Amanda Alvarez | Linda Bakst | William Brennan | Aura Chávez | Danielle Doolen | Barbara Fischkin | Janie Fitzgerald | Erika Groff | Phyllis Hillinger | Sarah Hogan | William Hogan | Pamela Howard | Jack Huber | Carol Jewell | Michael Johnson Jr. | Linda Kindlon | Jim LaBate | Tina Lincer | Julie Lomoe | Mark Marchand | Mary McCarthy | Trix Niernberger | Susan Petrie | Julie Phillips | Georgia Popoff | Kevin Rider | Jack Rightmyer | Frank Robinson | George Robinson | Kathleen Rzant | Anne Samson | Michael Schaber | Marianne Schultz | Diane Sefcik | Katie Sherwood | Michael O. Stevens | Jeffrey D. Straussman | John R. Teevan III | Winnie Yu
Mom’s taking phone calls in her bedroom; my little brother is doing jumping jacks in the living room for gym class, all while I’m just waking up after staying up all night to binge-watching The Vampire Diaries on Netflix.
It’s usually eleven-thirty, twelve ‘clock when I decide to wake up. I head over to the bathroom to do my skincare routine that I perfected over the past few weeks; you learn a lot when you have the time to watch countless amount of videos on Youtube. I make myself a coffee, particularly the “whipped coffee” that began trending over TikTok, another thing I picked up over quarantine.
My routine was starting to become so much different than what it used to be. I didn’t have to go to class, I didn’t have to go to work, and I didn’t have to engage in conversation I really didn’t want to have. I would grab my coffee and sit on the barstools by the kitchen island and watch my little brother while he learned a new number in class and my mom went through all her paperwork. This was life.
Two coffees later, and I was ready to conquer the day, and by that, I meant doing homework for the day, the one thing that kept me productive. As time progressed, another check went down in my planner, discussion post, done, discussion responses, done, reading materials, done.
By five o’clock, I made sure I was done with homework for the day.
By five o’clock, my step-dad was home, mom was finished with work, and my little brother was jumping in the backyard instead of the living room.
“What’s for dinner?” I’d ask my mom, being stuck at home had its perks; I wasn’t relying on microwaveable mac’ n cheese anymore. My mom’s homecooked meals were my absolute favorite; the Campus Center had nothing on her food. Life after five o’clock was the time I valued the most during quarantine. My step-dad helped my mom with dinner, I sat on the bar stools and listened to them talk about their day, and my little brother was running in and out of the house, unsure of what he should play next. Dinner was our family time; everyone dropped everything they were doing to sit together.
During the few months that I’ve been home, I realized how much I valued family time. My mom and I spent a few nights watching movies and drinking wine while we gossiped to each other. I realized that during my time away at college I was missing my little brother grow up. Every day he’d say “I missed you, do you want to play with me?” and each time I’d smile and nod, I wasn’t missing another second of his growth.
I think about how negatively quarantine affected some people, not being able to see or visit their loved ones, losing jobs, and leaving school; in this time I think about how lucky I was. I might’ve left my job and my dorm room behind but I experienced a lifetime of memories with those who mattered most. In a way quarantine was blessing in disguise, I was in the comfort of my own home, I had the time to do things I love the most like reading and drawing, to me everything felt right.
By nine o’clock, my little brother was in bed.
By nine o’clock, my mother and step-dad were watching World News Tonight, I’d join them but ignore the news, I was too addicted to TikTok.
When everyone went to sleep I grabbed my late night snack, a cold water, and turned on new episode of The Vampire Diaries. I knew that my routine was just this and that the next morning I’d be doing the exact same thing I did the day before but it was okay.
By eleven o’clock, mom was on the phone, my little brother was in class, and I was just waking up.
Amanda Alvarez is a 21-year-old Yonkers native, she currently lives with her family in Tuckahoe, New York. She recently graduated from the University at Albany with a degree in Human Biology and Journalism. During her free time, she enjoys reading, drawing, and journaling.
Light at the end of the tunnel
I want to see light at the end of the tunnel and I probably should be able to, but it has been such a long year. The news has been so painful – so many deaths, certainly many that could have been avoided had action been taken sooner. A year ago, who would have believed that over half a million Americans would die of the coronavirus? The number is unfathomable.
The pandemic has introduced so many wrenches in our plans: a canceled vacation to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks; a modest COVID-safe bridal shower and wedding with a total of 12 attendees for our daughter instead of the grander celebrations we were hoping to have; Zoom meetings of my writing groups instead of getting together in person, and a funeral and shiva for my father-in-law with limited attendance. So many accommodations were made, so many disappointments were absorbed. And we were among the lucky ones. No one in our immediate family got sick, though there were scares and there were quarantines, no one died in our immediate family (my father-in-law was 97 and did not die of COVID), and no one is suffering long-term symptoms.
We tried to make the best of it. We still had celebrations. We used FaceTime to keep up with our two year old granddaughter. My husband went to work, as usual, coming home with indentations on his face from where his mask and goggles pressed against his skin. His hands are rougher than sandpaper from relentless washing and sanitizing. The payoff for his efforts was that, despite some exposures, he has remained healthy and so have I. We took hikes with family and friends, weather-permitting, finding lovely spots in the Capital Region to explore. We used our swimming pool more than we had in years. The summer and fall were made bearable by those activities. We used our fire pit more than we ever had, even in the winter.
The winter dragged on, though. Mostly one day feels like the next. I keep having to remind myself what day it is. Now it is March again.
There are signs of light. My husband is fully vaccinated. I got my first shot just over a week ago, so in another month I should be fully immunized. Getting the appointment was a travail, but the process of getting the shot was well organized and efficient. While I sat for the required 15 minutes a chamber quartet serenaded us at the Javits Center.
I wonder if the speed of vaccinations can outpace the speed of variants of the virus emerging. If it doesn’t then we will be dealing with the limitations longer than anyone wants. But production has ramped up and more vaccination sites have opened, so maybe we will get ahead of the curve.
Spring has now arrived; the days are getting longer and that usually makes me feel more energetic. Somehow, I still feel discouraged. Maybe it is the persistent grayness. The temperature has moderated but it still looks so gloomy. The sky is leaden, and the trees are bare.
Some of the persistent disappointment may be that I expected, with a new administration in Washington, there would be more hopefulness. I have no complaints with the steps Biden has taken – things are accelerating, but Trump’s influence is still so strong. I was hoping the fever would break, that the Republican party would be released from the ‘big lie’ of a stolen election and would be free to either return to its more reasonable conservative roots or to adopt a new constructive path. Sadly, this does not appear to be happening. I accept that people have different political philosophies, that some view the role of government more narrowly, that some prioritize individual rights more than the communal good and that this leads to different policy choices. I cannot accept white supremacy or violence. I cannot accept ‘alternative facts.’ How will we move on from this moment?
I know I need to be patient. That is not one of my strengths. I have no choice but to put one foot in front of the other, keep doing what needs to be done, take opportunities to enjoy family and friends, notice the beauty of the full moon emerging from behind clouds against a violet sky… and breathe. Believe in the light even when I can’t see or feel it.
After a career in public service, I retired to pursue my passion: writing. In my work life I wrote countless memos and reports, but I believed I had stories to tell. At age 56, I started a memoir blog, Stories I Tell Myself and joined writing groups in the Capital Region.
I had an essay published in the Summer 2020 Trolley Journal! I am working on a memoir.
My father's handkerchiefs
Saint Patrick's Day would be paused this year.
No in fact, it would be delayed.
It would in fact be canceled.
The many parades and wearing of the green and food and drink would come another day soon, I hoped.
My plan to Megabus to Collins Circle and my Albany stomping grounds also to be placed on hold.
For this day above all others was my Father's Day. No matter where he called home, he would kiss my mother Winnie goodbye and head to Albany to be with his son and to don his tuxedo and fluffy green shirt and gold cufflinks, carnation on the lapel, and most important choose from his vast array of handkerchiefs for his pocket.
They would come from many origins, from Bonds and Barney's and Best & Co. in New York and from McManus & Reilly or Spector's in Albany.
His face and undeniable Irish heritage evident and his gray hair sometimes a bit too long for mom, and the impeccable attire all in order this special day, for the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick Annual Dinner, where old friends and business allies and competitors reunited to share their stories.
The picture of him on these annual jaunts etched permanently in my mind.
And so it seemed this was my inheritance to carry on, albeit to a much lesser degree, and make my treks to Albany on this day.
A hint of the shutdown of New York was looming but the extent undefined.
It was on Monday March 16, 2020 when the world seemed to stop.
A week later. the Long Island Expressway was eerily empty. There were no trucks, no buses, and the few cars in view passed at such high speeds they were barely recognizable. A misty rain was falling in Ronkonkoma as I pulled into the station parking lot. My assigned destination this day to meet a Long Island Railroad train from Penn Station and continue east to Greenport and Orient Point.
The train was late or was missing. No surprise!
The station was completely shuttered. There were no rest rooms. Surprise!
Ah! but always the Porto Sans at the construction site across the street. Padlocked!
Public bathrooms were a very big problem back then. Finding masks or suitable facsimiles were a big problem back then. There was however a news stand that had miraculously remained open and it was near the sole gas station that was also open. It was the first I had seen in a hundred miles and between the two I was able to meet my most immediate needs and get back on the solitary roads now returning to NYC.
The mask I purchased at the news stand was not what I intended, but seemed to at least temporarily meet my needs and provide some comfort for others.
It was sort of a ski mask, but not quite. Sort of a neck warmer and scarf, but not quite.
It covered my mouth for sure, but the nose required constant tugging on the drawstring, so not quite.
The long trip home allowed time for thought, if little else, and so that's what I did.
It was during this time of solitude and reflection that I wondered what had become of dad's St. Patrick's Day wardrobe. There had been many moves since he passed. There were still many boxes in Albany and Schenectady. There was a storage room in Bethlehem Pennsylvania and one in Stuyvesant Town too.
Surely these treasured remnants of happier times were not thrown out for I throw out nothing for fear it may be needed someday.
I now had a mission, a defined purpose, even during a pandemic.
The next day I devised a plan which quickly was thwarted. I would not be traveling to Pennsylvania anytime soon I was told. The storage room in Stuy Town turned up many fond memories but no father's apparel. And so it was the north country and the garages and warehouse that were in my cross hairs.
I would begin at dawn.
The Schenectady and Albany searches had seemed fruitless as well and with each find I would stop and reflect and laugh or sometimes cry. Then I saw it. It was a lone drawer sitting by itself in the corner of a musty garage on Belvidere Avenue.
This was my best friend's home and I often would leave things there and promise to return for them and add rather than subtract upon each subsequent visit. This lone drawer had been separated from its companions which had stayed with their bureau with the broken legs years ago. It was then I knew this was my treasure trove.
And there they were wrapped in brittle clear plastic bags. There they lay, the vast array of dad's handkerchiefs that were worn over the decades in his pockets. All shapes and sizes and all shades of green.
From Bonds and Barneys and Best & Co. in New York and from McManus & Reilly and Spector's in Albany.
It's as if I could still smell his cologne as I held them and pressed them to my face.
Alas, they have been found and with some minor alterations, my mask problem had been forever solved.
There was a seemingly endless supply and they had survived all through the years. Survived all those moves and all that forgetfulness.
And they were not thrown out for they may be needed someday.
And most importantly.
They were my Father's handkerchiefs!
A long time resident of both Albany NY and New York City. Currently retired from Merrill Lynch after a 34-year career in both cities. I graduated from Russell Sage College (B.A.) and The New York Institute of Technology (M.A.)
I am a volunteer at the NYU Langone Medical Center Chaplaincy Office and at the Doe Fund Workforce Development Center.
Albany is where my heart is, where my dearest friends are, where my fondest memories are, and where William Kennedy writes of to make me love it even more.
The alarm went off. It was 5:30 am. The bedroom was still dark when she opened her eyes. It took a minute to adjust her sight. After a few seconds, she was able to distinguish Maya by her side: white, small, and snoring lightly on the bed. From where she lay, Anna could listen to some birds singing and a few cars on the street. Those sounds made her feel at peace before her hectic day at work started.
It was the beginning of spring, but the temperature was still low – that day it was less than 5°C. Like every morning, she didn’t want to get up and start doing yoga. Every day, the first thought that crossed her mind was that she should stay in bed longer and skip her exercises. This would give her an hour and a half more of sleep and the chance to take a calm shower before the rush of the day started – but that never happened.
Anna got up and started getting ready for her yoga session. She would trade her pj’s for a yoga top and shorts and see her toned muscles in the mirror. It was not only what she saw, but she could feel them, they were stronger – this made Anna feel powerful. After brushing her hair, she took her mat and started preparing her spot for the session. The mat was pink and had cherry blossoms as part of its decoration; it was soft and somehow managed to be warm during these cold days.
She proceeded to prepare her spot – it was near the windows and terrace. Since the sun hadn’t come up yet, Anna was able to see light in some of the neighborhood apartments. She didn’t know anyone, but those bright lights in the dark gave her a sense of company – even looked after. Sometimes she imagined what her neighbors could be doing. She would picture them making breakfast, reading, already working, or, like her, getting ready to exercise. The pandemic had been hard on everyone, but she wanted to believe that everybody, somehow, had already found a balance in their lives – just like her. When the pandemic started, her back was killing her because she was working more than 10 hours per day, and after being at her desk she would only move to her sofa. So, her body gave her a clear message, “you need to do exercise, or we won’t survive this”. That was why she started yoga, and after all this time, she was convinced that it was a wise decision.
She opened a window to let fresh air in. The air was cold but refreshing. The morning breeze was full of pleasant smells, and she could perceive the fresh scent of the leaves on the trees, and there was one smell in particular that she cherished in the mornings. At the end of her street there was a small bakery, and it was already open. They were baking cookies and bread, and Anna could smell the sugar, chocolate, and the dough of the delicious bread they were preparing. Anna was fully charged of energy after that aromatic feast. She removed her slippers and noticed that the floor was freaking cold, but it didn’t matter. In a few minutes she would not feel chilly, or probably nothing, because of the lovely pain that she was about to experience. She turned on her yoga app that suggested the sequence for the practice of the day. The app had classical music to accompany her 90-minute session. She could listen to Vivaldi or Mozart’s vibrant music while her session was on. Now she was ready.
The first 20 minutes had easy stretches and some flexing. Anna always thought it was a way for the app to go easy on her because during those minutes she constantly yawned and wasn’t as sharp in her moves. After that “gift”, everything got more intense. Usually at this point, the sun would start coming up. She was able to see the clouds; they had soft tones of pink and orange, and there were even some strokes of blue and yellow, too. It was breathtaking. She was reminded of a Monet painting and the beautiful skies he drew, like in his famous sunrises or chapels with different lighting on their structures. She used to think the sun brings life to the street. By now there were more cars and louder sounds outside, but she didn’t get distracted by them.
Maya came to Anna’s spot and lay down by her side, waiting for her human to finish her session, so it could be petted. It usually lay down on its bed and stared at her. Somehow, Maya knew her human needed to be cheered up because time went on, and the poses were about to get harder. The app was suggesting more complex yoga poses that required Anna’s full attention because they were related to balance, strength, and flexibility. She knew she could do it, though she didn’t always think so.
Over the past year her confidence had increased. She discovered her body was able to do poses without hesitation, but when she started fear was her main companion. Her confidence was low, not only in her yoga skills, but in herself. Back then, during the sessions she could hear a voice in her head saying “you won’t be able to do it” or “why you bother? You will never do it right”. Immediately after hearing those ideas loud and clear, she would fall and sometimes hurt herself, but she managed to keep going. Over the following months, the message of the voice changed. She would hear phrases like “you can do it”, “try again”, “hold it”, and “you cannot do it now, but eventually you will”. There were moments in which Anna would say those ideas out loud to encourage herself during a complex pose like the half-moon, side planks with a tree, or crow poses.
When she was not practicing yoga, she would consider it impossible to be positive toward herself. For her, being positive was pathetic and weak, but on the mat, she felt empowered by those kind words. It took a while, but she started saying those phrases in her day-to-day life, as part of her personal care and being kind to herself. Anna stopped considering this as self-pity, and she stopped feeling ashamed of needing gentle words during the day. Yoga was changing Anna’s point of view on life, and she liked that.
Back in her room, there were 30 more minutes to go. Sweat started pouring through her forehead and body. It was a decisive moment in the session: she had to do the revolved hand to toe pose but was unable to sustain it. Her right foot fell, she almost lost her balance and noticed that her foot hurt. She tried again, but she was unable to do it because of the pain.
“You couldn’t do it now, but you will be able to do it next time”.
Her voice was soft, but decisive, so she carried on with her practice.
Outside the sun was up, the green leaves in the trees were moving softly in the wind and she could see some sun rays making their way through the leaves. The rays changed the intensity of the color on the leaves in a wonderful way. There were different tones on the trees, from dark green to soft yellow in some spots. Anna saw some squirrels jumping from one branch to another; they seemed to be playing. All of a sudden, a hummingbird decided to visit by her window. She could see its exquisite wings and their rapid movements, and that it had some red and white in its face and neck. It was lovely. It hovered some seconds by Anna’s window and then continued its path, searching for nectar in the flowers of the neighborhood.
Back at her apartment, practice was about to end. She was sweating profusely and breathing heavily, but she felt deeply happy. Maya decided that her human needed physical support, so it got on Anna’s belly and looked her in the eyes. It didn’t matter that its action was cutting Anna’s breath – Maya was a little bit heavy, but she found this funny and cute at the same time. Anna had another day in her history that demonstrated what she was able to accomplish. She was proud of herself.
The sun was coming in through the windows, and her skin took on a gorgeous golden-pink tone. She was shining and ready to conquer her day.
I am an electronics and communications engineer living and working in Mexico City. During the pandemic I discovered yoga and writing stories, both of which led me to write this essay. I took a writing course at Sarah Lawrence, and from there we created a writing group – a safety net for us women writers – through which I learned about the NYS Writers Institute.
2020: The year you were born in a pandemic
In your dimly lit room, I sit rocking you long after you’ve fallen asleep. As tired as I am when you wake multiple times a night, I try my best to soak in these times together. It’s hard to focus on the present this year, but in this moment, I remember to do just that. The first five months of your life have already passed in the blink of an eye, and yet, as fast as they’ve gone, it’s also been the longest five months. Actually, it’s been the longest nine months.
One day when you ask me about the year you were born, I’ll pause and sigh before I begin to tell you about 2020—the lost year. You, my baby, were born in a pandemic. What we thought would be a few fleeting weeks turned into months and you became a visible representation of the passing time. Starting as a 24-week bump in my belly, you were born and grew into a happy, plump babe right before my eyes.
I had so many hopes and dreams for 2020. We all did. As any mother wishes, I imagined your first year would be filled with celebrations of your life surrounded by family and friends, a year filled with warm, close hugs and kisses on your chubby little cheeks. A year where you’d travel to meet relatives and spend your first holiday season surrounded by loved ones.
But instead, 2020 became a year where we were safe at home, just the three of us, you, me, and dad. A year where our masked faces covered our smiles and our tired, new parent eyes were seen only over phones and computer screens. There was barely time to mourn the year that should have been between the sleepless nights and days working from home while working to find a sense of normalcy.
We trudged along. Overwhelmed and overtired, but with you in our arms. Our little light through the darkness. This December night, you sleep in my arms blissfully unaware of this mess of a year. When you smile, a smile so pure, it makes me forget about the struggle 2020 has been mentally and emotionally, not just for me, but for everyone, and especially for those of us who became new parents during a pandemic.
You see, I’ve struggled with becoming a mom. It’s hard. The absolute most challenging thing I’ve done in my thirty years on this earth. That’s not to say I don’t love it, I do, but it’s a challenge. A challenge of lack of control, of sacrifice, and of becoming a new version of myself. What’s most difficult as I grapple with everything that emotionally and mentally plagues a new parent is second-guessing whether what I feel is a result of motherhood, postpartum, or the pandemic. An added layer of complication that many new parents are experiencing this year.
Instead of learning how to adjust to the “normal parent stuff,” I’m left wondering if this insurmountable feeling of overwhelm I experience when there’s the smallest task on my to-do list is to be expected during the early months of parenthood or if it’s something more. It’s a lot. 2020 has been a lot.
When you’re older, and you ask about the year you were born, I wonder how much I’ll be able to recall. Will I block out the exhaustion, not just that which comes from bringing home a newborn, but that which comes from coping with a pandemic and the responsibility of bringing new life into the chaos? Will I remember the extra time we were able to spend together because we stayed home instead of the time we can never get back sharing your early days with family and friends? Only time will tell. Only time will heal what could have been.
What I can tell you is how we were healthy, and you were loved, and how I held you close through every tear you shed and every day of those first five months of your life. I’ll tell you how I soaked up your youth, knowing we could never get that time back. While 2020 feels like the year life was put on pause, you my little one, showed me that life continues on. Through the happy memories and the hardships, you grew. It was a little at a time. Growth so small we didn’t see it every day or even every week. But today, we look back, and we see it, just how far you’ve come.
You’ve taught me that life goes on. Time continues to move whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, and it’s up to us to make a choice. Will we stay the same, or will we grow with it?
For you, it’s not a choice. Your pure and innocent little body has made that decision for you. But for the rest of us, it is. How will we choose to remember 2020?
As I rock you, your unburdened mind growing as you sleep, I choose to remember this. How you feel in my arms right now. The smell of your freshly bathed peach fuzz hair. The smoothness of your skin, uncalloused by the harshness of the world. While 2020 may feel like a lost year, for me, it’s the year I found you, and that’s how I choose to remember it.
Danielle Doolen is a writer, communications professional, and thought leader on work, women, and well-being. Her writing and expertise have appeared in Career Contessa, Insider, Motherly, PopSugar, PRSA Strategies & Tactics, Thrive Global, and more. She holds a master’s degree in professional accountancy from the University at Albany. By day, she works in corporate communications at a Fortune 500 automotive retailer, but her favorite role to date is being a mom.
Autism in the time of Covid
Barbara Fischkin (Spring 2020)
The Covid test for my son came back positive. Great, I told myself, first you gave him autism, now the plague.
Dan, 32, has been unable to speak since he was three and a half, a rare case of Childhood Disintegrative Disorder. Doctors at Yale told my husband and me to expect the worst. This, they said, was as severe as it gets on the autism spectrum. The worst did not happen. As an adult, Dan has an active life. Still, he is far from cured. Due to his lack of speech and other disability-related deficits, he cannot live by himself or go anywhere alone. He lived with us until he was 22 and then moved to a nearby group home. It is a beautiful, well-furnished house and he has his own large room. Still, it is a group home.
I do not know what happened to our once normal child; nobody does. As the spectrum itself grows, it becomes more confounding. For me, maternal guilt comes with the territory and it is irrational. I am still haunted by the long-debunked theory that “refrigerator mothers” cause autism. In my case this is beyond ridiculous. Friends, relatives, and colleagues—and my husband in particular—claim I have an overabundance of warmth, enthusiasm, and passion and, if anything, could tone it down a bit. Still, on bad days the dark side of my brain imagines Bruno Bettelheim, the most famous purveyor of the “refrigerator mother” autism myth, rising from his cremated ashes to crown me the world’s foremost ice queen.
I think: I should have worked less after he was born? Should I not have moved him from one country to another when he was just a toddler? I was a journalist and a writer. But I took him with me. On interviews in Mexico City, to Guatemala to interview orphans, to Panama, Thailand, and the Philippines to catch up to his foreign correspondent father. He rode in a baby backpack and played with my hair. I took him—and a nanny he loved—to a North Carolina writing workshop, because two weeks was too long a separation. Doesn’t this exemplify a warm mother?
