Remote Connections

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A niece who teaches in public schools in Minneapolis/St. Paul has about a week to nail down how she will handle her 150 high school students remotely, with no classroom and no schedule. And, she asks, are they really all that interested in French anyway? Some have taken jobs to help support their families as their parents get laid off. Some look after younger siblings during the day. When can she connect with them live, and will they pay attention to their assignments?

Some students have been with her four years, and she is sad she may never see them again, now that in-person schooling has ended for the year, at least. She won’t get to say goodbye in person, give them a hug, encourage them on their way with a smile and her loving eyes. They won’t have a chance to stand up in front of the school and grab hold of that diploma to cheers from friends and family.

We surely will get over it, but still, chopping off all of these springtime rituals will have an effect, they count for something — an indelible memory of achievement, perhaps a little extra shove that helps some kids keep looking forward. I hope for their sake their communities find some way to acknowledge these rites of passage.

Meanwhile the term will resume in a few days. J is a fabulous teacher who loves the face-to-face interactions in the classroom. She’s not so great with new technology. How will she manage all these kids from afar? How will she schedule assignments and interactions when 150 kids are scattered and have such varying demands on their lives outside school? Many are immigrants, many of these Hmong, and they have extra challenges in language and culture. How will she know they’re listening? Can she Zoom it?

I know she’ll pull it off and worry restlessly about it the whole time.

—–

Not enough masks: We all know that by now. Just thinking about a friend who’s a nurse practitioner at a private practice on the Monterey Peninsula. She gets one mask, an N95, normally intended for single use; now it’s one per provider. She’s down from seeing a dozen or more patients a day face-to-face to just a few, and the rest by phone and eventually video link. Her practice has set up an isolated area at one of their offices to evaluate all respiratory complaints needing further hands-on screening. (They’re not testing; that’s handled by the Community Hospital of Monterey in an isolation tent outside the ER.)

“I was fitted for [the mask] Thursday last. If any of you have ever had one – part of the fitting procedure is having a cone like mask over your head and moving around in different directions – could only think of The Cone Heads of SNL. Made me laugh. Trying to do a lot of laughing with colleagues. It helps. NOT ENOUGH MASKS.

“These are intended to be single use only. However, here one for each of us. Every 10 days an MD or NP/PA will rotate through the off-site respiratory triage area. We only each have one mask for the day and for each 10 days. This is the situation all over the country for now.”

She adds: “Hands: What manicure? So dry. Did I mention patients stealing hand sanitizer out of the exam room? So, just like you all – I am doing everything I can to protect myself, my patients and anyone else I may come in contact with.”

And: “This is an amazing time to be in practice as a health care provider/worker. This is an amazing time to be a human being. ‘Amazing’ can be interpreted in many ways. I expect to stay well.”

Amen.

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What’s Essential?

I stopped in at the liquor shop down the street, run by a couple of young and entrepreneurial guys, who have transformed ya decent neighborhood package store into a more creative space where you can find many good wines from all over, small brewery beers and lots of boutique whiskeys/bourbon/etc. They have a couple of old oak barrels in the lane by the registers; people use them to put down goods while waiting in line. They’ve moved the barrels now so they nestle against the counter — to give a little more space between customers and the people behind the register.

As one guy was ringing up my six pack of beer, I asked if they were pleased that the governor classified their shop as “essential” in his new directive that put a lid on many other businesses. He said, No, actually, we’d rather be home. They have kids and elders who are vulnerable, and at work they come into contact with lots of us who might be carrying the c-virus. The sooner we separate, isolate the virus and deal with it, the better off everyone will be, including businesses, he said.

I thought that was a very heartfelt and thoughtful answer. Focused on the essential priorities. Sometimes hard to do in this age of micro attention spans.

It also makes me think about all those folks for whom home is no balm at all, if they even have one to go to. Those who are alone. Or for whom home life is difficult if not dangerous. Or where increasingly now bills are hard to pay and the enforced isolation turns up the volume on daily frictions.

