Two Loaves and Choices (Plague, Day 22, March 25, 2020)

You know the world is in the shithole, when I start baking.

I do not enjoy baking. I don’t like measuring cups, the fine dusting of flour over counters, meticulous reading of recipes, timers. Last night’s pot roast is more of my style of cooking — throw a bunch of good things in a pot and then walk away for two hours.

Also, I’ve so been conditioned by middle age diets to look at all carbs as things of evil. Little slices of heaven, too. Have you ever had a slice of pizza, after restraining one’s self for a couple of weeks? OMG. Your brain explodes. So, there’s a lot of complicated feelings wrapped in bread right now.

But with everything going on, I felt a deep need to kneed. Yesterday I pulled out my super easy recipe for bread making and spent the afternoon making two loaves.

Two loaves, almost identical, cooling on a rack. Which one to cut open first? Either way, there is no bad choice.

***

But now our president is ready to make a choice between two evils, as he sees the options before him. He can either badger the country to stay in the house, shut down businesses, keep the schools closed, which will very quickly lead to massive Great Depression-like levels of economic strife.

Or he could let business do it what it wants to do. Open those restaurants. Open the factories. Let people fly wherever they want. Money comes in, but the virus will spread. People will die, but people die every day, he said. We can’t stop the economy to save a handful of old people.

He later added geography to that calculus. Mostly, the problems are going to be in the hot spots, like the New York City metro area, so it’s unfair to rural areas in Texas to conform to rules that are appropriate for NYC. And those people in NYC are doomed anyway, so let’s just move on.

Those are bad choices: the economy versus dead old people. To be fair, the economy doesn’t just mean that some rich CEOs will suffer. It means that a whole of lot of minimum wage workers will be laid off, won’t be able to pay their rent, and children will go hungry. So, in the spirit of fairness, let’s revise that equation: hungry children versus dead old people in one part of the country.

But that equation still isn’t quite right. The dead people are starting to pile up around here, and they aren’t just 90-year olds in a nursing home. Our church just sent out an email asking for prayers for a 20-year old, a former high school athlete, who is in ICU.

I live in a virus hotspot, though things will be worse on the other side of the Hudson River, in the heart of the city. Anybody paying attention knew that this was going to be a big issue. The mayor took too long to shut the schools and get people off the streets and subway. Too long.

Friends who had an outlet and a brain to see the writing on the wall got out of the city seven days ago. They are in seclusion already in second homes and in the guest rooms of extended family. Others are trying to get out now.

My in-laws live in the shore of North Carolina, where those communities have shut their doors to outsiders. Police demand proof of home ownership before letting people cross the bridge to the barrier islands. Locals say they don’t have enough beds or bags of flour for the New Yorkers heading their way. No room in the inn.

I reject the presidents’ choice, because I think he’s wrong. I have faith in charts and trajectory curves. If we say, “Fuck this flattening curve stuff. Give me the high peak and get the pain over with quickly,” the losses will be too significant and probably won’t save the economy anyway. I say let’s save lives first, the economy second.

***

I’m not the only one baking like crazy. Flour, like toilet paper and dish detergent, is not to be found in any supermarket right now.

Why do we bake during a pandemic?

For many of us, we associate bread with comfort. It’s a way to nurture our families, when they’re in the midst of stress and pain.

We have time. Yes, the lucky among us are still working on our laptops and computers just a few feet from the kitchen. It’s not hard to let some dough rise in a bowl on the counter for forty minutes in between Zoom meetings with co-workers.

Bread is something Biblical, an ancient tie to the Gods. Mosaics in 2,000-year old churches in the Mediterranean depict the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Matthew 14:13-21: “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he [Jesus] gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

We bake because we are in the midst of an Old Testament-like plague. This doesn’t feel real. It’s an ancient evil, not something that belongs in our worlds of sterile Apple stores or smart cars. An ancient evil must be fought by an ancient good. For some, that ancient good might come in the form of God, an old man with a beard. For others, the ancient good is formed by women with large forearms over a fire.

