I Get It. You’re Scared.

I had a most interesting encounter with a dude on Facebook. Said dude decided that a few hundred deaths from COVID-19 each day are acceptable for several reasons, the most important of which — in his opinion — was that we could not lose our freedoms for the sake of saving the lives of people who are going to die anyway… Or the people who lived lifestyles that lead to their demise.

Just for the record, we’re all going to die. My job in public health is to delay that death as long as possible while maintaining the health and productivity of populations as we all march together toward the inevitable.

When I asked him why so many preventable deaths were acceptable if they were preventable, he responded with foul language and accusatory “questions.” He wanted to know why I was worried about COVID-19 deaths and not worried — in his opinion — about deaths from things like Alzheimer’s or heart disease.

Now, the answer to that is easy. I’m also worried about those things, but few of them are as preventable as COVID-19. Two doses of the mRNA vaccine or one of the viral vector vaccine, and your risk of dying from COVID-19 plummets to near zero. That’s it. You don’t need to do much other than get the vaccine, and the vaccine is safe. Period. End of story.

To get rid of deaths from the chronic and acute conditions the dude asked about requires more work. Alzheimer’s itself is still quite the mystery, and the medications available for it right now are no where as effective against it as the vaccines are against COVID-19. Preventing Alzheimer’s is quite a task that involves modulation of genetic and environmental components.

It’s not like I wake up in the morning and rank the top ten reasons people die and then decide what to attack. Instead, I go through my personal and professional life weighing risk as best as I can. Right now, avoiding COVID-19 is my top priority because the risk to myself is huge. With my overweight/obesity and history of asthma, catching COVID-19 could kill me. Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I can still catch it and give it to my unvaccinated daughter, or to someone who could really get sick and even die from it. Multiply this to the population level, and you can see why I’m so goddamned worried about it.

I mean, if we could all get vaccinated in the next year, then I could worry about Alzheimer’s in 2023, maybe.

But I get it: the dude is scared. He is scared because he seems to know very little if anything about biology and science, and not knowing those things right now makes the flood of information (and misinformation) on COVID-19 too much to handle. It’s like people running around with fire extinguishers during a house fire and leaving you in the middle of a room while telling you not to catch on fire, or go towards the fire, or go away from the fire. Just stand there. It’s scary.

He is also apparently scared that the interventions being put into place will somehow erode the freedoms he has been privileged to have as a white, straight, American male. Things like putting on the mask or not going to crowded places are scary to him because he’s never had to do it before. (And, from his ad hominem attacks and apparently allergic reactions to any kind of request to be civil, it must also be scary to be nice.)

I’ve seen this before in people who believe that everything is a zero-sum game. They feel that if someone gains something, they must be losing something by default. Give people a chance at surviving the pandemic? Well, that must mean that they are having some of their chance of surviving being taken away. And that is scary.

Tell them to put on a mask, and that must mean that someone less worthy than them is not wearing a mask, so why should they wear one?

No, don’t try to reason with it. It’s that unreasonable. It’s really that weird.

So, what do we do? We ignore. We block on social media and ignore in real life. Some people are too far gone to be dealt with in any kind of way. They move goalposts. They launch personal attacks. They go to your social media accounts and make intimidating comments. But you ignore them, and then life rent-free in their heads for years.

Header image by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

The End of a Chapter

A little over a year ago, after it became clear that the coronavirus had escaped from China and was coming our way, I was asked by the director of our division if I was willing to be activated into the emergency response. He didn’t have to ask. I would have found a way to collaborate to the response even if I had not been part of it. A few days later, I was made the chief of the outbreak team.

Ever since, we have responded to outbreaks in congregate living facilities like skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities and independent living facilities. Our team consisted of public health nurses, environmental health specialists, data analysts and epidemiologists. We all worked some very long days when the pandemic began, easing a little over the summer before picking back up again in the winter.

This week marks the end of my time as the chief of the outbreak team. The positivity rate in our health district is now at 1.25%. In Maryland, it is at 1.98%. In Washington, DC, it is at 1.5%. The number of cases from congregate settings has dropped precipitously as vaccination uptake reached well over 90% in most facilities among their residents, though it could be better among their staff. Overall in the communities, more than half of eligible adults have been vaccinated, with many parents taking their younger kids to get vaccinated and younger adults also participating (thanks in part to schools and universities requiring vaccination before returning to in-person teaching).

Things are looking up, though we need to continue to be vigilant. I’m personally not taking off the mask in the office until all three jurisdictions I mentioned above reach less than 1% positivity. I just don’t want to catch this and give it to my preschooler. Because of the epidemiological transition from the vaccine, children are now the group contributing the most to the overall number of cases in the country, so I want to keep her safe. The pandemic is definitely not over.

Starting next week, I will go back to working on population health epidemiology, looking at diseases and conditions like opioid overdoses, suicides, and mental health. I’m also adding some new people to my team, bright epidemiologists who are starting out in the profession and have much to learn. I’m planning on getting a lot done in the next few months, things that will hopefully make countering most of those diseases and conditions a little bit easier.

