Team Sports and Birthdays in the Time of COVID-19

Water welled up in Ella’s eyes, but it had not yet formed tears. The water-works came soon after I slid in next to her in the van. She had gone outside to take refuge from a conversation about why she wouldn’t try out for the volleyball team at her new school. At 13, Ella was unprepared to defend herself against her uncle’s persistent advice. However, it wasn’t he who had triggered the tears; rather, it was some past argument with her mother when she had quit the team at her former school the previous year.

It was Saturday football extravaganza at my niece’s house where I’ve been staying temporarily. Everyone had gathered for wings and pizza and hours of non-stop college games in a relatively virus-free environment. When only a rerun of Disney’s animated Mulan could cheer Ella up, I gladly retreated to a football-free zone to watch a movie with my granddaughter.

Ella and I cuddled up on the couch while I got constant texts from my grandnephew about how my team was faring—we had a bet and I lost.  Then, the happy birthday messages began to arrive via Messenger and WhatsApp from Cambodia and China. The conclusion of my 78th year had already begun halfway around the world, 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time. I eyed the box containing my birthday present from my eldest daughter and wondered if I could open it on Cambodian time rather than wait until morning.  In the meantime, Ella went home. She would be back with her parents on Sunday to celebrate my birthday over steaks and Champagne.

I pulled open the box and took out a familiar Amazon gift bag. My hands hovered over the bow, but I did not untie the ribbon. Instead, knowing how limited my birthday options would be during the pandemic, I decided I needed every COVID-safe sweet surprise that I could garner on the big day.

Friends on Facebook, where I have an account that I seldom use, were notified, and so there were lots of posted greetings; my email inbox, too, was beginning to fill up with virtual cards and wishes. European friends were checking in. My siblings promised to sing to me via Zoom later in the day.

I brought the morning coffee down to my bedroom to enjoy in the darkness and quiet of the new day. After my morning ritual meditation, I opened my iPhone to read the day’s New York Times headlines, but they were as depressing as ever. So I decided that it would be a news-free day, and I opened a YouTube video sent from my Swiss friend instead. It was the happiest version of “Happy Birthday” that I have ever heard. I played it several times.

I had been despondent over the lack of things I could do and the people I could see on my special day…but in the end, just being lucky enough to start a new year at my age fortified with lots of virtual wishes from friends and family around the world was pretty darn good. Life has changed with the pandemic, but love has not.

Shock/Not Shocked

Shock

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I heard a community member come before the school board and criticize the common-core curriculum, contemporary academic texts, and liberal teachers. I know about the attacks on so-called liberal academics—my colleagues and I often joked about being disappointed that we never made the conservative hit list of professors.  What shocked me was the unshakable belief on the part of some in our community that teaching truth, rather than information designed to support a particular world-view, has undermined patriotism and weakened America.

I understand the fear that, without taking pride in country, our young people and our institutions are at risk of negative influences. But pride based on misinformation is not sustainable pride, not productive pride, not healthy pride. To apply an old philosophical syllogism: All humans err; all Americans are human; therefore, all Americans err. Its simple logic. Why do we need a forgiving G-d if we do not make mistakes?  America has made its share of mistakes. We can’t know what America has done to overcome its past errors if we hide our mistakes, rather than own them.

To its credit, America has resolved and struggled to correct those errors. That is what we should be proud of; that is what will inform our children’s patriotism.

Confessions of a Former News Junkie

I’m certain that I am not the only person formerly addicted to watching the news, intensely interested in happenings around the world and at home. I woke up to NPR, its morning news preparing me for a day at the office and in the classroom. I was armed with facts about current events to discuss with students and colleagues. I kept abreast of the challenges facing our soldiers abroad and what their circumstances might mean for family members with whom I had to interact. I could talk informatively with my foreign students, and I kept up with events in countries in which I had made friends over years of travel and working for the UN.

I started my evening unwinding with a glass of wine while watching the various 5:00 p.m. cable news programs and continued through dinner right up to 10:00 p.m., when I switched to reading a good spy novel or mystery to clear my head and get me ready for a night’s sleep.

Did my passion for news occasionally result in terrible stress and anxiety? Yes, of course it did: troops invading Iraq, bombings in Paris, beheadings in the Middle East, deforestation, wildfires, tsunamis, and other assorted natural and man-made catastrophes. But my passion also helped to inform me about who needed help or donations, who needed a letter of concern, who needed a kind word.

