Simon Winchester books are always rewarding. One of them even helped enlighten me about family history.
He’s on tour right now for his latest book, “Pacific.” I’ve been a fan since we met as reporters following the Irish prime minister around New York, oh, a few years back.
I mentioned to our son that I had met Winchester a long time ago, so David bought me a copy of Winchester’s 2013 book, “The Men Who United the States,” about the travelers and builders and visionaries who tied the huge country together with roads, trains and electricity.
That book made me realize, all over again, how little I know about American history. I’ve been on hills and rivers in Appalachia that George Washington had explored as a surveyor and soldier and president. I had never read much about Lewis and Clark, how they explored the west – sometimes even splitting up into two parties and meeting further west, all without the help of a GPS, kids.
But there was one footnote that really intrigued me. There it is, bottom of Page 19. Before Lewis, before Clark, a “Connecticut opportunist” named John Ledyard had dreamed of walking North America – from west to east, starting in Russia, for goodness’ sakes.
I had never heard of Ledyard, but I do know the name. The maternal branch of my wife’s family has long roots in Ledyard, Conn., where a Quaker offshoot, the Rogerenes, settled in the 17th Century.
We sometimes stop off in Ledyard, on runs to Boston or Providence, to visit the old Quakertown cemetery (on Col. Ledyard Highway) and pay our respects to Grandpa and Grandma Grundy, and cousin Faith, who put up a good fight but died way too young.
Turns out, the town is named after John’s uncle, William Ledyard, who became an officer in the Revolution and in 1781 was murdered by an English officer after handing over his sword. John Ledyard, ever the maverick, maintained his British loyalties, and eventually joined the British navy and served on the second Pacific voyage of Captain Cook.
I was hooked, so I ordered up a copy of “Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer,” by Bill Gifford. What a life. Ledyard was a Dartmouth student who defied authority, hyperactive or bipolar or whatever the modern term is, but also smart and handsome and randy. Bored in college, he got in a canoe and paddled downriver on the Housatonic, essentially never stopping.
Years later he charmed Thomas Jefferson, the ambassador to Paris, into subsidizing his dreamed exploration of the American continent. He mooched off everybody and he walked, often by himself, being known by the description of “traveler.” He never made it to Alaska although he got close, until Catherine, empress of Russia, decided he was a spy, and ordered him expelled – to Poland. He died in Cairo, quite likely from excesses.
It’s not the first time Winchester (now an American citizen) has expanded my horizons. Before I went to Seoul for the 1988 Olympics, I read his book, Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles, about his hiking through the mountains.
I loved South Korea and its people and their passion for hiking before I ever got there. I’ll catch up with “Pacific” – including the footnotes.
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.