A friend from New York City has retreated with her boyfriend to a house up the Hudson Valley. The boyfriend, divorced, shares custody of a young son, who now is coming up from the city to spend time with them. And she worries about whether the boy might be bringing the virus with him. That’s not ALL she feels, she worries about his health, too, of course, and they’re excited to have him come up. But with the city so overrun with this disease, how could she not be concerned?

Again, how can you not be on edge?

OK, so what’s essential in Connecticut? Turns out a lot of things you’d expect — shops selling food (restaurants can do takeout and delivery only); gas stations and auto repairs service; most all health care services, including medical marijuana dispensaries; law enforcement; homeless shelters and food banks; transportation, power and communications infrastructure; manufacturing suppliers; hardware suppliers and construction trades. Also farms and farm stands, nurseries, banks, legal services, insurance and real estate offices, child care, trash collection, news media, marine vessel maintenance… and billboard leasing. And gun shops. The list goes on. What else do we need? Yeah, masks and ventilators and fast, reliable tests for the virus would be nice.

Random question: What did we spend to print and mail out a card to every US household labeled “President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America”? Don’t we know all this stuff already from the endless hours of news coverage on TV, online, in print, from talking to neighbors? I suppose in some way it can help reinforce the basic message. But why is it HIS guidelines? It’s not his guidelines, it’s the CDC’s guidelines, probably. I am openly biased on this one, for sure. But I can’t imagine any other president personally branding this type of mailing.

Since the dawn of the TV age (at least) we’ve been bombarded by advertising — for generations now — and the lines between fact and fiction, story and promotion, art and branding, news and opinion, are so blurred, I wonder who among us can any longer see the difference? I know one guy who very obviously can’t.

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Flocking Together

Two of my nieces are sewing surgical masks to donate to a local hospital. A nephew in DC is responding to demands to pass along his mother-in-law’s recipe for bourbon balls; he’s been off work a week to help care for his newborn son, and returned to work the other day, remotely. Niece B is offering recipes for banana bread and carrot-ginger soup; she’s turned on her Christmas lights and dances on her apartment balcony at night.

I’m learning all this through a WhatsApp group set up by niece B, in South Beach; she is the oldest of that generation and has been inviting family members aboard. Like birds flocking to a feeder, they flew in from their outposts — St. Paul, San Jose, San Francisco, Utuado PR, Barrington RI, Illion NY — starved for something fresh to do, I suspect.

My sister-in-law, home in Puerto Rico where the aftermath of Hurricane Maria still stings, is so angry at both the Chinese authorities for their mendacity and Trump for his stupidity, she couldn’t finish an Atlantic article about it all posted by B. But she won’t be bothered with blame just now: “The history of this pandemic is being written as we speak and the virus doesn’t care whose fault it is.”

This brings to mind the idea that we are mostly anthro-centric — we think everything revolves around us, and what we do. D’s comment speaks to the truth around that — to questions like, did we domesticate dogs, or did they simply use us as a means to foster the species, and most successfully? Or, (with a nod to Michael Pollan), did we propagate across the globe apples from Central Asia and potatoes from South America, or did they cleverly use us as pawns in an evolutionary chess game?

Now, coronavirus is happily spreading around the globe, and many of us are redirecting our social lives online. All this Skyping and WhatsApping and Zooming is, we think, helping to slow the spread of the virus. Then again, like those creepy things in sci-fi horror flicks, the virus’s imperative is to live.

One sister of mine, living in a small town and well-connected into her community, bakes a cake every evening to take to a neighbor. (I hope she has a good stash of flour — the local market had none on the shelves yesterday.) In the mornings, she Skypes her grandchildren in Minneapolis, and they work on a book, a chapter each day. It began with a warthog growing angry at his toaster, because it kept burning his toast. So he threw it into the sky; the toaster flew all the way to Mars. The Martians liked the toaster because they like burned toast and use it to fly around on. A child’s imagination will not be confined.

