Wed, June 3, 2020

GrandArmy5-31-20The most common expression I’ve heard over the last month here among my Brooklyn neighbors is “Groundhog Day,” a reference to the movie about a man stuck repeating the same day of his life over and over. Every day was like the one before, at least until this last Memorial Day.

May 25, 2020 began an unforgettable week in American history.

Eight days of peaceful demonstrations, marches, sometimes punctuated by startling violence have spread over more than 130 cities in the country. Here, in my neighborhood, sirens have been wailing, helicopters droning above, caravans of police vans tearing across Brooklyn while the President squawks banana-republic threats for military action against his own citizens. Yes, people gathering to say something as simple as “black lives matter” are being threatened by a President who cherishes his own right to say what he thinks to millions of people more than twenty times a day.

Although it started in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, it lit a fuse here in New York, resurrecting the names of  Eric Garner and Amadou Diallo and a host of other African American men and women who fell victim to police brutality.

On Sunday I attended a family march through Prospect Park to Grand Army Plaza on Sunday. It was a peaceful demonstration on a sunny day, but very close by on Flatbush Avenue near the Barclay Center there were violent struggles between the police and demonstrators.

While we chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “No Peace, No Justice,” I felt the queasy dread of an unkept promise. I used to think we were getting better at this, making progress, heading to a better world, but the ground is receding with a hollow sucking sound. Racism is a virus, we’re all breathing it—some in bigger doses than others—but it’s infused in our culture, ever since Jamestown in 1607, and we can wear any kind of mask we want to convince ourselves we’re immune, it won’t go away. I don’t believe you can cure something like this until you first admit you’re a patient.

black lives

Children don’t begin life with this disease. They start life feeling equal to each other. It’s quite possible to sustain their innocence. Just treat them fairly, encourage them to take turns, don’t play favorites, be just, generous and loving. It’s not hard to encourage such virtues in children.

Yet we don’t seem able to treat adults of color this way.

Why not? What’s so hard about giving health coverage to everyone? Equal justice? A fair living wage? College for everyone who wants it? Those who have a little more can give to those who have less. It’s called “sharing” in preschool. The result is that everybody is happier and nobody is left out.

What’s that? Why can’t the rich be richer? Check this out if you’re curious. There is no zero sum game, here. I believe we are all entitled to live in a vibrant, contented society of healthy educated people without violent streets, citizens living in squalor, and a race war every sixty years. If you agree, spread the news.

 

 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

May6 CHART

I copied a chart from the New York Times this morning. I often do it to get a grip on the bewildering set of statistics that mark this pandemic. It’s a chart comparing Covid cases in New York to cases across the USA.

In my mind’s eye, however, it’s a hiking trail, like the many hikes I’ve taken over the years up the mountains of Maine. The first hike, the New York one, seems on its downhill stage, the descent back home. The Rest of USA hike, on the other hand, shows no such thing. It’s a journey without an apex, of incalculable misery, loss and death still ahead.

On a hike, when the trip uphill gets hard, you coach yourself with assurances. Just a little bit more, and then you’ll be walking downhill. “Chin up, it’s going to get easier!” you whisper and think of the treats at the top. The joy of accomplishment. The M&Ms, a drink of water, a sandwich. You soak in the view, the broad spread of countryside, a vast sky, perhaps the sea in the distance, the giddy delight of an easier return trip.

But here, my little hiking conceit falls apart. There’s no view in a pandemic. These charts don’t show that we’re at the top. They could be small plateaus before an even bigger climb. The notion of a “top” simply means a day or week of the largest number of infections and subsequent deaths and our specialists are saying it’s up, up, up through August of 2020, with potentially 136,000 fatalities by then. As for the downhill trip, well, that’s another fifty-percent of suffering and loss.

It’s important to point out that when our fearless leader and his enablers say we’re in a “new phase,” as he did this week, he’s wrong. The new phase would be to take better care of the US, the 300 million. A new phase would be to do something a leader does. Ease the suffering, express compassion, be pro-active with health and economic initiatives (and by the way, they’ve done it in Germany and South Africa).

First, masks for everybody. Mayor DeBlasio did it at parks this weekend, the federal government should be doing it for a hundred million people. This would help teachers and students go back to school, and enable their parents to go back to work. This will make public transportation safer, workplaces less risky, and social interaction possible again.