I should have played more games with him. Did we have enough puzzles? Too many? I read to him every night, didn’t I? Goodnight Moon. The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The Philharmonic Gets Dressed. You name it, I read it.
I breast fed Dan. Or am I imagining this?
Could a mother imagine she did such a thing, when she did not? I do not think so. But when it is almost 30 years since your child fell apart and you still don’t know why, such thoughts continue to flow. And so, it came as no surprise to me—or others—that when Dan tested positive for the novel Coronavirus, I was sure I had given this to him, too. I based this on circumstantial evidence which would be mortifying, if it weren’t so funny. In the worst of times, and in our memories of them, humans crave humor. If we didn’t, the Holocaust movie "Life is Beautiful" would not have won three Academy Awards.
So here goes: I was sure I gave Dan the virus because I had my eyelashes dyed.
The woman who does this for me—as she tells great stories about waxing the legs of Lillian Hellman and Beverly Sills—tested positive after my last appointment with her on March 4. New York was still wide open then. She was so sick that she wondered if she was down for the count. I didn’t find out until she revived and after I had spent a day with my son. If I had known, I would not have seen him. This anti-mantra flowed through my brain, until I convinced myself I could push it aside by a list of other ways Dan could have been infected. Three of his group home housemates had it. Did they give it to him? Or he to them? Staff came in and out. My husband and I rode the Long Island Rail Road in early March. We walked and biked the crowded boardwalk in Long Beach on Long Island, where we live. This is the nobody knows virus. Dr. Peter Piot, the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine described in the New York Times on May 26 as a “legend in the battle against Ebola and Aids,” does not know where he got Covid-19.
Dan appears to be healthy now. He has been symptom-free for weeks. He has, ahead of time, lost the 20 pounds he usually sheds in summer when he surfs the ocean. He looks like himself again, tall and solid, fashionably balding with a Roman profile. There do not seem to be any Covid after-effects, as many others—including Piot—report. But. . . can a mother tell such a thing from a distance of six feet? As I finish writing this on June 1, I have not been able to touch my son or even stand in the same indoor room with him since March 17. Seventy-six days. After 49 days, my husband and I were permitted curbside visits with him. It is as if our son were a restaurant permitted to offer take-out, but not delivery. Neither one of us has ever not seen him for this long, even in those vintage traveling days.
His movements and his usual activities have been severely curtailed as part of Covid-related New York State emergency guidelines. I believe these guidelines create a false sense of safety and discriminate against the disabled who live in group homes. Modified house arrest, I call it. No visitors inside, except for the staff who care for him and a nurse who comes once a week. Dan cannot leave his group home or his yard to go any farther than a short neighborhood walk with an aide. The state says these restrictions are needed because autism and other developmental disabilities often come with behavioral outbursts and sensory overload. In short: the state does not think Dan will keep a mask on in public. It thinks he will run close to people and cause a fuss, otherwise known in the worst of autism jargon as a “behavior,” or a “meltdown.” How, I ask, is this behavior different from the general population?
As Dan’s guardians, my husband and I could take him for an outing to a park or home for a day or for an overnight, as we often have done. But we have been warned it could be a long time before he would be permitted to return to the corner house—The Francis Avenue House—which has been a home he has loved for a decade. It is also the place where he gets the help he needs—the help he would need if anything happened to us. We are healthy, but we are 65. One never knows. Unmasked people were among the throngs of those protesting the police murder of George Floyd, some making far more than a fuss. I deeply condemn police brutality against people of color. If I could get close enough to Dan to use the communication methods that work for both of us, I am sure he would tell me the same. I know his politics—and how he loves the diverse aides who help him get through life. He would go with me to a “Black Lives Matter” protest in a flash—and all of those on Long Island have generally been peaceful. If only I could take him without making his own challenging life even more insecure. Without jeopardizing his ability to return to his home.
I think back to the Skype calls I had with him when he was sick. He looked like a wilted, life-sized Raggedy Andy. When I remember him like this, I worry. He had late-onset autism, why not late-onset aftereffects? I worry about his mental well-being. Restrictions like the ones under which he now lives deepen his anxiety. He likes to be out and about. The two vans used by his house stand idle. Often, two of his three housemates—both of whom tested positive and are now recovered—take those walks with him. They speak more than Dan but still only very little. I know them and I know they all know what is going on. And that there is a missing piece. One of the “guys,” as we call them, was taken home by his mother when the pandemic hit.
In May, she wrote to me that he was asymptomatic, never sick, but was testing positive and could not return until he tests negative. He has been gone for more than three months. He misses the guys and they him. That they live generally in harmony is amazing, since they have such distinct personalities and preferences. At the bottom of their first-floor steps it says: “A house divided. Giants versus Jets.” That may be the most benign of their differences.
Yes, we could have taken him home. Whenever I hear from the mother who did take her son home from the Francis Avenue House, the guilt returns. She’s a warm mother, I hear Bettelheim’s ghost say. This mother sent me a message that in regard to her son, no one “would have done a better job taking care of him than me. No one can. I am his mother.” Gulp.
I have pandemic nightmares. The scenarios I concoct during the day, prompted by memory and brutal imaginings, are far worse. I have envisioned myself on trial for Dan’s murder—murder-by-Covid-infection. The prosecution called a character witness, a physician who proclaims: “She was always a terrible mother. Why, she actually kept chocolates in the house! Can you imagine having a son with autism and keeping chocolates in the house. Now she gave her son Covid and all because of an eyelash dye.”
There actually was a physician who scolded me for this original “crime,” after I told her that Dan had gobbled up an entire box. “What the hell is chocolate doing in your house?” she asked. I agreed with her. It was a bad idea. In retrospect, it was anything but a bad idea. Wasn’t it bad enough he had autism, did he have to forgo sweets too? And what about his younger brother? Wasn’t it punishment enough he had a sibling who could not speak to him? Was he supposed to lead a chocolate-deprived life as well? Now in my daydreams I hear the jury convict me. Son in heaven. Mother can burn in hell.
I wonder what Bettelheim’s ghost is saying about autism mothers in the time of Covid. I wonder what the men who helped spread the word about cold mothers as Bettelheim illuminated in his book The Empty Fortress are saying. What is the ghost of Leo Kanner saying? Kanner was the psychiatrist who first identified autism in the 1940s—and as late as 1960 described mothers like me as “just happening to defrost enough to produce a child.” Their pronouncements took a long time to ebb away.
With Covid, as with everything else in Dan’s life, it takes a village.
In good times and bad, the villagers appear in many forms.
If I named all for whom I feel grateful, this would be an encyclopedia. It would start with his father and his brother. It would include a panoply of relatives, friends, therapists, aides, farmers, and teachers who have worked and communed well with Dan over the years. The best of those who work with him, love him, and also love what they do. They presume his competence and work to give him more independence. Apart from family, many move on. Or we replace them.
The Yalies were replaced by the now late Isabelle Rapin, a neurologist dubbed by Oliver Sacks as his “scientific conscience.” She took one look at my husband and asked, “Do you play hockey?” “How’d you know?” he replied. She guffawed. “Teach your son to ice skate. Kids with autism need proprioceptive input. It will also give him a lifetime of fun.” She was absolutely correct. Dan learned to skate and inspired his then two-year-old brother to play hockey.
Like so many, our family did not imagine the pandemic would hit New York as it did, or that we would need the village, in whatever form it might take, more than ever. We should have known this on March 11 when the upcoming New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade was cancelled for the first time since it began in 1762. An omen, if there ever was one. The parade, always held precisely on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, is special to Dan.
When my parents died from natural causes during my pregnancy, Dan’s paternal grandparents took over. They, too, have now passed away. But Dan heard their stories. He knew they came from a long line of hardworking Irish immigrants. He’d heard about roots in Northern Ireland, in Derry and in County Cork in the Irish Republic. He’d heard that in America, his relatives had become NYPD patrolmen and officers, public school teachers, and more. The grandfather Dan knew, a celebrated criminal attorney, was a regular at school meetings where we requested services for Dan. “I am here as grandpa, not as an attorney,” he would say, but it had an effect. So did Dan’s paternal grandmother, a doctorate-level special educator who called upon her coterie of expert friends to advocate for him.
It is for them that Dan marches in the parade every year. Despite the concentration deficits that come with autism, he always makes it up Fifth Avenue, wearing an Aran sweater, doing his distinctive jig or carrying a shillelagh without mishap. People who recognize he has autism shout “good job!” at him from the sidelines. Code words for “we know.” With good-natured skepticism, Dan stops at St. Patrick’s Cathedral each year to be blessed by one cardinal or archbishop or another, even though their prayers have never brought back his speech.
Thinking of this, in mid-March we foolishly worried more about the effect the parade cancellation would have on Dan than the oncoming pandemic. So we made him lunch at the Long Beach home of his childhood. There was Irish smoked salmon, one of Dan’s favorites. Then we took our best shot at a distanced walk on the local boardwalk. Dan walked much faster than usual, as if he truly were in a quick-moving parade.
St. Patrick’s Day was the last time I was able to get close enough to my son to touch him. The next day, the large agency which runs his group home—and whose actions and license are monitored by the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD)—shut out everyone not essential. The aides who staff the house round-the-clock could come for their shifts, after having their temperatures taken and providing acceptable answers to questions regarding their exposure. Anyone who arrived with symptoms could not work until a physician deemed them free from illness for at least 14 days. Except for the aides, it was: “Nobody In. Nobody Out.” No therapists. No communication class from Tammy the speech therapist, no art teacher, no supervisors. No parents, siblings, guardians, or other visitors. No. No. No.
Beyond this, the staff was skeletal. In effect, as remaining villagers, they were so overworked they resembled survivors. Others were home sick, while some would soon develop symptoms and be sent home. Many were terrified about their own health and did not show up for work. I could not blame them. Officially most of these staffers are called DSPs, or Direct Support Professionals. They are paid wages hovering above the local minimum wage at reimbursement “service delivery rates” set by the state. They are paid to keep guys like Dan engaged, fed, wearing clean clothes, and assisting them, when needed, in a wide range of daily living skills including bathing, toileting, and teeth brushing.
The DSPs tell me themselves, “Nobody does this for the money.” They say they do it for love, for the other rewards, to keep them out of trouble on the weekends—or because they just prefer to be working all the time. True, some do seem as if they could not get a job anywhere else. Ultimately, they quit. Or grow into loving the work, albeit while complaining appropriately about the pay.
At the helm at Francis Avenue is Elizabeth Balay, the house manager who lives with her husband, in an agency-subsidized separate apartment within the group home itself. She is as much a part of the Francis Avenue House as any of the guys. The house closed to the world on March 18. Liz was due to deliver her first child May 1. She would take her maternity leave in her apartment. But she was still working with the guys. “Go!” I told her. “Go to your apartment.” “I am okay,” she insisted. I was not sure this was true. But she was needed and knew it.
On lockdown, she had the house and the guys all the time. Their daytime work programs shut down, as did their recreational activities, those run solely by the AHRC as well as non-agency events and programs open to people with disabilities or the general public. No dances, no bowling, no gym time at the rec, no parks, no street fairs. For Dan, no “special” hockey with the Long Island Blues, no places where he did meaningful tasks. No equestrian center, no setting up meals in a nursing home where his youthful appearance was so cheering, no farm opening to anticipate. The hydroponics class he had just started, as part of his day program, paused. For Liz and her staff, this meant no extra helpers from these programs, no extra diversions for the guys.
This sheltering in place also cut off my son’s most effective avenues of communication. Since he was four, I have been using a technique called facilitated communication with him, in which he requires the trained touch of someone else to prompt him to choose on his own terms the letters he needs on a keyboard. Educators at two universities—Syracuse and Chapman—have validated his communication. Locally, speech therapist Tammy and I are the only ones trained to use this technique with Dan.
Dan and his father and brother have their own often foolproof way of communication with Dan. I see it as a meeting of the Mulvaney male minds, a critical one. But that was shut off, too. Also, on his iPad Dan has an app called Proloquo2Go which he uses to point to phrases such as “I want,” and then to photos of foods, activities and people. But none of the aides are trained to use this with him, although many try. Many also have a sixth sense that enables them to understand Dan. Some have been able to inspire him to say a few words—and even sing a few during a karaoke night. But would those aides be on duty? Or sick or scared? And even if they were working, with this accelerated staff shortage would any of them have time?
It all sounded like a death knell, and indeed, a number of residents of group homes in the Nassau AHRC and other similar agencies would die. Most, I believe, were elderly. All mourned by bereft staff, perhaps as much as they were mourned by relatives and friends. Fortunately, the guys all survived.
On the morning of March 25, Liz woke me early to tell me my son was very sick. I shook myself awake. I shook my husband awake. Dan was running fevers at heights he had not known since the childhood hospitalization that ultimately led to his regression into autism. What would be the end result of this? I insisted he be tested for the Coronavirus and emailed yet another member of the village, Dr. Mary Mulqueen. She is Danny’s primary care physician and has known him for years. Before medical school, she was a counselor at Camp Loyaltown, the AHRC sleepaway camp. Mary, as I call her, or Doc Mary—when I remember to do so—told me the medical clinic on the grounds of the agency had very few kits. She did not think she could corral one for Dan. She never lies to me.
Still, I was determined. We had to know with what we were dealing, particularly since Dan cannot speak. I had an ace in the hole, albeit one that broke my heart. I called a “village elder,” so to speak, the youthful Shaun Weathers, who is the AHRC’s Senior Director of Program Operations. He also speaks the truth and gets things done, even when I also give him a hard time about some agency lapse or another. I told him that before we saw Dan on St. Patrick’s Day, I had been in contact with someone who I since learned had tested positive. “This changes the picture,” he said. I did not mention my eyelash dye.
Dan was tested March 26 with positive results on March 27.
Immediately I applied to the state for my husband and I to be tested. Two weeks later they called us to a tent at Jones Beach, where a doctor looking kindly behind his mask stuck a tube down our noses and into our throats. For about two seconds it hurt in a strange way. The next day the results came back negative. Gradually, as the country began to learn some of Covid’s mysteries, so did we. We realized that all that negative test meant is that we did not have Covid on the day we were tested. Did this mean I did not give Covid to my son? Or that I am an asymptomatic carrier? Or that we merely did not have the virus on the day we were tested? We still do not know.
The village shrank even more. More people called in sick. Liz finally agreed to retreat to her apartment for the remainder of her pregnancy. She was “replaced” with a group manager who would do double duty—her own house a few minutes away had nine “guys.” As Dan’s sickness and fever prevailed, at least two staffers were doing too-long shifts at Francis Avenue. They were exhausted and told me so.
And slowly Dan got better. His fevers popped up and down, but never as high as before. He had a cough for a while, then it too subsided. The day program, led from home by AHRC veteran Dorothy DeMarco, sprang into action. Two staffers went to work with the guys at the house, also risking their health. They baked. They got him back on Facebook and posted photos. He started practicing surf pop-ups in the basement, where he also learned some boxing. Angel, an aide who he has worked with before, was there—and the familiarity calmed me further. In the yard, they played basketball. Soon they were permitted to take walks. The walks were too short. I complained. The walks got longer.
Soon my husband and I were able to make those curbside visits. The first was May 5. Cinco de Mayo. More magic. The three of us had celebrated it together in Mexico City, eight months after I’d given birth to Dan. Now, Dan came out of the front door, dutifully wearing a disposable mask and with the stunned look of a political prisoner wondering about his fate. In the best of scenarios, a bridge would appear on his street followed by a noir trade-off of detainees. Would Dan be permitted to go for a longer walk in exchange for five Russian spies? We had more visits, including one on Mother’s Day.
Now we go every Sunday at six, bringing him bags of treats. He stays on the steps, sometimes with prompts from an aide, and my husband and I stay on the sidewalk. That he can do this now is amazing, as a little boy with autism he often ran away. We’ve found him at the grocery store, on a boat parked in a neighbor’s driveway, where he had found a bag of Cheez Doodles—and at the police station after they called and said, “he won’t talk to us.” That really happened.
I have written to OPWDD saying that if people can go to the beach, so can Dan. They still say that if I do there this is no telling when I can bring him back. A week and a half ago they told me they were working on it. As they work, I wait.
And so, we wait.
Cardinal, a DSP who had the virus, is well enough to be back working a bit. I long to see him again, back in his usual mode, a frenzy of activity and caring. Liz had her baby and although she is still on leave, she wheels the baby boy on the neighborhood streets and stops at the window of the living room in the guys’ part of the house. Recently she stopped to sweetly remind Dan to be quiet in the night so the baby can sleep. The locked door to her apartment is down the hall from his room. Sometimes he makes noises of frustration at night and hits his head with his hands. It stopped for a while after Liz asked him to be quiet—and has only returned once or twice since.
Day Program Dorothy, it turns out, has experience with Proloquo2Go. The other day, one of her staffers at Francis Avenue told me on a Skype call that while using the app, Dan touched the words “I want” with total independence. When asked to finish the sentence, he went to the square that read “vacation.”
He wants a vacation.
I’ll bet he does.
(originally published in Statement of Record, an online literary journal)
Barbara Fischkin is the author of three books of narrative nonfiction and satiric fiction and is currently writing an autism-related historical novel titled The Digger Resistance, some of it set in what was once an Eastern European shtetl. She holds an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Studies Degree in “Autism Past and Present,” is a writer for City University of New York’s Office of Communications and Marketing, and is a member of the CUNY Disability Scholars Group. As an international journalist, Fischkin covered stories in Latin America, Asia, and Europe and wrote for major publications including Newsday, where she was on staff, The New Yorker, and the New York Times, among many others.
(Photo by Robert Arkow)
Shaelyn looked at me her round hazel eyes, simultaneously widening and swelling with tears.
“Please get off the phone, Shae,” I asked, with a hint of annoyance in my voice, not wanting what came next to be witnessed by her teenaged friends on FaceTime or recorded. She waved, shut her phone off, and put it face down on the counter.
I slowly opened the door to the kitchen acutely aware of the whine of the old hinges. Two tall nurses stood there garbed in snowy white Personal Protective Equipment looking like they had just escaped from a secret laboratory. Their faces were covered with masks, goggles, and face shields, and they shuffled in making sweeping noises because their feet were enveloped in oversized white shoe PPE too. I knew from their alert call a half an hour ago that a male assistant was waiting for them in the car in case something went afoul. I wondered what that meant; we wouldn’t get violent, and a nose probe shouldn’t cause a medical emergency. Zoe instantly saw them as a threat and barked loud and deep, a ten-pound warrior of silky terrier that I promptly scooped up to restrain.
This is straight out of the dystopian novels I teach, I thought. I flushed and wondered if now I had spiked a fever after checking my temperature with the digital forehead thermometer and oxygen levels with the pulse oximeter for the finger compulsively every hour for the past day and a half. I had been waiting for these state nurses to descend upon us after my principal’s initial sympathetic and regret filled phone call telling me that I had been one of thirty-six people exposed to the deadly virus. My close contact was in a 504 meeting in a small room, and I instantly knew the man at the far end of the table was very sick. His color was off, I could see he was perspiring a lot, and he didn’t look like or act like his compassionate and erudite self. When it was time to leave, I had held my breath as I walked by him to go teach my class. Was that cautionary step enough to save me? Would Scarsdale Middle School become the epicenter of another cluster? With my weakened lungs from asthma and many bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia would I get really sick and possibly die?
I knew all too well what it was like to fight for every stabbing breath after my five-day hospital stay and two weeks of bedrest for double pneumonia and pleurisy five years ago. I had witnessed both my parents die of lung ailments, and no way did I want to struggle like a fish out of water gasping for breath like they did.
Am I positive? I always worked hard to pass tests, but I desperately wanted to fail this one. I immediately recognized that upstate accent with the hard “a” sound when the nurse closest to me confirmed our names, “Janie, Patrick, and Shaelyn Fitzgerald,” and I soon discovered that they had been sent from Albany.
Suddenly, we heard the loud growl and whine of the 2300cc Triumph Rocket III’s engine as Patrick rolled in from the motorcycle dealership. “That’s my husband summoned home from work,” I remarked, and Zoe started her mad barking anew her muscular little body in my arms clenching with every snap of her teeth. “Shae, please put her in the crate,” I asked and handed her off to my daughter who flipped her long golden hair out of her face and walked out to do what she was told without complaint . . . for once. Patrick burst through the door impatience evident in the way he stood, still wearing his armored black jacket and boots, and placed his gleaming motorcycle helmet on the edge of the kitchen table, ‘“I had just sent my customer out on a test ride when Janie called,” he offered as an explanation of his delay in coming home. The nurse nodded, and continued to carefully lay out three bags with testing paraphernalia and paperwork.
“Wow, you come organized,” I remarked.
The nurse who hadn’t spoken yet replied, “This is to minimize our exposure to you.” That comment jarred me, a felt the rush of a dark blush spread across my face. I hadn’t thought about how dangerous being in contact with me might be.
“I’’ll go first.” I volunteered. I felt a bit guilty that my family members were going to have to endure, along with me, this uncomfortable medical procedure as some of the first COVID-19 tests administered in New York State.
“Tilt you head back,” the face obscured nurse instructed. The swab looked about a foot long. I felt her probing deep into my sinuses like she was trying to reach my brain. I locked eyes with my husband’s chocolate brown ones and saw his deep wells of empathy as he winced with me. The other nurse was testing Shae, and my brave sixteen-year-old daughter had her eyes, mouth, and fists clenched shut. When it was Patrick’s turn he joked, “Don’t scratch my brain,” and I saw how thoroughly and efficiently he was probed. The nurses carefully put our samples into the test tubes and biohazard bags, and then they served us the papers.
One stood up straight and still and proclaimed, “By order of the Department of Health of Westchester County you are not allowed to leave this premises until the 18th of March. These are your official quarantine orders,” and she slid the papers to the center of the table. There goes St. Patrick’s Day I lamented silently. There would be no cheer in Patrick Sean Fitzgerald’s house this year.
Patrick exploded, “What? I have to work! I left my customer waiting for me after his test ride. I’ve been working with him for weeks, and he’s finally ready to buy. I was told that as a contact of a contact I was free to work!” I could hear the panic and anger rising in his voice. He had only been at the job for a year, and he was worried about being expendable and replaceable, especially as an older salesman. If he didn’t sell motorcycles he wouldn’t get paid or stay employed.
The nurse closest to him gave a mechanical answer, “All people tested by the state must serve a mandatory quarantine. There will be patrols.” The door swung shut with a thud and a finality; after that threat, I realized that we were truly trapped. The police would be checking on us, and I’m sure there would be phone calls too, I surmised. We looked outside to see the bright red hazard bag that they had stuffed all of the used PPE into and discarded on our patio. We weren’t allowed to put it in the trash until our quarantine was over. I mused, “There’s a PPE shortage, but this terrible waste is the only way to keep the community safe.”
Big Brother is watching, and yes, I am living in a dystopian world, I concluded.
Janie Davies Fitzgerald is a middle school English teacher, an educational consultant, an avid reader, a writer, a scrapbooking club advisor, and an amateur photographer. She began her master’s degree work in education at the University of Albany before relocating and earning an M.A. in English from Bread Loaf School of English of Middlebury College. She served on the New York State Middle School Association's Board of Directors. While taking the Scarsdale Teachers Institute class, "Teachers Writing Workshop: Live From the Pandemic" she wrote this piece. Although Janie currently lives in White Plains and teaches in Scarsdale, her heart resides at her extended family's property on Lake George, where she is a member of the eighth generation of her family possessing a sense of stewardship towards preserving the lake. She escaped north with her family after their official quarantine ended.