It’s the end of a chapter, and it feels weird. Sure, I’ll probably still need to support the activities of the team that is taking over COVID-19 investigations, and there will be plenty of “How did the pandemic affect X or Y?” questions. As one of the few people who speak Spanish — and the one epidemiologist who does so fluently — I’m sure there will be still some media requests about COVID-19 that I will have to answer. So, there is certainly a lot to be done to bring it all to a close… And I’m ready.

Maybe.

The Trauma of Your Ancestors

I listened today to a seminar on transgenerational trauma. The theory of such trauma boils down to a couple of basic things. Number one, someone in your lineage suffered trauma of some sort. Number two, they displayed that trauma and their children followed suit. Number three, you also display that trauma because that is how you’ve been raised. Essentially, what happened to your ancestors some generations back is having a strong influence on your health and wellbeing — especially your mental health — today.

In the United States, this kind of trauma can be seen in members of groups of people whose ancestors have been traumatized by forces bigger than them. In Native Americans, the legacy of conquest, colonization, relocations, forced assimilation and outright inequitable treatment continues until now. And what can we say of slavery? Those effects can be seen every day in how Black people, especially young Black men, interact with authorities who see them as inherently violent.

This all got me wondering if I am experiencing this kind of trauma in any way, and it also made me wonder if it compares in any way to the trauma others feel. My identity is one of an immigrant, born in Mexico, coming to the United States as a child. I’ve experienced racism from people telling me to go back to my country or to not speak Spanish in front of them. I’ve experienced hardship from not having any family wealth to help me begin my own financial history. I’ve been stopped at the border or at airports at the border on numerous occasions to be “randomly checked.” I’ve been pulled over by police who later send me on my way with not even a warning after they check my name and personal details against their databases.

But I also have a doctoral degree, a master’s degree, and a bachelor’s degree. I live in a nice development and in a beautiful home. I drive a good car. I have a great job that has afforded me the luxury of not being jobless during economic slowdowns and during this pandemic. And I have great friends who are phenomenal sources of support.

And what can I say of my wife and daughter, my siblings, and my mom and dad? They’re all alive and healthy, and there for me, if I ever need them. So, in many ways, I’m okay, and I’ve been okay awhile.

However, my ancestors were not that lucky. Mom had to make the hard choice to buck family and societal pressures and go to college, all while being a single mother at age 17. Dad worked from sun up to sun down at all sorts of jobs in all sorts of places to help me financially while I was in college. My paternal grandfather was a political activist in Mexico during “the perfect dictatorship,” and that brought with it many challenges. My maternal grandfather was a mailman, a musician, and died an early death from cancer.

The women in my extended family have had to endure a lot of hardship from abusive relationships, misogynist work policies, and the realities of having to work to make ends meet while also having to raise children. Some of those children, my cousins, have had horrible things happen to them because of the color of their skin, the place where they lived, and/or their gender. Female cousins of mine have repeated the missteps of abusive relationships, forced marriages and forgone educations and professions because tradition or society dictated other paths for them.

So, here I am. I am the product of over 40 years of my history and probably hundreds of years of the history of men and women who’ve done things that set the reality I live in into motion. At some point, the Najeras left Spain and arrived in Mexico. So did the Padillas. And the Herreras, the Armendariz. Others came from other places in Europe, and others have lineages that have been in the Americas for centuries. They all did stuff, lived stuff, suffered through stuff that is echoing in me today.

The question is what to do about it all? I choose not to be a victim of all those past lives, but to learn from them, grow, be better. I choose to stop the transmission of trauma at me, as good as I can, to keep it from traveling further down to my toddler. The Toddler Ren has things to do, man, and they can’t be bothered with trauma. I’d rather that Toddler Ren be bothered with wisdom, from learning of all those things that happened then so that the wisdom can prevent things now and in the future.

You see, I am painfully aware of the association between how girls are treated by their fathers (or how they see their fathers treat their mothers) and the behavior that those girls-turned-women will exhibit. I’m also aware that this kind of influence is not exclusive to girls and their dads. Boys also follow the lead of their fathers. As a father, I need to make sure that the trauma of past generations stops with me in both my behavior from it and my behavior toward it.

It’s hard, though. Some things have more control over us than we think. Some cop can wake up tomorrow with a grumpy mood and pull me over and end my day in quite the literal sense. Same for an alcoholic who gets behind the wheel of a car and drives straight at me. Or some weirdo politician convinced enough people that my toddler is not enough of a human being for their life to matter… Or someone eats a bat in some other part of the world and a pandemic with 30% mortality rate rolls around. (That would be an extinction-level event, by the way.)

Nevertheless, there are things that I can control, and things that I cannot, and that is what I learned from the seminar. There is a lot of that trauma going around, and people are still being hurt by the institutions put in place by the majority to grab and keep power or to keep the “others” held down in what is, honestly, indentured servitude. Yet, there are things we can do. We can stand up, help others stand up as well, and make a change. We can ourselves be the lights that shine on the darkness and end the trauma, especially if we realize that we are not alone.

The Stories You Need to Hear/See/Read and Understand

I was reading Runner’s World Magazine the other day when I noticed a theme in the stories they were telling in that issue. Most of the runner’s being showcased were LGBTQ+, a racial/ethnic minority, or a combination thereof. Their stories were very similar in that they grew up in the United States, isolated and lonely because of who they were. They faced different challenges because of their respective identities, many times having to explain their existence — or, worse yet, justify it — to the people around them. On the one hand, it made me sad to see such a level of misery in their existence solely because of who they were and the lives they wanted to live. On the other hand, it made me realize that there are far too many stories that need to be told to fully understand the richness and variety of human existence.

