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New York schools are still suffering from COVID

There are signs hanging in my apartment building that have been there since March. They read: ’15 Days to Flatten the Curve’ and they are a cruel reminder of our country’s failures in the months since. It’s not clear if COVID-19 will be under control at the 15-month mark from this past March. Broadway shows announced they will be closed through May 2021.

New York City was the center of the Coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Our country’s most vibrant and the cultural capital of the planet, its shutdown has been an albatross around the neck of America. If our greatest city can’t get its shit together, what hope has the rest of the U.S.? Whereas New York has proudly led the country in decades past, we are instead forecasting its tragic bungling of a global pandemic.

Evidence of that tragedy has extended to our own family’s approach to public schools.

The New York City public schools have had no bigger advocate than my wife Emily. Raised in Queens and a product of New York’s public school system, she often mentions our good local schools as a major selling point when we discuss the future as parents. She believes whole-heartedly in public education and the ability of public schools to make a difference in people’s lives. This school year she is home schooling our kids.

My wife’s belief in the power of good public schools has not changed. New York City public schools had a ham-handed approach to school reopening that left us unconvinced that our kids would be returning to a safe environment or in a way that was manageable.

When the COVID-19 lockdown started in March, few if anyone thought that we would still be struggling with it by the start of the next school year. So the kind of planning for a socially distant learning scenario didn’t get started on time. The schools in New York provide a lot of vital social services, which is why city officials were slow to close them in March and which motivated them to put too much emphasis on making in-person learning part of the reopening plans.

The plans that the city came up with were haphazard and half-assed. It was a convoluted combination of in-person and remote learning, neither part of which the city was adequately prepared for.  Kids were supposed to report to school for three days and then do remote learning from home two days, alternating days by weeks. People like us with multiple children in the same school faced the prospect of juggling different childcare schedules in addition to navigating multiple remote learning systems. Days before scheduled schools were set to reopen, teachers asked the city to delay; the promised safety equipment and extra hand-sanitizing stations that were supposed to be in place were not.

Seeing this chaos in the wake of the poorly and dangerously executed school closings from earlier this year and the worsening situation in the reopening, our family chose to home school for a year. So far it’s not perfect but it is going well. My wife keeps the girls busy every day with some kind of learning, much of it hands-on in parks or nature centers. We can supplement the home learning with limited classes offered by local institutions; my wife is finding a way to get it done.

The city’s approach hasn’t worked, up to 150 public schools have had to close since reopening due to staff and students testing positive for COVID-19. The schools have not handled the increased numbers of homeschooling well either. My wife gave the school adequate notice that we were homeschooling this year, but weeks into the school year we got a call from the school asking why our children were not logged on remotely.

This virus is still wreaking havoc on the country and people want to blithely act like it is not happening. The city, like much of the country, is still struggling with lockdowns and virus containment. We had all hoped to be getting “back to normal” months ago; whatever version of normal returns looks to be well into 2021.

In the meantime, we’ll be teaching our kids at home.

The reports of New York City’s death are greatly exaggerated

New York City’s obituary has been written many times. The latest declarations of Gotham’s demise harp on the current crop of problems but ignore New York’s ability to survive even the worst the world has to offer.

The current issues confronting NYC are for certain no joke. Our city was the epicenter of the global Coronavirus pandemic and its expansive economic impact and slow recovery continues to force businesses to close. Our vibrant nightlife and renowned theater district have been shuttered for months with no recovery in the near term. On top of that, we’ve seen a resurgence of crime and “quality of life” issues that harken back to the dark times of the 1970s and 1980s, replete with threats to lay off city workers including law enforcement.

It’s gotten to the point where a group of business leaders wrote a letter to New York City’s mayor pleading with him to begin addressing the crime problem and other issues of urban decay. Mayor Bill de Blasio began his first term promising to put a progressive spin on the successes of his predecessors; he will leave office an object of ridicule and a case study in how activist mayors consistently fail New York.

But as bad as New York’s problems are, they pale in comparison to problems that we’ve seen only a few short decades ago.

I first lived in New York City when I was born, and as a baby I lived on Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx near Fordham Road. Not far from where I was living with my parents, landlords were routinely setting fire to their own buildings; cashing in the insurance money was more lucrative than renting apartments and the buildings were insured for more than they would have fetched on the real estate market. A few years later, New York’s Mayor Abe Beam famously appealed to President Gerald Ford for a federal bailout, as New York City was broke. ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’ was the famous NY Daily News headline documenting his refusal to help.

