Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Plague, Day 23, March 26, 2020)

Today was a tough one.

My Uncle Naren passed away last night. He was in his late 80s and never fully recovered from a heart attack last year, so his time was up. We were ready for that, as much as anybody could prepare for a loved one moving on. My family is having a super tough time with how he passed.

My uncle went into the hospital about ten days ago, when he was having trouble swallowing. To limit the spread of the virus, the hospital wouldn’t let anyone visit him. He was by himself that whole time. My aunt would wait in the lobby of the hospital all day hoping that someone would let her upstairs to hold his hand.

Last night, my aunt left the hospital lobby at 11:00 in the evening, but soon got a call from the hospital saying it was time. She should come now. My cousin Jason was able to be there, too, but his brother is holed up in an apartment in New York City, the pestilence capital of America, and his sister is in by herself in another hospital in Miami, three hours away from her family, getting chemo for lymphoma.

Ordinarily, my brother, sister, and parents would be on a plane right now to Florida. Our families were incredibly close growing up. My cousins are more like siblings to me. Instead, we’re all grieving alone. My aunt, who is having more and more trouble remembering things, needs support. But with germs flying around, she’s going to have to figure out how to pay the bills on her own for a while.

And now Ian has a small fever. It triggered a small seizure this morning, which he tried to cover up. He confessed. when we spotted him bringing the vomit covered towel to the laundry room.

I just drove around to some stores looking for a better thermometer, but there’s none to be had. The woman at CVS laughed at me and said, “we haven’t had one of those for weeks.” She was so damn cheerful about it. Fuck her.

Tomorrow, we’re going to start the testing process. The pediatrician will swab his throat in the car in the parking lot. If it comes back negative for strep and the flu, then they will give a prescription for a coronavirus test at the drive thru tent at the local hospital.

I’m about to change into cleaning clothes that won’t be ruined by bleach. I want to scour the kitchen counter and bathroom. If Ian is really sick, then I’m shutting the door on the barn when the horses have already escaped. But I feel like I need to do something.

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.

When schools close or go online, what happens to students with disabilities? (Plague, Day 19, March 22, 2020)

I’m a parent of a high school student with high functioning autism and epilepsy. As schools all around the country announce shutdowns and move towards online education, kids like mine are going to suffer the most.

The move to online education, which has been largely driven by the imperative to maintain the 180-day minimum without taxing already stretched budgets or running afoul of teachers’ contracts, will be difficult to manage. To date, nearly 42 million students. have already been impacted. Will teachers and administrators manage to create an entire system of online K-12 education from scratch in a handful of days? Do teachers have the technological skills, equipment, or experience to implement those plans? Do families have enough computers for themselves and all their children? The questions are endless.

We’re in the midst of a huge educational experiment and really have no way of knowing how it will work out.  There are even more problems and questions around online special education.  

More here.

Plague, 16, March 19, 2020

10am — Lots of info/tips/suggestions:

1. As a photographer, a friend’s business is shutdown. Luckily, her husband’s job is solid, so they’re not in trouble. She is offering a free online photography class next week for people in the community. I love the idea of freely sharing skills in this crisis.

2. On the town Facebook pages, there’s a lot of confusion about whether or not people are allowed to walk outside, especially since town parks, fields, and tracks are closed. Getting outside for a walk is extremely important…
It’s best to have a super strong immune system BEFORE we get sick. So, we should be quitting smoking, hiking, running, eating well. More than ever, we should be outside walking.

A daily walk is essential for one’s mental health and surviving social isolation. On my walk yesterday, I saw some neighbors and waved, but they were on the other side of the street. Too far away to spread infection, but close enough for a smile and a wave.

Once we get sick, which will happen, lots of evidence shows that sunlight and fresh air helps.

3. An extremely generous and kind and awesome friend texted me yesterday to see if she could donate $$ to the church food pantry that my dad runs. It feeds 800 families per week, btw. There’s food insecurity everywhere. Here’s what I will tell her:

Wait. The states are passing a bunch of legislation that will deal with food insecurity immediately – millions for food pantries, added SNAP benefits, extended school free lunch programs. Besides dad’s food pantry is run with 80-year volunteers. It might have to shut down. I won’t let my dad go there now.

