Seems Like Old Time(r)s

Note: This essay was written by my husband, Gary Bakst. Thank you, Gary!!! I will be sharing my take on this same event tomorrow.

It had been 2 and ½ years since I attended a live sporting event, a concert, a movie in a theater, any sort of in person event.  I surely don’t have to tell any of you why – everybody knows.  We have all made our own decisions about how to deal with the threat of Covid.  Some have been yet more cautious than I have but many more less cautious.  And I accept that there is a range of choices people can make that may fit for them. 

For me, it was time to go to a Mets game.  Linda looked ahead and noticed months ago that Saturday, August 27th, was Old Timers’ Day at Citi Field where my beloved Mets play their home games.  I have been a Mets fan since my father taught me about baseball.  We watched ballgames together, making the occasional pilgrimage to Shea Stadium to see our favorite players win or lose.  I remember one game in which Willie Mays -yes, that Willie Mays – was playing for the Mets.  He was old for a ball player and no longer capable of the elite level of performance that defined his many years with the Giants, but he was still that legend. 

I have fashioned my children into Mets fans, cajoled Linda into supporting them and now my grandchildren are being educated early about the importance of supporting our Mets.  I figure, if I can suffer, so can they.  Most years, being a Met fan does involve quite a bit of suffering.  It makes one tougher,  better able to deal with other disappointments in life. 

This year has been different.  The Mets have had other good years in their history, most notably 1969 and 1986.  But, unlike their crosstown rival Yankees, they are not perennial contenders for a championship.  It is a rare and exciting moment, a meteor streaking through the sky ever so briefly, not an annual expectation.  Perhaps with our new and improved ownership, that could be changing. 

After being away for such a long time, it seemed like the right time to head back to the stadium.  Covid surely remains a risk, but the risk of severe disease has diminished, it is an outdoor event and the special occasion of Old Timers Day combined to convince me to purchase tickets.  I went online and bought 8 tickets for the game.  I was not sure which family members would be able to make it, but the limiting factor was not going to be too few available seats.  

As an aside, the Mets have a policy for getting these online tickets that I found cumbersome and less than straightforward, so I tasked Linda with converting their emails into actual access to the stadium.  She found it easy and quick which did not surprise our children. 

My new-fangled ticket to the Old Timers game

Ultimately, we had a nice group coming to the game.  We had Linda and I, our son Daniel and his wonderful daughter, Linda’s brother Mark, his lovely wife Pam and their very nice son Sam who is also a Mets fan.  And Linda’s good friend Steven who I enjoy talking Mets baseball with over the many years we know each other.  The only person missing was our daughter, Leah, (who I have also successfully indoctrinated into Mets fandom, too) but having just had a baby three months ago, and living in the Boston area, made her attendance impossible.

Linda and I drove down to the city; we took the number 7 subway line to the stadium.  It was filled with orange and blue clad Mets fans.  The vibrations were all positive, the sun was shining and the world was a happy place.  

We all arrived in time for the Old Timers’ game.  They had assembled quite a large number of former Mets from players who were there for the Mets first season in 1962, to the 1969 Mets and the 1986 Mets and more or less every era of their existence.  The introductions themselves were fun and the former players exulted in the attention and adoration which the packed stadium poured out upon them. 

At the end of the introductions, there was a surprise.   The Mets were retiring uniform number 24 which Willie Mays used to wear.  It was a heartwarming moment and surely a signal that current owner Steven A. Cohen was ushering in a different era compared with the Wilpons who are widely despised by Mets fans.  He is doing so many things the right way, and this was just one lovely example of that. 

The Old Timers game itself was so much fun.  Some of those guys can still move pretty well and some really cannot.  Most still retain the amazing hitting and throwing skills that separate them from we ordinary humans.  It was pure joy watching them out on the field again.  We were enjoying the action on the field, the food, the drinks, the opportunity to spend time together chatting.  Baseball is unlike football and basketball.  It is slower.  Many people keep trying to make it faster.  Perhaps that is a good thing but sometimes slower has its merits.  I loved the slowness of the game. 

When the real game with the current crop of Mets began, it was more fun.  They led by 1-0, then 2-0, then 3-0.  It was a low scoring and well-played game.  They made enough good plays to overcome the visiting Colorado Rockies and the crowd exulted as the final out was recorded.

Our granddaughter spent about 4 hours there which is remarkable for a child not yet old enough to have any idea what a ball or strike is.  She was delightful and in great spirits and eventually Daniel left with her and they made it home without issue.  

The rest of us found our way onto the 7 train when the game ended, and we caught an air conditioned express train back to Manhattan.  While on the train, we learned from one of the many Mets fans crowding that subway car that our main opponents, the Atlanta Braves, had lost in the bottom of the ninth inning and the subway car erupted in joy. 

We got back home late and tired and sweaty but very happy.  Getting back out and doing something to divert my attention from my daily concerns was such a pleasure and going to a baseball game and watching my favorite team win was exactly the right salve.  I can enjoy watching any team play but if it is my Mets, then I really want them to win.  If the trip is easy and the weather is great and the food is delicious and they lose, then the bottom line is they lost.  It is unlike a movie or a show where I might say it was very good or pretty good.  This is binary: win/lose.  And they won. 

I wonder how you have made decisions about such entertainment options.  Have you been going all along, have you picked some events as appropriate and others as not a great idea?  And which types of events take you away from your worries?  

#LGM

Parents and Public Schools

Tensions were running high during the public comment period of a school board meeting.  A parent was addressing the Board. “I expect when I send my son to school, when I put him on the school bus in the morning, that he returns home at the end of the day in exactly the same condition – not a hair on his head hurt!” The parent was pleading for more safety measures. He was yelling at us, so great was his fear.

This was in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, during my tenure on the Guilderland School Board, a suburb of Albany, New York. Speculation that terrorists might hit ‘soft’ targets like schools was in the news and Columbine had happened less than 18 months prior.  We had, in fact, taken steps to secure our buildings and were reviewing procedures and options for cameras, to see if more should be done. As always budgets were tight.  It was a fraught time.

