While I teach

My students come to lecture armed with backpacks and phones and notebooks and laptops and model kits and colored pencils. I bring a Mac and iPad and Crayon and connecting cords and laser pointer and wipes and hand sanitizer and paper and pens and a plan. The only thing weird are the masks.

They sit in pairs or alone with empty seats around them. I wipe the mouse and keyboard and podium and table before I pull out my gear. I hang my staticky coat on a doorknob and lean my umbrella against the wall. I pull at the ear straps to tighten my N95 and watch the clock so I start right at the minute. As the final seconds before lecture tick away I think about reactions and mechanisms and pop quizzes and resonance and formal charges and elementary steps and proton transfers. Everything in my head pushes COVID into a little corner. The beast shrinks down from an ogre to a mouse so I can concentrate on something else for 75 minutes.

I begin by declaring it’s time to start. I point out any visible noses in the room and remind those noses not to take in or give back any unfiltered air. I remind the snackers no food or drink in lecture (so they keep their noses in and stay protected behind their masks). I punch down the COVID pest again to make him tame and quiet, and I begin.

While I teach my brain does a dozen things at once. Focus on the material. Talk about it and why it’s relevant and connected to what we knew before. Write while I talk. Preview. Draw while I talk. Pause to let them catch up on drawing structures and mechanism arrows. Explain. Do an example. Read their nonverbal response (from just their eyes, eyebrows, and foreheads). Clarify with colors. Ask for questions. Think about answers to those questions by trying to tease out the misconception from the five words of the question. Answer what I think the question meant. Thank the student for asking the question and provide other details about other possible misconceptions. Advance the slide. Start the next topic. Check the time. Find the password for the pop quiz. Think ahead to what’s next, when is the exam, how far should we get today, is there time for another example? should I show the whole mechanism or just talk through it? is there time for students to try a problem? is my TA getting this idea for the recitation follow-up and quiz? did I remember to take a picture for contact tracing? have we laughed yet? should I let this class get ahead of the other class? call out the slipped mask under the visible nose, provide a more complicated example and work through it, provide another and ask them to help me work through it, provide another and tell them to work together, show the answer and ask for discussion, wonder who is paying the tuition for the kids who are playing on their phones and whether those payers know their student does not pay attention at all in class, give the pop quiz, make a silly comment to make them remember something important, smile behind my mask while they laugh at me, check the time, teach one more concept, look ahead to the next lecture, declare that’s all the time we have and have a good weekend, thank them for coming to class, pack up while answering last minute questions, remember COVID (looming and relentless at my shoulder), wipe the podium and everything I touched, wonder when cleaning supplies will be provided so I don’t have to bring my own, remember why cleaning supplies are important, hope the spread was minimal, tighten my mask, pack up all the entropy I created, clear out for the next professor, wonder if those plexiglass sneeze guards are coming soon, check email on my phone while I walk back to my office and read about more sick students.

Teaching in person is the riskiest part of my workday. I leave each class certain I have picked up the virus and am now contagious. I tighten my mask and share less than 5% of my breath so I don’t spread potential sickness to my next class. And I get tested every week.

It’s rough out there, but we’re doing it.

TWL: flattened curve, WAR AND PEACE, ilk, and a rant

FIVE point two seven MILLION Americans caught COVID again this week. They caught it from the 5 million who were sick last week, and they will spread it to 5 million more next week. It’s as if humans have no idea about how to defend ourselves from a contagious virus. Try wearing a mask. A good one. Whenever you are around humans. When you are sick, or they are, or either of you might be. Let’s all try to have fewer than 5 million cases next week. Please.

Is there any good news? Sure. The curve is flattened, which usually signals a pending decline. Let’s hope.

It appears the US is still on track to surpass its 2020 total caseload next week (a whole year of lockdown in 2020 beaten in three weeks of open-for-business-without-masks in 2022), and we’ll very likely surpass 2021 cases (the year lockdown was lifted, schools reopened, and vaccines became available, but almost half of our fellow citizens refused to help and so the virus mutated to Delta and then Omicron) in a month.

In the 105 weeks of this pandemic, Americans have suffered more than 67 million cases, and more than 850,000 deaths. This pandemic feels like reading WAR AND PEACE (or THE ODYSSEY, or any of the Tolkien series, or a single paragraph by Hemingway (IMHO)) and thinking (constantly) when will it ever end?

So much of this misery was avoidable. Think back to the ridiculous early days of bleach, hydroxychloroquine, it’ll go away in the summer, wear a mask if you want but it’s your face and we’d never take away your right to show your face because the other 7 billion of us all agree the world is all yours, it’s all under control, it’s a hoax…and continuing today with dewormed, urine-drinking, free-breathing, unvaccinated, nose-out, maskfree spreaders, lawmakers, judges and their ilk. (Avoid the ilk.) These folks are a massive burden the rest of us continue to carry, and their me-first attitudes have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Yes, yes, yes, I know, some of this post is a one-sided noisy rant of this opinionated blogger that you chose to read. But most of this post is reliable data from the Johns Hopkins site.

Now we can self-test at home. Get four tests per residence for free through the USPS site here.

TWL: our world of sadness

It took 30 weeks back in 2020 for the US to reach a total of 5 million confirmed COVID cases. In the last seven days, we had more than 5 million new cases. Simple math, the virus is spreading 30 times faster than it was midsummer of 2020.

