The number of known COVID-19 deaths in the United States is over 200,000.
It’s hard for me to grasp the total, knowing that each of these was someone’s child, parent, sibling, co-worker, neighbor, friend.
A few days ago when I was working on this post, I needed to look up the population of Broome County, New York, where I live.
It’s about 190,000.
I am imagining the city of Binghamton empty, the University and all the other schools without students and staff, all the towns and villages without people, just the wild creatures and birds alive.
In reality, Broome County has lost 85 residents to COVID, each person a loss to their family and community. Somehow, though, my thought experiment in concentrating the loss to our country as the obliteration of our entire county has given me a sense of scale and of grief that the statistics alone did not elicit.
Last week, I needed to bring one of our vehicles to a dealership for a recall. The one we usually use wasn’t certified to work on the electrical/battery system of our hybrid, so we made the appointment at another dealer in a neighboring county. We live near the county line, so it’s just a couple of towns to our west.
Tioga County is a rural county; Broome, where I live is a mix of rural, urban, and suburban, although Binghamton is a small city by most standards with a population of about 46,000. Broome County’s population is about 190,000 in 716 square miles; Tioga’s is 48,000 in 523 square miles.
Your geography trivia for the day!
So, I arrive at the service department of the dealership, wearing my mask. There is a sign on the door that face coverings are optional for customers but required for staff, which seemed a bit odd as New York State rules are to wear a mask whenever people are closer than six feet (2 meters). I was surprised to walk up to the service desk to find that there was no plexiglass barrier to protect the employee and he was not wearing a mask.
I tried to maintain distance as best I could. I checked in, walked past unmasked customers in line, and sat in the waiting area with unmasked customers while unmasked employees walked through several times. When the repair was complete, the employee doing checkout hastily put on a mask after the window that separated her desk from the hallway was opened.
The experience left me feeling not endangered, because I was masked and maintained social distance most of the time, but disrespected. While the business knew that its employees should be masked when in proximity to another employee or a customer, they were not complying.
As the designated shopper in our house, I’m used to visiting businesses which have implemented careful measures to keep their employees and customers as safe as possible. The result has been that our infection rate in the state has remained very low as we methodically re-open businesses and services. If I am ever in a similar situation that I have to use this car dealership, I’ll make arrangements to drop the car off the evening before so that I only need to go inside to do the final paperwork when it’s ready.
I hope that there won’t be any outbreaks from the disregard that I witnessed at the car dealership, which, presumably, was considered acceptable to others in that community. For me, it seemed a small taste of what I hear on the news from other states, that folks don’t believe that masks and distancing help prevent COVID infections or that masks infringe on their liberties or that COVID doesn’t exist, all of which contribute to the appalling rates of illness and death in the United States.
At least I know that no one there will have contracted COVID from me.
Some of you may recall my secret poetry mission to write and present a poem in honor of Emily Jablon and Peg Johnston for the 2016 Heart of the Arts award ceremony. I was invited to participate by the Binghamton Poetry Project, because they receive funding from the United Cultural Fund, which is the grant-bestowing branch of the Broome County Arts Council.
I am excited to share the video of me reading the poem at the dinner. The video was taken from a distance and I am mostly obscured by the podium, but the sound is good. The title got a bit cut off; it is “Thanks to the Department of Public Art.” The diction is pretty good. There are only a few words that are hard to understand – but I, of course, know what I am saying, so feel free to chime in if you have any presentation points for me. I’m not used to reading with a mike or in a large room. It’s rare for community poets like me to get this kind of opportunity and I am very grateful to the Binghamton Poetry Project and the Broome County Arts Council for making it possible.
I also want to thank my spouse B and my daughter T for keeping me (somewhat) calm at the event. I will share that B’s favorite word from the poem is “tessellate.” I don’t know that I will ever write another poem where that is an appropriate word choice, but at least I have done it once!
I am hoping to publish the poem in the fall anthology of the Binghamton Poetry Project; after that, I will share the text here at Top of JC’s Mind.
Of course, this will be the long, chronological version of the story…
Over the third weekend in August, I got a message from the current director of the Binghamton Poetry Project, asking if I would like to write and present a poem at the annual Hearts of the Arts awards dinner. The dinner is a fundraiser for the United Cultural Fund of the Broome County Arts Council, which provides one of the grants that keeps the Binghamton Poetry Project functioning. The poem needed to be a 2-3 minute response to the arts in our community, as the two Heart of the Arts honorees, Emily Jablon and Peg Johnston, are both very active in public art.
