Book Review: Loonshots

Here we have a book delving into ‘phase separation,’ and ‘dynamic equilibrium,’ and the Bush-Vail theory, in other words, a book that promises to be technical…and is. But it also explains why society moves forward once we get out of our own way, and let the lunatics have their chances. Loonshots could be their chance.

Loonshot launchers don’t seem to restrict themselves to technology, either. The author ranges over several disciplines & characters: Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Vannevar Bush, Theodore Vail, WW-2 and the transistor, why we speak English and not Chinese, Papin & his ‘digester of bones.’ There’s something in this book for every nerd and every geek.

It explains the difference between P-type loonshots, based on existing products, and S-type loonshots that are strategic initiatives. It also shows why certain companies & products once seen as invulnerable crash and burn, despite attempts by their principles to right the ship. Pan Am airlines is the example given. That once proud, and dominant airline, the largest and most venerable line in the world, failed in such spectacular fashion once deregulation came along, that industry experts are still scratching their heads.

After reading Loonshots, I can’t say I truly understand the importance of its premise, but I am convinced that we’d be worse off without them. And we’d likely be speaking Chinese. Pan Am captains once had people asking for their autographs. That’s how popular their employer was, and the esteem Pan Am held in the world. Within a few short years the airline lost that exalted status, and sank into oblivion. Anyone born after 1960 won’t remember when Pan Am ruled the skies.

Loonshots explains how that happened, and will continue to happen, unless societies lunatics are free to take their shots. Four stars only because the book became a bit too technical in the middle.

Book Review: The Happy Bottom Riding Club

In recognition of International Women’s Day, a review of one of my favorite books, from Dr. Lauren Kessler a woman who is one of my favorite authors, about another woman who is perhaps the most fascinating, mystifying, irritating, engaging, and colorful characters in aviation history. Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes was… Well, here’s the review of The Happy Bottom Riding Club..

Here we have a biography of a woman who was, arguably, one of the more colorful, outrageous, and engaging characters of her time, or perhaps any time. Referring to Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes as an early feminist would be akin to calling Mary Shelley a good author, or Gloria Steinem a decent magazine editor. Pancho Barnes grew up immersed in monetary wealth, but she made a conscious decision early on to live her life free of the trappings (pun intended) of that wealth. Indeed, Ms Barnes’ most endearing, or perhaps most aggravating trait seemed to be her disdain for money, and her conscious effort to spend it faster than it arrived in her pocket.

Inheriting her carefree attitude from a beloved grandfather, she emulated the fellow all her life. Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe made a name for himself as the first to fly a balloon in the Civil War. Grandpa Thaddeus adored young Florence, and the feeling was mutual. He told his darling granddaughter that she would fly one day, but Grampa Thaddeus had no idea just how far, and in what fashion the future Pancho Barnes would do so. She idolized her grandfather, and vowed to go well beyond his exploits.

Here’s how far. Pancho Barnes came by her name on one of her many daredevil adventures in Mexico, one of several forays she embarked on in her rush to escape the boredom of her staid, circumscribed life in moneyed California. She became one of the first women in America to fly her own airplane, married early and often, the first time to a preacher, then took several men as her lovers, and married three others. She traveled the world looking for the next cure for her restlessness, refusing to submit to the conventions of her time, particularly those concerning female deportment.

The author has succeeded in painting a portrait of a life lived at the edges, and without regard to social approval. She’s written the book with care, and with a well developed sense of the journalist’s style, refusing to judge, leaving that to readers. Just the facts, ma’am, is the mantra here, and Kessler holds that line throughout. The writing is expositive without being breezy, informative without adulation, and well researched in its insights and detail. This is a history book without meaning to be. Anyone curious about the background of aviation in America and/or womens’ place in it will latch onto this book and explore it cover to cover. Pancho Barnes wasn’t just present at the creation of womens’ aviation history she made a lot of it. In any scene at her club in the Mojave Desert, where icons of early aviation gathered, Pancho Barnes is close by, slapping backs, filling shot glasses, sharing flying yarns with the likes of Chuck Yeager, Jake Ridley, Ike Northrup and many other test pilots. She’d done her share of those exploits, and was accepted among those men as an equal. Why women don’t figure more prominently in aviation history is even more curious considering the activities of Pancho Barnes and women like her.

