Thursday, April 9, 2020

thursday nights in new york -- the warriors

Continuing the theme of saluting movies set in America's pendemicular epicenter...

Tonight's offering: The Warriors (1979)

Attending a summit of the city's gangs, the Warriors are framed for murder. Now they have to make their way from the Bronx back to Coney Island with every other gang (not to mention the police) gunning for them.

There's a certain silliness to this film, what with all the themes. There's a gang of mimes, a gang on roller skates, a gang who wear baseball uniforms and use bats as their weapons. But it's also thrilling and suspenseful. In a goofy sort of way.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

life during strangetime

The contrasts of life right now feel like an insane collision joy and pain. Living in gratitude and love with my husband has been rejuvenating to my soul and spirit, as well as healing to my body. At the same time, the hourly obituaries of loved ones is devastating beyond belief, creating an emotional wave of debilitating weakness. Balance is impossible to attain, and the rollercoaster ride of current daily life is fucking exhausting.
And somehow, we carry on. We must. Sending love and healing prayers to anyone kind enough to read these words. We will find the energy to smile and laugh tomorrow. Again, we must.
-- Larry Flick

Living in New York, the American epicenter of the Coronavirus epidemic, I find that the strangest thing is the split personality of the emergency.

In some ways there's a real sense of urgency. I know a lot of people who contracted COVID-19, and a few who have died from it. I know some people, including family, who are immunocompromised and I particularly worry about them. If I think about it too much, I get numb and need to joke to distract myself. We avoid going anywhere, though there are occasional trips -- mostly to the supermarket or the drugstore. And when we do go out, we're sure to have masks and gloves. I have heard that Elmhurst Hospital has been overwhelmed. And I have heard stories of the city buying large numbers of body bags, of potential shortages of ventilators, and of medical personnel having to decide who gets life saving care and who doesn't. These stories are anecdotal, so it's unclear what's really going on. And that is scary. Any time I cough, I grab for a bottle of essential oil or bleach or something, anything, with a strong scent to reassure myself that I still have my sense of smell.

On the other hand, there are some ways that things seem oddly casual. Since we live in a relatively suburban part of New York, I can look out the window and things look normal. Blair was in our yard the other day and saw a neighbor washing his car. His kids were with him and they were all having fun. He told her (yes, they were at a respectable distance) that he tested positive and he's in quarantine. But it's not a big deal. Lots of folks in the neighborhood have it, he told her.

Somewhere between the extremes of panic and shoulder-shrugging casualness is the reality of our occasional trips out. We need groceries, and so we go to the Supermarket. Sometimes we need some individual item, and go to the drug store or even a bakery. Sharon and I used to go out to breakfast every Saturday for some much-needed father-daughter bonding. We can't eat at restaurants anymore, but we can get take-out and then sit at home watching a movie on Netflix. And on these trips we make sure to wear masks and gloves when we leave the car, and it feels as if we're in a zombie movie, trying to keep a reasonable distance from strangers, and always being on the lookout -- though I'm not sure exactly what we're looking out for. We sometimes have to wait in line before entering a store because they are limiting the number of customers that can be inside at once. And on line for the cashier we have to stay away from the people in front of us in line. Far enough away that it would look comical in normal times. Still and all, Sharon and I manage to have our weekly breakfast together. And we can mostly get whatever groceries we want. And we can get our cat the medicine he needs. And I had no trouble (OK, a little trouble) getting a black and white cookie for Frank Gorshin's birthday. All of those things are luxuries that many people in the world don't have even in the best of times.

Until last summer I worked at home part time. It was a luxury. I did it for ten years before my company decided that too much collaboration and camaraderie was lost when too many people work from home on a regular basis. As of last summer we ended the work-from-home arrangements and all came back to the office. So now we're back at home. All of us. Full time. Until further notice. But this isn't a luxury. This feels like exile. Still, I have to remember that I'm fortunate. I know many people who can't work from home. Some of them are deemed essential and need to go to work and face the public. Others have lost employment. And I have friends who rely on gigs. They get paid for public speaking -- a market which has dried up. So, for now I'm fortunate that my paycheck hasn't been affected. Yet. There are no guarantees that that will last.

And when the home feels like a prison, I have to remember that the cage is gilded. I am sitting here on a computer writing a blogpost as a recreational activity. I can watch videos. I can listen to music. I can read books and do puzzles. I can go out in my garden and enjoy the flowers that are coming up. And I am sharing this prison with my wife and children -- the most important people in my life. And, as far as we can tell, we're still all healthy.

Knock on wood, and stay safe and well.

tunesday -- coronavirus edition ("that thing you do!" by the wonders)

This is sort of a break from songs about diseases, but it's still covid-19 related. Adam Schlesinger who wrote "That Thing You Do!" for the 1996 movie of the same name, died less than a week ago of COVID-19 related complications.

I'll admit that I'm not really familiar with the breadth of Schlesinger's music. I was never much of a fan of Fountains of Wayne or the other bands he formed. But I am aware of one specific contribution he made to the world of music. "That Thing You Do!" is a perfect little pop song.