A little over a century earlier, Union troops were drawn away from the battlefield of Gettysburg by the Draft Riots of 1863, which saw rampaging Irish mobs attack and murder Blacks, even setting fire to an orphanage. Even the most anarchic rioters of the current crime wave have not reached these levels of depravity.

I’ve been mugged and pickpocketed and gone through a year of unemployment to the point of having only a few dollars to my name. I have also played music on a stage that the Ramones made famous, had my family on cable television ringing the stock market’s opening bell, and seen some of the best concerts, plays and movies available to our civilization. New York is where I met my wife and where we raise our children and can show them the cultures of half the world by only traveling a few miles.

While the thought occurs to me to leave New York sometimes, the urge to stay is greater.

After the September 11 attacks, it became unpatriotic to flee the five boroughs in my opinion. It still breaks my heart that we have allowed religious lunatics to remake our skyline. But these failures of leadership do not make New York City less great, only more resilient.

The Roman Empire fell long ago, but Rome is still majestic and magical. New York was a force for the world before America became a reality. New York will survive the current malaise gripping America; it will survive until humanity dies out. New York City will be here forever.

Dispatch from an American vacationland

Long Beach Island, New Jersey

How does an area centered on catering to crowds of tourists manage to keep people safe during the heavy tourist season? Long Beach Island is coping in the time of the pandemic. It has been a family tradition to come to Long Beach Island for about a week every summer and we hoped since March that this year would be no exception.

Early in the pandemic my in-laws, who invite us down ever year, mentioned that there would be new social distancing guidelines for the beaches and restaurants, that LBI had moved quickly to adapt.

The beach is still too crowded on some days. While being outdoors is a help; it’s still not safe enough during the heavy morning hours to go there. I went to bring my kids to the beach and quickly turned around when we saw the size and density of the crowd.

One of the key tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic is that things that were once routine now require serious decision making. Can my kids play with that little girl in the pool? Can I take my girls to the beach to build a sandcastle? Those were no-brainers in the past; not anymore. There won’t be easy answers for a while.

Whether or not people wore facemasks on Long Beach Island is random. Being from New York City, we feel naked without them, but people from this part of New Jersey have not had the same level of virus infection to make mask-wearing second nature and it’s not as real to them. Shortly before coming down to Beach Haven, we saw that lifeguards in nearby towns had an outbreak of the Coronavirus, not from their time on the beach as lifeguards but from partying together after hours.

You can hear people partying into the night and see them moving unmasked and in irresponsibly large groups everywhere. The island is full of visiting young people and people old enough to know better traipsing around as if there is not a global pandemic still raging across the country.

If you tried to lecture everyone acting foolish about how to wear a mask or distance, you would do nothing else. Calling people out or trying to deliver street justice would quickly evolve into fistfights or some other unproductive screaming match ripe for the viral internet montages of hostility that are already plentiful. Instead you do your best to lead by example; keep the mask on if you are near people, keep six feet apart.

There is not much you can do but do the right thing and keep away from people who don’t. It is easier to do here than in New York, so this still counts as a vacation. Things are not going to be back to normal soon and it would be a rancid lie to pretend otherwise.

Life in this vacation spot goes on; those businesses that have survived on Long Beach Island have adapted well. The Chicken or the Egg is still in high demand and they offer only outdoor seating and to-go orders; the Jersey Devil sandwich still provides a terrific serving of pork roll and I was able to feast on their Buffalo shrimp again. My wife and I had a date night at the excellent Artisan Café that made an amazing Italian mac & cheese and moved its dining outdoors as well. Buckalew’s created an outdoor beer garden and has very on-time pickup service.

The Surflight Theatre survives not only from the Coronavirus but from Tropical Storm Isaias that knocked over its outdoor tent. We were still able to enjoy a Frozen musical with the kids and a comedy night featuring Mike Marino and Sheba Mason—outstanding.

This past Saturday I walked the beach at night. There were a few other people walking about in the darkness, some with cell phone flashlights, and a patrol vehicle that drove back and forth. Only a few yards away from masses of humanity, I took comfort in seeing two shooting stars and a blood orange moon that looked like a nighttime sun.

I stood in awe of the moon, which was sitting low in the sky and casting its bright colorful light over the sea. The thunder of the Atlantic Ocean drones on, its waves crashing to shore in a powerful chorus When our world appears cracked, nature has a way of putting human civilization in perspective.

 

 

Ars longa, vita brevis

What grinds us down most is not the presence of stress, but the absence of joy.

Even during the darkest times in human history. People survived not just on food, water, and medicine but on jokes, songs, and stories. It’s not a coincidence that in addition to our stockpiling cleaning supplies and toilet paper, the COVID-19 pandemic launched binge-watching of entertaining shows. I’m not sure I would have been as riveted by Tiger King if the insanity of private tiger parks was more cheerful than the insanity of the outside world at the time.

