Monday, May 25, 2020

Trail of Cheers

The first time I heard it, I flung open my bathroom window and turned my face up to the little bit of big sky. The sound came mostly from the distance. I couldn’t see one person on the street or in their window making a noise. I clapped anyway into the new and strange lonely-together oblivion. I felt a little silly but I yelled a few times, and then I cried.

Every night at 7 PM in New York City people cheer to thank the essential workers who are on the ground caring for COVID-19 patients and keeping the city going.

Quickly, exponentially, more people caught on to the meaning of the cheer and it became louder and increasingly synchronized - with more diverse expressions like car horns and pots or pans. It was the most heartbreakingly human thing: terrible, beautiful, spontaneous, loving - all of it. It reminded me of the Whos down in Whoville when they learn that the Grinch stole Christmas, but they sing anyway. Many times the sound of sirens threatened to dampen the cheer’s rolling crescendo and birds chirped their hearts out in interspecific unison.

The cheer has gone on for half of the month of March, all of April and now it is May 25th. In the beginning of April the deaths reached a peak here. On April 9th, 800 deaths were recorded in New York City alone. (see 7 PM video below from that day)

Data was king as the world learned together about epidemic curves and exponential growth. Home schooling, at its most unfortunate. Together, we checked the curve rising exponentially each day, the line looking more horrifyingly vertical. And after the mercifully narrow peak, the curve came down on the other side. But it did not fall at the same rate that it rose. Of course it didn’t. But this is something that did not occur to me back in March. It fell more slowly than it rose. The graph of new deaths per day in New York City looks more like a rollercoaster than it does a bell. It is asymmetrical.

I wonder about the 7 PM cheer data too, was it louder at the peak? Is it louder in those neighborhoods most impacted by the virus? What are the varieties of sounds coming from different neighborhoods? I hope a resourceful nerd out there has recorded these data in a systematic way. Many articles have been written, like this one, some people have praised the ritual of the cheer, while others have derided it as meaningless. But it went on.

Night after night I looked forward to it because it helped me feel like I was saying thank you and marked the passing of time in a joyous way. It also taught me about my neighborhood through a new kind of metric of its humanity, its collective voice of resilience echoing off the built environment we call home. I shared videos of the cheer with family and friends. One evening, I perched my laptop out the window so friends on zoom could hear. I ended up seeing a Red-tailed hawk circling above during the cheer which seemed all the more chaotic. My faraway friends couldn’t really hear it, or see it, but they humored me anyway.

But as the pandemic wore on, I became tired of the cheer and on certain nights, I kept my window closed. What was it doing anyway? How did the essential workers actually feel about it? People were dying, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it - and with my one wild and precious life - I was restless and bored. Like a brat in a cage. I was a part of something, but also not a part of anything anymore.

I am fine, really. But some days are irrationally up and others are irrationally down. On the up days I think maybe the cheer should go on forever, because a daily ritual of gratitude and togetherness in this crazy city just sounds emotionally nourishing. But then, that seems more about the clapper than those that are being clapped for. Some think it’s time for the cheer to stop or change, and perhaps become a yearly ritual to remember those who have died.

People who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918 were not formally memorialized because World War I was the priority of politicians of the time. During the time the flu raged, politicians deliberately did not mention it because they didn’t want their country to appear vulnerable. And when it was over, the average person who needed to keep living wanted to forget, so they did.

But for those still working tirelessly to save lives, for those who didn’t make it down the other side, and because epidemiologically, it isn’t over yet: I am going to cheer again tonight, but I will not be opening a window - I am going outside.

#ClapBecauseWeCare #MemorialDay

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Painting My Way Back Home

It isn’t over yet. And when it is, I will miss it.

My arm is sore today from painting my hallway yesterday. It is now a pale bright bluey-green. And one coat away from being finished. The process of painting has been calming: to watch the foam brush loaded with a color I love—in a sexy goopy form. In this case, painting is progress. And I have taken it so slowly, which has given me immense pleasure.

First, I patched holes in the wall and sanded. Don’t ask why the holes were there, or never patched. Some days all I did was get up on a chair and sand a section of the wall smaller than an iPhone 6. But I worked hard and stretched and strained my fingers to the absolute maximum. Then, I got down from the chair, washed my hands, and returned to sitting.

