Our Pearl Harbor… And Some Pearls (Plague, Day 33, April 5, 2020)

Things are going to get super bad this week. Some officials are saying that this is going to be our generation’s Pearl Harbor. I thought 9/11 was my Pearl Harbor, but I was wrong.

I’m in the nation’s hot spot and I’m hearing the whispers from people who are close to medical workers or policeman. I’m hearing stories about dead bodies left in apartments, because no one will touch them. I’m hearing nurses calling their hospitals “war zones.” And these aren’t some far off places. These are hospitals that I drive past every day. One was a hospital that Ian and I were in just three weeks ago.

And this isn’t going away for a long time. If Bill Gates is thinking long term, we should, too. And wait until this virus gets to sections of the country that have already been ravaged by drugs and bad diets. The Tiger King parts of the country aren’t going to handle this well.

I urged Steve to triple the production of little seedlings this morning. We’re looking at various corners of the property with the best sunlight to massively expand our backyard garden. I’m thinking about building a new raised garden bed using railroad ties. I’ll share pictures of that project as we go along.

My mom begged that we stay away from the supermarket this week. I have to do one last shop tomorrow, because my boys are powering through gallons of milk too quickly. We have to rethink our shopping system, so we can avoid that place for as long as possible.

In the meantime, we’re cooking, hiking, running, writing, studying, gaming, chatting, and even watching streaming Palm Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. All this is surreal.

So, here are my pearls in this midst of Pearl Harbor:

A Weekend Hike

Chicken soup cooking…

Be well, be safe, everyone.

If Learning Stops, Does It Matter?, Excerpt From Newsletter, (Plague, Day 32, April 4, 2020)

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If Learning Stops, Does It Matter?, Apt. 11D, April 3, 2020

Hi all!

Three weeks ago, my kids were sent home from high school and college. After some bumps getting my special needs kid, myself, and his teachers all on the same page, Ian is happily marching through his Algebra 2 worksheets, recording his band lessons, and having daily Google Hangouts sessions his teachers. My college kid’s professors were ready to go on Day One, so there were never any issues there.

Both my kids are learning, entirely independently in their own spaces. It’s untraditional, but I no longer feel like we’re living in a Code Red Meltdown Situation. Arguably, my college kid is learning more now, with a full belly of food and with a normal blood/alcohol level. 

But that’s our house. The low key buzz from teachers is that the picture is definitely mixed. Some houses, like ours, are making it work; others aren’t. From what I hear, learning is happening sporadically elsewhere, but learning levels are largely dependent on zip codes, the kid’s personality, parental resources, and the abilities of particular teachers. 

At this moment, there are some homes were the engineering dad is helping his daughter zoom past two years of math; in another house, nothing is happening but back-to-back Switch games. Some teachers had two weeks of professional development on running Zoom classes before turning their AP History Classes into online version of the real thing; others had a couple of hours of training and were told by administrators to simply put some worksheets on the Internet for kids. Some schools have shutdown entirely and aren’t even bothering with any form of virtual education.

As a former academic, I like to know numbers. How many kids are learning? How many aren’t? What groups of kids are learning more than others? We will probably know the answers to those questions. 

We do know that nine out of ten kids are out of K-12 school right now, but beyond that, we know nothing, John Snow. We don’t know even the most basic of information about what’s happening to kids — like who’s learning and who’s not — because nobody at the national or state level is keeping track of the big picture. Now that Betsy DeVos suspended state standardized testing requirements, we won’t even get that datapoint. So, we’ll may never know which schools have closed entirely, which one are hobbling along with lower level virtual education, and which one’s have implemented higher end Zoom classes, like my college kids gets.

Ultimately, education is a hyper-local enterprise in this country with only of the flimsiest of oversight from state and national government, so school districts lack a common approach to training and closures. The lack of central oversight also means that teachers have little guidance and have shouldered all the responsibility for translating years of classroom lessons into an Internet-friendly format. With every teacher struggling alone, the process has been painful and inefficient. Thousands of the nation’s calculus teachers are muddling through on their own, when they could all be using a common lesson. 

