Archive for March, 2020

MARKING TIME

Einstein was right. Time is relative. Now, with much of the nation sheltering in place, time takes on a whole new dimension.

When I was 10, relativity seemed clear—in a childlike way. School days were long. Saturdays and Sundays short. A year? Endless. It took all of January to correctly write the new year—say 1955 instead of 1954.

My friends and I marked the seasons. Nature gave New York the classic four. We augmented them. We played each sport at its time. March also brought baseball card season along with far-off spring training. Note: In 1954, the major leagues had 16 teams playing 154 games, not 162, NFL teams played 12 games, not 16 or 17 scheduled for 2021, and NBA teams 72 games, not 82. No baseball playoffs. The World Series—day games only—concluded in the beginning of October, not at the end.

Warm weather brought another seasonal marker—water-guns. We sprayed each other with tiny plastic pistols that needed constant refilling. They looked like comics detective Dick Tracy’s or the small ray guns used by Flash Gordon and TV’s Captain Video. (My opera-loving mother Blanche was one of Captain Video’s Video Rangers.) Winter meant taking sleds out of storage. Bourton Street sloped enough so that we could go belly flopping—take a running start, toss your sled down while hanging on, flop on for the ride down to 63rd Drive. And stop before you got squished by oncoming traffic.

School and summer mark time for kids. When I was five, my family started spending summers at Kappy’s Kottages, a bungalow colony in the Catskills. In lieu of vacation, my father Morris drove up Thursday evenings and heading back to the city Monday mornings. At 12, I went to sleepaway camp in Massachusetts, then in Pennsylvania. College summers varied—camp counselor, selling souvenirs at the New York World’s Fair, office work in Manhattan for Family Weekly, a Sunday newspaper supplement.

Post-college, I enlisted in the Army. Summers were hot—one at Fort Dix, New Jersey, two at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. The next summer, Carolyn and I drove from Texas to California to New York, then spent 11 autumn weeks riding trains throughout Western Europe. Then summers faded into work and what to do with the kids (day and sleepaway camps).

When I moved my office home 15 years ago and shifted from writing advertising to fiction, I established a new routine. Breakfast and the newspaper, a walk, reading Torah, writing, lunch out combined with a walk, more writing, walking before dinner. Evenings, Carolyn and I watch one of our TV shows. And read.

Even without sports, my week maintains its rhythm. Monday: AMC’s “Better Call Saul.” Thursday night: family Zoom get-together. Friday morning: posting these thoughts. Friday evening: Sherith Israel’s Kabbalat Shabbat services on Zoom followed by Shabbat dinner with Carolyn. Saturday morning: Zoom Torah Study then Zooming with friends. Sunday night: Showtime’s “Homeland.”

I’m fortunate. Many Americans haven’t the financial resources or familiar tasks to anchor them. They’re adapting. They must.

Eventually the pandemic will end. We’ll heal our wounds. Not to make light of the suffering now being endured and what may follow, the nation, as always, will move forward. I hope to be part of that. Time will tell.

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SICKENING

I almost tossed my cookies in front of the TV Tuesday. No, I wasn’t sick. It’s just that I saw part of Donald Trump’s live remarks to journalists on CNN. Sickening.

The president told the assembled reporters and government officials that he called the COVID-19 problem a pandemic before anyone else did. I’ll repeat that. B-e-f-o-r-e. So let’s take a brief look at Trump’s record, detailed exhaustively by New York Times columnist Dave Leonhardt.

On March 13, Trump announced a national emergency. Good. That freed up federal funds for a variety of sound uses and streamlined various health care procedures to fight coronavirus. But if Trump recognized the pandemic long before, why did he wait?

And wait he did.

Two days earlier, Trump addressed the nation during a special telecast. “I want to speak to you about our nation’s unprecedented response to the coronavirus outbreak,”he said. Prune-faced, he looked like a man who’d soiled his boxers but was duct-taped to his chair. Unprecedented? That word applies only to ignoring public health advisors and underplaying cases of COVID-19 by not yet declaring that national emergency. Trump wanted to keep the stock market and economic numbers up. And how has that worked out?

But surely, the president had been forthcoming, resolute and far-sighted before that? Well, no. On March 7, Trump stated, “I’m not concerned at all.” Do the math. That’s all of six days before the declaration of a national emergency.

On February 26, three days after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic—Trump’s judgment obviously having preceded theirs—he said, “We’re [U.S. cases] going down, not up.” At a February 10 campaign rally and in an interview with Fox Business’s Trish Regan—since dismissed from her show—“Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away.” By next month? Miraculously?

Let’s go back to February 2. Trump banned most foreigners who’d recently visited China from entering the U.S., something he bragged about last Tuesday. He told Fox’s Sean Hannity, “Well, we pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” Which presumed that coronavirus hadn’t appeared elsewhere. Too little, too late? On January 22, Trump said from Davos, Switzerland “… we have it totally under control.”

Our nation’s response to coronavirus says a lot about how we as Americans see reality. Some of it has been, yes, sickening.

A variety of conservative politicians and pundits have linked coronavirus to domestic and foreign plots. At a February 28 campaign rally, Trump promoted their conspiracy theories. He called coronavirus a hoax and added, “The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus” to damage him and his administration.

I’m waiting for conservative Christian ministers to declare coronavirus God’s punishment of a sinful nation allowing a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.

I wrote last week that we’ll come through this. To do it, I suggest we replicate the attitude of the Israelites in the wilderness who, in this week’s double Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, demonstrate the strength of community by all bringing abundant gifts for the building of the Tabernacle.

Our task is to come together and respect fact, science and truth. The big question we’ll face when coronavirus is done: What did we learn? We’ll have part of that answer in November.

