Archive for April, 2020

DEAD RIGHT

 

Recent protests regarding shelter-in-place regulations call to mind a public service TV campaign about traffic safety that ran in New York City many decades ago. It’s worth considering.

The concept is critical because most Americans have encountered major disruptions to their lives to slow the spread of COVID-19. Regulations exact a harsh cost but deliver a major benefit, keeping more of us healthy and alive.

Not all Americans believe the pandemic is just that—a widespread disease for which we lack a vaccine to prevent and serum to cure. While coronavirus has killed about 47,000 Americans as of this writing—the actual number may be higher—skeptics believe COVID-19 is just another cold virus.

The president basically took that view before declaring a national emergency on March 13. Medical and public health officials in the United States and worldwide had sounded loud warnings, but the president’s response had less to do with science than politics. Shelter-in-place orders would damage the economy—has it ever!—and thus his chance for reelection.

In tune with that, Trump supporters in Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas and other states protested what they saw as a loss of First Amendment liberty. In return, the president tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.” Yet those states’ governors were following the guidelines put forward by—the president. But to quote the legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Reality check: Liberty is not license. No one has the right to drive 85 miles per hour on 25 mph city streets. Then there’s the church thing—assembling to worship. My synagogue, Sherith Israel, does so with Zoom. It’s not the same but disregarding public health guidelines risks not only congregants’ lives but those of everyone with whom they come in contact.

I fear that something more than liberty concerns the far right. Give credence to shelter-in-place, and suddenly science matters. Facts count. Experts receive recognition for their knowledge. This proves unacceptable to a segment of Americans who disdain science, facts and experts while embracing ideology. Belief isn’t everything, to paraphrase Lombardi. It’s the only thing.

A pandemic requires a national response. States play major roles, and many governors from both parties are doing much to keep their populations safe. After all, they’re closer to their varied communities than Washington. But without federal coordination and support, deaths will soar.

Why Washington? As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman points out—as does my friend and financial planner Ira Fateman—only the federal government can “print money,” borrowing huge sums, now at low rates, and taking on increased debt. States are restricted to their budgets. Hence Congress just approved an additional $484 billion worth of assistance to small businesses and hospitals. The president will sign the bill into law.

The First Amendment argument is a smokescreen. During wartime and in disaster, Americans may yield some of their rights temporarilyto assure the common good. Tough decisions on Washington’s part? Yes. But otherwise, liberty becomes license becomes lunacy.

Back to that old New York media campaign. It urged pedestrians to cross streets only at green lights, look both ways and, if vehicles keep coming, wait. Yes, pedestrians have the right of way. But as the tagline emphasized, “You could be right. Dead right.”

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“CURLY”—A SHORT-SHORT STORY

“Yul Brynner,” said Norman, while his wife Stacy stood open-mouthed after releasing a small scream—squeak, really. “He was the king in The King and I and the Cossack chieftain in Taras Bulba. Remember those movies?”

Stacy remembered Yul Brynner’s shaved head. He wasn’t bald. He’d shaved it and stayed with that look. It worked. On him. But Norman had all—almost all—his hair after 75 years. What now? “Baldy,” she managed to utter. “People will call you Baldy. Your name is Norman.” Not Norm. Never Normy. And God help anyone who called her husband by a nickname.

“How about Curly?” Norman asked. He liked the humor of it. The irony. “There was this basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters, the comedy team. Curly Neal. The dribbler who could control the ball maybe an inch off the floor. No hair. We saw him in Oakland. Maybe the Cow Palace. He died recently.”

Stacy’s hand shot to her mouth. Death was not up for discussion. Not during the COVID-19 pandemic. Okay, she and Norman were sheltered in place about as safe as you could be. Food delivered from Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh. Walks in their quiet neighborhood, including the Presidio National Park a block away. An occasional drive to see the ocean, keep their cars’ batteries up. “Why?” she asked.

