Sunday, May 28, 2020

Got caught in a drenching shower yesterday during a march in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. T played her drum with some stalwart Batala musicians while I marched alongside with this painting of Breonna Taylor.

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The photo was taken long after the march was over; we were about to get in the car and the painting was wet and about to collapse in my hands. My sour look is probably because of wet underwear from the thunderstorm.

The portrait didn’t quite come out the way I had intended (sometimes a picture has its own motive, much like a character in a story). In her  photos online, her face is rounder, younger, less ambivalent, and a lot of the pictures people have drawn are more joyful. I saw something else in her eyes, and it lingered in every sketch I did. Eventually, despite every effort to make her look more like her selfies, I surrendered to the face that seemed to want to be in the portrait. Weird.

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Monday, June 22, 2020

IMG_9096What a stinker of a year! 2020 has earned its place in the history books. Take your pick of a handful of crises: presidential impeachment, rising sea levels, a record five straight hottest summers in history, a worldwide pandemic that has killed 120,000 Americans in 3-1/2 months, a federal government in utter disarray, and police hammering and brutalizing citizens who chose to march against racism.

One bright note:  people are coming together to fight the rampant inequalities that exist between whites and people of color.  It is an exciting, hopeful time. There is much to be changed, and a big opportunity to make important strides before the momentum fades.

In this post I’m concerned about the efforts people are making that is regressive. Specifically, I’m afraid that if we try to correct the wrongs of the past by abolishing the evidence, we risk a kind of collective, self-serving amnesia.

loserOver recent weeks, a lot of confederate statues and monuments have been torn down. This week, statues of slave owners like Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson have been taken down. I sympathize with the outrage behind this destruction, but I think it’s a mistake to tear them down. Tag them for what they are, give them context, place them in perspective, and if necessary, consign them to a special place for monuments of their kind, drape them in black with a plaque explaining why they were erected, but don’t erase them.

Erasing the past is a mistake; we need evidence of our errors, no matter how painful. How else do subsequent generations avoid our mistakes. Hiding statues of slaveowners and traitors simply hides the evidence. Any historian will tell you that it’s the privilege of victors, but not a solution to error or atrocity. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to see a hundred statues of African Americans erected for every confederate statue in existence. Let’s put Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman on monuments that directly face Washington and Jefferson. Let them stand in opposition; the national dialogue will be richer for it.

But if you remove the evidence, some will deny that it ever existed. We keep Auschwitz, Dachau, and Anne Frank’s house on display for that reason. Andrew Jackson deserves the same moral scrutiny, with a new plaque that details his infamy.

Our children and grandchildren need to see those statues so that they don’t make those same mistakes. And I’m not just talking about the mistakes of the Confederacy; let’s include the mistakes of the victors—those who negotiated peace, but permitted the south to erect statues of its own generals and establish Jim Crow laws. It was a mistake to permit a flag that defended slavery to wave from any statehouse flagpole in the Union, let alone to be waved at NASCAR races or from the tailgates of pickup trucks. To be blunt, the Union, the supposed ‘good guys’ of the Civil War, allowed the dying embers of racism to be fanned and kindled long after the war was won. This mistake should be made as obvious as any other atrocity.

Perhaps, if the North hadn’t permitted the South to erect statues to their generals, flown the flag of their treacherous cause, written laws that subjugated and validated the mistreatment, murder, and economic manipulation of millions of African Americans all the way to the twenty-first century (over seven generations), we wouldn’t need to protest for their rights one hundred and fifty-five years after .

 

Monday, June 8, 2020

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The winds at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn blew wildly yesterday. It’s been two weeks since George Floyd’s killing, and the Mayor has dialed back the police presence and let the people come out. There was a feeling of hope, here, that something good could come out of this.

I am well aware that it takes more than showing up at a few demonstrations to bring sight to the blind. It takes a commitment to see my flaws, and a great deal of shame and discomfort with all the ways I make those invisible around me who deserve respect. If we as a culture succeed in bringing about change, it will be done with pain, revelation, and truths that won’t sit well. That’s the price of a revolution.

Still, I’m glad to see so many people on the streets. And signs. Children with BLM placards. Young white adults carrying signs against police brutality . . . those least likely to experience institutional (or personal) prejudice. I hope they mean it; and will do so in three months; six months, two years, and ten years down the road.

It’s human nature to hope for big changes. It’s also human nature to get distracted and complacent. If there’s anything good to be said for this pandemic, it brought the country to its knees, a good place to see who else has been in that unfortunate position for generations.

NPR reported that the Minneapolis city council proposed abolishing their local police force. This will, I’m sure, inspire the conservative pundits to call it the end of civilization. But it’s not the end at all.

Many people of color will reply that it’s the beginning.

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.