N.K. Jemisin and Le Guin de L’Escalier

How an embarrasing interaction led me to some worthwhile literature.

After a year of isolation, I found the prospect of re-entering the social scene both exciting and terrifying. Extroversion has served me well all my life, but social skills are like a muscle, apt to atrophy if left unused. 2020 was the great atrophy.

When I was invited to a party in June- aptly named “June Party”- I arrived with a combination of anxiety and exhilaration. I knew only a handful of the twenty-odd guests, and struggled to remember how to make new friends.

So, it came as a great relief when an attractive stranger approached me, thrust a hand forward, and made an introduction. We had a few mutuals, and quickly found a conversational rapport. She told me that she loved to read, particularly fiction, and I experienced that thrill of discovering a common interest, one on which I can converse for hours.

She asked if I read any science fiction or fantasy; I replied that I love science fiction, it is among my favorite genres. She then asked me a question that utterly defeated me: who are some of your favorite women sci-fi authors?

With the benefit of l’espirit de l’escalier, I had several viable responses open to me: I am a fan of Ursula Le Guin, and have read a bunch of Marion Zimmer Bradley. I could have started a conversation about whether Mary Shelley should be considered science fiction or horror, ditto Anne Rice, one of my favorite authors. I had options.

Instead, I stood there stammering like an idiot for about ten seconds, unable to recall a single name, and with the rising awareness of just how dumb I was appearing to this new acquaintance.

She took mercy on me, and answered her own question, rattling off several names I had not heard of, but would later learn are more on the fantasy side of the genre divide. I recovered from this momentary mortification, and made a mental note to read at least one of the authors she mentioned.

The next day, I ordered several books by N.K. Jemisin, one of those authors. Now, I typically steer clear of authors who sign off by two initials, as they have a tendency to be pseudonyms, or transphobes. Jemisin, I was assured, was neither of these things; a woman of color enjoying great success in the male-dominated world of fantasy writing.

After waiting the obligatory two days for delivery, I received and immediately started on her book The City We Became, which was described as a tribute to New York City.

My reading has focused much more heavily on science fiction than fantasy, so I found the opening parts of the novel quite jarring. The premise into which the reader is thrust, in media res, is that the city is “being born,” a process that happens to any city of a certain size and character. It accomplishes this task by taking on an avatar, a human who embodies the city and is empowered by it. That avatar must then face off against an enemy of unclear motivations, who seeks to destroy the city for reasons that are not entirely made apparent.

About fifty pages into the book, I realized with disappointment that I was not enjoying it. The plot seemed farcical rather than fantastic, and I had the creeping sense that I was missing some key context. I checked the cover to see if perhaps this was a sequel, and discovered that it was in fact the first book in a series.

One bias sci-fi readers bring to fantasy novels is a need to know why things are as they are. While the borders are often hazy, this is the clearest distinction in my experience: while both contain the weird and the wonderful, science fiction authors will go to great pains to explain why those things exist, while fantasy authors ask the reader to accept the fantastic elements and move on.

I struggled with this, particularly with Jemisin’s avatar-as-city device. There were suggestions throughout the novel that some greater force was at work, and that there was some underlying conflict, possibly on the lines of order versus chaos, fueling the awakening of cities. The book talked around this without addressing it squarely; I hope and expect it will be further developed in the as-yet-unwritten sequels.

For the “awakening” of New York, avatars representing the five boroughs had to come together and find the unified city avatar, who was gravely injured in an attack by the enemy of dubious origin. That avatar was in repose at an abandoned subway station in Manhattan.

About midway through, my opinion on the book changed, primarily due to the excellent character development and dialogue. I felt that Jemisin was giving me a peek into communities within the city that are generally inaccessible to those on the outside. The avatars for Queens and the Bronx were particularly well-cast and provided commentary on the culture and pride of those boroughs.

As the story neared its climax, the avatar from Staten Island went rogue, teaming up with the enemy and refusing to join the unified effort to save the city. Like many in New York, I have never met a joke at Staten Island’s expense that I didn’t like, and the image of that borough putting its own selfish needs above those of the collective was pitch perfect.

In the end, the efforts to save New York succeeded, due to a new fifth avatar arising to replace Staten Island: Jersey City, represented by a friend and colleague of the Bronx’s avatar. Together, the avatars rescued the main city champion, and the conflict resolved, though a sinister pall still attained over Staten Island.

Overall, I found The City We Became to be a delightful read, if slow to get underway. It reaffirmed the merits of reading beyond my typical genres at the recommendation of others. I picked up a copy of the Broken Earth trilogy, also by Jemisin, and hope that the longer form leaves me with fewer unanswered questions.

Or, barring that, I hope that it is memorable enough that the next time a cute stranger asks me to name a woman author, I am caught less flat-footed.

-AG

Published in: on July 22, 2021 at 8:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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To Be Set Right

On the conflicted values of a Millenial Zionist.

I grew up in a Jewish family in Lexington, Kentucky.  As we were a small religious minority in the area, my parents took great pains to make sure I had a Jewish education.  This included Sunday School, Hebrew School, and a series of summer camps.  Throughout all of it, in addition to the history, religion, and cultural lessons, ran a strong thread of Zionism. 

Looking at Jewish history, it is easy to see why this was the case.  The Jewish story is one of repeated exile, pogrom, and holocaust.  Our history is rife with sad remembrances, and celebrations that boil down to “they tried to kill us, they failed, hallelujah.”  Israel, which came into existence around the time my parents did, was and remains the only Jewish-majority modern state.  Its brief history hit on familiar themes: they tried to kill us, again and again, but we persisted. 

