Pandemic Observations, Episode 2 by Richard Feldman

3.  The Persistence of Personality and Belief

I wasn’t surprised by the range of pandemic explanations that I uncovered in my research.  In a past blog post, I lamented the realization that consensus reality was a myth.  I had observed that people expressed distinct belief systems or narratives about the world to which they maintained loyalty even in the face of what other people might consider incontrovertible contrary evidence.

My views of the world, including the current pandemic, have been influenced by my father, whose work was centered on the statistical analysis of health data.  In school I studied probability and statistics, essential tools for the attempted practice of an analytical way of understanding the world sometimes called critical thinking or scientific method.  In the attempt to think critically, I’ve tried to recognize the cognitive biases in my thought processes as well as to stay aware of both my past wrong conclusions and my ongoing areas of ignorance.  However, I’ve observed that it’s ultimately impossible to evaluate one’s own thought processes objectively.

So, like other people I’ve brought my personal beliefs and narratives, along with the rest of my personality, to the current crisis.  I have not believed that the pandemic arrived as a sign of coming judgment, the end of days, or God’s wrath, a nefarious lab project, a Bill Gates-headed conspiracy, a 5G wireless side effect, or an astrological alignment.  I have believed, among other things, that:

a.  epidemics or pandemics of pathogens of various sorts (both new and reappearing) have affected humanity periodically over thousands of years;

b.  the onsets of epidemics or pandemics have been somewhat random, although what has happened with them may have been influenced by patterns of living conditions and travel at the time the pathogen appeared; and

c.  societal choices made both before and during epidemics or pandemics has sometimes been a major influence on how they played out.

I’ve been disappointed but not surprised that so many people have stuck with narratives where the pandemic was a consequence of some other thing that they considered more important.  I could understand that buying into a narrative where the disease itself is the major agent has been hard, as the group of so-called experts attempting to explain it to us laypeople have disagreed with one another and steadily changed their stories.  Even some believers in critical thinking and the scientific method must be have been having a hard time dealing with how much the “experts” disagreed with each other.  I’ve been following a series of weekly reports surveying projections of numbers of Covid-19 cases and fatalities by university public health faculty and other knowledgeable people compiled by a couple of biostatisticians at the University of Massachusetts, and every week the numbers have been all over the place, with many of the participants making it clear that they didn’t have a well-defined idea of what was going to happen weeks or months out.  People don’t turn to experts wanting to hear that the experts have no clear idea of the answer.  I’ve thought that this disconnect has been one reason for so many people sticking with non-science-supported narratives.  (On the other hand, I’ve seen multiple plausible analyses that suggested that people have been in better agreement and anti-pandemic campaigns have gone more smoothly in places where politicians have let scientists be the spokespeople.)

I’ve also noted people’s inclination to reject as wrong explanations that they couldn’t understand.  The patriarch of one of our neighboring households assured me confidently that the disease was just a form of the flu.  He and the rest of his household have been strongly anti-mask and have teased me when they’ve seen me wearing one.  Perhaps I’ve envied them in their certainty that they know the answers.  I became accustomed to listening to people speak with authority about things they knew nothing about years ago.  Since the advent of the pandemic, many of those people have continued to embrace the opportunity, but now the stakes have become higher.

Pandemic Observations by Richard Feldman

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”

  1. Prologue

For years I’ve inclined toward a somewhat dark and pessimistic view of general arc of human history, a view that I’ve at least partially shared with Miriam.  Both of our worldviews never completely recovered from the sense of chaos induced by the parade of unsettling, sometimes apocalyptic-seeming events we experienced as we came of age during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Our shared coming-of-age perspectives notwithstanding, for many years after we started living together almost 25 years ago, we had an ongoing debate in which Miriam maintained that human existence was improving overall while I argued that it was getting worse.  I eventually realized that my saying that human existence was getting worse was an overstatement.  (What I really believed was that things were always simultaneously getting both better and worse; however, the faith in long-term improvement that underlay many popular belief systems was not based on reality, but it had the potential to lull people into complacency in the face of a variety of unpredictable threats.)  Eventually, Miriam stopped disagreeing with me, seemingly swayed by the general trend of twenty-first century events.

