Lab Experiments (Plague, Day 58, May 2, 2020)

First, some blog business… Regular commenter, Doug, had a couple of operations this week for an appendectomy. When he comes back, wish him well.

My area of the New Jersey was hit very hard by the virus. I started social distancing about a week before most of you. As you can see from the ticker in the title, virus preparation and protection has been my life for 58 days.

It’s getting old.

Steve and I have been pushing the envelope more and more. We’re getting take-out food once a week now. We took Ian to the supermarket yesterday, because he needed an outing very, very badly. We’re considering letting the bi-monthly housecleaner into the house again (we’ve never stopped paying her).

We’re going to take advantage of the state park openings for a long hike tomorrow. I mean, we’ll use some common sense. We’re going early in the morning, taking masks, avoiding places that we suspect will be crowded. But we’re ready to venture past a one mile radius of our house.

And what will happen in two weeks? Will the infection rate go up again? Will we feel comfortable visiting my parents, if we start engaging in more dangerous behavior? Nobody knows. We’re all lab rats.

The expansion of our backyard garden is happening today. Steve went to the local landscaping joint to get more plants. But I’m not feeling as antsy about setting up our backyard reserves as I did a couple of weeks ago. Even with the warnings about the meat supply, I’m not seeing it. Our trip to the supermarket yesterday featured overflowing meat cases and vegetable bins. Still, the garden is going in and will be managed by Jonah as one of his summer jobs.

Other things are going back to normal, too. I took a break from paid writing gigs for about six weeks, because there was only about two or three education stories to tell, which were covered adequately by staff writers. Instead, I put all my extra energy into selling vintage books, dealing with Ian’s school needs, and managing the massive extra work at home.

That’s starting to switch back to normal. I have a juicy writing assignment from my favorite magazine on deck. Home chores are getting less attention. Books are going back to a weekend job.

As state officials slowly take steps to open the economy, Steve and I are slowly considering how we’ll slowly open up our lives. How much risk are we willing to assume?

And also, how much of our socially distant lives do we want to take with us into the future? Do we want to continue to eat more at home? Probably. Do we want to have fewer social obligations? Probably. Do we want to continue limiting our spending? Probably. Do we want to be less dependent on state services, like education, and other outside organizations? Probably. In the coming weeks, we will have to decide where we are going to draw the lines.

The Latest Gossip on Schools (Plague, Day 56, April 29, 2020)

Will schools open? When? Will colleges open up in the fall? I don’t know. But here’s the latest gossip.

The Early-Opener governors are starting to talk about opening schools, because it’s clear that that the entire economy depends on schools to act as childcare for working parents. No schools, no workers.

Side note: It’s really inefficient to have teachers act as child minders. Do we really need a specially certified and compensated, college educated person to keep kids safe outside the house? If teachers only teach for half the day, and the other half of the day, they’re really doing child care — couldn’t we split up those jobs between two different people — babysitters and educators?

The teachers’ unions are fighting going back into the classroom. Many of their members are in the 60s, so those concerns aren’t crazy. Kids might not get super sick, but they could certainly infect the adults in the building.

Of course, it isn’t going to be possible to keep everyone from getting sick forever. At some point, adults will have to go back to work. It’s hard to imagine the impact on kids, if their schools stay closed for another year.

I’ve been predicting major hits to public education since the beginning of this crisis. It could happen in different ways:

  • State budgets are going to be destroyed. They’re not going to be able to fund pensions, nevermind maintain their basic expenses. Teachers may be laid off.
  • Parents are starting to get really annoyed. Taxpayers are getting annoyed. If businesses in Open States don’t have child care for their workers, they’re going to get annoyed. A fight between teachers and everyone won’t end well.
  • For the past two months, parents and children have been told that they can learn just fine on the Internet. Some like it. Some have found new outlets to learn. A future of closed or semi-open schools won’t be attractive, so maybe they’ll stay at home or find new educational outlets. Public schools will remain for lower income and special ed kids.
  • Schools are bracing themselves for having to provide compensatory education for lots of kids. Paying for the teachers, buying air conditioners, maintaining the buildings over the summer is going to be super, super expensive. If the federal government doesn’t bail out schools, there will be big problems.

Higher ed has many of those same concerns, but are more dependent on parental preferences and have even shakier finances. I think 10 percent of all colleges will close this year. Even if colleges open their doors in September, college life will be so constrained that affluent students are going to skip it for a semester. Other students may have to skip forever, because of constrained family finances.

The poor adjuncts that teach the majority of classes in colleges are going to be totally screwed. They’re all going to be fired and won’t even get unemployment, because the colleges consider them to be part-time temporary workers.

I want to end on a positive note before I run out to Home Depot for gardening supplies. (I’ll add links to this post later.) I think parents — well, at least the super motivated parents — are getting better at managing their family’s needs. We are.