I had two children in district schools at the time. As much as I sympathized with the parent’s fears, I thought his demands were impossible to meet. We could not guarantee the kind of safety he was looking for, no matter what we did. Children fall on the playground. They get into tussles with their peers – never mind guarding against a determined gunman. If we are lucky children will come home from school with some minor bumps and bruises – either the physical or emotional kind. I knew we could do more to protect children from intruders and from fellow students who might turn to violence – prior to these tragedies school doors weren’t even locked in our district. No one wore I.D. We could pay more attention to student mental health. There were lots of steps to take, but the essential truth was, and still is, that there are limits to what can be done. We can only protect our children so much.

I was reminded of that challenging time when I read a quote last week from a school board candidate in my district who was running under the banner of parental control. Elections are coming up in one week. The gist of what the candidate said was that she did not accept the premise that the school system was a partner in raising her child – instilling values and guiding her child was her responsibility. She went on to say that schools should stay away from those controversial topics that strayed into morality or hot button political issues. This may seem on its face to be unrelated to the safety issue described above, but I believe there is a common thread that connects them.

Both reflect the desire for parental control. We want our children to be safe and we want to be the ones imparting values. We want to ward off undesired influence. I would argue, though, that when you send your child to public school you relinquish some of that control. Once a child boards a school bus, they are hearing all kinds of things. If you aren’t comfortable with that then home schooling or sending the child to a private school that is in accordance with your philosophy and approach is probably a better option.

I am not suggesting parents don’t have a role in public schools – they have a critical role. For one thing, parents serve on school boards. I did –  for 9 years. I wanted to represent other parents by bringing forward concerns I heard about or experienced myself. That’s the main purpose of the board: to serve as a conduit between the community and the administration, sharing information and facilitating two-way communication. As a board member, though, I was one of nine – I did not have power as an individual. I had input, but majority ruled, as it should in a democracy. It is a well-calibrated system of checks and balances. Board members, as parents themselves (though not all members are parents) or as representatives of parents, shape policy and set the big picture course for the district. Individual board members are effective to the extent that they can convince colleagues of their position.

Aside from presence on the board, parents are essential partners in the success of public school systems– from the highest level (district-wide excellence) to the achievement of individual students. Contrary to the belief of the candidate in my district, schools are also essential for the development of our children. Our children should not grow up in a vacuum. I would argue that schools should not avoid those issues. They should not purposely seek them out, but often they emerge as a natural outgrowth of innocent conversations about current events or sharing of family stories. When a child hears something that is inconsistent with lessons from home, it provides parents with a teachable moment. They can either explain how/why we differ or consider another perspective and perhaps adjust. Either way the child’s life is enriched, and the family’s bonds are strengthened. Children are capable of understanding that different rules apply in different spaces – they figure that out pretty quickly when their parents take different approaches (ask dad first?) and/or grandparents, not to mention different teachers, or behavior in a house of worship versus the playground.

One last point that is essential to understand if one advocates for ‘parental control.’ School boards operate in the context of federal, state, and local laws and regulations. The pandemic, with its mask mandates, was another flashpoint for those angry with school boards. Initially boards may have been free to make their own rules, but once the federal, state or local health department stepped in, there was no choice. Railing at school board members was pointless. But, even when (or if) school boards are not constrained by those rules, think about this: Boards are faced with many parents demanding masks (or some other policy counter to your own), and masks are of limited use if they aren’t universal. It isn’t as simple as ‘you want your kid masked, so mask them.’ The effectiveness relies on widespread use. This is true in other contexts too – in most cases curriculum can’t be divided up so that groups of children in a given classroom learn different things. So, which parent voice wins? Whoever yells loudest? And what about staff risks and attitudes?

Add to that the fact that districts have their own ‘medical directors,’ a position designated by the board – a person who meets state licensing requirements who is giving guidance in just this scenario. If the medical director advises that children and staff should mask, the board shouldn’t substitute its own judgment. If they did, they would open themselves up to legal liability. In the case of non-health related issues, the board will have likely received input from other experts (educators, engineers, architects, accountants – depending on the topic). Those considerations, the well-being and wishes of the entire community, expert guidance and the legal context, weigh heavily on board member decisions – and they should.

Parental control may sound good, but in the real world it has limitations. In my experience, parents have many opportunities for input and influence in public schools. And they receive lots of information (though districts can always improve in outreach). Those parents that are not willing to accept the constraints (and in some cases even welcome them) are probably best served by home schooling or choosing a private option.

Words of Comfort

Once again, the Covid pandemic is on my mind. Aside from wearying of the limitations it has placed on my life, it feels like the virus is closing in on me. It feels unavoidable. It has hit close to home as family members and friends have been diagnosed in recent weeks. While omicron seems to be less deadly than prior variants and results in less serious illness, it is still no joke.  And, until we are over the peak and on the other side, we don’t really know its impact.

People continue to make different choices in how they cope with the pandemic. Some reasonable folks have concluded that, while wearing masks in public spaces, they are resuming activities and living their lives. My husband is not comfortable with that approach, perhaps as a physician who is in the office seeing patients every day, he thinks the risk is too high until we clearly pass the peak of this surge. He goes to work masked and goggled, washing and sterilizing his hands relentlessly, but then declines most social activities. He would like me to make the same choice. For the most part I have, refraining from most things except I continue to play tennis once every other week. Since I am not working and we are now in the depth of winter, my life is quite limited. It leaves too much time to think, too much time to worry.

In the midst of my angst, I read some helpful words in the form of a poem that came across my Facebook feed:

I am no longer waiting for the other shoe to drop; it already did, and I survived.

I am no longer waiting for the time to be right; the time is always now.

I am no longer waiting to do something great; being awake to carry my grain of sand is enough.

I am no longer waiting to be recognized; I know that I dance in a holy circle.

Author: Mary Anne Perrone

The above lines are part of a longer piece, but these were words I needed to read right now. I’m not so sure about that last phrase – I don’t dance in a holy circle (I’m not sure I even understand what she means by that), but the idea that I don’t need recognition to find value in what I create is a thought I need to be reminded of. The belief that I am enough is something I continue to work on.

The first lines of this piece speak to the major challenge posed by the pandemic – the fear that the other shoe will drop. What am I worried about? The health of the ones I love. I want to know that family members who have Covid or another a health scare are okay, that they will recover quickly and suffer no ill effect. Unfortunately, I can’t know that.

Worry can always be around the corner. If I allow it, it can rule my life. I find comfort in those lines above – the shoe has dropped – at times. It is true that the worst has not happened – I am still here, as are Gary and my children, thankfully – but bad things have occurred, and I have survived. I have managed.