Second, folks who have lost jobs need food stamps so they won’t starve, or worry themselves to death. The SNAPS program is already in place. It would also keep grocery stores and supermarkets in business all across the country. Sorry, Mr. President, one check with your name on it is not going to get people through the year.

Third, universal health coverage and guaranteed sick leave. We’re behind all of Europe on that one. If nobody hesitates to see a doctor when they feel sick, they won’t spread the virus with fellow workers and raise the infection rate again. This is how Germany nipped the virus before it spread.

Lastly, we need a national corps of health trackers to share PPE and help every community trace infections. It should be independent of political influence. If we can have an apolitical postal service, why can’t we have an apolitical health maintenance system?

This would get the economy going, and it’s something we could call the downhill phase; it would make getting to the top worthwhile, because otherwise we’ve got years of uphill to go.

hilltop

 

Tuesday, April 20, 2020

IMG_8539A lot of passersby take pictures of the front yard. We have a trifecta: peonies, tulips and lilac bush in bloom at the same time. The bees are ecstatic.

Last Friday our fearless leader suggested people cure themselves of Covid19 by injecting cleaning products. The reactions of outrage and scorn all across the country scared him away from his daily TV appearance for a day or two. The vacation didn’t last long. He was back again last night. I tried to paint a picture of him last weekend.

IMG_8552.jpg

I’m sure you’ll agree it’s quite hideous. I tried to repair it, but the end result was washed out and cartoonish. Perhaps I had the right idea in the first go round. I’m posting the early one.

The air has never been clearer. The city has never been quieter. We’ll forget all this when things get going again. Now would be a great time for the country to go electric. It won’t happen; the bosses of industry will get their way. But wouldn’t it be great if the air stayed clear and you could hear your footsteps on the pavement, the way they sound in the countryside?

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

IMG_8428This is week number six of the lockdown in Brooklyn, NY. All birthday gatherings, theater tickets and other public events in my weekly reminder are crossed out, replaced by mortality statistics. Today, in New York: 14,828 deaths; US: 45,075; and the world: 178,845. I’ve pasted a few photos of the New York Times front page. Virus Toll Soars. Business Grinds To A Halt. Fed Cuts Rates To Near Zero. Conservative Groups in Anti-Lockdown Protests.

In a laughable irony, the Governors of the states urge people to stay in their homes while the President exhorts the people by tweet to LIBERATE! Groups of modern-day Neanderthals have staged protests at the state capitals of Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota for the right to gather in groups of dozens, hundreds and thousands to infect each other.

Americans are blessed in one regard; they have never been bombed by a mutual enemy on home soil or had to flee the complete upheaval of society. But it has bred a peculiar sense of arrogance about the need to work together. Self-sufficiency, nationalism, and gun-toting isolation won’t save you in a global pandemic: all you need is a cousin to bring a dry cough home that triggers a town-wide infection. In some spread-out parts of the country, people think they can go it alone, or go to the beach, or gather for a party—here’s looking at you, Virginia and Florida.

Face it, folks. We truly have a mutual enemy to deal with—a disease that seeks only to spread and kill the most vulnerable among us. You might be a victim, or merely a carrier. No one is exempt. One would expect our leader to grab the opportunity to defeat the scurge, rally the technological expertise of our greatest minds, and get the country moving.

But no. Not this one. Our Marmelade Mussolini ignored it. After a month-long gap of inaction in February (when everybody else’s hair was on fire), he  finally stirred from his torpor to promote concern, then a nationwide emergency, then backtracked, refusing to wear a mask. Every evening he bays with all the brains of a beagle from his lectern, contradicting science and common sense, hawking doubtful cures (Hydroxychloroquine. What have you got to lose?), while a half-dozen knowledgable experts flank him with buttoned lips, fearful of losing their place beside him (and casting the country into an abyss of ignorance).

One looks for a positive side to this. This is just my nature, although I have no reason to believe any good will come of this president’s masquerade. Perhaps the government will see fit to repay the backbone of our society—those care-givers, first-responders, the people who grow, deliver, and serve our food—with universal medical coverage. And if they don’t? Perhaps voters will get wise. Perhaps when the country comes through this, they’ll remember the lack of preparation, the poor leadership, their enablers, and the tone-deaf attention to this crisis from the right.

I’ve been making a lot of masks for family, friends, a local hospital, and feel tempted to print them with a slogan: Remember This In November!