So, let’s wait to see where the biggest needs are in the coming weeks. It might be food delivery to old age homes. It might be running the food pantries. Money might be need more somewhere else. Pay attention to local social media for alerts for help.

4. Here’s a big need: online mental health support for students who are having huge spikes in anxiety. Young people went into this crisis with pretty crappy anxiety levels. They’re totally losing it right now.

Schools need to immediately learn how to use video conferencing software, like WebEx and Zoom. Like right now. Higher ed profs are using it, but not so much with K-12 teachers. These students need live, online, video mental health conferences with school social workers and psychiatrists.

If we’re going to triage the problem, help should go first to students with diagnosed issues — general anxiety/depression, autism, etc… This help is needed much more than another math worksheet.

Newsletter, Life On the Curve

Life on the Curve, Coronavirus, Part 2
Apt. 11D
3/18/2020

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I first started hearing about Coronavirus in late February, around the time that Ian was admitted to the hospital for a few days from a bad side effect of his epilepsy medicine. In fact, the virus was a common chitchat subject with the health care workers who came in to change his IV tubes and inspect his mouth. I asked them if they were worried, and they would shrug. Handling crises is part of the job. 

On March 3rd, we heard about the first local case. A man in Westchester tested positive. He infected his neighbor who drove him to the hospital. A quick ten minute drive to the hospital puts a man in a ventilator? Ah. Then we learned that before the man got sick, he was all over the tristate area, my backyard. 

That same day, people who pay attention to these things started preparing. And so did I. Over the next ten days, I stocked the pantry with $700 worth of food. I finished articles and closed up every loose end for work. I got my son home from college and yelled at my parents to stay in the house, until they finally listened to me. I disinfected counter tops, door handles, gear shifts, toothbrushes. I washed towels over and over. We got money from the ATM and filled the cars with gas. The home office was set up for two adults to work comfortably. With two kids being home schooled and two adults working in the house full time, I had to stock up on paper and ink at Staples. 

Whew! I was exhausted, but firmly ensconced in a personal bubble by Friday, March 13th. We were ready to stay at home with no contact with outsiders for at least two weeks. But that’s when I had to start writing articles about the education angle of this disaster. I was particularly worried about how kids with disabilities were going to fare with the changes to online education. All weekend, I pumped out words.

I began to worry about my friends on Facebook, who seemed to be entirely unconcerned about the coming disaster. They were on another planet from the Twitter people, so I started posting more there, too. 

While I managed several articles in various stages of completion on Monday, March 16th, we began Day One of the horror that is home schooling. The first few days were rough with issues with technology, unfair expectations on parents, issues about how to work around my kid’s disabilities. With all the pressure that I’ve been under and important messages from editors, let’s just say I was less-than-gracious with teachers who inundated my mailbox with perky chores lists. I will make amends tomorrow. 

I’ve been in such a panic for the past couple of weeks that I haven’t been able to see past the crisis in front me. But this afternoon, I put a pause on the writing efforts. I’ve got something coming out tomorrow and that’s enough. I don’t have to write ALL the articles. I popped in my earbuds and went for a walk around the neighborhood.

For the first time in days, I wasn’t writing in my head as I walked. I just walked and looked around and listened. 

As I listened to The Daily, the podcast for the New York Times, Andrew Cuomo talked about infection curve graphs. By social isolating early, he was hoping that our infection trajectory curves were closer to countries like Singapore, than Italy. 

He also said that we were about 45 days away from things getting really, really bad. In five weeks, all these worries about Ian’s math homework and getting Jonah’s crap out of his off campus housing at Rutgers are going to feel so small. We’re way low on the curve on this crisis. We won’t see the peak for quite a while.

We’re just a plot point between an x and y axis right now. Life in a math equation. 

The trick in all this is to respect the math — don’t be like the idiots hanging out in beaches in Miami and bars in Chicago — but to defy the tyranny of the math at the same time. We have to enjoy life and find beauty in the midst of this war. We must loudly declare, “I will not be a plot point!”  

