All posts by Dr. Mike

Soap, Chemistry, And Believing Lies

During the pandemic, I established a personal goal to talk to some of my close relatives daily.  It feels good to stay in touch with them as we share our lives and support each other.  Each of us has different knowledge that we bring to our conversations, mine being a strong background in medicine and science.

One of my relatives was upset that she couldn’t buy Dial antibacterial liquid soap.  When she had tried to purchase it early in the pandemic, she was shocked that a gallon refill was selling on Amazon for $70.  When she revisited that product a few weeks later, it was sold out.

I reminded my relative that consumer-level antibacterial soaps were no more effective than ordinary soap and that all soap-like handwashing products were equally effective in destroying the coronavirus. 

As the pandemic lumbered on, it became impossible to buy any liquid hand soap. My weekly trips to the grocer showcased bare shelves that pump bottles and refills of liquid hand soaps once called home. This elimination of usually plentiful products got me pondering.

My siblings and I are obsessive.  We get pleasure from overthinking solutions and learning about topics that most would consider trivial.  Anyone who knows me understands my obsessive passion for photography. However, beyond photography, I enjoy learning about many other topics that capture my interest. 

My relative’s concerns about the lack of Dial liquid soap incited me to learn more about soap, so here is my “deep dive” on the topic. It is more complicated than you may think.

Soap can be a very inexpensive commodity, yet some people spend $25 or even $100 on a bar with similar cleaning qualities to brands that sell for 40 cents.  Some of this additional cost can be accounted for by extras like packaging and exclusive fragrances, but those manufacturing expenses are relatively minor. What sells a product is how it is perceived, and how a product is perceived is often determined by advertising. Advertising and reality and not always bedfellows.


Why do we need soap?

Our skin has glands that secrete oil to protect our bodies from excessive water loss.  We also have glands that produce sweat that helps us regulate our body temperature. These secretions are essential, but they also make us “sticky” to dirt, allergens, and microorganisms. 

The microorganisms that typically reside on our skin are harmless, although they do contribute to odor.  However, our skin can sometimes become contaminated with organisms that cause disease.  Keeping our skin clean not only helps us smell nice, but it also protects us from illness.

Before the invention of soap, people relied on other ways to clean themselves.  Most commonly, they just used water or water plus an abrasive (like pumice).  Oil and water don’t mix, and this method of cleaning isn’t very useful.  Like the Romans, some cultures used scented oils that they spread on their skin and scraped off using a unique gadget called a strigil.  


History of soap

Archaeologists have discovered recipes for soap dating back to 2800 BC. Soap was likely being used before that time.  These soaps were not the colorful scented bars that we use today, but they functioned as soap.

Animal fats and plant oils are made up of triglycerides.  The molecular structure of a triglyceride looks like an “E.” The three horizontal arms consist of fatty acids bound together by a glycerol (glycerin) molecule (the vertical line of the E).  When a triglyceride is reacted with a very strong base like sodium hydroxide (Lye), the bonds between the glycerol and the fatty acids are broken. This results in fatty acid “salts” and glycerol. We call these fatty acid salts “soap.” 

These salts have a unique property.  One end is “lipophilic,” meaning fat-loving.  This end easily mingles with fats and oils.  The other end is “hydrophilic” or water-loving.  This end mixes well with water.  Fatty acid salts (soap) can bridge the gap between oil and water, allowing us to quickly wash away the gunk and funk. Also, the mixture’s glycerol is an excellent humectant; it attracts water to our skin, keeping it moist. 

Soap is one of humankind’s most significant discoveries. The practice of cleaning our bodies has had untold benefits to our health. How would you feel if your surgeon didn’t wash their hands before operating on you?

Soap has been manufactured for hundreds of years. Still, mass production of soap and the resulting reduction in cost happened in the late 1700s.  By the 1800s, consumer brands like Ivory soap started to appear on store shelves. 

During WWI, Germany needed to use soap making ingredients in their war effort.  Their scientists created other compounds that performed similarly to soap but didn’t use animal fat or plant oil. We now know these agents as detergents, and there are now more than 1000 types in use today.  Detergents offered qualities that made them superior to traditional soap.  They could be made more concentrated for industrial applications, or significantly gentler than soap for personal care products. Detergents were more neutral in their pH (a measurement of how acidic or basic something is) than soap, making them less irritating on skin.  It was also easier to add things to detergent products.  Moisturizers and conditioners could be added to personal care products, while powerful cleaning chemicals could be mixed into industrial products. Importantly, traditional soap reacts with calcium and magnesium in water to create soap scum; detergents don’t do this, making them perfect for a variety of products ranging from laundry detergent to shampoo. 

Some detergents had branched hydrocarbon chains making them less biodegradable. However, many common detergents have linear chains similar to fatty acid salts (i.e., soap) and are readily biodegradable.  Although some detergents are made from petrochemicals (oil), many are now made from renewable plant oils.

Both soaps and detergent products alter their ingredients to create mixes that serve different needs.  For instance, the addition of fatty acid salts made from coconut oil in soaps and the addition of the detergent sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) in detergent-based products makes these respective products more “sudsy.”  

Personal care products will add chemicals that attract water to the skin, serve as an occlusive barrier that prevents water from leaving the skin, or act as an emollient to soften the skin. Some products will add abrasive agents for more robust cleaning  (Lava soap); others will dilute a cleanser making it milder (Dove with ¼ moisturizing cream). Other additives include water softening agents like EDTA, colorants to make the product look pretty, and fragrances to make the product smell nice.  

Most consumer soaps are created for “mass appeal” they work great for healthy skin or skin that is slightly dry or a bit too oily.  Some ingredients in soaps are there to differentiate them and offer little unique benefits. Growing up, I recall a product that touted “mink oil” and a shampoo that contained “placenta extract.”


Not all bars of soap are soap!

To label a product soap its cleaning agent has to be made of the salts of fatty acids created by a chemical process called saponification:

Triglycerides + water + a strong base = fatty acid salts (soap) + glycerol (glycerin)

Real soap mostly exists in “bars.” However, if a soap chemist uses potassium hydroxide instead of sodium hydroxide, the resulting soap will be a liquid instead of solid.  That is how Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap is made. However, liquid soap represents a minimal market share of the soap industry.

Almost all liquid hand “soaps,” body washes, shower gels, and shampoos are made from detergents.  Detergents have more desirable properties than soaps, including the fact that they don’t cause soap scum. Anyone who has tried to wash their hair with a traditional bar of soap will attest to the fact that detergent-based shampoos are vastly superior.

If a bar doesn’t use soap as the cleansing ingredient, it can’t use the name soap on its label.  Instead, it will be called a “cleansing bar” or a “beauty bar.” The most popular bar, “soap” in the US, is Dove.  Dove is a syndet (synthetic detergent) bar and does not contain soap.


“Lies” that soap makers tell us

If you search Google using the keyword “soap,” you will come across many websites from cottage soapmakers, beauty gurus, and “natural” experts.  They often repeat the same incorrect and misleading information concerning soaps vs. detergents. I’m guessing that some of this is due to a desire to promote their products, and some are due to poor understanding of the scientific literature on the topic.  

Many of these sites seem to use the same wording, suggesting that they are cutting and pasting information.  They sometimes use “scary psychology” to frighten consumers from buying cheaper, mainstream products. I like handmade soaps.  However, I think consumers should buy them because they like them, not because they are afraid to use cheaper but equally effective commercial items.

I’m only going to touch on some examples, as there are too many to list in this already long post. 

-Soaps are natural; detergents are not.

Both soaps and detergents are made from naturally occurring substrates.  Both undergo chemical reactions to make the final product.  Fats don’t turn into soap “spontaneously.” By the way, many think that natural always means better.  That is a bias, not a fact.

-Soaps are biodegradable; detergents are not.

Some detergents were created using branched-chain hydrocarbons.  These take longer to biodegrade.  However, the structure of many detergent hydrocarbon chains look very similar to soap and are readily biodegradable.  With that said, no soap or detergent should be used directly in a clean water source (such as a clear stream or lake).  If you are hiking, dispose of your wash water at least 200 feet away from such a source.

-Detergents remove your skin oils.

That is precisely what both soaps and detergents are supposed to do. The key is to remove as little as possible while still cleaning you. The gentlest skin cleansers are made from detergents, not soaps. 

-” Our soaps are gentler to the skin than commercial products.”

It is possible to make a gentle hand-crafted soap, but overall soap is harsher than syndet bars like Dove or Cetaphil.  Soap has a higher pH (9-10), while syndet bars have a pH closer to skin pH. High pH can be irritating to sensitive skin.

-Manufacturers use detergents to cut costs.

Detergents cost more, which is why Dove costs more than Ivory. 

-Detergents are made from petroleum, but soaps come from living things.

Petroleum is natural as it comes from algae and plankton.  Many detergents are now made from plant oils instead of petroleum. 

-Sulfates cause cancer, cataracts, etc.

Some detergents contain sulfur. One of the common detergents in personal care products is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS).  This agent is used because it is good at removing grime, and it also foams well.  Consumers like products that foam (suds) because foaming gives the impression of cleaning.  However, foaming has little to do with removing grease and dirt. 

Products will advertise that they are “Sulfate-free” as an advertising ploy.  There is no credible evidence that sulfates cause cancer, cataracts, or other problems.  I have also seen “experts” claim on webpages that sulfates are harmful because they can burn if you get them in your eyes and that they can dry out your skin.  Well, duh… so does real soap!

-” Our products are phosphate-free!”

Another gimmick.  Phosphates were effective water softeners and had been used in products like laundry detergent in the past. As far as I’m aware, they were never used in personal care products. Phosphates can serve as a nutrient for plants, like algae, causing overgrowth, which can be damaging to other aquatic species.  Because of this, phosphates have been banned in consumer products, like dishwasher detergent for decades.  Many states in the US have total bans on the use of phosphates.

-” We only use essential oils to scent our products.”

Essential oils smell great, but they are also significant allergens for many.  These plant products contain dozens of compounds that can increase your chance of getting inflammation of the skin (dermatitis). I love essential oils, but I don’t think that they are risk-free.

-” We are paraben-free.”

Parabens are preservatives used in some cosmetics, and some of them can mimic the hormone estrogen.  However, the strongest estrogenic paraben is only about 1/10,000 as potent as real estrogen.  Besides, some parabens do not act like estrogens at all.

-” We are 100% natural”.

The term natural is a marketing term and doesn’t mean anything. However, I have to admit that it sounds nice.

-” We use pure (fill in the blank) essence in our products.”

Essence is another term that has no real meaning.

It’s great to support small soap-making operations, and you may love their products. Buy because you like their stuff, not out of fear or guilt. 


As I said above, almost all shower gels, shampoos,  and body wash are made from detergents. This is because detergents don’t leave a soap scum film.   It is possible to create washes and gels with a more neutral pH and build in extra moisturizers (good things). However, some products have a lot of colorants and fragrance added. Consumers like colorful products that have a strong smell. However, these two characteristics are the leading causes of skin irritation in cleansing products.  If you have sensitive skin, use a mildly scented product or one that says it is “unscented” or “fragrance-free.” However, both terms have no legal definition. Products listing themselves as “unscented” or “fragrance-free may still include masking fragrances that block unpleasant smells or have an added fragrance to make them smell more beautiful. Confusing, I know. With that said, lightly scented products are less likely to cause an allergic skin reaction than strongly scented ones.  You can use your on-board chemical analyzer to determine if a product is strongly scented.  Press your nose to the item and give it a good sniff.

Overall shower gels are more colorful and fragrant, and body washes are more “moisturizing.” People like using thick body washes and gels.  However, their thickness is caused by a thickening agent and has little to do with the concentration of other ingredients.  

In general, consumers tend to overuse liquid cleaners, and a lot of these products wind up going straight down the drain.  Although a bottle of wash should last (roughly) the same as a bar of soap, they typically have to be replaced more often.  I scanned the internet for comparisons, and it seems like a bar of soap lasts many consumers about twice as long as a bottle of shower gel or body wash.  When it comes to teenage use, the difference is even more significant.


More soap facts

The gentlest bar soaps aren’t soap at all; they are syndet (synthetic detergent) bars.

Dove is #1 selling “soap” by far in the US, and it is a syndet bar.

Other gentle bars like CeraVe and Cetaphil are also syndet bars.

Syndet bars can be very gentle cleansers.

Both soaps and syndet bars clean effectively.  Certain brands add ingredients to differentiate them from other products, color, and fragrance being the most obvious.

Different fatty acid salts and detergents have different properties.  For instance, soaps that are manufactured with added coconut oil and detergents with SLS foam more.  People like sudsy cleansers.

You can add extra fat to make a bar of soap “more moisturizing” and less effective as a cleanser (less drying).

You can add humectants like glycerine and honey to help keep moisture close to the skin.

You can add barriers like oil and waxes that reduce moisture evaporation from the skin.

Some ingredients, like oatmeal, are calming and reduce itching (Alveeno). Others are abrasives and help clean oily/dirty hands (Lava soap).

These ingredients change some of the properties of “soap,” and you may find that one brand may suit your skin type or use needs more than another.  However, the base product is the same.

Liquid soap has been promoted as being more sanitary than bar soap. Some of these claims may be due to soap manufacturers’ desire to sell these more expensive products. However, bar soap is sanitary.  Researchers deliberately inoculated bar soap with bacteria and then had people wash their hands with the soap.  Afterwards, they didn’t find the bacteria on the subjects’ hands.  Why?  When you wash your hands, you are also cleaning the soap.  The bacteria doesn’t go on your hands, it goes down the drain. However, liquid soaps are neater when used in common areas like kitchens and public bathrooms.


Soap is soap

You can spend $2800 for a bar of Qatar soap, which is infused with gold and diamond dust.  It is easy to find very expensive soap that sells in the $40-$100/bar range.  Is this cost justified?  These soaps will be made of high-quality materials. They may be milled many times to provide better blending and a harder bar; they may be a few ounces more in weight than a traditional bar. They may have more beautiful scents and come in a nicer box.  These upgrades do justify a higher price, but certainly not $40-$100.  Why are some willing to pay that much?  Perception and image.  Cause?  Advertising at its best.

