Adventures in mask making

As of April 2, the San Mateo County Board of Health recommends that everyone wear a mask when they’re in public places.

I’ve been doubtful about the efficacy of masks, since my understanding is that wearing a mask won’t do much to protect you from being infected by others. But I’ve come to understand that masks might protect others from being infected by you, if you happen to have COVID-19 but are still asymptomatic.

So today I decided to be a good citizen and sew a couple of masks, one for Carol and one for me. I am very slow at sewing, partly because I don’t know how to use a sewing machine, and partly because I don’t know what I’m doing. But I found a good online video showing how to make one of the 2-layer pleated masks that are supposed to be the most effective handmade masks. I didn’t have the elastic bands called for in the video, but I had some 1/4 inch polyester cord to use for the ties. Carol has a big bolt of unbleached cotton muslin, and I sacrificed an old t-shirt. Sewing the pleats by hand was kind of a pain at first, but I quickly figured it out.

After two or three hours, I had a mask for Carol and a mask for me. We went to the grocery store, and three quarters of the people there were also wearing masks. Mask wearing peer pressure has begun.

Me wearing my mask

As soon as we got home, I washed both masks in hot water, as you’re supposed to do.

Next step: make another mask for Carol using a high fashion fabric for the outer layer….

Critical Zoom update

If you’re one of those using Zoom to carry out online programs and ministries for our congregations, you’ll want to update to the latest version of the Zoom app (a.k.a. the Zoom client). The latest version is 4.6.10, and I got notification about it an hour ago.

This update has one absolutely critical security feature that you must have: you can prevent participants from changing their screen name. The previous version gave participants the ability to change their screen name to anything, including something obscene, and the host couldn’t do anything except boot that person off the call.

There are other security enhancements, too. Update now.

Adventures in creating online content

My younger sister the children’s librarian has inspired me. Her library is closed, or course, so she’s creating online content by uploading an average of a new video every day to the Harvard (Mass.) Public Library Children’s Room Youtube channel. So far, she’s got a simple craft project, story time that parents can do with young children, and she’s reading aloud the entire Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

I like several things about Abby’s videos. First, they’re a great supplement to Zoom calls — some of us are getting Zoom burnout, and it’s nice to be able to watch a video when YOU want to watch it. Second, they’re Goldilocks videos — not too long, not too short, but just the right length. Third, they don’t put a big burden on parents — the crafts project can be done by kids on their own without parental supervision, kids can watch the installments of Alice on their own, and the story time for young children has them doing what they’re going to be doing anyway which is sitting in a parental lap.

So I repurposed this Youtube channel, where I already had some religious education videos. I added a video we used in last Sunday’s service. I created a couple of playlists, one for crafts (Abby’s craft video is included there), and another for story time (Abby’s Alice stories are going there, because Alice in Wonderland is a sacred text). I’ve got a children’s librarian from our congregation half convinced to do a story time, I’m planning a story time (I think I’ll read aloud from an old edition of the Jataka Tales), there will be more crafts projects.

Blog readers, if you know of some videos that you think would be appropriate to share on this Youtube channel, please send me the links. I can’t promise to put everything up, but I’d really like to see your suggestions — send them to danharper then the little “at” sign then uucpa then a dot then org.

Back in time…

This Sunday, during our congregation’s online service, we’re going to go back in time…

…using the congregation’s time machine…

…to the year 29 C.E., to a small town in the land of Judea. There we will meet a fellow named Ishmael, who’s the kind of person who loves to spread rumors.

“They say,” says Ishmael, “that….”

If Ishamael lived today, he’d be the kind of fellow who emails you the latest internet conspiracy theory. But since he lives in the year 29 in Judea, he spreads his rumors face-to-face in the town’s marketplace. He meets up with a woman named Martha. When he learns that Martha’s brother Peter has joined the entourage of the famous rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, not surprisingly he has a few conspiracy-theory-type rumors to tell Martha. This causes Martha to wonder if her brother is going to be OK….