I choose my pronouns carefully: I was raised thinking of Israel as my country, too, though I have only been there once, as a young tourist.  I have understood, as have many Jewish Americans, that if circumstances warrant, I can always move to Israel; living there is my birthright.

My intellectually formative years took place between the first and second intifada.  I mourned along with my family when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.  I remember the adults wondering aloud whether this meant the end of the peace process.  I also remember them saying, in hushed tones, how glad they were that the assassin was not Palestinian.  

By the time I started college, I had developed a fascination with the history and politics of the Middle East, and wrote pro-Israel columns in the campus newspaper.  I decried the hypocrisy of Israel’s neighbor states, who kept Palestinian refugees in squalor as political pawns, never permitting them to develop or integrate, all while claiming to be their champions in the world community.  I advocated for returning Gaza to Egypt, and returning the West Bank to Jordan (or, a fortiori, Transjordan).  

The core of my support for Israel in their conflict with the Palestinians was a deeply-ingrained belief, fomented and nurtured over many years of Zionist education, that the Palestinians and their supporters did not appropriately value human life.  I was outraged when Hamas placed its bases and military assets next to hospitals and orphanages, or when suicide bombers sought to maximize loss of life.  I viewed those incidents as proof that in this asymmetrical conflict, Israel had the better weapons, but the Palestinians had the freedom to kill indiscriminately.  

My views began to change after Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount set off another wave of violence.  His administration, and later, that of Benjamin Netanyahu, undermined my belief in Israel’s virtue.  The aggressive settlement expansion, the serial objections to direct negotiation, and the policies that treated non-Jews as second class citizens disgusted me.  These were not our values; these did not represent who we want to be as a Jewish nation. 

It is possible to love your country and hate your government, as any liberal who lived through the Trump years can attest.  But it became harder and harder, under the Netanyahu government, to identify as a Zionist without implicitly ratifying the disgusting policies of the Likud party. Zionist became a political position more than a statement of national pride.  Do you support Palestinian independence, or are you a Zionist? 

I opt for both.  I am a Zionist, proud of the establishment of a Jewish state and committed to preserving and protecting this one small country that will always welcome members of its diaspora.  It may be hard to fathom, but the relative safety and acceptance of Jewish people in the United States is a historical anomaly.  Through most of history, Jewish people have been at best tolerated, and at worse, faced with systematic extermination. 

I am also an American, and one of our foundational tenets is a belief in the right to self-determination.  Israel has made plain that it will not welcome the Palestinians into their country as citizens, jeopardizing the Jewish majority.  That means the people of Palestine need to be given real self-government, sufficient land to form a viable state, and the economic assistance required of any new state to develop and join the world community.  

It has been hard to find truly neutral accounts of what is happening in Israel these days.  Most of my reading- my algorithms skew liberal- has been decidedly anti-Israel, portraying them as attacking Gaza for no reason, and killing indiscriminately.  The pro-Israel writing dates the start of the present violence to rocket attacks from Gaza, ignoring the eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers.  

Israel conducts its egregious actions under color of law, “legally” evicting Palestinians and slowly, steadily transitioning key parts of East Jerusalem to Jewish occupation, foreclosing it as a future capital for a Palestinian state.  The Palestinians do not have the ability to act under color of law, so they resort to violence.  Lacking the technical prowess of the IDF, that violence is often indiscriminate.  Rocket launchers are placed atop schools, hospitals, and media buildings to deter counterstrikes; if they were kept away from civilian centers, as Israel demands, they would be quickly and cataclysmically destroyed by Israel’s superior military might. 

There are no “good guys” in this conflict.  For all its social services, Hamas is a terrorist organization, and its indiscriminate attacks coupled with its refusal to even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist disqualifies it as a player in the peace talks.  Israel has the power to improve the lives of the Palestinians living under its control, but refuses, and takes every opportunity to avenge rocket attacks with devastating reprisal strikes, often disproportionate to the provocation.  

Jewish Americans like me, who grew up idolizing Israel, must now reckon with a government of right-wing extremists seeking to consolidate power and crush the prospects of a two-state solution.  As Jewish identity and Zionism were so closely linked in my religious education, it can be hard to question fidelity to Israel without shaking the foundations of that identity.  

I identify as a Zionist because my belief in the necessity for a Jewish state, and my appreciation for the establishment and existence of that state, is valid.  I identify as pro-Palestinian because I believe that people have a right to self-determination, and to their own pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness.  I criticize Israel because I support Israel, and I believe that the best way I can show support is to advocate for less extreme policies and a greater acceptance of Palestinian rights.  I criticize the Palestinians because I support their goal of statehood, and believe the actions of Hamas and its supporters are contrary to that goal.  

As Senator Carl Schurz once said, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”  For Jewish Americans like me, that is our challenge and obligation if we choose to identify as Zionists: to set things right, and to speak out against actions that undermine our values.  

It has been just under twenty four hours since the ceasefire took hold.  I pray it lasts.

-AG

Published in: on May 21, 2021 at 10:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Things that Broke

A lesson in applied catharsis

Over this weekend, Kelsey and I are moving from our home in Jackson Heights to a new loft apartment in Astoria. We had been in our old place for five years, and while the rent and location were nice, there were a growing number of things we disliked about our apartment. The mail theft, for one, and frequent, persistent bug infestations. I have a thing about bugs in my living space, and our inability to fully, finally exterminate them made the apartment increasingly uncomfortable for me.