The other day I had a long conversation with a friend who is battling colon cancer. Her husband took the diagnosis hard, understandably. It is scary, though her prognosis is good. Her husband was depressed and after a time she confronted him, saying that she needed him to stop being so down, she needed a more positive attitude. He confessed that he was terrified of losing her. She reminded him that she is here now. When something scary and unknown hangs over you it is hard to be in the present.

Though I am not faced with the same situation as my friend, I related to the challenge they faced. The meditation app I started using a few weeks ago offered helpful insight into the scenario where you might imagine the worst. During one of the exercises, the guide pointed out that thoughts are not reality – thinking something doesn’t make it so. Worrying about future health complications has little to do with the reality of the here and now. It is easy to go down the rabbit hole of ‘what if,’ but it leads nowhere and accomplishes nothing. We can’t put our head in the sand, we need to plan when we have real information about what the future holds, but we can’t live in anticipation of the worst. It is a choice we can make. I can control my thoughts. What a revolutionary idea! It doesn’t come easy to me, but it is empowering to realize that I can redirect my mental energy.

I don’t think I used to have to work so hard to quell the worry. I didn’t worry so much before. Why am I now?

Maybe being inundated with bad news – people losing their homes to fire, people dying of Covid, a friend losing her husband to pancreatic cancer – has made it harder to cope. Bad things were always happening and will always happen. I think social media heightens the sense of disaster all around us. Did they always report when a retired third string quarterback for an obscure NFL team died? My Twitter and Facebook feed is filled with those stories. When someone as famous as Betty White died in the past, of course it made the news. But now it is hard to know what to do with all this information, especially all the losses. How can we process these deaths (whether related to Covid or not)? It is hard not to be overwhelmed.

Some periods of time seem more perilous than others. This is one of those times. I want to put the people I love in a bubble. But I can’t, nor would they want to live there. I need instead to focus on the joys, the beauty and the love today.

Serenity now! View from a walk at Five Rivers – another coping-with-the-pandemic strategy

Reflections

We are now two weeks out from the wedding and we still know of only one case of Covid. We dodged a bullet, and I am so grateful to our guests and vendors for helping to make it as safe as possible. We are so lucky to have memories of a joyous event largely untainted by negative consequences. I can happily reflect on those special moments of joy. Here are some photos from our celebration.


Since the newest Covid surge has reduced our socializing, Gary and I have had time to watch Netflix, or in the case of the documentary “Get Back,” Disney+. The documentary is about the lead up to the rooftop concert that marked the Beatles final public performance, something previously explored in the film and album Let it Be. The documentary is almost eight hours long, divided into 3 segments. I thought it was well worth watching. I came away with a deeper appreciation of them as a band. While I am not immersed in Beatlemania, I am a fan of their music. There was a great deal I didn’t know or had forgotten.

First, they were so young! The events depicted were from January of 1969. I was nine years old and to me the Beatles were grown-ups. Watching them now, from the perspective of a 62 year-old, is quite different.

One of the things I came away with was that music-making is both inspiration and hard work. At various times each of the Beatles come into the studio having dreamt up a new melody in their head the night before or having an idea for a song while they were driving over in their car. To then watch the piece come to fruition is amazing. Some might find it either laborious or repetitive at points, but I thought it showed how much goes into it. I also wondered why I haven’t had the experience of driving to work and having a song like ‘The Long and Winding Road’ pop into my head. I’m joking, of course, I have no skill in that area. But how cool would that be?!? The documentary showed genius at work – and I don’t believe I am overusing that term.

Also, at least based on this presentation, the women, Linda and Yoko, got a bad rap in the old narrative around the Beatles break up. It seems it is a myth that they caused the split of the band. They were there during these sessions and did not seem to be interfering or causing tension. Unless Peter Jackson, the director, selectively edited things, Linda and Yoko should not bear that burden any longer.

If the film offers insight into the disintegration of the group, it seems that the members, particularly George and John, wanted to pursue their own creative voices. They felt constrained by being in the band. Other pressures and circumstances may have exacerbated things – drug use, family/relationship demands, the relentless attention that came with being a Beatle all likely contributed – but ultimately it seems they grew apart. One can’t help but feel sad thinking about what could have been. As I watched I thought frequently about the premature death of John Lennon, which occurred 11 years later, as I appreciated anew his talent and irreverent sense of humor.

Finally, I was impressed with how playful the whole group was. Though stressors were revealed in the film, George Harrison briefly quit, the joy they got from making music together was also evident. There was a lot of laughter.

After spending nearly 8 hours watching the film, I felt like I hung out with them which is a pretty cool feeling. In recent days I find myself putting on Beatles albums and enjoying them immensely.


Another thing Gary and I did, given Covid limitations, was take a ride to Bear Mountain, listening to Let it Be as Gary drove. I haven’t been to Bear Mountain in decades. There was a thin cover of snow, so though we originally planned to hike in the woods, we decided we didn’t have the proper footwear for that. Fortunately, there were some paved paths, one that circled a lovely reflective lake, so we could still explore and take in the lovely scenery.

Hessian Lake – reflecting the surrounding mountain

I had no memory that the park included a zoo which is arranged along a nature trail. Since it was Christmas Eve day, and it was cold and gray, there weren’t many other people which made it perfect! We saw an array of birds, reptiles and fish, in addition to a bear and coyote. The trail also included a history museum which focused on events in the area during the American Revolution. Most of all, though, I enjoyed the views. That section of the Hudson River Valley is spectacular.

A view of the Hudson River looking south

As we wended our way through the park, we noted how great it would be to bring our granddaughter there – an idea I will file for an outing in the future.

After walking for a couple of hours, we went into the Bear Mountain lodge and found a restaurant that was still open despite the approach of Christmas. We ordered some food and, in an abundance of caution, ate it in our car.  It was time to go home. “You don’t need to turn on the GPS, I know how to get home from here,” said Gary. Famous last words. We ended up on the wrong road, but it turned out to be a happy accident. We found our way to 9W north which was a less direct route but took us through a beautiful stretch of mountains dusted with snow.

When we got to Newburgh we turned west and took the Thruway, not nearly as scenic, but more efficient.

Though we made many adjustments on account of Covid, we are trying to make the most of this holiday season.  