Now that we’ve overcome the initial panic of preparation and are getting used to the new normal, we’re rebuilding our lives. Later today, I went on a second walk, this time with the boys. We took a two-mile hike through the neighborhood, while kicking an old soccer ball that was slowly falling apart. Dumb, right? We were amused for an hour with a soccer ball that sprung a ever-growing tumor. 

The four of us are eating and drinking and talking together without competition from friends’ beer parties or Kumon math classes or girls’ nights at the pub. 

We are cooking up a storm; tonight we’re popping some individual pizzas on the grill. There’s a glass of wine keeping me company as I write this newsletter. 

There’s no doubt that the next month is going to bring challenges that we can’t even envision right now, but I’m so grateful to have these few weeks to prepare. Prepare not just in terms of meat in the freezer, but prepare with a better understanding of priorities and time to enjoy my family. 

Be well, everyone! 

Plague, Part 14, 3/17/20

I either have a sinus infection or coronavirus. Probably sinus infection, but I’m super grumpy just the same.

Yesterday was the first day of all of us working and learning at home, and it didn’t go so great. Steve and I had too much work to do, so poor Ian had to muddle through a million worksheets on his own. The math ones were easy, but all the rest involved lots of reading comprehension, which isn’t his strong suit. He sat at the computer from 8 until 5 yesterday.

Unused to working like this in a full house, I was snappy and less than productive.

Today, I have to try to finish an op-ed, a newsletter, and write 50 tweets before noon, because I promised Ian that I would help him with all his work today. I really want to be here, documenting events and chatting with y’all, but I have to be a mom, too.

This massive homeschooling experiment has me very steamed up, but that’s the topic for the op-ed.

***

Our entire area is under a state of emergency now. Schools, churches, bars, restaurants, sports fields are all closed. Only 50 people at a time are allowed in a supermarket, but we’ll be fine until Friday when the milk runs out.

We’re trying to keep ourselves amused and healthy. I went out for two walks yesterday. We did a Group FaceTime with my sibling and their families and my parents. FaceTime an oldie today. It’s super important for them.

Jonah finished off his last midterm yesterday, so he’ll spend his spring break with us and not his buddies. He isn’t so happy about that. We have told him to use this time for self exploration to think about long term goals and for self improvement in some way. We asked for a plan today. He isn’t so happy about that, either.

****

Links:

more to come…. updated throughout the day…

***

Had to go to Urgent Care for antibiotics for a sinus infection (really. no fever) and then the pharmacy to get the meds. The meds are in the local supermarket, so I stocked up on the stuff we’re low on — milk, cheese, jalapeños.

It’s the first time that I’ve been in a public place in four days. Shocked at how many health violations I noticed with my new germ glasses. I had to take a shower when I came back.

The supermarket was shockingly crowded with people who didn’t give a fuck. Amazing. They had restocked their shelves, but were still low on eggs, disinfectant, and potatoes.

***

More shopping is happening online now. This time on Amazon:

Plague, Part 13, Update 3/16/20

Adventures in homeschooling and work from home begin. And I’m already extremely pissed off.

First a general update, as of this morning. The numbers of cases are exploding in all the towns in the area, include the town where my folks live.

The governors in NJ, NY, and CT are all working together to shut everything down. This level of regional cooperation between state government is unheard of. And super welcome.

The buzz… NYC is going to get really bad, very soon. Friends in the city are self-isolating for five days and then having family drive in, scoop them up, and then getting the hell out. DeBlasio didn’t shutdown the schools and the bars fast enough.

***

Steve and I are frantically tapping away at our keyboards. Jonah is taking a history midterm. And Ian is doing gym class on the switch with his Ring Fit.

Teachers have sent me super long instructions for homeschooling my kid, and I have flipped out on them.

I am not homeschooling my kid. NOT. I don’t have the credentials. Nobody is paying me. And I have a job of my own to do.

One therapist asked me to sign a form saying I provided him with speech therapy and some links on how to be a speech therapist. Then she asked that I sign a form that I provided him with his state mandated therapy. Fuck that. She’ll have to work in the summer, so he gets his legally mandated hours of therapy. Tough.

****

We’ve been cooking lots of meals at home. Recipes to come.