You can buy many brand name soaps for around a dollar a bar, and most are formulated to be gentle and effective.  For people with healthy skin, a forty-cent bar of IVORY or a dollar bar of Dove will meet their hygiene needs.


More fun facts

Consumer antibacterial soaps are no more effective than regular soaps in controlling germs.  However, they may pollute the environment more. Many brands that had antimicrobial agents have quietly removed them and now use confusing terms like “Washes Away Bacteria,” All soaps do this.   

Although people have been using soaps for thousands of years, the commercialization of soap is more recent. Soap factories were known to exist in the 12th century. It wasn’t until 1811 that Eugene-Michel Chevreul determined the exact amount of fat needed to make soap.  Before this, soap making was a guessing game.  This finding plus other discoveries revolutionized the commercial production of soap.

During WWI, Germany needed oils and fats for their war effort. German chemists developed detergents made from petrochemicals during that time.  Detergents are still made from petrochemicals, but many are also made from renewable resources, like vegetable oils.

In the 1930s, Procter and Gamble introduced a continuous process for the manufacturing of soap, which increased production and decreased manufacturing time to less than a day.  Before this, many soaps had to “cure” before they could be packaged and sold. Large scale soap manufacturers still use this method.

Soaps, cleansing bars, shower gels, shampoos, and body wash may contain additional ingredients that may make their products more desirable.  Color and fragrance are two apparent additions.  Others may include conditioners, anti-static agents, sudsing agents, thickening agents, humectants, moisturizers, water softening agents, exfoliants, gritty additions, and preservatives.  


A Historical Timeline

Ivory soap was introduced in 1879 to produce an inexpensive but good quality product.  To reduce costs, Proctor and Gamble extracted the naturally occurring glycerol (glycerin) from the soap and sold it separately.  They also whipped air into the product making a less dense soap in another cost-cutting method.  This aeration allowed Ivory to float in water, a happy coincidence that was used to create the tag line, “So pure it floats.” The lack of glycerin made Ivory more drying than other soaps (despite its claim that it was gentle). It was eventually added back into the soap’s manufacturing process several decades ago.  You may think that Ivory smells like soap.  However, what you are detecting is a mild citrus fragrance that is added during the soap making process.

Dr. Bronner’s Magic All-In-One soap was introduced in 1946 and emphasized simple, quality ingredients.  It is a soap product and comes in two forms, liquid and bar form.  With quirky advertising and emphasis on simple ingredients, it has gained a following among people who think less is more. The real Dr. Bronner wanted humanity to unite as one, and you can find some of his thoughts on Dr. B’s soap bottles and bar soap wrappers.  He also claimed that his soap had 18 uses, including as a toothpaste.  As a person who once tried to brush his teeth with this stuff, I can tell you that it is a no go.  However, it is a lovely soap.

Dial soap was the first antibacterial soap, and it was introduced in 1948.  The original antibacterial agent was hexachlorophene, which the company called “AT-7.” Hexachlorophene was removed from the soap in the 1970s as it was determined to be dangerous.  It was replaced by triclocarban, which was removed from the soap in 2016 due to FDA concerns.  Dial soap bars now contain benzalkonium chloride as its antibacterial agent.  At this point, it can be assumed that their antibacterial additions are more marketing than science. Dial was the most popular bar soap in the US from 1953 to the early 1990s.  It is now the second most popular soap.  Beyond antimicrobial additions, the soap is relatively mild and has a pleasant nostalgic scent that people associate with clean.

Zest was introduced in 1955 and emphasized that it didn’t produce soap scum in its commercials. “You’re not fully clean if you’re not Zestfully clean!” Zest was a combination bar of both soap and detergents.  The detergent portion of the bar prevented soap scum.  Zest was reformulated in 2007 and removed the detergents, likely to reduce production costs.  They countered this change by adding more color and fragrance to the bar.  

The Dove Beauty Bar was introduced in 1957. It was the first commercial bar to rely totally on detergents instead of soap as its main ingredients.  Advertised as being gentle because it contained 1/4 cold cream, its real strength was in using detergents, which were gentler and more pH balanced than soaps.  Dove bars are now (by far) the most sold bar soap in the US. 

Irish Spring was introduced in Europe in 1970 and came to the US in 1972.  It is a soap-based bar with a strong citrus/woody/clean smell.  I was 19 when this soap came to the US and loved the scent.  However, within a shower or two, I started to itch. I’m guessing I was sensitive to the overpowering fragrance.  

Coast bars are also soap products, and the original scent was introduced in 1976.  This is another bar that smelled fantastic and clean.  I thought I would be a Coast user, but after a few showers, I scratched my skin off. Again, I believe my itching was due to the pleasant but powerful fragrance.

Liquid soap has been around since the 1800s. Its use in a home environment became popular in 1979 when Softsoap was introduced (a detergent, not a soap).  Softsoap solved the age-old problem of the wet communal soap bar and became an instant hit.   

The 1980s saw the emergence of liquid body washes followed by shower gels.  These are almost exclusively detergent products. These products have decimated the bar soap industry, with about 80% of consumers using them in preference to bar soap.  Manufacturers are happy with these numbers as body washes and gels are more expensive to buy than equivalent bars.  It should be noted that their ingredients are very similar to shampoo, which is why many claim to be “body and hair cleaners.”

In 1999 the Deb company introduced the first foaming hand soap.  Foaming soap is a diluted soap pumped through a special aeration pump that turns the liquid into a soft foam.  Foamers use less soap, and you need less water to wash the foam off. I like foaming liquid soaps because there is less drippage on counters and sinks. I’ll give you a recipe to easily make DIY foaming soap later in this post.


My history (and Hack 1)

I have moderately dry skin, and dry winters used to be brutal.  I would scratch my skin to the point of bleeding (usually not realizing that I was doing it). When I was a kid, I used whatever soap we had at home, the typical national brands.  Once my father brought home an entire case of an unmarked and unwrapped green soap that was harsh, I referred to it as “rash in a bar.” Eventually, the whole family refused to use it even though my dad said it was, “Just fine.” By the way, he also stopped using it after we did!

As soon as I had a little spending money, I started my long journey to find a soap that would solve my dry skin problems.  Some soaps, like Irish Spring and Coast, made my pruritus worse as I was sensitive to their strong fragrances.  Other soaps like Dove and Camay felt like they left a coating on my skin, which was still dry and itchy.  When body washes and shower gels came out, I was the first in line to try them.  I enjoyed their pleasant smells, but I was still scratching.  It didn’t seem to matter if I was using inexpensive Dial or high end shower gel, I kept scratching. 

Decades ago, I decided to switch to more basic hygiene products.  This process started with shaving. In the past, I would buy a razor and blade set at the drugstore. Although the cost of a razor was inexpensive, its replacement blade cartridges were not.  Every few years, another blade would be added to a cartridge product, and the prices kept on going up.  I didn’t see any benefit to the new razor designs; they seemed like gimmicks that forced me to stay within a particular brand.  I decided it was time for a radical change and went back to using a simple double edge safety razor.  I liked that the replacement blades were less than a dime apiece and that the system was more eco friendly.  At that time, I also switched from aerosol shaving cream to shaving soap.  I was no longer dumping plastic blade cartridges and aerosol cans into landfills.

My success with the “new” shaving system got me thinking about other products that I was using, and I decided to leave shower gels and go back to bar soap.  I genuinely like using a good old bar of soap in the shower.  I love the smell of bar soap, and the way a bar feels in my hand.  Another win was the cost, as a bar of soap that can be up to 10 times less expensive than an equivalent body wash. For me, the combination of preferring bar soap plus some small savings has kept me in the bar soap camp for the last few decades.  I like to switch brands, going from typical consumer products to imported bars and back again.  I get tired of one scent and enjoy switching to another. Although I could tolerate just about any mild bar soap, my skin was still dry and itchy during the winter months.

I needed to think outside of the box.  Our skin is soft and supple when it is well hydrated.  Soaps and detergents remove a lot of the protective oils and dehydrate our skin.  Formulations with milder surfactants (soaps and detergents) leave more oil behind, but they didn’t make me feel particularly clean.  Products that contained substances like glycerin and shea butter were a bit more moisturizing, but I was still scratching. 

Hack 1

My wife had told me to use a body lotion for years, but I hated rubbing all of that gunk on me.  It seemed to take forever, and my skin would be white with the greasy stuff.  Many years ago, I had an idea. What if I put on lotion as soon as I got out of the shower while I was still wet?  That was a game-changer.  First, because a little lotion or cream goes a long way and glides on your skin.  Second, because it traps water on the surface of your skin, precisely what you want. When you apply lotion this way, you need to use very little, so you have no white greasy skin. It also works much better than toweling off and then applying a lotion. 

I like two products, and use whatever one is that is on sale.  My favorite is CeraVE moisturizing cream, and my second choice is Cetaphil moisturizing cream.  Both come in tubs, and a little goes a long way.  When you spread these creams on yourself, you also flatten out the water droplets on you, sort of like you are squeegeeing yourself.  By the time that you are done, you are dry-no towel needed.

Hack 2

Foaming hand soap is convenient, it doesn’t drip onto your counter, and it requires less water to wash off your hands.  It is diluted hand soap, so why does it cost as much as hand soap?  It is easy to create your own foaming soap for about one-fourth of the price of the purchased stuff.  Simply fill your foaming soap dispenser one-quarter full of regular liquid hand soap and then add water.  Distilled water is the best, but I have used regular tap water too. Add the top, give it a shake, and you have just made foaming hand soap.  Typical “Softsoap” detergent type refills, as well as liquid Castile soaps like Dr. Bronner’s work well.  You can vary the amount of soap to water ratio a bit to meet your particular tastes.

Hack 3

During the pandemic, it became hard to buy any liquid soap refills. However, body wash was in plentiful supply, some selling for as little as $15/gallon. Body wash is hand soap with added skin conditioners.  It also foams more, which can be a pleasant experience.  You can use body wash just like hand soap in a traditional pump dispenser, or dilute it (as in Hack 2) to use as a foaming hand soap.

Hack 4

Body wash and shampoo are also very similar.  A lot of body washes say “hair and body.” A cheap shampoo can be an excellent hand cleaner, and if you are out of shampoo, you can use many body washes.  However, don’t try to wash your hair with regular soap as the soap scum will leave your hair a dull and tangled mess.  If you have to do it, you will need to use an acid wash (like diluted lemon juice) to get rid of the gunk. 

Hack 5

You can wash your hands using liquid dish soap, and you can also dilute it to use in a foamer. Liquid dish soap is relatively mild but more robust than traditional hand soaps (After all, it is designed to degrease pots and pans).  Using dish soap would be my least preferred choice as it is more likely to dry your hands.  If this is your only option, follow up your handwashing with a hand little lotion.

Hack 6

You can easily make liquid soap.  I have never done this, but there are many YouTube videos on the subject, just type in DIY liquid hand soap, and you will be flooded with videos.  The process is simple, shred a bar of regular soap and dissolve it into some hot water.  Then add more water (often a gallon total).  Let the mixture cool and gel, then beat it into a smooth consistency with a hand mixer.  Sometimes recipes call for a couple of tablespoons of glycerine.  Distilled water is best to use in this case.  


There is a lot more to most things when you scratch the surface.   

Soap is something that we use every day, but most of us rarely think about it. However, our lives would be very different if we didn’t have soap and detergent products.  From body wash to toothpaste, soaps and detergents touch every aspect of our lives.  The use of surfactants made surgeries safer and our populations healthier. We can all be thankful for soaps when we are forced to sit directly next to strangers on a commuter train or airplane.

Soap is not magical; it does its work using understandable principles of chemistry.  Did you think that the chemistry class that you took in high school was useless?  Here is an example of how chemistry is real, and how we encounter it every single day of our lives.

Soap like products are big business and individuals have made fortunes manufacturing the slippery stuff.  Soap makers, both big and small, have used manipulations and untruths to differentiate their products from the rest.  Small companies claim that the ingredients that big manufacturers use are dangerous to health, incorrectly citing research literature.  Big companies promote their more expensive products while ignoring their equally good but cheaper offerings.  Go to any store, and you will find more expensive body washes and gels at eye level while less expensive bar soaps languish on the bottom shelf. We have also been led to believe that bar soap is unsanitary, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, and not to mention the fact that it has been used safely for hundreds of years.  You have to admire the advertising genius that convinces someone to spend $100 on a product that is very similar to one costing under $1.  

I touched on many aspects of these products. Still, in the end, I was most interested in the psychology of soap, and how we believe things when we are told them enough times, even if they are false.  

There appear to be two common links that are necessary to convert fiction to “facts.” The first is an air of expertise or authority, and the second is a sense of trust.  You see these characteristics when you read the FAQs of soap maker’s websites. They are also present when you scan a “filler” article in a magazine.  It seems like many of these authors never read primary sources; they just copy other’s interpretations. Individuals with no actual expertise in an area claim it, and we believe it.  Someone who has “Twenty years in the beauty industry” is unlikely able to fully understand a scientific research paper.  Yet we believe them.  When we hear something enough times, our minds accept that information as fact. Once we accept a fact, we rarely question it.  The sky is blue; water is wet… we don’t need to think further on these topics. 

Another way to influence us is by associating something with something else that we believe is true. Bar soap must be unsanitary because people who are dirty touch it. Something that was associated with being clean is now associated with being dirty. This “guilt by association” way of influencing others is classic. It can be seen used in many aspects of daily life.  Unfortunately, it has also been used to denigrate entire groups of marginalized individuals.

Lastly, another way to manipulate someone is to create a problem and then offer a solution.  Antibacterial soaps did this by making us believe that we didn’t need just to clean our bodies, we had to sanitize them so we wouldn’t offend.  A non-related example of this problem/solution model can be seen in Portland, Oregon.  Relatively peaceful protestors were labeled as terrorists, and so the solution was to arrest them “secret police” style.  This later use of this technique is far more frightening to me than if I needed antibacterial soap to avoid having BO.