When we talk history, we often talk about the victors, the old (mostly) white men who conquered the world and controlled the narrative of how they conquered, who they conquered and why they conquered. Indeed, for many years in my childhood, we were forced (as in, it was not optional not to) to revere and celebrate Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World, Hernán Cortés’ triumph over the Aztecs, and the conversion to Christianity of the American continent. It took a long time for me to learn of the atrocities — the genocide — committed upon the Native peoples living in the Americas. Basically, it took me having access to alternative points of view, alternative voices, and books.

Then I came to the United States, and I was made to pledge allegiance to the Flag, to defend the names of old (mostly) white men who were referred to as “Our Forefathers,” and to fight anyone who would dare say that the United States was not the greatest nation in the world. Even though I saw so many things wrong around me, I couldn’t say anything about them, lest I am labeled a traitor or — most often than not — be told to go back to my country. Because that’s how it works, I guess… You give up and quit on something or someone if they are not up to the standards of Truth and Justice. Maybe?

Among the many things that this country does have going for it is the free and open access to most of the information in the known universe. Once in school, I could go to a library and find books and magazines on a variety of topics. With the advent of the internet, I could log onto the World Wide Web and meet and debate with a great variety of people. I listened to stories that were different from my own after an entire life of listening to experiences that were just like mine. And then came satellite radio and internet radio, and podcasts. I was taking in stories about all sorts of people from all over the world. I learned of their struggles, and I was inspired by their successes.

One of the big reasons why I ended up on the East Coast after college — and the only one in my extended family who lives east of the Mississippi — is because I met people online and in person who were from over here. They told me all about their lives in cities like Washington, DC; Baltimore or Philadelphia. I wanted that. I wanted to live like they did, in a place full of other people and culture, and with plenty of things to do. (The only fun in El Paso was to go across the border to Juárez and party, or to play soccer in the many parks.) When they told me that I could drive from one big city to another in a matter of minutes or hours, I was hooked. I wanted that for myself, so I moved out here. I am not disappointed.

Of course, these stories sometimes come with sadness, too. Some storytellers do an excellent job of tugging at my heartstrings and getting me to do something about the injustices they identify. Others fill me with hope when things are looking dire. Most of them entertain me and allow me to forget about the real world for a while. Because that’s what we need.

When I talk to my friends, I am always interested in listening to their stories, be they good or bad. I love listening to how they see the world because I don’t think that how I see the world is necessarily the best way to see it. Sure, I may shake my head in disbelief at the things that they’ve done, but I still find them interesting. And it’s kind of the same with strangers. I’m always willing to stick around for a good story.

As the world becomes smaller and smaller because of mass communications, I’m curious to see how stories will change. Will they retain their essential elements of introduction, presenting the conflict, the climax of the story, the resolution and the end (or a cliffhanger)? Or will we see more stories that are less personal and less entertaining as people without any kind of talent dominate social media?

Who knows? Whatever happens, though, I hope the stories are diverse and tell the stories of not just the conquerors, but the survivors… Not just the (mostly) old white men, but the young voices from far and wide of all colors and flavors.

Featured image by Seven Shooter on Unsplash

Experimenting With Pirate Audio

The Problem:

I have an old radio that I want to refurbish and make into a streaming internet radio. Sure, I could just throw it away, but I’m not that wasteful. My uncles fixed radios and televisions, and they lost more and more work when electronics started getting cheap and people just threw them away instead of taking them to get fixed. I saw how they worked with soldering and reading schematics. I went with them to electronic stores to look for rare components that someone inevitably had to order from Taiwan via “a friend in California.”

The Solution?

After experimenting with a Raspberry Pi 4, I found out that a smaller version, the Raspberry Pi Zero W, would do the job of taking on a piece of software to stream the music and output it via a sound card. Then I did some more digging and found that MusicBox was based on Mopidy, a very customizable software package that allowed for music to be streamed via the Raspberry, but I still needed either a sound card or a module that allowed for sound to be converted into something that could be connected to a speaker.

That’s where the Pimoroni Pirate Audio cards come in. They’re pre-made modules that connect to the Raspberry Pi (any size) via the GPIO connection and output audio to speakers or headphones. They also have a neat little LCD screen that lets you see what you’re playing and the album art. Finally, they have four buttons to control the music playback and the audio.

To the rescue!