What a Weekend!

What a weekend! The wedding weekend is now a full week behind us, and I have been on a roller coaster of emotions. From worrying about everything coming together beforehand, to deep satisfaction watching Leah and Ben having fun with their friends, to laughing with delight at our granddaughter’s performance as flower girl, and back to worrying about the Covid surge and what it might mean for our guests – it has been quite a ride. Frankly I am ready to get off the ride already, it is exhausting. Will I ever feel like life is normal? It is hard to imagine.

The three-day extravaganza in Troy, New York – the welcome dinner on Friday night, the wedding itself Saturday late afternoon and the Sunday brunch – could not have gone better. People came ready to celebrate. It was the first time for many of us (about 120) to gather and we made the most of it. One of the highlights for me was watching Leah and Ben’s eclectic group of friends cutting up the dance floor. The DJ did a great job of keeping the beat going. The dance floor was filled with guests of every age – it is funny that the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s transcends time. Everyone was boogeying and singing along, including me.

But the true verdict on the ‘success’ of the event won’t be known for another week when we see whether any of us or our guests got Covid. That is an unfortunate caveat. So far, we know of one guest who tested positive this past week after feeling symptoms on Tuesday – it is not clear that they were exposed at the wedding. I don’t want to make the wedding about Covid, but it can’t be avoided. I find it hard to reconcile the joy of the gathering with the risk of illness, potentially serious illness.

The weekend was about love – celebrating the love of our daughter and son-in-law for each other, and the love that family and friends have for them. But the specter of Covid hangs over our heads.

We took every step we could think of to ensure that we created as safe an environment as possible. We asked all attendees to provide proof of vaccination – and they did. We asked everyone to take a PCR test within 72 hours of coming to the wedding. We believe people did that, too. We made sure staff at the venue was vaccinated and masked. And, finally, we provided rapid tests to use on the day of the celebration. Gary and I took our rapid test in the hotel room before leaving for the rehearsal dinner – both of us were relieved to be negative.

All those measures still don’t guarantee that there won’t be breakthroughs, especially with the new Omicron variant and the recent spike. We will wait another week to see what happens. As of my writing this, Leah, Ben, Gary, our son Dan, daughter-in-law Beth and I have all taken tests and we have all been negative. Gary and I took a PCR test on Saturday morning, and we learned last night (Sunday) that we were negative again. Phew….

We live in such a strange time. We started planning the wedding two years ago, before the pandemic, when Leah and Ben got engaged. At the time we thought we’d have a large party – between the bride and groom’s friends and families, there were many we wanted to include. As the reality of Covid set in, we made adjustment after adjustment. Eventually we realized that we had to postpone the party – the kids did get married on the original date (December 12, 2020) and we had a total of 12 people present – just the immediate family. I wrote about that weekend here. It was lovely, and we made the best of it, but it wasn’t what we envisioned.

As time passed and things improved, with vaccinations and treatments, Leah and Ben decided to go forward with the original party plan. We, their parents, were happy to do it. The journey since then has included many ups and downs. We reevaluated regularly and kept adding procedures to try to protect everyone. There were many phone calls and long deliberations – we kept fine-tuning the protocol. But nothing is fail-safe.

At different points the worry became nearly overwhelming. Friday night, after our successful welcome dinner at the Arts Center, I lay down exhausted in our hotel room. I couldn’t sleep. I worried, my brain flitted from one disastrous scenario to another. Worry is a useless emotion! There was nothing productive to do. I tossed and turned and eventually dawn arrived. Not surprisingly, it was pouring. Rain is a good omen, right?

Fortunately, morning brought things to do, places to go and people to see. The rain subsided. The moment of truth arrived – the official gathering began. I stopped worrying and stayed present.

The venue, Revolution Hall in Troy, New York, has a beautiful bridal suite. We stocked it with snacks and bottled water. While Leah got her hair and make-up done, friends and family stopped by to chat. I took it all in, watching everyone shower Leah with warmth and affection, sharing stories and laughing. One of the pleasures of being a parent is seeing your children’s lives unfold – the partners they choose, the friendships they cultivate. I like my kids’ friends – they are smart, thoughtful, and kind people. I probably enjoyed the time in the bridal suite as much as Leah did!

Troy turned out to be a fine location – with hotels and other amenities in close proximity to the wedding venue which meant a minimal amount of driving. As I was out and about in the unseasonably warm weather running errands and dropping things off, I took note of my surroundings (also an effort to settle my nerves). Troy, settled in 1787, has a rich history and its architecture reflects that. I took some pictures for posterity (and the blog).

Upper left: Troy is the home of Uncle Sam – a sculpture of him greets passersby

Upper right and lower right: examples of murals

Lower left: Collar City Bridge spanning the Hudson River – One of Troy’s nicknames, it was the home of a shirt-collar industry a century ago.

Left middle: a view from downtown toward RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

Before I knew it, the weekend was over. After all that had gone into it, our guests left town, and Gary and I began to process it all.

In trying to reconcile the fear that is part of our lives today (not just Covid, but the divisions in our country, the threats to our environment, the rolling back of the reproductive rights of women, the doubts about our future) and the desire to celebrate a joyous occasion, I thought about the challenges faced by generations that came before. I thought about my grandparents having children in the depths of the Great Depression. I thought about my in-laws telling us about a wedding performed while they struggled to survive in the Ivye ghetto during the Holocaust. I’m not suggesting that the challenges we face today are the same as those, but we are in a difficult time. I am calling upon the strength and optimism of our ancestors to see me through this. They did not allow the fear to get the better of them.

Over the last year, as we planned the wedding weekend, I wondered if we were doing the right thing. Would it be worth it if even one person got sick? We decided to move forward – to try to minimize the risk, but to not let Covid define our lives. I think, like our ancestors, we affirmed life and love. I will live with that choice (and I will keep my fingers crossed that our one guest who has Covid recovers quickly and completely and that no one else gets sick).

Compassion Anyone?

A flash of insight can come at the most unexpected time. I was driving to my poetry group on Saturday and I was thinking about why I was so agitated that morning.  Why was I feeling so ‘judgy’ of others? I suddenly understood something that maybe should have been obvious, but somehow wasn’t.

            Here is what I understood: If I don’t feel the emotion that the person is sharing, I am prone to judging them. If I can feel, really feel, the emotion, I am less judgmental.