Rich man’s daughter & granddaughter, aviator, songwriter, lover of countless men, movie actor/stunt pilot, screenwriter, land speculator and creator of The Happy Bottom Riding Club, Pancho Barnes crafted a life that never stopped until the day she died. Not exactly a positive role model for young women perhaps, but, maybe so… As the author has done, we leave that to readers. Five stars, and I don’t award those very often.

Book Review: On Living

Here we have a book by a counselor to the dying, someone on the front lines of the end of life battle. Egan’s book is full of anecdotal essays that range from the profound with a fellow named ‘Reggie’, who offers Egan a connection based on Saltines and strawberry jam, to the near-comical with ‘Gloria’, (though her story will give anyone’s heart a painful tug), to the revelation we gain from ‘Cynthia’ that we must accept our bodies as they are. Gloria demystifies the dying process, explaining that it serves to remove any filter we may have, allowing us to speak freely. This is a valuable aspect of dying, however difficult it may be to listen to certain stories. For example: Gloria explains this by referring to a delicate bodily function she can no longer do, since she’s convinced herself that she lacks the aperture associated with it! We learn a lot from Egan’s small, but expansive book: that people don’t typically talk about a god, but about their families; that counseling the demented is both the hardest & the easiest assignment; that we must be willing to follow up people’s stories, but that doing so may alter our own lives; that regardless of how strange and exotic others’ end of life beliefs may be, we must accept them as they’re delivered, and meet people where they are. One of the more important takeaways from On Living is that counselors to the dying, and that may be any one of us in time, must absolutely meet people where they are. The author refers to a phenomenon called Pareidolia, a human tendency—scientifically documented—that causes us to see human faces and forms in inanimate objects. It explains why some people see angels, Egan explains. She goes on: Who’s to say they’re not real? The most important message in On Living is this: Stories are what have defined the lives of the dying, and what have assigned value to those lives. In dismissing anyone’s story, we devalue their life, claiming that whatever they have done with it didn’t matter. There are no ‘nonsense’ stories; everyone’s story is central to who they are, and instead of an imposition, listening and hearing those end of life stories is a privilege. Egan has learned to listen very well.

Book Review: Pilots Write Poetry?

Whimsical, and Wonderful

I didn’t know much about Haikus before reading this little book of them, but it made me want to read more. The inscription in Latin verba volant; scripta manent (spoken words fly; written words endure) may seem almost backward for a book about aviation, which this book mostly is. But the meaning is clear: words are important either way, and since pilots’ words, especially over radios and in cockpit communication are vitally important in their trade, it’s good to see them compiled in poetry for a change. A delightful little book, with illustrations by children of pilots, and haikus in 6 different categories: poems about empathy, affirmation, the beauty of the earth, and the wry humor that exists among airline crews. There’s something for everyone. Plus, proceeds from the book help aviation folks get through the pandemic, which has disrupted their industry, causing furloughs and uncertainty. So good for Captain Linda Pauwels for putting this together, and adding to the collection of flying tales in such a whimsical way.

Book Review: Hamnet

The source of Shakespeare’s Passion?

Hamnet is the most captivating and well crafted novel I’ve read for a very long time. O’Farrell’s wonderful tale of love, and seduction, passion and death, myth and medicinals, plague and playhouses in 16th century England grabbed me from the first page, and would not let me go at the last. I will carry Agnes, the tutor, Susanna, Judith, Bartholomew, Mary, John, and most especially Hamnet with me forever. This story is wrenching, insightful, and quite possibly true as source material for the greatest play in the English language. We can only speculate what might have been had young Hamnet lived to follow his famous father. Would those plays have entered the canon? Or would the famous father not felt such overpowering grief to write them? It’s a question that perhaps only young Hamnet himself might answer. This simple, unread and unschooled eleven-year old may have been the catalyst for the torrent of literary marvels his father obsessed himself with, his death at such a tender age awakening the muse that brought us a flood of immortal works. Five stars only because there aren’t ten to give!