Ingredients:

  1. Raspberry Pi Zero WH: The smallest, simplest Raspberry Pi computer. The WH tells you that it has wireless (WiFi and Bluetooth) and a header. You can also get a W model, but you’ll have to solder the header yourself. I’ve only started experiment with soldering, so I’ll hold off on doing that for now.
  2. Pimoroni Pirate Audio DAC Line Out LCD module: A small module that includes a 1-inch by 1-inch LCD screen to show album cover and other information. It also has four buttons to help you control playback and volume. (The buttons are customizable. You’ll see what I mean below.)
  3. 3.5mm cable to connect from the DAC to a speaker. Other DACs can connect directly to speakers or to headphones. This one is a “line out” to a powered speaker with a 3.5mm jack. If you connect to speakers, you’ll need an amplifier if they’re not powered. (The Pirate Audio Stereo Speaker Amp does have enough power for two small 3W speakers.)
  4. Micro SDHC card (with an adapter to plug it into your personal computer). This will run the Linux operating system on the Raspberry Pi and store any MP3 files you may have.
  5. Micro USB power cable and power supply, 5 volts, 2.5 amps. (Some suggest getting something slighter more than 5 volts because the system will begin shutting down if the power drops too much below that. (Not all power supplies are made the same.)
  6. A personal computer to install the files into the SDHC card and to connect to the Raspberry Pi via terminal because we’ll be installing a “headless” Linux distribution.
  7. OPTIONAL: PiSugar battery supply. This will make the system even more portable.
  8. OPTIONAL: A Spotify Premium subscription. This is to stream music without interruption. Spotify also has podcasts and other audio. You don’t need it, but it is nice to have, and they are offering a free 3-month trial to see how you like it. It’s then $10 a month after that.

The Plan:

Install the software and hardware on the Raspberry Pi Zero WH and customize it to my needs. Then gut the old radio and find a way to fit the Pi inside. The Pirate Audio card with the amplifier and the two little speakers (speakers sold separately, and make sure you get 3W ones) should do the trick, and I don’t have to worry about a separate amplifier and/or power source for the speakers. One power line in should do the trick.

The Process:

First, I used the Raspberry disk imager to load the Raspbian Lite (a Linux distribution) image on the micro SD hard. I used an 8 GB card, which is plenty big for what I’m doing. You may want to have a bigger card if you’re also going to be loading a ton of MP3 files. You can load the full distribution, which you can then connect and control with a keyboard, mouse and monitor. I used the “Lite” version and just SSH into it via my Mac.

Next, I followed the instructions in this great blog post after trying several times to follow the instructions in the official Pimoroni site. If I followed the official instructions, which tell you to use a full Raspbian distribution, I ended up with an empty screen. I think that something in the latest Raspbian update interferes with how the display works. The lite version gave me no problems.

Next, over on the official instruction site, I followed the instructions to get the credentials for Spotify. If you don’t want to use Spotify, that’s fine. I signed up for the free three-month trial just to see how it would work. I mostly will use this to play my music with airplay (more on that later), and I tend to listen to online radio stations anyway.

Alright, so far, so good. Next, I went over to this GitHub project and followed the instructions to make the play button be a shutdown button. Instead of the automatic setup, I followed the instructions for the manual setup and copied the code for the buttons to be turned into a shutdown button. Now, because I used the lite version of the operating system, it was necessary for me to install “gpiozero” from this other site. What gpiozero does is set up the GPIO connectors to do different things. In this case, the code for the shutdown button inherits some of the functions from gpiozero:

from gpiozero import Button

I did have to do some searching around because it seemed that gpiozero was not being installed correctly. One suggesting that worked was to run the uninstallation code for both the Python 2 and Python 3 versions of gpiozero and then reinstall it.

Finally, to make it all work like I wanted, I installed a few extensions from the Mopidy site. In my case, I installed the mobile browser controls to control it all from my phone, the TuneIn extension to listen to online radio stations, and the Autoplay extension so that the player will start at the last station I was listening to before I shut it all down.

There is one more bit of software that I decided to try, called Shairport-Sync. With it, I was able to get a signal on my iPhone telling me that the Raspberry Pi was available for me to stream the audio I was listening to on my phone. However, if something was already playing, that something was not being interrupted for the new stream. If something was not playing, the stream would be played just fine, but the radio (or Spotify) data stream would not come on after I finished streaming to the device.

(Please note that after each step above, I went through a reboot of the Pi to make sure everything that needed to be shut down for the next bit of code was indeed shut down.)

Yet to be worked on:

  1. When disconnecting the speaker, the system hangs and the music will not restart. I may need to do some coding with the Autoplay extension.
  2. Adding an on/off shim and some code to make sure the Raspberry shuts down completely and cleanly, so I don’t corrupt the files. I think the solution with the play button works, but I want to get this device into a case and install a button on the case itself. Besides, the only way to wake up the Pi right now is to disconnect and reconnect the power, so that button will come in handy for that, too.
  3. Some people have been able to create custom artwork for the stations they like and used that instead of the boring default artwork that comes with the radio stream.

Backing Up Your Work

Because so much time is spent on figuring out the configuration settings, you might as well create a back up of your work in case something goes completely wrong. (This happened to me a few times, where I added something new to the configuration, and I ended up killing something else.) It also helps if you keep notes on what you’re doing.

To back up your disk, just follow the directions on this blog post (and make sure to look in the comments section on how to give your computer permission to read/write the disk). If you’re running Windows, then follow these instructions. The Raspberry Pi official site also has these instructions, which use more of the terminal command to get the job done.

In Conclusion

At the end of all this, I have a handy little device that I can connect to any old speaker, and I hope to be able to integrate it into the old radio. If that works, I’ll probably do more coding and then some soldering to get some on/off switches on it, and a switch that changes the station. So stay tuned for that… And, as always, thank you for your time.

