Doomsday 2021

Some late-night thoughts that hopefully won’t color the weekend in shades of gray and black…

I checked in on the Doomsday Clock this week.

The clock was devised by Albert Einstein and University of Chicago scientists who helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project. They started the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1945 and the Doomsday Clock came in 1947. They took the idea of doomsday/apocalypse and represented it on the clock as midnight. They would evaluate nuclear threats to humanity and set the clock so that it represented a countdown to midnight. They reset it every year.

I last checked the Doomsday Clock in November 2019 and it was 11:58 pm. Two minutes to Doomsday. 2020 had enough doom and gloom so I never checked.  Today the clock is 20 seconds to midnight. And seconds matter. That’s the same place that it was set in 2020. I suppose that is a glint of optimism – things haven’t gotten worse – though it is not really optimistic.

The Doomsday Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons. In 1947, nuclear war was THE threat to the planet. But climate change and disruptive technologies in other domains have been added to the calculation.

The Bulletin did not ignore the pandemic.

“Humanity continues to suffer as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world. In 2020 alone, this novel disease killed 1.7 million people and sickened at least 70 million more. The pandemic revealed just how unprepared and unwilling countries and the international system are to handle global emergencies properly. In this time of genuine crisis, governments too often abdicated responsibility, ignored scientific advice, did not cooperate or communicate effectively, and consequently failed to protect the health and welfare of their citizens.
As a result, many hundreds of thousands of human beings died needlessly”

The clock is reset in January each year. Things have been better, but never worse. It is the closest to Doomsday it has been in the history of the Doomsday Clock.

Doomsday clock
Image: Janet Loehrke, USA TODAY


I think I will take a look again in January 2022. But maybe I will only report back to you if there is some improvement. After all, Paradelle is supposed to be where I escape. But I know that there is no escape from Doomsday.

And Now, FONO


Back in 2000, FOMO — Fear of Missing Out — came into being. The acronym was supposed to describe the feeling that something’s happening and you are not a part of it.

This year, I saw FONO popping up online. A writer in The Washington Post used the term FONO to mean Fear of Normal. AS things somewhat return to a kind of normal, some people who have become used to the stress, social isolation, and emotional ups and downs of a pandemic year are feeling uncomfortable about a return to normal.

I follow the science and I know that science changes, as it should. But the changing science of COVID causes additional confusion and fear. Infections and death numbers were dropping. Vaccinations were rising. But then this summer cases went back up just when cities, states and individuals decided we could act pretty normally again. CDC guidelines keep changing. Politicians keep reinterpreting the guidelines or coming up with their own. It is more difficult to reinstate restrictions than it is to initiate them. And much of the return to normalcy is clearly more economically-based than healthcare-based.

Should we move more slowly with our post-pandemic recovery? What impact would that have on the spread of COVID and its variants? What effect would it have on the economy? What psychological effect would it have on health and the economy?

Has your fear of missing out on life the past year and a half now become a fear of returning to normal?

A Letter to Yourself

In April  2020, I wrote a letter to myself.

This was an assignment that years ago I would sometimes give to my middle school students. They were 12-14 years old and letter writing was an assignment we did in several forms. For this assignment, I gave them a fill-in-the-blank form that asked them a number of questions including: who are their best friends, favorites (movies, TV shows, books, places to visit, foods etc.) and I asked them about what they hoped or expected for their near future. It asked them what they wanted to happen in high school academically and socially. Did they have college plans, or career plans? They also wrote a letter to themself. Though I gave suggestions, that part was open-ended.

What made this assignment ultimately significant was what I did with their form and letter. I told them I would only glance at it at their desk to see that it was done but I would not read it.  They also had to bring in a self-addressed stamped envelope that the two sheets would be put in ready to mail.

I would mail them their letter on the first day of June of their senior year. So, in 4 or 5 years this most-likely-forgotten assignment would arrive at their home.

I knew from teaching high school seniors that a strong wave of nostalgia hits when June begins. Seniors tended to be nicer to each other. They talked about final things. This is my last: math test, cafeteria lunch, homeroom, pep rally, detention and so on.