Yesterday M and I watched via Zoom (instant celebrity platform) as our niece at Dartmouth gave a public presentation of her PhD thesis: in microbiology, about proteins and inflammation and Parkinson’s disease (which her mother’s mother had) — trying to understand how it all gets started, with a goal of making earlier diagnoses, and finding ways to treat it before the body’s functions start breaking down. Hardly understood a word but wow, she was impressive. To one side of the screen sat her committee; another panel showed K, and then her slide show of graphs and charts and photos of lab mice took over. After a break, she spent an hour and a half privately Zooming with her committee, answered their questions, and passed. Dr. K!

At 5:30 she invited friends and family to a Zoom party to toast her victory. The screen filled with images, from the East Coast to Honolulu, parents, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles and cousins, old family friends and old school chums. Seeing everyone so gathered, like the Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares, made us chuckle; it also felt awkward as people chimed in, making their image pop up larger on the screen, then replaced by someone else uttering something, very staccato and not always intelligible. At a real party you talk to people one to one, one to two. Here you’re at a meeting and talk to the group, and somehow it’s harder to find something to say, even as you’re directing your comment at one or two people on the screen. It’s fun and social, but not intimate or conducive to thoughtful, deep conversation. Well-suited to cousin C, who has a knack for hilarious one-off comments. K ended the party by inviting us to get together again next Tuesday at 5:30. C: “So basically I’m now making a doctor’s appointment?”

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Alternative Reality

You don’t need to ingest mescaline or the like to experience altered reality, or alternative reality. We probably tend to resist it, but we’re here now, right? Why else would we expend all this effort to find comfort in some familiar things (a favorite movie or TV show, a book, music, a nap). A long hike in Westwoods the other day felt normal, and not: Out there it all looks just the same, paths well trod by us and many others, dog trotting down the trail in front, bird calls echoing through the still gray woods. We know the world out there has shifted quickly. The world we’re stepping through runs on a different clock.

The elegant granite outcrops sit unmoving, remnants of deep upheavals so, so much older than human memory, now exposed, cracked apart and etched by eons of change — freeze and thaw, the patter of rainwater, the breath of wind, glaciers growing and receding, something taking root, altered even by a coat of soft bright green moss. Atop one hill sits an erratic as big as a bus that has been split in two — it may have cracked open 10,000 years or so ago when the fading face of the ice sheet dropped it onto a hunk of bedrock. For a meager 26 years, I’ve watched a cedar grow inside that crack from sapling into adult, looking for all the world like a big sprout popping out of a granite nutshell.

A friend tells us about an encounter at the supermarket — she stood in line with someone who’d filled his cart with boxes of cereal and other goods, a big pile of stuff. She said, Well, you seem to have enough carbs there… Then he explained that he runs a food delivery service, and these things were for people either unable or afraid to go out on their own. His business is booming. And so yes, reality may not reveal itself on first glance.

Of course many people don’t need to spend much time considering this question of altered reality. They work in a hospital, a grocery store, a pharmacy, a restaurant now closed, some other job unsuited to plugging in a laptop and working from home. The public library, which offers via email many tips for online activity, is closed, the Cole Porter tribute concert this weekend evaporated — a minor thing but still, I wonder what Cole Porter would have to say. Don’t fence me in?

The virus has snipped threads of community life: the local book store and barbershops and nail salons; Metro Pooch, the dog boarding service down the street; Guilford Savings Bank (just drive through service). The guys due to come in and re-tile our shower hesitate, because they have small children at home. We can no longer walk into Maplewood, the assisted living place in Orange where M’s Mom sits in her lovely apartment, reading the paper, waiting for a phone call, waiting for an aide to bring a meal to her door or help her with some daily chore.

The other night we had our final (for now, of course) trip to a local restaurant, South Lane in Guilford. We got there early because as of 8 p.m., all such places had to shut down. Five or six people sat at a couple of tables; we two took seats at the bar. The young and cheery waitstaff were absent, already home and filing for unemployment insurance. Two cooks worked the kitchen — takeout orders provided extra work. They delivered food to table when needed. Our friend the owner handled the rest, which mostly was helping us and chatting across the bar about this new life we’re in. Kids at home, staff let go, she and her chief chef and husband were organizing to handle only takeout orders after this night, figuring out what to do with their daughters.