I also painted the ceiling.

This pandemic has provoked every emotion and like ghosts or aromas they come in amorphous waves sometimes overlapping and creating new and unfamiliar feelings. Also, old feelings come back again. Like looking at yourself in the mirror for the first time in many years.

Paint dripped on my painting pants, making them into a little bit more of what they truly are. Paint filled the dingy neglected wall surface like a viscous version of “it’s going to be okay”. I forgot for a few minutes. I remembered.

I have never been to the Tenement Museum because I imagine they will take me on a tour of what looks like my own apartment. The other day I reassured my Mother that if I fell off the chair while painting, my hallway is so narrow - it would catch me in its pre-war wood trimmed arms. I never fell.

My kitchen is orange and now the adjoining hallway is this pale green. These colors vibrate beside each other. They create light and shadow beyond the actual light and shadow. I had a painting teacher once who told us that yellow beside light blue “makes light”. This has always stuck with me. I know painting my apartment is not the same thing as painting a painting—but here, I blurred the lines between inside and art.

The hallway has transcended its original form, it’s now closer to the gods, it sings, it downright glows. But really, it’s just better. Which reminds me. I like to paint.

Update see below: Fin 

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Reach for the Clouds

He walked in and looked straight up at the ceiling. Who does that unless they are in the Sistine Chapel? We weren’t.

Years ago, an electrician did a botched job on my apartment ceiling. He patched up the holes with what looks like spackle, sand, and best I can approximate, a soup├žon of self-loathing? Who knows what he did to the electrical wiring. But, the ceiling surface he left was rough and downright dirty. As a result, I have a trail of footprint-like blobs, or on a good day—badly painted clouds, all across my apartment ceiling. It has been this way for 12+ years now.

I am so used to it, that I never look up. But, about 2 years ago when my landlord entered, he looked up and noticed it immediately. And then, in his prince charming savior-mode he asked me when I wanted it painted, because—after decades of apartment neglect, radical cheapness, honest mistakes and stupid mistakes from his cheapness—he could arrange for it as soon as possible. I made some mumbling noises and smiled. It was never painted.

When I arrived back at my apartment one night, 12+ years ago, the “electrician” was standing at the gate outside my building. It was cold, but he wasn’t wearing a jacket. I looked at him, puzzled. In the morning I had left him inside my apartment to do the electrical work on the ceiling. He had been locked out, without a key, at I-will-never-know-what-time-o’clock.

So, I let him back inside. His dirty yellow winter jacket was slumped over my kitchen chair and two beers were on my table. They were not my beers. He was drinking in my apartment, on the job, on the ceiling. I was appalled. But not as appalled as I was about to be.

He also left my refrigerator unplugged and broke a vase. And he opened my clothing closet so that the shoulders of all of my clothes were covered in a fine ceiling dust. I had absolutely had it. So, I never let him in again. Or, anyone else. And I forgot about it, mostly.

Cut to COVID-19 quarantine as my eyes wandered up and I pondered the fragility of human existence—I decided to sand and paint the ceiling. Finally, the time had come. Well, it turns out, painting a ceiling is pretty damn difficult (says my neck). My apartment is a railroad, it is very narrow and long. One nice feature it has is that the ceilings are a little bit high. Until you go to paint them. Holy. Moly.

I am writing this on my break from painting. I am not drinking beer, but maybe I should be.

To be continued...

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Barefoot in Birdland

I turned my back to the pond and faced a very slight grassy incline. I stood there, in my vintage re-issued blue and purple Nikes. And suddenly, I was totally surrounded—by hopping, bobbing, cheeping, and whirring. This unabashed cheerfulness seemed to sparkle as the birds took turns disappearing and reappearing from my peripheral view. In that moment, I felt like a Disney princess. In sneakers.

Many of the birds were set on finding something—anything—in the grass in Central Park. A Robin kicked up some dirt with its beak. A group of 7 or so Starlings suspiciously creeped away with their heads still in the grass (open-bill probing). I saw one Flicker and a few Gray-cheeked Thrushes too.

Birds have taken on a new meaning lately. Because even when you stay in one place, they come to you, without asking. They perch and prance and, like a friend you adore, they always leave just before you want them to. I have been appreciating a few old favorites lately, most of them invasive species in New York (House Sparrows, Starlings and Pigeons). They are just as spirit-lifting as the native birds to me, now especially. That sounds ecologically selfish, I know. But, trust me, I am no Eugene Schieffelin.