            I think of myself as an empathic person. When someone shares their troubles with me, I usually feel their pain or frustration. Sometimes too much. However, there are instances where I don’t, especially these days. I was attributing that to being spread too thin and my general sense of frustration with the state of the world. It occurs to me, though, that isn’t the complete story. I have been ‘judgy’ before the pandemic.

            When a friend or relative is sharing something I can relate to, perhaps have experienced myself, I am able to recall the emotion readily. The disappointment or sadness or anger comes flooding in. When that person shares an experience or feeling foreign to me, that’s when I am predisposed to judgement. If I can’t connect their reaction to my own, I am left to intellectualize – then judgement can follow.

            I may not express it– I usually know enough to keep those thoughts to myself. But I stew in it. I’ve been stewing a lot lately. I won’t say to the person that I think they are wrong or over-reacting, but it is what I am thinking. My powers of empathy are more limited than I care to admit. Sitting in judgment doesn’t feel good, though. I don’t want to be a harsh appraiser, especially of those I love. Plus, I think it is counterproductive. Even if I don’t outwardly express it, it creates distance, or it may leak out in other destructive ways.

            Thinking about this as I was driving, the ‘aha’ moment hit me: maybe if I can’t feel what the person feels, there is another path to empathy. What if I imagine what it feels like to be that person? Not through the prism of my experience, but through theirs. So, if a person is expressing their terror of getting Covid, something I don’t feel to that degree, rather than thinking about whether they are justified and thereby trying to convince them they shouldn’t be so afraid, focus on what it feels like to be terrified. Being terrified is an awful state of mind – I can empathize with that irrespective of the cause. During the conversation, I may share some information that I hope allays their fear, but it would be delivered from a place of compassion, rather than judgment.

            Maybe the divisions among us would be helped if we tried to understand the emotion first, acknowledge and connect to it. Maybe if we named the other person’s feeling – fear, anger, hopelessness – and remembered what that emotion feels like even if it was in a different context– we could start a more fruitful conversation.

            For example, anxiety is something I have experienced, but I have had only one panic attack and that happened when I was an adolescent. Others experience panic as a regular expression of their anxiety. And, I may not be set off by the same triggers, nor have the same physical reaction, but I still know how horrible it is to feel panicky.

            My anxiety manifests in rumination, as I wrote about last week. But, even at the worst of times when I was living in my head, I was functional. Not as productive as I wanted to be, but I wasn’t paralyzed. If someone was to share their experience of ruminating, I would reflect on my own. If they were so tied up in knots that they couldn’t get out of bed, I would feel sorry for them but wonder why they couldn’t manage to get it together. While listening, it might instead be more helpful to imagine myself in my bed so overwhelmed that I can’t get up– how terrible would that feel?  – rather than thinking about whether I would react in the same way as my friend did.

            Maybe we can’t help but see things through the prism of our experience, but it is too limiting. This might be one way to be more open to others.

            I wish I could report, having had this insight, that I was free of judgment the rest of the weekend. It probably isn’t reasonable, or even desirable, to suspend all judgment. There are times when it is appropriate to criticize. Sometimes a person is so dug into their emotional state that they have lost all perspective. A compassionate loved one can offer another view. It likely won’t be well-received if it is delivered in a judgmental tone – the compassion is key. The problem is sometimes I don’t feel much compassion and that is the point of this whole essay. How do I find the compassion?

            It takes some work to locate it and I have to be willing to put in the effort. Yesterday, once again in the car, I passed two lawn signs that got me angry – a kneejerk judgment. Having had the insight the day before, I tried to test my ability to find compassion.

            The first sign read “Fuck Biden.” Great way to advertise your politics! Why would I want to have compassion for someone, why would I want to try to understand someone, who puts up a sign like that? They are entitled to their view, but in putting it out there like that, it invites anger. Should I do the work to look beyond that, to understand their rage? That is a big ask. The answer, for me, was no, no compassion. I stayed angry. My anger met theirs, metaphorically.

            The second lawn sign demanded “Unmask our children now!” My first reaction to it was to mumble ‘asshole’ to myself (actually Gary was driving and I had to explain I wasn’t calling him that). This one was easier to swallow. I could envision having a conversation. Though I am not a parent of a school-age child (I am a grandparent of a preschooler), I can imagine the frustration of dealing with the pandemic and the desire for my child to go back to ‘normalcy.’ It is unlikely that I would come to a meeting of the minds with the parent with that lawn sign, but the starting point wasn’t as hostile. As I mulled it over, my stomach muscles unclenched a bit. I would call it a semi-successful effort to find compassion.

            These two examples aren’t quite the same thing as listening to a friend or family member express something I don’t feel, but there are parallels. My goal is to walk around holding less hostility in my gut. Does my suggestion hold any water for you? If you have other ideas for how to do that, I’m all ears.

The Albany Book Festival to the Rescue

I thought this week’s blog post was going to be titled “The System is Broken.” The system I am referring to is elder care. It was motivated by my visit to my aunt at the Amsterdam Nursing facility. I will write that piece, but not today. Fortunately, I was rescued from that dark place by some uplifting experiences, and I decided to focus on those.

First, I will note the value of friendship. In the midst of my distress, I had a lovely dinner with my almost-life-long friend (we met when I was 14), Steven. We commiserated over our respective painful experiences of seeing our elderly parents, relatives and friends go through the indignities that aging can bring, especially when coupled with the limitations of the health care system. We found much to laugh about even as we covered those difficult subjects. We ate outside on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a refreshing breeze washing over us. A strong cocktail improved my mood. It was a much-needed respite. Thank you, Steven.

This was followed up later in the week with a zoom call with Merle. We lamented the state of our country, but then focused on our gratitude for the good fortune we both enjoy.

The crowning event, though, in shifting away from writing that disturbing blog post, was attending the fourth annual Albany Book Festival. Last year it was limited to a virtual event due to the coronavirus. This year it was a mixture – virtual and live. I was concerned about attending an in-person, indoor event and wondered whether they would be taking appropriate precautions. I read the Covid information on the website and my worries were eased. I assured Gary that if they weren’t enforcing the rules and the environment felt unsafe, I would leave promptly.

