Posts in Susan’s Musings

Can We Talk Vaccines?

April 4th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 115 comments

F.R.I.W.A.F.T.T.  You may not be familiar with that acronym, but my husband rattles it it off whenever we are about to navigate a tricky passage while boating.  It stands for: Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread. I’m not setting sail just now, but I am about to weigh in on probably the only topic that is more contentious and leads to more name-calling, recrimination and venom than the election of President Trump. 

I speak, of course, of vaccines.

While this isn’t a topic that I have devoted a great deal of time to studying, I have read a fair bit. I completely get the public health concerns and the worries about those who are immune-compromised and whose health would be at serious risk were they to contract, for example, measles. As the daughter of a polio survivor, I certainly am not eager to see diseases that have been eradicated reappear. However, I simply don’t understand the vitriol and hatred directed at parents who choose not to vaccinate their children.

People I know who are intelligent, kind and fair-minded on all sorts of controversial topics are nonetheless convinced that there is only one reason that parents might have concerns about vaccines: They believe that these people are stupid. Those who are more sensitive might phrase it somewhat more charitably: Parents who don’t vaccinate  are gullible victims of false information. Ostensibly based on that idea, Facebook and other social media platforms have now removed any articles or videos that raise questions about vaccine safety. Not surprisingly, that autocratic attitude actually bolsters the suspicions of those with questions.

The last time my husband and I sailed in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, we were surprised at a change that the boat rental company we favor had instituted. For years, they had marked off a certain risky passage between two islands in bold red, decisively announcing that charter boats were not allowed to traverse there. This year, they instead marked it as a difficult and dangerous passage and explained that any boat damage sustained while going through there would be charged to the boater.

Why did they make this switch? It turns out that forbidding a passage that, in fact, was navigable with the correct skill set was the equivalent of waving a red cape in front of a bull. Boaters saw going through that passage as an exciting and daring challenge. When the company in effect said, “Feel free to go, but based on our experience we don’t recommend it,” a greater number of their customers chose to avoid the area.

Without weighing in on either side of the vaccination controversy, here are some ideas that deserve to be discussed in an atmosphere of open debate, fact-checking and courtesy. These aren’t necessarily the issues that those who are more invested in this topic would raise, they are simply those that are popping into my head as I write. I think that anyone truly interested in affecting human behavior in the hope of attaining a healthier society should express interest in discussing these ideas rather than tarring and feathering anyone who raises them.

1. Let’s introduce a bit of humility into the mixture. Can we acknowledge that the medical profession and individual doctors have at times made the wrong call? For anyone who thinks otherwise may I recommend reading The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. You might also research the medical establishment’s opposition to the theories of people like Joseph Lister or Sister Kenney, and for good measure look into the accepted medical theories that upheld both slavery and Nazism. It is not ridiculous to ask what might be commonly accepted by the medical community today that is going to embarrass and cause individual doctors guilt down the road.

2. In the same vein of humility, let’s acknowledge that, in the course of history, hordes of people suffered and died due to plagues and illnesses that we no longer see or that are under control.  While correlation does not equal causation, it is rather difficult to make the case that the eradication or lack of prevalence of many of these diseases is unrelated to vaccines and inoculations. Reading and researching the devastation caused by disease in the past is a powerful reminder that today we are blessed indeed. 

See how easy it is to find areas of agreement!

3. Can we get some accurate answers to some really important questions?

The olden days of only a few decades ago used to feature debates where facts mattered and where ideas could be developed. Watch an episode of William Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line and then contrast it to a modern “talk show” where unpopular opinions are shouted down and most answers are delivered in sound bites. The end result is that everyone believes whatever they believe and—often for good and valid reasonsdoesn’t trust anyone offering opposing information.

This means that in order to actually change minds, when someone with credentials says something, they must then take questions from someone else who is accepted as an authority and similarly credentialed. Anyone making an argument loses veracity when they cite only the opposing views of those who are easy to dismiss while ignoring those who are more difficult to ridicule. Censoring any opposing views, such as is happening in this debate, tends to suggest the weakness of an argument, not its strength. I have read numerous anti-anti-vaccine pieces that all feature the idea that science has disproven any connection between autism and vaccines. Leaving aside whether that is accurate, I have also heard numerous concerns about vaccines where the word autism is never raised. Another article pooh-poohing the autism connection, even if accurate, is meaningless if it ignores other worries.