The Binghamton Poetry Project has been very important to my growth as a poet. I have learned different craft aspects and how to write from prompts. My participation with them led to my joining both the Bunn Hill Poets and Sappho’s Circle; I also continue to attend the Binghamton Poetry Project workshops, which are organized in five-week units three times a year. I wanted to take on this special mission to help the Binghamton Poetry Project say thanks to one of our funders and to raise its profile in the local arts community; I also admit that it appealed to me to have the opportunity to present myself as a poet to the arts community which would not recognize me at all, except, perhaps as a long-serving member of University Chorus. (It’s the hair and the fact that I am short, so usually in the front row.)
As much as I wanted to do this, it was also a daunting prospect. First, there was the actual writing of the poem. Although I have been writing a lot of ekphrastic poetry, which means poetry about another (usually visual) art form, I had never written a poem for a public occasion. Second, I would need to read in front of a full ballroom with a stage, podium, and microphone, wearing relatively formal dress. Most of the readings I have done are informal and for a dozen people or fewer, so the prospect of reading for 150 or more made me pretty anxious.
Third, there was the timeline to consider. I decided that I would need to write the poem within the next few days so I could workshop it, revise, and have a final copy before my mom’s diagnostic heart catheterization on August 31st. Then, I would have time for practice readings before the September 19th event.
So, I accepted the challenge and got to work. I did a bit of online research on the artist-honorees, Emily Jablon and Peg Johnston. I was familiar with their public art projects in downtown Binghamton, but made plans to go down to visit early the following week to take some photos to help inspire my writing.
My usual writing process is to swish things around in my head for a while before writing. Given my timeline, I was very lucky that a basic idea and structure for the poem came to me over the weekend, so that I had the bones of the poem together even before I got downtown to view the art.
Peg Johnston was the director of a large stencil and mural project in the parking garage now located on the site that once housed Bundy Time Recording Machines and Link Pipe Organs, which later became Link Flight Simulation.
Emily Jablon was one of the lead mosaicists for this project where Court Street meets the Chenango River.
With new details in hand, I finished my draft in time for a planned Wednesday meeting with the Bunn Hill Poets, my main workshopping group. I explained the situation, read the draft, and then got really apprehensive in the silence that followed. When one of the poets, who has many published poems, readings, and commissions to his credit, started out with, “I have to be perfectly honest,” I got even more worried, but it turned out that he was just surprised that I could write this style of poem. Whew! Everyone was very positive about the poem, so I sent it off to the current and the former directors of the Binghamton Poetry Project for additional feedback, did a round of revisions, and had the poem finished by my August 31st deadline.
I was very grateful that I did, as family issues did take a lot of time and energy over the following weeks. Despite my intentions, I didn’t do much practice reading until the last couple of days before the awards ceremony. I admit that I got super nervous. I was fortunate to have daughter T here to listen to me practice and help me figure out which dress to wear, which sandals, which necklace. I was also lucky that the dinner organizers made provisions for family members to attend the performance, so both my spouse B and daughter T were there for moral support.
The performers were all tied to the Arts Council in some way, most representing organizations that receive funding through the United Cultural Fund. It was an honor to be on the same program with actors and musicians from the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton, Tri-Cities Opera, the Binghamton Youth Symphony, the Binghamton Community Orchestra ,and the Cider Mill Playhouse, as well as this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner Dr. Timothy Perry from Binghamton University.
I am pleased to report that my reading went well and the poem was well received. The stage lights were pretty blinding, so I couldn’t see myself, but T told me that Peg Johnston gave my poem a standing ovation, which was a huge honor for me, given that the poem was inspired in part by her work. In her acceptance speech that followed, she gave a shout-out to the Binghamton Poetry Project, and, after the event, sent a friend to ask me for a copy of the poem to take back to the Cooperative Gallery, of which she is a founder.
It also meant a lot to me to have Clara Barnhart, current director of the Binghamton Poetry Project, and her predecessor Heather Dorn there lending support, as well as Vernon Boyd who is a fellow BPP poet who also contributed an art poem for the event.
It was especially close to my heart that B and T were there with me. I don’t read often and an opportunity to read at such an auspicious event is unlikely to present itself again, so I’m glad they could share the evening with me.
So, now you are probably thinking, why am I not publishing the poem in this post? Because I wrote it under the auspices of the Binghamton Poetry Project, I want them to have first publication rights. When our fall anthology comes out in November, I will share the poem here at Top of JC’s Mind as well, so stay tuned!