The Technology You’ll Love

I’m writing this on an Ubuntu Linux machine. The machine is a Raspberry Pi 4. I had heard about the Raspberry Pi machines a while ago, but I didn’t really get interested until recently. I’ve been picking up more and more little projects to do during downtime since the weather has been getting colder and the pandemic restrictions make it harder to go out and do stuff like museums and public places with the toddler. I still get my workouts in — swimming in the morning before the sun comes out — and I still write and do other creative things. However, I’ve decided to take that creativity into technology.

Setting up Ubuntu Linux on the Raspberry, and wiring it all so I can access it while working on other stuff on my desk and so it can share the screen with my Xbox. One flip of a switch, and I can go from playing video games to editing code on the Raspberry (or writing a blog post). And I have my Mac monitor on a floating arm, so the desk is completely free. To top it all off, my writing desk is completely free for me to sit and read, write, and catch up on stuff.

This is not the first time I’ve started technology projects like these, of course. When I was a kid, mom bought me an old Commodore computer. She saw it at a Goodwill store, and she bought it for me to play with. It came with a phone modem, some game cartridges and some books. After trying out a few things, I was able to hook it up to our television and play a few games. Then I took out the books and read up on some coding. There was BASIC, and C++, most of which I’ve lost by now. I do remember how to decipher the syntax and understand it. Now, I’m not shy about taking on some coding project, even if I don’t know the language.

Google helps a lot, too.

As I see my daughter grow up, I wonder how she will relate with technology since it permeates her entire life. There are a lot of gadgets and gizmos all around her, and she loves sitting and watching cartoons on the television or the iPhone or the iPad. I have no doubt that she is going to be coding soon, way sooner than I ever did. And I hope she comes to see technology as a tool to be mastered, not a master to rule over us. (Easier said than done, given how much I see children and teens getting addicted to their devices… Or, rather, addicted to the interactions and “experiences” their devices bring.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to figure out how to refurbish an old radio with a music streaming Raspberry Pi project.

Quarantine Shmarantine! Pandemic Edition

Six years ago, I told you all about how quarantines don’t really work in practice. They work in theory just fine, but human nature in all of us make us violate quarantine almost inevitably. We just don’t like being told what to do as a society. We also get scared of contagion if we are feeling fine but are in a place where people are sick. You see that even in the most collectivist of societies.

Here we are now, six years later and in the middle of a full-blown pandemic of a respiratory pathogen. In a matter of weeks, this novel coronavirus traveled from Wuhan, China, to the far reaches of the globe. The result has been millions infected and millions dead, mostly because humans decided to not follow public health guidance. People just had to travel out of China, and then they had to travel all over the world. And now, because of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, Americans just have to travel to see their families.

Some of the people I follow on social media are justifying their decision to travel to and meet with a lot of friends and family is that they’re doing it for their children. They say that they don’t want to ruin the holidays for their children, or that they don’t want to break with tradition. They value those traditions over life, and that both confuses and scares me.

It confuses me because I know that they are not uneducated people who would get confused by topics like Germ Theory, or who would not fully understand the myriad of health recommendations they’re being bombarded with every day. Many of them are professionals in the medical and scientific fields, yet they’re inexplicably tied to tradition.

If we were to stick to tradition, we wouldn’t have Germ Theory. I’m just saying.

Think about from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know better, and you’ll see how Germ Theory is actually quite complex a theory. How can we expect someone who has never looked into a microscope or grown bacteria in a Petri dish to understand what microbes are and how they cause disease? If we are still stuck thinking that amulets protect from disease, what can we expect of mask mandates or recommendations to wash hands?

This is a heck of a time to be in Public Health. As a public health worker, I find myself going up against political interests, divisiveness, ignorance, science denialism, and social barriers to health that are enormous and difficult to move. We’ve been responding to the pandemic for more than 300 days now, with only ten days off since. “Burn out” doesn’t even begin to describe what I’ve seen happening to some of my colleagues, and I’m convinced that they would be better off had they had the full support of the government and the politicians.

But no, no, no. We had to go and politicize the heck out of it all. Wear a mask? You’re sheep. You’re a socialist. Don’t wear a mask? You’re an idiot. You’re a bigot. Want a vaccine? Socialist! Don’t trust public health recommendations? Hillbilly. And so on, and so forth. And all of that politicization has made it almost impossible to get people to quarantine when exposed or isolate if they test positive. They don’t believe what we tell them, and they go out and about into the community, infecting others and leading us straight into the next wave of COVID-19 activity.

We have been trying quarantine since the times of the plague, and people still break them. We might even try it again with the next pandemic, or the one after that. I’m not very convinced it will work, especially if it is recommended/ordered/enforced in the context of a divided public opinion on something as basic as Germ Theory. But one can hope, right?

In Medias Res, Part III

It’s almost three in the morning, and I’m driving toward Alice’s apartment. Part of me was tired over the adventure from a few hours ago, but the other side of me wanted to make sure that Alice got home safely. I assumed she was home because she was nowhere to be found when I went back to get my car after helping Tom out with the cowboys. However, as I was driving, I began wondering if I was wrong.

Nightlife in Juarez is weird. There are certain areas that are bustling with activity, especially those close enough for Americans to cross over and spend their dollars. The rest of the town is generally quiet… At least it was that way when I lived there. Since then, the escalation from the federal government in their war on drug cartels meant that several cartels fought, killed and took over Juarez as a prime gateway for transporting drugs into the United States. As soon as one cartel took over, another one would come along and stir things up.