4. There should be a way to get an honest and unassailable answer as to whether physicians get monetary or other incentives to vaccinate patients or whether there is any threat or punishment involved for a pediatric practice with a high percentage of unvaccinated patients (this would include parents going on social media and blasting a pediatrician). Despite looking for an answer, I haven’t found anything I consider decisive. This matters, because the minute doctors are encouraged to make a decision based on anything other than what is best for that specific patient, then no matter what the original good intentions, parents are correct for questioning whatever the doctor recommends. Perhaps the guidelines for getting a medical exemption are drawn unreasonably tightly so that loosening those guidelines might actually result in more, rather than fewer, vaccinations? Perhaps someone could explain why this health “crisis” merits more draconian policies than other, on the surface more serious, health threats that tend to be downplayed and ignored?

5. Here is another question that should be able to be answered factually and should lead to discussion: Do all  ‘first-world’ countries have the same number of vaccines, composition of vaccines and vaccine schedule? If not, why not?

6. My last contribution for this Musing: There seems to be a growing number of allergies, auto-immune diseases and other problems among the young. How accurate is this perception? Who is doing the short and long-term research to ensure that solving one problem with a vaccine isn’t causing different problems? A corollary to that question is whether vaccines provide inferior, equal or superior protection as getting the disease itself.

I no longer have prime responsibility for young children, so I do not need to decide whether to vaccinate or not. However, I am willing to bet that most parents and individuals on both sides of the issue are good people. (Sadly, that good-will assumption does not extend to the government, corporations or medical associations.  People in control of portions of those groups have squandered the right to be trusted.) Portraying the pro-vaccine side as wise and noble crusaders and the anti-vaccine side as dupes and fools does nothing to bring about a society with the safest and most advanced medical protocols. Maybe some mutual respect, active listening and responding to serious questions would be more productive? Alternatively, all my writing has done is anger some, disappoint others and contribute to the fracturing of relationships; after all, F.R.I.W.A.F.T.T.

P.S. Please do not leave comments either for or against vaccinating children. This isn’t the place for that discussion. I simply wanted to point out that a conversation is necessary and possible, rather than for each side to dig in its heels and excoriate those who think differently.

The ability to hold discussions, exchange ideas and ask questions is uniquely human.
We lose some of our humanity when we misuse the power of speech.
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Little Women – and Littler Women

March 28th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 25 comments

Last week Jews around the world celebrated the holiday of Purim. Starting two weeks before the holiday, we revel in a party-like atmosphere. Jewish elementary schools hold silly hat and pajama days, and you can find an abundance of singing, antics and humorous  spoofs in high schools. So, forgive me for thinking that someone was pulling my leg when they mentioned that Nancy Pelosi advocated lowering the voting age to sixteen.

But Purim has passed and those same news reports persist.  It is hard to hear this being discussed as a serious civic suggestion rather than what it really is—a desperate grab for power.  I mean no disrespect to the teenagers in my life, some of whom happen to be better-informed and more stable than many of their elders.  Still, perhaps this raises the question of whether it is time to see beyond the abuses of the past and restrict voting to those who can pass a basics civics and history exam. While this is probably politically untenable, unlike lowering the voting age it might actually result in a government more capable of maintaining the republic our Founders envisioned.

Recently, in a Wall Street Journal interview, actor Mark Hamill, best known as Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movies, made a pertinent point. He spoke of how as a teenager he thought it was awesome that the Beatles in the movie A Hard Day’s Night had hordes of girls running after them. It sounded like a pretty good situation to him. A few decades later, when he found it difficult to have a quiet outing because of  fans approaching him, he saw things a bit differently. As he put it, “What strikes me now is that it’s like a horror movie. These guys are absolutely trapped.” Funny how real life can differ from our adolescent dreams. Life experience doesn’t automatically convey wisdom and maturity but limited life experience makes wisdom and maturity almost unattainable.

A classic book not only stands up to the test of re-reading, it is a different book each time you read it. Most young girls who read Little Women, for example, identify with Jo. Who doesn’t think of herself as clever, talented and a bit feisty?  Yet, a few years down the road that same young woman might identify a bit more with Meg or even with Marmee. And, Heaven help us, at some point crotchety and cantankerous Aunt March seems closest to one’s own stage of life though, hopefully, not to one’s temperament.

Thinking of Aunt March actually brings my mind back to Nancy Pelosi.

Perhaps it is time for the Ms. (what exactly is the plural of Ms.?) Pelosi and Waters, to pick two names,  to lead by example. They could  resign in favor of others who are more popular with the sixteen-year-old crowd. After all, would Senator Taylor Swift or Senator Kim Kardashian really be any worse than what we now have? 