We are a naive and trusting culture, and our ideas are often formed by others who do so for their gain. Cult leaders and politicians gain huge followings by lying to our faces. They tell us that they have the answers while convincing us that any information contrary to their monolog is suspect and dangerous.

The next time you pick up a bar of soap, push a shower gel pump, or squeeze a tube of body wash, think about the complexity of this simple pleasure. Soap helped civilization prosper and likely had a stronger impact on infectious disease than antibiotics. Soap making is one of the first practical uses of organic chemistry.  The selling of soap demonstrates how an essentially similar product can be differentiated and promoted by manipulation and trickery.  More importantly, it demonstrates how easily we humans can be controlled.  Is it possible for us to still be led to believe falsehoods in this age of facts and information?  The sad news is that it is easier than ever before.  We want to believe that we understand the world around us, and we look to influencers and leaders to guide us in this pursuit.  Unfortunately, this desire leaves us vulnerable.  We accept lies as the truth and then feel forced to defend our erroneous position. If you understand the history of soap you also understand the strengths and weaknesses of humans. Think about that the next time you plunk down a few bucks to buy a block of bars at Walmart.


I know that this is a very long post so thank you for reading it. I’ll be away from an internet connection for the next couple of weeks and I won’t be posting because of this. Have a great day! Mike

Simple bar “soaps” come in many “flavors.” From left to right: a totally synthetic bar, a soap bar with minimal fragrance, and an imported bar with an exotic scent.
It is easy to “make” your own foaming soap. The example on the left used liquid Castile soap and the one on the right used regular hand “soap” (detergent). Use a 1:4 ratio of soap to water and save some money. I add a drop of food coloring for appearance’s sake.
A razor from Germany, shaving soap and badger brush from England, and blades from Israel. My shaving has become an international affair.
One of my favorite moisturizing creams. A little goes a long way.

Dr. Mike Goes To Walmart

I arrived back in Chicago from a trip to New Mexico in early March. I was met by escalating panic around COVID-19. I had heard stories of shortages, and so I checked our pantry and freezer. I found a reasonable amount of food, but many items were things that we didn’t eat. Yes, we had stuff, just not the right stuff. I decided to go to the store and stock up.

Over the last few years, I had been doing more grocery shopping, and I had narrowed down my purchase locations. If I needed to pick up something quick, I would go to the Fresh Thyme Market, a small grocer around the corner from my house. However, if I needed to buy a significant haul, I would head over to my local Walmart Supercenter.  

I can’t say that I enjoy shopping at Walmart. It is big, crowded, and it always seems to need a little tidying up. However, despite my complaints, Walmart has some positive attributes. The grocery store is part of a Walmart, making it easy to buy anything from camping supplies to printer paper. Walmart’s house brand, “Great Value,” is decent, and I know the store’s layout well enough to make my trips efficient.

However, that early March stock-up trip was different. The store was significantly more crowded, and its shelves were bare. No toilet paper, no paper towels, no rice, no flour, no pasta, no tomato sauce, no oatmeal. The list went on.

That week I also “hit” a few other stores, including Aldi and Jewel. I wanted to have food in case the world was about to shut down. Different stores had different stock items, so I was able to buy enough essential foods to secure my family’s immediate future. Although I felt good about “providing,” I experienced a less than enthusiastic reception from Julie. She saw my stockpiling in a more negative light.

Based on this, I turned the job of grocery shopper over to her and settled into other tasks. Shortly afterward, Governor Pritzker ordered that Illinois shut down; I spent the next few weeks isolating in my house, only venturing to leave for a daily walk.

Julie did assume shopping duties, but her own busy life hampered her ability to take on these tasks fully. At the same time, our adult kids were complaining that we lacked food items again. It became clear that I had to shoulder some of the shopping burden, a task that I was not looking forward to.

I felt that shopping at Walmart held a higher than acceptable risk, as it was huge and always crowded. The sheer numbers of individuals made me concerned that the place was a cesspool of viral particles. I could order groceries online, but most of those services have an upcharge, and feeding five adults is already an expensive proposition. I thought about returning to Aldi, which is the least costly grocery in our area. However, Aldi isn’t a full-service store, which would mandate that I would have to shop at least two different stores every week, and I didn’t want to do that. The most reasonable plan would be to buy at a regular grocer, like Jewel. Jewel is a full-service grocery store that also houses a drug store. Also, it appeared that their sanitizing standards were high, and their shopper density was low.  

Once a week, I would drive to Jewel, shopping list in hand. I organized my list into food zones and shopped as quickly as possible. I didn’t hunt for the best prices, and I bought what was available. If they only had designer tomato sauce, that is what I purchased. The idea was to balance viral exposure with economy and convenience.

Overall, the strategy worked. I was able to get in and out relatively quickly. Naturally, I took all the necessary precautions along the way. However, this was not a total “win” strategy as my grocery bills were extraordinarily high. It wasn’t uncommon for me to spend over $400 in a given week, without buying a lot of meat. However, it still was the most reasonable option at that time.

One month dragged on to two, two months dragged to three, and three dragged to four. Along the way, I found myself assessing and reassessing what I could do. I expanded my “social circle” to include my friend, Tom. I visited my sisters “from a distance.” I traveled to “safe spots” to take photographs. I started to live again but in a more cautious way.  

My grocery bill was out of control, and I needed to evaluate if there were more cost-effective options. I was aware that Walmart was making efforts to keep its stores as safe as possible, including requiring face masks. It also seemed reasonable to assume that the first hoards of COVID panicked shoppers had subsided, and that food stocks had been replenished. It was time to return to Walmart.

One of the tricks that I do to make a tedious task more palatable is to include family members. Before the pandemic, I would often take one of my kids on my grocery shopping trips. This addition turned a chore into an adventure. We would joke, laugh, and explore as we shopped. Also, my co-participant received special status. If they wanted to buy a frivolous or special item, I almost always capitulated. I know that CDC experts suggest solo shopping, but I’m more efficient in having a helper. Both Grace and Kathryn agreed to assist me on my return Walmart trip.

With masks on our faces and a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket, we arrived at Walmart. I was happy to see that they were limiting entrance to a single monitored door. As we entered the store’s vestibule, we were handed a shopping cart by an employee who had just wiped it down with a sanitizing solution. It did seem like they were making efforts to keep things as safe as possible.

We approached our job with purpose as we divided and conquered each grocery section. The store was stocked, but there were still areas that were showing shortages. Toilet paper was available, but only one brand and in limited quantity. Flour was present, but only a few bags were on the shelves. Cleaning products were there, but any brand that claimed that it was antibacterial was missing.

Although I bought quite a few groceries, my card was not overflowing. I purchased very few “high ticket” items like steak, and I stocked up mostly with the “Great Value” house brand. All in all, my grocery bill was just over $260. I would have spent more with a comparable Jewel haul, but it was clear that Walmart’s prices had increased significantly since my last trip there. With that said, I’ll likely return as I estimate that I saved anywhere from $50-$75 over a similar Jewel shopping trip. 

So, where am I going with all of this? During a short crisis, it is easy to make a radical change because you know that things will soon be back to normal. However, as a crisis continues, it transforms into a way of life. In past posts, I wrote about how I moved from trying to replicate my previous experience to living in my current one. Part of that process involved returning to Walmart. Before the pandemic, such a trip would be routine. Still, I had to think carefully if the risks of going into a crowded big-box store were reasonable. I had to think about how I would make such a task as safe as possible.

I believe that this is a reasonable way to approach life in our brave new world. I have no intention of going to a crowded restaurant or a packed church service. However, I know that I have to continue to expand my horizons as this pandemic continues. Naturally, I will uphold whatever laws dictate. I understand that I am not only doing this for my health but also the greater good. 

I feel that this is a balanced approach that avoids politics and ideologies. How are you making life decisions during this crisis time? How will your actions change if this way of living becomes the new normal?

After we got home from Walmart we washed our hands. The kids and I put away our food. I divided and sealed up the hamburger that I bought, but reserved some for meatloaf that I made last night. Since I have been sharing recipes, I thought I would share this one too. It is a classic that originated from the Quaker Oats company. It is super easy to make and pretty tasty.

Walmart was less crowded than I expected.
I like to portion out large quantities into meal-sized packages.

Basic Meatloaf

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 Pound(s) lean ground beef or turkey
  • 3/4 Cup(s) oatmeal
  • 3/4 Cup(s) finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 Cup(s) catsup
  • 1 Egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 Tablespoon(s) Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce
  • 2 Clove(s) Garlic, minced
  • 1/2 Teaspoon(s) Salt
  • 1/4 Teaspoon(s) Black pepper

Cooking Instructions

Heat oven to 350°F. Combine all ingredients in a large bowl; mix lightly but thoroughly. Shape meatloaf mixture into 10×6-inch loaf on the rack of broiler pan. Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until the meatloaf is to medium doneness (160°F for beef, 170°F for turkey), until not pink in center and juices show no pink color. Let stand 5 minutes before slicing. Cover and refrigerate leftovers promptly and use within two days, or wrap airtight and freeze up to 3 months.

(a little substitution never hurt anyone)

I only had 1 pound of ground beef in the spirit of substitution, so I added a little more oatmeal. I also upped the garlic a bit, chopped a medium onion that I didn’t measure, and reduced the catsup a little. I baked it in a loaf pan instead of on a rack. It turned out just great, and the kids ate it up.

Basic meatloaf with mixed vegetables, country-style potatoes, and a roll.

Meal Preparation During The COVID Pandemic

Adjusting to life in a pandemic has had its challenging moments. My well-established habits and routines have been tossed aside to accommodate a new way of living. Mask wearing and 20-second handwashes have become standard operating procedures for me, as have been daily checks of COVID morbidity and mortality numbers.

The pandemic has converted our empty nest household into a residence of 5 adults, only one who is working. The reality of our increased population has forced many changes, including the return of a nightly family dinner. Eating dinner with my wife and three of my children has been a joy. However, it has also included the additional stress of making dinner for five regularly.

When our kids were younger, my wife was a stay at home mom and our principal cook. She returned part-time to the paid workforce when the kids were in middle school, and I started to cook some of our family dinners when she was working late. Being a multi-tasker, I decided to teach my kids how to cook and began “Cooking With Dad Thursdays.” Every Thursday, the kids and I planned, purchased, cooked, and ate dinner. Naturally, we also cleaned up our mess. My goal was to make my kids competent in this vital life skill. Little did I know that I would call upon their services in 2020.

Cooking with my kids makes meal prep a lot more fun.

As I noted above, all of us try to eat dinner together. My wife continues to make several meals a week, and we usually order carry-out on Fridays. That leaves 3-4 dinner preparations that I commit to making. When the kids and I did “Cooking With Dad Thursday,” the sky was the limit. Steak with all of the trimmings? No problem. I was working 60 hours a week, and I didn’t flinch with expensive grocery bills. However, things have changed. I am no longer a wage earner, my kids are adults, and grocery prices have escalated. Meal planning and preparation could be an expensive and time-consuming chore. Luckily, I have wonderful and adaptive kids who almost always help me cook. Cooking with them is fun, but meals need to be simple and reasonably priced. I have a secret weapon to accomplish these goals. I grew up in the 60s, and my mom cooked for seven people. She was a great cook, and I have fond memories of the meals that she made. Many of her meals were designed to feed a crowd efficiently and economically.  

Warning!

Sixties cooking does not comply with the eating standards of 2020. If your family only eats salads, stop reading now.

The secrets of 60s cooking

Using basic ingredients

In the 1960s, most cooks had a larder filled with basic ingredients. Flour, sugar, eggs, and the like. Basic ingredients allow for maximum flexibility when cooking. Cooking from scratch can be nearly as efficient as making prepared foods once you have gained some experience.

Using prepared foods

In the 1960s, packaged foods were also popular. Cake mixes, tubes of crescent rolls, canned condensed soups, and many other items were (and are) relatively inexpensive. Thoughtful use of these foods can ease your cooking burden.  

Don’t want to make a white sauce? Try a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Need to make a quick dessert? A brownie mix is cheap; you don’t have to remember if you have baking chocolate on hand. Want to boost a boring main dish? Crack open a tube of crescent rolls. The options are endless.

Using frozen foods

Some frozen foods, like vegetables, are cheap and good. Take advantage of them. The more “prepared” they are, the more expensive they are. Buying frozen broccoli is dirt cheap, but it is more expensive if it has a “butter sauce.” Forgo the latter and add your own pat of butter to save some money. 

Substitute when needed

In the 60s, it was common to modify a recipe based on what you had on hand. If you didn’t have one ingredient, it was perfectly OK to substitute a similar item. No green onions? Try some finely chopped regular onions. You don’t have a particular spice? Try another one that compliments the meat that you are using. No fresh garlic? Try some of the stuff in a jar or use garlic powder. Don’t have tomato sauce? Try using a can of tomato soup. Your results will vary with the number and types of items that you switch out, but with reasonable care, you will end up with a good dinner. 

Keep it simple

In the 1960s, it was common to eat one-pot meals. Casseroles, soups, stews, and the like were easily augmented with a simple side dish. Combination foods are also cheaper to make as they use less meat.  

Clean as you go

I mentioned that my mom was a great cook. However, she was a messy cook who seemed to use every pot, pan, and bowl to prepare a meal. If you want to ease your cooking stress, clean up as you go.  

By the time that we are ready to sit down for dinner, all of our preparation dishes are washed and put away. When we are done eating, everyone clears the table, one person washes the table, and someone else loads the dishwasher. A clean kitchen is a happy kitchen.


I thought that I would share some of my classic recipes with you. Although I have modified many of them, most were created by other cooks. Thank you to those individuals!


Meal options

Breakfast for dinner

Making breakfast food for dinner is quick, cheap, and delicious. Ham and eggs, pancakes with sausage, or waffles, and bacon are some breakfast foods that we sometimes have for dinner.  