We went to show loyalty and support, and add a couple of drops into the bucket. It felt good to talk and empathize and commiserate, laugh a bit, and also worry about those less able to ride out the storm. Even as we turn our routines inward, we’re thinking about ways to sew things back together.

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Virus Diary – Day What?

Our friend told us that her cleaning person stole her only jar of hand sanitizer. The act seems both trivial and a razor cut to one’s faith in humanity. Certainly not the only example — threads of such tales unwind across social media: people swiping bottles off counters, running off with boxes of masks from a hospital, pushing a shopping cart filled with toilet paper or corn flakes or 1000 island dressing or a dozen gallons of milk, a woman grabbing every can of tomato sauce off a shelf while waiting customers stand by watching, people hoovering up supplies to resell them online at ridiculous prices. We could do a study of hand sanitizer episodes and see if we can draw any conclusions, aside from the obvious ones, about our fellow humans and their capacity for empathy. Of course, people are fearful, greedy, seeking the comforts of bountiful supplies and monetary gain.

We heard about the missing hand sanitizer from a close friend, at our next to last dinner out last week, in New Haven at a Thai restaurant, September in Bangkok. The place is modern, spacious and very clean; the waitresses wore blue rubber gloves as they wiped down tables after customers left. People were still venturing out, so there were maybe 20 customers; the servers, who all appeared to be young Thai or at least Southeast Asian women, were smiling and attentive. That reminded me of how kind people can be, even if they’re quaking with anxiety inside. The atmosphere was subdued to be sure — we all I think sensed what was coming. But the food was fabulous and the company and opportunity to get out so welcome.

Our friend is in her early 80s and living alone since her husband died last November. He was 93 and a dear friend of 25 years, blunt and funny, an artist and intellectual who thought a lot about religion, faith and matters of the soul. Born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn, he wound up a hybrid Buddhist/atheist who did not shy from speaking about death, especially after his ailments started to catch up with him in recent years.

The loss is of course hard for our friend. She gets terribly lonely; though, she admits to being liberated from what had been a long and trying time taking care of him; he was not always an easy patient, partly because of his personality, partly from the effects of whatever drugs he had to take to treat his COPD and other issues. Fortunately for her, she has good friends and neighbors to stay in touch, help her out around the apartment, and take her out (until now, that meant frequent trips to the Criterion for good movies, and Shabbat dinner on Fridays with her zany friend the rabbi). She has a nursing student from Yale living with her, and so an evening companion and someone to help when a health issue arises. A great tenant, a music teacher, lives on the second floor. (The third-floor tenant is a Yale graduate student from China, who went home during winter break and can’t return, but who is still paying his rent.) And thank God for services like Uber and Uber Eats — they really enable her to continue living in her three-family, in familiar surroundings.

So, the hand sanitizer incident intrudes on this. Someone familiar, someone in her life network, while cleaning her house, a regular gig, has a dark turn of mind. She could have been going about her business, and maybe picked up the bottle to swipe clean the bathroom shelf, held it in her hand and just stopped, a moment, thinking: I could just take this. I can’t find this stuff anywhere now; I need this for my family, to protect me as I go around cleaning other people’s homes, because I’m really, really scared about this virus thing. In that moment, did she think about the elderly woman whose home she was cleaning, her health, her worries, her vulnerability? And when our friend asks her about it next time she comes around, if she comes around, will she lie, and say she never saw it? Or confess?

It’s possible our friend simply misplaced her bottle of sanitizer. We’ve all been there. But if she did, still, the suspicion crept into her mind. A side effect, a kind of vapor floating out there, looking for a host.