Of course, we can’t be saved by bread or prayers or by loud curses at the tv during presidential press conferences. Let’s just be safe, friends. Using whatever comforts and crutches that we have around us, let’s stay in our homes for another few weeks.

Me? Despite an afternoon aberration with baking, my real crutch is writing. Words are my loaf of bread. So, I’ll be here, as long as I can manage it.

Pacing Ourselves For the Long Haul (Plague, Day 20, March 23, 2020)

11:00am — I calmed down a bit this weekend. I’ve been on overdrive for the past 14 days. Longer, if you include Ian’s medical emergency that happened in the beginning of the month.

I still had a ton of stuff do around the house, but I wasn’t totally stressed out about getting something published. My USA Today article about the impact of the school closures on kids with disabilities came out on Saturday morning and is continuing to do really well.

Every day, I give thanks that Ian’s health emergency happened before things got nasty. My uncle in Florida is in the hospital in ICU all by himself. The family can’t visit him. My cousin, Jenn, is getting chemo and is extremely immune compromised. They’re suffering alone and vulnerable. I worry about them every day.

On Sunday, Steve and Jonah brought all his college crap home. They did two trips back and forth with two cars. Now, I’m organizing space in the basement to make room for a mattress, box spring, dresser, desk, microwave, and all the other crap that he won’t need until he gets another apartment sometime down the line. He was slated to move into a dorm next fall, but who knows what will happen.

This mess isn’t going to be wrapped up in a tidy little bow in another week, as much as our president would like that. We’re looking at months of destruction to our economy and way of life.

I drove around this weekend just to get out of the house. I passed people lining up to get into Whole Foods, jogging along the side of the road, kicking a soccer ball on an empty school field. How many of them will be sick in another week or two? We’re all walking time bombs.

A disaster with a long tail is going to have a major impact on a whole generation of kids. How many are never going to go back to college this fall? How many will lose friends and family members? How will life in an economic tailspin impact them? Will they become compulsive hoarders, like our grandparents, stockpiling cans of beans and toilet paper in the basement?

I sat Jonah down this weekend and asked him how he was doing. Boys need to be asked directly how they feel about things, because they tend to swallow up their emotions.

Jonah said that he was missing his friends enormously. He was sad for other friends that would miss graduation and other milestone celebrations. He’s been chatting almost constantly with friends through social media, but being stuck in his parents’ house isn’t a fun time. Today is his first day of online college education.

I’m most worried about Ian. In some ways, he’s well prepared for life on a computer, because he excels with anything that deals with technology. For him, the problem isn’t math problems on Khan Academy, but the fact that he’s separated from real people and from structure. He’s in mourning.

After talking to Ian’s teachers today, we’re all agreed that they will check in him once a day for the continuity and social contact. He doesn’t have any friends, so he really needs to keep contact with teachers ,and for Steve and I to make sure that we talk long walks with conversations every day. We can’t let him lock himself in his brain.

I need to take a break from this make hard boiled eggs for egg salad sandwiches for lunch. The grind of prepping three meals a day is already tiresome. Back later.

Coronavirus Survival — Cooking From the Pantry, Baked Pasta Recipe

So, what staples do you have in pantry? Beans, pasta, root vegetables, some dairy, meat in the freezer, cans of tomatoes? Need some ideas for all that? I can help.

Last night we made chili, which we will have again tonight with baked sweet potatoes. Tomorrow’s lunch will be chili dogs. Here’s my chili recipe.

Today, let me share the most basic of recipes, Baked Pasta. Super easy. And a local favorite. With Steve and I eating low carb stuff lately, I haven’t made this dish in ages. With a house of boys, it seemed like a good time to return to a classic.