Waffles and Bacon

We usually make our bacon on a jelly roll pan lined with aluminum foil. Place the bacon in single slices on the sheet and bake at 400 F for 15-20 minutes, or until done.  

You can use Bisquick or a pancake mix for waffles, but I think these scratch ones are easy to make and taste better. If you don’t have a waffle iron, you can probably pick up one cheap from a resale shop (like Goodwill). Ours is over 25 years old, but it still does the trick. Here is my waffle recipe.

Two eggs

2 cups flour

½ cup melted butter

One ¾ cups milk

1 T sugar

4 t baking powder

¼ t salt

Heat the waffle iron and spray with cooking spray. Mix the ingredients into a batter and add enough mixture to the hot waffle iron to fill the cavity (but not so much that you are dripping everywhere). Waffles are done when less steam comes off of the iron. You can keep them hot in a warming oven until serving, or pass them out as they are made. 

Homemade waffles taste so much better than frozen ones.

Simple Spaghetti

I debated about posting this recipe, as it is so simple. However, there may be people out there who have never cooked, and this recipe is easy, filling, and delicious.

Boil spaghetti following the package directions. When done, drain and return to the pot. Add a tablespoon or two of butter to the drained spaghetti to keep the strands separated. 

While you are making the spaghetti, brown about a pound of hamburger (or other ground meat) in a separate pot, drain off the fat while carefully retaining the browned meat in the pot. Add a jar of spaghetti sauce to the ground meat and heat. We tend to go with inexpensive brands like Ragu and Prego. You can be as creative or straightforward with your sauce as you like. Add some parmesan cheese, a little red wine, a bit more oregano, a small can of mushrooms, whatever suits your fancy.  

We dump the sauce into the cooked spaghetti pot and mix it up like a casserole.  

Along with the spaghetti, we will serve a tossed salad and some garlic bread. Commercial garlic bread is good, but it is easy to make some from scratch. Just melt some butter and mix in some chopped garlic (or even garlic powder). Brush the mixture on some decent bread and “toast” the bread butter side up on a cookie sheet in the oven (350F-400F), removing the bread when it is nicely toasted.


Beef Tips in the Instantpot (or any pressure cooker)

Beef tips usually use sirloin, but we go cheap and use stew meat. You can also use cut-up round steak or pot roast.

In a large Ziplock bag add:

3 T flour

2 t steak seasoning (optional)

2 t garlic powder

1 t onion powder

½ t salt

½ t pepper

Add 1-2 pounds of cubed steak and shake to coat the steak in the mixture.

Place the Instantpot in saute mode, add some oil, then brown the steak in batches. Remove the meat.

Add to the hot Instantpot:

1-2 T oil

One chopped onion

Lightly brown the onion

Then add:

Three cloves chopped garlic (or some garlic powder)

⅓ cup red wine (or water)

12 oz beef broth (you can also use low sodium bouillon and water)

1 T Worcestershire sauce

½ t ground thyme (No thyme? Try oregano). 

Return the meat to the pot and cook under high pressure for 35 minutes. Let the pressure come down for 10 minutes after 35 minutes of cooking time. Carefully release the pressure and open the lid. Place the pot back into saute mode and wait until the mixture is bubbling. Take a couple of tablespoons of cornstarch and mix with a couple of tablespoons of water. Stream this mixture into the Instant pot whisking as you go. Cook for a few minutes and then adjust seasonings. I usually have to add more salt, garlic powder, and pepper. A squirt or two of hot sauce doesn’t hurt either.

I often serve this dish with bread/rolls, a vegetable, and a starch. If I’m using rice as my starch, I’ll make a lot more to use it for the next recipe. 

Beef tips made in the InstantPot.

Mike’s “Sort Of” Chinese Fried Rice.

The secret to good fried rice is to use cooked rice that is a few days old. Freshly made rice will result in a sticky mess. I tend to keep leftover rice uncovered in the fridge and use it about 2-3 days later. 

Fried rice is a recipe that you can modify to your heart’s content.

Heat a wok or large frying pan and add some oil. Saute 3-4 sliced green onions and then add chopped ginger root (1t to 1 T), and chopped garlic (3-4 cloves).  

Add some meat (½ to 1 lb), cut into small pieces. I like using chicken. Cook in small batches while you continuously stir and flip the meat using a wide utensil. Make sure you don’t overcook the meat. Remove the meat from the pan.

Add more oil if needed, and then add your cooked rice. How much? Around 4-6 cups are about right. Keep the rice in motion until it is heated.

Push the rice to the pan’s sides and add a couple of scrambled uncooked eggs in the center of the pan. Cook the eggs until they are almost done and then mix them with the rice mixture.

Take a bag of frozen vegetables (peas/carrots, stir-fry mix, etc.), and heat in the microwave for about ½ of their cooking time. Add the vegetables to the rice mixture and stir to distribute. Return the chicken and heat a bit more. Mix in some soy sauce until the rice is the color that you like.

Add salt and possibly pepper to taste. Personally, I also like to add a shot or two of hot sauce.

Fried Rice.

Super Easy Quiche

One large pie crust

Six large eggs

3/4 cup milk 

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup cooked ham cut into small cubes

1 1/2 cups shredded cheese divided (any meltable cheese, but not mozzarella) 

Four tablespoons chopped green onions

Mix liquids and seasoning together. Put green onions, ham, and 1 C of the cheese into the pie crust. Pour the liquid mixture into the pie crust and top with remaining ½ C of cheese. Bake at 375 F for 35-40 minutes or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Let rest at least 10 minutes before cutting. I like to serve this quiche with homemade bran muffins and a green vegetable.

Super easy quiche.

Bran Muffins

1/2 cup oil

1 cup of sugar

2 eggs

2 cups buttermilk (or 2 T vinegar into a scant 2 C milk-let it sit for a few minutes before adding to the dry ingredients)

4 cups Raisin Bran cereal

2 cups flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

Mix ingredients and let the mixture stand for at least 45 minutes. Spoon into greased muffin tins and bake at 400 F for 12-15 minutes (or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the muffin’s center). Cool for at least 10 minutes before removing muffins from the tin. 

Easy to make and delicious bran muffins.


I hope that these ideas reduce some of your cooking stress and turn the drudgery of cooking into a fun activity.

Cheers!

Mike

Re-engaging In Life.

In the 1960s, Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the “five stages of grief” based on her work with dying patients.  In case you have forgotten, they are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although some aspects of this work are now in question, she did bring to the forefront the idea that we work through significant changes of life in stages.  Those stages may be different from event to event, and from person to person.  

In many ways, I have gone through various stages of loss during the COVID crisis.  I feel I was in a stage of denial at the start of the crisis. Before the Illinois stay-at-home order, I traveled to New Mexico convincing myself that the trip was safe since (at that time) there were no reported COVID cases in that state.  

During the early phase of stay-at-home, I entered a fear stage fueled mostly by the panic I witnessed around me.  It was impossible to buy toilet paper, then paper towels, then facial tissues. Everyday pharmacy items such as rubbing alcohol, hand sanitizer, and ibuprofen became purchases that were only available at exorbitant prices on Amazon. Essential foods like flour, pasta, oatmeal, and rice were impossible to buy. 

I had five adults living at home, and I’m a person who takes caretaking seriously.  I did my best to adapt to other foods.  Tom helped out by finding a big bag of flour for me, and I even bought a sack of pinto beans, “just in case.” My preparedness can be a point of ridicule in my family, but I had to be true to myself.  I am hardly perfect, but I have become successful in life by moving past what other people think that I should do or what I should be. 

I had a depressed phase around that time. Although I’m an introvert, I still need contact with others in my life.  Luckily, I was able to safely expand my social connections and experiences to lift my down mood.

I moved into an “approximate” stage where I tried to “simulate” what my life was like before the pandemic. COVID Easter, COVID birthdays, COVID Mother’s Day.  I pretended that I could have the same pre-COVID experience by recreating those special days sans outside adventures and people.  In many ways, this strategy worked, but in some ways, it did not.  I discovered the latter fact when I did the self-exploration that I chronicled in last week’s post.

Life seems to be moving into a new normal, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear path back to the way it was.  It has been exhausting for me to rationalize that by (fill in the blank) date, I would once again be able to do those things that I used to do.  As the numbers of infections and deaths have escalated, I have moved into a new stage of acceptance. I am no longer trying to approximate my former life.  Instead, I am trying to live life.

I had an unstructured day.  My friend, Tom, was busy, and Julie and the kids were doing their things.  I spent the morning writing and making phone calls, but by the early afternoon, I was feeling unsettled. What I wanted to do was to take some street photography, but in this new era, that wasn’t a very practical solution.  Instead, I went to our local Herrick Lake forest preserve. I have photographed Herrick Lake many times; there are only so many different shots that you can take.  I thought that I had taken all of them, but did I?  I decided that I would up the creative game by shooting only in black and white. Because of this restriction, I had to view the landscape in a very different way.  My creativity was sparked.

The forest preserve is close to my sister, Carol’s house.  I have been calling her daily, but I missed seeing her in person.  Was I only going to have phone contact with her from now on?  Carol is older than I am, and she is rightfully concerned about continuing her excellent health.  I phoned her and asked her if she would be comfortable seeing me in person.  She said she would be as long as I could maintain a social distance from her. We had a delightful time as we sat on her patio, masks on, and 8 feet apart.  

On my return home I got a call from my friend, Tom.  He was at a project close to my home, and he wondered if I could stop by. Tom is in my “bubble” of contacts, so there was no problem stopping by and giving him a hand with his job. 

At dinner, I reflected on my day, noting how full it was and how much I enjoyed it.  I didn’t feel like I was trying to pretend that it was a pre-COVID day; it was an enjoyable day.

My daughter Gracie sent out a group text to our immediate family, asking us if we wanted to have a 4th of July party.  Julie and I had already planned to have a barbeque, but Gracie wanted to expand on that idea.  She wanted to make some treats, play yard games, and have a bonfire.  I thought it was a great idea.

Grace made some desserts, Will offered his frisbee and “Spikeball” game, Julie and I took over various dinner making tasks, Kathryn did some cleanup, and Will and I built a fire. I didn’t feel like I was substituting; I felt like I was experiencing a good day. 

It is possible that this pandemic will have the same culture-changing power as the 911 event had on our country.  Things may never be the same.  I was willing to put my life on hold for months, but I’m not ready to place myself in suspended animation.  Yet, I am acutely aware that to go back to pre-COVID behaviors would be both dangerous and foolhardy. 

Life requires continual adjustment.  There are things that I could do at age 30 that I’m unable to do at 67.  With that said, there are things that I can do at 67 that I could not do at age 30.  My goal has always been to live the best life that I can in any situation. I need to apply that same logic to my current life.

I have always loved nature, and I have always loved being in the country.  I have taken trips where I am living in a space that is smaller than my walk-in closet.  Places where the nearest Walmart is 4 hours away. Areas where there is no cell phone coverage. I have traveled to these places deliberately and savored the simplicity of my life. I didn’t feel deprived during those times; I felt liberated.  I focused on what I had and what I could do instead of what I didn’t have or what I couldn’t do.  I was happy living my life in the here and now.  It was great.

I know that we will eventually develop a vaccine, and I’ll be the first person to get it.  However, I don’t know if life will be the same as prior to the pandemic.  I am determined to move forward and to live life.  What can you do to enjoy your new “today?’ 


Some black and white shots of Herrick Lake.


Grilling on the 4th of July.
Yard games.
Our 4th of July “feast.”
Frisbee toss!
Grace (with the help of others) made some “cake balls”
Will and I made a fire.
We even had a sing-along.

Life During COVID-The New Normal?

My writing process is simple. I base my post on whatever I happen to be thinking about, and what I am thinking about is often stimulated by world events or personal activities. I never seem to lack for a topic. However, that appears to be changing. My life has become so routine that new activities are limited, and exciting writing topics are on the decline.  COVID-19 stories dominate the news, and I have written quite a few posts connected to that topic.  But how much can I write about COVID-19?  Hold on to your seatbelts; here is another post.

The current health crisis has dramatically changed my lifestyle. I’m not bored, and I’m still productive.  However, a routine day is, well…very routine.  Yesterday, I walked to my friend’s townhouse project.  We chatted for a bit before I took his MacBook Pro and started to write a blog post for his construction website.  Tom kindly went to get bagel sandwiches for breakfast.  I was left alone to write about home remodeling, a subject where I can’t claim expertise.  It’s not that I’m unable to put a coherent story together, I’m more concerned that I’ll phrase something incorrectly and somehow embarrass my friend to his more knowledgable readers.  With that said, I wrote the post to which I added the construction photos that I had taken over the last few days.

Writing Tom’s blog post on a makeshift desk.

Before Tom had a chance to review my writing, his friend Wess arrived.  Wess is a talented carpenter who has worked with Tom for decades.  He was “volunteering” his Saturday to help Tom remove a large bay window, that space being repurposed for a sliding patio door. Tom and Wes usually converse in Polish, a language that I have no comprehension of. Recently, Wes has made an effort to talk in English, which has been much appreciated, and it allows me to join in. 

Wes and Tom discussing the project’s next phase. It is amazing what you can learn about something by just watching and listening.

The morning transitioned into the afternoon, and I headed back home and emersed myself into one of my obsessive interests, technology.  Julie had given me a pair of AirPods at the beginning of the year, and I love them.  When I become interested in a topic, I want to know everything about it.  In this case, I was interested in the difference between my costly device and much cheaper clone products. I understand that most would find such an exploration utterly dull, but it held my concentration for hours. 

Spending hours becoming an “expert” in Bluetooth earbuds.

After a few telephone calls to loved ones, it was time for dinner; the offering was Domino’s pizza.  Domino’s has a low ranking on my pizza desirability chart, but my kids love it. The group’s lively conversation quickly extinguished any negative feelings about the pizza dinner.  As a family, we have worked hard to eat dinner together and to focus on interacting with each other. Our meal was filled with talk, laughter, and a lot of kidding.