The first year I mailed a set of those letters (about 125 of them), it only took a day or two for seniors to come back to their middle school to show them to me and tell how it felt to read them. “I changed so much! I totally forgot about this assignment. My predictions were so wrong. I laughed to read this. I cried when I read this. It made me so happy. It made me sad. I can’t believe you remembered to mail them!”

Luckily, no one had moved so the letters arrived. (I had them put on two stamps since this was a time before the “Forever stamp”). And none of those students had died in the interim. That was something that did happen the second time I did this assignment. I knew that and had pulled the letter which I delivered to the student’s parents in person. They were grateful for it, but I never heard from them about what they found in the envelope or if it was a good or bad thing for them to read.

Every time I mailed a batch of letters, I would get a few students who came back to complain that they never got their letter. Thankfully, I had kept a roster and next to their names I had them sign that they did not turn in the assignment. Instead of being mad at me, they were usually mad at themselves, but no letter was also a kind of unwritten letter from their younger self.

I was reminded of this years ago when one of my students who did a letter years ago became an English teacher herself. Via Facebook, I found out that Ines paid the letter assignment forward. She wrote “In 7th grade, my language arts teacher had us write letters to our future selves. The week I graduated from high school, I was so surprised to receive a letter from… me! It was the letter I had written myself so many years earlier. I don’t remember now what I wrote but I remember loving the idea so I did it for some of my own students.”

When I wrote my letter last year, I considered doing an email and using the Boomerang app in my Gmail to schedule it to send one year later. I decided not to for several reasons. First off, that meant that the email would be sitting there tempting me for a year. I could even revise it. But I didn’t have a nice teacher who would snail mail it to me in April 2021. I finally decided to write it, put it in an envelope, seal it and just put it away out of my sight and set a reminder on my electronic calendar about where it was “hiding” and to open it this month.

Writing a letter by hand on paper and putting it in an envelope might seem quaint to teens today having grown up in an almost fully-digital world. But I suspect people of all ages still get a little charge of excitement at getting a real letter or a greeting card in their home mailbox that exceeds the “Happy Birthday” post on their Facebook wall or the text message update.

One year is not four or five years, and I’m not a young teen heading into some years full of change. Still, April 2020 to April 2021 was a big year of change for myself, the country, and the world.

I wrote the letter on April 14, 2020. In the two weeks prior, we had seen a $2 trillion stimulus bill passed. The world hit one million COVID cases. There were 51,000 deaths by April 2 and by the 9th the number was 100,000.  The WHO and CDC were telling us to wear masks, but President Trump would not and many of his supporters followed his example. The day I wrote my letter, President Trump blamed the WHO and pulled funding from the U.S. to the organization. It was a depressing day to write a letter but I knew this was a history I didn’t want to forget.

I also knew that my first grandchild would be born in a few days. My son was concerned that they said he probably couldn’t be in the hospital for the birth.

Spring flowers were blooming in my neighborhood but spring was not as hopeful as in previous years. My sister was living in an assisted-living facility that had already had COVID cases and deaths and I was not allowed to visit her. There was talk of vaccines but that would be about nine months away despite claims from the false claim from the White House and some news sources that the virus would “go away when it got warmer” and that the number and reports of cases were exaggerated. At one point, the Presidents had said it would subside by Easter. But Passover and Easter were largely virtual events and things had only gotten worse.

Like my students’ letters, I wrote about what was happening then and what I hoped for in the next year. I won’t share my letter but you can guess correctly at some of it. I hoped the pandemic would subside and that no one I knew would get the virus and that none of that did would die. I hoped the vaccine would appear. I hoped that Trump would be a one-term President and that Biden would right the ship of state. My biggest piece of optimism was for my granddaughter.

Some of my predictions and wishes came true. Some did not.

Certainly, the birth of our Remi was the best thing to happen in the past year. My son was able to be in the room for her birth and isolated, masked, and sanitized, they left the hospital 24 hours after they went entered.

No one I am close to died from the virus but a good number of friends, relatives and acquaintances have tested positive and a few were hospitalized.