I heard him come home. My phone started ringing. I didn’t answer. It rang again. I let it go to voicemail.
“Guys,” I announced to my children, helping me prep dinner in the kitchen. “Did anyone hear Dad come in the front door? Why is he CALLING me?”
The phone rang again.
“Why are you CALLING me?” I asked. “Didn’t you just come home? Come talk to me!”
“I don’t feel well,” he said. “I’m in bed upstairs.”
I felt the tension in my neck start to ache. I carry stress there, between my shoulders.
“What are your symptoms?” I asked.
“Fever. I feel achy. I just want to sleep.”
My spine tingled. I got quiet. “Okay, well, you should probably get tested.”
It was January 2021, nine months under the restrictions of the coronavirus, a fearsome virus that had killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and infected millions more.
We knew the drill of getting a highly desired but scarce rapid test. Our local clinic would open for the next day’s appointment at midnight. One of us -- I volunteered this time, so my sickly husband could sleep -- would have to set our alarm clock for 11:55pm that night, hours after we put our kids to bed, and jump online to try to grab a coveted appointment for the following day.
I called a family meeting, the first of many over the next two weeks.
“Dad is sick in bed,” I announced to my five children, ages five to 15. “He might have the coronavirus. He’s going to get tested tomorrow. In the meantime, he’s going to isolate in his bedroom. Do not go in there. Understand?”
I don’t remember much more. I think my 10-year-old son asked -- maybe that night, maybe another day over the next week -- if Dad was going to die. That was a real fear. We had read the headlines, watched the news, seen the images of people being incubated, sedated, their corpses stacked in refrigerated trucks serving as overflow morgues outside hospitals in New York City.
Over the next 24 hours, I would call my parents, text my in-laws and pastor, and leave messages for my primary care physician and children’s pediatrician. The on-call nurses called me back. We would all have to quarantine for ten days.
I took everyone’s temperature, breathed, took inventory of our food, and remembered that our pediatrician had sent us home with a pulse oximeter, in case of emergency.
“We’ll be praying,” my pastor reminded me. “Can we help with anything? Want meals?”
“Yes,” I texted back. “A meal train would be great.” One less thing to think about.
I recalled days of pregnancy and newborn babies, years earlier, when I would relish meal trains -- the idea of friends and family bringing over dinner and congratulatory hugs. It had been so long since I had seen friends, shared meals and long embraces. I smiled at the memory, grateful that we wouldn’t have to eat Cheerios and peanut butter sandwiches for the next ten days. Help was on the way. But it would be different this time, waving through the front door glass, face masks on, people afraid to come in -- and rightly so! We didn’t want to give them our germs in exchange for their soups, stews, noodles and breads.
And so it began. My husband tested positive for the coronavirus and was isolated in his bedroom. I was suddenly a single mom on duty for 24 hours each day, my kids all forced to learn virtually for school. I was supposed to be homeschooling my nine-year-old daughter in the fourth grade, but instead I delegated to her the job of helping her five-year-old sister sign in virtual school on her ipad. The others were on their school-issued chromebooks all day long, logging into virtual meetings with their teachers, doing schoolwork and playing video games in the background tabs.
I woke up every morning, worked out in the small space next to my bed in the guest room, got everyone going for the day, and tried to manage a household of seven, including one sick husband who needed more orange juice, called at all the wrong times, and asked if he could video chat with the kids. “Not right now,” I would say. It was always the worst time to chat.
The kids and I played charades in the evening -- even trying to include my husband by facetime -- had daily family meetings in which I would apologize for yelling or breaking down, and made daily chores lists that went largely ignored. I’d try again the next day, begging for help and patience. I felt overwhelmed but fueled by the maternal instinct to survive and protect.
We’d leave drinks, dinner, files that my husband requested outside his door. Sometimes, they’d go into the bedroom, and I’d demand that the kids and my husband wear face masks during those times. I was determined that no one else would get sick. Not if I could help it. Like I had some say, like I had any control over the situation or the virus.
The days felt long, the nights short. Kids would climb into bed with me -- a usual routine with my five-year-old daughter that always wanted MOMMY and my 10-year-old son, who had become more anxious in the past year since we moved.
I scheduled grocery orders and asked my sister to pick them up from the market, drop them off on my front porch. Others brought more groceries, food, stamps and library books I had requested.
My mind muddled time. What day was it?
There was light at the end of the tunnel. My husband’s fever broke. His body aches lessened. He was still tired, but he could get up, call in to work meetings, and even managed to slip out the door in the early hours, going for a walk on our five acres of property before the kids woke up. He’d come back home, creep back upstairs into the bedroom, and I’d spray the air downstairs in the entryway with disinfectant.
He started working out next to his bed.
The date when we’d be clear to return to the outside world -- to school, work and the grocery store -- was approaching.
Then, it was finally here.
I drove my two kids to elementary school, and we stood by the entrance. “We just have to clear you before you can come inside,” the teacher’s aides said. They were waiting for the school nurse, who held a clipboard and told me we had not been cleared yet.
“What? Why not? It’s been ten days,” I pleaded, desperation rising in my voice.
I referred to the data and the kids’ pediatrician, who had all said we’d need to quarantine for ten days, under the new CDC guidelines, not 14 days.
“Well, the county health department hasn’t cleared you yet,” the school nurse said.
“They haven’t even called us yet to start contract tracing!” I cried. “And, I hear they are backed up. So behind. Can I get my kids’ pediatrician to write a note?”
They told me no. We drove home, defeated. I could see the anger and the grief in my son’s face.
No one liked school anymore. And, now we’d have to do MORE days of virtual school.
My two kids in the public elementary school told me they weren’t doing school. They’d keep playing, their backs to me, when I said it was time to log on. They’d stomp their feet and grumble under their breath.
I ignored the kindergarten teacher’s reminders that my child hadn’t finished her homework. I texted the fifth grade teacher, “Can you please give me the school counselor’s phone number, because we need some help here? We’re not doing well.” The teacher called me instead, steady and reassuring, relating to me as a mom herself. “I don’t want your son to hate school. I get it. It’s so hard right now,” she said. She offered instead to call me each morning with the day’s assignments. We were all having connectivity issues due to our spotty internet.
School was tolerable those last few days, and my son finished his schoolwork in an hour.
I was overeating. I told myself that it was a stressful time. I was working out each morning, after all. Eating potato chips and other processed snacks was warranted. I knew about self-care, wanted to take long hot showers, and had been known to keep a journal. Those all went out the window. This was survival mode, and we were done.
We tried to count our blessings, my five-year-old directing us at dinner to each say one thing we are grateful for. We were grateful for our house, video games and gracious teachers. We prayed for Dad to feel better, for comfort, help and patience.
It has been two months since those two weeks, and the sun is rising. Spring is here. Hope is here.
Erika Groff is a former journalist. She lives in Troy with her husband and children.
Risk worth taking
In March of 2020 as the pandemic kicked into high gear, we cancelled the condo rental overlooking the Pacific Ocean, cancelled the flights from Albany to San Diego, and cancelled the hugs for our west coast children and grandchildren.
It had already been six months without seeing the babies become toddlers, without seeing our oldest grandson transform into a teen. When the fear of catching COVID-19 sidelined us, weekly FaceTime visits staved off sadness, but just barely. We were delighted to have the small visit, but I’m sure our youngest grandchildren thought Baba and Papa lived in a box called an iPhone. I sort of felt boxed in, too.
My husband and I longed to hold the little ones in our laps, kiss their soft cheeks, and sing the silly songs that older generations pass on to the youngest. Of course, we missed our adult children, too, but they understood the risk of getting on a plane. The fear of getting sick and succumbing to coronavirus forced us to re-evaluate what we could do, and the answer was nothing, hunker down. We thought, how long could this pandemic last?
Over time my feelings ranged from being so grateful we could afford food and had a roof over our heads when people worldwide had lost so much, to feeling trapped in a cycle of routines that made one day indistinguishable from another. Many nights as we watched the reports of deaths rising, I would cry. There were such extreme losses for countless families, what did I have to complain about?
After eleven more months of taking no risks — eating all meals at home, cutting open Amazon packages, and seeing friends only outdoors, masked, and six feet apart — we received the Moderna vaccine. It was a hallelujah moment when we left the Times Union Center— truly a shot in the arm. Now we thought we could… do what? The CDC advice was not to eat inside restaurants, have family gatherings, or travel. Hugs would have to wait.
As we watched the number of COVID-19 cases fall only to rise again, we realized it might be another year or more until the variants were under control. One son asked, “How long are you going to live like this?” I told him “live” was the operative word.
Finally, in the Spring of 2021, the CDC issued guidelines saying essential travel was OK, though “essential” was never defined.
“It’s essential for my mental health,” I told my husband.
“It’s essential because we’re old and who knows when we’ll croak,” he quipped.
A year after the original plans, with the news showing airports and beaches teeming with spring breakers, we took a deep breath and rebooked our trip to California to see family. I can’t say I wasn’t wary. I feared catching the virus in the airports, and indeed our transfer in O’Hare was freakishly normal: crowded and frenzied. We wore our protective glasses and KN95 masks, with a little terror beating in our hearts.
Before we left home, friends had invited us to eat inside a restaurant. We had refused. That was a step we deemed nonessential. But having little arms wrapped tightly around us—that was a risk worth taking.
Phyllis Hillinger lives in upstate New York and writes poetry as well as memoir. Her work has been published in Summer 2020 Trolley, in The Queen’s Quarterly, anthologies and heard on NPR. She and her husband of 53 years plan on collecting many more hugs, from both their east coast and west coast children and grandchildren.
"Hey Good Lookin'"
While the pandemic has provided wrenching social isolation, it has also provided me the chance to focus on one of the most meaningful of my relationships: the one with a 93- year-old named Pete.
During Covid, Grandpa Pete has brought me words of wisdom over Facetime each week, from his nursing home, and has listened to my worries, through a pair of large gray headphones. While we both remain largely shut inside, we exchange hearty laughs, and a soulful understanding.
Grandpa Pete has always lived long-distance. As an adolescent, I knew him for his words of wisdom, his womanizing, and his zen-like brooding. I would see him on his summer solstice birthday every year, or on trips to his family’s homestead out in rural Pennsylvania. In the latter, we might find ourselves whacking through waist high weeds and swatting succulent black flies, to be able to pass through the land where the state had taken his family’s farmstead.
When I was younger, Grandpa Pete appeared much like a distant superhero; one who did our family’s tree work with a metal sickle even in thunderstorms.
But during the pandemic year, Grandpa Pete and I have grown closer, connecting over words that are sometimes few, but struggles that at times mirror each other. I am humbled by how so much of his 93 years of life experience can be applied to coping with pandemic uncertainty.
During this challenging year while isolated in his nursing home, Grandpa’s response to “How are you?” is often either “I can’t complain,” or “I’m putting time in.”
Often one to heartily vent about my problems, I have watched this calm detachment and wry humor of his, with great attentiveness and awe.
“I get three meals a day and a bed to sleep in,” he points out. In the midst of pandemic concerns, I am reminded of how fortunate I am to also have these basic comforts.
Although Pete experiences some dementia, and no longer has his teeth (giving him an adorable smile), there is something about his calming essence, coupled with the hardship I know he has faced, that provides a certain level of perspective to the world’s current challenges. It’s like he’s exactly the person that one wants to have around in a crisis.
As Pete mentions, he has been through a lot in life. He grew up on a farm in Milford, PA with his family, and describes the long farm workdays by mentioning how he and his father worked, “From ‘can’t see’ to ‘can’t see.’”
Pete lost his mother before age ten. Afterward, his father sent him from the family farm to New York City to live with relatives. Pete mentions that “you had to join a gang” just to stay safe at school.
As an adult, he worked in several hard jobs, including being a lobster fisherman, working in a blue stone quarry, and doing tree work.
One time while on the lobster boat, Pete’s leg became wrapped in the weighted traps, threatening to send him to the bottom of the bay. Not panicking, though, he had pulled a knife out of his boot, cutting himself loose.
During the pandemic, I have watched as he applies this same poise. He seemingly effortlessly, slips free of the mental knots that I find it so easy to become tangled in.
While the pandemic has raged across the country this year, Pete and I have spoken each Monday at 1:30pm. Each time the phone rings, “Cowboy” his icloud address, appears on my phone screen, and the fully face-shielded nursing home aide appears, setting up his headphones.
I am flooded with a tiny bit of serenity on seeing Pete’s face, topped by the cowboy hat he often wears, and humbled by the kindness of his staff who give the “thumbs up” to confirm if I can hear him or not.
Early on, I began to bring my worries about the virus to Grandpa. Our conversations initially began with, “How are you doing, and what did you eat for lunch?” and quickly progressed to concerns about life and death.
“There is a difference between being worried, and being concerned,” he said one time. I was surprised, as I knew that the virus was even more a risk to him, being in a nursing home.
Sometimes a silence would pass and I would not know how to fill it. I would wait and watch his blue eyes look at me intently. Then his tongue would wag, and he would utter simply:
“Life is a very short trip. Many people waste it.”
During the Fall months, I struggled with frequent ER trips due to breathing issues, which was scary due to the concern about the virus, but also because of possible Covid exposure. (Going to get checked for a medical concern felt like opening a Russian nesting doll where several more worries jumped out, such as fear of contracting Covid in the treatment setting).
I didn’t see anyone for weeks. I had a barking cough. I had multiple Covid tests which were negative even though I felt for sure that I had the virus. One day, I said to my father, “I don’t know if I can talk to Grandpa today. I don’t want him to see me like this.”
“Sarah, the man has been through World War II,” my dad replied, challenging my sense that I needed to conceal my hardship from Grandpa.
For most of the pandemic, Pete’s nursing home was free of Covid. Then, after the Winter holidays, the cases picked up, and it seemed as though more residents than not were infected. Each week, I would hear my mother on the phone yelling at the nursing home staff about precautions, including advising them to put their staff in N-95 masks. However, there is only so much one can do from a distance.
Early in 2021, Pete received his first Covid-19 vaccination, and we held our breath.
One Monday, I was talking to Pete after I had had contact with an ex-partner over the weekend and had to gut-wrenchingly cut ties. Although I had enjoyed reconnecting, and finding out that my ex, who is a grocery worker, remained healthy amidst Covid, some familiar gut feelings returned. Much as I wanted to think otherwise, it was an unhealthy attachment for me.
“I don’t know why I’m crying so much today, Grandpa,” I said, while tears threatened to fall with startling vigor, in the face of Grandpa’s quiet empathy.
“Women do.” Grandpa Pete said. “Relationships are hard.”
“Was it hard for you to quit drinking, Grandpa?” I asked.
“Well if I hadn’t quit drinking, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you.” Grandpa’s ability to make healthier choices, really hit home with me.
A few days later, Grandpa tested positive for Covid.
The next several days were touch and go for us. Grandpa Pete got moved to the Covid ward in his nursing home. He received a transfusion of the monoclonal antibody treatment. Entirely unfamiliar staff cared for him.
Our toy poodle Charlie joined us on the FaceTime calls with Grandpa now, enthusiastically barking each time he heard Grandpa’s voice.
“Everything’s going to be alright, Dad,” My mom said.
“Well, that’s good to hear,” Grandpa said.
Some days, Pete would be lively with jokes, others he appeared catatonic. One day, I watched the Facetime screen for an hour while he napped. I watched his chest rising and falling with his breathing. I took pictures to try to track his day-to-day progress.
One day during his illness, my family and I decided to put on some of my grandfather’s favorite tunes. I sang the song “Tomorrow” to him, from Annie. We also put on Hank Williams’ song Hey, Good Lookin’, for him.
“Hey, Good lookin, whatcha got cookin?” I sang to Grandpa vibrantly.
He seemed to perk up, and chimed in with the next verse:
“How about cookin up something for you and me?” We heard him utter.
“Yayyyy!” We began clapping and shouting our applause.
I am fortunate to say that this week, Grandpa and I just had our regular Monday afternoon FaceTime call. He has been Covid-free, and is back on his regular floor.
I explain to him that we will be able to see him soon, hopefully, since the nursing homes will be opening to visitors with precautions.
“I will be able to see you in person and not on a screen!” I say.
“Then you will know that I’m real, and not fake!” Grandpa says.
After the deaths of over half a million people in the U.S. to Covid, and after everything Grandpa and I have both experienced this last year, and beyond, it feels like a humbling miracle that we are still alive, chatting with each other.
For we are just two kindred souls 60 years, 150 miles, and two phone screens, apart.
“Love you, Grandpa,” I say.
“It goes both ways,” He says.
I blow him a kiss, and he makes a gesture of catching it.
I work at the Albany Public Library, and also volunteer with the Friends and Foundation of the Albany Public Library. I have a love for libraries, and a Master of Science in Public Health from Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. My now 94-year-old grandfather, Pete, coached me over FaceTime through my pandemic anxieties, and I provided him with virtual companionship while he was confined in his nursing home. Recently, grandpa "made a break for it" as he would often joke, and moved home with my family and me.
This picture is of my grandfather and me FaceTiming each other during Covid when we were long-distance.
Making the best of it
It is overwhelming to try to comprehend the far-reaching effects of the pandemic, including the tragedy of more than 750,000 deaths in the United States and many serious illnesses. The pandemic has resulted in increased stress, anxiety, depression, overdoses, loneliness, and grief. It has had an especially devastating impact on the most vulnerable members of society.
Additionally, the pandemic has significantly affected our economic, educational, long-term care, and health care systems.
Almost as difficult to comprehend were Donald Trump's colossal leadership failures in the face of the worst public health crisis in a century. Prior to the coronavirus, our nation had the good fortune of having extraordinary leaders such as Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt emerge in times of crisis. Trump's rejection of science, distrust of experts, erratic leadership style, and inability to acknowledge mistakes made him ill equipped to respond to the pandemic.
The initial reports about COVID-19 from China, Italy, and New York City were heartbreaking. The first thing I noticed about the pandemic's effect locally was the stark sight of empty shelves at Hannaford. Soon after, my wife and I cancelled a Florida vacation. We were scheduled to leave the weekend in early March 2020 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised people 65 and over to avoid crowds. Because of our ages and comorbidities, we were at increased risk for serious consequences from COVID-19.
The first phase of the pandemic coincided with my long-planned retirement from New York State government. After a one-week staycation, I returned to the office on March 16, 2020. That turned out to be my last day in the office and I worked at home for the last five weeks of my career. I had envisioned retirement as a chance to have more time for my hobbies and other interests. Among these were spending time with family and friends, traveling, writing, reading, exercising, volunteering, and attending literary and cultural events.
I felt fortunate to be retired because it was easier to hunker down at home and socially distance. My wife is an attorney and had already worked from home for several years. The pandemic increased her workload significantly so, at times, there was a frenetic sense in the household that our toy poodle helped to ease. Our daughter moved back from Baltimore before the pandemic and also worked from home. After a couple of early morning trips to Target for paper products, I stayed out of stores for months. We had groceries, prescriptions, and other household necessities delivered.
My interest in writing, reading, politics, and exercising proved invaluable during the pandemic. Advances in technology made spending time at home more tolerable and Zoom became one of my lifelines. I used it for holiday and birthday celebrations with my siblings, getting together with friends, attending a memorial service, and for monthly book group meetings. The guys in book group provided a sense of community, intellectual stimulation, and humor. I also used Zoom to access numerous events and classes.
For many years, I have attended readings at the New York State Writers Institute and the 92nd Street Y. Because of the demands of my job, I usually went to the Writers Institute once or twice a semester and to the Y once or twice a year. Zoom enabled me to attend a plethora of events virtually. One of the high points of the year was Adam Gopnik's course for the 92nd Street Y on the history of The New Yorker. We read and discussed works by E.B. White, James Thurber, J.D. Salinger, Pauline Kael, Alice Munro, Joseph Mitchell, John Updike, Lillian Ross, Calvin Trillin, and others.
I also took classes on Bob Dylan, DeWitt Clinton, Robert Moses, happiness, and mindfulness. Zoom gave me access to events offered by such venues as the New York Public Library, Library of America, Northshire Bookstore, and New York Adventure Club. I attended more events than would have been possible in normal times. I saw William Kennedy, Harold Holzer, Zadie Smith, Walter Mosley, Kurt Andersen, Larry David, Martin Amis, Jane Smiley, Eugene Robinson, David Gergen, Samantha Power, Laura Dern, and others.
Local independent bookstores such as the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza and Northshire Bookstore were other lifelines. A turning point in the pandemic was when the Albany Public Library reopened for curbside pick-up. I enjoyed walking to the Library's Bach branch to get books. Freelance writing was an outlet for my creative energies and the past year turned out to be the most productive one in a while.
My daily walk was another lifeline. We live in Albany's Helderberg neighborhood, which is a very walkable area. Walking gave me a better appreciation of the neighborhood than driving had, especially when I explored its many side streets. I enjoyed checking out the landscaping, flowers, seasonal decorations and lights, political signs, and banners for sports teams.
Our family was not left unscathed by the worst of COVID-19. My cousin Jimmy who was healthy and in his early 50s died of the coronavirus early in the pandemic, leaving behind three children. My brother's mother-in-law - an active woman in her late 70s - also died of the coronavirus. Several nieces and nephews contracted it, but recovered.
The pandemic compelled me to contemplate my mortality as well as larger questions about the meaning of life. I drew strength from how valiantly my parents confronted the health challenges of their final years. During my childhood, they taught me the importance of making the best of things. I also thought about the hardships faced by Londoners during the Blitz and how courageously they continued with their daily activities.
We have seen positive developments, including the widespread availability of vaccines in the United States. The Delta variant and the potential for other highly contagious variants pose new challenges and make it critical that enough people get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. I find the resistance by some to wearing masks and social distancing difficult to understand, and the reluctance to being vaccinated even more inexplicable.
COVID-19 attacks weaknesses in our immune systems, and also exploits vulnerabilities in our political, economic, and social systems. Our nation's death rate from COVID-19 is higher than nearly all other wealthy countries.
Political polarization, racism, conspiracy theories, distrust of government and experts, economic disparities, and the hollowing out of our public health systems have all impeded our nation's response to the pandemic.
The pandemic demonstrates how interconnected the world is and the need for more collaboration among nations. Events of the past year have highlighted how essential it is to address economic, racial, criminal justice, and health care inequities. Our society's excessive focus on individualism and freedom rather than on community and responsibility are significant shortcomings. Finally, like many others, I have developed a better appreciation of the importance of front-line workers and the need to compensate them fairly and improve their working conditions.
William Hogan retired in April 2020 from the New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS) where he served as an associate commissioner.
During 40 years as a freelance writer, his essays and reviews have appeared in local and national publications, including the Albany Times Union, Daily Gazette, Knickerbocker News, The Albany Review, Small Press, Independent Publisher, and New York State Town and County Government.
Wake up. It's mourning!
Early on in the pandemic, just about a year ago, I was driving to work feeling very uneasy. I was very self conscious about being on the road as a non-essential employee in the eyes of New York State, but very essential to my small non-profit organization. In addition to an overall sense of fear and dread at being in such uncharted territory as a worldwide pandemic, I was feeling lost. I was having a hard time focusing and concentrating, and it was difficult to get myself motivated in the mornings. I was sure that I was not alone in those feelings, and they also seemed somehow oddly familiar.
Then, as I continued to drive, it hit me. I figured out what those feelings were and why they felt so familiar - it was grief! The last time I felt that lost and unsure of myself was after my husband passed away in the spring of 2012. After his death, I was unmotivated, confused, angry, sad, and everything in between. Not knowing what the future holds can be a very real and scary place.
Since that time, I have looked back and thought about the pandemic and this sense of grief that it brought to us. Then I started comparing our collective behavior and experiences to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous “five stages of grief.”