“Now you’ve got me wondering,” says Martha….

Our trip to the past will take less than three minutes, allowing us plenty of time for the usual singing, music, preaching, etc. The whole thing will be livestreamed on the Facebook page of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, this Sunday at 9:30 and 11.

Guilty pleasures

While we have to shelter in place, I thought I’d have time to turn to serious reading. There’s a pile of books on the floor next to my desk with titles like How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought, and Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle, and Capital and Ideology.

And what have I actually been reading? Very little in the way of serious books, I can assure you. It turns out that I’m actually the teensiest bit stressed out, between the COVID-19 pandemic, and working way too many hours to get our congregation’s programs and services online, and having my usual routine completely disrupted. Without diminishing the importance of the first two, I suspect this last may have had the biggest effect on me: I thought I wasn’t much of a creature of habit, but like all humans I’m very much a creature of habit, and when my daily habits are so completely changed it’s unsettling. So I’ve been reading fluff, junk, pulp fiction — in short, guilty pleasures.

I’ve been reading The Big Book of Female Detectives, ed. Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime, 2018). It’s 1,111 pages of guilty pleasures, stories with no intellectual value at all. All right, I admit that there is one piece of serious literature in the book, a very short story (four pages) by Joyce Carol Oates, which I skipped over because every paragraph began with the word “because” and that required a little too much thought on my part. So subtract four pages, and make that 1,107 pages of pure unadulterated thoughtless fun.

The first dozen stories are British and American stories from before the First World War; many of the plots creak alarmingly under the weight of suspended disbelief. One of my favorites from this section of the book is “An Intangible Clew” by Anna Katharine Green, featuring Violet Strange, a very wealthy young woman who is secretly a brilliant detective. Here is how she arrives at the scene of the crime in this story:

“When the superb limousine of Peter Strange [Violet’s brother] stopped before the little house in Seventeenth Street, it cause a veritable sensation…. Though dressed in her plainest suit, Violet Strange looked much too fashionable and far too young and thoughtless to be observed, without emotion, entering a scene of hideous and brutal crime…. Her entrance was a coup du theatre. She had lifted her veil in crossing the sidewalk and her interesting features and general air of timidity were very fetching….”

Many of the early stories in the book — the stories are arranged in chronological order — feature female detectives who hide their brilliance under an appearance of brainlessness. Thus when you finally get to Agatha Christie’s novel The Secret Adversary, featuring Tuppence Cowley as detective, with her sidekick Tommy Beresford, you realize how innovative Christie was. Tuppence Cowley is smart, funny, and brave. She doesn’t pretend to be stupid when she’s not (indeed, it’s Tommy who isn’t very bright, and admits it), and she comes across as a real person, a three-dimensional character. The plot of The Secret Adversary whizzes along at a breakneck pace, so fast that the unbelievable parts of the plot (of which there are a great many) have gone by before you realize how unbelievable they are. And who cares about the plot anyway? — you read this book to enjoy Tuppence’s personality.

Worthy of note is a mid-twentieth century story by Mary Roberts Rinehart, once a best-selling author and now mostly forgotten. Rinehart’s “Locked Doors,” which has appeared in other anthologies, is less a mystery story than a story of suspense; but there’s a surprise ending to the story that makes perfect sense of all the outre plot elements, and while it’s not entirely believable, the ending is believable enough to make it satisfying.

The next high point in the book is a story by Sue Grafton, featuring her famous detective Kinsey Milhone. It’s easy to forget how revolutionary Sue Grafton was: not only are her stories reasonably well-written, but Kinsey Milhone is as smart, funny, and brave as is Tuppence Cowley, but Kinsey doesn’t need a man to make her complete — she doesn’t need to get married (Tuppence agrees to marry Tommy at the end of The Secret Adversary), she doesn’t need a male boss (Tuppence reports to the powerful and mysterious Mr. Carter), she’s independent and alone and likes it that way. If Kinsey Millhone is a result of the feminist revolution of the 1970s, then thank God for the feminist revolution of the 1970s.