The present and resurgent health pandemic that has made havoc on our world, we remind ourselves that this too shall pass, and most of us will survive and be able to learn from this time to create a better tomorrow. I also must remind myself how lucky I am: I and my family are healthy, I have a job, our building has been safe from looting, arson, and teargas.

I live most of my days now in front of my work laptop at home. Even when the work-from-home life does its worst to my day, I’ll manage to feel some immense relief if I can scratch out the draft of a poem, or poorly play a few Misfits tunes on my guitar.

Creating something, even if it’s something small that no one else will see, is good for your health. The theory of cognition holds that creativity is a central aspect of human. It improves our brain function and therefore our health. So even when I’m dead tired from working all day and then move from the desk to the dinner table to putting the kids to bed; I know I can salvage what remaining time I have left before I fall asleep if I do something creative.

I’m working on getting better at playing guitar because I had the privilege of playing the six strings on stage earlier this year with Beer Drinking Fools. Now I’ve been bitten by the six-string bug and want to subject innocent eardrums to blistering crossover hardcore punk and thrash metal that will sound like S.O.D. having a blood orgy with Bad Brains and The Lunachicks.

Our current crises are beset with ignorance and villainy on all sides. History will condemn civilized societies that let their people die needlessly and found it virtuous to let their cities fall to ruin. It is difficult to feel hopeful, but even amid hopelessness, one can find solace in creativity.

A surge of creativity is not a cure-all for what ails our society. While the current politics and pandemic are new, it was a long time getting to where we are now, and it will take a long time to get to something better. But the seriousness of our times doesn’t negate the need for creative joy; it makes such creativity more necessary than ever.

During these times of pandemic, our creativity will sustain us and endure. Amid so much destruction and despair, creativity is a revolutionary act.

 

Pandemic ignorance reaches Queens

I count myself among the many fortunate souls that quit drinking before the use of camera phones became ubiquitous. I know of at least one video taken of me passed out drunk in a friend’s kitchen that existed on a friend’s mobile phone. If there are others I don’t know about them but suffice to way I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world to denounce public drunkenness or debauchery at large.

So it is extra heartbreaking to see people giving drunkenness a bad name as photos and videos surfaced of mask-less partiers crowding Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens like it was a Hellenic Bourbon Street. That may be a worthwhile aim (though that’s debatable), but in case people haven’t noticed we are still in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed more Americans than The First World War. For much of the crisis, which is still going on, the epicenter was…Queens.

Bars are struggling to stay open and some of our finest New York drinking establishments, like Otto’s Shrunken Head, have devised clever ways to serve their customers while being safe. It’s not always easy but drinking during the pandemic is being done by more intelligent, if not more sober, heads. So there is no excuse for not getting this right.

Wearing a mask is not “virtue signaling;” it’s adulthood. If you can’t behave like an adult, you shouldn’t enjoy the spoils of public drinking and intoxicated buffoonery. If you don’t know how to get drunk without an audience, you’re a pathetic amateur. Why the hell do you need to be close to strangers to drink anyway? What kind of sad sacks are we breeding in New York that a pint of beer needs to be enjoyed with a crowd of strangers. Maybe I’ve become too much of a jaded New Yorker, but I want to stay away from most people even during good times.

Like many New Yorkers, I want our city’s nightlife to return as quickly as possible. I miss making music and going to my friends’ bands’ shows. But the longer we have people screwing up, the longer the return will elude us.

The crowds that jammed St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan weeks ago were abysmally naïve to think they were in the clear; people in Queens have even less of an excuse. If living in the part of the U.S. most affected by the biggest global plague in 100 years won’t make you behave sensibly, then what else beyond sickness and death will knock some sense into you?

New York has been doing better than most states. We didn’t have the luxury of ignorance or childish posturing. Our stores still mandate masks and have added protections that may be with us forever; so be it. We can’t afford to backslide now.

The mask refusers and science deniers will be ashamed of their ignorance if they survive.  If you join their ranks because you think the crisis is over, the results are the same.

The COVID-19 crisis is real and still happening. New Yorkers owe it to ourselves to do better.

The need for strength and refusal of misplaced tolerance

A few years ago, I was crossing Madison Avenue at 23rd Street in Manhattan and had the ‘Walk’ signal. A car made an illegal left turn from 23rd Street onto Madison, coming inches from people who had the right of way in the crosswalk, and the driver had the chutzpah to honk his horn at the pedestrians he was nearly running over. I gave his car a nice kick as he passed only a few feet away from me, and the car stopped a few yards away. I stopped to see if the driver wanted any more deserved kicks, and he drove away.