And as if living birds didn’t feel ephemeral enough—flying in and out of our lives—they didn’t leave a fabulous fossil record either. Their bones are hollow and light so they can fly, which isn’t a recipe for a great fossil, it turns out. Though, the oldest bird fossil is ~150 million years old. So, for birds, it’s been a while. Humans, not so much (~200,000 years ago). And human shoes, have only been around for a mere 5,500 years.

Because in addition to thinking about birds, I have been thinking about shoes. I look around my apartment—on shelves, under furniture, in closets—and I wonder why I needed so many different types of shoes? Where was I going? What occasions called for this morphological diversity of footwear? Will I ever need these again? Right now, I am having trouble picturing a world, and a routine, that necessitates all of these different shoe types. Most days now, I am barefoot.

If an archeologist found my shoe collection they might infer that I had a full life, with many different types of places to go—upscale, downscale, understated, too high, comfy, just right—for all seasons. And they would be right.

Also, in Central Park the other day, I watched two starlings splashing around in a man-made waterfall. They were flicking and flitting their iridescent wings, furiously. It would have been perfectly adorable, but the background noise was sirens. And the longer they splashed, the more sirens sped by. You cannot forget what is happening now. It is a somber time is all I can say. And no bird can save us. But something about the starlings not knowing or caring felt comforting.

My life feels like it is shrinking lately (and don’t get me wrong, I am thankful I have a life to shrink), but the birds remind me that there is more out there, beyond this little apartment, and that patch of Park grass. There will be new times to wear all different shoes, and places to go again some day. And I know this because, a little bird told me.

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Longest Curve

Coronavirus is currently ripping through our dear city. And all I can hear are emergency vehicles, cathedral bells—and a deep and eerie silence. I am one of the lucky ones. But my Great Grandfather wasn’t.

It was 1918. My Great Grandfather died in November in the second, more virulent, wave of the influenza pandemic. He was 54 years old. He left behind a son who was 14 years old. That fourteen year old son was my grandfather; my father’s father. And though this was over 100 years ago now, my own father recounts this story of intergenerational grief like it was yesterday.

My Great Grandfather came to the United States from Lacedonia, Italy in 1900. He lived in East Harlem and worked digging the subway tunnels for the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). Then, he opened up a small grocery store, which I imagine felt like an above ground wonderland of opportunity.

Today, epidemiologists are able to make predictions about infectious disease dynamics based on viral transmission rates, environmental variables and underlying host genetics. But what they cannot predict, with a mathematical model, is the magnitude of personal loss that this will cause. And the time it will take to heal. These invisible organisms, not even classified as living, are tearing us apart. Again. And emotional recovery is not simply a flattened curve.

If I approach the current and emerging coronavirus data with a cool scientific head, it is scary. And when I don’t, it is immensely heartbreaking. Because numbers are people here, bar graphs are grandmothers and uncles and loved ones. Exponential curves are weeks of growing fear and anxiety followed by, well, we don’t know what yet.

They couldn’t supply enough coffins, they tell me. My grandfather was a good student and when his father died in 1918 he had to leave school to work in his father’s grocery store. This was sad for him. And then, by some combination of smarts and grit that I cannot fathom, he went to night school, eventually went on to pharmacy school, then had a second career in law and became a Judge for the City of New York. And when he had his own family, he intensely over-protected them, because he never wanted them to feel left alone, like he felt.

Now I live in Manhattan, ten blocks south and a few avenues over from where the grocery store was. What am I doing here? I ask myself at least once a week. But lately, almost daily. The truth is, I have nowhere else to go. This is, by all measures, my home. And although this is an incredibly surreal and difficult time, I feel especially tied to this city through a lineage of grit and grief and almost-but-not-quite, glory.