The denial started during the second week of March, 2020 when the Covid-19 virus was declared a world wide pandemic. Events started to be postponed and cancelled, and stores started to close. I was making many excuses such as “of course that event got cancelled, the average age of attendance would be up there!” “Of course that event got cancelled, there are live cases in that county.” “I’m sort of young and healthy, it won’t touch me.” And so on and so on. Afterall, it was only supposed to last two weeks!
Then we became angry. Many people were angry at China and at the entire race of Chinese people. Many were angry at the President and the administration for not doing more sooner to curb the spread. We were angry that our lives had become disrupted. We were angry that we couldn’t see our family and our friends, and that we couldn’t go to bars anymore. We were angry about so many people losing their jobs, and eventually their lives. We were angry that we couldn’t go to work and many were stuck working from home and teaching their children. Yes, we were angry about everything we had taken for granted and had seemingly lost overnight.
Then we started bargaining. If we wear our masks and behave, this pandemic will go away. If we stay home and isolate, this will be over soon. If we stay six feet apart and don’t touch anyone, we won’t get it or spread it. If we washed our hands, didn’t touch our faces and used hand sanitizer, it will all be over soon. If we listened to the Governor and the CDC and followed the rules, we would get back to normal sooner.
Then came the depression. As the months wore on, especially over the winter, we were bored and restless. We couldn’t binge watch enough television shows. We were eating and drinking with abandon. Why not open another bottle, we’re not driving anywhere? We were stuck in our homes over empty and lonely holidays, not being able to celebrate with the ones we love. By this time many of us had lost family and friends to Covid-19. We were at a very low point. And everyone thought at the stroke of midnight on December 31st that 2021 would be better. Not so fast.
Then the vaccines were announced and we were accepting that there was a light at the end of this long dark tunnel. There was more than one vaccine and the clinical trials looked promising. We got hopeful every time that a new qualifying group was announced to get the vaccine. As the number of professions increased, and the age limits dropped, we got even more excited! Everyone was posting their first and second vaccines on social media. We are feeling the warmth of spring, and hoping that the summer of 2021 will be better than the summer of 2020 and that with the change of seasons our lives will return to a new sense of normality.
The past year has been a tough learning curve. We learned a lot about ourselves and about mourning, even if we didn’t know that’s what it was. We have all been in mourning, dealing with our grief in many different ways. We have mourned our recent past lives from just before 2020. We have mourned not being able to go to work with our coworkers, we have mourned not being able to see family and friends, we have mourned our old way of life, and we continue to mourn for society and because of the bad news we are seeing every day. We have had sudden and rapid changes to our lives, livelihoods, routines, relationships and lifestyles. The Corona virus has robbed us of our normalcy and we have had to pivot quickly to keep up with the almost daily changing mandates of behavior and safety. It's all like a sudden and unsuspected death, and we are going through the motions of trying or best to keep ourselves together.
And just like when I lost my husband nine years ago, I know that I tend to cry and tear up for what I think is no reason. I know that every time someone does anything nice for me lately I cry, almost as if I am not worthy because life for me in the time of Covid hasn’t been “that bad.” In addition to grief, I also seem to feel everything more deeply as if my nerves are much closer to the surface. I remember after my husband passed away, I kept thinking "I want this part to be over. I want to get onto the next part of my life where it’s not as painful." And that's exactly what we are feeling now. We all want this to be over.
However, I am also the person who looks for the positives and looks for the lessons to be learned, and there are a lot of takeaways from the world-wide situation. Our frenetic pace has slowed, families are cooking and eating dinner together again, we are holding our loved ones closer, communicating more, and I see so many good deeds every day to help those who are less fortunate. I know for me personally, my world has become so much smaller and quieter, and I'm okay with that. Together we can ride out this storm and I hope to come out the other side a stronger and better person. I know that I will land on my feet. I always have. As I have said many times lately, this is not the worst day I have had in my life, as that bar has already been set pretty high.
Pamela Howard is a non profit administrator serving as the Executive Director of Historic Albany Foundation. To relax, she enjoys writing on the topics of grief, overcoming loss and moving forward with life.
Her first book, a non fiction work, Out of the Blue, was published in November of 2019. It is always her goal to help others in need with her actions and words.
The lucky ones
It was early spring. My dad drove down a curvy, ruddy road lined with trees awakening from winter. A hand-painted sign said "Funeral Directors" with an arrow pointing left. He parked his car about fifty yards from the one-story cinder-block building. The funeral director discouraged him from going, but he didn’t want his mom to be alone. As he approached the crematorium, he noticed the closest trees wilted, probably from the smoke. Maybe they mourned too.
A steel door opened and the operator walked out. He flicked his lighter and lit a cigarette.
Minutes earlier, he loaded my grandmother’s body into a furnace. The process is not instantaneous. Even in death, the human body is resilient. The funeral director said it can take an hour and a half. She’d be identified by a metal block stamped with a number tossed into her combustible casket.
Even at a distance, my dad said he heard the growl of the furnace. Was it angry at being called for such a grievous task? The smoke from the operator’s cigarette rose into the early evening haze where it mingled with the plume from the smokestack. Somewhere in that gray dust, a few stray ashes of my grandmother escaped into the sky.
Three nights earlier, my dad waited outside the hospital. He had followed the ambulance there and arrived around midnight. For the next ten hours, he waited in the empty parking lot for a phone call from the doctor. Hospitals had been closed to visitors earlier that month, he didn’t expect to be let in. At midmorning, the doctor called and said he should come to the intensive care unit.
He walked into the hospital through the emergency room. A nurse took his temperature and asked a series of questions. Have you traveled out of the country? No. Have you been feeling unwell? Not yet. The same questions I was asked when I went for a haircut last week. He asked for a mask, but the nurse told him that they barely had enough for themselves. It was probably a quarantine breach for him to visit his mother in the first place.
The doctor in the ICU spoke softly. It was a solemn routine. There was nothing she could do. I wonder how many times she has had the same conversation since. My grandmother was laying on her right side. My dad pulled a chair closer to her. He was happy she was in a room with a window, the sun shining through. She saw him and tried to speak, but she was on a ventilator and had a tube down her throat. He held her hand and told her she’d be ok. He watched the numbers falling on the blood pressure monitor. It was her time. He kissed her forehead and told her it’s ok to go. He told her Johnny — my uncle who died a few months earlier — was waiting. She felt the touch of her son’s hand holding hers as she quietly slipped away.
By the time he drove to the crematorium, my dad had a non-stop cough. Fever. Chills. Vomiting. Aching ribs. No appetite. Today that might lead to an immediate COVID-19 test, but this was March 2020 and the country was ill-prepared. He called his doctor who quickly ruled him out from getting a test. He was too young, had no preexisting conditions, and the tests were showing many false negatives. Stay home and mourn alone, he was told. If you can’t breathe, call 911.
My dad did his best to isolate himself. His only travel for three weeks was that trip to the crematorium He was sick enough where he didn’t really want to leave the house anyway. My grandmother had spent her last morning cooking. She left a hearty stew on the stove and a stocked refrigerator. Jars of marinated eggplant. Roasted red peppers. Bread. Salami. And blocks of Pecorino Romano cheese. She was born in Italy, and it would be a cardinal sin to leave this world without feeding it for the next month. Below in the freezer, he found fried eggplant, Ziplock bags of cooked escarole, containers of homemade sauce, prime cuts of meat, and homemade breadcrumbs that she’d made earlier that week from a loaf of stale bread. Another freezer in the garage had legs of lamb and four Butterball turkeys. Nothing ever went to waste.
I talked to my dad often during those few weeks. I was in Michigan at college and with no funeral and the risk that came with flying, I wouldn’t be going home for a while. He told me about the empty hospital, the furnace operator’s cigarette, and those last precious moments with his mother. Conversations tended to branch off from there, usually landing on books. Recently, he said he didn’t remember any of those phone calls. Maybe the memory loss was brought on by his fever, or his mind was wiping away a lonely spring.
As he recounted his time in quarantine and I lived alone in my apartment 500 miles away, it felt like we were living in fiction. The virus was omnipresent yet its victims were hidden. Masks in grocery stores, an empty college campus, and a bizarre shortage of toilet paper served as daily reminders of the pandemic. But it seemed like I was beginning to lose hold of what a pandemic means. Fifty thousand deaths. One hundred thousand. Two hundred thousand. Three hundred thousand. Those are dead Americans, why am I upset about using paper towels instead?
My grandmother was one of the lucky ones. She tested negative for COVID-19, which gives some peace of mind. Perhaps her death was not preventable, although her final day echoes the experience of someone diagnosed with the virus. She was fortunate that the doctor who watched over her in those final hours thought it safe enough for my dad to visit her. For many relatives of coronavirus patients, the last time they would see their loved ones would be at the entrance of a hospital when a nurse hidden under PPE (personal protective equipment) wheeled them away. Inside America’s hospitals, it is a chaotic and cluttered scene.
Critical patients are flipped onto their stomach to help open the lungs and improve oxygenation, which makes them seem dead before their time has come. The doors are closed and the patients lie alone, with a tangle of tubes and wires connecting bodies to machines, some have straps around their wrists to stop them from pulling out their ventilator.
With family members prohibited from visiting, many hospitals have turned to video calls. Voice calls are not an option once a patient has been put on a ventilator. As I log in to an evening Zoom call for class, someone else somewhere opens a Zoom call for final words with a loved one. Nurses use iPads to connect families with patients isolated in the hospital. But it is a clunky, artificial goodbye. I read about a chaplain who helped dying COVID-19 patients communicate with their family. He described the difficulty of manipulating an iPad tucked into a plastic bag to prevent the spread of the disease. He recalls trying to flip the camera so a family can see their loved one, but he could not quite find the right button, pausing their final goodbye for technical difficulties.
Funerals have been able to resume for some, although they look much different. Social distancing must be enforced. No embracing the family. Temperature checks and medical questions at the door. In New York, mourners are limited to 25% capacity at the church or funeral parlor. I spoke with a Roman Catholic priest about his experiences during the pandemic.
He presided over a funeral Mass and noticed that temperature checks were not enforced at the door, neither was social distancing. At the graveside, he was the only person wearing a mask.
These situations put him in an awkward place. His primary purpose is a religious one, and to help the families find closure in that difficult moment. “Funerals are for survivors,” he said, and he needs to be a calm center for them to turn to. However, when these ceremonies present a risk to not only the family but to him as an older man at risk for the virus, what is he supposed to do?
Ultimately, he said nothing.
I asked the priest what end-of-life sacraments look like during the pandemic. He said that Anointing of the Sick and the Viaticum (colloquially known as "last rites") can now be performed in New York, if the proper protocols are followed. He recommends that the sacrament be performed before someone is admitted to the hospital. If that isn’t possible, the hospital needs to approve it ahead of time, and it all needs to be performed with masks and at a distance. If a person dies without having received the sacrament, according to the Church, they die with their sins unforgiven. Every death from the virus is a reminder that despite some of our best efforts, we were too late and there is no atonement for the dead. My dad told me that a chaplain was there on my grandmother’s last day. There’s comfort in that. He stood with my dad and they recited The Lord’s Prayer, without masks and holding hands.
Three months had passed since my grandmother died and I was back home. We unzipped our last frozen bag of her meatballs. The occasion seemed right. It would have been her 80th birthday. The pandemic was still ravaging most states but had leveled out in New York. The curve had been flattened after the deaths of more than 30,000 New Yorkers.* Governor Cuomo commissioned a poster. "Love Wins," it proclaimed. Still, there are no services for my grandmother. The bag of meatballs had her handwriting on it. "3/17" in Sharpie.
My dad remembers that March 17 well. When he woke the process had already begun. The kitchen table had been commandeered by aluminum trays and the countertops by meats. When he returned from work, the house was filled with the aroma of fresh meatballs and Italian spices. My grandmother was still hard at work in the kitchen, the trays on the kitchen table were mostly full by then.
There was an underlying mathematical precision to her work. She never counted or measured
anything, yet the total number of meatballs at the end was always even and pleasing. Multiples of
twelve usually. Sometimes a square 144.
We didn’t have any of her sauce left, so we heated the meatballs in a pot of Paul Newman’s instead. My dad took one out, set it on a plate, and sliced it in half with a fork. It was moist and squishy, but not excessively so. Breadcrumbs and the signature trinity of meats — beef, pork, and veal — held it together. My dad asks if I could take a piece of meatball and bring it to a lab to analyze the exact composition of spices and ratios of ingredients. I said it was possible, but we both knew there was no replication. He cut the meatball again, steam still rising, this time into quarters. We both took a bite of what my grandmother had left for us. This was her funeral.
(Originally published in November 2020 as part of Michigan State University's CREATE! Micro-Grant Program)
Jack Huber is currently a senior at Michigan State University studying Integrative Biology and Creative Writing. He works in the laboratory of Professor Robert Root-Bernstein researching the autoimmune consequences of COVID-19.
As a distance runner on Michigan State’s cross country and track teams, Jack goes through Nikes almost as quickly as he goes through books. Follow his GoodReads account to read his reviews.
Fact Check: Is a Mask Mandate Unconstitutional? (newsweek.com) NO! The courts have decided that it is NOT unconstitutional to mandate the wearing of masks.
Still, we watch the news and see, repeatedly, people not wearing masks and using the constitution to support their “right” not to wear a mask.
You’ve all read the precautions, restrictions, and about quarantines, pauses, and so forth. Every day we are reminded of total number of pandemic cases, and total number of deaths. We hear US statistics, and statistics for the rest of the world.
Overwhelmed by all these rules and regulations and figures? Well, my family is, too, but not for the same reason. On November 13, 2020, I lost my sister-in-law, Heidi, to the Covid-19 virus. She was fifty-three. What about her rights: to live, to enjoy life, to love and be loved?
Heidi had added difficulties which may have contributed to her swift decline and to her death. She was born with Down Syndrome. I won’t go into the details about her health. I want to tell you who she was.
She was the middle girl of three daughters. She was a rabid sports fan of the New England Patriots and the Boston Red Sox. Later in life, she tried to love The Indianapolis Colts, and became a fan of Notre Dame.
Heidi didn’t like candy, nor did she like witches, but she enjoyed seeing what costumes neighborhood children wore when they came trick or treating.
Heidi loved the movie, “Pretty Woman,” and despite viewing it countless times, she always asked to watch it again. Or someone would put it on for her, knowing without asking, that she would sing along. Another movie she liked was “Risky Business,” and she sang to the songs in that movie, too. She also liked “The Sound of Music” and “Grease.” She didn’t have a rockstar voice. She had her own voice.
She was a proud American citizen, always standing when our anthem was played, and singing along. That’s one of the hardest songs to sing, but she did her best.
She made her needs known. Is it time for “Jeopardy?” She could run through TV show theme songs in a heartbeat. Only I or her mother were allowed to guess the puzzles on “Wheel of Fortune.” Heidi told me I was smart when I guessed correctly with rather few letters turned around.
I don’t feel too smart right now. Why can’t I explain to the anti-maskers how angry and sad I feel when I see them, exercising their supposed rights? Don’t they understand that it’s a health issue? Do they obey or disobey other health-related rules such as not going barefoot and bare-chested into a store? Do they cough into the air, or into their elbows? Do they rise when our anthem is played? No, they don’t have to. But it’s a matter of respect. It is inconceivable to me that someone would eschew wearing a mask. I will never understand.
This pandemic, it is hoped, will not last forever. We’ll return to our previous lives, perhaps with some changes. The biggest change for my family will be never seeing Heidi again.
(First published in The Forum, April 2021 United University Professions -UUP - Albany Chapter Newsletter Issue 147)
Carol H. Jewell has worked at The University at Albany since 1985. She has done database maintenance and presently does cataloging in the University Libraries, although for the last year she has been working from home. She holds two graduate degrees from UA: an MLS, and an MSEd. She also holds an MFA from The College of Saint Rose.
Ms. Jewell has had poems and articles published in many online and in print journals and on websites, and her first collection of poems, Hits and Missives, was published by Clare Songbirds Publishing House (Auburn, NY) in 2017.
Never in a million years
Michael Johnson Jr.
Never in a million years, would I have seen a global pandemic coming. Covid-19 has brutally affected and impacted millions of people throughout the world. It came in a flash and still hasn’t gone away at all for over a year now. The death totals are just so shocking they basically represent war casualties, especially here in America. Covid has forever changed the way the world is and will be as it also changed me as a person as well.
Let’s start at the beginning shall we. I remember way back in early 2020 like January-February, we would hear on the news that this “coronavirus” was in China and spreading into Italy and other countries far away from the United States. At first, I thought it would be another Ebola virus or swine flu, that didn’t really hurt us a ton. I was on campus at UAlbany living normal life as a commuter student going into early March. Everything was going good life was fun I was already looking forward to the summer, until March 11th hit. There were a few cases inside the United States and the NBA shut down its season that night when a player tested positive. It all happened so fast, and we were all so unsure of how things would transpire. Not to mention, nobody really knew how deadly this virus could be. Then the next day happened.
March 12th, 2020. I woke up thinking I had school but UAlbany sent us all an email saying that there was a positive case of Covid-19 on campus so we couldn’t go there until at least after spring break. Then my work called me and said that they were just briefly or temporarily closed for the time being. I remember sitting down for a few minutes process everything as both emails and texts came within about 15 minutes of each other. I tend to be anxious and worry about some things so I calmed myself down and took deep breathes and told myself that it probably will be gone in a month and everything will be all right. Boy was I wrong.
Not only was March 12th the day that everything started shutting down around Albany, but it was my 21st birthday as well. Your 21st birthday is supposed to be an awesome celebration of drinking with your friends or going out or spending time with family. Instead, I was stuck home only with my mom, dad, and brother and opened gifts with them and spent the entire day home. I was hoping that by after Easter we would see a return to normalcy. I was too optimistic and completely wrong.
I had to adjust to school being fully online and both synchronous and asynchronous. It was honestly a very difficult adjustment. I am a classroom and visual learner and not being there threw me off and my grades slipped at first. It was tough not being able to see my friends or extended family during the first quarantine. We only talked on zoom or facetime and that wasn’t the same. I had my lowest GPA in any of my college semesters but only by a few decimal points. However, I had to look at the positives.
This whole pandemic has put life into perspective for me. It has taught me to really appreciate the little things in life and being home with the ones you love. It has taught me patience and new forms of daily entertainment. I couldn’t be happier, despite being in the middle of a global pandemic. Once Memorial Day and June 2020 rolled around, I began to slowly hang out and do more “normal” stuff. The cases were really low in Albany County from June-November, so that was the stretch where I really had some fun.
I never really went out to bars or restaurants more than twice, but I did hang out with small groups of my close friends and coworkers and had a good time drinking legally. I played sports safely with my friends and always maintained social distancing. I even had a life changing internship at ESPN Radio 104.5 The Team. I was a producer and got to go live on air and talk sports, which is my career goal after I graduate. It’s important to enjoy life no matter what comes at you. And so far, knock on wood, I along with my friends and family have not gotten the virus at all.
I have improved with technology and online learning now as my grades are as good as ever. Sometimes I stop myself and realize that there are people suffering with this virus and aren’t as fortunate as I am. This thought process has helped me be cautious, yet still balance that with having some fun as I am young and in my prime as I’m now 22 years old.
Life is too short to worry and focus on the negatives, you must focus on the positives and take what you can get.
I still think it’s crazy that I have lived through a pandemic for over a year now. It still boggles my mind and is so unfortunate and awful that millions have people have died from it around the world. I have learned to cherish time with others as in these times it’s harder to see people. I am living life the best I can right now with no complaints as it only gets better from here. That mindset has helped me get through these hard and dark times. It’s important for everyone to realize that if you stay positive and surround yourself with the right people, then things will always get better. I really hope this pandemic goes away soon and we can all get back to a sense of normal, but for now, enjoy life!
Michael Johnson Jr. graduated from the University of Albany in Spring 2021. A native of Colonie, NY, he currently works as a radio board operator at ESPN 104.5 FM. He loves writing and watching sports during his free time. You can check out his radio clips at
As we pivot: A small business diary during COVID
Three weeks ago we furloughed our employees here at Bake For You (BFY). COVID-19 was creeping in and the uncertainty was palpable.
This industry that I have lived on was soon to be shaken like I have never witnessed.
The beautiful shop my partner and I designed would be celebrating one year in our new space. We were meeting our goals and anxious to see what the spring and summer would bring.
However, our days soon hinged on what the Governor’s briefings would say. Our shop’s seating had to be closed first. Quickly, a new way of doing takeout was created. Social distancing, more sanitizing, figuring out ways to keep everyone safe. Then, no one was allowed in the shop and curbside pick-up became the new normal.
We spent nights awake, redoing menus, ordering packaging, working on our website, balancing money and sanity. Every day, we were inventing a new business model. Next, we tried pre-order and a delivery service.
So many orders came in that we had to cut them off.
While being grateful, we tried to figure out what two people could handle. During all of this, we still juggled conference calls with advisors, responded to the Governor’s daily briefing and managed to stay calm during the chaos.
The delivery service was a success but something the two of us couldn’t continue alone.
Late April 2020
Ahh, now it’s Easter – typically a great holiday at BFY. We pull our thoughts together, post a menu and plan curbside pickup.
The response is amazing. We’re thankful for a select few donating time to be runners to customers waiting for curbside delivery.
In between the holiday rush, we’re busy with forms to fill out for government assistance. This entails figures, payroll information, bookkeeping, phone calls… an endless sea of work.
We deem the Easter holiday a success, but when the last order is picked up and the floor is swept, we feel the toll this is taking. For our mental and physical well-being, we take the next week off.
Then, the Governor announces another month of social distancing.
Late July 2020
So much has changed on this COVID journey. We entered June with eager hearts as we were able to open and welcome guests. This was also felt with great trepidation. So much uncertainty… The bright side was that the sun was shining, the days were becoming longer and the veil of heaviness was lifting.
We prepared to pivot yet again and redo our menu, train our staff even more extensively and adjust our hours to accommodate this ever-changing landscape.
As we began to settle into this new routine, my Mom’s battle with scleroderma was coming to an end. Nothing prepared me for this. For four weeks, we worked and then went over to my Mom’s. Watching her slowly leave us was on my brain and the business could not fully function. I relied on my life and work partner more than ever.
On a sunny day in July, my Mom left us. We closed the shop for a week to make arrangements, have services and grieve.
Coming back to work was far more challenging than I imagined. I have been the social face of BFY since I started it in 2009. For the first time, I was frozen. Customers were amazing and knew my pain. Our staff became rock stars and made customers feel even more welcome than before. I didn’t think it was possible.
Trying to keep my head in this life of small business ownership and COVID hasn’t been easy. For lack of a better word, it sucks.
Early November 2020
We are now entering the busy season of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Actually, we had been preparing with a positive mindset until COVID numbers shot higher than they’d been in April. I would be remiss if I didn’t say scared is a constant theme.
Will we get sick? Will we need to close? Will we have to do just curbside? Will we cover our bills? The restless nights are returning and we wake not knowing what the day will bring.
The holidays came and went. We worked hard and had to again change what we normally offer. Platters would need to be for groups of four or less. No office parties or corporate gifts. These changes affected the bottom line, but somehow we prevailed.
After the holiday we took a Baker’s Break. The week after New Year’s is typically quiet. Our brains and bodies were tired. We needed to regroup and prepare for the quiet that January and February normally bring. Now throw in the spike in COVID and the changes were much different.
We ended up deciding at the eleventh hour that closing indoor seating was best for everyone. We knew this would drop revenue, but safety first is what really matters. Our staffing is minimal and we had someone quit, which couldn’t happen at a better time.