Then, with the COVID-19 pandemic, rents fell dramatically. Our own landlord wasn’t even requesting a rent increase for renewal, a sure sign that the market was good for renters. We started looking, and within a few days, found our new home. It is in Astoria, where the plurality of my chosen New York family live, right on the park, with high ceilings and a modern feel. I think we will be very happy here.

We also got lucky with our movers, Moishe’s, the same company I used five years before to move into Jackson Heights. They were friendly, careful, and thorough. They made it easy.

Today is our second day of unpacking, and I have spent it opening bins and sorting the contents into their assigned positions. It is a tedious task, made tolerably pleasant by audiobooks and enthusiasm for this next chapter of life.

At the bottom of one of the last bins, I saw that something was wrong: there were shards in the bottom, which could mean only one thing: an item had broken. It happens all the time, when moving, but this was the first I had seen. I investigated, and became distraught.

Several items had been destroyed, all in the same bin. Some combination of poor packing or rough handling doomed this particular bin’s contents to oblivion. Two of the broken items were of great sentimental value.

The first, largest, and most important was a statue replica, standing about eighteen inches high, of Rodin’s piece “The Eternal Idol.” I have written in these pages about this sculpture before: it belonged to my Grandma Jeanne, and was one of the three items I received after her passing. It depicts a man kneeling before a seated woman, kissing her midsection. It is erotic without being vulgar.

Before she passed, my grandma told me it was called “The Kiss,” but that is a different sculpture, though similar in some respects. This one, far less well-known, was made during Rodin’s work on the Gates of Hell, his sculpted opus, though it was not incorporated into the final piece. I adore it, and associate it with the dignified elegance of my late grandmother. It was so heavy I assumed it was made of solid metal, but beneath the chrome finish is ceramic, and it broke right in half, the woman cleaved at the torso.

When I was young, we would visit my grandmother in California, and she would hide that sculpture, having decided it was too racy for young eyes. When she moved to Lexington, she brought it, along with the rest of her impressive art collection. As I have begun to accumulate my own art, I am always silently comparing my taste to hers, and some part of me hopes she would approve of the ways I decorate my living spaces.

The Rodin sat on my bar, and was set for a place of honor in the new loft. Perhaps it can be restored somewhat, but it will surely show the marks of having been broken. I asked Kelsey to take a stab at fixing it. I don’t think it will ever look like it did before, but I feel that the statue’s story has not yet ended.

The second broken piece is a menorah, made of welded metal on a stone base. It was a gift from my former father-in-law, Scott.

When I became engaged to my first wife, her family split in their reactions. Her folks were long-divorced. Her mom was supportive, and we got along famously. Her dad, however, strongly objected on the basis of my Judaism. He hosted Ashley for a visit shortly after our engagement, and tried to talk her out of it, saying that as a Jew, I was certainly bound for hell, and she should choose a spouse who was at least eligible for admission to heaven. It was hurtful, and I never became close with that side of the family.

Her mothers’ spouse, Scott, was a friendly, skilled, good-hearted man, but nobody would mistake him for woke. He hailed from the Carolinas, and had a large confederate battle flag tattooed on his arm. Nonetheless, he made an extraordinary effort to make me feel not just accepted, but welcomed into the family. At our first Christmas after the wedding, he gave me the menorah, a giant and sturdy candelabra that he had welded from spare parts in his workshop. Every detail was perfect, and it meant so much to me that he would find a way to connect with me as a Jewish person, and give me a gift put together with so much love and consideration.

Even after Ashley and I divorced almost eight years later, I kept the menorah. It was the centerpiece of my Hannukah celebration as recently as three months ago. I am not sure precisely how it broke, but it broke spectacularly, and definitely beyond any opportunity of repair.

When I discovered these items, I felt devastated and my productivity came to a complete halt. After talking through my reactions with Kelsey and my sister, I realized that the reason these items were so special to me is because they remind me of entire stories. They are not objects: they are vehicles for memory. If someone were to remark on the statue, I had a whole story to tell them, about my elegant grandmother. For the menorah, it is one of the few items I kept from my first marriage, and reminds me of a great kindness that resonates even now.

I also realized that telling these stories, putting them in tangible form, would lessen the impact of losing the items themselves. The pieces of ceramic and metal and stone have no special value: it is what they represent. They remind me of special people and bygone times.

It is my hope with this post, I can let my writing, and not the things that broke, serve as a vehicle for these memories.

-AG

Published in: on March 21, 2021 at 6:03 pm  Comments (1)  

The Last Night

An unvarnished account of the death of my beloved cat.

I was sitting at my computer desk, tabbing between news articles and social media, when Kelsey came back into the room.  

“I don’t think Fin’s doing very well,” they said.  

I got up to investigate.  Sure enough, there was Fin, standing in the hall near the bedroom, his body tense and contorted as though he were about to hairball, shit on the floor, or both.  He didn’t look up at me, opening his mouth and exhaling hard, as though trying to vomit, but only a small drop or two of liquid came out. 

With a coo of reassurance I bent down to give him a pet.  He smelled bad, a combination of the aforementioned bodily functions.  He had always been a sweet-smelling cat. 

He took a step forward, crouched as though to shit again, and tensed hard.  I thought about moving him to the litter box, but he seemed to have enough problems without an emergency airlift.  I let him be.  After a moment, a single drop of liquid defecation fell out, and he walked further down the hall. 