My view of the historical prospect has always contrasted my predominantly cheery experiencing of day-to-day life.  This predominantly cheery daily existence has probably at least partially been a reflection of my personal temperament, but it has also reflected an awareness that on the whole I’ve been fortunate in both my personal experiences and the times in which I’ve lived.  I’ve lived mostly during times where even large-scale misfortune has been inflicted on a sufficiently local or regional level that it’s been possible for me to avoid it.  Events concurrent with my coming of age as large as the American societal drama that surrounded the war in Vietnam did not end up having a major direct effect on me.

The other side of my awareness that my luck has been good has been the awareness that things could change at any moment.  While not wanting to dump additional misfortune on those coming after me, I have repeatedly wished privately that various bad things would hold off until after I was dead or at least no longer able to notice them.

Although a viral pandemic probably wouldn’t have been the first macro-catastrophe that would have occurred to me to worry about, I imagine that it would have been in my top five.  Over the years I’ve periodically seen reasonable-sounding discussions of the threat of a viral pandemic that would significantly affect the United States.  Therefore, it didn’t come as a total surprise to me to find one finally arriving in my neighborhood and myself having to decide how to deal with this particular time.

So I, like most of humanity, find myself faced with Frodo’s challenge of suddenly having to confront an unpleasant situation not of my own making.  However, unlike in most works of fiction, I’ve become used to the idea that, even facing a worldwide pandemic, we’ve all been going around living in very different stories from one another.  Pretty much every general statement that I might have made about the pandemic I’ve heard or read someone disagreeing with.  Not only does YMMV apply even though our lives have all been dominated by the same thing, it seems that everyone’s mileage has varied.   I’ve found that reflecting and writing has enhanced my understanding of my personal experience; perhaps my reflections will help readers have perspective on their own experiences.

  1. Alternative Views

What do I mean when I say that we’re living in very different stories from one another?  From what I consider reliable sources, I’ve learned that seemingly tens of millions of Americans believe that:

  1. The coronavirus pandemic and associated economic fallout are signs of coming judgment, a wake-up call for us to turn back to faith in God, or both;
  2. the coronavirus pandemic and global economic meltdown are evidence that we are living in what the Bible calls the ‘last days’; or
  3. COVID-19 was created in a laboratory either intentionally or accidentally.

Less popular but still well-documented views are that COVID-19 is a conspiracy against anti-vaxxers spearheaded by Bill Gates, that it’s caused by 5G wireless networks (seemingly most popular in the United Kingdom, where arsonists have been enthusiastically trying to destroy the 5G infrastructure), that it’s caused directly by climate change, that it can be explained by astrology, and that it was originally brought to China by an American, most likely a cyclist competing in the World Military Games in Wuhan last fall.

From reading about these alternative views, I could understand why a lot of people haven’t really cared what Anthony Fauci was thinking and that my beliefs were probably only shared by a relatively small minority.  However, over the years I’ve adjusted to the idea that most Americans are living narratives that don’t particularly agree with mine. Even if they don’t respect my belief system, I’m still fond of it.


Editor’s note: Expect a continuation from this writer later this month. Miriam’s Well is delighted to welcome back Richard Feldman as a favorite blogger! It’s hard for me to find “good” things during the pandemic–but his writing is one of them. Plus his presence as my spouse.