Our deep thinking is in full force and our offerings need to draw people in. We just keep moving forward and, for now, that’s the best we can do.
Late January 2021
It seems like just a minute ago that I wrote about continuing to move forward. Yet, now we are quarantined for ten days. We have an employee who tested positive for COVID. Justin was tested yesterday and I will be tested today.
Dealing with all of this is comparable to a punch in the stomach. Through tears and frustration, I need to find a way to come back stronger. This is a ride we are ready to get off. The need for transparency is mammoth. We are full of uncertainty and fear. As the clock ticks and I wait for my appointment, I grow tired.
So much has happened since my first entry. We are now fully vaccinated. Our shop is open for full capacity. We see more people coming in and we are encouraged. There is still a shortage of supplies and a shortage of people wanting a job.
Through it all, we are staying focused and working hard. There remains a huge desire to succeed and I believe we will.
I am a self taught baker and I love creating. After being in the food industry as a hostess, waitress, bartender, bar owner, I always had the desire to open a place of my own. With the support of my children and my mom Bake For You was born.
When not working there is time spent creating art, cooking and spending time with family and my three grandchildren.
A COVID Christmas
On Friday, we celebrated Christmas in a way similar to the family at the center of the Christmas story; just the three of us: father, mother, and child.
We were merely three because our first child, Maria, passed away five years ago at the age of 30, and since Katrina works in health care and interacts with COVID patients, we decided to be extra cautious.
Such a small Christmas gathering is an anomaly for us. Usually, we unite with Barbara’s extended family on the 25th, a get-together that typically includes 20-25 people. Then, on the Saturday after Christmas, we often meet with my extended family and a similar amount of people. Only once during our 36 years of marriage did the four of us stay at home alone on Christmas, and that occurred only because a giant snowstorm kept everyone at home for the day and delayed the family gatherings by a day or two.
So this year, Katrina spent Christmas Eve at our home, and on Christmas morning, we opened presents as we usually did. When the girls were young – both excited and energized – we typically opened gifts first and followed that with a light breakfast. This year, we ate a big breakfast before we opened gifts. The excitement and the energy were not as strong, but the smiles and the laughter were similar, and we thoroughly enjoyed a relaxing morning of memories and stories of Christmases past.
Relaxation actually proved to be the theme of the day. In years past, we always experienced a subtle tension between wanting to stay at home and play with our new toys yet also wanting to rush to Grandma and Grandpa’s house to celebrate with siblings and cousins. With that huge family assembly canceled for 2020, we settled in on the couch and calmly listened to Christmas carols with no appointment in sight.
Just after midday, we opened a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle that Barbara had secured as our afternoon activity, an activity we hadn’t attempted since the girls were in grade school. So as Barbara and Katrina prepared the food for later, I set up our card table in the living room and began the puzzle process: turning over all the pieces and trying to find the corners and the edges. With three of us working on this picture of an old country store interior, I thought, “This will be a piece of cake”; we’ll have it finished before we eat dinner.”
In fact, it still hasn’t happened. Four days after Christmas, the puzzle edges are in place, and we can see many of the products on the store shelves and a few faces of customers, but the more challenging sections are still in disarray.
The three of us had fun working on the puzzle while the food was cooking and again after we ate. We also grazed on munchies and Christmas cookies all day long and shared a few phone calls with family and friends. The time passed quickly.
By about 7:00, we were all talked out and puzzled out, so we decided to watch a new movie together, an activity that we periodically enjoy with popcorn in the movie theater. Since our local theaters have been closed for some time, we were excited to watch George Clooney’s new film, The Midnight Sky, and as the lead character and director, Clooney did not disappoint. We all gave the film a thumbs up.
Looking back on our COVID Christmas, we all gave that day a thumbs up as well. Yes, due to the unusual circumstances, the day was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle for us, but we smiled our way through it for the most part and gave thanks to the King whose birth we celebrated. My prayer for 2021 is that we can soon return to the big holiday gatherings that we all enjoy while also being grateful for the people in our homes and for the tender mercies and blessings that God gives us each and every day.
Jim LaBate is recently retired from Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY, where he worked for over 30 years as a writing instructor in the English Department and as a writing specialist in The Writing and Research Center.
An artist’s journey: Circling the pandemic
The oil paint tubes, brushes and canvases sat idle in my art studio. The early evening light swayed through the window as the cat lollygagged in a cozy spot beneath my easel. Her very presence there, once a comfort, was now a rebuke. I heard “Where are you?” in each contented breath of her purring.
This pandemic. Before the virus hit, I was in my studio nearly every night after working at my day job. But COVID-19 abruptly destroyed my sense of time, my focus and my routines. Soon, guilt and self-flagellation – and indulging in endless episodes of House Hunters International – sabotaged my creative joy and intention.
In early summer 2020, none of us knew how long our country – indeed, the entire world – would remain shut down. How long would I be working from home? How long before I could go to my favorite restaurant, see art, see people, hug my grown children again? And how long before I’d be in my studio, embracing a blank canvas, harnessing the pulsating desire to paint?
For a time, it was easy to see only wasted opportunities in my creative life, especially as summer dragged on, along with COVID-19’s relentless attack. As the death toll ticked up and up, I began to question whether it mattered to myself or anyone else if I made one brushstroke in alizarin or indigo. Who truly cared?
“Every so often, every artist feels, ‘I’ll never paint again. The muse has gone out the window,’” said one of my favorite painters, Helen Frankenthaler, who once spoke of the agony of “hardly painting at all” for three months.
I tried to sit with the agony. I reasoned that there had been earlier times when I went long stretches without making art. Yet this felt different. It wasn’t about a runaway muse or a lack of intention and perseverance. This was about whether I could explore, dream and create during so much suffering.
By fall, feeling bad about my lack of productivity and then guilty about feeling bad, I decided I needed to do something. I wouldn’t push myself, exactly, but maybe nudge a little closer toward beauty and self-expression. If I couldn’t get off the couch to create art, I could at least transport art to the couch.
Sifting through some supplies in my studio, I rediscovered my favorite graphite pencils and a small journal of handmade Nepalese paper. Pressing my fingers across the tender sheaves of paper as I carried the journal into the living room, I felt a whisper of happiness. Back on my couch, I sat quietly and began drawing pages of tiny connected circles. At least it was a start, akin to the circles that began nearly every drawing of a person I made as a kid on my stoop in Queens. Pad, pen, paint, purpose: This has always been my way.
I continued making circles. My partner, settled beside me in front of the TV, eyed my handiwork and asked with a bemused smile, “Can’t you do one thing at a time?”
I said nothing. After more than two decades together, we both knew the answer to his question. But as the weeks passed and my circles accumulated, he said, “I think you’ve got something there.”
Night after night, I sketched uneven rows of contiguous circles, large and small, spiraled and squiggled, thick and thin, black on cream-colored paper and white on gray. Paradoxically, this felt both demanding and effortless, frenzied yet meditative (and truthfully, a little crazy). I scrounged around and found all sorts of paper with varying textures and finishes. I gathered every black fine point marker. I tried, then discarded, colored pencils, ink and gel pens. My coffee table became my studio, its triangular glass surface obscured by a mess of mark-making materials. (Partner, to his credit, relinquished his need for impeccable order to support my exploration amid growing disorder.) Eventually, some of my circle sketches made their way into small collages, which I then fashioned into greeting cards. I mailed these cards to friends who were going it alone during COVID.
As the year ended, I tiptoed back to my studio, stealing an hour here or there. I made tiny paintings on tiny canvases mounted on miniature easels and submitted them to an online Instagram art show of tiny art called Quaranteeny. Such a modest feat begat such joy. And just as I had sent out cards, I began giving away some of these petite paintings to people who were struggling: a depressed college student, a friend contemplating divorce for the second time, a colleague whose husband died shortly before the pandemic hit. I loved committing to these random acts of art.
More than a year into the pandemic, I’m painting again, back in my studio. The cat naps serenely in the corner. Recently, while reorganizing my space, I came across a basket filled with my circle drawings. These little symbols of what I think of as mid-pandemic circle time remind me that sometimes we need to allow ourselves to sputter and then recharge, to practice what one therapist friend calls radical self-acceptance. I hadn’t wanted to produce anything, but making circles felt like an act of faith at a time when faith was desperately needed.
What else have I learned? I’ve come to realize that the obsession to produce holds me back. This kind of self-restraint is the last thing I need. I am trying my hardest to strip the word “productive” from my vocabulary. It’s a punitive word. More than producing, making art is a way of seeing and being in the world, a way of connecting with others. And I know that in or out of my studio, the art resides in me.
Tina Lincer, a native of Queens, N.Y., is a writer and artist. Her essays have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including the New York Daily News, Albany Times Union, The Sun, Writer’s Digest and authormagazine.com, as well as in many anthologies. Her oil paintings and mixed media works have been exhibited at the Albany Center Gallery, Martinez Gallery, Saratoga Arts, Fence Show Select, National Bottle Museum and other venues. https://www.tinalincer.com/
Lincer holds a B.A. in English and Fine Arts from the University at Albany, where she studied journalism with William Kennedy and and painting and drawing with Mark Greenwold. She is Associate Director of Communications at Union College.
For me, this past Easter was a day of joy and resurrection, even though I’ve never been big on Easter celebrations. The daffodils and hyacinths were pushing through the earth, eager to bloom around the marble slabs that mark the sites where I buried Beep, my ginger cat, and Lucky, my golden retriever, many years ago. The spring flowers in that area are stronger, more abundant, than anywhere else on my land, and I’m sure the natural burials of those beloved pets have enriched the soil where I laid them to rest.
I feel my own life quickening too, after a year hunkered down in quarantine. I’ve had my second shot of the Pfizer vaccine, and soon I’ll be free to visit my daughter and granddaughters in Woodstock. And I plan to hop the Amtrak train to New York City. I know that after a long winter’s lazy hibernation, I won’t be in shape for my usual miles of traipsing around Manhattan. so I’ve decided to limit myself to the Museum of Modern Art and maybe one pricey meal.
I’ve been amazed at how calm and contented I’ve been during the plague year, especially considering my bipolar diagnosis—or maybe because of it. For years I’ve been on meds that keep me stable and leveled out. I’m grateful for the miracles of modern pharmacology, and I pray those little white pills will continue working their magic. But that magic comes at a price. I’m no longer as driven or ambitious as I was in my younger years, and I suspect the drugs have a lot to do with that.
I still want to become rich and famous—I’ll turn 80 in July, but hey, it’s never too late. More and more, though, I’m content with living in the here and now, less obsessed with future success. As an artist and writer, I’m basically an introvert, happiest at home exploring my creative projects. My husband understands. He’s a writer too, and we respect each other’s need for long stretches of solitude. We’ve got our dog Sirius and our cat Lunesta*, and the four of us are comfortably aging in place.
We’re all living on borrowed time, past our actuarial life expectancies, and we’ve all stayed reasonably healthy, with one exception. During the quarantine, my most intense emotional crisis came last winter, when I was afraid Lunesta was terminally ill. She had a huge, bulbous bump, an abscess, on her forehead. The vet drained it, but it reappeared, along with weeping sores that wouldn’t heal. On the third visit, January 18th, he drew fluid, ran lab tests and found abnormal cancerous cells. He wouldn’t predict how long she might live but offered to put her down.
Instead, I brought her home, cuddled with her in our king-size bed, and indulged in a full-scale crying jag, my first since the pandemic began. We stayed in bed through inauguration day on January 20th, watching the day’s events unfold on the giant high-definition TV in the bedroom. My delight at Joe Biden’s victory celebration and my relief that an assassin didn’t take him out were tamped down by my fears that Lunesta might cross the rainbow bridge any day.
The weeping sores lingered, with their disgusting mixture of blood and pus. Lunesta kept them open by washing them vigorously with her paw and resisting my efforts to daub them with salve. But other than that, she remained her normal self, eating well and keeping up her usual routine, including pinning me down with aggressive cuddling that gave me the excuse to hang out in bed long after I should have been up and about.
Miraculously, now that spring is here, her sores have completely healed, and hair is regrowing to cover the bald spots on her forehead. Is it true that cats have nine lives? I can only hope, but I know we humans don’t, so I’m trying to make the best of whatever time I have left.
That time definitely involves writing. In these dreary times of isolation, the many writers and groups I’ve encountered on the Internet have been essential in keeping my inspiration and motivation alive, albeit at a slow simmer rather than a rolling boil. Early in quarantine, the writer, editor and workshop leader Marj Hahne gave “Poemunize” workshops, where I learned more about the formal aspects of poetry than I’d ever known before. The International Women Writers Guild offered workshops and open mics that drew writers from all over the world, making the organization more truly international, inclusive and affordable than they’d ever been when they relied primarily on pricey in-person workshops.
Poetry open mics on Zoom, especially those centered in the Capital Region, have been a life saver too. I know many of the poets from in-person open mics like those at McGeary’s in Albany and Caffe Lena in Saratoga, but I’ve met many new ones as well, some checking in from California or New York City. The fellowship isn’t as intense when we’re toasting each other with at-home drinks instead of at a local tavern, but it will have to do until we meet in person once more.
But all these on-line diversions are a poor substitute for the experience of digging deep into a serious writing project of my own, be it a novel or a memoir. Before Covid, I’d been working on Subdural, a memoir in poetry and prose exploring my near-death experience with a subdural hematoma, and its relationship to my mother’s death from the same injury. A worthy project, one I believed could land me an agent and bring me the success I craved, but too daunting and depressing to tackle under quarantine, so I let it slide.
Instead, I decided to resurrect my career as an artist. I’d exhibited my paintings at the Woodstock Festival of Music and Art in 1969. In 2019, there was considerable hoopla about the festival’s 50th anniversary. Paul Grondahl wrote a wonderful piece about me and my paintings for the Times Union. I gave PowerPoint presentations about my paintings, including one at the New York State Museum. I visited the museum at Bethel Woods and taped an interview for their archives. Then the pandemic hit, and the art world went into suspended animation.
Refusing to abandon hope, in the fall of 2020, I decided to make museum-quality Giclee prints of my paintings and offer them for sale through some arts Internet sites and in galleries. My husband believed in the business enough to invest capital, time and elbow grease, and we rented a U-Haul van to truck the enormous paintings to McGreevy’s Prolab in Albany to produce high-resolution photographs that could be converted into museum-quality prints. I planned to make the prints available in time to take advantage of the Christmas rush, but as winter closed in, my mood darkened, and I couldn’t summon up the energy and enthusiasm to launch my fledgling business.
With the coming of spring, everything’s changed. Although I trademarked the name Creative Crone a couple of years ago, I hadn’t done much with it. But now I’ve filed the federal and county permits necessary to open a new business account at a new bank under the name Creative Crone. I’ve acquired my first serious investor, and fully vaccinated, I’m ready to reemerge into the real world once more. I can finally wear the colorful, artsy clothes that have been languishing in my closet. And for the first time in over a year, I can get a professional haircut. But it’ll just be a trim—I’m planning to keep it straight and long, the way I wore it when I showed my paintings at Woodstock.
* Yes, Lunesta is named for the sleeping pill I took religiously for many years. But after my shrink retired, I transferred to a new psychiatrist who didn’t want to prescribe it on the grounds that it might be too habit forming. Fortunately, I did fine without it. Melatonin is a more benign substitute.
Julie Lomoe received her MFA in painting from Columbia University. She exhibited widely in Manhattan, and her paintings won second prize at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. In 1979 she received an MA in art therapy from New York University, then worked at Hudson River Psychiatric Center. The experience inspired her to turn to fiction. She has published three novels: Eldercide; Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders; and Hope Dawns Eternal, all available on Amazon. A published poet, she lives with her husband, dog and cat in Wynantskill. The paintings Julie showed at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 will be featured in an exhibition at The Museum at Bethel Woods from April through December of 2022. Entitled "& Art Fair: Art and Design at Woodstock," Visit www.creativecrone.net to learn more about Julie and her business, Creative Crone.
A drive to reflect: One year later
The dark 12 months that for me started in an Albany class of nervous students moved toward a finale with the passing of a horse-drawn cart on a remote Upstate New York road. The clip-clop of the horse’s hooves echoes loudly off nearby trees in the otherwise desolate, soundless scene. It was finally time to take stock—to reflect on my physically draining, gut wrenching journey that began at the University at Albany March 11, 2020.
In the days, weeks, and months since then millions died. Hundreds of millions more were infected by the silent invader. Economies ground to a halt. Millions of workers lost jobs. Businesses collapsed. Hospitals, healthcare workers, and scientists caring for us and searching for vaccines and cures bent, but never broke. Grocery shelves went unstocked. Food lines, reminiscent of the Great Depression, formed. Tragedy was everywhere. Shockingly, fighting the ravenous coronavirus was enmeshed in political machinations that, in many places including our own modern country, fueled denial—leading to an ideological decision to avoid declaring the war that should have been declared. Instead, the hungry virus spread unchecked.
On this day, though, I left political ruminations aside to focus on those who died, and the families and friends wrenched apart. We have a new leader in Washington, I thought. Deaths and infections are trending down. Vaccine deployment is finally proceeding. It felt “safe” to finally step back and think.
Angry and bored with staring at the same four walls while hiding from the coronavirus, I did what I often do when I need to eliminate distractions to think. I took a long aimless drive. I had done something similar right after the pandemic was declared. This anniversary ride would be a perfect bookend for me.
Spring is breaking early on March 11, 2021. Sunshine prevails as temps rise to an expected high of 64—a rarity this early in the year in Upstate New York. I leave our home in Saratoga County and head west on the New York State Thruway (I-90). My target: Watertown. I had been there briefly years before for work. I wanted to see how the town has fared since then.
West of Albany I-90 follows the Mohawk River and Erie Canal. I see large chunks of ice freed by the sudden thaw. These mini-icebergs often get snared in bridge pillars and cause local flooding. At Utica, I depart the Thruway for the more local Route 12 northwest toward Watertown, 80 miles up the road. There is little to see along this motorway that varies from two to four lanes. The early spring scene of brown/green trees and ground is refreshing. I pass through the primary towns of Boonville and Lowville along Route 12.
Slowing to the local speed limit passing through Lowville I spot rising white tanks to my right. It’s a large Kraft Foods plant, adorned with signs for the company’s Philadelphia Cream. Opened in 1965, the plant usually employs 300 to 400 workers.
Northwest of Lowville on the final stretch to Watertown, dozens of windmills turn majestically, spurred by the stiff wind from the south that has delivered warmer weather. The motion is so mesmerizing I pull over to watch.
Just after noon, Route 12 delivers me into downtown Watertown. I’m not sure many restaurants will be open, so I grab a quick lunch at a McDonald’s and eat in my car. It’s my first fast food meal in over a year.
There’s plenty of parking downtown so I pull over into an angled-in parking slot. I walk west through the town square to Washington Street. I have at least one target I want to see: the local newspaper known as the Watertown Daily Times. It was the site of one of my more amusing news media visits during my years working in public relations for Verizon and its predecessor companies.
For the second time in the 1990s a major ice storm had left Watertown without power, phones, and cable TV. As the region struggled to recover, I accompanied then Bell Atlantic CEO Ivan Seidenberg on a visit with leaders of the newspaper. We talked about restoral efforts. The editors wanted to know why touch tone service could render older rotary phones unusable. It didn’t. They were happy about that. We were happy they were pleased with efforts to restore landline and cell service.
I snap a few pictures of the newspaper building and leave. The structure looks the same as it did on my first visit over 30 years ago.
Resuming my walk, I spot the town’s only “skyscraper:” the eight-story Dulles State Office Building. It’s home to dozens of offices that provide services to residents to spare them the burden of dealing with a distant government bureaucracy. The state apparently didn’t invest much on the building design, though. It resembles a boring, mundanely efficient Soviet-era structure.
I start back to my car, walking on sidewalks lined with matted, dormant grass of a pale green/gray color. That was probably caused by the salt dumped on icy roads and feet of snow deposited by plows.
I pause as I approach my car to leave. I realize that it’s been a few hours since I thought about the pandemic. The change of scenery is working. I am in a better mood.
I depart Watertown around 2 p.m. and head north to pick up Route 11 toward the northeast and, eventually, south toward home along an interstate. Route 11 parallels the St. Lawrence River and the border with Canada to the north, and bends around the U.S. Army’s massive Fort Drum just south of the road. My goal is to make brief passes through the larger towns of Massena and Malone along or near Route 11. But I remain faithful to my usual rule on these trips: no schedule.
I make an unplanned stop in Potsdam to buy gas. Potsdam is home to engineering school Clarkson University and SUNY-Potsdam. I see some students ambling along Main Street near the Clarkson entrance, but as in most other communities, there’s little activity. This town and others are still awaiting the post-pandemic boom.
I briefly leave Route 11 to see Massena, located on the St. Lawrence. I find a small road north and take some photos of the river as the sun creeps toward the horizon. I change my route a little and take a more local road southeast toward Malone, where I’ll pick up Route 11 again.
As I drive along Route 11, I’m surprised to see Amish families walking or driving horse-drawn buggies. Later, my research reveals that about 20,000 Amish residents make their home upstate, including along the St. Lawrence. I want to take a quick photo, but in a way that’s not disrespectful.
About 10 miles southeast of Massena, I find the right moment. I slowly pass a horse-drawn carriage driven by a man wearing typical Amish garb. I pass them and pull off onto a small road to wait. About five minutes later I hear the sound of the horse’s hooves grow louder. I pull out my smartphone when the driver slows down. I quickly take five pictures. He waits for a few cars driving in the opposite direction, then turns left toward the barn that was his destination. I wave. He doesn’t wave back.
At this moment, the purpose of the trip is realized. The simple beauty of a man driving a horse-powered vehicle in the 21st century, along a quiet road where the rare car passes politely, is worth the long day and what will eventually be a 540-mile drive. The pandemic came, it stayed for a year, but this man continued his simple daily chores. I admire him. My spirit soars. I look skyward and gave silent thanks for the preservation of this simple example of daily life, of daily struggle.
I resume my drive, singing along loudly with music on my radio. I pass through Malone and follow a slow truck for some 30 miles in the dark, east along Route 11 until I meet I-87 south to take me home. Just short of the highway, I stop at a gas station to buy candy bars and use the restroom. The woman behind the counter is alone. She interrupts her mopping to take my money. “Thanks, honey,” she says, and resumes her chores. I turn for the door and leave.
Heading south on the final 160 miles home along a dark I-87, my mind drifts back to a few days earlier when I received my first vaccine shot. Seconds after getting it, I cried. For the half million who died. For the miracle of scientists and healthcare workers. For pure joy. On the drive home from the clinic one of my favorite songs, Petula Clark’s "Downtown," pours from my car speakers. It’s a song that first lifted my heart in the winter of 1964 during a grueling family road trip from Wyoming to Massachusetts. The lyrics still brighten my mood over a half century later.
“…. So maybe I'll see you there
We can forget all our troubles, forget all our cares
So go downtown …”
That’s where I’m headed next—downtown to New York City and Boston. It’s been too long.
I am a writer and adjunct professor in the Journalism Program at the University at Albany. I served as a senior manager in corporate communications and media relations at Verizon for almost 25 years. Before that I was a daily newspaper reporter in Springfield, Mass. I fly airplanes as a hobby, and I consult on communications and crisis communications.
In 2018 I published my first book, U.S. Route 1: Rediscovering The New World, about my long solo drive down U.S. Route 1 from northern Maine to Key West. Earlier this year, I published my second book, The Answer From Surveyor 3. I am a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. More at https://markmarchand-upstateny.com
9 things I learned from COVID-19
Mary Armao McCarthy
1. Just being in the airspace of someone you love is important.
2. Disease-fear and panic-remorse can unexpectedly spike if I develop a headache or, god forbid, cough after venturing out into the COVID world.