Review: The Book of Calamities

Human suffering through the ages

Here we have a book that takes us into the depths of all that comprises human suffering. Five questions, each with its own painful and diligent explanation/answer, read almost like the various circles of Dante’s hell. Why me? How do I endure? What is just? What does my suffering say about me? About God? And finally, What do I owe those who suffer? The author cites several characters throughout history who we’ve come to associate with suffering: Boethius, Gilgamesh & Enkidu, Joan Didion, Victor Frankl, Simone Weil, Thich Nhat Han, and several others who declaim from their own perspective.

Trachtenberg circles around one particular cause of all human suffering, religiosity and its singular mission to, as the author says, ‘…raise human beings to heaven on a tower of corpses.’ He examines this further, concluding that our attraction to religion derives from the fact that humans are ‘order seeking animals’ and that religion is ‘man’s revolt against mortality.’

This book may be singular insofar as, for this reader at least, its author seems more interesting than his topic. Trachtenberg appears to have written this work largely from his own deep dive into the very depths of misery described here. His conclusion seems to be that, to answer any of the five questions, human beings must experience misery, perversion, violence, and depravity first hand. Those of us living modern, sanitized lives quite possibly cannot understand this most basic of human queries: As Gilgamesh asks, ‘Must I, too, lie down like him (Enkidu) and never rise again?’ Caution, readers, you may want a dictionary close by. Example: To scry = to foretell; Oubliette = a secret dungeon. There are others.

EOL: The Chat We’re Not Having

No need to be alarmed, friends, and no need to pay keener attention if you happen to be a beneficiary to my laughingly meager estate. I’m as healthy and sound as any near 73-year-old might be, and probably sounder than most, if perhaps a bit grumpy and too quick to snarl at certain things, hopelessly confusing digital products and republicans, for example. I’m fine. Really. Relax.

But yes, there is a common theme to the books pictured above: We’re beginning an endeavor, first at the local level, later on, we hope, with a broader reach, to encourage people to tend to their end of life wishes, desires, specifics, and loose ends. It’s a long story.

Suffice to say that both Mariah and I, having worked in the vineyard of emergency medicine for several years, have seen far too much flagrant inattention to the details of our collective demise, too much ignorance (Ignore-Ance) of the way that we in our hyper-medicalized society always seem shocked and unprepared for life’s ultimate inevitability. Did you know that you’re going to die? Astonishing, isn’t it? I know, I was amazed to hear it myself. Who knew?

About the book picture: One thing you’ll see posted here on a regular basis is book reviews, not just about EOL issues, but about the literary works I’ve been drawn to recently, and a few not so recently. It is indeed one of retired life’s deepest pleasures to have (almost) sufficient time to read what one wishes, without the aggravating interruptions of modern life, kid concerns, career distractions, loud noises, and the incessant social obligations that once defined our younger years. I’ve become resigned, even thrilled by the lack of interest of late in discussions of my bladder issues, or my real feelings about the new hearing aids, or remembrances of favorite TV shows of yore, Lassie, and Laugh-In, and the ever popular, madcap antics of Andy & Barney & Aint Bea & Opie. I’ve discovered that the fastest way to clear the room may be asking who shot JR? Life is good at 73.

THE 3 MASKETEERS

The picture above is Mariah and me, and mom Rosie. We 3 Masketeers live together in relative harmony here in the middle of the country, in the middle of an Iowa winter, in the middle of the apparently waning pandemic. We navigate the standard discomforts of shuffling around each other, making the adjustments called for in any family setting. All that, plus Rosie’s advanced age, the winter of her life, have given us added motivation to focus on EOL stuff.

So here’s your homework, dear readers. In my diminished sentience & inattention to such things, I no longer know to whom I’m writing. If you’d be so kind, take a moment to advise me #1, if you did indeed receive this post, and #2, if you’d like to continue receiving them.

And I suppose number three might be this: If you’d like more info on EOL, end of life issues, and/or you have an interesting and valuable story pertaining to that topic, we’d love to hear about it. Speaking of EOL stories, in my next post, and with deference to HIPAA guidelines, I’ll mention a fellow named Daniel, one of my helicopter patient/passengers some foggy years hence. Daniel’s story will chill your arms, I guarantee it. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading. Please let me hear from you. Many thanks.

The Senate Must Convict

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The U.S. Senate has the unenviable task of trying an impeached (former) president, deciding whether or not to convict him, thereby erasing any future plan he may have to hold public office. This is one man’s opinion of why the senate must convict Donald Trump, and make his banishment real, and permanent.