Julie suggested that we all play a game, but board games are not my thing.  We reached a compromise; I took a shower, and the others played a game. Later that evening, we were glued to the family room TV, rewatching a few episodes of Battlestar Galactica.  We viewed the show with the same enthusiasm as some might when watching a football game. The show concluded it was time for bed.

I took a shower while the family played a game.

A perfectly routine day.

I have had disturbing dreams as of late.  I wouldn’t call them nightmares, but they are unsettling.  A recent one had me repeating both graduate and medical school, as I wondered if I could still take on these arduous tasks.  Such dreams are a window to my subconscious and suggest hidden stress to me.

I pondered the question of stress this morning as I sat in the big chair in my study. I contemplated my current life and asked myself, “What is wrong? What is missing?”  I centered myself, closed my eyes, and opened my mind to a stream of consciousness.  At first, my mind was blank, but it soon was flooded with images and sounds. These are some of the ideas that flowed over me.

Despite talking to my siblings daily, I was missing them terribly.  Before COVID, we had developed many in-person activities, “Sibling Breakfast,” “Sibling Lunch,” and random visits for coffee and conversation. I longed to see them in person.

Although I see my friend Tom nearly every day, I missed the spontaneous and crazy things that we did before the pandemic—driving into Chicago at sunrise just to have breakfast at our favorite greasy spoon, going on camping adventures and road trips, exploring locations. 

Tom and his son-photo from a camping adventure.

My friend John had invited me to spend a few days at his Florida home.  Julie and I had booked a flight before the pandemic but had to cancel it months ago. Speaking of trips, Julie had I started to go on them as a couple.  We would find a cheap airfare to somewhere, and the two of us would explore our destination.  I missed traveling. 

Massive engines from one of the stages of the Saturn rocket. Exploring Houston on a random trip.
Discovery Vegas with Julie.

Three of my children have returned home, two from college and one from the Peace Corps.  My college kids had to complete their spring semesters on-line.  My Peace Corps daughter had to leave Africa and a teaching job that she loved.  Their loss makes me feel powerless. 

William showing us his campus.

Last year I took Violet the campervan on many adventures.  She currently sits idle in my driveway.  There is no place to go during this explosion of infection.  I feel guilty about Violet. I feel like I’m letting her down. I invested a lot of time and money into her.  Once a symbol of my retirement freedom, the pandemic has reduced her into an icon of what I can’t do.

Violet the campervan sits idle.

I am a photographer, and I have continued to do photography work.  However, I have a keen interest in landscape and cityscape photography.  However, it isn’t feasible to travel to a town or bucolic pasture to photograph these subjects during this time.

A door from an abandoned college that I found in a small town west of Chicago.

I’m not much of a shopper, but I miss the ability to go to a store for a single item.  I now limit my shopping to only grocery stores, which I go to once a week. Trips are currently done as purposefully and quickly as possible. There is no time to try or discover exciting new products. 

I miss my daily walks to Starbucks and the quick but pleasant chats that I had with my favorite baristas and the early morning coffee crowd.

I miss my walks to Starbucks where I would chat with friends and write.

I miss going to the movies, and “sneaking” in a bag of popcorn. 

I miss going to cheap restaurants—places where I could sit down and enjoy my food without the worry of preparation or clean up. 

I miss making new friends.  I miss family parties.  I miss catching up with my cousins.  I miss getting dressed and going to church on Sunday.  I miss the act of standing next to a neighbor when chatting with them on the street. I miss the smell of a campfire. I miss… I miss so much.   

Joining hands to give thanks last Thanksgiving.
a snapshot taken at Christmastime at church.
Rain and umbrellas. Camping with the cousins.
Christmas in Minnesota.

I explored all of these thoughts and pondered how they were connected. Many contained a grain of spontaneity and a sense of a future.  What would I do tomorrow?  How can I plan for my next activity?  Before COVID, I could anticipate an adventure with Tom, or a trip with Julie, or an upcoming photo project. This has changed with the routine regularity of my current life.

I like to shake hands. I want to give hugs. I like to push my creativity.  I like to feel free.  I want to feel safe.  I like to be responsible, and I love being mischievous.  

Activities that I do have an impact on who I am. I am in the process of grieving over who I no longer am. My world has changed in a matter of months.  I want my old life back, but I may have to accept the ways things are now.  I think this is the conflict that fuels my sense of “missing.”  and “missing” is just another name for loss. With loss comes grieving.

Dear reader, I have worked hard to simulate those things that I can no longer do. However, a simulation is like saccharine, still sweet, but with a bitter aftertaste.  

As the crisis has continued, I have tried to keep my interests alive. I do order food from those restaurants where I formally dined-in.  I have made an effort to take creative photos.  I  call my sisters and connect with my friends in many ways.  It is all good, but these good things still have the aftertaste of a synthetic solution.

That is to be expected. Will life return to normal, or will I need to accept my current situation as the new normal?  Either way, I plan to make the most of it.  Every day is a gift, never to be repeated.  I can’t waste today pining over what I have lost.  I have to accept my feelings as real, and I need to respect them.  However, I cannot submit to them.  I have to live in the present and plan for a new future. That will be my effort.

Peace

Mike

Why Do Some People Refuse To Wear A Mask During the COVID-19 Crisis?

I was preparing to spend a few days with Ralph at his summer home, which is about an hour west of me.  I tapped his address into my iPhone, put the phone into Violet the campervan’s phone holder, and started my journey.  Since I was bringing dinner, I made a quick detour to the Fresh Thyme Market, a small grocery store just down the street. Being lazy, I left the phone in its holder during my grocery adventure. When I returned to the camper, I tossed steaks,  watermelon, and salad into the 12-volt fridge and hopped into the driver’s seat to continue my journey.  I looked up at my phone and saw a bright fluorescent green vertical line across the screen.  Crap, my phone’s display was busted! Over the short time that I visited Ralph, that single line morphed into multiple lines making reading anything on the screen impossible.

On my return home, I investigated my repair options. I contacted Apple customer support, who told me that the screen needed to be replaced and that the estimated cost for the repair would be an astounding $560.00! My iPhone X is three years old, but I’m not ready to buy a new one, so I explored aftermarket options and found a store in Naperville that would replace the screen for $150.00… a much more realistic price. They said that they could replace the display in under an hour, which sealed the deal.

There were no surprises with the repair, but I was surprised by what I saw in the small and cramped shop.  Both technicians were mask-free, as were three customers.  One of the customers was sitting in a chair waiting for a repair suggesting that his exposure time in the store was significant.

Yesterday I took Violet in for routine service at my local Dodge dealer.  The staff was wearing masks (although several had their noses sticking out).  However, two customers were mask-free. In Illinois, we are required to wear masks in confined spaces like retail stores and shops, so why were all of these people ignoring the law?

When I read the news, I see photos of people in bars, churches, and nightclubs all shoulder to shoulder and all mask free.  I recently saw pictures of several political rallies where both the candidate and the majority of the audience were bare-faced.  

We are in the midst of a worldwide disease pandemic.  Entire countries have shut down, almost half of a million people have died worldwide, and one hundred and twenty-four thousand souls have been lost in the US alone.  That is more US deaths than during the entire First World War.

We are gaining more knowledge about this illness.  A few medical treatments are starting to emerge that may help some patients.  We are getting a better understanding of the best treatment practices.  Worldwide efforts to develop a vaccine are in hyperdrive.  However, we are nowhere near a cure.

Countries have tackled the spread of this disease in different ways.  Their varied approaches have given us a window into what works and what doesn’t contain the virus.  Unsurprisingly, the most beneficial methods are those that we have known about and used for over 100 years.  Those methods include social distancing and isolation, hand washing, contact tracing, and wearing a mask when you can’t control social distance. Regions that have successfully implemented these changes have had greater success at containing the virus than places that have been laxer.  

In the US, we have had conflicting information concerning the virus and how that impacts opening the economy.  Also, there seems to be a stream of half-baked recommendations that confuse the general population. A YouTube video from a Michigan family practice doc that foolishly recommended washing fruits and vegetables in soapy water had over 20 million views in its first week. Even the premier source of infectious disease information, the CDC, erroneously told citizens not to wear masks, only to have to backpedal on that wrong information. 

Any competent physician knows that wearing an appropriate mask can help prevent the transmission of disease both to and from the mask wearer.  Most citizens don’t have access to medical-grade masks and have to make do with “dust” style hardware store masks or homemade cloth masks.  These masks dramatically reduce the spread of COVID-19 from the wearer and depending on the composition of the mask, offer some protection to the user from getting the virus from an infected individual.  

The most contagious places to catch this coronavirus are indoor locations, with poor air circulation.  The higher the density of people in these places, the higher the chance of infection.  Indoor parties, crowded bars, packed in-house church services, and the like are high risk and should be avoided at this time.  However, there are other places like grocery stores that can’t be avoided by most. That is why everyone must wear a mask when you can’t control social distance.  If everyone wears a mask, we can dramatically reduce the rates of viral spread.  This is not a theoretical idea; it is a proven fact.  Wearing a mask is a no brainer.  So why are people actively refusing to do this?

Before I explore this question, I need to examine other phenomena present in this country.  We have lost nuance, and have become a country of absolutes.  For instance, some have taken social isolation to the extreme, and others have entirely cast it to the wind.  We have developed an “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to many things in daily life.  We have lost the ability to work together.  We have become more concerned with personal gain over what benefits our greater society. We have developed a culture of mistrust.  We have become an “all-in” society.  If someone believes in one tenant that a particular group espouses, then they are expected to become a follower of all of the other ideologies that the group promotes. We have assumed a “contest” view of life that supports that the only way one group can prosper is by decimating another group, which then becomes the opposition. We believe that the ends justify the means, no matter how dangerous the ways are.

As a Christian, I find such splitting behaviors abhorrent.  As a psychiatrist, I understand them to be destructive and dangerous. These ideologies play into many of our decisions, including our willingness or unwillingness to wear a mask. The question is, how do these beliefs and other factors cause us to take a position that is so contrary to our well being?

Masks are uncomfortable, that is a fact.  They are hot; they fog up your glasses; they make it difficult to be understood. As a physician, I can tell you that just about everyone quickly adjusts to these inconveniences.  But, yes, they do suck.

When I was researching this post, I came across articles that noted that people refused to wear masks because they felt that wearing one made them look weak.  This is one of those reasons that are hard for me to comprehend.  Why would a mask make anyone look weak?  Wearing one makes them look responsible, and their actions help the wellness of their fellow citizens. In my mind, mask wearers are strong and patriotic.  

Wearing a mask highlights that things are not back to normal. This is undoubtedly true, but the reality is that things are NOT normal. Denial isn’t the name for the longest river in Africa (…old AA joke).  

Some people feel that wearing a mask is anti-God.  How masks and God are connected is anyone’s guess.  I know that early on, some religious leaders said that God would protect their churches and congregations, which may play into this belief.  I also watched a video of citizens voicing their concerns about mandatory mask-wearing during a Miami city council meeting.  One individual said that the council was doing the work of the devil by requiring masks.  The citizen seemed firm in her belief but did not give any evidence as to why she held them.

The wearing of a mask has taken on political implications.  Statistically, Democrats are more likely to wear a mask than Republicans. Masks seem to have become weaponized in this regard.  I recently viewed photos of a rally in an Arizona church that was packed with over 3000 young people.  They were shoulder to shoulder, and I estimate that the number of mask wearers was under 5%.  I hope that this meeting doesn’t turn out to be the source of a super-spreader infection, but that certainly could happen.  Placing politics over health is a real tragedy.  

Some people strongly feel that wearing a mask is a personal choice. “If I get sick and die, it is my choice,” they imply. As individuals, we are allowed to do stupid things, as long as they don’t impact others.  We can smoke cigarettes, which are known to cause many diseases, but we can no longer smoke in public places because this would harm others. Shouldn’t that same logic apply to wearing masks?

Some don’t wear masks because they think that COVID-19 is overblown or a hoax.  Some groups have promoted these false ideas, and a person’s local experience additionally amplifies them. I have heard people say, “I don’t know of anyone who has gotten COVID-19,” as if this limited information can be generalized to the entire population.  Alabama Governor Kay Ivy famously said, “Y’all, we are not Louisiana, we are not New York state, we are not California. Right now is not the time to order people to shelter in place.” I guess the idea was that the virus was somehow not impacting Alabama at that moment, so WTF.  Sadly, if you take a look at the number of Alabama cases, they are on a steep increase. These numbers would likely have been significantly lower if there had been better direction from officials in that state.  

Some refuse to wear masks for reasons that seem entirely bizarre.  Watching the same Miami city council meeting, I witnessed one furious man, saying that he would defend our flag to the death, implying that wearing masks was somehow going to destroy our country.  This, along with the idea that Satanists are promoting masks, just seems crazy.  It is challenging to explain crazy.

Some are afraid that wearing a mask damages our economy.  Well, this is sort of right… but indirectly.  The global pandemic is harming our economy, and wearing a mask reminds us of that pandemic. Wearing a mask may make certain activities more complicated, like going out for dinner on a date. However, the more we control the virus, the sooner our economy will return to normal. 

So what is the solution?

We have not had a unified message about the necessity of wearing a mask.  This needs to be done on all levels of government and from both sides of the aisle.  We know that wearing masks can reduce the number of infections as well as the number of deaths due to COVID-19.  All people who have a voice need to be echoing this reality.

We need to emphasize the benefits of wearing a mask with transparent statistics.  One study showed that if everyone wore masks, the rate of infection would drop to 1/12th of a population where no one wore a mask.  As an example, let’s say that 100 individuals contract the virus in a non-mask wearing group.  In a statistically identical group of mask wearers, only eight individuals would get sick. Staying well benefits the economy.

Similarly, we need to publicize situations and cases where lack of safeguards, including masks, has caused outbreaks, and we need to personalize these situations.  It is one thing to say that 53% of participants became ill when they attended a choir practice in Washington. However, these numbers would be much more compelling if actual people told their stories about this event.  I am in no way trying to exploit victims of this disease, but I’m confident that many individuals would gladly speak up about their COVID experience if they felt that it would help others.  Numbers always have more impact when they are attached to a relatable situation or person. 