3. I learned I have my mother’s smile. On my second Zoom call of COVID, I noticed a familiar wry smile in a gallery box on my computer screen. I had a flashback to my mother’s face before it dawned that it was my own image, one whose expressions I had never before viewed for so long during a conversation.
4. I have new vocabulary terms: social distancing, mask chains, plasma donor.
5. I discovered Dr. Fauci’s father went to pharmacy college with my father, may they both rest in peace.
6. I found the official letter confirming my college graduation, complete with embossed seal, has been living in a box in my basement for decades, along with other treasures I have not until now had the time or inclination to sort through. Thanks to on-line shopping, a new acid-free box will preserve things I select as most important—a letter from Monsignor Rapallo, who married us; a wispy curl inside an envelope marked, “Michelle, 3 years old, cut off with her toy scissors.”
7. I have determined it is not fair that my generation, who developed the modern computer, has been out-stripped, out-paced and out-performed by those zooming after.
8. I have been taken by surprise with vaccine envy.
9. I have treasured vaccine gratitude.
Mary Armao McCarthy is retired from a career in public policy. Her essays and poetry have appeared in regional, national, and on-line publications. She is a past president of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild. During COVID, she has written a family memoir/cookbook and improved her basement ping-pong game.
Since April last year, most of us have worn facial masks to avoid transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Mask etiquette has been important. The mask must be worn over both the nose and mouth. You are not supposed to touch your mask, nor move the mask to your forehead or neck.
Many of us did a fairly good job following mask protocols. Screaming basketball coaches, however, probably demonstrated the worst etiquette. Most pushed their masks down to yell at their players. Saliva flying in the air was televised.
There have been other rules demonstrated by a few but not widely adopted. U.S. House Speaker and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi has a mask that matches every ensemble. She wears colorful outfits, so she must have a personal assistant who matches the dyes and patterns every morning. She is a confident mask wearer.
There has been considerable controversy over wearing a mask. President Donald Trump thought a mask made him look weak so he seldom wore one. He made fun of men wearing masks, especially his election opponent. Trump followers burned their masks at political rallies. Historically speaking, I don’t think this gesture was as provoking as burning bras.
Masks divided the country into two primary groups: People who wore masks and people who did not. These two groups condemned each other. When the country reaches herd immunity this year, most folks will be overjoyed that mask wearing will be minimized.
However, there will be those of us who will continue to wear masks. By choice. We are in a group seldom recognized. We are those who revel in the facial covering. For the most part, we are those who are not young, but proud. We are usually women who haven’t repaired the age-related gravitational sagging of skin from the cheeks to the chin.
Let’s take me for example. You could say I have serious wrinkles. I say I am groovy.
Continuing to the wear the mask, however, will hide my facial fissures while my primary reason (vanity) will not be apparent. To my friends, I will appear as a public health champion, a responsible citizen still recognizing the power of the virus. Only I will know my true motivation—to conceal a face that looks like it has been ploughed by a drunken farmer.
In the meantime, I’m writing a scholarly paper--a literature review documenting the mask as an archetype for common superheroes like myself, and of course, I'm waiting to hire Mrs. Pelosi’s personal assistant.
Trix Niernberger believes humor helps humans, especially during a pandemic. Her stories have appeared in many publications that are now mostly defunct. Since 2011, The Eastwick Press has published her nature photos weekly.
She lives in the woods outside Albany, along with wild flora and fauna, and two not-so-domesticated dogs and a man likewise.
River towns and wild pockets
For years I had been trying to creatively get around the Capital District, but it was illusive. Its story was vast, but the details dodged, twisted, parried. With historic markers under bridges, in empty parks, and down in the port (The Port? Who goes to the Port?), much of what I found was disconnected or degraded from neglect. Much of it lacked framing, was out of context, and didn’t make sense to someone with a casual interest.
Over time and with much patience, I discovered that beyond the notorious and superficial political scene, there were multiple layers of human histories here: Native, Dutch, British, African American, Blue Collar. There was an industrial story that included bricks, iron, steel, railroads, canals, and women’s textile workers, and firsts such as electrical induction (Joseph Henry), flight (Glenn Curtiss), steam ships (Robert Livingston), and Troy’s Sons of Vulcan (Henry Burden). The story also included pioneering educators (Emma Willard, Olivia Slocum Sage), the Underground Railroad, the Shakers, and the first legal divorce in the state. Lest we overlook the van Rensselaer patroonship, a couple of bare-knuckled boxers, Rent Wars, and the roots of American capitalism that sprang from Fort Nassau…
Over decades and centuries, though, many of our big human stories had gone invisible. No one talked about Big Thunder or John Morrissey or what it was like after the laundresses went on strike. In a fast-paced, future-facing world, those stories almost seemed ridiculous. There might be a sign under a bridge, or an old pier in an obscure location, but the language to describe our past had faded out of use, and it seemed no one really knew the basic narrative, or had the desire to know it. Even though history is messy, murky, riddled with holes, and hard to verify, it seemed like our story was tremendous, but had been left to fall apart. Too expensive to keep, much of it demolished or recycled by the scrapman as valueless.
Then, I began to notice more. By seeking out what British writer and naturalist Robert Macfarlane refers to as “wild pockets,” I started to see there was a significant natural story here, too. Distinguished by its location between the Catskills and Adirondacks, the Capital Region sits at the convergence of two remarkable rivers, the Mohawk and the Hudson. Here we are, born from water. Yet, the Hudson, with its reputation as a polluted cesspool, is not easy to see, enjoy, or appreciate. For decades, people have been alienated from it, even warned to stay away. Access is difficult and obstructed by highways and bridges and railroads. Many people only experience the river while speeding back and forth to work along 787. Others ignore it completely, saying the best feature of the area isn’t boating or fishing or watching eagles, but its proximity to better places.
When COVID set in I had more time to explore, so I decided to find more of the beauty here, find more wild pockets, to discover the rivers and their numerous tributaries. I had been taking pictures for a few years, but I wanted to change the way I saw the region. Negative had become too easy; moody black-and-white images, days colored by the unmistakable “upstate gray,” shaded by corruption, neglect, and high taxes beside a polluted river. The darkness I felt inside often came through in what I captured. It was a slow transformation.
Over the year, I returned to favorite places again and again. I approached at dawn and dusk. I approached through varying seasons and in different kinds of weather. I wanted to expand my view, to connect to what was best about living here.
The images that follow are some of my favorite water shots, on Peebles Island and along the Hudson. I specifically went out looking to find the wild loveliness, the subtle colors, to find access to the Hudson and watch its tides, to learn the seasons on Peebles Island, to become more attentive to the water’s quiet story, to catch my home looking good.
Albany. Troy. Rensselaer. Coeymans. New Baltimore. River towns. In a funny way, lockdown encouraged me to lean into artistry, encouraged me to see the familiar places that make up my home more gently, less critically, and with more kindness and awareness. This year has taught me that while there are few pristine views, the compression of human and natural stories here is unusual and worth paying attention to. Yes, there is a history of disappearance, but much remains. While my early associations with the Hudson and Mohawk were limited and disconnected, I’m learning to develop a better relationship with them.
Susan Petrie lives in Albany and is a writer and artist. She holds an MFA from Bennington College and her book, Hundred-Mile Home: A Story Map of Albany, Troy, & the Hudson River was published by SUNY Press/Excelsior Editions in April 2021.
Susan’s images can be seen at Clement Frame in Troy, her Instagram: spetrie_100milehome, and her website, susanpetrie.com.
The girl with the chocolate chip eyes
You might dig little Moab, Utah. It’s a tourist destination for whitewater enthusiasts, hikers, jeepers and slick rock bikers from all over the world. Walker Drugs in the middle of town sells postcards, T-shirts and every tchotchke imaginable, emblazoned with local Arches National Park. No big-box stores are allowed. The library is a sustainable wonderland. And every winter, folks head into the LaSalle Mountains to cut their own Christmas trees.
Ask me nicely and I’ll even tell you where the only air hockey table in town is located. I’ve had my butt readily handed to me there on more than one occasion.
For all its charm and vitality, however, there’s an undeniable reason I frequently hoof it to Moab: it’s where they call me Auntie Jules.
Three of the most interesting, curious and big-hearted kiddos live there – a lovely byproduct of my little brother moving west and falling in love with a kind schoolteacher. When nephew boy was born 15+ years ago, I vowed I was going to be an in-person auntie, despite the miles. Yes, it’s 2,142 miles from my door to theirs. I’ve looked it up.
Soon, his twin sisters came along, making Moab even more compelling. I gladly slept on an air mattress in the kitchen or shared the living room futon with Roxie pup to immerse myself in the family’s sweet chaos. They and their friends kindly welcomed me into the fold regularly, all those miles from home.
A Ray of Hope
I miss being that in-person auntie – it’s a much better version of myself. These days, when I see planes flying overhead, my wings feel clipped. I’ve sobbed driving past the Albany airport. Yet, I know I’m not alone; so many of us are missing our people mightily.
The brightest ray of hope during this time of patience and persistence has been my niece Joley, a girl filled with insight and light. Luckily, she discovered early in the pandemic that FaceTiming with me was a preferred method of spending her allotted “device time.” At 12 years old, she’s a wise soul who craves connection. “Joley needs her people,” my brother often remarks.
So do I, sweetie. So do I.
JoBird and I have shared multiple FaceTime sessions during the pandemic. At first, she’d tell me what was happening back home, how school was… the usual. Soon, however, that stuff got stale, especially for a kid without much going on due to a stinkin’ pandemic.
Books to the Rescue
So, we improvised. One day, I told her I’d love to hear a story and asked her to read to me. Jo’s a reluctant reader, so she wasn’t enthused by the prospect initially. Yet, she loves me and was willing to try. And it was one of the sweetest sounds ever.
We kept up this pattern for a while: Jo reading when I’d ask and me gazing at her adoringly, like the old golden retriever that kids read to at the library. Except I’d lovingly and gently help with words when she paused. It’s the only thing I’ve got going for me over a retriever, which is one of the most perfect creations on the planet.
Soon, however, Jo started picking books ahead of time, ready to read when we FaceTimed. I no longer had to ask. “AJ, I have a book for you!” she’d state matter-of-factly. I’d thank her with enthusiasm while my heart busted open with gratitude for the magic of books, technology and this lovely girlie.
I was regaled with tales of Curious George, special holiday stories and her favorite Puppy Tales books. She’d pull out books that she liked to read over and over – a pandemic comfort many of us enjoyed. One night, Joley showed me a beautiful book called Henry’s Freedom Box. She read in her beautiful, thoughtful style, looking up at me now and then to gauge my reaction, as she so often did.
This particular tale told the real-life story of an enslaved boy and all he endured. At one point, as Jo visually checked in with me, she said with surprise, “AJ, are you crying?” Yes, yes I was. The combo of a heart-wrenching story read by one of the humans I most cherish was too much for me to take.
During our FaceTime moments, we also played improv games, favoring one called “Cashier” where the customer buys three wacky items described off-the-cuff by the cashier, such as Silly Putty, a fishbowl and a case of chinchilla chow. The customer then shares what they’re going to do with those three items. I marveled at how quickly Jo was able to come up with ideas! And then she’d always place these fictional items in a “reusable satchel.” Good girl.
As the weeks and months wore on, Jo told me about horse riding lessons, trampoline games she created with her siblings and the friends she was missing. I told her about spending time with friends’ puppies and the sweet old dogs I met on my walks. She’d regularly put her iPod screen near her dog Roxie so I could whisper words of love. We didn’t talk explicitly about Roxie’s cancer, yet we both sadly knew her time was limited.
I asked this big-hearted girl what I might draw to share some joy with one of my dear people who was grieving. “Kermit the Frog,” she automatically said. “And dancing broccoli.” Not one to quibble, I did as she suggested.
I told Joley she was a Joy Spreader, pointing out that the word “Joy” was part of her name. She liked that. We discussed how putting joy into the world is so important and ways we could both do so. I’d look in those chocolate chip eyes of hers – all sweet, rich and melty – as she talked earnestly about the summer lemonade stand at my house and where we might donate the proceeds. Then, she’d hug the screen because she missed me.
After we’d hang up, I’d promptly weep.
Regular Moab house tours were a FaceTime staple, with cameos by Jo’s twin sister making cookies, her deep-voiced brother saying hello, her Mom popping in good-naturedly and her Dad – my brother – quipping our lifelong “Ni!” greeting. “Do you miss your brother,” Joley would ask, “even though you once made him cat food cookies?” I assured her that I did. “Did you get in trouble?” she’d continue, still hung up on Cookie-Gate, circa 1978. We’d talk ethics, 12-year-old style, for a moment. And then she’d ask if I wanted to see her rock collection.
Glimpses of her tween-hood emerged, as she’d brush her hair during our talks, put on lip gloss, and introduce me to cool filters and emojis on her iPod. Yet, I’d also be reminded of the girl I last saw during her family’s December 2019 stay at my house, where her favorite dancing chicken collection still stands in the makeshift conga line she configured.
FaceTime let us dream about the teletransporter we needed to “poof!” over to one another’s homes for supper or a walk. We’d reminisce about her special 10th birthday trip to Michigan and Wisconsin before the world closed down – the adventures shared and people visited. Jo especially recalled Eugene, the kind flight attendant who made her feel so special after she gave him M&Ms. “I miss that guy,” she’d sigh.
Jo’s long-term memory really came out to play during these calls. As she’d vividly remember something I said years ago – like, “I know it’s important to you that I keep my promise” – I made sure she knew just how special that was. I thanked her for listening so well, trying to plant the seed that listening is one of the kindest gifts you can give.
Listening and sharing the magic of ordinary days became our pandemic release, one book, laugh and moment at a time. Each time this dear girl with the chocolate chip eyes and I looked at each other with pure love, from thousands of miles away, it gave us both strength and hope for better days ahead. And reminded us how very lucky we are to belong to one another.
Julie Phillips (pictured with the Joley inset) is a Capital Region resident thankful for the Trolley’s forum and nudge to ponder what matters. She is the managing editor at PaperClip Communications, a higher ed and K-12 publisher, with other writing gigs on the side.
Julie also worked in student life at several universities. She gladly lets curiosity, creativity and purpose guide her to volunteer, produce community theater shows, do improv, get out into nature, be a hopeful gardener, stay connected with her special people and embrace lifelong learning.
Yet, her all-time favorite role is being Auntie Jules to the lovely kiddos in her life.
Considering ants in the time of COVID-19
Georgia A. Popoff
Aesop’s grasshopper was a dancer, a prancer, a bit of a party boy. The ant was serious, determined,
a bit of a worrier. The ant toed the line, worked hard, would never go hungry. The grasshopper
trilled through summer, hopping through tall grass over the rivers of ants going about their
It was probably from one of those huge cushy children’s books of Aesop’s Fables that I first heard
the tale. Again, in second or third grade, probably from either a teacher or in Sunday School. I
always felt conflicted by the story of these two. I did not understand why the grasshopper was the
fool, why they couldn’t both learn from each other, meet in the middle. Are we only right if we are
the ants? What about the spontaneous joy of grasshopper, the sun on our faces, the music we hear
around us? Yet, born in October, I do understand the value of a well-stocked larder to meet the lean times and changing seasons.
Grasshoppers, the ones in the lengthy brush of my childhood backyard, frightened me.
They leapt out of nowhere, could have gotten tangled in my long hair, they spit brown juice, they
crunched if you crushed one.
On some summer mornings, after breakfast, Mom used to wander over for coffee with Mrs. Mulcahey,
two doors up. I wandered along. I have always loved to sit in the kitchen with the women. My sister
Valerie and brother Michael were outdoors with the four older Mulcahey boys, the youngest in a high
chair between my mother and his. The three backyards from the Mulcaheys’ house to ours were all adjoined. It was our own park. A small “woods” for exploring filled the small hill between the Mulcaheys and the last neighbor on the block at the corner.
The grass in back grew waist high, full of grasshoppers. When walking through, they jettisoned back
and forth in the morning light. The air in August is thick with insect song.
Mrs. Mulcahey had the habit of skimming the top cream off the Marble Farms milk for her coffee. That fascinated me. Mom always ordered homogenized milk. I imagine the homogenized was a bit more
expensive, and when raising five boys, every penny counts.
All of a sudden, the side door burst open and the troop of Mulcahey/Popoff children arrived, all
excited and panting, Patrick carrying a milk bottle proudly in his hand. The bottle had the broken
head of my brother’s toy golf club stuck in the top, the line along the head of the plastic driver
split like a small smile. The bottle was all green and brown, everybody was giggling as Patrick
held it up like a trophy to the moms, stopping one of them in mid-sentence.
Then it became clear Patrick was brandishing a half-gallon of live grasshoppers and some sprigs of
grass, that all of them had conspired in the yard to collect as many as possible, along with
contriving a mechanism to deposit them without losses. Clever, that. The moms started screaming,
then scolding the children back out the door. I cowered in the corner. The kids ran back into the
summer air to release their captives, the prank successful, the mothers sufficiently reclaiming
their composure for a laugh, a sip of coffee, and a “Now, where was I?”
March is when the ants start to wake, hungry and focused. The long lines, single file, each one a part of the chain for survival. Each has a part in the collective. One year, in the 90s, I hung a candy cane on my desk lamp, which arched over the built-in desk under a 90-inch picture window facing south from my attic apartment, and then forgot about it. The apartment was so high up, I had a view of the flight pattern of most of the birds nesting on the block. I could track the moon across the sky year-round.
I realized one day there was a parade of ants walking along the white window sill, which did not make sense for several reasons; for one thing, we were three floors up in a Victorian era house, and the desk was in the opposite direction of the kitchen area.
The next day, I saw the same line of ants. I could not figure why they were heading toward the computer, the stereo; what could possibly be the attraction? But, again, I went back to whatever I was doing. The third day, while rummaging around my desk, I saw a hook of cellophane hanging on the study lamp, a dusting a white and red sugar in the bottom.
Slack-jawed, I understood the industry of ants.
Since this March began, I have been watching for a spring invasion. I have had less trouble in the past couple of years, with a really good, unobtrusive trap that seems to have warded them away so far. I am hoping shared memory of the collective conscience of ants alerts them to the danger of my cupboards.
Two days ago, while in the half-bath on my first floor, a solitary brown ant, no bigger than a hyphen, was hurrying up the wall. It was at least 35 feet from the outdoors. I was trying to compute how far I would have to walk to equal the relative distance that ant had walked. I tried to capture it to take it outdoors but it dropped to the floor in my clumsiness. I went about doing whatever I was doing.
Yesterday, while sitting in my living room, watching the daily update from the governor, a small movement on a piece of paper on the t.v. tray next to my chair caught my eye. A single ant was making its way toward the corner, and who knows where from there. I am certain it was that same ant, just walking for survival. This time I was able to release it to the greater world, which is somewhat out of reach for me.
My cupboards and freezer are full, having always stockpiled essentials like an ant prepping for winter. But, while sequestered, I am listening to more music than I have in a long time. I am dancing with reckless abandon every day. It may seem like grasshopper behavior in the time of crisis, but I am, after all, a Libra. Seeking balance is a lifelong quest.
Georgia A. Popoff, of Syracuse, NY, is the Workshops Coordinator and faculty member for the YMCA of Central New York’s Downtown Writers Center, where she also established the Young Authors Academy in 2012. An arts-in-education specialist, editor/book coach, former senior
editor of The Comstock Review, she is co-editor of an essay anthology on Gwendolyn Brooks, and coauthor of a book on effectively teaching poetry in K-12 classrooms. Her fourth poetry
collection is Psychometry (Tiger Bark Press, 2019).
The Lost Year, or how I learned to stop worrying and love COVID-19
I couldn’t tell you what my biggest concern was in February 2020, but what I can say is that it was not coronavirus.
Between late nights and early mornings—juggling my five classes with a part-time work schedule, going out with my friends, catching up on shows and movies, and a slot on the student radio station—I clearly had other things on my mind.
Only in my reporting classes did I first start to hear about the outbreak of a disease that appeared in Wuhan; while I might major in journalism, I’m shockingly late to the party with these kind of things. The news about COVID-19 didn’t stop, but it still didn’t concern me all that much. I continued on with my life as normal—until things began to shut down in March. My classes hastily moved to an online format, my workplace reduced its staff to a skeleton crew, and I began to see my friends a lot less.
It wasn’t so bad at first, truth be told. For a while it actually seemed to be a nice break, and that I might have some time to relax; in all honesty, I barely did any work for my classes after they had moved online; I signed up for unemployment, but living with my dad meant that I wasn’t worrying too much about money; and I was able to catch up on some shows that I’d fallen behind on or had on my list for a while.
It was only after about two week of doing absolutely nothing that something changed. What it was exactly, I cannot say; I became restless in my spirit, with the emergence of an urge I had seldom before felt. While the world seemed to put on hold as people isolated, I suddenly found myself with the time to work on a special project: myself.
I was never a very active child, which contributed to my excessive weight in middle and high school. I shed some 50 pounds between freshman and sophomore year in high school, I still wasn’t exactly fit. While I espoused an interest in running (I was in the track & field team back in high school), I hadn’t gone out for a run in some time. With the snow melting and the Sun shining, I decided that I should start using my free time to go outside; after all, there was nothing else to do, and I could only talk about "Tiger King" so many times.
There’s a certain feeling that comes over me when I run; I love to push myself and feel every muscle working together as I move. Coinciding with my developing running and walking routines, I began to eat healthier and wake up earlier in the morning. This evolved into hiking with my friends over the
summer, as I reached two of the Adirondack High Peaks.
Now 40 pounds lighter and with the semester behind me (I passed my courses, somehow), I had the summer ahead of me. Between listening to hour after hour of podcasts and Alan Watts lectures about Taoism and Zen, I decided to dive back into reading with passion. In August alone, I consumed The Grapes of Wrath, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the El Sombra trilogy by Al Ewing. I told myself I was just cramming before the Fall semester; while I had invested more time into my physical health, I had also begun to improve my mental wellbeing.
Throughout my teenage years, I had a difficult time socially and academically. I think that’s a common feeling, especially with the outrageous expectations put on teenagers. I put so little time into thinking about where I wanted to go to college and what kind of job I wanted, because my interests and what was important to me were completely different. I knew kids who I think handled the expectations well enough. Me, I couldn’t take it.
I have a great nostalgia for those days. Odd as it sounds, those troubled times still hold great memories for me. Don’t mistake me for someone who wishes they could go back and right all the wrongs, because I truly have no regrets.
What this last year has taught me is that I have great fortune. There have been tragedies, mistakes made, and many have suffered over the long months of quarantine and isolation. Many have had to find new places to live, find new jobs, and alter their lifestyles. Many more have simply felt the stress of these conditions; I have too, although somehow I never felt as burdened as others may have.
I understand why anyone might say that 2020 was a lost year or a wasted year, where the entire world was put on pause. I would agree in saying that the world came to a stop; and in a way, this was exactly what I needed—the time to “catch up” and lay the foundations for change in my life.
As I write this, I sit in my apartment—I moved out of my dad’s house in October. I have my job again, and I think that I enjoy—or at least tolerate—online classes. I’m on track to graduate and have my eyes squarely on the only thing that’s real and here: the present. The rain falls, birds chirp, and branches sway in the wind; these things fill me with purpose and invigorate me.
I’m still not done with my journey, but I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to take the leaps I could in the time that nobody thought they would have. I hope my story and my experiences can entertain or help others in some way, even if it’s a very subjective and personal thing.