Not so when I was living there. Yes, there was plenty of drug-related violence, but one cartel owned the city, and they made sure to also take their cut from the tourism industry. As I told the soldier, if he had gotten hurt, many people would have been made to pay the price of scaring away Americans. So, I was not worried about Alice’s safety, per se. I was worried I’d never see her again if she thought I had ditched her.

I mean, I did ditch her, but it was for a good reason. Also, I was back at my car no more than an hour after I stepped out of the nightclub. Did she really leave that quickly? As I looked at the outside of her apartment and saw all the lights were off, I wondered if she had gone home early or if she never went home. Three thirty in the morning was way too late for me to go knocking on the door, or to call her.

It’s 1990, and I’m riding my bicycle in the empty streets of Aldama at three thirty in the morning on a summer night. I had three whole months off from school back then, and I made sure to enjoy all of them by staying with dad up in the desert mountains. Because there was absolutely nothing that I had to do on any given day, I stayed up late and woke up just before noon. It was very rare that I woke up any earlier than 8am, and that was only when we were going on some trip with the family.

As I’m riding through town, enjoying how quiet everything is, a truck pulls up behind me. It is the local cop and his one partner. They turn on the blue and red lights and drive up next to me. They ask me what I’m doing up so late at night. Before I can explain to them that I’m just out enjoying the coolness of the desert night — and the incredible stillness of a whole town being asleep — they tell me to go home. “I’m sorry, but is there a curfew?” I reply. The cop driving the truck just stares at me.
“You’re Francisca’s son, aren’t you?” he asks. I nod. He smiles. “Go home. Tell her the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

It’s the early 1970s, and mom is in middle school. She stands up in the middle of the classroom while the teacher is out of the room, and she begins delivering a monologue. It’s her way of getting out all the thoughts in her head, I guess. A few years later, she is told that she is to stay home and take care of my grandmother, just like all the youngest daughters do. She is having none of it, so she goes to my grandfather and has a chat with him about her ambitions. He gives her money for school. A few years after that, I’m sitting in a baby carrier next to her while she’s taking courses on the law. That, or one of her friends is taking care of me while mom is in class. A couple more years, and mom is a lawyer, someone who is very good at delivering arguments and defending her point of view. I learn from her all I can in that regard, sometimes to my detriment.

As I’m walking away from Alice’s apartment building and back to my car, a police car pulls up. They turn on their lights and step out of the car, one of them shining his flashlight in my face. Instinctively, I raise my hands away from my body and look at the ground. “Hello,” one of them says.
“Hello,” I respond.
“What are you doing out here tonight?” the second one asks. I start wondering how much of my story they’ll want to hear. How much would they believe?
“I’m checking in on a friend,” I reply. “She was out late with me, and I lost track of her. So, I came to see if she was home yet.” They both look at each other then approach me. They ask me for my ID and I very slowly pull out my wallet. They ask me where my friend lives, and I tell them her apartment number. They look over at the building and see that all the lights are off, though one of them turns on on a higher floor from Alice’s. I see a person looking out the window.

Two years before, one of my little cousins (a toddler at the time) picks up the phone and dials 911. “Daddy is gone,” he cries. The operator keeps him on the line while she contacts a nearby patrol car. “I miss my daddy,” he says. While this is happening, my aunt is in the backyard, hanging clothes to dry. Me? I’m in one of the bedrooms, sleeping off a long night. My cousin left her little boy with my aunt — her mother — and we’re the only three in the room.

In my slumber, I hear a couple of cars drive up close to the house. This startles me because the street is usually very quiet, and the cars really made a lot of noise. Suddenly, someone knocks at the door. When they knock a second time, I get out of the bed and walk to the front door. Then I hear a third, very loud knock. When I opened the door, two police officers were standing about five meters from the door, pointing their guns at the door. It took a second for me to process the image.

“Come out, slowly,” the first cop said. I slowly raised my hands beside me and opened the screen door, then I stepped out. “Turn around and walk backward toward me,” he said. I did. When he told me to stop, I felt him grab my hands and slap on the handcuffs. “Is anyone else in the house?”
“Yes, my aunt and my little cousin,” I said.
“And no one else?”
“No one else,” I said just as my aunt came out the door.

My aunt explains to them that it was just us three in the house as two other officers who had just arrived join the second cop and walk into the house. One of them then comes out with my little cousin in his arms. “This little guy called 911,” they explain to us. “He was looking for his daddy.” As everyone nervously laughs, I kind of smile at the cop and then signal that I’m still handcuffed. “Oh, right,” he says, and then he takes them off.

In some other universe, I’m laying dead at the doorway. I’m sure.

As I look at Alice’s apartment along with the two cops, one of them turns around and walks off talking to his radio. He’s running my name through their database back at headquarters. They won’t find anything. I don’t even have an outstanding ticket, and I still don’t to this day. As he comes back and informs his partner that I’m “clean,” Alice pulls up with friends in a car, slowly stopping a few yards away. “And there she is,” I say.