Rather than providing central support, our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has been loosening standards. In addition to ditching the testing requirements, she’s working to relieve schools from various requirements around educating kids disabilities. School districts could be forced by the courts to provide vulnerable populations — younger students, students with disabilities, and students in high need communities — with compensatory education down the line, which is a fate that both school districts and DeVos want to avoid. 

In truth, some students will fare better than others during these shutdowns. Even my son who struggles with learning differences will keep learning, because he attends a high-resource high school, has highly-educated parents filling any gaps, and is highly motivated. We live in a house full of books and food, and our jobs aren’t in immediate jeopardy.

But vast numbers of other kids without those privileges aren’t going to learn anything until school starts up again in September. Research on the Summer Slide, shows that middle class students thrive without school, but lower income kids suffer regressions. America’s schools have always been unequal; but education in the time of Corona means that the gulf between rich and poor will grow even greater. 

Missing months of education is simply is not acceptable. Schools must remain open in the summer, particularly for students with disabilities, younger students, and in areas with the greatest economic strain. Schools will need a bailout from Congress to pay for this summer program. Parents, particularly those who care for highly disabled children, should be immediately compensated. In the long term, we also need to detangle schools from non-educational missions, like providing food and childcare, as well as increasing  centralization of curriculum and training. 

Be well! Laura

Thriving in the New Normal (Plague, Day 31, April 3, 2020)

I’m nearly done with my work chores for the day — newsletter is done and sent, activities for Ian for his “spring break” are arranged, and boring paperwork tasks were crossed off the list.

Newsletters and paperwork were part of my life, prior to the plague. Now, I have to tick off the plague chores — take Ian for a walk, deep clean a bathroom, bake a cake with Ian, look around for mid-semester online college class for Jonah to take advantage of his free time. I have a list of people to call/text today, because they need a little extra contact.

It’s funny how we’re getting used to the new normal. After three weeks, I could do this for a lot longer, which may in fact be necessary.

Of course, my new normal is really the privilege of those with secure and boring jobs, with suburban homes, with youthful constitutions. We aren’t going into a hospital or riding a subway or bagging groceries on a daily basis. For some of it, we’re managing, and even thriving during these strange times.

If you’re in the lucky group, you might as well thrive. At lunch, I was telling Jonah that he should use this time as a gift. We’re talking about thinking through ways to scoop up some online college credits and/or learn new skills. No, the hydroponic garden in the basement is not up for discussion! I was thinking more about a CAD class or a programming boot camp. Expanding the kitchen garden is okay.

But we all can improve, too. Here are some ideas:

  • Maybe start an Instagram account and take pictures of daily life for future historians. I set up an account for a local business last week and learned how to make “stories.”
  • I’m planning on learning how to set up an accounting system for my strangely profitable online bookshop. I can offer a quickie class on building an online vintage shop, if anybody is interested.
  • I want to reread Emma this weekend, and then watch the movie, which I heard is available for a regular rental fee now.
  • A few months ago, I learned how to make my own newsletter. I’m finding it very fun, an interesting side venture where I can reach a different audience.
  • I want to organize pictures and make some albums.

Bunker Even More (Plague, Day 29, April 1, 2020)

1:30am — During this pandemic, matters regarding health and the economy should be of top priority to political leaders and the news editors who set the agenda for the nation. Schools, my little area of expertise, ought to take a backseat to keeping people from dying or from becoming homeless.

But it’s not inconsequential that some kids are not being educated at all right now and that others are suffering without the safety net of schools. The lack of learning matters. When kids get derailed, they never get back on the road to degree, credentials, and diplomas.

I’ve talked with many teachers over the past few weeks. They tell me that they are able to reach motivated kids, like Ian, with well resourced families like ours. Ian sits at his computer promptly at 8am every day and plugs through the laundry list of educational chores. After some (alright, a lot) advocating from me, Ian now has daily face to face contact with most, if not all, of his teachers. He’s not getting live classes yet, but things have improved from Week 1.