Most of the other stories in the book have no redeeming value, but they’re so much fun to read — even if you forget them moments after you’ve finished them. These stories would make perfect beach reading, but since we’re not allowed to travel to the beach they also make perfect shelter-in-place reading, requiring no intellectual effort while keeping your mind off of current events.

Bluebirds

While livestreaming the Sunday service, I happened to catch sight of a couple of Western Bluebirds. After the service was over, I went out to the front garden for a little stress reduction break, and sure enough, there was a bluebird resting on the perch attached to the nesting boxes.

Thanks to my super-zoom pocket camera, I managed to get a pretty good photo of this bird:

We had bluebirds nesting in these boxes from 2016 to 2018. The nesting boxes began to split in the sun, so we had to replace them in early 2019; nothing nested in the boxes last year. I’m hoping that this bird has decided this will be its nesting site in 2020.

Maybe good news?…

Update, 3/30: We saw a BIG uptick today, to a total of 848 cases. What we saw a couple of days ago was merely an anomaly. We are still in deep doo-doo.

Update 3/31: Kaiser Permanente, my healthcare provider sent out a mildly optimistic message this morning: “Thank you for accepting the challenge of sheltering-in-place and practicing social distancing … we think it is making a difference. Calls about cold and flu-like symptoms have declined over the past 10 days. That is a good sign. It doesn’t mean we won’t see more illness….” …but at least that’s some good news.

Original post: It’s really too soon to tell, and it might just be an anomaly, but the total number of COVID-19 cases shown on a bar graph on the Santa Clara County Board of Health Web site has not been rising at the same breakneck pace in the past three days:

The bar graph showing the number of new cases also declined in the last two days. However, that graph has a lot more noise in it, and two days’ worth of low numbers doesn’t indicate a trend.

In other good news, the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus pandemic began, has “partially re-opened” according to the BBC. Now it appears that the biggest threat is coronavirus imported into the province of Hubei from elsewhere: “On Saturday the province reported 54 new cases emerging the previous day — which it said were all imported.”

We started sheltering in place a week ago. Let’s hope that by mid-May, the number of cases in California will have gone down enough that some of our restrictions can be loosened.

An obscure Unitarian in the 1918 pandemic

Helen Katharien Kreps was a Unitarian theological student who died of influenza in 1919.

She was born Oct., 1894, in North Dakota, when her father was based at Fort Totten, then on the Indian frontier. Since her father was a military officer, the family moved frequently in her first ten years; her younger brother was born in Nebraska, and in 1900 the family was living near San Diego.

At the time of the 1906 earthquake, her father was based in Fort McDowell, Calif., though it is not clear if his family was with him. The family must have been in Palo Alto for at least part of 1910, for Helen attended the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto when Rev. Florence Buck was filling in for Rev. Clarence Reed. Helen, then in high school, was deeply influenced both by Unitarianism, and by seeing Florence Buck, a woman, in the pulpit.

Later in 1910, Helen and her family were living at Cape Nome, Alaska. But Helen returned to Palo Alto to enter Stanford in the 1911-12 academic year. She worked as a filing clerk in the Stanford library beginning in 1912. While at Stanford, Helen majored in German, and participated in the summer, 1914, session of the Marine Biological Library. She was elected president of the Stanford English Club.

In 1915, she graduated from Stanford with high honors, and worked in the Stanford library in 1915-1916. She taught the first and second graders in the Sunday school at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in that same year. She made regular financial contributions to the church in 1916, after which the notation “discontinued thru removal” (meaning she moved away) appears under her account.

In the fall of 1916, Helen entered the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry. There she showed impressive intellectual gifts. Earl Morse Wilbur, the president of the school, also remembered Helen’s exceptional character:

“Quiet and modest in bearing though she was, never asserting herself or her views, yet we instinctively felt that in her there was depth and breadth of character, and as she moved about among us she won a respect and exerted an influence that belong to few. I remember saying to myself at the end of her first chapel service, in which the depth and sincerity of her religious nature were revealed, that I should count myself happy if she might sometime be my minister; and those who were present at the devotional service which she conducted at the Conference at Berkeley last spring will not soon forget the impression she then made.”