I have spent countless hours over the last several years working on the issues of shale oil/gas fracking, climate change, and renewable energy, primarily through online commentary. Although I make my case using science, real-world experience, sociology, and economics, much of my personal energy for this work comes from my grounding in the principles of Catholic social doctrine and my calling to live them to the best of my abilities.
Earlier this month, I was very grateful to attend a workshop/retreat entitled “Healing the World: One Step at a Time” led by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Epperly. It was designed as a time to reflect on challenges to our natural and human environment as we in the Christian churches prepare for the Lenten season. The timing was perfect for me because just as we in New York received the fantastic, unexpected news of a planned ban on high volume hydrofracking (HVHF), I developed a case of shingles, which kept me from participating in the spontaneous celebrations that happened in the following days. It was a blessing to have the opportunity to see some of the other people who had worked so hard on this cause and to meet others who were also working on caring for creation, including humanity, and to renew our hope as we continue our work.
There were so many important reminders:
To remember to take time away from activity to reflect, pray, and renew.
To not let opponents become dehumanized in our own minds, which I manage quite well with my environmental advocacy, even in the face of derogatory comments directed at me, but less well when it comes to confronting those who commit atrocities such as the terror attacks in France or the horrible massacres and kidnappings by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
To not get caught in the either/or of dualism.
To realize that one small action or prayer can have an effect in the world that we can neither predict not know, a principle that played out for us in the battle against HVHF in New York, where hundreds of thousands of individual actions added up to what had seemed to be an improbable, or even impossible, victory.
To challenge what is in need of reform while offering an alternative path that is good, sustainable, life-giving, and cognizant of the interdependence of creation, which, while I understand that to be within the concept of God-who-is-Love, exists both within and apart from spiritual traditions.
One of the great gifts of the workshop was a special video message to us from Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org and one of the world’s leading voices on climate change issues. I had expected a somewhat generic welcome and acknowledgment but was stunned at how personally Bill spoke to us. It was obvious that he knew our area of the country, calling Interstate 88 “Warren Anderson’s driveway”, which is an inside, local joke, and talking about our beautiful rolling hills and our history of technological innovation. He recognized the immense work of the Broome County fractivists, which was very meaningful to me because, however hard we worked to get our message out there, it seemed that the public perception of our county was that our pro-fracking politicians were speaking for their constituents rather than for themselves, the JLCNY, and the fossil fuel and other business interests who gave them campaign contributions. While I will always be grateful to our allies in Ithaca and the Catskills and NYC and around New York State and our beleaguered friends from PA who fought so hard for our cause, it was heartening to know that Bill McKibben recognized our efforts here as vital to the victory.
Bill went on speaking to us from both an environmental and a faith perspective, challenging us to build new sustainable systems. I appreciated him mentioning building up local agriculture, in which initiatives are already underway with more to come, and alternative energy, another area in which we have already made advances and hope to build upon rapidly now that we no longer have the threat of HVHF’s industrialization and pollution making our homes unpleasant or unlivable. I think everyone in the room loved when Bill spoke of taking “energy from above, rather than below.” Such a potent metaphor. No to fossil fuels. No to negativity. Yes to wind, water, and sun. Yes to responsible use of biomass/biofuels. Yes to heat pumps (Even though the geothermal ones probably fit in the “below” category, I’m claiming them for the surface.) Yes to the energy of people taking action to protect the environment and to protect people, especially those most vulnerable to the ravages of poverty and climate change. Yes to the power of Divine Love, which we envision as coming to us from above, but which also surrounds us in creation and imbues us with energy to protect and cherish every being and every thing.
Bill McKibben said, “People of faith bring their own reasons.” I thank him, Dr. Epperly, all the workshop participants, the Peace with Justice Committee of the Broome County Council of Churches and all the other sponsors for reminding me of my reasons and renewing my energy to continue to serve God in love through cooperating with others to care for creation – the environment, creatures, and humanity.
While it would seem that the impending fracking ban in NY would cut down on my incessant commenting on shale oil/gas issues, there has instead been a flurry of reports and editorials to answer, such as this one. Yes, I got carried away, but it really upsets me when people in other parts of the state misrepresent my home area. My (very long) comment to an editorial in the Syracuse Post-Standard:
I live in a Broome County town bordering PA and this editorial’s contention that we are looking forlornly across the border at prosperity in PA is dead wrong. Across the border in PA there is shale gas drilling going on, but a lot of negative impacts. Besides the health problems that have been documented in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, there are socioeconomic problems with high rents, increased crime rates, inability to insure, finance, or sell homes near wells, plummeting royalty payments, noise pollution, light pollution, increased rates of homelessness, increased truck traffic, accidents, liens placed on properties when drilling companies didn’t pay their subcontractors, and strains on medical and emergency services. People who wanted to live in a nice country setting are now in a noisy industrialized setting. I am grateful that these problems won’t be coming to my town.