A Visit to a Las Vegas Temple Dedicated to Beauty & Commerce by Richard Feldman

In the middle of a multi-day February visit to my father, I was searching the Web for new and interesting things to do in greater Las Vegas on the upcoming road trip that I was planning with Miriam when I happened across a description on Atlas Obscura of a free-to-visit James Turrell light installation atop a Louis Vuitton store entitled Akhob (supposedly an ancient Egyptian word meaning “pure water”).  Although Turrell’s works of light have been featured in a number of exhibitions around the country in recent years, I’ve been most familiar with him as one of several artists who have devoted decades out of their lives to the creation and refinement of giant land-based projects paying homage to nature and science in the American West, while innumerable announced completion dates have come and gone.  Turrell’s project has involved the reconstruction of Roden Crater, the remnants of a northern Arizona volcano.  While the Roden Crater project, like other examples of this particular art form, never seems to be able to be finished, it has been possible to visit at times by those who’ve provided substantial financial support.

I mentioned Akhob to Miriam, who was enthusiastic.  According to the Atlas Obscura article, the lead time for tour reservations was at least three weeks, which meant that the first available tour slot would likely be several days after we planned to leave Vegas.  I decided to give it a shot anyway.  Notwithstanding a poor phone connection, I ended my call to the reservation number at Louis Vuitton having arranged places for us on a tour at 1:30 PM on our last partial day in Vegas.  The scheduling wasn’t quite perfect, but the opportunity seemed worth the inconvenience.

Our tour was scheduled for a Thursday, we were arriving in Vegas on a Monday, and the installation was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, so my vague hope of someone else’s cancellation allowing me to reschedule for an earlier tour was unlikely from the start.  However, my reconnaissance visit to the high-end shopping area where the Louis Vuitton store was located (an extension of the Aria Resort and Casino confusingly referred to both as CityCenter and the Shops at Crystals) revealed the existence of additional Turrell light installations in the rooms adjacent to the tram station at the very top of the shopping area.  Miriam was pleased.  Although it seemed unlikely that she would be allowed to take pictures within Akhob, there would be some of Turrell’s work that she could photograph.

Thursday arrived.  We checked out of our lodgings, ate lunch, and parked at the neighboring Cosmopolitan.  We made our way again to CityCenter/the Shops at Crystals, where Miriam photographed other artwork, including the tram station Turrell installation.  We weren’t sure how much in advance we needed to arrive at Louis Vuitton for our tour, so we arrived what turned out to be needlessly early.  After we announced our purpose and were directed to the tour meeting place, we had plenty of time to sit and observe the few people shopping, who I thought looked surprisingly normal given that Miriam had told me that everything in the store cost thousands of dollars.

A few minutes past the scheduled time, our tour guide appeared and introduced herself to us and the other three people on the tour.  We would not be taken directly to our destination, but instead spent the next fifteen or twenty minutes hearing the history of Louis Vuitton and its commitment to art and being shown various items in the store to illustrate the history.  I didn’t think there was a whole lot of point in the store’s proselytizing us, but went along gamely.  Finally, we proceeded to the elevator and pressed the otherwise unlabeled “3” button.

When the elevator door opened at the third floor, our tour guide handed us over to two other female employees who would be our chaperones in the actual installation. Whereas the dark-haired guide had been dressed in black, the chaperones had on nearly identical white outfits of tops, jeans, and sneakers.  With the strong aura of reverence and ritual, it was as if I was visiting a shrine or temple, and our guides were priestesses.

The priestesses ushered us into the next anteroom for us to exchange our shoes for white booties and to read and sign multi-page liability waivers.  I scanned mine in a perfunctory manner in preparation for initialing and signing it, but as Miriam read hers, she became increasingly alarmed by its litany of potential mishaps.  In a moment, she decided to decline the experience and instead wait for me back in the store.

