miles away?

*Photo courtesy of Food Lion.
** Photo courtesy of Tom Tussey.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Virus warfare

Do you know what's amazing to me?

(Well, lots of things are amazing to me. I can't believe I'll be 70 years old in a few more months – how did that happen?; how do helicopters fly?; how do weeds grow in concrete or asphalt?)

But my flavor of amazement of the day are the 30,000 volunteers who have lined up across 89 different sites in the country to test the National Institute of Health/Moderna trial vaccine (with two doses) in hopes of battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wow. That's like volunteering to go to war. And in a way, I guess it really is.

I know human trials are necessary for a vaccine that will be used on humans, but who makes that decision? The volunteers have to be multigenerational (Who volunteers their kid for this? Does grandpa raise his hand to test the serum?) and of various races. Some volunteers, I suspect, might have pre-existing conditions – for example, can you take the vaccine if you have heart disease?

If I am already healthy, do I want to get the virus? Do I want to be the one who gets the test vaccine, or do I want to be the one who gets the placebo?

And get this: right now, about 100 potential vaccines are in various stages of development. I guess that means more volunteers. The vaccine study in Oxford (in conjunction with Johnson & Johnson, I believe) will also need about 30,000 volunteers.

Apparently, there is a registry listing 150,000 people who are interested in volunteering for the trials. God bless them all.

Like all vaccines, there is a certain percentage of the population where an approved serum will have no affect. There's also a percentage of the population – about 20 percent – who say they will never take a vaccine.

There are doubters who say, hey, where's the vaccine for the common cold (which is also a coronavirus), or where's the cure for influenza, and hold it as an indictment either against science or a Big Pharma conspiracy to keep people sick in order to keep the money rolling in. You can find conspiracies in everything, if you are so inclined.

I myself believe in vaccines. Kim and I have gotten flu shots almost every year in our 40-year marriage, and have not gotten the flu, which I hold as empirical evidence that the flu shot works, even against a virus that mutates every year.

I thank my parents for having me vaccinated against smallpox when I was a child (the scar on my upper left arm has long since disappeared) and I remember taking the pink sugar cubes filled with the polio vaccine, which may have been a requirement to attend school back in the 1950s.

But even if a vaccine is approved, I wonder how effective it will be in a world filled with anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers? The doubters/resisters probably are the reason why the pandemic will linger until we reach herd immunity, which means at least 70 percent of the population will have to be exposed to the virus. We are currently in single digits of national exposure, which means it will take several more years before we attain herd immunity. In the meantime, the death toll will continue to increase.

(In the 1918 influenza pandemic, 675,000 Americans lost their lives (out of a population of 110 million) in a 24-month span. That translates to more than 1,300,000 million deaths in today's terms.)

You can reach herd immunity with a vaccine, too. So thank you, volunteers. Maybe we can reach herd immunity with a dose of herd mentality.