My well-thumbed program

The morning fog had burned off, leaving a bright blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds, as I drove the short distance to the SUNY-Albany campus. I parked my car and ran into an ex-colleague from my days working at NYSSBA. This was a delightful surprise, as I had not seen her in several years. We caught up as we walked to the campus center. Purple signs, SUNY-A’s color, directed us. As we entered the building, I was relieved to see each and every person masked; not just masked but wearing them properly, fully covering their nose. There were a lot of people, but the area was not overcrowded. So far so good.

I perused the program and decided to head to the auditorium to hear Nathan Philbrick talk about his new book, Travels with George. It is a combination history, travelogue and memoir; the George in the title is George Washington. I had not read the book, nor was I familiar with Mr. Philbrick’s earlier work, but I thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed but informative conversation that was facilitated by moderator, Paul Grondahl. Mr. Philbrick, who has written multiple history books about early America, talked about Washington as a flawed but great man. Sprinkled in were amusing and interesting anecdotes about Philbrick’s own life. To conclude the session, Grondahl asked the author about his prediction for our country’s future, in this difficult and contentious time, given his knowledge of the past. Philbrick reflected on other perilous times in our history, including in the immediate aftermath of Washington’s election when the United States was first forming as a nation. He responded, “I have faith in America.” He pointed out that it may take a while, likely years, to weather the current storm. He admitted that though he is a pessimist by nature, he still trusted in our institutions. My spirits lifted. I felt better. I realize he is just one person, but he struck me as well-informed, intelligent, and knowledgeable. I bought his book.

I picked another session to attend. This one featured a conversation with the newly-named New York State poet and author, Willie Perdomo and Ayad Akhtar, respectively. Again, I was not familiar with either man’s work. I am not well read in poetry.  I am always promising myself that I will read more of it, to no avail. I left this session motivated once again. We’ll see.

Both men were well-spoken, good-humored and insightful. It is no wonder that Mr. Perdomo is a poet. He spoke lyrically, expressively and meaningfully about his life-journey. I could have listened for another hour. Mr. Akhtar didn’t project the same warmth, but he too was insightful. I bought his novel, Homeland Elegies, which according to Barack Obama is ‘a powerful and searching examination of contemporary American politics and attitudes.’ I value President Obama’s book recommendations and look forward to reading Mr. Akhtar’s work.

After that session, I wandered through the exhibit hall, taking in the offerings of other authors and publishers. I looked out the window and saw the brilliant sunshine. I decided I wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather rather than attend more sessions so I headed home.

I was invigorated by the talent, intelligence, and diversity I had witnessed at the book festival. Though I cut my stay short, I had gotten what I needed: a reminder that there are creative, smart, interesting people who are engaged with complex issues. It made me feel better about the world, about the future. Though it doesn’t change the fact that ‘the system is broken,’ I felt more hopeful and energized. Next week I can write about elder care.

Random Thoughts on a Holiday Weekend

Yesterday I spent well over an hour online trying to initiate a Medicaid application for my elderly aunt. I had no success. I learned one thing. After completing the first part of what I thought was the correct process, I found out it was not. Buried four clicks in, and after filling out two preliminary forms, and after receiving several error messages and a rejection notice, they finally explained how to initiate an application for someone over 65. After all that, I learned that you are supposed to call the helpline or visit a Medicaid office! It seems that little tidbit could have appeared on the very first screen. A pretty major piece of guidance, if you ask me. Who designs these things? I will call the helpline after the holiday and find out how to proceed. Let’s see how convoluted, complicated and frustrating this process will be. I have such high hopes.

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It may seem odd to be writing about the passing of Ed Asner, but I need to say something. He reminds me of my dad, in the best way possible. He always has. When I watched the Mary Tyler Moore show back in the 70s, and I loved that show for many reasons, I noted the likeness. Some of it was physical. My Dad was built similarly, that burly, Eastern European thing. They both were also balding with a heavy beard. My Dad could probably have shaved twice a day. I suspect Mr. Asner could do the same. But more than that, it was the sense of decency Mr. Asner radiated. The gruff exterior belied a tenderness. Maybe I read too much into Lou Grant and other characters he played, but that is what I sensed.  And that was at the heart of my dad. These last few days, as tributes came through my Facebook feed, each time I felt a pang of loss. Dad was not granted the length of years Mr. Asner was, he is gone more than 16 years, but I still feel it acutely. I mourn Ed Asner’s passing, too.

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I have spent much of the last week under the weather. I don’t want to assign blame, Daniel, but I caught a cold. Of course, since we are in the midst of a pandemic, I was concerned that maybe it was actually Covid. The delta variant has been spreading locally. I tried to make an appointment for a test and found it difficult to get one. All the area pharmacies were booked. I could get a slot the next afternoon, but I’d have to drive half an hour. I took it. In the meanwhile, I asked my husband to try to pick up an at-home test on his way home from work. He called around and found one at a CVS in Schenectady – not that far away. He brought it home. I read the directions carefully, followed them, waited the 15 minutes and found out I was negative. These tests are imperfect, but my son and granddaughter also tested negative, so I took a measure of comfort in that. The cold though wasn’t deterred by that information, it has gone through its various stages relentlessly. Sore throat, headache, sinus pressure, my nose running like a faucet (throw in a couple of bloody noses), then the cough. The cough is the worst part for me and takes the longest to resolve. I know I shouldn’t complain. So many others have it worse. But whenever I am under the weather, I get mad at myself. I take it as a personal failing. So, in addition to feeling poorly, I am angry at myself. I have been down this road many times and I still do it. I am disappointed in my lack of productivity while I am ill. I shouldn’t have gotten sick in the first place! I will not cough!!! The refrains in my head are singularly unhelpful. Maybe now that I have written it down, it will stop. Or it will stop when the symptoms pass…any day now.

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Two more covid -related complaints. We are once again trying to plan the celebration of Leah and Ben’s marriage. We are now three and a half months out. Once again, we are plagued by uncertainty. I am angry. It didn’t have to go this way. My other gripe is of the ‘first world’ variety. Most people are faced with lost opportunities due to the pandemic. College kids deprived of the full experience. Youngsters wearing masks as they start school. Cancelled proms. Job loss or forced career changes. Folks with other health problems having to navigate getting care. Seniors enduring damaging isolation. So much fall out. My issue isn’t serious, but I find myself resentful anyway. I am missing prime-time travel opportunities. Gary and I are in our early sixties. Thankfully still healthy. This would be a time for broader exploration. We are lucky enough to be financially able to do it too. I love travel – minus the hassle of air travel itself, that part sucked even before the pandemic. But that aside, who knows what the future will bring? There are so many places I want to go. Okay, I’m done whining. I know it pales in comparison to the price others have paid, including loss of life. But since I am venting, I thought I would put that out there, too. I invite you to vent, as well. It can be therapeutic – as long as it isn’t directed at an innocent bystander. A journal, online or on paper, may be best. Feel free to use the comment section below.