I’ll share one last thing: for anyone who is lost or feeling cloudy, take the time to go for a walk. Find somewhere with trees and grass and dirt, or anywhere with more nature. Listen for birds—they usually make their presence known, the little performers that they are—and for the wind. Take deep breaths as you walk. Feel your legs as they move, your arms as they sway, and focus only on the present moment.
We’re fluid creatures in mind and body (we’re 60% water after all), able to adapt and flow like rivers do. We can learn to move in our lives like water moves over the rocks.
Now the only thing to do is think like water.
Kevin Rider graduated from the University at Albany in 2021 with a major in Journalism and a minor in Film Studies. He likes coffee, space, Leonard Cohen, and board games. Kevin rarely talks about himself in the third person and is uncomfortable writing biographies.
Running saved me
When I showed up the first day of cross country practice that August day in 1974, my friends wanted to know how I got so fast.
“I just ran a lot this summer,” I said.
As a sophomore I had shown flashes of being a decent runner, but now as a junior I was one of the top runners on the team. I did run a lot that summer, but what I didn’t tell my friends was how horrible that summer had been. My parents were going through a rocky stretch in their marriage. That summer was filled with much arguing between them and most nights they would drink and shout at each other. My older sister was dating a nice guy who had a car, and she was with him just about every night, so my only way to escape was to run.
I lived in a suburban neighborhood that had a lot of street lights so I would often do circuits up and down the hills and occasionally I’d run by my house and listen carefully to determine if the arguing had subsided, trying to decide if it was safe to return. Some nights I even ran to a local mall and walked around the Walden’s bookstore in my running shorts and sweaty shirt checking out the science fiction section.
Running saved me.
Running has always been what I do when times are tough. The day my mom died, after I sat up with her all night holding her hand and chatting with her as she would regain and then lose consciousness, I came home from St. Peter’s Hospital and told my wife I just needed to go for a three-mile run. On that run I thought of my mom and how she always supported me in everything I did. I also thought how oddly wonderful it was to spend that last night with her, just the two of us in the hospice room and to see how peacefully she passed away.
Two years later when my dad called to tell me he had cancer and needed a risky operation, I decided to drive to the Saratoga Battlefield and go for a four-mile run on the Wilkinson Trail. I thought of my dad on that run, up and down the grassy fields, and how we always had such great talks about history and politics and how he loved to read books of historical fiction. I think of my dad every time I visit that amazing battlefield. He was always so proud that our Rightmyer ancestors came to this country in the early 1700’s, settled in the Schoharie Valley and the Hudson Valley, and even fought against the British in the Revolutionary War.
Running saved me again on February 7, 2020, the day my urologist informed me that I had prostate cancer and needed surgery. “If you’re going to get cancer,” everyone told me, “this is the type of cancer you want. No one ever dies of prostate cancer.”
I would smile, nod my head and think, I don’t want any type of cancer and I also knew that people could die from this.
On February 8th, 2020, I went for a five mile run, and I kept running just about every day up to my surgery on March 19th. I was adamant that I was going to be in good shape for this surgery, and by running I was able to stay positive and not dwell on what was going to happen to me. I trained for that surgery as if it was the Boston Marathon.
A week before my surgery on March 12th, the world shut down. My wife and I had to cancel a trip we had planned to France and a trip to Colorado to visit our son Paul. The NBA stopped playing. The NCAA basketball tournament was canceled. The Olympics were canceled. I googled, “Can I still run?” I was pleased to read that running alone was not canceled, and it was even encouraged, so on March 13th, I went out for a run.
On April 9th, my 62nd birthday, and three weeks after my surgery, my doctor gave me permission to finally get back running. I received a few nice presents from my family and friends, but what stands out the most that day was being able to once again run.
The pandemic was hard on all of us in different ways. Many suffered the loss of people they loved, and many of us lost jobs and struggled to put food on the table. I was disappointed that I could no longer go out to eat at restaurants or hear live music at concerts, and I also know how frivolous my complaints were.
My life slowed down. My wife and I ate dinner outside more than we ever have. We made fires in our backyard and drank wine and had dessert late into the night. I read 30 books, about 10 more than normal.
What I also did was move. I bought a new Trek bike and took it out on the road three or four times a week. I bought the most expensive Nike running shoes I’ve ever owned and ran at least four times a week. I entered six virtual running races and brought my 5k time back down in the 23 minute range for the first time in over five years.
A few weeks ago I was teaching my online class at Siena College. We were reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and I came to this section where O’Brien is writing about the typical Vietnam grunt, “They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then another. Each morning, despite the unknowns, they made their legs move. They endured.”
I have taught that book numerous times through the years, but I never realized till a few weeks ago how much I was like those Vietnam veterans who faced their fears the way I have always faced my own by moving, by putting my running shoes on and walking outside and after a quick stretch I begin running down the road out of my neighborhood and into the world, up and down the hills, across the rivers, one step and then another.
COVID and the social contract
Covid will eventually be, more or less, history. Life will renormalize, more or less. But something big has changed in government's role regarding people's economic lives.
For thousands of years it had very little. That really began to change with Bismarckian Germany's pension scheme, to save the elderly from penury. It expanded greatly in the Depression, developing a broader "social safety net."
This sparked some pushback from people seeing beneficiaries as coddled moochers — an aggravating factor being racial. On the other hand, there's been the rise of "social justice" rhetoric targeting inequality.
Two points. First, inequality is not per se a bad thing, as long as everybody has enough to live decently. And secondly, "social justice" is a mistaken framing. The word justice entails concepts of deservingness. A polemical can of worms, with some, as noted, deeming safety net beneficiaries undeserving. Better to talk not of "justice" but simple humaneness. Helping people not because that's justice but because they're fellow human beings.
Meantime, inequality is also blamed on capitalism. Another mistake. Well, capitalism does produce disparate results, with some people getting rich. But it's wrong to see their wealth as "taken" from the rest. Steve Jobs got very rich by creating products which delighted customers and improved lives. Thus not a zero-sum game but win-win. That's not universally the case, yet by and large those who earn riches do so by creating value benefiting others.
And capitalism does not cause poverty. In fact, over the past century, average real dollar worldwide incomes increased something like sixfold. Not thanks to socialism; but masses of people being productively employed in a capitalist system, to make their own contributions to societal wealth, and enabling them to buy the resulting products. Capitalism's critics never offer an alternative system to achieve that.
However, there are concerns that advancing technology will destroy a lot of jobs. This goes back to the Luddites. In every generation, what has actually happened is technology's efficiency gains freeing up people to be productive in new and different ways, thus enlarging the overall pie. But can this go on forever?
Good question, with artificial intelligence likely to replace humans like never before. A growing population segment already lacks the capability for productive employment. Largely due to what is really the key inequality in modern societies: educational inequality. And even if that could be remedied, it's still doubtful everyone can have productive work. Perhaps if we can finally produce all we need with little human labor, we should just relax and enjoy it. The question then becomes how to distribute the fruits.
All of which brings us back to the governmental response to the covid crisis and its resulting job loss. Previously, social safety net programs tended to be massively encrusted with bureaucracy, means testing, other eligibility requirements, and so forth. Much of that out the window with governments now focused instead on just getting money into people's hands. Arguably this has gone overboard, with a lot of babies thrown out with bath water. But it represents a big paradigm shift in the way the social safety net is seen — toward a universal basic income. Unemployment benefits have even exceeded what some people earned from jobs, which used to be a caricature lobbed by welfare state critics. Yet most Americans now seem on board, shrugging off such concerns.
So far at least, what we're seeing is not actually wealth redistribution. No tax rises for the rich. Instead, it's being financed by borrowing. Cheap to do with interest rates at rock bottom. And our society is, on the whole, plenty rich enough to do what we're doing. But how long can we do it this way? There have to be limits, though we don't know where they lie, and hitting them could be a rude shock. In the longer term, we have to face up to the safety net's expansion being paid for.
One way would be to inflate away the debt, so the rich would pay through devaluation of their assets. But that would be economic havoc; better to just tax them. Again, it shouldn't be on some social justice theory, as a punitive equalizer, as if their wealth is undeserved. Rather, it should be a recalibration of the human responsibilities of members of society toward one another.
That could be covid's most lasting legacy.
Frank S. Robinson is a graduate of NYU Law School (1970), and served at the New York Public Service Commission as staff counsel and then administrative law judge (1977-97). He is the author of eight books including Albany’s O’Connell Machine (1973), Children of the Dragon (a novel), The Case for Rational Optimism (2009), and Love Poems.
Robinson was appointed to the U.S. Assay Commission by President Nixon in 1972 and is a professional coin dealer.
He is married to the poet Therese Broderick and has a daughter, Elizabeth.
Tales of two plagues
If you are a writer aiming to follow our Governor’s lead with another new book about the Covid-19 pandemic (well before it has run its course), I urge you to step back and read Daniel Defoe’s, A Journal of the Plague Year.
Published in 1727 (eight years after Robinson Crusoe), it has long been considered a masterful blend of fact and fiction – factual in that he and his family lived through that terrible event, but partly fictional, because during the 1665 London plague he was five years old. The lesson for today’s aspiring authors: let events settle before you retell them – maybe not a full 62 years (but note that we continue learning more about the deadly 1918 flu.)
Defoe spent intervening years collecting information from informal and formal sources, including records of weekly deaths posted across London. Had Google and (anti-) social media been available, he might have finished much sooner, but what a mess that would have been!
One of the hallmarks of his tale is a painstaking effort to avoid recounting rumor, gossip, and exaggeration; also evident is his deep concern and empathy for fellow citizens, even some of his flakiest characters. Throughout the book, I found unfamiliar phrasing but many familiar happenings. For example, once the bubonic plague had begun to take its toll, London was filling with “quacks” (Defoe’s own term), posting notices at street corners promising cures and preventatives. None worked, but many of the poorer residents were customers, some of whom died after taking the potions. The charlatans themselves often died from the disease or else sped away with their profits. Seems familiar.
The bubonic plague was far more deadly than our pandemic and symptoms progressed rapidly after infection. No diagnostic tests were available, other than a suggested breath test that almost no one was willing to conduct. Instead, infected households were assigned wardens and nurses to keep and treat them inside their homes, but the inhabitants often cheated, sneaking out to roam the town, or heading for the countryside. Many of the wealthy had already departed with their servants to country estates. Eventually the “urban” plague made its way to rural areas, where villagers set roadblocks against refugees, often too late to stop the spread. Fear, uncertainty, social disparities and cheating. Still seems familiar.
Defoe’s heroes include doctors who remained in London (others fled), and pastors who replaced fleeing clergy. His most endearing heroes are the working poor, who took on the dangerous tasks of running errands, nursing the sick, carting the dead away, and guarding contaminated households. The Lord Mayor of London and other officials receive praise for maintaining stable food supplies, helping the unemployed, and implementing sanitary restrictions. In many ways these heroes seem well-aligned with ours, courageous and dedicated to public service, although ours need an extra dose of courage to cope with obstinate resisters.
Today’s villains (let’s call them self-serving blowhards) may not have fared well then, when few people thought the plague could be ignored or wished away. Neighbors who appeared healthy the previous day were collapsing and dying in the streets. Our disease is less visible and less deadly, so some carelessness could be forgiven. However, despite our advanced science, public memory is being scrambled by voluble bad actors.
Eventually, most Londoners survived the plague, thanks to their vigilance and resourcefulness. While we await our own outcome, patience, caution and awareness remain our allies. My trusted information will continue to come from scientists and reliable journalists, not half-baked books about an unfinished pandemic.
George Robinson is Emeritus Professor at UAlbany, where he served for 26 years on the faculty of Biological Sciences, concluding as an O’Leary Fellow and director of the Master’s Program in Biodiversity, Conservation and Policy. His academic publications are posted at https://www.researchgate.net/profile/George-Robinson-11. He has written a new children’s book The Thacher Park Monster, illustrated by his sister Pat, published by The Troy Book Makers, and his recordings of original songs can be found at https://robinsong1.bandcamp.com.
He lives in Albany with his wife Ingrid, a former professor, and their parrot, Theophrastus.
Time for indulgence
It’s been a peculiar kind of isolation that’s visited me during this pandemic – permission to isolate myself. I live alone, with an old dog, and we’ve both learned to be more content doing less. “Practice Retirement,” I call it.
Not that my daily life has changed much. After four months of teletherapy in 2020, the preschool where I work as an occupational therapist re-opened last July with strict protocols. We’re busier than usual, often seeing children after the school day ends and sometimes, still, on the computer. The only other change for me, besides fewer colds and some bleach stains on my clothing from frequent cleaning, is the option to leave after school to do paperwork at home. Despite the chance to be near occasionally entertaining co-workers, I don’t choose to stay – I can’t wait to be home.
There, I find solace in quiet and simple routines. Long walks where I explore the trail that’s not on the map. Long walks with friends where we dodge the ice. Knitting. Writing. Reading cookbooks. An “Aha” moment where I finally figure out that my dog’s constant barking after dinner does not mean she’s hungry again, but that she needs to go outside. Following any inspiration to check YouTube to listen to “Wichita Lineman,” Sarah Jarosz, the song from the television show “Green Acres,” meshing the eras of my life together. Watching cardinals nest two feet from a window. Planning what gift I’ll make for a friend who is finishing a graduate degree at age 57. Getting to know the puppies who, all within two weeks, joined four families in my neighborhood.
My routine includes making a lap lane reservation 72 hours in advance in order to ensure I exercise three times a week. I set a timer and make sure to login after 5:00 but before 5:00:30 in order to score a spot. Three days later, I swim for half an hour, dry off, and clean the locker stall. I head home to shower and change into my pajamas by 7 p.m. Decadence.
I’ve been sleeping more, too, feeling some kinship with people who lived before electricity and went to bed at dusk. They reportedly woke up in the middle of the night for a few hours to commune with others, which would be nice. But for now I’ll get under my down comforter early, write, read, and then listen to the reassuring, quiet, steady breath of my beloved dog, both of us at home.
Kathleen Rzant lives in Voorheesville and appreciates its proximity to the woods and to cultural gems such as the NYS Writers Institute. She works as an occupational therapist at a preschool most of the time and per diem at a rehabilitation hospital two days a month, both very face-to-face, mask-to-mask busy jobs. In her spare time, she writes to understand how people and their times relate to each other, hikes, always has a few sewing / knitting / basketry projects going, and cooks too much.
Sure, I understand that it’s “the other side of life” and that “none of us are getting out of here alive,” yadda yadda. I get all that intellectually, and most days even emotionally and spiritually. But this past year seems to have simmered all those pretty thoughts and beliefs into a dense reduction:
And that’s just the literal part of COVID, the physical deaths. My Dad died this year, in a nursing home, not from COVID, but COVID restrictions kept me from him until the very end. My husband of 28 years died just three years ago, so that’s still fresh. My aunt died a few weeks ago and my family couldn’t fellowship and share good memories after the services because of COVID fear.
So many deaths: we’ve lost family gatherings, 12 step meetings, community events, dining out, businesses, financial security, entertainment, the list goes on and on. For a while we couldn’t even get our hair cut. COVID long-haulers like my daughter-in-law are struggling with health losses that have real daily impact.
What have we gained? I can only speak for myself.
a. Appreciation of the ability to look into my mother’s eyes as I visit her in her nursing home.
b. Gratitude for the hugs of friends and family members.
c. A COVID romance that has enriched my life and given me a new family.
d. Another unexpected friendship that flourished out of necessity and feeds us both.
e. The ability to use electronic platforms to attend 12 step meetings around the world.
f. Enhanced technology skills (FaceTime with family, Zoom writing groups, Zoom classes).
g. Completion and publication of my third book (I had TIME!).
h. Survival: I had COVID and have no lasting effects.
i. Stronger bond with my little dog.
j. Realization of how much I need human connection.
That’s what I call a gratitude list.
Death sucks, but life is still rich and awesome.
Journaling as a Spiritual Practice is Anne Samson’s third book, and it grew from numerous classes and retreats she has led on the same topic. She has been in 12-Step Recovery programs for nearly three decades, and is a Reiki master practitioner and teacher, as well as a former special education teacher.
Anne’s articles have been published in Reiki News, the Grapevine and Mysterious Ways (Guideposts). She is looking forward to visiting schools with her therapy mini-Goldendoodle pup as soon as COVID restrictions are lifted!
How the Covid-19 pandemic inspired the alchemist in me
At the beginning of 2020, Maurice and Emma began their self-proclaimed lives as “hermit crabs”, occupying the apartments of university professors who are traveling on sabbatical to other cities around the world. Although this may sound like a questionable way to plan one’s future, it is a delightful service provided by sabbaticalhomes.com, a social media site that matches renters with city dwellers who are traveling for extended periods of time.
After a fantastic 1-month residency in NYC’s Greenwich Village provided by a renowned NYU art professor, the “hermit-couple” booked February in Clear Water Florida, and then a March – June 2020 lease in a cozy apartment in NYC’s Central Park West neighborhood. As the news of Covid-19 led to a shut-down of most of New York’s culinary and cultural opportunities, the “hermit crab” couple quickly fled the city for their retirement home at the Delaware Shore.
As we now know, Covid-19 did not spare any socioeconomic group or geographical area…resort towns were hit as hard as metropolitan and suburban communities. With Covid-19 emerging as threat to global health, our medical professionals were making us all aware of the three-pronged approach to fight the onslaught of Covid-19: social distancing, mask-wearing and hand hygiene. It immediately became obvious that the supply chain of masks and sanitizers was not going to satisfy the demand.
Now, here’s where necessity and creativity converge... When Maurice retired from his 40 year career in pharmaceutical research in 2019, he had no idea how to satisfy the intellectual curiosity that motivated him as a drug discovery scientist. For Maurice, life at the Delaware Shore had always been about recreation, relaxation and reflection. After all, the beach has always been a place to escape from the stress and anxiety of a high-pressure job.
Maurice always thought of himself as a modern day alchemist, always dabbling in “kitchen chemistry” to make everything from beer and wine to soaps and lotions. As Maurice quickly became aware of the critical shortage of hand sanitizers in the Delmarva area, he tapped into his life-long experience as a laboratory scientist to develop a formula that would meet the 70% ethanol concentration required by the CDC, WHO and FDA. At that time, many manufacturers of hand sanitizers were using either denatured alcohol or ethanol from the gasoline industry…neither of which fit his criteria for a natural and healthy skin-care product.
And so, his research began. Having 70% alcohol in a skin-care product, combined with frequent hand washing led to uncomfortably dry and chapped hands. People were actually putting more alcohol on their hands than in their mouths! So, Maurice took advantage of the flexibility in the FDA guidelines to add moisturizers to his hand sanitizer, adding glycerin and aloe vera to provide a moisturizing benefit to counteract the damaging effect of the alcohol.
The next task was to find a sufficient source of ethanol. He chose to use only food-grade ethanol, which was in very short supply in liquor stores in Southern Delaware. He visited every liquor store in the Delmarva Peninsula, and much to the chagrin of the spring-time revelers, he bought every ounce of grain alcohol that he could find! And so began Maurice’s effort to provide his resort community with a safe and effective hand sanitizer.
Fast-forward to April 2021… more than 1500 bottles of Maurice’s hand sanitizer were sold, and many more given away to friends and family members. The supply of mass-produced hand sanitizers has finally returned to retail markets, and nearly 30% of the US population has been either partially or fully vaccinated against Covid-19. It would seem that we are turning the corner on battling Covid-19.
It is impossible to know for sure how many residents of the Delmarva Peninsula benefitted from the use of Maurice’s hand sanitizer, but if only a single Covid-19 illness or death were prevented by the use of his product, he considers it to be a success.
Trained as a molecular pharmacologist (PhD, Thomas Jefferson, University; MS, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, BS, UAlbany), I retired as Principal Scientist at Johnson and Johnson in 2019.
During my 40 year career as a drug discovery scientist, my hobby of making skin-care products was focused on providing soaps and lotions to support my favorite charity events. As Covid-19 was beginning to emerge as a global pandemic, I blended my science and philanthropic interests to develop my own hand-sanitizer – and began my second caree making hand sanitizers and luxury skin-care products for the retail market.
I currently live in Southern Delaware, where I continue my effort to provide a wide array of luxury skin-care products with a focus on pure, natural, sustainable and healthy ingredients. https://www.facebook.com/DrSchabersSkinEssentials/
Through the fence
It started with the socially-distanced, over-the-back-fence happy hours. Then expanded to a trip to the Palais Royale for take out beer and mozzarella sticks. Soon the backyard happy hours became more frequent and expanded, in the warmer months, to gatherings in the street with other isolated neighbors. Due to the lockdown restrictions my neighbors became my unexpected lifeline that sprung to life when Covid-19 hit our community in the spring of 2020.
I had arrived to live in downtown Albany in the fall of 2018. Even though I was born in Albany it took me 40 years to come back. Various circumstances led to this move; an elderly mother who needed my attention, a fresh start after a divorce, re-connecting with my siblings in the Capital District and the Northeast, searching for new work opportunities. When I found the most perfect house for myself I moved in not knowing anyone in the neighborhood. The location was ideal and suited all my criteria: to be able to walk to the grocery store, have parks nearby, close to bus routes, and an easy drive to visit my mom and brothers. I loved my house, but I was alone there.
As 2019 unfolded my life in Albany began to take shape. I immersed myself in a research/writing project on a local arts organization. To undertake this project I familiarized myself with the Albany Public Library, the NY State Library and local archives. But these were solitary endeavors and my interaction with others was limited to asking for assistance to find material. Job hunting was difficult. As a single woman in my 60s and with no work history in the United States since the mid-1980s, I lacked a track record and contacts. Still, I managed to keep busy on my own.
In March 2020 my mother passed away. She died on March 10 and by the end of that week the world as we knew it imploded. Having the initial restrictions coincide with planning my mom’s funeral was surreal. Rules were changing by the minute and we were lucky to have one of the last church funerals allowed, albeit with a very small attendance. I think now she was lucky to go when she did.
As spring emerged so too did my neighbor across the back fence. She had a large back yard and derived much pleasure from tending, planting and watching the various flowers bloom week to week. My back patio, in contrast, was miniscule but I was looking forward to making it my own and designing a comforting and peaceful place to be outdoors in the middle of the city.
During a chat, I learned that my neighbor was very upset that the 2020 Albany House and Garden tour was cancelled due to the pandemic. She loved to visit the various local gardens and to be inspired for her own garden planning. One day, during one of our over-the -back-fence happy hours, I suggested that we create our own ‘garden tour,' consisting of my patch, her garden and the neighbor’s garden next to her section.
My neighbor was up for the challenge and as soon as the garden centers opened in late spring, I drove us to Schenectady to my cousin’s greenhouse to stock up on plants. This was the first time the two of us had been in a car together, the first time we traveled anywhere together. The fence that had separated us, that was our meeting point, was eliminated. During that car trip we conversed and our relationship changed. No longer just neighbors, we became friends.
As the weather warmed our gardens sprung to life. Still socially distanced, we enjoyed peering over the fence to check the progress of our plantings. Finally, on a sweltering summer day, the ‘Private Garden Tour’ took place. Neighbors and a few invited family members, all in masks, arrived. Moving between the three gardens, we offered drinks and snacks and told the story of the evolution of our gardens. My neighbor even gave prizes. The planning and work that we did for our ‘Private Garden Tour’ cemented our friendship, and as the summer faded and our gardens thinned out, we found other ways to stay connected. More sidewalk gatherings and indoor dining for two.