An hour later, Alice and I are sitting on the sidewalk. She’s chewing gum loudly, and leaning her head against my shoulder, looking up at the sky. You can hardly see any stars because of the light pollution around us. “So you just decided to chase them and help that guy, huh?”
“Yeah, I know. I know. It was stupid.”
“Heroic, though. You’re quite the boy scout.”
“Stupid boy scout,” I tell her.

We sit there for a few more minutes before I tell her that I have to go. She kisses me on the cheek, and I’m on my way. After that, I didn’t see Alice as much as before. We kind of just drifted away, and I didn’t blame her. I left her behind in a dangerous city when I went chasing the group that was chasing the soldier. I could have gotten hurt, and she would not have known what happened. This pattern repeats itself every two to three years with other relationships until 2006.

I never saw Alice after moving out of El Paso.

It’s three in the morning on a night in August 2006, and I’m leaving the apartment of a certain young woman. There is a ticket on my windshield because I parked in a spot that gets cleaned overnight. It was for $50, but it was worth hanging out with her and watching Eddie Izzard while laughing and getting to know each other. By eleven that same morning, I’m across the street from her apartment, paying the ticket. A couple of days later, we’re out on another date, and then another… And then another.

Two weeks later, we’re on a couple of swings at a playground at a nearby park. “So you’re almost done?” she asks.
“Yeah, I just have to work on my capstone project.”
“And then what?”
“I don’t know,” I reply. I look up at the clear blue sky and take a deep breath then let it out. “Save the world, I guess?”
She smiles and says, “Then it’s time to get going…”

We got going.

In Medias Res, Part II

It’s 1992 and I’m a thirteen-year-old in high school. I don’t fit in with many of the groups in school because of my age and my background. I’m not smart enough to be part of the “nerds,” although I tend to earn good grades and get enrolled in advanced courses. I’m not athletic enough to be on any of the school’s sports teams, though I would later take up soccer. (But that’s a whole other story.) So, I hang around with a few kids who, like me, don’t fit into any other group. We sit at the front of the school during lunchtime and talk about cars and other mundane things.

One of those kids is “Gabe,” a kid who towers over me and is very socially awkward. He’s obese and wears glasses. He likes comics and hard rock music. But he’s alright, and he tolerates my existence. One day, while sitting behind him in English class, he tells me something — I don’t remember what — to which I reply with, “Your momma.” That was obviously a pressure point for him. He turned around and punched me across the face. My head snapped back, and I almost fell out of my chair. My eyes watered, and I remember a ringing in my head as he told me to never mention his mom again.

As cowboy number three hit me, it didn’t hurt at all. Surprisingly, he hit me much, much softer than Gabe did five years previously. The light I saw was from a car stopping just in time to not run all of us over. I used the cowboys’ distraction from looking at the car to kick number one in the face and punch number three in the crotch. And then I was gone, running down the street after the soldier, hoping he was running in the direction of the bridge.

Back in 1989, when we moved to El Paso from Mexico, I was surprised to see that the elementary school had a whole hour dedicated to physical fitness. We would go out to a dirt track behind the school and were made to run lap after lap for that whole hour. I remember those days well because we were given small paper strips for each lap that we ran, and we were allowed to collect them. Whoever collected the most strips, would get a prize. Once in a while, we would trade with each other to get the prize in exchange for, say, pizza at lunch.

I also remember those days because I was very sore the next day. I wasn’t the fastest, but I could run lap after lap without stopping, even in the hottest, driest days in the El Paso desert. I grew up running around or riding bicycles with my cousins, and I didn’t gain weight until college. Running for an hour was no problem, except for the next day. I’m sure the heat and the lack of water bottles back then did something to the muscles. As I was running after the soldier, I wasn’t focusing on my speed, just in keeping up.

Interestingly — or stupidly — he had stopped a couple of blocks ahead and was looking back to see what had happened. “What are you doing?” I asked as I was getting closer. “Move!” He turned around and ran slow enough for me to catch up and then sped up to match me.
“Thanks,” he said, somewhat out of breath.
“Thank me when we get to the other side,” I replied. I quickly glanced back to see three of the four cowboys about 100 meters behind us. “The bridge is just ahead.”

It’s 2000, and I’m turning 21 years old. I was old enough to drink on the American side of the border, and my friends at Ft. Bliss invited me over to the base for some midnight bowling. We bowled for a couple of hours, and they celebrated my birthday. After the bowling, we went to one of their homes on the base and continued the partying. We were up late into the following morning, and it was the best birthday party (though it wasn’t) that I ever had.

I lost track of all but one of my friends from Ft. Bliss after I moved to the Northeast. I met some of them in Virginia for their kid’s birthday, but then they were all redeployed all over the world after the September 11 attacks. Social media was not a thing, so we really didn’t have a way to stay in touch. I would only find one of them much later and mostly accidentally.

As we arrived at the booth to begin crossing the bridge, the soldier turned to me and thanked me for helping him by slowing down the cowboys. We saw one of the cowboys stop a few meters behind us. By then, we were in a very well lit area and there were Mexican cops around. “Look, do me a favor,” I said. “Next time you come over, don’t wear your BDUs. You stand out like a sore thumb as it is, and wearing these makes you look like an asshole.” He looked down at his clothes.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“I’m right,” I said. “You Americans come over with all that money and no one touches you because the criminal element has already told everyone to stay away. I more or less did this so that those kids wouldn’t get killed for doing something to you.”