The news informed my activism, my energy, and my humanity. It was worth some sleepless nights, fraught with fears of helplessness.

And then COVID-19 hit and, with it, nightly briefings from the White House. It was too much. I had used up the few Xanax I had stashed away for emergencies. I had given up wine at the onset of arthritis. I did not have the strength to endure watching and listening to the president, and then watching and listening to the talking news heads regurgitate the president’s outrageous performance. Even when that charade finally ended, cable news had so devolved into hyperbole and bias that it even cast doubt on my reliable NPR and BBC reports. I still trusted them, but the content was simply too disturbing to absorb. I was done! I had long ago abandoned social media; now I have quit TV news as well.

In my email inbox, I still get the daily New York Times headlines, which I quickly peruse every morning to make sure the planet is still spinning on its axis. Otherwise, I rely on friends around the world to send me text messages about anything important.

With the pandemic, I gave up binge and recreational shopping. That has been great for my wallet. Now I have given up binge and recreational news watching. That has been great for my mental health.

As insane and chaotic as the world was before Trump, nothing prepared me for this onslaught of crazy that has come with his presidency—a world where one is compelled to hunker down and hide.

Green Not: Life on a School Board In the Era of COVID-19

My county’s COVID-19 re-entry plan includes following the state’s color code system. Green on the state’s COVID map means that no new cases or a minimal amount of transmissions have been recorded.  The county was yellow when we first let students back in school two weeks ago on a blended model which splits class size in half, each half going to school two days per week and remote learning for two days per week; it turned green last week, amidst lots of celebrating. Then reality struck. Perhaps we met the criteria for code green a few days ago, but green is not a predictor of what’s coming down the virus pipeline.

So here we are, unable to find enough substitutes or achieve a fast enough turn-around time for test results, in a community divided over how to proceed. Low on the learning curve, we can only hope that we can meet both of those challenges, encourage—if not mandate—that anyone sick enough to be tested needs to quarantine regardless of whether or not they have already received test results. Our absentee policies for students and staff allow for this response without consequences.

Texts from the superintendent:

“FYI- We are having to quarantine another group of students and staff at HEMS due to two students testing positive. These students are in a different cohort than the one positive earlier this week. So, with that said, this is a new issue that we don’t believe was contracted because of school. In this situation, we have to quarantine over 100 students and 14 staff members. We can’t get enough subs to cover classes here and in the rest of the district. Therefore, I am closing HEMS to face-to-face instruction, and all instruction will move to remote or virtual through October 8th. Staff that don’t need to quarantine will still report to the school during this time. This also ensures that we can assist with food service and meals. Press release is going out soon. Justin, director of middle schools, was just interviewed by the local TV station. You will probably see something soon.”

“FYI- Unfortunately, this is not a repeat message . . . We are having to quarantine another group of students and staff at Milton Middle School due to two (siblings) students testing positive. Therefore, I am closing Milton Middle for face-to-face instruction, and all instruction will move to remote or virtual through a date to be determined by the health department. Staff that don’t need to quarantine will still report to the school during this time. We believe that Huntington Middle School will have some students who will need to quarantine too, as the Milton student is a football player and the team played HMS on Monday. We are still working through everything. I will keep you posted.”

My school board voted to keep a blended model for the semester despite the governor’s metrics, in which I have little confidence. Solution? In this fluid situation, there are few options other than vigilance, patience, and flexibility.

White Pride: A House Divided Cannot Stand

No one wants to feel invisible, unworthy, unappreciated and, worse, unheard. Certainly, no politician wants to exile potential voters by castigating them as deplorable. Yet the liberal establishment has done this to a swath of white Americans who are not racist, just feeling ostracized and deprived of their place in this society. Not a supreme place but a rightful place. A place that recognizes them and their struggles. A place that acknowledges past achievements but does not levy blame on current generations for past mistakes.

I may not sympathize with those who believe that they have been sacrificed on the altar of diversity, equity, and political correctness. I may not sympathize with those who can’t understand that a society like ours cannot thrive in a zero-sum environment. We have to find a way for everyone to win enough and not to lose more than a fair share. Otherwise, we are at the mercy of social Darwinism, the law of the jungle, the survival of the luckiest—but not necessarily the fittest!

However, I can empathize. Just as, to name a few, Hispanics, Muslims, Jews, Asians, Blacks, women, gay, and transgender people have pushed back against oppression to claim their identity and value, so too have many  who identify as white Americans. I get it, even if I don’t personally subscribe to identity politics, it is the reality of today’s culture wars.  It underpins our divisions and fractures our unity.