The amazing thing about "TTYD!" is that it had to be a hit. Schlesinger's assignment: Write something that sounds like a pop song from thirty years ago. And it has to sound like it could have been a hit. But more than that, it has to sound like the kind of hit that can bring a band from obscurity to national prominence. And that's what he delivered. I remember watching the movie on cable at a family friend's house. When the song came on and I gushed over it, the friend said that she remembers it from when it was a hit in the '60s. That's how good a job Schlesinger did with it.

Adam Schlesinger, RIP.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

eight years time served

Recently, a Facebook friend asked me about my elementary school. "What was it like" were the exact words. WIth no context, that would seem pretty open-ended. But she was asking because it had come up that I went to a yeshiva day school. Specifically, an Orthodox yeshiva day school. So my interlocutor's interest was presumably in how it differed from public schools.

Certainly there are different types of yeshivas, and I can't as easily speak to those with which I had no experience. The ones I went to are what one might call "Modern Orthodox," though even that is not a well-defined term. At any rate, the two yeshivas I attended were Yeshiva Dov Revel (for grades one through four) and The Yeshiva of Central Queens (for grades five through eight). The two are somewhat similar, so I generally won't make an effort to distinguish between them.

At these schools, the day is split between "Hebrew" and "English." I put the languages in quotes because the former really means "all religious subjects" and the latter really means "all secular subjects." Typically, the morning would be devoted to Hebrew and the afternoon devoted to English -- though I recall one specific time when it was reversed. In the early grades each class had one Hebrew teacher and one English teacher, and they stayed in the same classroom. In later grades (seven and eight, IIRC, but I could be wrong) there was more specialization, and classes moved around for different subjects. In the later grades there was also optional religious classes on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings.

It may seem obvious to note that, with only half a day devoted to the secular subjects, students weren't getting as much time for them as their public school counterparts. To some extent that is true, though our school days were longer in order to partially offset the difference. We started earlier than the public schools and ended later. Except for on Fridays. Fridays were abbreviated because we had to get home in time to prepare for the Sabbath. This was especially true during the winter, when sundown (and therefore the Sabbath) arrived early in the day.

But aside from the Hebrew half of the day, religion still informed the English half. My sixth grade class put on a production of Oliver! for our play. And I remember that we had to change a couple of lines from "Food, Glorious Food," which is the opening number. The song's references to "hot sausage and mustard" and "peas, pudding and saveloys" were replaced with "hamburgers and mustard" and "peas, pudding and sauerkraut." We were not to even sing about nonkosher foods.

And, speaking of food, I don't remember ever having a spelling bee. But I remember brakhah bees. A brakhah is a blessing -- in this context, a blessing said before eating food. There are five basic brakhot to be said before eating, with the precise brakhah determined by the food(s) being eaten. In a spelling bee, the contestant is given a word and has to spell it. In a brakhah bee, the contestant is given a food and has to identify the prayer said before eating it:
Judge: bananas
Contestant 1: ha'adamah
Judge: egg salad
Contestant 2: sh'hacol
In this mix, I was kind of an odd man out. It was assumed that we were all living in orthodox households, but I wasn't. In orthodox households, kids had already gotten some exposure to the Hebrew language before they started first grade. They were used to Orthodox prayer services. And they had parents who were familiar with the Hebrew topics and could help them with the religious homework. My parents didn't come from Orthodox backgrounds, and had minimal knowledge of Hebrew. In fact, they sent my sister and me to yeshiva because they wanted us to have the religious education that they hadn't gotten. But that put us behind the eight ball. My classmates, by and large, came in with more knowledge of the subjects and they had parents who could help them more.

As well, I was culturally out of step. Because my family wasn't Orthodox, I was getting a very different message at home than I was in school. My parents tried to work around the difference, but it sometimes bit me in the butt -- often because I didn't know when and how to keep my yap shut. My parents' line to me about religiosity was something along the lines of different people have different opinions about God, no one knows for sure who's right, and all forms of religious practice are equally valid. That was decidedly not the opinion of the teachers and administrators. I remember one time when a teacher told us that Orthodoxy was the only correct way to practice, and I contradicted him. Suffice to say that didn't go over well. Boys had to wear yarmulkes (small skullcaps) and tzitzit (fringed garments worn under the shirt), which were new to me when I started. Yarmulkes were too visible to forget. But I would often forget to wear the tzitzit, and would get in trouble if I was caught. "I forgot" wasn't an acceptable excuse. Wearing tzitzit was expected to be second nature. You wouldn't forget to put on pants before going out, so why would you forget to wear tzitzit?

Another issue was my friends outside of school. My neighborhood wasn't particularly Jewish, and it certainly wasn't Orthodox. It's important to remember that, within the Orthodox world, religion is ever-present. You wear a head-covering which reminds you of God. You have prayers in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. You pray before you eat and after you eat. And after you use the bathroom. But in my milieu, the religiosity that was supposed to permeate my entire life would necessarily take a break on weekends and during the summer. Well, not during the whole summer, since I did go to an Orthodox summer camp for several years. But that's another matter.

After the eight grade I went to a public high school. That decision was met by my teachers with disapproval, but I was adamant. And I was free.

Looking back, I know that I wasn't the only kid in the class from a nonOrthodox background. But at the time it sure seemed as if I was. And I never felt as if I fit in.