Fin was 19.  I had been with him since he was five weeks old, and he was a fixture in my life, my loyal companion.   I knew he was getting near the end of his life, just chronologically.  Over the past year, though, I had seen him visibly decline.  He stopped jumping, even to get up on the bed.  His vision had plainly clouded, and he often bumped into walls while navigating across the hall.  

Kelsey and I did our best for him.  We bought a small cat bed to place next to ours, and next to the radiator, so he would have a warm place near us to sleep.  We put additional cat beds in every room of the house, and put bags of treats in places we spent the most time.  I intended to spoil him rotten for whatever time I had left with him. 

I went to clean up the mess, and saw that his tail had dipped into it, spreading it to other parts of the floor, and to his fur.  A bath was in order; I gave it to him.  He stood in the tub, miserable and helpless, as I poured cupfulls of warm water over his fur, cleaning him as best I could.  Kelsey brought a big towel, and I wrapped him up in it, sitting down on the toilet lid and cradling him like an infant. 

He looked so small and helpless, worlds away from the sharp-pawed rascal of his youth.  

He hadn’t eaten, so I tried to give him some of his favorite food- tuna water- through a small syringe we used when he needed medicine.  He resisted it, having no appetite.  I managed to get several squirts of it into him despite his lack of cooperation, but a few minutes later, he retched it back up.  His breathing was labored.  I was worried he might die in my arms. 

Fully nine years earlier, I almost lost him.  He had a major illness, vomiting up bile and refusing food.  I took him to the vet, and they couldn’t find the cause.  When medicine didn’t help, I didn’t know what to do; he wasn’t eating, and there was no obvious cause.  He was weak, and could hardly stand on his own.  

A follow-up visit to the vet determined that he had an intestinal blockage, which was removed by minor surgery; it was a whole almond.  After weeks of nursing him back to health, he recovered.  I felt like I had been given a gift, more time with him.  

I checked the clock; it was nearing one in the morning, technically it was now New Year’s Eve.  I had no work during the day, so stayed up with Fin for several more hours.  He didn’t improve, nor did he decline.  His breathing was unlabored, but he wouldn’t eat, and would barely open his eyes.  I just kept petting him gently and keeping him warm, and company.  

Finally, at 4am, I decided to go to sleep.  I placed Fin in his bed, next to the radiator, still wrapped in his towel.  He purred a little bit; he always did like laying in a warm bed.  I crawled into my own and fell asleep.  I could hear him gently snoring as I drifted off. 

I slept reasonably well, a side effect of going to bed exhausted, but not for very long.  At 7am, I woke up, absolutely certain that Fin had died.  I can’t tell you how, but I knew.  I was sleeping on the far side of a king-sized bed from his, and Kelsey was fast asleep between us, so I slowly got out of bed, circled around, and went to his side. 

There could be no mistaking it.  He was still, cold, and utterly lifeless.  He was still wrapped in the towel.  I scrunched up my face with emotion as hard as I could, but silently, not wanting to wake up Kelsey just yet.  I picked up Fin’s body and took him into the bathroom, washing off the few parts of his fur that had been soiled since his bath the night before.  Then, I took him into the library and sat with him.  

I was whispering to him the whole time, though I can’t remember what I said.  I probably thanked him for being such a good cat to me, and for all the wonderful times we had together. 

I laid him out on the coffee table and wrapped him up completely in the towel.  Then, I went to the bedroom, woke up Kelsey, and told her that Fin was gone. 

Over the next hour, I made a half-dozen phone calls to the closest people in my life, activating my support network.  Kelsey took care of the arrangements for Fin, whose corporeal form left us a few hours later, in the care of a sympathetic vet.  New Years Eve was a hard day, full of many tears and fond memories of Fin.   

It seemed fitting that Fin would choose that day to leave us.  His name, after all, means “end” in French.  He left along with 2020, a challenging year, but his memory will be with me for the rest of my life. 

-AG

Published in: on January 28, 2021 at 2:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Infamy

January 6, 2021 confirmed my worst fears, and showed us all the true nature of Trumpism.

In October 2016, I had a specific, troubling fear. We were weeks away from the presidential election, and all indications were that Hillary Clinton would become our next president. Her opponent, Donald Trump, seemed like a comic book villain, all bluster and macho chauvinism. Breathless coverage followed his every tweet, his every campaign event. It was a train wreck in slow motion; what would he say next?

The news de jour was feverish speculation among the chattering class, centered on whether Trump would gracefully accept his anticipated defeat. Actually, that wasn’t quite it: nobody thought he would be graceful. Rather, the speculation was whether he would accept the election’s result, full stop. Would he admit reality, or would he continue to insist that the election had been rigged, and that he was, in fact, the victor?

After all, he had demonstrated a loose and flexible relationship with the truth, and had no compunctions about telling outright lies, time and again, repeating them until his followers accepted them as mantra. At the risk of provoking Godwin’s law, there is an old saw about the power of big lies.

My fear, at that time, was not whether or not Trump would accept the results of 2016. It was whether, in the then-unlikely event he were to win, he would accept the results of an election that took place during his presidency.

In the months since election day 2020, we have seen the answer. Not only has the president refused to accept the outcome, he has fired his supporters up into a fantastical frenzy, bellowing conspiracy theories, demonizing all who refuse to bow to his fictional accounts. Much of this he accomplished on his own, but he had enablers, from the withered husk of a former NYC mayor to a bloviating, bearded Ted Cruz. There were many more, and media- both social and conventional- are now repeating their names, lest we forget their role in this sad episode.