Don’t scoff at their feelings; don’t castigate them for their pain. Feelings are real and have real consequences on behavior. Instead, validate the right of all to be proud and part of this nation, build bridges of understanding, and recognize everyone’s contributions.

A house divided cannot stand.

School Re-entry in the Time of COVID-19

The emails have diminished in intensity and in number. Some stalwart citizens are sure that we School Board members have put a gag order on the staff and faculty. In addition, there are staff members who are ginning up their social media followers with claims of COVID related problems but not coming to their union, administration, or the board with their complaints.

Perfect is not an option, and each of our alternative plans comes with its own set of serious consequences—financial, emotional, and educational. Trying to weigh one against another is a herculean task beyond the ability of mere mortals. We do the best we can, pray a lot, and try not to take the attacks on our personages personally! Everyone is at the edge of his or her tether, and few find that kindness is at the bottom of their spiritual well … just sludge and meanness.

Aside from those who have politicized the pandemic for their own agenda, I do believe that the majority of folks are genuinely trying to weigh the same few options and their consequences to the children, their families, and the community that the school board is.

Patience is the watchword. Wear your masks, social distance, and be kind.

Karma

“Missus, can you come down, please?” Abram called from the basement, where he was tiling what would be my new walk-in shower. I walked slowly down the stairs, still partially hobbled by a freak painful injury to my sacroiliac. 

The shower was magnificent: a white marble-looking tile with a pretty strip of blue glass. The floor, made of a mottled rich blue ceramic tile, was partially finished. A strip about 21 inches wide by 56 inches long remained empty, right at the doorway into the bathroom.

“Perfect!” I exclaimed, delighted with his progress and the effect. “So what’s the problem? I love it.”

Abram’s normally cheerful face was drawn and sad, his voice almost a whisper. “The rest of the tile is broken. Two and a half boxes, all broken.”

I stomped out to the area where the boxes of my special order Angela Harris Dunmore Blu 8×8 Ceramic Floor Tile were sitting open. Cracked, jagged pieces of tile were everywhere. Frig! It would take weeks to get the 21 replacement tiles needed to complete the floor. We didn’t have 21 days.

I took Abram’s hand and led him back to the bathroom. “No problem,” I said in my most cheerful voice. “We will buy some local tile that matches the shower tile and pretend that we designed it this way. It is a bathroom. It will work.”

“Oh missus, it is up to you. I do what you want.”

I assured him, “This is what I want.”

Abram left for the day, taking with him a large, handsome recliner I had brought from West Virginia but no longer wanted for the new apartment. He was thrilled. He sent a photo of it to his wife. She was thrilled, and I was delighted to get it out of the way.

My son-in-law came downstairs. “That will look dumb,” he proclaimed upon hearing my solution.  

“It’s only a bathroom. It’s okay.”

“But you’ve put so much effort into choosing everything to be just as you imagined it . . . now that’s ruined.”

At this point in the story, I must interject some context. I was barely up from a week spent flat on my back, unable to drive, and hardly coping with the pain. Whether there was enough tile was completely insignificant. I simply could not worry about the horror of Trump being re-elected, much less tile.

The next morning, I arrived early, before Abram, from my niece’s home, where I’m staying during the renovation. I went down to the boxes of broken tile, hoping to find enough pieces to finish the floor with half tiles. Instead, I found in the rubble the exact number—21—of full tiles needed to complete the job!

When Abram arrived, he was astounded and relieved. He is an artisan, after all, and was heartbroken that the job would be compromised. Before he returned to the bathroom and his tiling, he pulled out his cell phone and showed me a photo of my former recliner. Two small children sat cuddled together in the big chair, large smiles across their faces. That’s when I knew what had transpired between the previous night and the following morning: Karma.

‘School Boards in the Time of COVID-19 con’t.

Several people emailed, “You are idiots.”

Many wrote, “I will vote you out of office at my first possible opportunity.”

And the one I took most offense to…”You are child haters.”

These emails came on the heels of the school boards reversal of our five-day re-entry plan for the fall 2020 school year and the rejection of the Governor’s state color code for Covid-19 decisions.

I found it interesting that the “anti-return to normal school schedules” emails read more like public health documents, where as those opposed to any modification of the five-day school week were angry and threatening with no attempt to justify their position beyond “my child needs to be in school.”  Of course, had the school board stuck to its earlier decision the anti-return folks might have been as vitriolic.