The pandemic continues to dominate the news. Things are better but the virus is certainly not gone. Travel plans we made for summer 2020 that we moved to 2021 are moved to 2022. My high school reunion that I am on the planning committee for moved our October 2021 event to October 2022.

Maybe things will be close to normal by the fall, but no one really knows.

I still haven’t seen my sister except through a window. My wife and I have been vaccinated but we still wear masks and we still stay pretty close to home. Tomorrow is Remi’s first birthday.

Maybe I should write another letter to myself. Maybe I should make it an annual assignment. Maybe you should write one too.


War of the World

comic cover
Yesterday I wrote about our fascination with alien technology that began in the 1950s and is still very real. Today I write about another frightening aspect of that alien thread that runs through our culture and society and seems particularly relevant in this current period.

H.G. Wells (born Herbert George Wells in Bromley, England, 1866) is known as one of the fathers of modern science fiction. I loved many of his books including The Invisible Man, The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau. He published dozens of novels, story collections, and books of nonfiction, most of which were not explicitly sci-fi.

I have written before about H.G. Wells and how he was very much interested in history, biology, and socialism. He certainly had a vision for the future of mankind which was optimistic and pessimistic and it found its way into both his fiction and non-fiction.

I don’t know which version of his The War of the Worlds I encountered first – comic book, movie, or novel. I found my comic book version in a box of Classic Illustrated Comics that I loved reading in my youth and that had a great influence on me as a reader and paging through it made me think of the “war of the world” we have been fighting with our own planet the past year.

In almost all the adaptations of Wells’ novel, the aliens are defeated not by our weapons but by what Wells described as “putrefactive bacteria.” His Martians are clearly well advanced in technology but are ignorant of disease. Wells’ narrator theorized that they had eliminated diseases in their world and so were unprepared to deal with germs, bacteria or viruses on Earth.

I clearly remember watching the 1953 film adaptation on television more than once as a kid. The Martians shown resembled the UFO aliens that were being reported throughout the 1950s and 60s.  they were short, brown creatures with two arms and three-fingered hands and had one cyclopean eye.

That movie chose not to have the aliens use humans as a blood supply in order to live. The movie Martians seemed to have no use for humans and just wanted the planet itself and humans were in the way.

For the alien invaders in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film adaptation, they are never called Martians. It wouldn’t make any sense to have superior intelligence coming from what we know to be a red and probably dead planet.  Spielberg chose to have their home, as with his E.T., be some unidentified darker part of the universe.

Following earlier adaptations, these aliens are defeated because their immune systems can’t fight off the multitude of microbes that inhabit the Earth. But it is interesting that the closing narration of Spielberg’s film says that humanity has earned the right to the planet by virtue of naturally coexisting with the rest of its biosphere.

That ending note reminds me of when I actually studied The War of the Worlds in a literature class.  I learned that it can be seen as part of a group of “invasion literature” which appeared at a time when anxiety and insecurity concerning international tensions between European Imperial powers were on the rise. This insecurity would escalate towards the outbreak of the First World War.

Before World War II, the 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles of The War of the Worlds took hold of a population that had those same fears. In the American 1950s, fears of an “invasion” by outsiders and nuclear fears led to many books and films, such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the invaders looked not like aliens but like us – but they were not us.

Wells was a follower of Thomas Henry Huxley who was a proponent of the theory of natural selection. Mankind versus the Martians is very much survival of the fittest. The Martians’ longer period of evolution gave them superior intelligence.

And the novel also suggests Wells’ beliefs about race as described in Social Darwinism. The Martians are exercising their “rights” as a superior race over humans.  Wells said that the novel was loosely inspired by the news of the genocide subjected to Tasmanian First Nations people by British imperialists.

He says in the first chapter of the book:

“And before we judge them [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished Bison and the Dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

His anti-colonialism sounds noble but I have read that taken as a whole Wells’ writing is not so pure with passages of anti-semitism and a fascination for eugenics.