Living alone, not knowing anyone in this new environment and not able to visit with family who lived outside of Albany, the pandemic forced me into letting my guard down and talking with people - my neighbors- who I might have only had a cursory acquaintance with. Without the shutdowns and restrictions imposed due to Covid-19 I am sure that my neighbor and I would not have become friends. Neighbors, yes, but a friendship seemed unlikely.
There were several reasons for this: our professional, working lives had no intersections; she is gay, I’m straight; she had lived in Albany for 50 years, I had been away for 40; she had no children, I have two. I have always found it difficult to make and maintain friendships, especially with women. But in 2020, the world changed and most of us were forced into changing our lives, our routines, our habits and ways of being. The lockdown restrictions expanded my world and opened me up to friendships that I could never have anticipated but I now know, will endure for the rest of my life. And for this I am grateful.
Marianne Schultz, PhD, is a teacher, historian, writer, dancer, performer, and arts advocate. She is the author of two monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles and chapters in edited collections. Her work focuses on dance and performing arts history in an international context. Born in Albany, New York in 1957, she returned to the USA in 2018 from New Zealand, where she was based since the mid 1980s. www.marianneschultz.org
It’s hard to tease apart a year plus of COVID-19 from the rest of what happened before and since March 2020. The virus plagues us in a flood tide of other treacheries: lie after lie, tyrant worship, emboldened racism, domestic insurrection, planetary meltdown, a renaissance of selfishness, looting of the idea and substance of the common good, endless warfare and humanitarian crises, to name a few. The presidential election and vaccine rollout gave me a sigh of relief, but only that.
In many ways, COVID-19 reinforced old survival patterns in me. I had learned to social distance young: growing up in a war-traumatized family, I knew how treacherous breathing people could be. I already preferred wide-open spaces, lived in the country, avoided parties and crowds, enjoyed the company of my husband, a few close friends, select family, and pursued solitary interests like writing and gardening, along with carefully chosen activism.
Decades of modulating hypervigilance under my belt, the old amygdala—gushing stress hormones in the context of armed-to-the-teeth hyper-patriots, racist assassins, neighborhood snipers, and so on—faced off with COVID-19.
It was terrifying.
In hideous irony, our instinct to connect, to be with each other, so essential to our existence and humanity, imperiled our lives.
The gasp heard ‘round the world—our autonomic reaction to imminent threat. But you can only hold your breath for so long, even when the air itself may kill you. My body wanted to mobilize for survival ASAP. My spirit wanted to exercise the freedom to “choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”, as Viktor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning (1946).
My husband and I refined and implemented strategies. I made masks, lots of them, three and four-ply, scrounged the internet for price-gouged supplies. I was part of a bunkered grassroots army bent over sewing machines. He still ninjas the grocery store and is our front line of defense, preserving our moat, dealing with mail and gas pumps and people at the door.
We have advantages. We’re retired and don’t have to go to jobs where the people we face all day may infect us or die left and right in our care. Others do. We can buy food and basic supplies (will they be there?) and pay our bills. Others can’t. More to food pantries. We can and do grow vegetables and know how to hunt. We don’t have dependents relying on us. Others do. We don’t have kids at home, restless and missing their friends, like many families who cope minute to minute with anxiety and the disruption that stalks everyday life. We stay vigilant, avoid all nonessential in-person interactions. Months pass before we risk the occasional take-out from a scrupulously careful local place. We navigate the shifting landscape of information, weigh in on the side of caution.
Late in the fall I have a couple of outdoor, masked and distanced meetings with a few friends before the onset of what would be a long, cold winter, particularly hard on those who live alone, those who are more gregarious, and those who struggle to make ends meet.
We try to keep our lifeboat afloat. So much is beyond our control, but we still worry: about ourselves, family, friends, the hungry, the mailman, the UPS guy, grocery clerks, exhausted and traumatized health care workers, caregivers, first responders, the sick, those dying, gasp after gasp, shut away from their heartbroken loved ones, teachers scrambling to keep school going, families trying to cope, people who can’t stand each other and boil over in their confined pressure cookers, everyone trying to manage in environments far more stressful than ours.
On Veteran’s Day, a dear friend dies. Later, a distant cousin. Then another friend. All from COVID-19.
We spend many hours vying for appointments to get a vaccine. It finally happens. I bring my EpiPen and hope I’m not trading one kind of death for another.
Last spring, just as I had on the morning of September 11th, 2001, I went outside to offer sacred tobacco in prayer. On that day a generation ago, as horror unfolded to our south and west, birds sang in the spruce and hemlock trees that flanked the little creek where we lived at the time. The sky was brilliant blue and cloudless. The innocent life of the land went on, far enough away to escape human-engineered mass pulverization and cremation, as was I. The contrast was stunning.
The land is respite for me, medicine, teacher. For a short time, when the pandemic grounded planes and many of us stayed inside our homes, the earth had a moment’s relief. The air cleared. Water cleared. Animals came out into yards and streets and onto empty roadways. I thought: here’s a chance, in this global retreat, this great pulling back, to take stock, to be still enough to study what we’re doing to each other and to this extraordinary planet. It seemed like a last chance to learn a great teaching, one that this formidable challenge offered us.
Just as spring returned in 2021, Adam Zagajewski died. His poem, "Try to Praise the Mutilated World", is one of my survival guides: how not to die of despair for what we do to each other, the land, the innocent life around us. The poem moves from advice (try to praise) to imperatives (must praise, should praise, praise). Nothing is denied, excluded, unacknowledged, sanitized, prettified or ignored, yet love, beauty, memory and mystery can help us endure and find joy. I read it again. And again.
COVID-19 may or may not be of our making, but our response to it is. I connect as best I can and ‘Try to Praise the Mutilated World’.
To lose everything
The thing is if these people who love each other, but don’t live together just socially distance, they'll get to be together again. All they have to do is wait and the person they want to hold them the most will be able to. Don’t you see? There’s a way out for you. A lot of you.
In a way, I’ve been socially distancing for a long time. Not because of a virus—but because the person I love, the person I want to hold most, is dead.
I don’t care when this ends, because when it ends I still won’t be able to hold him. He’ll still be gone, and as everyone else’s lives continue to grow and expand, I’ll sit staring in awe. It’s still shocking to me — the pace at which everyone’s lives keep moving. Most days I just tread water. Most days I don’t see a way out of the tunnel of grief. Like snow, it blankets everything in sight. It could be the most perfect beautiful day of your life, but you still feel the emptiness in your chest. The razor blades in your rib cage don’t cut any sweeter on the good days. And everyday you imagine your other loves. The other people you used to love that are still alive. And you imagine what their mornings are like. Because now they’re with the person they love most. They’re still alive and they are blissfully unaware how lucky they are.
When he died and I finally was able to take a breath again, I realized all we are is connection and now my most significant one was severed. So I thought I could go back in time to the next best connection. Maybe the most recent, maybe the second most significant. Selfishly, I just wanted to feel connected to someone again. But by the time I got my head above water I looked around to find that these past connections had moved on. Not only moved on, but built entire cities within their new world.
You see, I hadn’t been building anything. I couldn’t comprehend that other people’s lives continued on. They didn’t even have to stop to clean up the blood on the floor. The tragedy didn’t touch them and so now they live a life with no awareness of what could’ve happened. What it’d really be like to lose everything.
Katie Sherwood is an alum of UAlbany and is currently pursuing her Master's degree in Social Work at Hawaii Pacific University -- virtually, for the time being. In her free time she enjoys hiking, reading, writing, and yoga. Her passions include veganism, sustainability, minimalism, and ayurveda.
Michael O. Stevens
“Extraordinary, how little the body matters,” wrote French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry in his novel Flight to Arras. Indeed, his words have recurred in my head throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reflecting on a sortie he flew over his burning, bombed-out, nearly defeated France in 1940, Saint Exupéry was struck by feelings of solidarity for his fellow citizens, particularly a village of desperate refugees he encountered, but even, he said, for the cheats and corrupt politicians. As a pilot, Saint Exupéry had the luxury of elevated views.
There is something about flying that inspires contemplation. During a flight, one often thinks more deeply, more existentially. I’m still wary about entering an airport or boarding a plane, but my imagination allows me to simulate a flight above the pandemic.
Rising over the chaos, one sees it all. Men and women in business attire, consumed by hubris, obsess over their appearances. Overconfident and underprepared governments leave an ignorant public vulnerable. Nurses and doctors are applauded by people dawdling on balconies; meanwhile, they’re overwhelmed and under-protected at work. Hospitals are jammed with suffocating patients who not long before had routines, responsibilities, and relationships, but who were suddenly subsumed by a deadly disease, many of them silenced forever. Their intents, their attachments, their virtues, their bodies, all disregarded.
Over Hart’s Island in the Long Island Sound, one sees trenches dug by bulldozers filled with stacks of wooden boxes; makeshift caskets for the indigent and unclaimed victims of COVID-19. Amidst the carnage, one observes panic buying, worker exploitation, grifting, spikes in unemployment and gun violence, superstition and quackery, ballooning economic and racial disparities, worsening drug abuse, students logging in to classes but tuning out and falling behind.
Drifting into the media airwaves is hazardous because a heavy mix of deceit and bluster obscures visibility there. Sometimes, though, the picture becomes clear enough to see the millions of people struggling to survive while a few hundred billionaires shamelessly add trillions to their already-obscene piles of wealth.
In 2020, I wondered how the COVID-19 pandemic might change us. I wondered if it would stimulate solidarity, if it might humble us or illuminate us in some way. Many have been chastened into modifying their lives to try to stop the spread of the virus. Those modifications are now infamous: mask-wearing, social distancing, sanitizing, and vaccinating. Certainly families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 were transformed. However, while it may still be too soon to tell, I’m not yet convinced society has been fundamentally reformed by this experience.
In response to the pandemic in America, some adults shamefully regressed into childhood; denying bad news, throwing tantrums in grocery stores, spouting nonsensical ideas, clinging to undue privilege. Aping political leaders, they perpetuated conspiracies and some even claimed the pandemic was a hoax.
Thankfully, others understood the severity of the disease and were galvanized to serve. Health care workers bravely cared for patients. Scientists quickly developed vaccines. Volunteers supported blood drives, food pantries, and soup kitchens. Teachers educated remotely. Sanitation workers continued to haul waste. Other essential employees stocked shelves, delivered parcels, and buried the dead.
Saint Exupéry surmised that defeat may be the only path to resurrection. After such bewildering loss, in which COVID-19 killed more Americans than World War II, after such a dark and grueling winter, spring — the season of resurrection — is approaching. While the virus remains a threat, hints of hope may arise in the songs of returning birds and on the pedals of blossoming flowers.
As Saint Exupéry wrote, “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.” Therefore, though the world may look like rubble today, if we zoom out, ascending into the sky to scout the pandemic from a higher level, one may just be able to imagine the inception of a spire or perhaps a nascent nave. In rarefied air, we may finally conceive the beginnings of a new, better-fortified, and beautiful basilica.
Michael O. Stevens is from Albany, NY. In 2005, he earned a Master of Education. He relocated to South Florida in 2007 but returned to the Capital Region in 2012. He has published several pieces in the Albany Times Union, and he contributed to the Summer 2020 issue of Trolley. Michael is married and has one child, a daughter.
Flash fiction: My life in the Jewish alps
Jeffrey D. Straussman
Many people have seen the movie “Dirty Dancing.” My experience suggests it was not like that for everyone or not for most people that worked in the resorts of the Catskill Mountains in New York State often referred to as the Jewish Alps.
I was a 16-year old high school trumpet player. I was pretty good as a young musician. So, my first job in the “mountains”, as we referred to the area, was in a four-piece band in a very small hotel outside of Ellenville, New York. A big hotel named the Homowack Lodge was down the road. My parents were OK with me taking the job even though my Uncle Herman yelled at my mother and tried to convince her that she should not let me go. As a frequent visitor to the Catskills he claimed to anticipate Dirty Dancing and all the bad things that would happen to me. I can confess that my uncle turned out to be wrong, not because of my moral compass, but rather the opportunities did not present themselves. There is no movie in this tale.
The band was led by a saxophone player who attended Music and Art High School in New York City. He was pretty good and could growl on his tenor sax like Sam Butera who played with Louis Prima who was popular at the time. No jazz tenor player would play like that anymore. We played dance music—fox trot, Cha-cha, a mambo or two, some rock and roll. We never played too late even on Saturday night.
The band eventually had a second job. On Saturday nights, we packed up and went across the road to a bungalow colony and made a few extra bucks. Sometimes we had to play shows backing up a singer, playing music for a dance team or backing up a comedian. Most of these “entertainers” did something else for a living. Many were teachers for most of the year with summers free. The better ones hoped to go to Las Vegas or another resort area such as the Poconos mountains.
The best part of that first year was getting better on my horn and sight reading the entertainers charts —their music. Some of this music was written for a big band as if they were doing Vegas or the Ed Sullivan Show. So, I had to play the first trumpet part which inevitably had a lot of high notes. If I did not like the entertainer I would play as loud as I could. The best part of that first year was going to the Homowack and listening to the show band there. The trumpet player was Alan Rubin a graduate of Jamaica High School who played on "Saturday Night Live." You can see him in the original Blues Brothers movie. Alan was a great trumpet player who became a first-call player in New York City.
My Catskill career continued for the next few summers at a series of small hotels. And over the years, I played a lot of acts. One thing I discovered is that stealing seemed to be OK in the mountains. Comedians constantly borrowed routines from other comics. A common technique was to translate a phrase into Yiddish, the language of East European Jews still used in the mountains at that time, the early 1960’s. Or jokes about circumcision were common. The comedian also ended their show with this admonition to the guests of the hotel “be sure to tip your waiters. Because you don’t want to be in the situation where you are on the operating table and you look up and you notice that the surgeon was the waiter that you stiffed and he indicates that he remembers you as he waves his scalpel.” I cannot tell you how many times I heard that joke. Singers were all doing melodies of "Fiddler on the Roof" which was on Broadway at the time and the musical arrangement they had seemed to all be the same. “If I were a rich man”, cymbal crash.
Some acts remain in my mind. One summer we played an act called the jewel box review. It was a drag act with an emcee, comedian, a singer and a stripper who fooled the audience until the end of his striptease. The stripper was planning a full sex change operation and I recall the drummer asking him directly if a doctor will just cut it off. We never found out. The last year I worked as a trumpet player I was in another small hotel that did oldies night one day a week. These were rock and roll bands from the 1950s. I remember an act called Screamin Jay Hawkins. His big hit song was “I Put a Spell on You.” Screamin Jay’s famous bit was to jump out of a coffin and start singing the song. I do not recall that he had any music for us to play. What I really hated those summers were the dance teams. It was constant playing and tough. Some of the hippest comedians thought that they were the next Lenny Bruce, a comedian known for his foul mouth and dirty jokes who actually started his career in the Catskills.
Years later, condos in Florida with their million dollar club houses and Jewish migrants from the North gave me a second chance to these acts. My parents lived in one and my father always bought me and my wife ticket to the shows. I remember returning to their apartment after one of those shows and telling them that I played the act in one of the hotels I worked in. I asked him not to get us tickets in the future and eventually he got the idea.
The musicians I played with were an interesting bunch as I now reflect on those five summers. One piano player from Gloversville, New York liked to read girlie magazine which he kept under his bed. At the Swan Lake Hotel the band leader was Harvey Davis. He found me on the local 802 musician union floor which was at the time the Roseland Dance Hall. I had my trumpet with me and Harvey brought me to a practice room near the union hall and heard me play and hired me for the job. Harvey played alto sax and clarinet. He clearly played the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit in Brooklyn. He was not a great musician but he knew the business. The bass player was a strange dude who just came off playing on a cruise ship and had a broken leg caused by a motor scooter running into him in Bermuda. The piano player was a philosophy student at Columbia University who read Kierkegaard at the pool. He was a big pot smoker as I recall. The drummer was Harvey’s sidekick who played all those club dates with Harvey in NYC.
I learned a lot playing those summers in the Jewish Alps. My knowledge of Yiddish improved which had been limited to what I heard on the Yiddish radio station in my grandparent’s apartment. Next, my appreciation of Scotch whiskey was definitely enhanced . But I did not follow what many others did which was to get roast pork on garlic sandwiches at the Liberty Diner, a favorite late night spot for musicians from the bigger hotels, which meant that they made more money than I did.
There were several players who turned out to be known jazz musicians like Eddie Daniels, tenor/clarinet, who played at a hotel on the other side of Swan Lake. A bar centrally located in the Catskills hosted weekly jam sessions where musicians from the hotels would come and play. It was great to hear such talent.
I got to drive around the mountains quite a bit in my Ford Falcon. My girlfriend (now my wife) worked at a camp near Narrowsburg and I would visit her and we would take trips together. One summer the drummer and I climbed the mountain above Liberty where white rocks spelled out “Welcome to Liberty”. We decided to rearrange the rocks to spell out “fuck”. We were proud of our work and I drove up and down Route 17 to admire it.
So, I learned that one is never too old to be an adolescent. Yes, this is a little different than Dirty Dancing but still it was a learning experience. I even saved enough money to finance my first trip to Europe with my friend Arnie in the summer of 1966!
Jeffrey D. Straussman is a professor in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at the University at Albany's Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy.
Pandemic politics and plague power plays: A historical perspective
John R. Teevan III
For the last year, everyone’s life has been upside-down and impacted in every possible way. From lay-offs to losing loved ones to everything being cancelled to political turmoil and the storming of the Capitol to not being allowed to travel to #BlackLivesMatter to #StopAsianHate – all amidst the backdrop of COVID causing death, suffering, destruction and economic collapse. Nobody should have to say goodbye to their grandparents, fighting for a ventilator, with hospitals saying no visitors allowed. What horror the last year has been.
Every pandemic always has a scapegoat that gets blamed. During the bubonic plague the Jews were blamed for poisoning the wells. During the 1980s AIDS was seen as a disease that only gay men could get. During COVID, Trump blamed China and Asian-American communities were targeted by violence. In 2013 I was at an epidemiology conference session at Harvard that discussed how the Plague of Provence in the 1720s was used as a political weapon between rivaling kings in Europe.
Every crisis can be a political tool, and a pandemic is a powerful weapon that will destroy or empower a politician. A pandemic is so powerful because of the fear and panic surrounding mass deaths. During the 2020 presidential debates, Biden concentrated his attacks on Trump’s handling of the pandemic more than anything else – and Trump lost the election in a landslide. Governor Cuomo became empowered with unprecedented emergency powers thanks to the fear surrounding the pandemic – and Cuomo won power and popularity. Politicians can rise and fall during a pandemic depending on how they play their cards during the power dynamics of a plague. Even entire institutions can fall during a pandemic. For example, the Catholic Church failed in its attempts to combat the bubonic plague spiritually and this shattered the Church’s authority and led to the Protestant Reformation.
A pandemic is the great equalizer. Anyone can get COVID. You can be rich or poor or any walk of life and still get the same virus as anyone else. You can’t pay your way out of it. You can’t hide from it. It is everywhere, and a unifying fear that unites us all. Even the most powerful people can get infected. Donald Trump caught COVID. Woodrow Wilson caught Spanish influenza. Pericles, the political leader of Athens during its Golden Age, died of the Plague of Athens. Infection can affect us all, no matter who we are.
In addition to the pandemic, political turmoil has made the headlines as well. The storming of our Capitol – our nation’s most sacred symbol of democracy – seems right out of a dystopian anarchy fiction novel. When this was happening, friends from every country I traveled to asked me what was going on. Does anyone ever know what’s going on? When there is chaos and crisis, can we say for sure that we know anything is certain? What we learned from the last year is that the only thing for certain is that nothing is for certain. Anything can change in a heartbeat. Our loved ones could die and never come back. Our career could be ended in a lay-off. Every restaurant in the world could stop indoor dining, our concerts could be cancelled and our travel could be banned. And who knows what tomorrow will be like?
But let us not fear tomorrow. In fact, I am optimistic that the world is on the right track to returning to normal with the vaccine being distributed so quickly. If everyone wears masks and gets their immunizations then we are moving in the right direction.
After all, crisis leads to change. The bubonic plague led to the Reformation and Renaissance. It has been a horrific year, but things will get better. Once Spanish influenza subsided our country enjoyed the Roaring Twenties with economic prosperity, swing dance and parties. I can’t wait for this pandemic to end.
John R. Teevan III is an alumnus of the University at Albany, having graduated summa cum laude from the Honors College with a B.A. in French, M.A. in French, C.G.S. in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and M.S. in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. John writes historical fiction, romance, spy fiction and comedy. He is the bestselling author of nine published books.
His favorite hobby is traveling around the world and experiencing different cultures – and he always gets the best inspirations for stories when traveling. John’s books are available on Amazon and Kindle.
Separation of cake and candle
Years before the coronavirus began its deadly spread around the globe, my father was at Warren Tire in Clifton Park, N.Y., advising strangers on why we should abolish the ritual of blowing out birthday candles and the habit of greeting each other with handshakes. Both could cause illness.
“There is only one concern when blowing the candles, a chance of eating other people’s saliva, or worse, getting some saliva-transmitted diseases,” he once wrote. “It could be very serious.”
Despite outward appearances, my father was a man ahead of his time, a man my mother joked was “ancient Chinese,” yet had the prescience to not only see the health risks of birthday candles and handshakes but to talk about it.
The pandemic brought back his wise words. Somewhere amid the messages about masking and social distancing, I heard him pontificating about birthday candles and handshakes. Somewhere he was gloating in that I-told-you-so kind of way.
My father had been right about many things in his life. The importance of reusing and recycling. The value of preserving natural resources. The power of hard work and persistence. He was an immigrant from Taiwan who fled China at the end of World War II, then got a scholarship to study in the U.S. He raised a family, worked as an engineer for New York State and helped found the Chinese Community Center.
In retirement, he became an avid ping pong player and calligrapher, who loved tending to his lawn and took pride in a well-shoveled driveway. When he turned his attention to public health concerns, he became passionate about putting an end to saliva-coated birthday cakes and germy handshakes.
The solution? Placing the candle at the opposite end of the table, away from the cake, and having the celebrant blow it out there, where no saliva would touch the food. He called it Separation of Cake and Candle.
In place of handshakes, he suggested we use the fist and palm salute a gesture that originated in ancient China. The gesture is done by placing one hand on top of the other in a balled fist, held in front of our abdomens. Historically, it was a way to signal to the other person that you were not concealing weapons. Later, it became a way of greeting and showing gratitude.
His four children thought he was adorable with his messages. Dad thought there was nothing cute about it. He was serious and decided to illustrate his point. He drew one picture with an “X” over a birthday cake covered in lit candles and another one with two hands locked in a grip, also with an “X” on it.
On the day he went to Warren Tire, he got permission to put his artwork on their waiting room coffee table. A woman there was intrigued by what he was doing. Ah, a potential convert, he probably thought, and in his accented English, began to explain why birthday candles and handshakes were public health hazards. The woman took him to the local Penny Saver, where a graphic artist created an ad based on his sketches. The ad appeared in the publication a few weeks later. Dad was so proud.
When he died in 2016, we passed out the ads at his funeral service. He had always wanted us to spread the word, and I knew he was smiling down at how we had wisely seized this opportunity. Even now, friends tell me they no longer let loved ones blow out candles, choosing instead to put a candle on a cupcake or to avoid the practice altogether.
This year, as we waged war against a mysterious new virus, and went to great lengths to stay healthy, I took comfort in hearing my father’s voice. His words rang truer than ever. And now, I’ve shared them again.
Winnie Yu is a mom, a writer and the co-author or author of nine books, including the award-winning Autism: What Every Parent Needs to Know (American Academy of Pediatrics). In her spare time, she enjoys reading, tennis, and long walks on the rail trail.