We walked up and down the bridge, and I explained to him that organized crime had a firm grip on the touristy areas of Juarez. If they had done something to him, the boss of the area would have gone after them, and it would not have ended well for them. An assault of an American tourist — and a soldier, nonetheless — would have brought a lot of bad press and kept people from coming over. “I know you think this uniform protects you, and it does,” I said. “But it doesn’t protect them.”

I got home late that night and took a shower. I felt sweaty and icky, even with the weather as cold as it was. I wondered what happened to the cowboys, especially why there were three at the end instead of four. The one I punched in the crotch must have taken a while to recover. And then I broke down in a nervous laugh over how stupid I had been. Then, I remembered Alice.

It was 2 AM…

In Medias Res, Part I

It’s a cold night in 1997, and I’m running down the streets in Juarez, Mexico. There is a group of young men ahead of me, four in total, who are themselves chasing after one other young man. One of the four is carrying a metal pipe of some sort. I’m having a hard time keeping up with them because the man they’re chasing is very fast, and the four are huffing and puffing to keep up. I’m more than huffing and puffing because I’m trying to keep my wits about me as I plan what to do once I catch up to them.

Just a few minutes earlier, I was standing outside one of the many nightclubs within a few minutes’ walk from the Paso Del Norte bridge that leads into El Paso, Texas. The Paso Del Norte is one way, north, so a huge line of cars trying to get into El Paso waits on the Mexican side, and the line can get to be a few kilometers long. If you’re ever waiting there at night on a weekend, you can look both ways and see nightclubs and bars catering to the American kids who cross over because it’s legal to drink at age 18 in Mexico. Few of those kids, the dumb ones, will cross over wearing their BDUs from serving in the American armed forces at Fort Bliss.

That’s what the man running from the other four was wearing, boots and all. He stood out like a sore thumb when he went flying past me and up the street. He was obviously lost, with a bewildered look on his face as he looked back and forth while looking back to see his pursuers. “Well, this is new,” I thought. Then the four men, wearing cowboy boots and jeans, came flying soon after.
“I’m going to kill you!” one of them yelled, and the soldier sped up some more.

My first plan was to run across the street and get in my car and give chase, maybe pick up the soldier and take him to safety, but the line of cars waiting to cross the bridge was causing a traffic jam in the entire area. I would have never gone anywhere. My second plan was to run past the cowboys and run with the soldier toward the bridge and cross with him. The bridge was maybe three kilometers away, and I was in good shape from playing soccer all the time. I could do it. Then I thought of the pipe the one cowboy was carrying, and I wondered if the other cowboys were not carrying firearms.

I looked back at the nightclub where a few minutes earlier I had been dancing with Alice (not her real name) and wondered if she would be okay. I had only stepped out to get some fresh air since I was tired from being up since five in the morning and everyone seemed to have been smoking in the club. What if I didn’t come back? Then I remembered she had found several of her friends, and they were all dancing together. I figured she would be okay, and that she would forgive me once she heard why I left.

So I started running.

The soldier was definitely heading in the wrong direction. He was running west, deeper into the downtown area and parallel to the border. He would have to double back then go north, or go north and double back. In essence, he would have to outpace the cowboys for a long distance. With all of them wearing boots of some sort, I was sure that it was going to be interesting to see them go the distance. Then I remembered I was wearing dress shoes I changed into when we go to the club, leaving my sneakers in my car.

If you’ve ever seen one of those races where people wear the wrong shoes, this was going to be one of them, though we were all still putting all of our effort into it. Slowly and steadily, I caught up to the fourth cowboy. The look on his face was one of surprise as he looked at me and I looked at him. It was as if he couldn’t figure out why I was there. He definitely didn’t know who I was. I sped up just a little more and caught up to number three and number two. One was within reach.

One had a pipe in his right hand and was running full speed after the soldier. The soldier was running slower and slower, and he was running in a straight line. It was as if he had never seen those nature shows where the prey zigs and zags this way and that to get away from the predator. He was making it easy for the cowboys in their cowboy boots — and me in my dress shoes — to catch up to him. It would only be a matter of seconds before number one caught up to the soldier, and there was no way we could prevent it from happening before we doubled back and then north.

A couple of years earlier, I took self-defense courses that centered around Shotokan Karate. It was definitely not like the karate you see in movies. It was very fluid, with not as many punches and kicks as one would think. We had some lessons in what to do with people holding clubs or knives, maybe a baseball bat. But I certainly wasn’t dealing with one adversary. Number one had numbers two, three and four with him. I reminded myself to line them up so the other three would be behind the first. That way, I would only deal with one at a time.

Seeing that the soldier was slowing down more and more, and number one just about to catch up to him — to the point he was raising the pipe — I sprinted even faster and launched myself at cowboy number one, knocking us both to the ground. The pipe went flying under a car. As I looked up, the soldier stopped for a second and then kept running. “Run that way!” I yelled as I was trying to get up, pointing toward the bridge. He stopped for a second and then started running north.

“Who the hell are you?” asked cowboy number one. Two, three and four then soon caught up. Number two stood over me while number one held me by a leg. Number three then took a swing, and my world was filled with light…