We have to model good behavior.  Our officials should all be wearing masks in public settings, and they all should be practicing social distancing. “Do as I say, not as I do,” doesn’t fly.

We need to nationalize standards.  Yes, we have guidelines, and yes, a cookie-cutter approach doesn’t work well in a country as vast as the US.  However, standards can be customized to accommodate different needs and regions. Let’s say you want to bake a chocolate cake.  You will have the best results if you follow a standard recipe.  However, you can customize your results to fit your needs.  A little more chocolate?  A little less sugar?  A different frosting?  Any reasonable changes will still result in a good cake.  Imagine a scenario where 100 people need to bake 100 chocolate cakes, but they aren’t given a recipe.  Some will have baking knowledge; others won’t.  In the end, there will be many different cakes, but many of those will be inedible. 

The cost of non-compliance must be emphasized.  What is the actual price to the economy if we can’t get this virus under control?  What is the emotional damage of losing a loved one? We need reasonable guidelines, and these can change as we gain more knowledge.  It is unreasonable to expect everyone to stay behind closed doors, but it is foolish to open up the country altogether.  Our leaders need to not only inform us but to re-emphasize what we can and can’t do.  We were able to mobilize our country during WWII by using various methods that emphasized safety, patriotism, and sacrifice for the greater good.  Many feel that the WWII generation was our greatest generation ever.  People think proudly about those individuals and their sacrifices.  How is it that we are divided over a potentially more deadly crisis? This does not have to be the case. We need leaders who can lead and have the ability to place the needs of the greater society above short-term gains. 

Peace!

Mike

My broken phone got me thinking about mask non-compliance.
Some masks are better than others, but any mask is better than no mask!

Improving Emotional Health During The COVID-19 Pandemic.

It has now been over 12 weeks that Illinois has had a shelter-in-place order, and although some of the restrictions are easing, life is not back to normal.  Also, COVID-19 is still a threat.  This dynamic duo has impacted us on many levels, ranging from economic to physical well-being to emotional health.  It is this latter point that I would like to address today.

As a psychiatrist, I worked to explore ways to reduce the emotional impact of this crisis on my family and me. That is not to say that the pandemic has not impacted me.  On a personal level, I have noticed a higher amount of irritability and sensitivity.  Although I’m usually an optimistic person, I have had a few more down days.  Most significantly, I’m experiencing more nightmares.  This latter fact is an expression of anxiety that I’m effectively masking during waking hours, but seeps out when I’m sleeping. As Illinois restrictions have lightened, new challenges have emerged. Toilet paper scarcity is no longer an issue, but now I have to decide how much social interaction is safe. 

I’m not psychologically perfect, but  I do believe that I have done well by utilizing a variety of psychological techniques.   

Here are some of the coping tools that I have used. You may find them helpful when dealing with your social isolation.

Accept your feelings

It is normal not to feel normal during a crisis.  This is an unprecedented time in world history.  You may find yourself more irritable, slightly more depressed, or a bit more anxious.  These feelings are not failings; you are reacting to a difficult time.  With that said, if these emotions are pulling you down, it is essential to try to control them.  Many of the suggestions below can help you feel healthier.  However, if your emotional state is severely compromised, you must seek help.  

Even during a crisis, you have to live.

Maintain a routine.

Over the last 12 weeks, have you had times when you weren’t sure what day of the week it was?  I have. We are creatures of habit, and most of us do well when we follow a routine.  A routine not only gives us structure, but it also frees up psychological energy.  We don’t have to think and plan mundane activities when we follow a pattern of behavior. There are many ways to develop a routine. An excellent place to start is to mimic your regular wakeup time and bedtime.  Another easy routine activity is to make sure that you get dressed in street clothes as soon as you get up.

Keep up with hygiene.

Shelter-in-place rules have made it more challenging to keep up with traditional grooming, such as getting a haircut.  As rules relax, it is essential to assess your particular needs and risks when deciding to return to a barber or stylist.  However, hygiene issues have a more basic side. When you are isolating alone, it is easy to put off washing your hair, taking a shower, or even brushing your teeth.  However, it is critical to do these activities just as you would if you were out-and-about.

Go outside.

Even during the height of restrictions, it was OK to leave your house for a little fresh air.  The risk of getting COVID-19 during a socially distant walk is extremely low, but the benefits to your emotional state are significant. I try to go on a walk by myself or with family members every day.  

Spending family time with an outdoor activity.

Reach out to others.

One way to feel less socially isolated is to be less socially isolated. But how can you do that when you are required to have limited contact with others?  Facebook is OK, but my feed has turned mostly into ads and memes.  The more connected that you can make any communication, the better.  A text conversation is preferred to reading your Facebook feed; a phone call is better than a text message; a video call is better than a phone call.  There are some individuals in my life who I have made of point of calling every day.  My goal is to show them that they are important enough for me to reach out to them regularly. Some of my contacts are video calls; some are voice calls.  I try to augment my voice calls with photos sent as text messages or email attachments. Regular calls to people who you love is a win/win way to spend your time.

Talking to our extended family on Easter.

Find your own space.

If you are sharing your living space with someone, it is not only important to share time; it is also important to have alone time.  Find a place in your home where you can be alone. I go to my study and my wife “chills” in our sunroom.  We have five adults living together, and we are fortunate that our residence has enough space for each of us to have a private spot.  I understand that not everyone is as lucky as we are.  However, even claiming a comfy chair can give you a place to get away. 

My wife chills in the sunroom.

I isolate myself in a chair in my study.  To the right of the chair is a window where I can explore what is happening on the street.  To my left is a small table with a lamp.  At the moment the table is holding a cup of coffee and my phone.  On my lap are a lap table and the MacBook that I’m typing this post on. It is a simple set up that allows me to have some private time where I can be as productive or unproductive as I choose. 

When I need to isolate I do it in my study.

Limit the news.

News in the US tends to be sensational.  “If it bleeds, it leads.”  Too much news can be agitating and does little to enhance or inform.  Try to limit your news to known reliable sources and “ingest” it no more than twice a day.  Having a cable news service on 24/7 will likely make you feel more agitated and depressed.

Learn new skills, revisit old ones.

I have a friend who is spending some of her isolation time learning about house plants.  I know others who are tackling simple home projects.  

Before the pandemic, my wife and I were empty nesters.  We have had to readjust to having a full house with the return of three of our children.  When it was just the two of us, it didn’t make much difference if we cooked or went out to dinner.  However, with the return of the kids came daily meal preparation.  I am a competent cook, but coming up with a regular meal has been a drag. With that said, the thought of an exclusive diet of microwave meals or fast food burgers turns my stomach.  I have returned to alternating cooking meals with my wife.  When I cook, I involve my kids in meal preparation.  Their participation makes the task more enjoyable.  I have also resorted to conjuring memories of my mother’s weekday cooking.  She was an excellent cook, but many of her meals were simple or one dish concoctions.  Cooking for my family has made me feel productive, and I’m glad that I can provide them with something that they can look forward to.

Cooking with my kids makes the activity more fun.
Meals don’t have to be traditional. Here bacon and homemade waffles made for a very nice dinner.

Institute conversations at home.

Although there are periods where I need my alone times, there are other times where I want to connect with my immediate family.  We try to eat dinner together, and we do this at the dinner table.  We limit electronics during dinner, and we often use “conversation starters.”  One of our favorites is “rose and thorn.”  Each family member talks about something good and something bad from the day.  Rose and thorn helps us know what is going on in each of our lives and serves as a springboard for additional conversation.

Institute activities at home.

There are many options here, and it is crucial to find an activity that everyone enjoys. A family movie, family game night, family craft night… the list goes on. Structured activities allow for easy interactions.

A family game can be a fun way to interact with each other.

Redefine holidays and important events.

There have been several important events that have happened during our shelter-in-place time.  In our case, we celebrated Easter, several birthdays, and Mother’s Day, but we modified the events to fit our new restrictions. We have made an effort to extract those traditions that are important and changed them to fit our current situation.  

Celebrating my wife’s birthday.

In our neighborhood, I have seen an explosion of lawn signs celebrating everything from birthdays to graduations. Our neighbors are tackling the same issues that we are. Do what you can to keep special events special.

Neighbors have gone to elaborate lengths to celebrate events safely.

Be kind to yourself.

You would think that shelter-in-place would be a perfect time for me to tackle all of the household projects that I never seem to have time to do.  However, I can tell you that I have been less likely to do heinous projects during COVID-19.  I simply don’t have the desire or energy to do repetitive or borning tasks.  Why?  I believe that it is partly due to the fact that I’m expending a lot of energy coping with life in a pandemic.

By all means, clean out a closet or organize a spice rack if you have the desire to do so.  However, be kind to yourself and back off the guilt if you don’t want to. That stuff will be waiting for you. 

Expand your social circle responsibly.

Most things that we do have both risks and benefits.  The secret to success is to balance these two oppositional forces.  During the first few weeks of isolation, I found myself feeling more irritable and somewhat depressed.  I was missing the daily contact that I had with a friend. He was also socially isolating and was at low risk for being a coronavirus carrier.  I started to visit him in his backyard for short chats, which made a world of difference in how I felt.  

As restrictions ease, it may seem like the battle is over, and life is returning to normal. That is not the case.  It is important to connect socially, but it is also essential to weigh the risks and benefits of any social interaction.  Remember, it is about both the viral load and the length of exposure.  Places that maximize both of these factors are the most dangerous to be in, places that minimize them are safer.  Do get out and enjoy life, but do so in a responsible way.  Naturally, common sense activities like wearing a mask and handwashing are critical musts.  Remember that the ultimate loss of freedom is death.

Reach out for help if needed.

The above tips can help you deal with the COVID blues.  However, some individuals will experience depression and anxiety that goes well beyond the typical.  If you are experiencing significant depression, debilitating anxiety, or thoughts of harm, it is imperative that you seek professional help. Contact your doctor, hotlines, or your local hospital if needed.

I hope you have found these mental health suggestions helpful in dealing with the stress and anxiety that this global disaster has brought us.  We will get through this; tomorrow is another day.

Peace 

Mike

COVID-19, Now George Floyd, What’s Next!

I tried to write posts that are informative and positive.  I think that there is enough shocking news in the world.  I attempt to avoid controversial pieces, as they tend to alienate readers. I’m not sure if this piece will be considered controversial, or it will alienate others.  However, this is what I feel compelled to write about today. It is as simple as that.

This year has started with a bang, and it continues to spiral out-of-control.  The COVID-19 pandemic has altered how we function in our society, killed countless individuals, and divided our country.  That last statement surprises me the most, but it is sadly true.  

Social distancing and the wearing of face masks have been demonstrated to reduce infection rates. Sweden’s approach to social distancing was laxer than its neighboring countries. Deaths in Sweden due to COVID-19 were almost 40/100,000 residents compared to 6/100,000 residents in adjacent nations that had stricter orders. In the U.S., we have seen individuals and groups promote behaviors contrary to good public health.  These forces were countered by health officials and media outlets that emphasized the importance of viral containment. However, coronavirus news has been pushed aside and replaced by another crisis. 

On May 25, 2020, a black man, George Floyd, was detained by police under suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. He was unarmed and did not appear to be a threat, yet a police officer obstructed his airway for 9 minutes.  This action killed him. Watching the video account of his arrest was horrifying to me, but it also haunts me. It is a vision that I can’t get out of my head. That video launched a world-wide protest against police brutality.  There has been a surge of other videos of police violently attacking citizens who appear to be of no physical threat to them. The officer’s attacks in these videos seem to be rageful and out-of-control. Like everyone else on the planet, I watched in astonishment as the police and military used chemical agents and bullets to disperse a peaceful demonstration in Washington, D.C., so that the president could take a photo-op. Equally disturbing are officers without name tags or organizational insignias who were part of the military force in Washington. Where are they from?  Who are they accountable to? There was no way to identify them. Scenes like these have made me feel like I am witnessing events in a totalitarian state, not the USA.

Not all police have acted brutally.  In my hometown of Naperville, a protest for George Floyd/BLM was scheduled.  The authorities had determined that there was the potential for violence.  Based on this information, many businesses boarded up windows and secured their establishments. I walked down to witness the protest and saw a peaceful assembly.  The police were en masse, but they were off to the side.  Their presence was undeniable, but they were agents of calm, not violence. I continued to follow the evening’s events on a video feed from our local cable T.V. channel. The peaceful protest transitioned, and a different element roamed the downtown, breaking windows and looting stores. At some locations, the police formed a physical barrier to protect stores; at other spots, they pushed out looters and sealed them off from those areas. I am in no way supporting the looters’ actions, and I feel terrible that over 30 businesses suffered damage.  However, the police’s sensible and calm behavior in Naperville contained the problem and did not escalate it. There was damage to property, but no one died on either side. It was a fantastic example of the excellent work that thoughtful police do.

I have known a few police officers well, and two generalities have stood out.  They are just regular people, and they have a strong commitment to serve and protect their communities. So how is it that we see videos of police officers practicing such terrible brutality?  I feel that rogue cops represent a tiny percentage of the police force.  Unfortunately, some police follow a code of protecting their fellow officers at any cost. Because of this, these bad apples continue to abuse their power.  Cover-ups can be systemic in organizations. Former Chicago mayor, Rahm Emmanual was implicated in suppressing video evidence of the fatal shooting by police of  Laquan McDonald. Initial police reports said that Laquan was acting aggressively, but the court-ordered release of police video showed that he was walking away when he was shot 16 times by officer Jason Van Dyke. 

I believe that we have mostly peaceful protesters with a small percentage of looters and we have primarily good police with a small percentage of corrupt cops.

A small group of bad apples can spoil the reputation of the larger bunch.

As protests have continued, some choose to focus on the protesters rather than the reason for the protests.  It sickens me to hear leaders talk about dominating others to justify abusing their power. It also upsets me that thousands feel that they need to put their lives on the line for our leaders to hear them. Every protest group offers the potential of becoming a COVID superinfection zone.  It is a frightening prospect. 