Yesterday, at the president’s urging, armed insurgents breached the US Capitol, sending legislators, staff, and law enforcement scrambling to remain safe. The United States flag was thrown to the ground, a flag adorned with TRUMP taking its place. This is what fascism looks like: employing violence to gain what cannot be achieved by legal means.

In his remarks on the floor of a joint session of Congress, Senator Ted Cruz could not cite any evidence to support his “belief” that the election was conducted fraudulently. Instead, he urged colleagues to join him because of the substantial minority of Americans who believe that it was. Why, one might wonder, would so many people believe something that isn’t so, especially after unsuccessful efforts to demonstrate it in countless courts and legislatures?

The answer, of course, is because the doubts about the conduct and accuracy of the 2020 election were the Big Lie, the one repeated ad nauseum by Donald Trump and his mealy-mouthed myrmidons. People like Ted Cruz created a widespread belief in lies, and then cited that belief as reason enough to oppose and delay the transition of power.

After witnessing the Proud Boys staging an armed invasion of the US Capitol, there can be no remaining doubt about what Donald Trump meant when he told them to “stand back and stand by” at a presidential debate.

Mike Pence, for years chief among Donald Trump’s minions, was asked to subvert the constitution and assert the power to unilaterally choose the next president. Had that power existed, which it does not, it would have allowed the last vice-president to throw out the results of Trump’s own election in 2016: that role was then held by Joe Biden, our president-elect.

Donald Trump serves no master but his own narcissistic quest for power, fame, and wealth. He has shown that he will never give them up, no matter what. They must be taken from him.

I doubt that the 25th Amendment will be employed, though I hope that it will. I doubt that the congress will impeach and remove Donald Trump in the waning days of his administration. I have no doubt that he will pardon himself, and his supporters who engaged in criminal and terroristic conduct yesterday. We have a word for what this is:

Donald Trump is a traitor. The insurgents who stormed the US Capitol are traitors. The senators and representatives who enabled and encouraged his pathetic attempt to overturn the election are traitors.

And no patriotic American can continue to support any of them, full stop. This is no longer a matter of differing political views, or even worldviews. It is now Americans against the fascists, and too many fascists are among us.

Yesterday was a dark day in American history, and we must never forget those who caused it. Remember their names, and hold them accountable.

-AG

Published in: on January 7, 2021 at 5:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Week Ten

A dispatch from the front lines of NYC in a public health crisis.

It’s Friday, fucking finally.  I’m not sure there was anything objectively worse about the past seven days than the seven days before that, but it felt exceptionally long and hard.  

It’s a holiday weekend, too, a weekend that in any other year would feature a brief trip, an AirBnB with friends or, at the very least, a barbecue or a beach trip.  Memorial Day is every summer’s early triumph, and we don’t get one this year.  It’s a bitter pill. 

It’s also an extraordinarily long period of time to be home, choosing between pleasant but anxious mass video chats with other people, or the continued solitude of various screens of entertainment. Eating one of the few variety of meals you can make with the things on hand, without having to venture out in this mess.  

I’m taking it seriously, the virus.  My ZIP code is on every list of worst hit places in the world, per capita, and this thing is nasty.  I don’t want it.  So I’m following the regulations, and then some.  Double-thick, homemade cloth mask with two straps, a fitted nosepiece, and even a coffee filter stuck in between the fabric layers.  Six feet, on all sides, at all times.  Don’t touch things with your hands, don’t touch your face at all, try not to touch, well, anything.  

Try to make eye contact, and nod to folks.  To be kind to neighbors, while keeping them distant.  

I had been out of my apartment building a total of five times in ten weeks.

So, this Friday, I had an unexpectedly heavy and productive day of remote work, and when it hit late afternoon, I needed to mail a letter; it was a work thing.  I had the envelope, I had the stamps, all I needed was to drop it in the blue box for sending.  I thought, in the words of a dear friend, “fuck it, it’s Friday” and left the house a bit before closing time, hoping to catch a lull in whatever muted foot traffic was taking place on Junction Boulevard. 

It was the last thing I had to do before the holiday weekend, whatever that will look like this year. 

I geared up, stepped out the front door, and immediately smelled weed.  It was that pleasant olfactory memory thing, where I immediately associated it with every other summer day I’ve smelled that, walking past the same group of guys who hang out in front of our neighbor’s building, talking and smoking weed.  

They were out there now. One had no mask on at all, and one had a mask that was strapped behind his head but pulled down below his chin, technically rendering it an item of jewelry.  The other had a paper mask that was on correctly.  I gave them a wide berth but we exchanged nods of recognition as I stepped into the street to pass them.  

Junction Boulevard is a vibrant artery of Queens.  It is a hub for families from Corona and Jackson Heights, and serves as their border.  My favorite deli is there, my drug store, grocery, bodega, and train stop.  

It’s ordinarily very crowded.  

And as I expected, it wasn’t crowded, not in any traditional sense of the word.  I didn’t make physical contact with any people, which on ordinary days is well-nigh impossible.  Six feet, though, was out of the question.  It would be literally impossible to navigate my neighborhood in such a manner.  There are simply too many of us.  

Those three neighbor stoners proved to be an apt microcosm.  About a third of the people were wearing no masks at all.  There was nobody giving them trouble, no police presence to speak of, and I observed at least fifty people without masks, in close proximity to passersby, in the ten minutes I was outside.  Another third of people had masks of various quality and material, and were wearing them on their faces. 