Cuomo esta?

Governor Cuomo is in trouble. I have mixed feelings about that. He is a complicated public figure. I can’t claim to have first-hand knowledge of how he operates but having worked with his administration on education issues and knowing folks who have attended meetings with him and living in the Albany area for the last thirty years, I have certainly formed opinions about him. Before the pandemic, my impression was largely negative, even though most of his policies aligned with my own views. I did not like the way he did business.

Recent reports that Governor Cuomo or his aides threatened to ruin the careers of adversaries are very believable. I think that has been Cuomo’s modus operandi for most of his career. The evidence suggests that he is a bully. Maybe our culture is changing such that his behavior has become unacceptable and that would be a good thing. I think, to varying degrees, bullying in the workplace has been acceptable in the past. I have worked with men who got away with a version of that – yelling and intimidating people to get their way, driving employees to tears. Maybe they didn’t go so far as to threaten to ruin careers, but scaring underlings was a tool they used. Perhaps they had anger management issues, but nobody called them on it. From what I have observed, some men benefitted from the behavior. Cuomo may be caught in a changing tide. What was once okay (or at least overlooked) is now not. One question this raises is: what is the penalty for that? I’m not sure that the punishment (forced to resign or impeached) meets that crime. Is it enough for him to acknowledge it and pledge to behave better? (If he was willing to do that.) Should he be forced to step down?  It would be a simpler calculus if that was all he was accused of.

The allegations of sexual harassment are another matter. I have to admit that these charges came as a surprise to me. It was not something I heard whispers about before, though that doesn’t prove anything. At first, I wondered if the allegations were actually more about how his bullying behavior manifested with women. The first reported complaint that I read about, back in December, sounded like that. Creating a toxic work environment was consistent with what I understood about him. Unwanted touching, though, is a whole other thing. The incident at the wedding where he cupped the young woman’s face (she wasn’t an employee of his) and asked if he could kiss her sounds like he was being a creep (perhaps drunk?) and doesn’t reflect well on him but does not seem to be harassment. Now there have been other allegations that involve more aggressive unwanted touching of employees. The question this raises is:  should he resign based on the allegations? I think the investigation should play out first. I know that in the heat of the stories emerging, it is tempting to leap to conclusions, but a rush to judgment isn’t fair. I think there has been too much of that.

Then there is the nursing home situation that is also being investigated. The issues here fall into a couple of different categories. The coverage I have read has focused on the wrong things. The number of deaths reported in which categories is less important than the facts of the deaths. We need to understand what happened and what can we learn from it.

Throughout the pandemic, at all of those press conferences which I watched, the person I was least impressed with was the Health Commissioner, Howard Zucker. He did not inspire confidence, unlike the Governor. I know he, and the whole administration, was faced with an unprecedented crisis. And, to add to the challenge, they didn’t get guidance or support from the federal government. Even cutting Zucker some slack for that, I don’t think he performed well. His role in managing the nursing home situation needs to be understood. While the buck stops with Cuomo, I have to assume that decisions about protocols were largely informed by medical advisors. What guidance did Zucker offer?

The first question with the nursing homes is: what guidance did the state give regarding Covid patients? Were nursing homes given support, in terms of PPE, respirators, or treatment suggestions? Was the state made aware of what was happening on the ground? How timely and adequately was support given? What instructions were the hospitals given about releasing Covid patients back into nursing facilities? If the Attorney General’s investigation answered these questions, I didn’t see much coverage of it. These are far more important questions than whether nursing home deaths were erroneously counted as hospital deaths. No one has said that the total number of deaths was undercounted.

I can imagine, in the midst of the crisis, that it was all a giant clusterfuck. Some of it can be forgiven because no one knew what to do, but if decisions were made that led to more deaths, we need to understand that. Not for the purposes of punishing someone necessarily, though if it involved negligence or willful disregard for human life then we would need to assign consequences, but rather so that we learn and do better. There will likely be another pandemic.

Then there is the allegation that the Cuomo administration lied on federal forms in reporting nursing home deaths. I am not suggesting that Cuomo gets a pass on the handling of the nursing home debacle. If he directed people to lie on federal forms, there needs to be a consequence. Given the posture of the Trump administration, their incompetence and politicizing of everything, it is easy to imagine the Cuomo obfuscating, if not outright lying. Truthfully when the allegations that they lied on federal forms came out, especially when it didn’t mean that he lied to the us (New Yorkers) about the number of deaths, I didn’t give a shit. I could be missing something, but in the midst of all that was and is going on, with the virus still raging and so many suffering, I thought there have to be more important things to be focused on.

We need to concentrate on the right questions. Unfortunately for Cuomo, he has made a lot of enemies, probably deservedly, and they want to capitalize on whatever they can get on him, regardless of whether it rises to the level of an impeachable offense. Add to that the usual partisan power politics, Republicans would love to take advantage of Cuomo’s weakness, and we have a situation ripe for a rush to judgment.

I took comfort from Cuomo’s guidance during those daily press conferences. He provided leadership that we needed. He deserves credit for that. In the midst of calamity, he made many decisions that saved lives and stepped into a role that should have been filled by the President but wasn’t. How does that fit into the analysis of how he gets treated now?

On the one hand, I like the fact that Democrats demand a standard of behavior for elected officials. I would like some standard to have been applied to Trump. On the other hand, we can’t have knee jerk responses to allegations. Lots of prominent Democrats have come out saying that Cuomo should resign. They say he has lost the confidence of the people of New York. Has he? One thing I haven’t seen reported is what do New Yorkers think? What do the polls show? We are bombarded by polling most of the time. While I don’t like the idea of making decisions based on poll results, it seems relevant in this case since Cuomo is in office by virtue of the most important poll, the one in the voting booth.