Meanwhile, I think the editors should take a trip to Greater Binghamton and look around. It is not the poverty-stricken, despairing place you seem to think it is. Two of our biggest employment sectors are medical, anchored by Lourdes and two UHS hospitals, and education, anchored by BInghamton University and SUNY-Broome, with a new graduate school of pharmacy about to be built. We still have high tech jobs, though fewer than we once had, with IBM, Link flight simulation, and BAE, among others. Our most exciting new plans in high tech are in the the area of renewable energy/energy storage. Binghamton University’s Solar Lab has been conducting research for a number of years already and has developed a thin-film solar cell that uses only common elements without any rare earth elements. Two large projects are currently being built, a High-Tech incubator in downtown BInghamton and the SmartEnergy Center on the Vestal campus. The combination of these should expand our high-tech/energy sector in the future. Meanwhile, Broome County is a state leader in energy efficiency upgrades through NYSERDA Green Jobs, Green NY and in expansion of solar for homes and small businesses. The energy projects alone have created many times more jobs than shale drilling would have, without the pollution and industrialization of residential and rural areas that would have occurred with drilling.
And about the potential of shale drilling in NY. DEC had to weigh possible economic benefit versus potential costs of drilling to the state and to residents; it’s part of its job. The economic impact section of the draft SGEIS made a number of faulty assumptions, including that shale plays are uniformly productive, that large swaths of NYS would be viable to drill, and that the wells would produce for thirty years. Data from PA and other areas with shale drilling have shown that there are distinct sweet spots in shale plays that are high-producing, with the rest of the play being much less so. Most of the shale in NYS is too thin and too shallow to contain large amounts of methane and there are not natural gas liquids, which have a better economic profile than dry methane, at all. Shale wells of all kinds have very steep decline curves, with the vast majority of the gas being produced in the first 18 months and most of the rest in the following 3-6 years, much shorter than the 30-year timeframe the SGEIS assumed. The industry has done some test wells in various parts of the Marcellus and Utica in NY – and didn’t think it was worth applying for permits. The major companies in their own maps of the play never showed the potential drilling area going much over the NY border. Production numbers in PA bear this out; once you head north from the NEPA sweet spot, production goes way down. Because HVHF wells are so expensive to drill and frack, methane prices would have to more than double to break even in southern Broome County and the figures just get worse from there. It’s time to stop pretending that fracking – or casinos – are the future of the Southern Tier and get to work on building up renewable energy and conservation, while expanding on education, medical, high-tech, agriculture, next-gen transportation, recreation, and tourism jobs.
I live in Broome County in a town that borders PA. This article is misleading on a number of fronts, a few of which I will point out.
First, the PA counties are much more sparsely populated than the NY counties. Even if NY permitted HVHF, the number of jobs gained would be a drop in the bucket in terms of unemployment rate and might be offset by jobs lost in other sectors, such as tourism. The population density also would cut down how many wells could be drilled because there would need to be a lot of setbacks from homes, businesses, water sources, etc. In Broome County, the only part of the county that might be viable as methane prices rise is the southern part, which also has the highest population density and is served by a sole source aquifer.
Norse did not go bankrupt because of failed Marcellus leases. Most of its leases were for the Utica and other non-shale formations.It was engaged in vertically fracked wells and conventional wells; it just wasn’t very successful at it. http://www.cedclaw.org/news/norse-energy-whats-happening . Also, remember that vertical fractured wells in the Marcellus could have been drilled. A company could even have applied for a horizontal well if it had completed a site-specific environmental impact statement at its own expense, as other kinds of companies do for their projects.
Because I live on the PA border, I’ve seen the impacts on PA neighbors. For people who have lost their water wells, who have been driven out of their homes due to health impacts, whose homes have lost value due to noise and other kinds of pollution, who have been unable to re-finance mortgages or sell their homes because banks won’t take the risk of drilling operations to the property value, who have seen their royalty payments drop by 50, 70, even 90% due to companies’ deducting large amounts for expenses, discovering that mechanic’s liens have been placed against their deeds because drilling companies failed to pay their sub-contractors, who were victims of the increased traffic accidents, especially with industry trucks, who were victims of the increase in crime, including sexual assault, who lost their long-time rental home when the rents tripled – no statistics on job growth can make up for the losses they have suffered. I don’t want those stories repeated in my New York community.