You may think that this post is a veiled condemnation of President Trump. I will not deny that I feel that has continually stirred the pot of divisiveness to the detriment of our country.  However, I believe that a more significant issue is our societal views of different minority groups. As a nation, we spend an extraordinary amount of time identifying groups who we perceive as different from us as our enemies.  We determine that entire categories of individuals should have fewer rights than ours and that their very existence poses some threat to us.  Some use this separation to incite fear in others to gain power and influence. They make our country weaker. However, we, as a society, accept these lies. Can you think of any minority group that has not experienced prejudice? Women? Hispanics? Blacks? Gays? Jews? Chinese? Fat people? Muslims?  It doesn’t take much to qualify as an outsider, and with this designation comes fewer rights than the majority.

If you are in any minority group, it becomes more challenging to achieve your goals. The American Dream is that you can determine your destiny. I do believe that the individual is responsible for their fate. If you want a good job, you need to obtain the skills necessary to achieve it. To get accepted to a top university, you need to study hard.  If you want a beautiful house in a safe neighborhood, you have to save the down payment.  However, for the American Dream to be real, everyone needs to be on the same playing field. If we are all dealt the same cards, it is up to us to play them.  However, if the deck is stacked, some players always lose.

Groups in power want to keep their power, that is a fact. They justify their actions to maintain control.  Their fear of losing power may cause them to act in ways contrary to their values. A fellow officer may feel compelled to corroborate a false story thinking that someday his own life may depend on the lying officer’s protection. Politicians and others may justify their prejudicial and inhuman behaviors of groups by dehumanizing them.  Children in cages become unlawful, illegal invaders.  Muslims become terrorists.  Women are labeled frumpy, ballbusters, dumb blonds, and girls. Once designated as “less than,” it becomes OK to treat these groups as “less than.”  

As a country, we gained world power status because we were a melting pot of creativity and ideas.  Our diversity has always been our strength; it is foolish to think otherwise. The limitation of large segments of our population may temporarily benefit a few. Still, its overall effect is the weakening of our country. The more we divide and alienate, the more we erode the basic tenets of our Constitution. The Constitution is the foundation that our country is built on.  Erosion of a foundation results in the collapse of the overall structure.      

We are creatures of novelty.  Now that there is a new story to capture our attention, the ongoing pandemic has receded into the background.  I fear that the same will happen with police reform.  The protests will end, and our collective minds will focus on the next big story.  We cannot let this happen.

I grew up in the 1960s, a time of great Soviet hubris. I remember a quote by Soviet Prime Minister, Nakita Khrushchev who said, “We do not have to invade the United States, we will destroy you from within.” Unity creates strength; division creates weakness. As we justify the abuse of others, we deem different; we move ever closer to his prediction. The group of marginalized individuals grows ever larger; it is only a matter of time that those who are marginalizing will become marginalized themselves.  Perhaps, that has already happened. Who will be left to protect our values and our country when we are all considered the enemy?

Some stores in downtown Naperville boarded up windows in anticipation of the protest.
Protestors in downtown Naperville.
Police en masse, present but allowing the protestors to do their thing.
Late-night damage and looting.
Some high-end stores that didn’t board-up their windows were targeted.
I can’t imagine the force that it took to break this super-thick glass.
A view to the inside.
The next morning legions of volunteers spontaneously came to the area to clean up.
A hovering helicopter is seen during the cleanup.
Some people ripped down hearts supporting BLM and the community reacted by covering stores with hearts in support of BLM.
I love this photo.

Bomb Shelters And COVID-19, More Related Than You Think.

I read the email from Ralph.  He was inviting my family and me to his farm for the weekend.  I felt reasonably confident that Julie would want to go, but I was less sure of my kids.  To my surprise, they were eager as they had fond memories of outings there when they were younger.  Our invitation was at the beginnings of the lifting of shelter-in-place restrictions in Illinois; I knew that both Ralph and Anne had been carefully isolating.

Ralph is my former business partner, and his wife Anne is my dentist.  They live in a nearby suburb, and the farm is their get-away place.  To call it a farm isn’t exactly accurate, but that descriptor is about as good as any other.

Ralph’s father was a famous researcher who was a professor at a prominent university.  Along with his pediatrician wife, he decided to purchase the farm in the 1960s.  This move was stimulated by several factors, including the fact that a few of his colleagues had bought vacation cottages on the nearby Rock River. However, his father had bigger plans and eventually obtained 650 acres of land that included fields, forests, and a former rodeo.  The rodeo’s site had a main house, nine log-style cabins, a two-story barn, and various other outbuildings.  It was situated on an idyllic pond and became the family’s weekend home. In the 1970s, Ralph’s parents built a new home on a ridge overlooking their lake.  This is the place that I have visited over the years.  The first time that I saw the old homestead was last year as it is about a mile walk from the “new” house.

Visiting the farm is a unique experience; in reality, it is a private preserve.  There are expansive open fields, densely wooded forests, ponds, creeks, and a lake.  The site also contains a helicopter landing field, an abandoned caboose, and a 7-foot plaster-cast statue of Cleopatra.  Edmonia Lewis sculpted the original sculpture (The Death of Cleopatra). Ralph’s dad donated it to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. but had a cast made to keep for himself.

The property’s most unusual feature is a buried, multi-room bomb shelter that even includes a garage to store a car. Under a hill, the shelter has several entrances, including a secret tunnel to the main house.  That opening was located in one of the bedrooms, and to reach it you had to propel yourself down a hidden slide. 

Current observers would likely view the building of a massive bomb shelter as eccentric or possibly even a little crazy.  However, I would disagree with both descriptors.  To understand why someone would go to great effort and expense, you need to understand the era when the shelter was built.  The Cold War was in full swing in the 1960s, and the treat of a nuclear attack from Russia was a genuine fear.  Many people had makeshift bomb shelters in their basements, and students practiced “duck and cover” exercises in school.  In fact, in 1962, it was revealed that Russia was building missile launching pads in Cuba, only 91 miles away from the U.S. mainland.

Ralph’s father’s actions were consistent with the fears of the time, except he had the financial means to protect his family on a grander scale than most.  Thankfully, for all of us, the family never had to use their hidden bunker. 

I am also trying to protect my family, not from a nuclear blast, but a novel coronavirus.  I have instilled in them the need to socially distance, and they know the importance of handwashing. I have laid in some extra food and supplies so they would be safe and fed if, for some reason, I couldn’t go to the grocery store.  I have kept abreast of the latest news and medical research since knowledge is often the most potent weapon against any adversary.

Now that the country is opening up, it is important to know what situations are safer and what situations are more dangerous.

Most research has shown that the best practice is to stay far away from others, as individuals can be infected while exhibiting no physical symptoms.  The 6-foot rule is an excellent place to start.  The more open the setting, the safer the environment.  The more confined the setting, the more dangerous.  The more talking, singing, coughing, laughing, sneezing, the worse the setting. Short periods spent in places offer less viral exposure than extended periods. To put this in practical English:

-Outdoor open spaces with few people are relatively safe. 

-As outdoor spaces become more crowded, they become less safe.

-When you can’t maintain at least 6 feet of distance, wear a mask.  Even a homemade mask offers some protection to the wearer and benefits those around the wearer.

-If possible, avoid closed spaces with poor air circulation (bars, churches, movie theaters).  Such places are even more dangerous when people are singing, shouting, or doing other activities that move a lot of air.

-Eye protection may be useful in “trapped” spaces, such as an airplane.  

-Washing your hands regularly is one of the most important things that you can do to stay healthy.  Do this often, and every time you return home, even in situations where you think you haven’t touched anything. 

-Use an appropriate hand sanitizer when you can’t properly wash your hands.

– The amount of time that you spend in a given place counts.  The chance of getting coronavirus from a short visit to the grocery is relatively low.  If you work in a grocery store for 8 hours a day, being infected by a coworker is higher. 

As the country opens up, it is essential to choose your activities wisely.  You don’t need an elaborate bomb shelter to protect you and your family, just some masks, a little soap, and a heavy dose of common sense.

BTW, we had a great time at the farm.  Instead of writing a narrative about it, I thought I would end today’s post with some photos.

Peace,

Mike

The “new” house built in the 1970s.
The view from our bedroom.
The “new” house sits on a ridge overlooking this lake.
We toured around the farm “hayride” style. Ralph is an expert at driving a tractor.
One of several ponds.
Only a few of the original log cabins remain, and they are returning to nature.
Transportation consists of one of several 1950s tractors.
A huge bonfire often ends the evening.
View of the lake from the patio.
Getting ready for an adventure.
Many stairs down to the lake.
Wandering in the forest.
Wandering in the field.
Going down to explore the old bomb shelter.
Our ride.
“The Death of Cleopatra” Image courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Why “You Do You” Doesn’t Work During The COVID-19 Pandemic

My favorite ice cream flavor is vanilla.  My wife prefers caramel swirl.  Although I feel that caramel swirl is inferior to vanilla, I accept her preference, and I find no reason to quarrel with her about her choice.  I can like my flavor, and she can like hers.

There are other areas in my life where I am more passionate about my feelings.  Some have views that are different from mine.  Yet, I accept this as I believe that the best practice is live and let live.

I can stretch this thought further into areas where I may feel that someone else’s belief is downright outrageous.  Perhaps they believe that some over-the-counter supplement will cure their medical illness, or they are convinced that we never landed on the moon.  Maybe they think that the newspaper horoscope offers direct guidance for their life. “You do you and me do me,” I think. I’ll accept you for who you are. Others don’t need to lockstep behind me.  I may not agree with what they believe in, but they have the right to believe it.  That is a good thing, right? In many cases, the answer is yes.  

Differences come in many forms that go well beyond opinions.  Different races, genders, religions, sexual orientations, socioeconomic classes, education levels, and so on.  When we accept our differences, we can also recognize our similarities. In most instances, we are more alike than we are different. 

“It’s your thing, do what you want to do!” isn’t just the tagline from an Isley Brother’s song, it is an anthem of acceptance of others.  But can this concept foster the opposite effect? Unfortunately, I believe that the answer is yes.

We have laws that are designed to establish acceptable norms. Rules are necessary to allow our society to function. It is against the law to discriminate based on many determinators such as race or religion.  It is against the law to willfully kill another person. It is against the law to exploit children, and the list goes on. 

It is possible to draw some conclusions using the above examples.  When differences in actions or opinions are relatively inconsequential, the best practice is acceptance.  When activities or ideas break established norms, the best practice is a correction. These points are almost universally accepted, but there is a grey zone where it becomes more challenging to determine or categorize harmless differences vs. dangerous ideologies. 

In my last post, I attempted to answer common questions concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. I based my responses on established information obtained from primary sources, reliable publications, and governmental information streams.  I felt good about my attempt to provide this information. I made a concerted effort to write the piece at a level understandable to non-medical readers. Beyond posting on my blog site, I also linked the article in several other forums, including a local Naperville Facebook page.  The post got mostly positive responses, but I was surprised at the adverse reactions that I received. One person felt that I wasn’t qualified to write the article because I was a psychiatrist.  She didn’t realize that psychiatrists are trained as medical doctors. Another person simply said, “So many untruths” without further explanation.  Still, others responded to my informational post by registering an angry icon.  The negative comments were reinforced by some readers who signified their agreement with the commentator with “thumbs-up” clicks.

The next day I scanned a different post in the same forum that noted that a person’s loved one was being called back to work as a bartender.  The writer was seeking opinions if others thought that he would be safe.  One responded (edited):

“All you people are sheep. I’ve worked everyday through quarantine. I’ve been in peoples homes. I’ve hosted parties and I’d say I’ve shooken a minimum of 3 new peoples hand daily. …You guys need to realize the person funding this vaccine same person. Funding  micro chip same person owns Amazon. Social distance is an ordinance for the fact that when everyone can take these masks off they will still have to be distant for no other reason but satellite imagery and recognition…”

In another post, a person asked if anyone knew when Illinois was going to cancel shelter-in-place.  She received this reply from someone upset with Illinois’ stay-at-home restriction:

“Looking at non shithole states to move to.” 

Newspapers report that some protestors believe that the country’s head of infectious diseases, Anthony Fauci,  is lying to us about the coronavirus and that he is trying to profit from this pandemic. 

Protesters are carrying rifles when marching on state capitals. Photos of unmasked protestors co-mingled with unmasked children and infants splash across the news media. They claim that they are defending their civil rights. 

Fringe religious fundamentalists say that this pandemic has been predicted in Revelations and that the cure (a vaccine) is a ploy to inject microchips into the greater population as the “Mark of the Beast.” 

Despite 100,000 deaths in the US, some people believe that COVID-19 is a made-up hoax.

Some business owners have opened their shops in direct opposition to state laws saying that they are exercising their civil rights.

The federal government tells us to socially distance and wear a mask, while at the same time encouraging protest groups and demonstrating a lack of concern with social-distancing.

Despite dire warnings of a second wave of infection, people crowded beaches, parks, and pools over the Memorial Day weekend. When asked why they parrot, “I have to live.  Depression and anxiety are dangerous too.” 

Despite countless authoritative sources that have documented the infectiousness and lethality of this novel coronavirus individuals justify their irresponsible actions by noting that it is no worse than the flu. 

People minimize the impact of this illness by claiming that it only kills the elderly. And they imply that this population is expendable. 

As a physician, scientist, and psychiatrist, I have been trying to make sense of these illogical and dangerous thoughts and actions.  I accept that there will always be individuals who have alternative beliefs and that some of those beliefs will be “out there.” However, it appears that these reckless behaviors have gained a foothold in portions of mainstream society.  Why are individuals reacting so strongly during this time of crisis? A time when there is clear evidence that their actions are dangerous not only to themselves but to the greater population?  We value individual rights and accept differing opinions in this country, but when is the “Me do me,” philosophy exploited to the detriment of the greater good?  And how do we, as rational human beings, justify these dangerous actions?