Other kids aren’t doing any work at all, even in middle class suburbs. For these kids, the problem isn’t the digital divide. They weren’t engaged in school before; now, they aren’t even checking into Google Classrooms to look at their assignments. They’re done.

Learning is happening in fancy private schools and the strong charter schools. The learning divide is huge right now.

9am. — Greeting from the nation’s hot spot. Every morning, I check the mayor’s sick/hospitalized/dead list on Facebook. Friends are already getting sick or having business woes. But over next two weeks, the situation will get worse — more people will be sick and our hospitals overwhelmed.

I’m spending this morning preparing for the bad times. I’m making face masks, preparing for a massive pantry reboot tomorrow, making menu’s. One kid will turn 18 in 2 weeks, so must come up with a plan for that. I’m loading up on ice cream and wine.

My goal is to do complete social distancing for the next two weeks. Good bye, real life people!

I’m making also preparations to keep the kids busy and healthy and distracted. The college kid might do another online class to pick up a new skill, like CAD or programming. The high school kid needs interaction with teachers over spring break next week; his daily FaceTime chats with his teachers is the only thing keeping from dwelling permanently in AutismLand. So, I’m researching online camps that have a FaceTime component for him, too.

Social distancing is going to get more distance-y soon. Be smart, people. Be safe. Be well.

I’ll be back later, after I plow through some chores. Here are some links to keep prepared:

Keeping Busy (Plague, Day 28, March 31, 2020)

12:30pm Yesterday, I spent the day pulling together some random ideas into a 800-word semi-coherent essay about schools. At this point, I don’t think that there’s much new to say on the subject, but we’ll see what happens. At least, I got one essay out this month, which is actually the most popular thing thing that I’ve ever written. After sending the new essay out to the usual editors this morning, I turned my attention to used books.

Before the shit hit the fan, I managed to scramble out to a few estate sales, where I bought piles of books. Having a deep fear of boredom, I frantically bought stuff in the beginning of March to amuse myself during a lockdown. At the time, I had no idea if any of my purchases were worth anything or not. I just bought some cool stuff and hoped for the best.

In one house of a recently deceased doctor, I bought a bunch of vintage golfing books. I’m not a golf person at all, but figured that someone might like them. Turns out that old golfing books are worth a lot of money. Yay. I hope to have them all on the book website by the end of the day.

Here’s a picture of the hospital ship floating down the Hudson to hold all the sick city people. The picture was taken by one Steve’s colleagues who lives in Jersey City. Steve’s office, which has seen in over two weeks, is across the river.

On YouTube, John Kraskinski’s Some Good News show is pretty awesome. Are you watching The Tiger King? It’s pretty great, too.

Dinner tonight? Grilling pork chops with some Pixie Dust spice rub. Couscous, sautéed cabbage, salad.

Tip: Make a list of five friends/family members who need a phone call/face time chat at least once a week. Think about who is old, sick, isolated, grieving, overwhelmed right now. Write their names on a post-it note and stick the note to the edge of your computer screen.

Silver Lining Playbook, Excerpt from the Newsletter (Plague, Day 25, March 28, 2020)

Latest newsletter: Silver Lining Playbook, Apt. 11D, March 27, 2020 Subscribe here.

Hi all!

We’ve been in our bunker for two weeks now, with only the briefest interactions with other people on milk-runs at Stop and Shop or at the drive-in lane at Dunkin’ Donuts.

The reason why we’re home in the bunkers is horrible – a global pandemic, which will endanger the lives of millions and possible usher into a giant recession. Already, 3.3 million people filed for unemployment insurance last week. Millions of kids aren’t being educated. My friends with small business are faltering. 

The virus cast its shadow over my family this week, as a beloved uncle passed away from unrelated issues. With the social distancing imperative, we are unable to mourn together as a family. His wife couldn’t hold his hand in the hospital, until the very last minute. 

But being a basically happy person, I can’t help but seeing signs, here and there, that all this social distancing is a much needed reboot of our very complicated, busy, self-involved lives. 