“Beats a crappy haircut,” he answered. He’d had a hair-clipper set delivered by Amazon. Plenty of guards for different lengths. Foolproof. He even watched a few videos on YouTube. But nothing was foolproof. After going down to the garage, setting up a mirror, covering himself with a garbage bag and going at it, he wasn’t satisfied. His hair was shorter but the cut was patchy, uneven. Maybe not bad for someone sheltered in place, but—. Then inspiration hit.

He had visions of Telly Savalas, TV’s bygone Kojak. Michael Jordan. Cate Blanchett once went bald.

“Why can’t make a statement?” Norman asked. Stacy’s face didn’t so much betray confusion as broadcast it. “That you’re suffering a late-life crisis? What’s next? A sportscar? Or are you looking for sympathy? People should think you’ve had chemo for some terrible cancer?”

“It’s more a life-affirming thing,” said not-Norm. “We just celebrated Passover and the deaths of the Egyptian first-born. Holocaust Remembrance Day is coming up. And the news. Every day, it’s how many people have been diagnosed with coronavirus, how many people died. All those deaths and memories of deaths create fear. Not necessarily unjustified but not the best road to travel either. So I took my own road.”

The thing was, Norman assured Stacy, hair was a renewable resource. Like grass. Like the sun. “The sun goes down, it also rises.” Yes, it came up on a world reeling in pain. He was no Pollyanna. “Still, it’s a win-win thing. I look cool or my hair grows back. Like I have faith that the country will come back. Not without loss. Not without grief. Not without struggle. But because we refuse not to go forward.”

“From your lips to God’s ears,” Stacy said. “Hopefully from more lips than mine. Than ours,” said Norman. “Reminds me of my favorite quote from Torah. Deuteronomy. Two words.” He ran his right hand over his cue ball-smooth scalp and smiled. “Choose life.”

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GRATITUDE

The post I intended has been postponed a week. I want to get to something both overdue and necessary.

Gratitude.

Cheers to the people on the pandemic’s front lines. Doctors and nurses. Ambulance drivers, lab techs and hospital janitors. A shout-out to non-medical folks promoting the general welfare: farmers and laborers, factory workers, cops, firefighters, EMTs and ambulance drivers. Also, workers at public utilities. Everyone along the food chain. Pharmacists, techs and associates. Mechanics. Bank personnel. Bus, subway and train drivers along with cabbies and on-demand drivers. And everyone else getting it done.

Thanks also to so many people who, over 75 years, I owe so much. I’ll miss some—maybe many—but here’s a sampling.

My parents, Morris and Blanche, taught me to love and do the right thing. Unlike many, they walked the walk. My terrific sister Kay Zaks (and brother-in-law Herb). We encourage and comfort each other across the continent.

Family and friends—Ron and Lynn Laupheimer, David and Ellen Newman, for example—laugh (sometimes) at my jokes and put up with my introversion and occasional lack of social graces. I can’t name everyone, but you know who you are. And if you think you’re in this group, you are.

Now, a few names from the past. My kid/teen buddies Marty, Lenny, Alan, Mickey, Sammy and Dennis. Mrs. Fulton, my teacher in third and fourth grades at P.S. 174, who provided great encouragement. So, too, Mrs. Bushinsky, my Sabra teacher in Hebrew School. Les Kozerowitz, from Camp Colang (summers) then Alfred University, remains a valued friend.

Two men helped me during seventh grade when my emotions went off the rails. When I balked at being bar mitzvah, Rabbi Josiah Darby of Rego Park Jewish Center convinced me to stick with it. Am I glad! When I was miserable—isolated from friends in the seventh-grade Special Progress class that would vault me to ninth—Dr. Gramet, principal at Russell Sage Junior High, gracefully encouraged me to enter eighth grade the following year. And hats off to Mrs. Alexander, my eighth-grade home room/art teacher. I recovered a lot of my lost sense of self in her class. And always, the Perlstein family doctor, Irving Nachtigal, took care of us.