I wish that I could have left off the end of that last sentence.  

A full third of the people I observed were in obvious, physical possession of a mask, but were not wearing it, or not wearing it correctly, or wearing it as the aforementioned jewelry.  They weren’t using it, but they had it on-hand.  

I get why they are doing that.  They need the mask in case they want to go into a store, or if the local precinct happens by. But they otherwise don’t, can’t, and/or won’t wear their mask the way we are supposed to.  I’m tempted to scold people, but remember my own privilege, and that I don’t really know people’s reasons or motives.  I should just steer clear, and do what I can to protect my own health. 

Honestly, it was scary.  I was so aware that somewhere out there, in public, is this damned virus that has turned the world upside-down.  It’s real, it’s deadly, and I see its reflection in every stranger I pass on the street, silently calculating my odds and measuring my distance and even my breathing as I pass them.  We are all each other’s potential enemies. 

I got the letter mailed, and navigated home at a slower, more deliberate pace.  I thought about whether we are coming through to the end of the pandemic, or if a resurgence will be the next thing. I fear it will be the latter. Not enough people are still taking this seriously.  The last time I was out, about a month ago, there were far fewer people out, and nearly everyone had masks.  There were lines back then for the grocery store and Rite Aid. 

Today, there was a line for the healthcare clinic.  The line spanned two full blocks.  

-AG

Published in: on May 22, 2020 at 4:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Free is my Favorite Price

A hat tip to some incredibly effective pizza marketing. 

As we continue riding out this quarantine- me, from the epicenter of the pandemic in Queens, and you, most likely somewhere safer but no less boring- I want to share a light story about how a seriously mediocre pizza chain managed to get my business twice in a single week.

For context, I am not ordering very much delivery these days.  There isn’t a single reason for that, but a few complementary reasons: it places the delivery driver, and to a lesser extent me, at risk of infection; it costs money, at a time when money is tighter than usual; and delivery food is quite unhealthy*, which doesn’t pair well with the more sedentary mores of quarantine.

So our story begins last Thursday.  I was at my desk, on my work and personal email.  Like many people, my inbox is my work flow these days, so it’s Always Open, even if I’m doing something else.  A promotional email came through, one of those that eluded my various filters and unsubscribes.

It was from Dominoes.

They were emailing to remind me that I had accrued enough loyalty points for a free pizza.  Now, I’m not a huge fan of Dominoes, as their pizza is both unremarkable, and remarkably expensive.  Still, every four months or so, I forget that I’m “meh” on Dominoes and place an order.  Usually, it’s the thought of those lava cakes that gets me.  Then I eat their pizza, feel mildly unwell, and resolve not to do that again, a resolution I keep for approximately four months.

However, “free” is my favorite price, so after an ad-hoc meeting of the household executive committee, roasted veggies and beef stew were placed on the back burner (literally, and then put into tupperware for the weekend) and a pizza order was commenced.

With pizza, not unlike with sushi, my eyes are always bigger than my stomach.  The first pizza was free.  The other three items in my order were not.  The food lasted for two days.

Within thirty minutes after the delivery, another ping in my inbox: it was Dominoes, thanking me for ordering, saying that they had missed me, and giving me a special gift: a coupon for a free pizza, only good for seven days.

I muttered an expletive aloud as soon as I saw it.  My stomach was full of cheese, my mouth full of salt, and my mind full of a resolve that I would let that coupon go unused.

I really almost made it.

Then, today, the last day of the offer, I weighed the potential benefit of a free pizza against the more uncertain outcome of cooking frozen burger patties, and the free pizza won out.  Another order was placed.

While I have been writing this, the pizza arrived, accompanied by several other less-free menu items.  My fingers are leaving melted chocolate on my keyboard from the lava cakes.  This is one of those rare liminal moments of joy, between the first taste of sugary, fatty food and the inevitable carb crash to come.  It is a happy time, a wholesome time.

It won’t last for much longer, so I’ll enjoy it while I can.

So well done, Dominoes.  See you again in four months or so.

-AG

*”But Andrew,” I can hear you thinking, “there are lots of great options for healthy delivery!”  Yeah, but I don’t order from those.  Neither do you: don’t lie.

Published in: on April 30, 2020 at 5:49 pm  Comments (1)  
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From the Belly of the Beast

My neighborhood is right in the middle of the NYC outbreak; here’s how we are coping. 

With Jackson Heights, Queens being featured so prominently in national media stories about the pandemic, I want to share what life has been like for me over the past month.  

Kelsey and I live in a two-bedroom apartment about a ten minute walk from the Junction Boulevard 7 train stop in Jackson Heights, right on the border with Corona.  Junction Boulevard is our main thoroughfare, and contains most of the stores where we ordinarily do our shopping.  

For the past month, we have been social distancing champions.  Most days, we don’t leave the apartment at all. I know many people leave to take brief walks, but the folks in our densely-populated neighborhood don’t seem to understand social distancing, and the few times we have been outside, we have had to “walk defensively” to create space between us and other humans.  For that reason, we are trying as much as possible to stay inside. 

This would be much easier if grocery delivery was still a thing, but it really isn’t.  Amazon Fresh lets us build an order, but won’t permit us to schedule a delivery. Same for Fresh Direct and Instacart.  For dry goods, I was able to make an Amazon Pantry purchase, but it took almost a month to be delivered. Oddly, alcohol delivery services are still running quickly and efficiently.  I can’t get a gallon of milk, but I can get pinot noir from multiple vendors, usually within two hours.  