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The Young, the Elite and the Ignorant

March 21st, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 17 comments

My father-in-law, of blessed memory, used to say that people aren’t balance sheets. You can’t tout up a subjective view of a person’s good and bad points, do a quick mathematical computation and emerge with a ranking. Say someone always shoveled his elderly neighbors’ drives (+3), gave 15% of his income to charity (+3) and was meticulously honest in business (+4) but had an explosive temper with his wife and children (-4) and indulged in an affair (-4).  Do the arithmetic: 3 + 3 + 4 – 4 -4 = 2.  This does not mean that you can say that he was a  +2 type of guy. God will make his own calculations, but we human beings can only say that he was a complicated person, doing both outstanding and horrible actions.

The lens of history reveals John Adams, second president of the United States, as a complicated man. Undoubtedly brilliant and deeply involved in the founding of this country, as president he also signed into legislation the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts and was unpopular enough not to earn a second term in office.

Among his greatest moments, in my opinion, was his defense of the British soldiers accused of murder in the misnamed Boston Massacre of 1770, one of the events that led to America’s declaring independence. Although Adams was already favoring breaking with England, he set a precedent that made America different from Europe by establishing that everyone, even those who are unpopular or hold unpopular views, deserve honest representation before the law. He famously said,  “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they can not alter the state of facts and evidence.” 

Though he was a graduate of Harvard, I think John Adams would be less horrified at the lies, bribes and schemes of parents wanting to get their children into supposedly superior universities than at a far greater scandal currently unfolding at his alma mater.

What would truly horrify him would be the call by Harvard students to punish one faculty dean, Ronald Sullivan, for joining Harvey Weinstein’s defense team. These supposedly ‘cream of the crop’ students have no understanding of the concept of a fair trial or the basics of America’s ethical and legal system. Whether of not Mr. Weinstein’s general lifetime behavior ranks him as a +1 or a -7, he is being accused of a legal violation. Lawyers defend horrible people all the time and the behavior of horrible people doesn’t always cross a legal line. If the court of public opinion mandated to the justice system that some people (perhaps those in the offense-of-the-month club) were not worthy of being defended, our legal system would collapse. Even worse, rather than rebuking and educating the students, the administration is treating their childish complaints seriously.

Adams had no illusions about the innate goodness of man, recognizing that humans are eminently corruptible. He understood the lure of lying, bribing and cheating to gain benefit. For that reason he saw the need not only for a Constitution but also for an underlying religious and moral system.

However, when Adams said, “Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people,” I don’t think he foresaw that the ignorant people he was referencing would be students at Harvard. Perhaps the true scandal in the admissions cheating matter is that any  parent would want their child in an elite university where ignorance and indoctrination have replaced a love of learning and a serious liberal arts education.

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Twinkling Talent

March 14th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 18 comments

Please don’t tell the budding musicians in my family but, while I go to their first concerts out of love for them, the music isn’t all that great. Hot Cross Buns and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star grow old rather quickly, especially when played by novice violinists and violists.

This past Sunday, I went to a cello concert, once again motivated by love. This time, the performers, who only a few years ago debuted with the songs mentioned above, provided the audience with a rewarding musical experience. We heard the music of JS Bach and Saint-Saens, Bruch (my grandson’s piece) and Paganini. While not yet quite concert-level performers, these young teenagers’ playing revealed the hours of disciplined practice they have invested. It was a delightful ninety minutes.

There was much to admire. The teachers and parents’ dedication and the youths’ hard work and love for music all obviously deserve praise. But something else jumped out at me as well. The five young men and two young women who performed came from different ethnic, religious, economic and racial groups. In addition to their perseverance and talent, they shared something else in common, something that used to be taken for granted but no longer is. Looking around the audience of relatives and friends (and one woman I spoke to who came because she loves music), I saw mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. And I realized that many teenagers today don’t have that extended family network to cheer them on.

There are the teens whose mothers decided to have a child on their own, depriving their offspring not only of a father but of one set of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins as well. There are the teens who had one parent walk out of their life when a marriage ended—and those whose parents never married to begin with—where one parent didn’t want the responsibility of a child. Certainly, there are fortunate teens whose extended families widen to include step-parents and additional loved ones, but they are outnumbered by those who have fewer adult figures in their lives than biology would suggest. In most cases, the missing figures are men.

There are more than a few foolish women who argue that men aren’t necessary in a child’s life. The entire (false) concept that pregnancy is an issue of “a woman’s body–a woman’s choice”  has been drilled into the culture suggesting that anything other than a man’s biological contribution is superfluous. The idea that any and every variation of family is equivalent is so widespread, that I rejoiced not only in the euphonious music but also in the web of love and support that surrounded these young musicians.