Though we’re told the current predominant strain of COVID-19 is “milder” and “more contagious” than their older cousins, with so many cases, the next month will bring heartache because more people we love are going to die, while our children sit in schools (the most densely packed human spaces in the world) without teachers (because they’re all out sick), and college kids share breath at football games (beyond my comprehension, and I love football), and diehards still scoff at masks (which is so 2020), and spread and spread and spread, and basically give up the fight.

5 million cases in one week

There have been over 9 million cases in the US so far in 2022. As noted last week, at this rate we’ll beat 2021 by mid-February.

I’m sorry to always deliver such sickening numbers. I’m sure I ruin your Tuesday every week. By only checking the data on Tuesdays, I can let myself think about other stuff all week, like how much avocado to put in my salad, whether to make jelly doughnuts now or wait ’til Fat Tuesday, and how to pass off cauliflower rice as real rice to my best friend. (The secret to getting him to eat anything is to sprinkle on some garlic and parmesan cheese.) I promise, I don’t just think about food. I also think about how to play Coldplay’s Clocks on the piano. I think I’ll have to memorize it in order to play it fast enough. It has a bunch of flats (those are the black keys) and they take up a lot of my brain space. I’m also crocheting things: I made a scarf because I’m always freezing, and I’m going to fix an old purse by making a new outer cover for no reason except to make something and sit under a blanket in the quiet while I do so. I’m also sleeping like a hibernating bear every night. I love cold nights. I’m also back to teaching in person. I try not to think about that too much. And while I’m teaching, I get to focus on tiny things like atoms and molecules instead of giant tidal waves like pandemics. I do get tested every week and wear a KN95 or N95 mask. And my students are very brave.

Like many of you, this pandemic is wearing me down to a crumpled nub of myself. I remember me. I hope to get her back. But she’s fading into the third person, crushed by this world full of sadness.

TWL: we’re gonna need a bigger y-axis

We all saw the terror in their eyes in the movie Jaws when the huge-beyond-imagination-shark was sighted up close waaaay out in the vast ocean, and one of the three dudes muttered, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Well, up close and personal, the Velcro virus, sticky and contagious, has no need for stealth because so many of its victims line up unprotected to take their turn. Brace yourselves–our former y-axis has been blown to smithereens by the caseloads this week with almost 4 million new cases. DOUBLE the number from last week. More than half a million cases each day in the US of A. So, I say we’re gonna need a bigger y-axis to graph this week’s case data.

Here’s another way to look at the data: 4-week chunks. Almost 8 million cases in the last 4 weeks.

(Again, we needed a bigger y-axis. If you’re asking what’s a y-axis? I respectfully request you stop reading this blog.)

I remember at the beginning of the pandemic checking caseloads each day and graphing and trying to model the data and predict the future: just how big was this threat? Then we took a new perspective and graphed once a week when we all realized the pandemic would not burn out in a few months. And then (holy smokes that slow boiling frog is so stupid) extending to 4-week checks when we succumbed to our dread that the time duration unit of this pandemic might be years.

Hey, we’re not frogs in a pot. The human race has highly intelligent members. They brought us electricity, ice cream, cell phones, nuclear bombs, indoor plumbing, Dopler radar, medicines to extend your life by decades, glorious music, heart-stopping art, plastic, polyester, Broadway, food… Hell, they let you fly. And then there are those who enjoy all these benefits without understanding any of the threads that hold society together. Many are quite loud. Some whine and complain. A bunch are suspicious of all they don’t comprehend. Together they are proud team members with the Velcro virus: Team COVID, the winning team. Team HUMANs are being demolished.

Indulge me: One more graph of cases in 2020, 2021, and so far in 2022. Let’s check in on this graph occasionally to see how long in 2022 Americans need to surpass our previous yearly record. Yeah, that’ll be fun.

No suspense here. No shark beneath the boat. No need to wonder and lose sleep. This is simple math, right? If we keep up a steady 5 million cases a week pace, we’ll beat last year by mid-February. We’ll need a bigger y-axis by spring. Holy crap.

TWL: hide

The studies of viruses, contagion, pandemics are games of microbiology, biochemistry and math. Science and logic. If this, then that. Complex systems follow predictable patterns.

The study of human culture, societies, governments is a game of attitudes, power, and fights for resources. Politics and backstabbing. Smoke and mirrors. To predict what the humans will do demands a coin flip per nanosecond.

When a virus finds a victim, and that victim is human, what can be expected?

How will a virus survive? By attacking its victim and spreading to the next victim.

What if the humans fight back? The virus will mutate, evolve, change its mode of attack.

Then what can the humans do? Fight harder, unite as one, protect each other like family.

What else might the humans do? Deny the threat exists and carry on, oblivious to the threat.

What else might the humans do? Give up and be consumed.

This is it, humans of America. The week ending today 12/28/21 was our worst week yet. In the United States of America, the richest land with the greatest freedoms, with the strongest military defenses and the most brilliant minds, a land of hope and opportunity where we are free to rule ourselves, fight each other, and speak our minds, a tiny virus particle is cutting us down at the knees.

Where are you, America? Why aren’t you coming together to take down this beast? How did COVID infect 2 million of you in one week–the most so far in over 100 weeks?

The next wave is upon us, washing over us like a tidal wave, a mud slide, a forest fire. We can’t run. But we should hide. Voluntarily separate. Demand remote instruction. Work from home. Call in sick. Use your vacation time. Double mask when you must leave the house. Keep your children at home. Let’s not wait for the government to tell us what they are afraid to do, what we know we must do, what the virus has shown us to do.