April 15, 2020

It’s a bright, sunny spring day, and when I take my dog around the block, this is what I see. Ambulances lined up outside the hospital, two freezer trucks for the deceased, and the litter of Covid19, dozens of facemasks and gloves strewn on the sidewalks and roadsides. We cheer on the health workers and essential businesses at 7:00 every evening. The noise grows louder with each week. It seems weak support, however, in light of the sacrifices being made by doctors, nurses and hospital staff who are exposed every day without sufficient protective gear.

In today’s newspaper, our self-centered President looks for somebody else to blame for his lack of leadership and foresight. Today he blames the World Health Organization, and announces that he’s withdrawing funding. He spites the world to save his face.

CoronaVirus times

April 9, 2020

The trash one usually finds on a block in my part of Brooklyn consists of cigarette butts, bottles and grocery store receipts. My house, however, happens to be a block away from Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, where they are treating covid19 patients. Over the last two weeks, the surge of patients in intensive care has changed the look of the neighborhood, as evident from the trash you see above: medical gloves, face masks. They are everywhere, in the park, in the flowerbeds, on the road.

The Five Guys burger shop closed. It lies directly across from the hospital. The truck bay has two freezer trailers for the dead, and the hospital staff move quickly by, clad in masks. The streets are empty around here, and the lack of traffic noise makes the ambulance sirens sound particularly stark and alarming—a sound I grew deaf to, just a month ago. I used to see them standing outside the doors, smoking casually during their breaks, but there’s nothing casual about anybody’s behavior now.

 

 

Terrible Claw

I’m working on a new story about dinosaurs. In my childhood, these terrible lizards were an obsession. I memorized dozens of them. They are no less impressive to children today. When I visited the American Museum of Natural History, I was surrounded by awestruck kids who could barely speak at the sight of such enormous, incredible monsters.

I went there to rekindle my old fascination and came across this fellow. His official name is Deinonychus (dye-nonny-kus) antirrhopus (“terrible claw”), an early Cretaceous period non-avian maniraptor. The paleontologist John Ostrom came up with a revolutionary theory in the 1960s that some of these creatures were quick, agile, and predatory. This undercut the prevailing notion that dinosaurs were large, slow-footed beasts, and made them even more frightening and astonishing.

deinonychus edited

Although the text beside the display says the creature was non-avian—which I assume means it didn’t actually fly—the fossil is posed in its glass cabinet (to my bewilderment) as if it was hurtling through the air.

IMG_7943

Look at those fantastic teeth! The bones of its skull are full of gaps, which suggests that its head was much lighter than some of its theropod contemporaries. I eyeballed the length of its upper and lower arm and leg bones. They looked shockingly similar to the proportions of a human skeleton. In fact, as I stood near it in the noisy exhibition hall, I imagined this creature sitting in the driver seat of a pickup truck with its tail thrashing in the back seat!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take Christmas, Please?

I went to Oaxaca, Mexico in January in search of something that eluded me at year’s end. Forgiveness for the mistakes I made over the year? Perhaps. A sense of renewal? Permission to try again? Relief from the dark skies, short days, and the urban crush of my home latitude and longitude. Most of all, I believe it was relief.

Christmas was thankfully over. I always hate it. The whole, ratty, tattered red-and-green phantom of festive goodwill. It’s a sham. An over-hyped, commercialized froth of fake cheer. An inebriated, rosy-cheeked, mockery of mindfulness. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea, but hate the holiday, the overused crushed red velvet, drunken Santa Con participants, albino cookies that taste of nothing but sugar, candy canes that turn up in your pocket, stuck to your fingers, and absurdly thin rolls of wrapping paper sold three-packs (what a bargain). I hate tinsel, glass tree balls, and popcorn strings, dry pine needles in every crevice, cheap holiday lights that blink, strobe or glow with cheesy electronic music that resembles dying crickets. Those hideous Santa mannikins in shop windows with scary, ventriloquist dummy faces? They terrify me. I hate fake shiny packages in shop displays that aren’t really gifts. I don’t trust elves, people who wear reindeer antlers, carolers who show up at your door uninvited, and freaks who wear Santa caps for a solid month.

Charles Dickens wrote about the season quite simply in “A Christmas Carol,” evoking a tender spirit of redemption and goodwill. We’ve really botched it up since then. It’s the holiday month from hell. A day or two would be fine, but thirty miserable, unrelenting days of yuletide songs is a dreadful ordeal. And the ten best lists, oh, I hate them the most! The best songs of the year, the best movies, the best books? C’mon, there are never that many. Critics dole out awards with charitable intent, but sometimes it’s just a crap year and best to get it over with. And spare me the best dead people of the year—that’s the most awful list—when some magazine pulls together an obituary of deceased celebrities.