So, what can past pandemics can teach us? Is it that with enough time, grief can mutate into something else, like resilience? And how do we ready ourselves for the destabilizing days ahead that they tell us will come? For now: we wash our hands. We tell people we love them. We appreciate the rising of the sun and of the dough. We narrow our focus to the hours in one precious day. And we keep going, just like grandpa did.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

There is More To Admire Than to Despise

almost want to hear something explode. Instead, I hear a hollow distant air in this usually bustling Manhattan neighborhood. But the quiet is not peace, because I know that everything is coming apart. Fear is ravenously enveloping us, while a profound despair slowly descends. It’s like an invisible storm that will steal our months, our work, our loved ones, and even ourselves. It is a darkness we have had the privilege to never know. We have read books about trying times—wars, diseases, heartaches—only to put the book down and have another cookie. Only now, we cannot put the book down, and there are no cookies left because we ate them all yesterday.

As recent as the beginning of last week, we were collectively innocent, going about our days sighing, joking, complaining, loving. Taking for granted the daily workings of our normal little lives. Now, the only thing most of us can do is stay inside and go on existing, puttering around our homes pretending the world as-we-knew-it is not ending.

So, in an effort to extract out the particulates of hope, here’s to the simple things that bring a new kind of joy now:

Here’s to the glorious morning sunshine which resets us to the mode of irrational hope, to the hard wringing of the mop, to very long warm showers and voraciously blooming houseplants. To the rising dough, and the swirl of milk in our teas and coffees. To music, which is almost as good as the sun. Here’s to the dust which gave me something to clean for days, to the recipes that rose from the dead, to my oven that works despite years of neglect, to the half-read books calling around me, to the friends that always make me laugh. Hell, here’s to lying awake at night with anxious half-headed epiphanies. Here’s to the 7 lemons I am hoarding in my fridge to make things seem fresh, even when they are canned. Here’s to the birds that chirp and fly around without knowing anything of the darkness. Here’s to email and FaceTime and texting and social media. Here’s to all the Words-With-Friends games I am losing. Here’s to hand soap and hummus and the many hugs that will come again some day. I love it all, with a new kind of love which is standing just as tall as pain.

What we learn in time of pestilence: there are more things to admire in people than to despise” -- Albert Camus, “The Plague”

Sunday, March 1, 2020

I Aloe New York

It sat at the back of the design studio, just after the row of computers but before the kitchen. Right were it could be ignored most. It was as dry as a tumbleweed, but it never went anywhere. I always assumed someone else was taking care of it. Everyone thought that.

This large and leggy light green aloe plant was crunchy dry dead-as-a-doornail in the center, but miraculously green and turgid at the tips. It grew in a way where it threw out little versions of itself fully formed, but separate. It was not one plant. It was a collective. And it never seemed to really need the soil very much.

I worked in this design studio for six years. With the plant. It was my first real job out of college. And because of that, and my particular personality, my coworkers became like a surrogate family for me. And we all ignored the plant together. Over coffee.

At some point I became interested in something else entirely. I didn’t leave design right away, but I started volunteering at a genetics lab. One day I brought a small piece of the aloe plant to the lab. My scientist boss and I spread out newspaper on the ground and repotted this smaller piece in a very large pot. It had a lot of room, which signaled the great hope we had for it. And grow it did. It flourished and multiplied and practically burst into song. It eventually outgrew the pot. I haven’t seen it in many years now. But I still wonder how it is doing.

After the lab, I worked at a museum. When I first started working at the museum I remember telling people that I wanted to bring in a piece of my aloe to keep us company. to give us something living and green around us. But I never had an office with a window. And I never quite had the time, or the heart, to bring it there then. So I didn’t.

I also brought many pieces of the plant home and today they are still growing in 5 different pots in my kitchen. I have given pieces to dear friends. One friend broke it while traveling back on the subway with it. Another friend had a too curious cat so she moved it far away from him. One piece is even making the best of it in Boston and growing steadily at a friend’s home there. It is the epitome of resilient, but it isn’t terribly attractive. And sometimes its sections grow awkwardly like several offset green hands with more than five fingers. It takes well to neglect. And it never asks for anything. ever.

The building where the design studio was located has just been sold. Everyone we love is moving out or already gone. I went back this week—almost 20 years after I started working there—to say goodbye. I looked for the plant. I asked about the plant. It was nowhere to be found. And no one knew or recalled absolutely anything about it. If I didn’t have the evidence still growing in my kitchen I may have wondered if it ever even existed.

I love this plant as a symbol of growth, of movement, of resilience and for being a backdrop to continuous professional and personal change. It is a living trail of human connections, and many little green futures. Where will it grow next I wonder?