Having returned my waiver form, I climbed the flight of nine steep, curved, black stairs and joined the two priestesses and the three other visitors in the first of two cylindrical chambers.  The colored light suffusing the installation was beautiful but somewhat disorienting.  We were warned about the easily overlooked step between the two chambers, not to mention the six-foot drop off at the end of the second.  Like another unearthly light experience, last year’s solar eclipse, the experience was over too soon, after perhaps 15 minutes, much of which I spent either asking questions (how many light sources were there, where were they located, did the cycle of changing colors repeat and, if so, how long was the complete cycle?) of one of the priestesses or bonding with the blond-haired woman who worked at the Palo Alto gallery representing Turrell.  She had had the opportunity to visit Roden Crater four times, accompanying important clients.  She in turn seemed impressed that I had at one time worked for Lannan Foundation and invited me to stop by the gallery the next time I was in Palo Alto.

Perhaps I should have been talking less and concentrating more on experiencing being suffused by the light, but the allotted time would still have been nowhere near sufficient (I did have the thought that certain mind-altering substances would likely have enhanced the experience).  As we were guided out of the installation, re-exchanged our booties and shoes, and came back down to the first floor in the elevator, the ritualized overtones of the whole event continued to resonate.  I found myself grappling with questions similar to those prompted by my visit years ago to Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field—how much is the interaction undermined by the implied elitism?  Is there any way of making it more accessible while simultaneously respecting the aesthetic vision and economic considerations of the artist and/or gatekeepers?  I appreciate that both natural and human-created beauty offer an opportunity for non-religious (and religious) people to have an experience of the divine, but the implicit or explicit bundling of the experience of beauty with conspicuous consumption spending adds an unpleasant aura to the occasion for me.

When we had arrived at the Grand Canyon earlier in our trip, I was immediately struck by and commented about how I felt yanked out of my sense of selfness by its magnitude.  Both spirituality and art aspire to yanking people out of their senses of selfness.  I suppose that my pickiness about how I engage with spirituality is analogous to my pickiness about how I do it with art.  I was grateful to have had the chance to visit and be immersed in the temple of Akhob, but regretful of the extent to which our society has evolved in ways that require paying homage, if not actual money, to multiple intermediaries for access to great art and its transformative potential.

Photographs from Atlas Obscura.

Internet Resources for Finding Offbeat Roadside Attractions

This blog has been reporting on road trips almost back to its beginning, including an early musing from me.  A road trip includes the objective of getting from point A to point B, but can encompass an enormous variety of recreational and entertainment activities.

Road trips are as individual and idiosyncratic as the people who take them.  The trips that I take with Miriam typically try to address both of our interests and traveling styles.  Prior to the appearance of the Web in the mid-1990s, printed guidebooks were the leading source of guidance for crafting a road trip, but now an overwhelming breadth and depth of information about what’s out there along your route can be at your fingertips within seconds.  Native American archaeological sites, Spanish colonial missions, Civil War battlefields, model solar systems, botanical gardens, giant fruit and vegetable sculptures–you can theme a trip on any or any combination of them and pull together an itinerary from Web sources (or probably from apps, but someone else will have to write that post).

A visit to Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum in February reawakened my curiosity about the range of personal outsider/visionary/folk art projects that were to be found along the country’s back roads, and motivated me promote their place in our trip itineraries (I still regret that one of my favorite road trips, which included a visit to southern California’s Salvation Mountain, occurred a few weeks before the inception of the blog and never got blog coverage).  In addition to my old standby trip planning websites, I found new ones to guide me in my search for roadside attractions that embody particularly individualized creativity.  I’ve written up a number of the websites that were used to generate ideas for stops on the trips chronicled on Miriam’s Well over the last month or so and in mid-March in the hopes of encouraging readers who are interested in seeing visionary artworks (or just giant fruit) for themselves in situ.