Those Tasmanians he references are the Aboriginal people of the Australian state of Tasmania. For much of the 20th century, they were thought to be an extinct cultural and ethnic group that had been intentionally exterminated by white settlers. Though the elimination of them – “in spite of their human likeness” – was certainly attempted, people of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent still exist on the continent, probably in ni=umbers less than 25,000.

In Wells’ vision, are we the Martians? Are we at war with ourselves, or are some groups trying to eliminate other groups that they see as “alien”? Will we be defeated not by weapons and warfare but by microbes?

H.G. Wells’ questions are still viable and unanswered.

Cassandra and the 12 Monkeys

12 monkeys

After a deadly virus released intentionally wipes out almost all of humanity, The survivors are forced to live underground. That’s the premise of a film that that resonates differently in 2021 than it did when the film, 12 Monkeys (or Twelve Monkeys), was released in 1995.

I rewatched the film last week when I saw that December 13 was the anniversary of the disaster that puts the story in motion. I saw it back in 1995 in a theater. I didn’t see it in a theater this year. I have only seen two films in theaters this year. I’m fully vaccinated and still COVID-cautious.

This science fiction film directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt is set in the future. It concerns a group known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys who it is believed released a terrible virus into the world on December 13, 1996.

It was inspired by the 1962 short film La Jetée, which I saw a long time ago in a French cinema course. It is quite an unusual piece of cinema as it is almost entirely constructed from still photos. It is the story of a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel.

Time travel figures into 12 Monkeys too.  The protagonist, James Cole (Willis), lives in 2035 and is a prisoner living in a subterranean compound beneath the ruins of Philadelphia. He is selected to be trained and sent back in time to find the original virus. The plan is not for him to stop the virus from being developed or released – which is what you would expect – but to get the information for the 2035 scientists to develop a cure.

The deranged “eco-activist” who puts the virus release into motion is Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) whose father’s company developed the virus for non-nefarious reasons. Cole begins to blame himself for the plague because when he is put into a 1990s mental institution with Goines he blurts out something about a viral apocalypse, and Goines responds that “Wiping out the human race? It’s a great idea!”

In a kind of Sixth Sense allusion, Cole/Willis knows that the people he sees in the past are unsavable.  “All I see are dead people.”

The story is complex and the film benefits from multiple viewings. It’s not surprising that a TV series was made to expand the story. I have not seen the series, but it moves the story to 2014 when a plague is released. It’s an airborne virus so deadly it causes the death of 93.6 percent of Earth’s human population.

In playing with time travel, the film says that the scientists in that future know that they cannot stop the spread because it has already happened. There is no changing the past. Rather, if they can get a sample of the original, pure virus, they should be able to create a cure/antibody. The goal is to allow the remaining human race to return to the surface of the planet. It’s all about changing the future. Cole confuses the people in the past he is visiting by telling them that they are in the past and he is from the present which, of course, is their future.


One thing that pops up here and in other science-fiction and time travel tales is that a person from the future who knows what will happen in the past is not believed.  This is known as the Cassandra metaphor (or Cassandra “syndrome”, “complex”, “phenomenon”, “predicament”, “dilemma”, “curse”). The term has come to mean any person whose valid warnings or concerns are disbelieved by others. It could apply today to a whistleblower or environmental scientist warning us of something bad that is sure to come.

The term originates in Greek mythology. Cassandra was a daughter of Priam, the King of Troy. She was so beautiful that Apollo gave her the gift of prophecy. He expected some romance in return for the gift but Cassandra rejected him. The gods don’t like rejection by mortals. Apollo placed a curse o her ensuring that nobody would believe her warnings. So, poor Cassandra was left with the knowledge of future events but could neither alter these events nor convince others of the validity of her predictions.

A number of books and films have seemed relevant or even prescient since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. 12 Monkeys is certainly not an optimistic take on surviving a pandemic or even preventing it.  Rather, it is about what you do after to try to restart life, which is closer to where we are now with COVID-19, Omicron variant, COVID-20, 21, or whatever version we’re dealing with when you read this.