Even though we’re social distancing from the rest of the world, Steve and Jonah and Ian and I are social un-distancing from each other. We’ve spent nearly every minute of the past two weeks together. We haven’t spent this much time together, since Jonah was a small baby and Steve and I finished our dissertations full time. 

After that one year of togetherness, we’ve all gone our separate ways. Now, Steve works and commutes twelve hours a day. Jonah’s got his frat buds and his seminars at college half the year. Ian has school and summer camps. I’m here, as always, working in my little office, going to spin class, and maintaining the business of a house and home. I’ve got my own daytime friends and activities that don’t involve the others. 

But all that is over. No spin classes. No PTA meetings. No Wall Street offices. No train commutes. No band class. No International Relations lecture halls. No frat drinking fests. No sushi on a Friday night. We’re just here hanging out together and living off my cooking. 

Not going to lie. There were some adjustments. And adjustments are still happening as we decide whose job gets priority over unloading the dishwasher and whether we should badger the college kid to not fall asleep in front of Netflix on his laptop every night. But we’re working out the kinks with fewer flare ups and more cooperation. 

Maybe our lives had gotten too complicated. Maybe Ian has too many after-school activities, and Jonah had too much on his plate at college. Does he really need an internship this summer? Not really. Is there any reason that my husband should go back to his office, with its three-hour daily commute, when he gets everything done here just fine? Maybe I’ve put too much pressure on myself for professional success, when there’s a pretty awesome spot in the backyard to stare at the birds and the plants. 

The New York Times has a good article about how one party in Westport, CT helped to spread the disease. “The Westport soirée — Party Zero in southwestern Connecticut and beyond — is a story of how, in the Gilded Age of money, social connectedness and air travel, a pandemic has spread at lightning speed.” So no more parties for us; our weekend calendar is empty. 

Without weekend dinner plans and jaunts to museums and shows, we’re just chilling out. So weird. 

Now, I have to draw a line with all this domestic splendor somewhere. For me, it’s board games. Don’t talk to me about Jenga or whatever. I’m not even listening. I might occasionally bake, but I’m not breaking out any muffin tins on a daily basis. 

In our own way, we’re social un-distancing quite a bit. If we’re not in the kitchen making a complicated soup, then we’re taking walks around the neighborhood, watching Mario Cuomo on CNN, or on our devices in the same general area. For us, that’s a good thing.

Be well! Laura

A Better Day (Plague, Day 24, March 27, 2020)

8:35am Ian woke up just fine. So, I’m cancelling his doctor’s appointment; there’s no point getting a test for a basically healthy person and clogging up the system.

Many people tell me that they are asymptomatic positive or were positive sometime in the past couple of months. Wouldn’t it be great if we knew that for sure? If we all have the antibodies, we could all be going back to work, sending out kids to school, sitting in nice sushi restaurants (God, I’m craving sushi), getting our nails done, and letting housecleaners back into our homes. My kingdom for 1 billion tests.

Well, I went to bed thinking my day was going involve long waits in a car with a feverish kid. I’m recalibrating my day now. All good news. I think the order of the day will be exercise, write draft 1 of new opinion piece, and make the black bean soup. Thank god no hospitals.

In the evening, I’ll package up a massive set of 1944 encyclopedias that finally sold on my online shop. The shipping alone will probably cost about $100, but a customer was willing to pay it.

I will also load into the shop a bunch of movie books that I found in squat home in a working class community the day before we went into total seclusion. I love old eccentric collector homes. They are my bread and butter.

In the basement of that house, I found a book from the early 1800s. It was a vellum book. First time that I’ve seen one of those in a suburban basement. I’ll show you all later.

Meanwhile, with much less drama than yesterday, we’re continuing to work through plague life with work and school on computers, FaceTime chats with my parents, family dinners, afternoon walks, a little grouchiness with all this togetherness, the healing power of baked goods, and some help from the evening glass of wine.

I’ll be here all day. Happily. Will post some links soon.