We all make small decisions every day — pick this up, put that down. Start a conversation, avoid one; make that call, write the letter, buy that thing. Look at something this way, or that way. Now it all comes with a bit more of an edge.

 

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Banning Plastic Bags, One Town at a Time

(First published on State of the Planet on Feb. 20, 2019)

The WalMart in Guilford, CT, offers recycling for single-use plastic bags. The town is considering an ordinance banning plastic bags altogether. Photo: David Funkhouser

Since plastic carryout bags were introduced in the 1960s, people have used trillions of them, and, for the most part, thrown them away. And whether they’re sitting in a landfill, hung up in a tree limb or floating around the ocean, the bags don’t biodegrade, and they’re not going away anytime soon. They’re free to consumers, convenient and cheap for stores to use. But they have joined billions of tons of tossed-away plastic packaging materials and products to cause a variety of environmental problems. And in a growing number of communities, citizens have decided that they’ve got to go.

More than 300 municipalities across the United States now ban or charge fees for single-use plastic bags. California, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and American Samoa have banned them, as have 55 countries. Thirty-one more have imposed a fee.

It’s unclear how effective these laws have been overall. In some places the bans are barely enforced, particularly poor nations with weak or nonexistent waste collection systems. But in many places, usage has dramatically declined, and litter and its associated problems have been reduced.

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How Much Do Renewables Actually Depend on Tax Breaks?

A wind farm in Texas, which leads the U.S. in wind energy production. The U.S. produces more megawatt hours of wind energy than any other nation. Photo: U.S. Department of Commerce

(First published on March 16, 2018, on State of the Planet.)

Wind and solar energy production are growing faster in the United States than any other source of electricity, and falling prices are making them more competitive with fossil fuel-driven electricity. Meanwhile, natural gas has surpassed coal as the prime fuel for power plants. Those trends helped drive down U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 to their lowest level since 1991, according to a report for the Business Council on Sustainable Energy.

That’s good news for anyone concerned about climate change. The shift to renewable energy is a key part of the global effort to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other earth-warming gases and slow down climate change by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. But critics argue that this growth wouldn’t be possible without financial support from the government. How much do renewables actually need tax breaks and other subsides?

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Puerto Rico Faces a Long Road to a Sustainable Future

Rebuilding Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars or more. Source: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

(First published on Nov. 30, 2017, on State of the Planet.)

In Utuado, a town in the hills of central Puerto Rico, “very little works.” That’s what Delsie Gandia, a resident, told me several days ago via email during a rare opening when she could connect to the internet.

Since Hurricane Maria’s 150-plus mph winds scoured the island into a mass of rubble and smashed infrastructure on Sept. 20, residents have been showering in the rain and washing clothes by hand with spring water, she said. Electricity had been restored to Utuado proper, but, said Gandia, “As I write, we have been plunged in darkness once again.” Roads are washed out or blocked by debris; damage to the local communications tower and unreliable power hampers phone and internet services. Many people were cut off from relief, emergency health care and other services. Utuado’s mayor, whose rural home was destroyed in the storm, hacked his way into town with a machete, she was told.

“My impression was that all systems collapsed,” she wrote. “The government simply couldn’t cope.” (Gandia, an economist and a relative of mine, has studied the economic and environmental impacts of global warming since the 1970s.)

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Women Leaders Tackle the Urban Climate Challenge

(First published on March 8, 2017, on State of the Planet.)

The world’s fast-growing major cities are where most people feel the impacts of climate change, as New York found out in Superstorm Sandy. Mayors from cities around the world are confronting the need to adapt and plan for resilience and sustainability. The role of women in all this will be highlighted at an upcoming conference at Columbia University.

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In High Sierras, Remnants of Ice Age Tell a Tale of Future Climate

(First published on Feb. 14, 2017, on State of the Planet.)

Aaron Putnam sits atop a boulder high in the Sierras of central California, banging away with hammer and chisel to chip out a sample of ice age history. Each hunk of rock is a piece of a vast puzzle: How did our climate system behave the last time it warmed up like it’s doing today?

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