I think the investigation(s) should play out. When we understand what Cuomo has done, then we can make an informed judgment about his future.

Note: I wrote and posted this before seeing that Quinnipiac has a poll out showing 55% of New Yorkers approve of Governor Cuomo. I think that supports my point.

A View from the Vaccine Front Lines

Note: The following essay was written by my husband, Gary Bakst, a physician in New York’s Capital Region. Thank you, Gary, for sharing your experience and insight.

It has been a miserable year for all of us dealing with COVID-19.  The virus has killed over 500,000 Americans and infected about 30 million of us.  Some are still dealing with “long haul” symptoms, ongoing effects of the virus.  Sadly, many have lost loved ones to this scourge.  By now, very few of us do not know someone who has had it. 

Beyond the illness itself, the precautions being taken to prevent infection have entirely changed the way most of us live.  We are mostly staying home, working remotely, and avoiding gatherings.  There are no concerts, no theater, no ballgames.  Many of us are not willing to go to restaurants, bars, health clubs or yoga studios. 

For those of us still working in person, teachers, grocery workers, and health care workers, etc., there is the real risk of infection.  And in our office, that concern has similarly been significant.  There are about 90 employees in our office.  We represent substantial diversity in all kinds of ways:  race, age, religion, rural vs. urban, health status, educational and economic status. 

And we have about 300 people who come into our office on a daily basis for doctor’s appointments, to see physician assistants, nurse practitioners, diabetes educators, podiatrists or our surgeon.  They come in for labs and ultrasounds and bone density measurements.  It is a lot of people and a lot of appointments.  Altogether, since the beginning of the pandemic, it represents about 80,000 visits. 

Given the prevalence that COVID has had in our community, it was inevitable that, at some point, people who work in our office would test positive for the virus.  Yet, through the end of November, we had not had one employee test positive.  Our precautions were working. After the Thanksgiving vacation, that started to change. We had first one and then several and then a substantial number of employees test positive.  By and large, it did not feel like transmission was happening within our office although there was quite a bit of worry over that possibility.  Mostly, it was people who presumably became infected outside of work, possibly via contact with asymptomatic people who did not know that they were carrying the virus.

We had at least one example of a physician acquiring infection from contact with a patient who did not know they had the virus.  Personally, I had two consecutive Fridays in which a patient called (or a family member of that patient) that they had tested positive the day after their visit.  Sometimes people just don’t really think they have COVID – maybe they had minor symptoms and got tested but they answered our prescreening questions indicating no such issues. Getting those Friday calls led me to quarantine apart from Linda and certainly raised my anxiety level. Fortunately, I didn’t get the virus and neither did Linda.

Unfortunately, some of my patients have been very seriously ill with COVID-19 and several have died from it.  Many of them were lovely, sweet people with wonderful families.

Most of the employees who tested positive had minor symptoms or were asymptomatic.  Several were more significantly ill.  Several had to miss work for weeks or even months.  Those who were sicker longer have had some issues in terms not feeling entirely themselves even after returning to work. One of the many frustrating things about this pandemic is the unpredictability of the disease.

By early January, I had reached the point where I was seriously thinking that we needed to shut down the office for 10 days.  Then, the vaccine took effect.  I got my first dose on December 28th. It was 2 weeks after we received the first dose that all of this stopped.  Not all of our employees chose to get vaccinated, but the overwhelming majority did. 

Up until that point, the tension, the fear, in the office was palpable among many of our staff. Everyone handled it in their own way.  Some were clearly less concerned, and a few had to be repeatedly reminded to keep their masks on. 

Albany Medical Center saw up to 38 employees test positive on a single day in that period.  After vaccination – just over 90% of their employees chose to receive the vaccine – that number fell to either zero or one positive test per day.  Most of the employees who tested positive were those who chose not to get vaccinated. 

In terms of side effects, many of our staff did have some side effects.  Half of us received the Pfizer vaccine and half Moderna.  I did not notice any difference between those two vaccines in terms of side effects.  I personally only experienced mild arm pain with both doses (of Moderna).  But many in the office had more side effects with the second dose.  Some had fever and chills, some were achy, some had nausea, some were exhausted.  These effects generally lasted typically 12 to 36 hours.  I do not know of anyone in the office who had anything worse or anything that lasted longer.

There have been several concerns that people have raised regarding getting vaccinated.  I want to briefly comment about them:

  1. “They were developed too quickly – something must not be up to standards.”  Actually, they were subjected to exactly as much testing as all of the other vaccines that are produced, it was just that certain steps were done in parallel rather than sequentially.  While all kinds of factors allowed it to be brought to the public more quickly including the promise that our government would pay for many doses, no vaccine went to market until all of the usual safety and efficacy studies involving tens of thousands of people were completed. All three vaccines have been authorized by the FDA.
  2. “Since political pressure was brought to the process it must be tainted.”  While there has been all too much politics involved in so many aspects of our response to the pandemic, those in charge of the vaccine process, thankfully, resisted pressures to short cut the steps we take to ensure that these vaccines work and that they are safe.
  3. “The new technique of using RNA to make a vaccine means that my DNA will be altered or somehow there will be long term effects of the vaccine”.  The messenger RNA does not get into the cell nucleus and does not ever do anything to our DNA.  It is degraded fairly quickly and does not persist in our bodies.  mRNA vaccines have been used before and have been safe and effective.  However, never before has an RNA vaccine been used on this scale so it is absolutely reasonable to continue to monitor for potential adverse effects. 

We are now many months since the first volunteers received the vaccines and their safety record has been very impressive.  Their efficacy has similarly been very impressive as seen in our office.  And the disease that we are combating is dangerous.  We will not overcome it without vaccine.  More than 500,000 Americans have died from it.  With over 50 million Americans vaccinated, not one person has died from vaccine.  The risk of vaccine is so clearly low and the risk of being unvaccinated so very clearly intolerable, even tragic. 

Personally, I am so very grateful to be vaccinated.  I feel less vulnerable and less likely to infect other people.  Being vaccinated has not yet had much effect on the things I choose to do or not to do.  I am still quite careful at work and reluctant to go to places where people gather.  But I am hopeful that much of this will change as more of the people I know receive vaccines and I am encouraged that the availability of those lifesaving shots is increasing week by week.  I hope you are able to access a vaccine soon or have already had one and that it makes your life better and safer.