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Speak Up Before You’re Shut Up

March 7th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 33 comments

At a certain point in United States history, western expansion hit the Pacific Ocean.  Having built a country whose legends included families crossing the Atlantic in search of religious and economic freedom and sagas of thousands of ‘Pa Ingalls’ who kept moving west as previously sparsely settled areas were populated, this vast body of water presented a problem. Where could the rugged individualist now go?

I’ve got good news for those who dream of living back in the days when a man could grasp the reins of his life and determine his own destiny. Today, you don’t even need to leave your own home to do so.

Whether you went west on the Oregon Trail or followed the Gold Rush frenzy, one thing was always true. Even when embarking on the journey with a group, major decisions and responsibilities lay with the individual. Blind faith in an expedition’s leader was rare. Failure and success usually depended upon one’s own instincts, skills, hard work and family.

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Time for Mass Resignations at Amazon?

February 28th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 17 comments

There is a concept in Jewish thought that God judges us in the manner in which we judge others. If we overlook a friend who slights us, God will similarly overlook our slighting of Him. If we judge someone else’s actions in the most favorable light, God will  judge our actions in the most favorable light. If we go out of our way to help another person, God will likewise provide extra help for us. 

It would be lovely if our society adopted this idea. Anyone who insisted during the Justice Kavanaugh’s show trial that, “We must believe all women,” should be held to that standard even if they or someone they revere is accused. Meanwhile, in a similar situation, those of us who argued for upholding the rule of law and evidence would be given a fair hearing.

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Eleanor’s Eleven Keys to a More Fulfilling Life

February 21st, 2019 Posted by Reading Recommendations, Susan's Musings 29 comments

Have you noticed how many books have a number in the title, like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?  Or how many articles are enticingly entitled “The Top 5 Reasons We Fall Out of Love”?  We human beings love lists. Who wouldn’t be smitten with the idea that if I only do these seven or ten or fifteen things, my life will be better, my marriage will be stronger and my career will flourish? Of course, it is easier to read the ideas than to put in the hard work of executing them. And, of course, no list—even the most marvelous one—hits every area every time.

I recently read a book from decades ago, with a subtitle that still resonates today. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, one of America’s most admired women, wrote You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life only a few years before her death (decades after her husband’s presidency). The advice she gives holds up rather well, though I think she would be shocked to discover that by today’s standards she might very well be considered a hard-core conservative rather than an icon of the Democrat Party.

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Insensitive or Unforgivable?

February 14th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 60 comments

Starting in 1965 and continuing through 1971, Hogan’s Heroes was a popular TV comedy. Actor Bob Crane played Colonel Hogan, the highest ranking American prisoner of war interned in a German POW camp. Unlike the actual Nazis, the Germans in the show were invariably rather benign and clumsy oafs, continually being outwitted by their prisoners.

If Nazis and captured American military men don’t sound terribly funny to you, I agree. As a child, I was enough offended by the show that when an adult in my orbit enjoyed it, it seriously reduced my respect for that individual.

Now, decades later, I am rethinking my views. Increasingly, accusations are being hurled at people for actions they took decades earlier. Imagine if there had been a TV show that portrayed a Southern plantation in the 1850s where the Black slaves actually ran the show because the White masters were incompetent? Would one of the show’s actors or anyone accused of liking the show be electable today? I doubt it.

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Winter White; Congressional Blight

February 7th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 66 comments

I have a book on my shelves titled, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Anyone under the age of thirty could be forgiven for thinking that it is a contemporary political tome. It isn’t. Published in 1942, it is the story of two young women taking a European tour after finishing college in America in the 1920s.

My daughters grew up doing Rainbow Brite® puzzles and drawing pictures of nature’s colorful phenomenon. The rainbow’s vibrant appearance made it a popular theme for children’s parties and decorations. Today, the rainbow is a political statement.

I have a number of white articles of clothing in my closet. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the dominant color in the synagogue is white as Jews illustrate the idea of our sins turning as white as snow after we repent. I am drawing the line here. I am not surrendering the color white to today’s political resistance to the President.

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Not an Army of One

February 1st, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 26 comments

For a few years, the United States Army’s recruiting slogan was, “An Army of One.” Unlike the slogan, “Be All You Can Be,” or other ones that were used for over twenty years, “An Army of One” was introduced in 2001 and retired only a handful of years later in 2006.

My husband and I were privileged to spend this week with senior officers and their spouses. We both had the honor of speaking at the Army’s 2019 Religious Leaders Symposium which gathered chaplains stationed around the world for sessions designed to equip them to better help their troops.

It became clear to us why, “An Army of One,” failed. Although it was probably designed to encourage young people to recognize how serving in the Army would benefit them and allow them to maximize their individual potential, it missed the boat. One of the strongest gifts of army life is that you are not alone; you are part of a community and family.

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