First of all, Trump’s incitation of those who committed insurrection against our symbols and structures of government is clear to any reasonable person. The lit match was not struck on January 6th 2021, but much, much earlier, as far back as Charlottesville in August 2017. The fuse may have been 4 years long, but it led from Trump to those terrorists and their nihilistic assault nonetheless.

Secondly, the most sacred edifice in our democratic republic was assaulted by an unruly mob intent on subverting our democracy. This was the biggest crime against ‘We the People’ ever to have been perpetrated by residents of this country. Why are we even discussing its criminality, or the degree of it? That was not an out of control frat party. It was a crime. Against all of us.

Thirdly, those men who took to the streets at Trump’s behest had clearly abandoned fealty to the U.S. in favor of loyalty to him. The last time enemies of our state breached such a symbol of our national existence those ‘thugs’ were wearing red coats, and serving under the aegis of King George the 3rd. Would we be debating the level of their crimes? Might we be contemplating how egregious their breach was? Those men invading our Capitol in January were American citizens, you say? Were they? Were they really? Their actions do not fit my definition of citizenship.

Thirdly, any hesitation by GOP members of the senate to convict Donald Trump would be an act of desperation and venality, an effort more to secure standing and electability than patriotism to the country they claim to serve. Let this be a litmus test, simple documentation of just how seriously members of that august body take their oath to preserve and defend the U.S. Constitution.

If those GOP members need fig leaves, the polite adornments of many cowardly and self-serving politicians over the years, here are readily available articles of drapery: Mr. Trump cost the GOP two seats in Georgia, the state itself, Arizona, a GOP bastion, numerous members of their party who are defecting, and recently the support and monetary indulgence of numerous previous big dollar donors. In addition, the man those self-styled commandos marched down Pennsylvania Avenue for once again remained embunkered, due to inflamed bone spurs no doubt. His rabid and ragtag army have now given themselves over to be prosecuted for their misguided loyalty. I feel certain that GOP members who hesitate to convict Trump can use this laundry list, spun in whichever way they choose, to thereby retain their seats.

I hesitate to add this factor, but I must: If those criminals Trump incited had been black men and women, there would have been a bloodbath in our Capitol’s hallowed halls. If we’re serious in this nation about addressing the scourge of white supremacy, can there be a better, more propitious moment and circumstance to prove the gravity of our intent? Convicting the phosphorescently white Donald Trump of inciting his mob of caucasian lackeys will send a clear, unmistakeable signal that the words of equality under law in our sacred document are real, and true, and enforceable on all, without exceptions based on pigmentation.

Lastly, the senate must convict Donald Trump to send a clear and immutable message down the ages: Those who choose to undermine our sacred institutions, or to attack the governing mechanisms we hold dear, will be punished to the law’s full extent. If this signal is not sent, we will in some future place and time see another charismatic leader, one much smarter and craftier than the stupid and unimaginative Donald Trump, succeed where he did not. The senate needs to act in unambiguous fashion, with its full authority, and with haste. The U.S. Senate must convict Donald Trump, and remove him from ever serving in elected office again.

Thanks for reading. Please contact your legislative leaders.

Blood & Stitches: An Allegory

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When I was a strapping 11 year old bumpkin, I was riding my Huffy 3 speed bike one lazy afternoon alongside a row of parked cars, enjoying life as only a foolish young boy can, in other words wholly thoughtless and oblivious to reality. At one point, for reasons still unknown to me lo these many decades hence, I decided to try a little trick riding, just to see what might happen. Pedaling along, I switched hands, right hand over left on the handlebars, to test whether or not I could maintain control of the bicycle in such backward, criss-crossed fashion.

Dear reader, I could not. The very next thing I remember I was crawling from under a parked ’57 Chevy, my somewhat disheveled Huffy 3 speed wedged beneath the car, and with a stinging road rash tormenting my right knee. Plus, and this took a bit of time to discover, I was dripping blood. A throb in my cheek grew in intensity, becoming more urgent by the second. I probed my cheek, tracing the source of the blood—there was a substantial amount of it—soon landing with an attending yelp on a deep gash just under my left eye.