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PRECAUTION, NOT PANIC

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote as America struggled to birth itself. Now, we face the coronavirus pandemic. To strengthen our souls, looking back may offer a clearer picture of the future.

Is the sky falling? Gray clouds have gathered and they’re darkening. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “It is going to get worse.” At my age, Covid-19 poses a risk, although my health is excellent. Still, the world won’t come to an end.

Am I a Pollyanna? No, a realist. Major events of my 75-year lifetime provide some perspective.

When I was six, Americans were fighting in Korea—wherever that was. At P.S. 174 in Queens, I joined classmates in duck-and-cover drills to protect from a Soviet nuclear attack on New York. Polio still took a heavy toll on children. A friend survived it but emerged with a limp.

Jim Crow was alive and well in the south and practiced unofficially elsewhere. This, too, was a health scare since African Americans’ health was imperiled by being hung from a tree or shot or burned while at home.

The Cold War produced Vietnam. The American toll in Southeast Asia totaled 58,000, including my friend 1LT Howie Schnabolk, an Army medevac pilot shot down on 3 August 1967. Killed and wounded GIs were just part of the story.

The nation was coming apart at the seams. Nightsticks and dogs attacked civil rights marchers. Martin Luther King was assassinated, which led to riots producing death and destruction in urban ghettos. Political unrest forced Lyndon Johnson to forego running for another term as president in 1968. Which gave us Richard Nixon.

American industry took a header. Japanese cars battered Detroit. Then all sorts of industrial jobs fled the Midwest—soon to be known as the Rust Belt—for the American south and then Asia. AIDS emerged in the 1980s. It took the lives of as many as 700,000 Americans, including three of my fraternity brothers.

In the ’90s, the Dot.com Boom lifted a lot of people’s spirits—until the Dot.com Bust sent them plummeting. On 9/11, the Twin Towers fell and turmoil reigned. The nation rose up yet launched a foolish and costly war with Iraq. The stock market soared again until, in 2008, the financial industry collapsed with the market hitting its low point in March 2009.

Yet even recovery from the Great Recession wasn’t enough to calm a deeply divided America. Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.

I’ve seen a lot, but so did my parents: The First World War, the Spanish flu (1918-20) which killed over 50 million worldwide and more than half a million Americans, the Depression, World War Two.

In time of crisis, I turn to the English writer Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . . you’ll be a Man my son!”

Keep washing your hands. Keep maintaining your social distance. Keep your head on your shoulders and your chin up. Male, female or nonbinary, you’ll be a mensch. And as a nation, we’ll get to sing along with another Briton, Elton John: “I’m Still Standing.”

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APU AND ME

If you’re a fan of TV’s The Simpsons (if not, keep reading anyway), you may have noticed something during this thirty-first season. Apu, the Indian-American owner of Kwik-E-Mart, may be missing. At least, vocally. Hank Azaria, who’s voiced Apu since 1990, believes the character is inappropriate. I understand. But based on two other characters I love, I disagree.

Apu, with his South Asian accent, indeed is a caricature. Yet in India, English-speakers evidence a similar accent. Only there, you have the accent. So that feature of the caricature is fact-based. Also, many non-U.S.-born Indian-Americans run convenience stores, motels and restaurants. It’s a typical immigrants’ story.

Now consider: All characters on The Simpsons are caricatures. From Homer down, they exhibit more breadth than depth. Their foibles make us laugh and sometimes cringe. Yet as each episode ends, they reveal a goodhearted humanity.

Granted, some characters have more trouble connecting with their better selves. Exhibit A: Krusty the Clown aka Herschel Krustofsky. I started watching The Simpsonsduring season three after virtually boycotting the show. I hadn’t liked what I read about it. But I saw thatThe Simpsonswould air an episode in which Krusty falls out with his father—a rabbi. I gathered the family in front of the TV. We were hooked.

Talk about caricatures! Krusty is the show-biz veteran—and ham—from Hell. He’s a serial abuser of alcohol, drugs, women and his fans. Worse, he’s not funny. Which makes him very funny.

Krusty is counterbalanced by Rabbi Krustofsky, voiced by the comedian Jackie Mason—also an ordained rabbi. Rabbi Krustofsky is kind, understanding and wise. Yet he’s a mild caricature, part of traditional Orthodoxy that’s a minority within American Jewry. Like the “Rally Rabbi” bobblehead the Giants give away on Jewish Heritage Night, he’s not typical. But so what?

Despite their caricature status, I love Krusty and Rabbi Krustofsky for two reasons. First, they place me in the American cultural mirror. Growing up, I rarely saw Jewish characters on TV or in the movies unless they were unfunny caricatures—stereotypes. They weren’t me and my family or anyone I knew. Reason number two: For more than half-a-century, Americans have seen Jews take their places across public life, including non-stereotypical roles in entertainment. Anti-Semites might see us as caricatures, but a great many Americans know better.

Apu requires some perspective. In 1990, when he first appeared, South Asians were rarely seen in the media and, if so, as caricatures. If there was a time to exclude Apu from The Simpsons, that was it.

Cut to 2020. South Asians are part of the fabric of American life. Many can be seen all over the airwaves and in film. They’re news reporters, anchors, comics, actors. They appear as expert commentators through their roles in government, the justice system and technology. Nikki Haley served as governor of South Carolina and ambassador to the U.N. In short, South Asians now appear as fully developed human beings.

So, maybe Hank Azaria’s and Apu’s critics will relent. I’d love to see Apu take his place alongside Krusty and Rabbi Krustofsky. Apu can be caricatured like the show’s other characters of all ethnicities, including Whites, because ultimately he comes from a group with an identity overriding all other ethnic considerations—American.

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