You think I’m a Christmas-hater? Guilty as charged. I’m a yuletide grouch. A negative, nay-saying nabob of the Nativity. Christmas is the overbearing, obnoxious, disappointing family relative of holidays. He comes sooner than expected, overstays his welcome, and leaves me disgusted and hating myself for not enjoying the visit. He’s the holiday who you must like, the big generous, snoring, guzzling, excessive bore who ho-ho-hoes whenever there’s a pause in the conversation. That’s Christmas for me.

“Get behind me, Christmas,” I say. I’d rather celebrate my year’s end like a pagan, watching the sunrise over stonehenge in blessed silence.

Thankfully, by the time I landed at Oaxaca, there was no sign of Christmas. A brown haze hung over town, the smell of diesel was everywhere, and the ubiquitous presence of poured concrete for every dwelling confirmed my escape to a southern lattitude, but left me a tad doubtful about my choice of a getaway.

On the streets I heard people wishing each other “Feliz año nuevo,” and going on their way without silly 2020 glasses or trash on the streets.  The sun’s hot eye blazed the cobblestone streets with dazzling intensity. The colors of the houses were as vivid as a pantone-enhanced fruit bowl. But look, the year could be new without cheesy sentiment and trash in the streets.

As a children’s book writer, I try to avoid using the word magic because it’s overused—like Christmas. I’m a culprit, I’ll admit, having written several books that invoke magic. And so I say this, knowing that you’ll roll your eyes, but you cannot walk around Oaxaca without feeling a sense of magic. I’m not talking about tricks, or inexplicable powers, or a sense of childish wonder. I’m really talking about magic as a crossroads between nature, human faith, and a sense of the wondrous. It’s there in Oaxaca, but not in the tourist stalls or the knick-knack shops. I felt it tasting the different chile sauces; I felt it as I stepped from bright streets onto the cool tiles of shadowed interiors; I tasted it in the metzcal; sensed it on the amazing hilltop ruins of Monté Alban; and hiking down a rocky and inhospitable trail, I felt it in the clear air, the wild espadín and tobala agave plants, and squinting in that bright, blazing, unrelenting sun.

The three pictures above evoke magic of Oaxaca for me. The first picture is from a place about and hour and a half southeast of Oaxaca, named Hierve el Agua, where a subterranean water vent bursts from under the earth’s crust and creates a watery plateau which petrifies everything it touches, then trickles down the cliff, leaving a streak of colors running down the precipice.

The second picture is a nagual, a mesoamerican spirit, human in form, but capable of transforming itself into an animal. Depending on the culture, it can be a magician, a trickster, a protective entity or a pest. This nagual is a wood-carved alebrije, from the town of Arrazola. I was struck by the particularly human stare on its face. It’s unsettling. Unforgiving. It defies cuteness. The more conventional alebrije figures available to tourists on the street are painted with the same delicate detail, but pretty. This one, I believe, is magic.

The third picture is an agave plant, common everywhere, but at this particular time it happens to be a farmed plant, essential to the production of metzcal, a growing artisanal industry in Oaxaca. Both of the guided tours we took included a metzcal tasting. It’s a distilled liquor; though some would dismiss it as neighborhood hooch or moonshine; but now it’s beyond a fad. Swirl it in your mouth for a few seconds then swallow. It packs a bracing punch. One sage warned me to stay away from it. Others promised me it cured anything from liver disease to a bad stomach infection. With so many opinions, how can it not be magic?

After my third or fourth day in Oaxaca, I felt changed. My anti-Christmas mood evaporated. I felt a sense of possibility, a fresh fascination with the world that I feared I had lost for good. Perhaps it was simply the exposure to bright sunlight after all those dark days in New York, or the chiles, or the change in venue, or standing on a plateau of still water over a desert landscape. In any case, it was transformative and invigorating.

*     *     *

 

 

Welcome 2020! This year . . .

beachtowel

This year I will write to both of my senators, my congressman, my state representative, my mayor, and my President. This year I will vote for a comprehensive climate plan, an honest President and a greener economy. This year, I will use less plastic, eat less meat, and use more public transportation. Whatever I did last year, I will ramp it up THIS year. That’s my pledge.

GH