I stood, knees wobbling, slightly disoriented, more than a little confused as to why I was in fact bleeding profusely, my cheek now on fire with pain, with my bicycle oddly ensconced under a ’57 Chevy. What in the name of all that is sane and sober, or least explicable, had happened to me?

Then I saw the shards of plastic. Scattered about my feet were several pieces of red plastic, the reason for their placement there a mystery to me, until the fog in my addled brain cleared a bit, and I looked at the back of that vehicle. The Chevy’s left rear turn signal housing had been shattered, its red plastic pieces and parts now in a random pile where I stood. I began piecing together (not the plastic parts, that was an impossibility,) but the previous minute or so of my trick-riding life, and the event that had resulted in all that busted plastic. Evidently, in my adolescent insouciance, when I’d criss-crossed my mitts on the handlebars I’d immediately lost control, and vaulted off the bicycle, smashing face first into the car’s rear light display, breaking the turn signal housing, with said plastic pieces in turn carving up my face.

Knee and cheek throbbing, blood blinding me, I managed to free the bike from its entrapment, rejiggered the somewhat wonkerjawed handlebars, checked to see if my attempted heroics had been witnessed, (they had not been, as far as I could see), and rode home straightaway. My mother took one look, ordered me into the car, and grabbed the keys. One hour, and ten stitches later I was resting at home, not much the worse for wear.

My collision with that plastic taillight assembly happened six decades ago. The stitch mark is long healed, its once obvious scar no longer in evidence. But I still cannot explain the why and wherefore of my chuckleheaded attempt that day to drive my Huffy by using opposing hands on its guiding mechanism. What ever was I thinking? Such youthful misadventures explain, I suppose, why 11 year olds heal faster than their elders, and perhaps also why women live longer than men, though that reasoning would have escaped me at age 11.

I thought about this incident in my childhood just this evening, as I stood under a hot shower contemplating the events of the last two days in the U.S. It seemed a fair allegory, lending itself to America’s reckless and disheartening, albeit bumpy and chaotic ride during our recent past. It will take us a fair amount of time to fully understand and process exactly what happened to us as a people over the course of the past four years: Why our national norms and traditions seem just now to be littering the street like so much shattered plastic; why nearly half a million of our fellows lie lifeless as if unsaddled by a viral pandemic; why our collective conveyance of unity and civil dialogue lie twisted and wonkerjawed: and why we need, in the midst of all of the crisscrossed messaging and innuendo to stitch together our national confidence and idealism.

As I watched our new president recite his inaugural, I sensed a new and better mood creeping in, a refreshing wave of honest if harsh reality entering our national consciousness. Once blinded and wobbly by what has happened to us—even now we’re not entirely certain what it was—I sense that despite the busted pieces and parts, despite the bloody evidence and aching throb of disappointment, despite the confusion and bewilderment just now we can see our way home. And something else: We know there are stitches in our future, perhaps a lot of them.

We’ve picked ourselves up. We’ve traced the source of our injury, we’ve yelped a bit if we’re honest, and though the pulsing pain may grow worse for a time, we know it will soon abate. We understand now, if we understand nothing else, that criss-crossing our once confident hands atop the rudders of guidance, our traditional tillers of honesty, decency, truth, and reverence for science and reality, those steering methods are thwarted at our peril.

We know something else as well. That unlike that addled, feckless youth who relied on untested and radical maneuvers, that the staid and solid system we’ve built works just fine, even after attempts to foil it. It steers us straight, and safe, and sure. It leaves us unharmed, and unbroken. It honors the dignity and property of others. Unlike that callow youth’s experience that day, we know that our collective criss-crossing was observed by many millions of others, that the resulting, one might even say inevitable collision was indeed witnessed by many astonished and disheartened allies, but also by emboldened and encouraged adversaries as well.

As I rested quietly that embarrassing afternoon of blood and stitches, my mother’s ice pack soothing the pain in my cheek, watching escapist kid fare on black and white TV, I tried to piece together the event that had put me there. Was it embarrassing? Yes, it was. Was it confusing? Indeed. Was I certain to never ever do such a thing ever again? Boy howdy. I was grateful I’d escaped it with as little injury as I had.