I think there are many reasons why individuals are ignoring clear facts and placing both themselves and the greater population in danger.  Here are some of my thoughts: 

The rejection of science and medicine

The mistrust of science and scientists is a long-standing tradition for some, as is the incorrect assumption that science and religion oppose each other.  We have all read stories of “mad scientists” whose evil ambitions cause pain and destruction. We have also had real-life examples of how science has damaged our world with nuclear waste and chemical dumping.  Many individuals would disagree with the old DuPont tagline, “Better living through chemistry.” 

There are many examples where errors in scientific judgment have had significant consequences.  However, there are many more examples where the knowledge and implementation of science have dramatically improved our quality of life.  If you lack an understanding of the fundamentals of science, it is easy to demonize this area of knowledge and dismiss any conclusions that scientific examination affords.  Also, some people feel that science and religion are oppositional forces.  There could be many reasons for this belief that range from the false impression that all scientists are atheists to the interpretation of sacred works.

Physicians used to be revered in communities.   As a practicing doctor for over 30 years, I have witnessed a decline. This is partially due to the changing roles of doctors.  As medicine has become more complicated, the need for multiple physician experts (specialists)  has weakened the doctor/patient relationship.  Also, most doctors in the US earn their living via a production model.  The faster they work, the more they make. Working as quickly as possible is counter to establishing a meaningful relationship with patients.  

The internet has provided an explosion of both good and bad medical information.  Patients can come to an appointment with a preconceived idea of their problem and a treatment expectation.  I can recall patients who misinterpreted information from medical websites. Because of this, they would refuse to accept my medical advice.  Dr. Google can seem a lot more credible than the doctor sitting across from you.  

Science vs. religion

As a practicing Christian, I believe that God gave us our minds and free will to explore the world. I think that religion and science coexist quite nicely.  

I was at a function where I talked to someone I would regard as educated and intelligent.  I was shocked when this person told me that they rejected that humans were contributing to climate change. There was a religious connection to her belief, and honestly, her comments took me aback.  Later that day, I asked my wife how it was possible to reject something accepted by the world community, and has been demonstrated time and time again in real-life examples. My wife was raised in the same religious tradition as this person, and so I thought she might have more insight.  She noted that some fundamentalist religions view science as the enemy because its conclusions can be contrary to the literal translation of the Bible.

When the Bible says that the world was created in 7 days, I interpret it using a week to symbolize that it didn’t happen instantly.  That is compatible with what we know scientifically.  Others believe that the world was created in 7 actual days. I’m not trying to get into a me vs. you argument. Still, I can see how this different interpretation could lead to the belief that science is anti-Bible.  That is not the case.

Conspiracy theorist.

There is a world out there where everything has a sinister and secret meaning.  It is a world run by influential people who sometimes practice magical rituals.  It is the world of conspiracy. Conspiracy theories abound and seem to explain just about any event or problem.  911?  There are conspiracy theories to explain it.  Sandy Hook?  There are conspiracy theories to explain it.  Pandemic?  There are conspiracy theories to explain it.  

Most conspiracy theories have some basis in facts.  However, those facts are misinterpreted or manipulated to make the argument more plausible.  They offer the believer the inside scoop and explain to them the whys of the world.

Promoters of conspiracy theories can gain a cult-like following. With it, they can achieve a certain amount of power.  Some will also use their influence to sell things that range from herbal supplements to magical toothpaste.

I find it interesting that there are quite a few real arrangements that are both secret and unsavory.  They are often more interesting than fictional conspiracy theories. Deals do get made behind the scenes; the privacy of individuals is compromised without their permission. Plots happen in real life.  For some reason, these actual events don’t seem as appealing as alien-human hybrids, or Masonic conspiracies to overtake the world. This is likely because the uncovering of real plots requires quite a bit of time and research.  Also, there may be little payoff.  A conspiracy theory only needs a seed of truth. Still, that seed can be grown into anything that the theorist wishes. Random information can be added; non-confirming information can be subtracted.  

Beyond hucksters, governments also use this technique.  I just watched a news clip that described how Russian and Chinese Arabic outlets are promoting the idea that a  US lab created this novel coronavirus.  Conversely, we have implied that this coronavirus was either created or released from a Chinese lab.  Why would governments get involved with conspiracy theories?  To manipulate a naive group, and to serve as a method of distraction.

The Mark of the Beast

As long as I have been listening to late-night radio, I remember stories of hidden organizations that had plots to label humans with the “Mark of the Beast.” Over time the “Mark” has changed from social security numbers to credit cards to UPCs and more recently “chip” tagging devices like you use to ID your dog and cat.

I’m a practicing Christian, but I’m not a Bible scholar.  However, I did do some research.  Most well regarded Bible scholars say that the “Mark of the Beast” from Revelations doesn’t refer to a mark that someone places on you. Rather it symbolizes a person embracing the Devil. Could this involve an actual mark?  That is unclear, but not relevant to my point. The Mark of the Beast is about a person’s conversion rather than someone being branded.  

Some anti-vaccers and other fringe groups say that the world is developing a coronavirus vaccine because the entire population will be secretly injected with a microchip… serving as the “Mark of the Beast.” Here we see a blending of conspiracy, religion, and manipulation.

When opinions are as important as facts

There has been an increasing tendency to accept opinions as facts, mainly when an influencer of power expresses the idea.  Do you watch YouTube?  Have you ever seen a popular host talk ecstatically about a boring product?  In many cases, that person is being paid to gush by the advertiser of that product.  Yes, it is a commercial, except it is being sold as an honest opinion.

“1 + 1 = 2,” that is a fact. “Chocolate cake is the best cake,” that is an opinion.  An opinion can sometimes become a fact with research and fact-finding.  However, in most cases, this is neither done; nore is it desired. Vetting an opinion runs the risk of disproving it.

As humans, we like to have opinions as they give us a sense of mastery and knowledge.  As in most of these examples, opinions can be used to manipulate others.  Remember, facts can be verified by multiple credible sources.  If this can’t be done, it is an opinion.

When powerful agencies or people lie to us

There are many examples where influential individuals or groups used their influence to manipulate us.  A classic example is the case of the tobacco executives who testified under oath to Congress that smoking was not hazardous to your health… when they knew otherwise.  People in power are caught in lies and break their promises.  Add to this reality, their seemingly enchanted lifestyles of privilege, and it is easy for the mainstream to reject the establishment.

The “N” word

No, not THAT word.  The “N” that I’m referring to is an “n,” and it stands for a number.  We love testimonials, and they sometimes can be useful in our decision making.  A friend tells us about a good and honest mechanic… score!  However, these benefits don’t apply in all situations.  

As an example, a person receives an experiment drug and survives a COVID-19 infection.  It must have been that drug that they took, right?  Wrong, that is why we have research protocols.  Early on in the pandemic, I recall reading about a person who was convinced that hydroxychloroquine saved their life.  Was this a fact or just a coincidence?  A larger sample pool has suggested coincidence.  Researchers have the tools and techniques needed to explore the benefits of a treatment, and even they sometimes get it wrong. Correlation does not imply causation.  “One swallow doesn’t make a summer.”

Smart people should not be trusted

There seems to be a general distrust of smart or highly educated individuals.  I have heard people refer to them in negative ways, “They live in an ivory tower,” They think that their sh** doesn’t stink,” etc.  Presidential pundits talk about the importance of likability when it comes to choosing a viable presidential candidate.  It has been said that citizens vote for someone based on how relatable they are. In other words, someone they would enjoy having lunch with. I’m not sure why there is a bias against smart people, but I am confident that their opinions shouldn’t be discounted.

Individual rights, the battle cry 

We are a country of individuals.  We pride ourselves on our rights and our freedom of choice. However, we live in a diverse society. What happens when individual rights negatively impact human rights?  What if your freedom to express yourself has a direct negative impact on my rights?  What if your desire for self-determination harms your dependents?  

Real news as opposed to drama TV

I have to confess that I don’t watch a lot of TV news, as I get most of my information in other ways.  However, I have deliberately watched shows from all of the major networks as well as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox.  Most networks try to present real facts during an actual news show (although those facts can be skewed depending on the network’s bias).  However, the “fun” begins when the commentators take over.  They have their agenda, which seems to consist of promoting a specific ideology (often right or left).  Their shows appear to carry even more weight than the network’s actual newscasts.  It is easy to confuse their editorial interpretations as trustworthy, unbiased facts. “This group is always good; the other group is always bad.” If you see this pattern when listening to a commentator, consider turning off the TV.

Everyone’s an expert

My friend Tom has worked in the construction industry for over 25 years.  As a general contractor, he is one of the most knowledgeable experts that I know when it comes to home repair and remodeling.  I often go with him to initial appointments (I’m retired, you know). It amazes me how often potential customers try to show their “superior” knowledge when it comes to a construction job.  By association, I have picked up some facts about construction. Even with my limited experience, I can tell you that many of these consumers have no idea what they are talking about.  However, in the age of the internet, it is possible to glean information on just about any topic. With that little bit of information, it appears to be easy to assume that you know more than someone who has dedicated their life to learning a skill set.  

I have seen this same phenomenon with some patients.  I recall a lady who I had seen for some time.  She was doing well on her current medication and had made excellent progress overall. One day she came into a session angry at me.  She demanded to know why she wasn’t on a particular medicine.  She said she had done research on that medicine, and it seemed perfect for her.  I reminded her that she was doing well, but she was not satisfied with my comment.  I let her rant for a few minutes and then reached for her chart.  I located what I was looking for and said to her, “Do you remember that medicine that you tried about six months ago?”  “Yes, it was terrible.  It had so many side effects.  Why in the world did you put me on that terrible medicine,” she said. “I put you on that medicine because we were trying to improve your mood, but it wasn’t the right medicine.  People react to medicines differently, which is why an expert prescribes them.  That medicine is the one that you want me to put you on today.”  “Oh,” was her only reply.  She had seen a glossy commercial about the medicine on TV and felt that she had expert knowledge of psychopharmacology based on 60 seconds of information.

Do as I say, not as I do

If you are a person of few resources, you can expect to receive the maximum punishment if you break the law.  However, it seems that the rules are different if you are a person with power or money. Worse yet is when influential people criticize others for the very things that they are doing themselves.  This leads to an us vs. them separation, and the hypocrisy breeds mistrust.

Overdosing on outrage porn

It is exciting to be excited.  It is even more appealing to be excited around others who are excited.  A typical example of this is watching a sporting event with friends.  However, there is another side to this phenomenon. It can be exhilarating to be outraged about something, and this is more exciting when done with others.  Of course, there are times when we should be outraged as our anger causes us to elicit change.  However, outrage porn is also a technique that many partisan news outlets use.  They beat their version of a story over and over until the viewer is hopping mad.  It is exciting, but (in my opinion) it rarely results in a change.  Why do they do it?  The longer you watch, the more money they make.   

The art of the scapegoat

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where you were always right and never wrong?  For most of us, this is a fantasy, but for some, it is a reality.  What is the secret?  Blame someone or some group. “I didn’t do a poor job; I did a great job… someone else did a terrible job… It’s their fault,” and so it goes.  If someone says that they are always doing a good job and that someone else is always to blame, they are either lying or delusional (or both). 

One note philosophies

We live in a time of sound bites and bullet points.  We identify with celebrities and leaders based on minimal information, such as their stance on universal healthcare,  immigration rights, or abortion positions.  Once strongly allied by a single doctrine, it becomes easy to accept or ignore other attributes of that individual that might usually offend our sensibilities.  To make those abhorrent ideas acceptable, we rationalize them or adopt them.  In this way, it becomes possible to accept or ignore behaviors and ideologies that we would normally reject.

Dehumanization

The more a person is different from us, the easier it is for us to distance ourselves from their needs or plights.  Propaganda effectively makes enemies appear different.  Think of posters of Japanese from WWII; they were drawn to appear subhuman.  Likewise, Japanese propaganda of Americans made us look like monsters.  This effect can occur subtly and, more recently, has been used to marginalize Hispanics, Muslims, and the elderly.  Once dehumanized, it is easy to ignore a group’s plight. “Isn’t it OK for a few elderly people to die if that makes America great again?” This sounds a lot better than, “Isn’t it OK for my grandmother to die if that makes America great again?” 

Snake oil and pseudo-experts

We all have to make a living, but some individuals do this at others’ expense.  Usually, vulnerabilities are exploited.  Hair tonics for the balding, weight loss “miracles” for the fat, get rich quick programs for the financially unstable… the list goes on. Fear can be a powerful motivator during a crisis.  At times it is used to hawk benign products, like dehydrated shelf-stable foods.  However, at other times it exploits the vulnerable by promising them magical protection from the offending agent (like a coronavirus).  These types of exploitations can not only be financially draining, but they can also be life-threatening. Moreover, these salespeople will often use the tactic of “You can only trust me.” This places the customer in further danger as they are isolated and no longer accept more objective advice.

Partisanship

Partisanship is defined as blind adherence to a particular cause or party.  Partisanship has exploded over the last decade and has slowed the government to a near halt. The enemies are clearly defined. They consist of anyone who opposes the leaders of that party or any group that threatens the power of the party.  Both Democrats and Republicans practice extreme partisanship, and this attitude has had a detrimental impact on battling COVID-19.


The purpose of this post was to ask the question, Are there times when individual rights need to be adjusted so that others’ rights are also respected?  I am a firm believer in individual rights, but they cannot exclude the rights of others.  However, there seems to be a societal trend to champion individual rights above all else.  This pattern of behavior has many roots, some of which I listed above.  

The unbridled expression of individual rights can only exist in a situation where there is no impact on others’ rights.  However, in societies, individuals’ rights have to be balanced by the rights of the group.  Actions that promote the rights of an individual at the expense of the group’s rights will invariably negate both.  

To state this more eloquently, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 

We are always stronger when we work together.  When we adopt patterns of behavior that are contrary to this, we can initially feel more powerful.  However, in the long run, we become weaker and more vulnerable.

Explore some of the constructs that I have listed above and see how they apply to your beliefs or actions.  As always, Peace.