The priority has been stabilizing the stress levels of Ian, who was struggling with the removal of all routine and structure. School left his life, and we filled the vacuum. Now, meals happen at 7, 12, and 7. Yoga at 11:30. He takes a solitary walk at 2:30. He and Steve read together at 4:30. He has Sylvan at 6. It’s rigid, for sure, but he likes it.

Next, we’re going to focus on his academic needs. I saw an webinar today, where an education expert said that every kid should be getting 1/2 hour of math, 1/2 hour of writing, and 1/2 hour of reading every day. So, I’m checking with his teachers to see if that’s happening. If not, we’ll do it at home or with a tutor.

Getting parents involved with their children’s education is a good thing. Having people think creatively about providing services, like education, is a good thing. Innovations only happen during periods of economy crisis, so I think we’re going to start seeing major (and good) changes soon.

Little World, Larger World (Plague, Day 55, April 28, 2020)

This morning, I wandered down to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Without the pressure to get Ian on his 7am school bus or to keep Steve company before his long commute into Manhattan, I was in the kitchen a full hour later than back in the old times.

I flipped on the news, noted the new death count on CNN, and then went for the morning walk to appreciate the first sunny day in a week and to listen to an episode of The Daily on the state of virus testing.

We had a tough weekend trying to help Ian get a handle of his OCD tics (if we say A, he says B in a really annoying way), and in the process made the situation worse. With the return of “school” and our new routines yesterday, he’s chilled out and tic-free. We’re thinking about adopting a kitten to help him manage stress better.

But Ian’s tics are the extent of the drama here. I’ve learned how to manage the massive food requirements of my family. (I made a truly awesome shepherds pie last night out of leftover mashed potatoes, leftover sausage and ham, cabbage, carrots, and peas.) We’ve learned how to shop, organize, and clean during our Friday trip to the supermarket. We’re venturing out for long driving trips on the weekend. College and jobs are chugging along just fine, and even Ian’s school is slowly working out.

It is truly amazing how the day-to-day lives of the entire planet changed over night.

It’s tempting to zip myself into the lovely tent of family harmony. Things are fine here, so why come out? Why bother looking at CNN, where the only news is the latest dumb thing that our president said? Numbed by numbered, even the death count has lost its sting.

But things aren’t so great out there. The unemployment rates are Great Depression levels. We could start to see food shortages at the supermarket soon. Parents with young children and jobs are exhausted. Some children are learning on zoom classes; others are not. And, yes, some people are still getting sick and dying, and it’s not a great way to check out.

For those of us who are lucky enough to have safe, warm tents, it’s really hard to unzip those canvas cocoons and check out the woods. Social distancing has lead to a certain kind of social and political isolation. How many people have stopped watching the news in the past couple of weeks?

If we had a different president, he could be helping us to see that big picture and build connections between the haves and the have-nots in this new world. He would be preparing us all for the sacrifices that will be necessary in the future.

Every evening, our president rambles on national television. It’s highly cringe-y watching him personally take credit for the old economy and blame everyone else for the virus, It would be nice if instead of making a “me, me, me” speech, he said something along the lines of “we, we, we.” It’s hard to imagine a worse president than the one we have right now.

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For the first time in weeks, I didn’t work over the weekend. I need the morning to catch up and deal with the most pressing issues, so just some links now. I’ll be back with a longer blog post in the afternoon.

How the pandemic will change retail stores.

How the pandemic will change higher education.

Homeschooling or Virtual Education or School Shutdown or whatever you want to call it is working for some kids and families, but not for others.

When will you feel comfortable going back to the theater?

In praise of pessimism.

Are some states opening up too soon?

Rebooting Family Life, Newsletter Excerpt, (Plague, Day 51, April 24, 2020)

More in the latest newsletter here, Subscribe here.

Ten years in the future, when I think about this time of our lives, week six of the society shutdown will always be remembered as the time when I stopped waiting for a return to normal and began rebuilding our lives. 

One of the many truths that has been revealed, as this pandemic uprooted society and government, is that schools are more than a place for educating children. For poorer families, schools are where children can find food and a respite from a tumultuous home life. For working class families, they’re a place to mind the children during work hours and to provide hope for a better future. For families with special needs kids, they’re a relief value on unimaginable caretaking responsibilities. 

And for middle class suburbanites, schools are places that organizes their lives. Parents meet their life-long friends on the school pick-up lines and PTA bake sales. Children are occupied six days a week with school, sports, homework, projects, and school chums. No weekend soccer match or neighborhood happy hour is complete without gossip about particular teachers or humble brags about a child’s prowess on a science class. There is always another short term goal to jump through, from gaining entrance for a child in a specialized gifted program in Kindergarten to college applications in high school. For many families, the local public school is the center of their lives for over twenty years. 