The gall of this driver, to honk his horn at those whose lives he was endangering with his blatant lawbreaking, comes to mind when we look at how a sizeable portion of the public is reacting to the global COVID-19 pandemic, especially here in New York City where the outbreak is the most intense worldwide.

New York must abide by these rules longer than elsewhere, because the infection rate here is so high and we are such a densely populated place. It is not easy staying six feet away from people, but a lot of people are not even trying.

I want the pandemic to be over but declaring victory too early can be deadly and lead to a terrible second wave that could do more damage than the first. Reopening New York is going to be difficult and we cannot jump the gun.

And here in Queens, of all places, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the known universe, many of my neighbors have shown themselves to be severely lacking in basic common sense, feeling entitled to run roughshod over public health. My wife and I took our three young daughters for a walk to a park, this past week, hoping to bring them to a field where they could have some free time outside without violating basic social distancing standards. The park was closed, but people had hopped the fence to sit on picnic tables or play handball as if this were an ordinary spring day. There was even a couple riding bicycles on the sidewalk (that by itself is dangerous, dumb, and illegal) without masks on.

This was infuriating and discouraging. If people were acting this way in Queens, New York, where the problem is most acute, will we be able to contain this virus at all?

Wearing a mask in public not virtue signaling; it is basic common decency during an extraordinary time. Being asked to wear a mask in public and keep away from others is not akin to slavery or the Holocaust (yes, people are really making those comparisons) any more than upholding basic law and order is  modern day slavery or Nazism. If anyone questioned whether the American right could impotently cling to victimhood like the American left, COVID-19 erased all doubts.

My sister gave birth to a baby girl earlier this month. She went through labor wearing a mask. My father and stepmother have only visited their new granddaughter from a safe distance; they don’t know when they are going to get to hold her for the first time, it could easily be months from now. They do not like things being this way but protecting the health of others is not a tough choice for them. It shouldn’t be a tough choice for anyone.

Intelligence is not weakness; refusal to listen to informed experts is not rugged individualism. It’s not outrageous to be concerned about government power and to look skeptically at public panics, but the experts weighed in on this long ago and the danger is real. Do not follow these COVID-19 precautions out of an unthinking obedience to the government, but out of an obligation to your friends and neighbors.

Part of being all in this together means we adhere to basic community standards, and those include the supremacy of truth and obedience to the basic social contract. It means acting as if you are responsible for the well-being of a larger community, even if many in that community think their convenience is more important than their own lives or the lives of others. If you really want to defend freedom, you first must act like a responsible adult.

We are not lost when such people appear, we are lost if we acquiesce to them. Letting science deniers or “Covidiots” as they are being called, dictate the terms of our dealing with disease is like letting children run the schools.

In his novel Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein describes the breaking point when lawlessness and irresponsibility triggered groups of veterans to start taking the law into their own hands; their emergency measures eventually become the rule of law. If our hasty re-opening triggers a deadlier and more economically disastrous second wave, we will need to keep in mind this essential passage from Heinlein’s work: “Moral behavior is survival behavior above the individual level.”

It is time for the grown-ups to step in. There may not be a swift, satisfying kick we can deliver to the “Covidiots” dotting our landscape today like we can with a car that sails through a crosswalk against the light, but it is past time to stop tolerating the intolerable. Allowing the public health to be subverted by reckless fools is not freedom, it’s suicide.

Testifying to some good news, …and fear of a second wave

Life during this pandemic has taken on a negative pattern. I wake up, I work 12+ hours at home, I have dinner, put the kids to bed, watch an hour of TV (usually Ozark now), and then go to bed. I’m too tired and demoralized to do much productive, and maybe that’s OK right now. My goal is to get through the pandemic without me or any of my family getting sick and remain gainfully employed during the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

On a weekly family Zoom call, we were going around discussing the extremely negative state of affairs in the world, when one of my cousins interjected, requesting that we share at least one piece of good news.

Good news is:

I have a job. I know too many people out of work to complain about my job. I’m gainfully employed, and layoffs are not on the horizon for me any time soon. And sometimes you must remember that any night you can go to bed with a roof over your head and food in your stomach, you are ahead of the game.

My family is healthy. Every sniffle and sneeze make me fearful that we may be stricken with the Coronavirus, and right now one of my daughters has a fever and I am terrified, but we’ve been doing everything right. We have been disinfecting, washing our hands, and staying inside.