I have been very fortunate to be able to work remotely, logging on to my work computer from home.  Work has been quite slow, as the courts are closed to all but the most urgent matters. My firm is taking a serious financial hit from the pandemic, and my salary has been temporarily decreased, though I have been promised I will get the deferred portion back when things stabilize.  I value job security very highly, so the disruption has been causing me some stress.  

On weekdays, I wake up a few minutes before 9, and log on to my computer, ready for the day.  I usually shower and change clothes mid-day. When I have work to do, the hours pass quickly. More frequently, things drag, and I alternate responding to work emails, throwing darts, reading, and browsing the internet.  COVID-19 news is everywhere, it is hard to escape.  

I have not been able to write as much as I would like.  There is something stifling about being cooped up all day.  I have, however, had a chance to improve my guitar-playing and my darts game.  I painted two acrylic canvases, despite my utter lack of artistic ability. I am reading steadily, which has been a challenge, since my ordinary routine is to read while I am commuting, a part of my life that is gone, and that I do not miss. 

A few days ago, I had to make a grocery trip, because we were out of everything.  The nearest grocery store is right across the street. They are metering people at the entrance, and only allowing a limited number in at one time.  I waited about forty minutes in a socially-distanced queue to enter, but then shopping went relatively quickly. Essentials are back in stock, and the lack of people in the store made it easy to maintain a safe distance.  Even for that brief excursion, I donned gloves and a face mask. We aren’t taking any chances. 

In the evenings, my routine has been to participate in video calls with people.  I have played virtual darts with someone else who has a board, and watched movies through an add-on app called Netflix Party, which syncs the playback and allows for chat.  Zoom has been a wonderful platform for remote socializing, and I hosted a seder for Passover with friends and family. I even managed to play a virtual talent show, singing and playing guitar.  

Fin, my 18 year old cat, is getting more attention and enrichment than he has had in years.  He seems happy about it, though I am certain this has disrupted his 16-hours-per-day sleep schedule.  

Every day at 7pm, we lean out the window to hoot, holler, and cheer for our first responders.  Unlike other parts of the city, not many people here participate, but a few do. It is nice to have camaraderie with strangers.  

I don’t know how much longer this pandemic will last, or how long it will be until we can resume our normal lives.  My best guess is that things will start opening up mid-May, but I intend to listen to public health guidance and do what I need to do in order to stay healthy.  My family had a COVID scare, which fortunately abated without harm. Some of my friends have lost people to the illness. It is a scary time.  

When this is over, I hope we will make some changes to the way we structure our lives.  The fact that so many of us can do our jobs remotely should cause us to question the need to spend hours each day commuting.  I have become even more committed to fighting for national health care, after seeing the debacle wrought by private health care companies that must prioritize profitability over preparedness.  

If we can emerge stronger, that will be a silver lining from this time of crisis.  I hope we get there soon. 

-AG

Published in: on April 14, 2020 at 8:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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What Will Come After?

Some initial thoughts on what we are learning from COVID-19

As New York enters the second week of our surreal pandemic dystopia, I want to take a few minutes to think about what will happen when the crisis is over.

In the early days, there was a sense among my colleagues and friends that this would cause a major disruption for a few weeks, and then everything would return more-or-less to normal.  I no longer think either part of that is accurate.  This will not be over for months, and it seems increasingly likely that we will lift our stay-home orders only until a new wave comes, and then rinse, repeat*.

I also do not think things will- or should- return to the way they were before the pandemic.  This crisis, and our response to it, have laid bare some weaknesses and inefficiencies that we should address as we look to rebuild our economic and social lives.  These are just observational, and my views on them might change as time goes by, but I want to share them now because they’re on my mind.

The first, as alluded to in my previous post, relates to working remotely.  I spend over two hours each work day commuting to the office.  Last week, I was more productive than in any week this calendar year.  I think that a broad swath of industries should be looking into why they require in-person attendance at a physical office, when the work can be done just as efficiently from home.  While client meetings and collaboration with colleagues is made easier in a shared physical space, I do not see the need for that to be the everyday expectation.  I intend to speak with my employers about arranging a regular work-from-home schedule, to reduce the amount of time wasted in transit.

Another truth that has been laid bare is the role of essential employees.  While many industries are shut down, and many jobs are being performed from home, some service industries simply cannot.  Health care providers, particularly nurses and doctors, are being rightfully honored for their sacrifices and dedication.  During times like these, they literally save lives through their efforts.

At the same time, we need to recognize the tremendous sacrifices being made by our grocery store workers, our delivery personnel, our restaurant cooks, and other essential workers who have been long-derided as “low skilled.”  By showing up to work in public places during a pandemic, they are exposing themselves and their families to a major, life-threatening virus.

I think the time has come for those who fight against giving them a $15 minimum wage to sit down and shut up.

The extraordinary changes being made to health care by our government highlight major failings in our system, failings that have always been present and are only now getting attention due to the severity of the crisis.  My health is directly affected by my neighbor’s health.  If they can’t get tested or treated, that puts me at risk.  Health care is a communal problem, not an individual one.  Universal, single-payer health care needs to happen, now.

Crises also test leaders, and there has been a major contrast between two of our leaders: President Trump and Governor Cuomo.  Full disclosure: I did not previously support either one of these guys, but the contrast between how they are handling COVID-19 couldn’t be more stark.