Baked Pasta, Jersey Style

  • 1 box of Pasta (acceptable shapes penne, medium shells, ziti, cellentani)
  • 1 or 2 eggs, depending on size. This is just to bind everything together
  • 1 jar of sauce (pay more for better)
  • 1 large brick of Polly-O mozzarella
  • 1/2 plus two spoons of the medium container of Polly-O ricotta
  • 3/4 of a bag of spinach
  • parsley
  • parmesan cheese
  1. Preheat over to 350 degrees.
  2. Prepare the guts. Chop the mozzarella into small squares. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the mozzarella. Chop up the fresh spinach. Mix together the mozzarella, ricotta (remember don’t use the whole container), half a cup of parmesan cheese, lots of fresh pepper, 1 egg, and spinach.
  3. Prepare the pasta in salted water. Cook until very al dente. Like still a little white in the middle. Drain. Do not rinse pasta. Add about half the jar of sauce to your pasta. I used some generic Whole Foods sauce for this. There is some much better stuff on the shelf these days, as well as homemade, of course, but I don’t think that’s necessary for a baked dish like this. All the effort should go into bringing good stuff together.

4. Now you’re ready to build. Add a glug of the sauce to the bottom of a baking pan. Then add 1/3 of the semi-cooked pasta. Then add half of the cheese combo, then 1/3 of the semi-cooked pasta, 1/2 of the cheese guts, last of the semi-cooked pasta on top.

5. On top of the pasta layers, pour out the rest of the sauce and spread it around with a spoon. Add the last of the mozzarella, more parmesan cheese, and freshly chopped parsley. Cover everything with aluminum foil.

6. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes until the cheese is bubbling all the way through and the pasta is entirely cooked. By this time, the spinach will be cooked, too. If you like your pasta dish slightly crispy, take off the aluminum foil ten minutes before it’s finished.

There are plenty of ways to upgrade this dish and make it more interesting. You can make a white sauce or add different kinds of meat and vegetables.

The Plague is Here, Part Eleven – Working From Home Edition

Tomorrow, we will have two adults, one college punk, and a high school kid all working from home. AT THE SAME TIME. It’s going to be interesting.

Steve has serious concerns about how all the system will handle all those millions students using programs like Zoom and Google Classroom at the same time, while parents are using their own massive programs.

Our wifi crashed yesterday. What’s going to happen tomorrow?

Since people aren’t used to working from home, and I’m a wfh (work from home, in the new lingo) pro, so I’ll share some tips.

We redid the office a few weeks ago. I’ll do a before and after post later. In the meantime, here’s one picture:

Here are my work-from-home tips:

  • Treat every day like a typical work day and follow your typical morning routine – shower, clothes, coffee, regular wake up time.
  • Since you don’t have a commute, you have time for a morning work out. It might be a simple 20 minute walk. But do something. It’s an opportunity for extra exercise, but you’re also missing out on the exercise with a commute. It’s easiest, if you immediately put on your workout clothes when you get out of bed.
  • Clothes. Do NOT wear sweats and yoga pants. Dress for productivity.
  • Do NOT snacks. Eat regular meals, but if you need a break, make a cup of tea.
  • With multiple people in the house at the same time, everybody needs their own space. Everybody has to know the rules. My major rule is that nobody can talk to me when I’m writing. I will destroy you, if you break my train of thought as I get ideas from brain to computer screen.

I’m about to go for a walk with Ian, so I’ll write a bit on this topic and then come back in an hour or two. BTW, you all should do that. Go for a walk or a hike. Keep the immune system and mental health strong!

Excerpt From Jan. 17 Newsletter

Here’s an excerpt from my latest newsletter. Please subscribe, folks!

It’s January Jersey. Which means the sky is a greige color that all the designers are putting on their walls.

I know all about griege, because we’re in the middle of a painting project at home. Between being grounded in the house with various medical testing for Ian and a dull spot in between writing projects, I have some time on my hand. I decided that it was time to rent a steamer from Home Depot and tackle the last two rooms in our home that still had the previous owner’s wallpaper on the walls.