There is still plenty of food. While the lack of cleaning products in the stores is alarming, there is still plenty of food despite panic-buying that has set in. Food distribution is being disrupted by the outbreak, and that is getting worse in some cases, but there is no reason for anyone in the U.S. to go hungry, there never is.

This causes us to think. I was on a call with people at work and one of the participants mentioned that he had had dinner with his family every night for three weeks and remarked at how rare and unusual this is. He didn’t seem to realize how seriously wrong this painted the previous status-quo. The Coronavirus pandemic has pulled back the curtain on just how unacceptable “normal” had become.

This will end. We’ll look back on this time and be glad we got through it. This won’t be forever, though hopefully some lessons from it will be.

Fear of a second wave

We are better off staying indoors on lockdown weeks longer than we need rather than risk opening up too early. There is a quest to “go back to normal” because of the economic and psychological impact of this isolation. But reopening things too early without enough available tests and before we’ve gotten through the pandemic means risking a dangerous second wave of the pandemic, which would make things worse.

The closest historical guide we have to what we are experiencing with COVID-19 is the Spanish Flu of more than 100 years ago. The deadliest time of that flu was the second wave of the pandemic in the fall of 1918.

Small protests to reopen in the midst of this crisis earned rightful derision, especially as some protests appeared to circle and block hospitals. The image of medical professionals counter-protesting in traffic in Denver will be a lasting one to remind us that even as much of the world has come together, there were a small minority of pandemic flat-Earthers who pathetically strutted around with weapons and exposed themselves and others to disease.

Too many people are not taking this crisis seriously. The Spanish Flu of 1918 had its naysayers as well, and they felt morally justified in endangering public health. History consistently condemns people who think they know better than the leading scientists of their day; you can’t eliminate these people because hubris and stupidity cannot be killed.

I plan to live long enough to remind my grandchildren how we had such fools in these times too, and how we survived and thrived.

 

 

Priorities in the time of pandemic

In New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., life is slowly adjusting to a new, temporary normal that is at once both dreadful and mundane.

What is cruelest about this epidemic is that it keeps us from one another in times of great need and hardship, when the embrace of a loved one is needed most. This past week our family lost a cousin, Greg O’Rourke, to cancer. His brothers and sisters had to take turns visiting him, as visitors are restricted due to this outbreak. One sibling had to wait outside the hospital while the other went in to spend time with him; he passed away during one of these transitions. They will have to take turns visiting his graveside at his burial, and the family will hold a mass and visitation sometime later this year.

Today my wife went to a virtual Shiva using Zoom. Her friend’s husband quickly succumbed to COVID-19; he was hospitalized on Sunday and died Thursday. Doctors were so busy treating his illness it took them a while to notice he had broken his hip when he collapsed at home.

As a family we have not been outside for nearly a month, and I am going out only late at night to buy groceries when we need them. I spoke with a friend of mine who is a history professor. He has spent his career studying biological warfare and pandemics. He said I was doing the right thing, that one can’t be too careful or too paranoid at a time like this. I take some comfort in this, also in that if we had left the city, we may have been going from the frying pan to the fire.

The way to prevent illness is very basic: Stay home, only leave home if you need to, stay six feet away from people when you do, wash your hands, and don’t touch your face.

We’ve all become painfully aware of how often we touch our faces. It’s an awareness that will stay with us when this is over.

This pandemic is of an historic magnitude on par with the Great Depression—some experts predict unemployment could rise as high as 20%, levels not seen since that time. Also, the Depression ushered in a new alignment of a more active government. The U.S. response to the COVID-19 outbreak runs the gamut from bumbled and patchwork to murderously incompetent. There needs to be a reckoning for this, both here and abroad.

And this crisis comes with a reordering of priorities. We’re talking to friends more, staying in touch with family over the phone or through online chat services because we don’t know when we’ll get the chance to meet again in person. We want to check in with people to make sure they are not forgotten, if there is a way to help. People are getting together to hold benefits, help friends in need; it’s what is most important now.

Some of us are working from home but would rather be doing something that really helps the world; and business as usual, while paying the bills, seems ludicrously clueless and shallow right now.

It’s absurd to get stressed out about work at a time when people are dying of disease outside your door, but I manage to do it somehow. I find myself getting angry over stupid stuff at work. I’ll judge myself harshly for that later.

My family now has a regularly scheduled Zoom conference call on Saturday night, and I use my corporate Zoom account. Will I get fired for that? I don’t care.

New York’s death toll is down, but we’re still in the thick of infection.  We’ll keep making plans of all the things we’ll get to do again once this passes. In the meantime, we put our heads down and forge ahead, getting through another day, another week…

Stay healthy.

 

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