As oblivious as I was at 11 I understood how it had affected people around me. My mother had no need of a trip to an ER that afternoon, and as well no need or desire to pay for my medical attentions. My siblings, already tending toward jealousy, had little need or inclination to see me pampered, if only for an evening. My father was forced, by mother’s attentions to me, to prepare his own dinner, poor man. And the fellow whose Chevy I’d disfigured with my recklessness had no time or desire to replace his broken taillight. (Yes, I did dutifully inform him in the coming days that it was I who had done the damage.)

Back to the allegory: I believe we must now stand again, wobbly though we may be, broken and bleeding as we are, and stitch ourselves together once more. We must report our misdeeds and carelessness with openness and courage. We must fess up to the imposition we’ve caused, and make necessary amends. And we must, in the poetical cadence of a truly precious young woman named Amanda Gorman ‘…lay down our arms…so we can reach out our arms…to one another.* No more criss-crossing; no more trick-riding with our sacred values; no more tempting fate with the fragile and vital experiment we’ve been launched upon and entrusted with for 245 years.

I believe, dear friends, that this is the only position of any value for arms attempting to guide us.

Thank you for reading. Comments welcome.

* The Hill We Climb, Amanda Gorman

The Boll Weevil

Boll Weevil Monument

In the town square of Enterprise Alabama there’s a monument, a tribute that’s one of a kind—The world’s only statue erected to honor an agricultural pest. The story is straightforward: Local farmers’ cotton crops were being devastated by a little bug the size of a pencil eraser. The Boll Weevil, (Anthonomus grandis), was chewing up the delicate bolls, threatening to erase the sole source of income, the very livelihood and survival of those farmers, and of a vast portion of the U.S. economy.

Watching their way of life vanishing, destroyed by an insect that was barely visible, those farmers did something more enlightened than one might think. They saw the boll weevil for the wake-up call it was, the messenger bringing a long overdo but critical warning: Those farmers were chained to one crop, and when that crop was destroyed, they would be too. Did they despair? Did they wring their hands, or plant more cotton? Did they pray to the god of tilling and turning to intervene and banish the nasty pest sent to ravage their fields? What did they do?

BOLL WEEVIL
(Anthonomus grandis)

They planted peanuts! Before long the message had spread across the American South: King Cotton, the one crop that had brought so much prosperity—and so much misery and division, depending on how similar the color of ones skin was to the color of that cotton—that dependence was about to destroy them!

Within a generation cotton had serious competition from peanuts, and corn, and flax, and numerous other crops. The Boll Weevil had been a herald of change, and people recognized it with a statue.

SARs-Cov-2

You know where this is going. I’m not fully prepared at this moment to suggest a statue in the town commons to the new coronavirus. Nonetheless, the potential that invisible bug has to reorder our lives is already apparent. Like the boll weevil, the virus is quite literally destroying whatever social framework and common order we once referred to as ‘normal.’

Those southern farmers once went about their lives. They ordered their seeds prior to each planting season, prepared the soil, cleared vast new acreage, drilled those seeds into the loamy dirt of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina. They turned their enslaved human beings into those fields to tend and nurture the crop. Then the boll weevil feasted; the cotton failed; those farmers looked beyond the wreckage, and changed their methods. So can we.

If we reap the opportunities the virus presents, we’ll be able to discern its origins, and repair the breach that allowed it access; to use the knowledge we’ve gained in crafting a vaccine, and turn that new weapon of understanding to other illnesses such as HIV, SARS, TB, or looming pathogens we’re told await us. We can use the current infestation to improve our health infrastructure, and to address the inequities it has revealed. We can see the way our current methodologies of agriculture and nutrition leave us exposed to viruses yet to be identified and named. We can understand that our current practices in those fields are harmful to the earth, and that many of them are simply unsustainable.

The statue to the Boll Weevil in Enterprise Alabama has been vandalized numerous times. Often enough that authorities have moved the original monument into a nearby train station/museum, where security cameras focus on it 24/7. There will be vandals. History is replete with them, and it’s been stained by the damage they’ve done, the burden those rapacious rogues have delivered on all of us. That’s the subject of a whole new post, especially in light of recent events in the U.S. Capitol, speaking of vandals.

So I close with a suggestion: Let’s be ready to thank the microscopic but mighty coronavirus for breaking open a door of ignorance. While it’s critical that we defeat this virus, it may be more important to learn from it. Thanks for reading.