The past can’t be changed. Prevent for the future

A Perfect Storm for Depression

SAD woman

When I saw a headline this morning warning of a “double whammy of pandemic blues and seasonal depression” my first thought was that it was more of a perfect storm.

We are now in our ninth month of COVID-19 and hopeful that while we hit a daily record of 100,000 daily cases, we might be able to avoid a simultaneous flu season. The past week (or months or year) of election madness has certainly affected Americans. And the triple threat is the annual arrival of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

That term – “perfect storm” – has evolved in its usage from a literal meteorological storm to other disaster scenarios. It came into wide usage with The Perfect Storm  2000 film that was based on the 1997 non-fiction book of the same name by Sebastian Junger. The film tells the story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel that was lost at sea with all hands after being caught in a storm at sea. Though there are earlier references to storms that came from an unusual confluence of conditions for storm creation, the popular usage of the term “perfect storm” was coined by Junger. He had a conversation with NWS Boston Deputy Meteorologist Robert Case in which Case described the convergence of weather conditions as being “perfect” for the formation of such a storm at Halloween 1991.

I’ve seen a good number of articles about coping with pandemic depression. I’ve seen advice on dealing with the election news – mostly saying turn off your screens. I have posted in past years about SAD which I know I have suffered from in my adult life, even before there was a name for it.

What might have been called “winter blues” at one time happens when temperatures drop and the hours of sunlight shorten and (depending on where you live) we spend less time outdoors and more time inside. It is estimated that more than 66 million Americans display symptoms of mild or severe depression that might be associated with SAD during the fall and winter months.

This rise of depression that happens every fall is expected to be greater in 2020. One psychologist, Dr. Martin Klein, says that studies have shown that around 80 percent of all Americans are dealing with some form of depression or stress since the pandemic began. That triples the country’s depression rate.

I have been sitting outside for a half-hour each morning with my coffee no matter what the weather has been because I know that SAD occurs mostly in the fall and winter with the literal decrease in sunlight. Sunlight helps to maintain human circadian rhythms and sleeping-waking cycles, as well as other biological functions of the human body. Less sun exposure disrupts those rhythms.

There are also chemical changes, such as a decrease in hormones like serotonin and melatonin, and vitamin D. All of those are associated with mood, anxiety levels, and sleep patterns.

You can also negatively affect mood and raise your blood sugar levels in the colder months if it means you get less exercise less, drink more alcohol and eat more sugary and carbohydrate-rich junk and comfort foods. A lot of us may have fallen into that pattern well before the seasons changed due to the pandemic. Some people have been calling this “Pandemic Affective Disorder.”

As we have been warned about the possibility of flu and COVID19 occurring simultaneously and having some of the same symptoms, the symptoms of SAD are similar to other forms of depression. This is what is usy=ually listed as symptoms of SAD: irritability, lowered mood and energy, increased anxiety, fatigue, a lack of libido, and difficulty paying attention.

SAD can be more severe and it is classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a subset of major depression, officially known as “major depression disorder with a seasonal pattern.”

Some differences in SAD symptoms as compared to chronic major depression include SAD tending to cause people to overeat and sleep longer and later. Major depression usually causes weight loss and erratic sleep schedules.

It is only somewhat optimistic to say that at least the effects of SAD tend to go away once the seasons change because that is at least five months away and we still don’t know when the pandemic will dramatically subside or end.

Here in the northern part of the Northern Hemisphere, November through February are the toughest months.  So what can we do to combat SAD?

The suggestions given in the past still hold. Eating healthy and regular exercise (even if that is only neighborhood walks, runs and bike rides) and increased daily exposure to sunlight.

The sunlight can be my half-hour outside in the morning (try to expose as much skin as possible – which is harder to do as the weather gets colder), sitting inside by a sunny window (sunlight through glass is not as effective) and even special lightboxes with bulbs designed to mimic sunlight.

In all cases of depression, the advice is to interact with people and stay engaged. Unfortunately, depression often makes you want to do the opposite, and the pandemic restrictions have also limited your options. A perfect storm.

Monitor your physical and mental health and don’t be afraid to seek professional help if either seems to be negatively changed.