Roadside America

Roadside America (  The name “Roadside America” comes from a classic roadside attraction, a miniature village in Shartlesville, PA that dates back to 1935.  As noted on this website, which has been around since 1994, “road trip know-it-alls Doug Kirby, Ken Smith and Mike Wilkins introduced readers to the world of offbeat tourist attractions with their books, Roadside America and New Roadside America.”  The site has allowed them to expand their coverage and keep it current, aided by an eager, crowd-sourcing crew of devotees of the unusual.  The site claims coverage of more than 12,000 distinct places, including a wide range from commercial attractions to personal, visionary creations and from the small to the massive.  Attractions get a “story page” that features a write-up of from one to many paragraphs, along with pictures, comments by readers, listings of nearby accommodations, and links to nearby attractions.  There’s also a blog, round up discussions of particular types of attractions (e.g., “Big Fruit,” “Mystery Spots,” and “Shoe Trees”), state maps, and features supporting the creation of personalized lists and trip itineraries.  An app is available for iPhone users.

Spaces Archive

Spaces Archives (  This website is run by SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments), described as “a nonprofit public benefit organization created with an international focus on the study, documentation, and preservation of art environments and self-taught artistic activity.”  The site is an extension of the organization’s mission of identifying, documenting, and advocating for the preservation of these environments.  Given its different mission, the site has many fewer attractions than Roadside America, and includes both international and now-destroyed “environments.”  For road trip planning, it’s probably best to use the “Explore by Map” feature on the front page.  One drawback is that many of the map locations are only approximate; I had to refer to other websites for more exact locations.

Detour Art

Detour Art (  Detour Art is “dedicated to the sheer joy of outsider, folk, visionary, self-taught, vernacular art and environment discoveries found all along the back roads (and side streets) around the world.”  There is a fair amount of overlap in attractions with Spaces Archives, but Detour Art also notes galleries and museums that feature the types of art that the site finds of interest.  The website describes the places that it covers both as “environments” (like Spaces Archive) and “sites.”  There are regional pages for the West, South, Midwest, and Northeast, and you can search by state, but I accidentally stumbled on what are probably their best geographical aids, their regional Google Maps mashup pages (the one for the South is here).  The most recent blog post is dated two years ago, leading me to be concerned about whether the site is being kept up.


The Center for Land Use Interpretation (  CLUI describes itself as “a research and education organization interested in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the surface of the earth, and in finding new meanings in the intentional and incidental forms that we individually and collectively create.”  Road trippers will primarily be interested in CLUI’s Land Use Database.  As with the other websites covered here, each place has its own descriptive page; sights/sites can be searched or can be accessed from the map at  Much of what they list are things like power plants, dams, and military bases, but they also cover land art and other large cultural installations.  As with Detour Art, there are signs that the Land Use Database content is not being kept up.

Atlas Obscura

Atlas Obscura ( Atlas Obscura purports to be “the definitive guide to the world’s wondrous and curious places,” covering over 9,000 places around the world.  It’s similar to Roadside American in its breadth of interest, and its editorial policy seems to allow for articles on a variety of cultural topics, not just physical attractions.  I’ve found the website interface less user friendly than some.  Individual entries include links to “Related Places” that I find somewhat mysterious (e.g., I couldn’t quite figure out why there was a link from Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park in Oklahoma to the Bettie Page Mural House in Seattle).

TripAdvisor (  Although I more commonly use it for its lodging and restaurant listings and reviews, the website does have an Attractions category.  Because of the huge number of people contributing ongoing write-ups, the reviews can be helpful for learning about relatively recent changes in the status of attractions.

Creating Your Own Trip/Route Maps

Although I’ve looked at a number of “Create your own road trip” websites, I have yet to find one flexible enough to let me create my desired road trip without a titanic struggle.  I had some success with Google Earth/Maps, but I did feel that I had to spend an excessive amount of time inserting places that weren’t in Google’s database and tweaking routes.  I do find Google’s Street View feature helpful to get a sense for what a place looks like from the road.  One mapping tool that I feel fondly towards, although it doesn’t do routes, is BatchGeo, from which you create a map by pasting labeled data from a spreadsheet, including latitude and longitude.  I’ve used it to create maps for several different purposes; here’s an example of a road trip map (there’s info about each marker below.