Dr. Mel Bernstein, chair of the English Department and my adviser at Alfred, taught me a great lesson: Never forget your sense of humor. Staff Sergeant Thomas “Fat Cat” Johnson gave basic training at Fort Dix perspective. John McCarthy, my boss in Fort Sam Houston’s Special Services office, modeled true professionalism. Brother Louis Schuster, a dynamic Chaucer scholar at St. Mary’s University where I earned my M.A., reminded me to maintain the discipline I’d learned at Fort Benning on both the academic and life fronts.

John Fabian helped me build a successful freelance copywriting business. Marty Weiner and Larry Raphael were more than rabbis. Friends, their support of my writing, along with Jim Shay, Ron Eaton, Jane Cutler and Tom Parker, mean so much.

I consider my Torah Study buddies, including Dan Weiss and Ira Fateman, as brothers—and sisters.

I don’t know where I’d be without Carolyn. And I love my kids—Seth, Yosi and Aaron (plus husband Jeremy).

Thank you one and all. “No man is an island,” wrote the British poet John Donne. Truer words.

Happy Passover, Happy Easter, Happy Ramadan. And if you’re celebrating anything else, may you also find joy, fulfillment and courage.

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SLALOM WALKING

Pre-COVID-19, I took three walks a day to reach a minimum of four total miles. I still do. I’ve noticed some things.

Home-sheltered, more people walk, run and bicycle weekdays. On the first day of shelter-in-place, sidewalks and streets were relatively crowded. The second day, walkers, runners and cyclists tapered off. People are still out but not as many. Is pollen season to blame?

Maybe it’s Zoom. I never heard of Zoom before the pandemic. Now, my family Zoom-gathers Thursday nights. I Zoom Friday-night Shabbat services and Saturday-morning Torah Study. Congregation Sherith Israel has more worshippers and students online. Congregants and guests can stay home. Older folks don’t face a shlep.

After Torah Study, friends and I, who have coffee together, meet digitally. Our jibes, as always, are often juvenile. Correction. My jibes. You grow up in Queens, you retain a measure of adolescence but eventually become a mature, empathetic adult. Well, most Queensites.

As to getting out of the house, I walk in slalom mode. Simply put, I maintain at least a six-foot distance between myself and anyone else (except Carolyn) and so do a lot of zigging and zagging. Maintaining a straight line is impossible due greatly to, what we referred to in the army as that ten percent.

Some folks—the ten percent can be any age—don’t comprehend the safety of six-foot distances. Or maybe how six feet measures out. Often, they’re cell-phone distracted. Chatting or music makes them oblivious to the fact that other people live in San Francisco. Note: The City has grown to almost 900,000. Decades earlier, a stumbling economy pushed us down to near 700,000. Will we see a repeat?

Runners can be exceptionally out to lunch—even after breakfast or before dinner. I ran for decades, so I get that runners hate to break stride or veer, taking themselves out of the zone they’ve entered or fearing a sudden stop or turn will lead to injury. The latter poses no problem. City streets and trails in the Presidio National Park a block north of my house offer great sightlines. People don’t jump out from behind trees to surprise you. Not yet.

Some people—ignorant or self-consumed—exhibit a predilection for walking or running down the middle of a sidewalk or path and not budging even when they see you. Maybe they feel that a two-foot detour will lead them to drop off a thousand-foot precipice. Which might not be all that bad. They leave me two choices. Expose myself to a deep exhale or cough loaded with coronavirus-filled droplets or move over.

I move.

The Mishnah—Judaism’s ancient Oral Law—includes a section called Pirke Avot, often known as Wisdom of the Fathers. The Sages recommend building “a fence around the Torah.” To avoid violating a commandment, stay far from temptation. This can be carried to absurd lengths to avoid going down the slippery slope, but the concept also can be positive.

I say, if six feet is good, eight feet is better. Granted, that’s not always possible. What ispossible is for people to show common courtesy by keeping to the right and moving away, envisioning a world existing beyond themselves. That’s a good guideline in ordinary times. It’s a great one now.

Six feet apart beats six feet under.

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