So, when the schools shutdown, even in superstar districts that have continued offering zoom classes and homework, it completely disrupted family lives across the country. With so many hours spent in a school building, toiling on school projects, participating in after school activities provided by the school, and socializing around school, parents gave up ownership of their children long ago. 

In December, I wrote an essay for this newsletter about how much schools have dominated our lives and how I wished I had greater control over raising my kids. Ha. Well, now here’s my chance. 

Back in my former life as a college professor, I used to teach political theory every semester. I marched students through philosophy of Plato and Aristotle ending up with some exhaustion three months later with the speeches of Martin Luther King. Many political philosophers wondered how people would behave without the structure of government or society — a tabula rasa, a blank slate. For some like Hobbes and Burke, society would fall apart without a strong government and strict rules of societal rules. Others, like Locke, thought people would mostly behave and keep to themselves on their farms. 

Thanks to the effectiveness of social distancing, our government and healthcare systems haven’t collapsed. Society has continued orderly processes and norms. My kids still log onto the computers daily to access teachers and professors. Yet, things are much looser without the school panopticon

I wanted more creative input into the raising of my family. Now, I’ve got my tabula rasa. What am I going to do about it? 

Honestly, I’m not sure. My nearly 21-year old needs freedom from hurdle-jumping and pressure to perform, so we’re giving him free time and access to opportunities to pursue hobbies and side interests. He needs to be treated as an equal and solidify his adulthood. My younger kid needs time to tackle his weaknesses – social skills and OCD – and structure and information, which he craves. 

With older kids, my parenting chores are relatively light. At this point, it’s more about adding icing on the cake. I have to say that I am very proud of my little cakes. They have handled this disruption without drama, which has made home confinement relatively easy.

Even with fewer parenting chores, our lives have been turned upside down. We’re stumbling through these strange times and making new routines. There’s my morning walk, lunch-time yoga, and Friday’s trip to the supermarket to fill the freezer and pantry. Soon, we’ll set up a backyard garden to supplement the pantry. 

Without school, college, work, gym classes, church, family birthday parties — the very stuff that grounded us just six weeks ago — who are we?

The new family is slowly unfolding here. Each of us is pursuing different projects and passions, and then coming together during meals and joint exercise time to debrief each other about progress. I’m so lucky to be closeted up with these smart, quirky, creative people. My favorite people on the planet are under my roof. I very much like our emerging family. 

Be well! 


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Norham Castle, Sunrise c.1845 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

The status quo — no school and no child care — is not sustainable for most families, who are trying to work two jobs at the same time as home schooling.

We’re exploring various options at Outschool.

Loved this essay by a restaurant owner in New York City.

State colleges are in big time trouble. So are private ones; Johns Hopkins is laying off workers. Higher ed isn’t going to be the same in September.

It’s Turner’s birthday.

This virus was roaming around NYC and San Francisco for longer than we thought.

Megan McArdle is talking about the zero gallon oil prices and the uncertainty of these times. Hope her dad is feeling better.

Raw Clay (Plague, Day 50, April 22, 2020)

Midway through week six of virtual education, I finally accepted that it was never going to happen for Ian. Yes, it took me a long time to stop bashing my head against the wall, but tweets from other parents talking about zoom classes kept my hopes alive.

As I ranted and railed, Ian mourned. He loved school. He’s on the highest honor roll for a reason. Watching his sadness just made me more angry.

Anyway, I’ve given up the anger and false hopes and am making my own plans.

My first step is shoring up the biggest problem. He has no structure or routines in his day. He pretty much just sits in his bedroom all day waiting for assignments to trickle into Google Classroom and listening to music. We need to break up that time with various goalposts of activities that always happen at certain times.

Today, we put up our first goalpost. At 11:00 am, we’re going to do yoga as a family (not Jonah though). None of us are regular yoga people, but Ian could use it as a stress reliever, and Steve can’t touch his toes. We found a video with a dude giving beginning lessons. Then lunch. Then Ian can do his waiting around and music listening for a while. 4:00 is becoming the time when we take him out for a walk.

That’s all so far. Not that impressive yet, I know. But I think the plan is to do this gradually. Every day or two, I’ll institute a new policy/program that provides structure, information, exercise, or a (virtual) social opportunity.

To figure out my next steps, I’ll lean into my academic background and take a look at some old kooks — the 1800’s educational utopian writers. I’ll share as I go along.

As we’re trying to take care of Ian, we have a different plan for Jonah. He has plenty of school, which moved from lecture hall to the laptop without a blip. He needs something to do this summer, but it can’t be too stressful. Like all Gen Z kids, he’s already had waayyyy too much.

The remedy for too much stress will be career exploration classes for Jonah. I’ve been chatting with the community college about opportunities for him this summer. Jonah has always been interested in drafting classes, so he’ll take autocad. Maybe something with Homeland Security or Python Programming. No worries about grades or credits.

How am I going to work, while I take a stronger control of my family? I have no idea.