The president initially called this a hoax, and promised that we would be down to zero cases in no time.  He blamed the media for making a big deal out of it, and refused to accept testing kits from the WHO, saying that we would simply make our own “beautiful” tests.  By the time he started to take it seriously, the virus was already spreading beyond containment.  He continues to say things that just aren’t true: every American who wants a test can get it (nope), a Navy hospital ship will be arriving in New York harbor by next week (three to four weeks, minimum), and his handling of the situation has been perfect (not by any objective standard).

Governor Cuomo has been consistently saying hard truths, explaining the steps he is taking and his reasons for doing so, and focusing on facts and logistics.  I couldn’t believe it when he ruled out a shelter-in-place order for NYC, but after hearing his reasoning, it made sense to me.  He told us how many hospital beds we have, how many we need, and what he’s doing about it.  He has been candid about the challenges he is facing, including competing with other states for supplies since the federal government is impotent.

He told us that the buck stops with him, and he is responsible for upsetting people with the hard decisions he is making.  That is what leadership looks like, and when the dust settles after all this, I will be re-evaluating my political opposition to him.

I’ll end with a few observations on my home confinement.  I have been outside once in the last four days, a brief walk to a local wine shop to pick up a bottle or three and to chat with the gloved, masked owners.  Spring has come, finally, not that any of us can really appreciate it.

Over the past few days, I learned to use Zoom, and have enjoyed video conferencing with friends and loved ones.  It has been hard to keep conversations going, because the pandemic is all that is on anyone’s mind.  I did a brave thing, and posted a video of myself singing and playing guitar on social media, which I counted as a big achievement.

I’m throwing a lot of darts, and am so glad I thought to put up a board just a few weeks ago.  Fin, my 18 year old cat, seems to resent the frequent interruptions to his stringent sleep schedule, though he is appreciating the extra attention and treats.

Of course, I want this to end as soon as possible, but I am mentally getting settled in for at least a month of living and working from these few rooms of my home.

I hope you are all doing well, staying safe, and keeping in touch with your loved ones.

-AG

*I am unabashedly self-satisfied at finding a hand-washing metaphor to employ there.

Published in: on March 22, 2020 at 11:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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Social Distancing

A surprisingly productive day at the home office

Today was my first day of remote working.  As an attorney, my standard work day finds me be-suited, and either in my law office or attending one of the various courts in which I practice.  Working barefoot in a t-shirt and sweatpants has never been an option. 

Of course, with the public health crisis in full swing and society shutting down all non-essential services, things have changed.  I am writing this post to give you some insight into how this pandemic is affecting me and the clients with whom I interact. 

Last week, as things began to get serious in New York, our firm began making preparations for this scenario.  On Thursday, we installed software to access our work computers remotely. On Friday, new guidance came from the court system, shutting down some non-essential functions and streamlining the process for asking for cases to be adjourned.  

As the week closed, our plan was to keep the office staffed, and to modify our individual schedules to make sure at least one attorney and one staff member was present at all times, while minimizing our transit and conducting meetings only by phone.  

Then, over the weekend, New York City announced school closures. 

This announcement, more than anything else, changed our office’s approach to COVID-19.  Our two partners are working moms with eight children between them, almost all of whom are in public schools.  Suddenly, they were re-cast as caregivers, at a time when daycare options are diminished or unavailable.  Keeping the office fully-staffed was no longer an option. A memo went out over both their signatures, directing us to use our best judgment.  

After speaking with them, I decided to work from home today, and to take things one day at a time.  I am not in an at-risk category, but I interact with people who are, and I want to take my role in mitigating the public health crisis seriously.  So, just before 9am, I booted up my home computer, logged in remotely, and prepared for what I anticipated would be an easy day.  

That anticipation missed the mark. 

My first several calls were all logistical.  The courts announced a more broad closure, but despite their insistent designation as “the unified court system,” there was nothing unified about their handling of actual cases.  Each judge has their own way of handling the directives. Some adjourned entire calendars for months. Others require stipulations signed by all parties. Still others require that requests be dropped off in their courtrooms, completely undermining the purpose of the adjournments.  So, I exchanged emails and a half dozen phone calls clearing my court schedule for the week.  

Then, one of my business clients called: he is temporarily closing his retail store, since people are staying in, and he needed help getting a rent abatement.  Even for those businesses that “can” remain open, the pandemic poses an existential threat.  His employees were all laid off today. 

Another call came: a client who operates a social daycare for the elderly needed guidance on what to do in the fact of contradictory instructions from various health care intermediaries.  While gyms, restaurants, and bars have all been given clear directives, these businesses on the front lines are left guessing, risking the lives of their at-risk patients.  

The balance of my day was spent putting out fires, drafting letters, negotiating settlements, and brow-beating stubborn opposing attorneys, all from the relative comfort of my home.  I took a brief break for lunch, but today was, minute for minute, among the most productive I have had in this job.  

It was also, surprisingly, one of the easiest.  A lot of that had to do with the lack of a commute.  It made me wonder why we don’t work from home more often, and whether this health crisis will cause businesses to reevaluate the merit of making employees spend more than two hours of their days in transit.  

I want to encourage everyone who can to try working from home.  While some jobs, particularly in the service sector, cannot be done remotely, some can, and my experience today demonstrated that it need not come with a sacrifice in productivity.  Minimizing your contact with the public and maximizing social distance can help us mitigate this pandemic. 

Stay safe out there, everyone. 

-AG

Published in: on March 16, 2020 at 2:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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