During the summer of 1918, Helen supplied the pulpit of the Unitarian church in Santa Cruz, returning to the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry in the fall. She was well on her way to receiving her degree summa cum laude, when the world-wide influenza epidemic struck the Bay Area in October, 1918. In March, 1919, Earl Morse Wilbur reported the following in the Pacific Unitarian, the West Coast Unitarian periodical:

“It happened that Miss Kreps and Miss [Julia] Budlong [another theological student] had last year both taken a University course in Red Cross nursing; and when the emergency call came for nurses to care for the hundreds of victims on the campus they both volunteered without a moment’s hesitation. It was expected that the trouble would be over and that they would return to work within two weeks. Instead they paid as dearly for their patriotic service as many soldiers have done. Both were soon stricken with the influenza. … Miss Kreps’s case developed a dangerous attack of pneumonia, and for weeks her life hung in the balance; and she is even yet in the military hospital in San Francisco, slowly regaining her strength, and will be unable to return to her studies before next autumn….”

But Helen did not recover, and in the same month, March, 1919, the Pacific Unitarian carried Earl Morse Wilbur’s obituary for Helen, who had died Feb. 23, 1919, at the Letterman General Hospital in the San Francisco Presidio.

Her death is an example of what we hope will not happen during the current pandemic: we hope we don’t wind up with well-intentioned but barely trained people serving as nurses in makeshift hospitals, hospitals hastily set up to deal with an overwhelming number of sick people.

Notes: 1900, 1910 U.S. Census; M.H.T., “Jacob F. Kreps,” West Point Assoc. of Graduates, http://apps.westpointaog.org/Memorials/Article/3011/ accessed Nov. 18, 2016; Annual Registers, Stanford University, 1912-1915; Stanford Daily, Dec. 3, 1914; Earl Morse Wilbur, “Our School for the Ministry,” Pacific Unitarian, March 1919, p. 63; Earl Morse Wilbur, “Helen Katharine Kreps,” Pacific Unitarian, March 1919, pp. 65-66; Stanford Daily, Feb. 25, 1919.

Mushrooms

We had a long dry spell which lasted through most of January and February. The soil got dry, and not much was growing. March has brought us some rain, and finally the soil is getting damp again. Although the total rainfall for this season is still only half what it should be, there’s enough moisture that weeds are starting to grow in our garden beds, and a few mushrooms have started to appear, sometimes in odd places.

Like this mushroom, probably in genus Psathyrella, which just appeared today, growing up through some rounded rocks spread around one of the memorials in the cemetery:

And this Turkey-Tail, Trametes versicolor, growing on a stump left after the cemetery crew cleared some brush last fall:

The shelter-in-place order in our county forbids us from driving to parks or nature preserves, but fortunately you don’t need to drive somewhere else to find nature. These mushrooms, and several others, were all within a five minute walk of our house. And by having to stay at home, I find I actually have more time to spend looking for mushrooms, flowers, insects, and tracks — I’ve uploaded more observations to my iNaturalist page in the past week than I had uploaded in the previous four months.

National Emergency Library

The Internet Archive has opened up their collection of 1.4 million books with no waiting list during the COVID-19 crisis.

They’re trying to support schools which are doing online learning, and trying to support everyone who has been shut out of their local library.

Their collection consists of mostly 20th century materials, mostly still in copyright, that are out of print and not easily accessible as ebooks. I’ve used some of their books in the past, when you had to “check out” books for a specific period of time (and if the book was in use, you had to wait for it). It’s a small but excellent collection. Best of all, their online reader is excellent — their reader makes Google Books look absolutely sick in comparison.

So if you’ve been suffering from book deprivation, access the National Emergency Library here.