So, our bedroom furniture is covered with plastic tarps, and my office is inhospitable, until we can finish the job. When we embarked on this plan, I expected to finish off in a week or two. In reality, we are still a month of weekends away from applying any paint — griege or otherwise – on the walls. 

I have a writing topic on hold. The topic is all approved by an editor, but we’re just waiting for one of the presidential candidates to bring up a specific education topic. The candidate is not cooperating, so I’ve done a little background research and am just waiting. And catching up with my other job, which is housewifery. 

I never planned on being a stay at home parent, who works gigs on the side. I planned on having a prestigious job in the university or a policy think tank. That’s why I wasted most of my twenties in graduate school and finished the PhD. But here am I. Drinking rosé with the soccer moms and spinning away the muffin tops on Monday mornings. 

On most days, that’s just fine. I have time to paint walls, check in on my mom, make sure the college kid has filled out the right forms for next year’s dorm assignments, attend IEP meetings, talk with the lawyer about the guardianship papers, and arrange appointments with a contractor who has to fix the hole in the foundation by the garage. 

Other days, I get impatient with my situation. Freelancers don’t get the choice assignments or get paid very well. I miss teaching college classes, even six years later; though I don’t miss grading papers, which always sucked. I miss the identity of a full time job. 

As a neurotic progressive, I also feel guilty. Others don’t have the option to have a flexible job. I’m able to support my kids, both the special ed and the typical one, so they’re two steps ahead of kids who don’t have a parent like me. Which is totally unfair. In a world that is falling apart, I’m staring at Benjamin Moore paint colors so long that I have actual opinions on Grey Owl grey versus Metropolitan grey. I should be out there in the thick of things, making changes, instead of looking at Pinterest boards. 

I handle the guilt by writing. Writing is a source of guilt, too, because writing is becoming more and more of a rich person’s game; there are fewer and fewer traditional journalism jobs. But it is an effective soap box. I also join local political organizations and progressive parents groups. 

There is a growing parental political movement happening. Parents — okay, mostly women — are showing up at board of ed meetings and state house protests. They’re forming letter writing committees. They’re organizing fundraisers for political candidates. Not all of them are progressive, of course. One group of parents in New Jersey just pushed back against a new vaccination law. Other groups are too focused on changes in our own privileged town, and aren’t advocating for all kids. But there are other parent groups that line up more with my political leanings. 

This situation isn’t getting a lot of attention from the press, because most journalists have full time jobs in the cities. Even the education reporters aren’t showing up to Board of Ed meetings. I am. And so, weirdly enough, being a stay at home parent gives me a professional advantage. Life is funny that way. 

So, on this greige day, I’m working and not working at the same time. At noon, I’ve got a date with Lauren at the hair salon who will make my hair a more uniform red and give me a good Jersey blowout. And we’ll talk. She’ll tell me about her mixed race family and her husband’s contracting hustles. We’ll talk about her middle school son and his struggles in school. I’ll walk out of the salon with sleek red hair and some fodder for half a dozen articles. 

At some point, I’ll figure out how to make more money from all this working and not working, but that’s for another day. 

The Oldest Thing in My House #1

Picking up a comment thread in the last post, I thought I would find the oldest things in my house. (I’m waiting around for edits on a draft and don’t feel like starting anything new until next week. It’s the Gig Worker’s prerogative.) We’ll do our own Antique Roadshow here at Apt. 11D for a couple of days.

A couple of weeks ago, I unpacked my grandmother’s old sewing machine from its box in the basement and decided to display it somewhere in the house. It’s kinda cool. Check out the beautiful scroll work.

I actually had no idea how old it was until a few minutes ago. It’s from the 1940s, which means it’s probably not the oldest thing in my house, but it’s still cool.

My grandmother used it, until she died about fifteen years ago. In fact, I used it ten years ago for some project or another. It still works great.

More to come.