We choose the blended school option, sending kid’s with the last names starting with A through M go Mondays and Tuesdays, N-Z go Thursdays and Fridays, Wednesdays and Saturdays are for cleaning.  Since a quarter to a third of our students are virtual, that means that all classrooms will have only 10-12 students at any given time. Teachers can manage social distancing, enforce mask wearing, and teach consistent groups of students. Students will have the same teachers and classmates, have the ability to interact socially at least two days per week and will know their schedules for the entire fall semester.

Getting to green. The Code Green is a minimum of two weeks of no new cases of COVID-19 and will allow, if approved by the superintendent, students to return to school for four to five days per week. Green will not happen if the community doesn’t participate fully in reducing the spread of the virus. Parents and students alike have to take the responsibility for following the guidelines for mitigating the virus.  They have to wear masks correctly, social distance, avoid large gatherings, and stay away from visiting virus hot spots.

Ultimately, nature is in charge, but we don’t have to throw up our hands and do nothing! We can fight the virus, we can support policies that put human life first, and we can use our inestimable talents to mitigate the educational and economic consequences of the pandemic.

I don’t want to lose a generation or more of children to the lack of good education. I don’t want to exposed children to unsafe home environments. I want us to get to green, stay there and move forward.

This virus will be vanquished and we need a strong school district ready when it does.

Imelda Marcos—Not!

More than a quarter century ago, I teased my good friend, Sister Libby, about her ugly nun shoes. Indignant, she claimed that she wore orthotics because she had bad feet. At the time, I walked around in medium-high heels, leaning decidedly towards the pointy-toed kind. High heels gave way to fashionable flats and wide sneakers. The flats disappeared quickly, as my hammerhead toes rebelled against being squeezed into short toe boxes. Then I tore an Achilles tendon jumping on a trampoline—do not jump on a trampoline when you are close to seventy years of age!  After dragging around a walking cast for six months, I ended up wearing open-heeled shoes for the next three years.

When I no longer needed backless shoes, I discovered Merrel footwear and booties—those cute little half-boot, low-heeled shoes. I scoured shoe departments and online shoe sales, amassing a goodly number of sneakers and booties—more sneakers and booties then I could wear out in two lifetimes. Some of my shoes still have the price stickers attached and have never been out of their boxes.

I viewed my shoe racks with great satisfaction and a smidgeon of buyer’s remorse. I had a lot of shoes. In the end, heredity struck. My family’s notoriously ugly feet and hammerhead, overlapping toes— exacerbated by arthritis—ended all hopes of normal shoe wearing. It was ugly nun shoes for me, along with pricey orthotics and soft slippers.

Although I have baskets of shoes waiting to go to Goodwill, I am no Imelda Marcos, who—as Time magazine reported—left behind 1,060 pairs of shoes when she fled Malacañang Palace in the Philippines. I do, however, owe Sister Libby an apology.

Recycled Love

Gros calins et plein de bisous (big hugs and lots of kisses) was the saying on the card, along with written hopes that I was surviving my Covid-19 confinement. On the front of the card was a fuzzy white teddy bear—very cute. My friend Beatrice had sent it from France, and it cheered me up to get it. 

Shortly thereafter, my thirteen-year-old granddaughter came downstairs to my apartment in tears. Ella is a big girl, a good head taller than her ever-shrinking grandmother. Needless to say, it is awkward to try to hug her, but she hung on to me for at least ten minutes. Ten minutes is a long time for a teenager to hug anyone. She was having a panic attack. No wonder, given the state of affairs in the country, our imminent move out of state, her bat mitzvah just two weeks away, and her best friend’s upcoming surgery. Ella was a mess.

I suggested that it would make her feel better, and be a nice thing to do for Ava, if she made her friend a speedy recovery card before the mailman made his daily delivery.

“I don’t have a card,” she sniffed. “I think I have a solution for that,” I said, as I tried to extricate myself from her grip. “How about this?” I asked, holding up my adorable fuzzy bear card. Ella knitted her eyebrows together, not quite sure what to do with it, given Beatrice’s French message inside. “Easy peasy,” I said, tearing the card into two parts and handing her the fuzzy bear section, which was blank on the other side. I also gave her a stamped blank envelope and asked if she had colored pencils for writing her message. In the blink of an eye, she was gone—gone and smiling.

I emailed Beatrice to confess that I had recycled her card. Her reply came quickly. “Excellent! Will send you another one; the confinement is not over!”