early vote

This is the first presidential election year that New York State has had extensive in-person early voting. Because B, T, and I were planning to be out of the country on election day, we decided we would avail ourselves of that opportunity rather than voting absentee by mail, an option that was expanded this year to include fear of illness to protect people from exposure to coronavirus.

Across the country, there were long lines for early voting but no one knew how New York voters would respond. There was also no historic basis from which to plan. The first day of early voting was Saturday, October 24. We reasoned rightly the first weekend would be busy, so we planned to vote on Monday afternoon.

It was still very busy. It took us two and a half hours to vote, most of which was spent standing in a social distanced and masked outdoor line. Just as we were near the door into the library polling place, the line stalled. It turned out that one of the two ballot printing machines had stopped working, so the final check-in took longer, but all the election workers, volunteers, and people in line were very patient and respectful.

Because the lines were long, the county board of elections added more early voting hours so that wait times would be shorter.

I was glad to see so many here and across the country making themselves heard through their votes. The US has historically had low voter turnout and I’m hoping that the energy around voting this year will mark a new era of greater civic participation.

Our votes and voices are important. We all need to vote and make sure that our votes are counted. We also need to be patient while the counts are completed and certified.

It’s been a looooooong election season but it’s almost over. Stay strong, everyone!

for the archives

A few weeks ago, a poet-and-church friend who is a faithful reader of Top of JC’s Mind asked if I would like to get in touch with a friend of hers who is involved with a local historical society. Their historical society is joining with others in New York State to assemble an archive related to the pandemic. My friend thought that my posts about being in the vaccine trial might be appropriate for the archive.

It turned out that the archiving project was interested in my vaccine trials posts and any others that dealt with living in the time of COVID. I had sent the vaccine posts first. Then, I worked my way through my blog archive, copying the links to other pandemic related posts.

I knew that I wrote about the impact of COVID-19 quite a lot, but I was surprised at how long the list of posts was – fifty-six posts, from late February through September 11, in addition to the handful of vaccine ones. I joked with the archivist about it being either “an embarrassment of riches or just an embarrassment!” Since then, any time I write about our pandemic experiences I send her the link.

I had asked her how they were preserving the archive. She said that, while they do keep links on their computer, they are printing the materials for posterity. Archival technologies tend to come and go but paper lasts for a very long time.

It’s humbling to think that, decades from now, some future historian might stumble across some of my posts and be able to glean some insights about what it has been like dealing with these fraught times in our communities in upstate New York. First person contemporaneous accounts are highly sought sources for historians and documentarians and I would be honored if my posts are able to assist someone with their research some-year in the future.

scatter-brained

I’ve been wanting to write a post for several days, but have felt too scattered to do it.

I’m still feeling too scattered, but am determined to do it now regardless, ignoring the fact that I have unread email messages going back to Sunday, although I think I’ve caught all the important ones, and a long to-do list of other tasks.

Our national drama and the pandemic continue to demand an outsize share of my thoughts. The president’s behavior and rhetoric are increasingly bizarre, possibly as a result of the high-dose steroids he is taking for COVID. There are over two dozen known cases among White House and campaign personnel and cases and quarantine of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our highest ranking military officers. The president is planning to resume public campaigning, even though he is most likely still infectious. The medical information that has been released publicly is at best incomplete and at worst misleading.

Yesterday, arrests were made as a result of a plot to kidnap and possibly kill Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. I’m grateful that the governor and her family are safe but appalled that a self-styled right-wing militia was planning such a horrible attack. Gov. Whitmer, like many other governors around the country, has enacted executive orders to address the pandemic. She has been vilified by protesters, some of whom were armed, Republican legislators, and the president. She has been publicly threatened with violence and been subjected to sexist slurs. Still, it was shocking to learn that there was a serious plot to kidnap her and “try her for treason” before the November election. Instead of expressing support for her yesterday after the news broke, the president tweeted criticism of her and her policies, along with mischaracterizations of her and other Democrats.

In local COVID news, there has been an uptick in cases here in Broome County and we are officially on yellow alert, which sets lower limits on gatherings and increased testing for schools. Our county executive had already asked residents to stay at home as much as possible, so there isn’t much additional impact on daily life, but the official recognition by New York State has reminded me to be even more cautious with outings.

I am also getting increasingly anxious about our upcoming trip to the UK to visit daughter E and her family. The UK has also had an increasing number of COVID cases recently and has tightened restrictions. B, T and I are going for the month of November because we will need to quarantine for the first two weeks. Then, we will have two weeks to visit, although it’s unclear if we will be able to all congregate at their home as gatherings of more than six are prohibited. We are also hoping to celebrate JG’s baptism, but aren’t sure how many will be allowed to attend. After we return home to New York, we will need to quarantine for two weeks, bringing us to mid-December. The airline has already changed our flights once and I’m hoping that no additional travel restrictions go into effect this month.

Part of what is stressing me out is trying to plan and prepare for six weeks of travel and quarantine. Besides B, T, and me, I need to have plans in place for Paco and for the house, where my sisters and brother-in-law in various constellations will be holding down the fort in our absence. This is turning into a major re-jiggering and re-stocking effort indoors, while a long-awaited landscaping project has been going on outdoors.

Meanwhile, in my continuing quest to catch up with personal preventive health measures, I had a COVID test this morning in advance of a colonoscopy next week. Because of some pre-existing conditions, my prep is a bit more complicated than for most people, so I’m hoping I can get through it with a minimum of repercussions. Maybe I’ll write a post next week while I’m waiting for the remnants of the sedation and medications to wear off. That could be, um, interesting?

On the poetry front, I got another chapbook rejection. It was a debut chapbook competition that had drawn over 200 entries, a detail I’m including as it gives people an idea of the odds, and this contest was relatively small. On the unexpectedly happy news side, I received notification of acceptance to an anthology called Lullabies and Confessions: Poetic Explorations of Parenting Across the Lifespan from University Professors Press. I had submitted to the anthology over four years ago and had assumed my poem had been rejected although I hadn’t gotten an email about it, but the project had instead been delayed and my poem will be included. Publication is expected in print and ebook early next year.

I’m still feeling scattered, as though there is something else I’m supposed to be saying, but I want to get this out. Stay safe and be well!

200,000

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.

It’s sobering.

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.

What does 200,000 deaths mean to you?

unmasked

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.

September 11

Nineteen years ago today, terrorists, most of whom were from Saudi Arabia, attacked the United States, killing thousands of people and destroying airplanes and buildings in New York City, Arlington, Virginia, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I remember those killed, the many who acted valiantly to try to save lives, often at the cost of their own, those who worked in the aftermath of the disaster, many of whom suffered illness as a result, and the many thousands, both military and civilian, who were impacted by the wars in Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East that sprang from the 9/11 attacks.

Nine years ago, my area was suffering from a record flood of the Susquehanna River, brought on by the remnants of tropical storm Lee. What many people don’t realize is how long it takes to recover from such an event – and that some things aren’t recoverable. It took years to repair homes that could be and tear down those that couldn’t. There are neighborhoods with patches of grassland where homes once stood, interspersed with homes that managed to survive. Those neighborhoods have changed character, with fewer older folks in them as they were the most likely to move to higher ground or leave the area after the flood. Our own home was not flooded, but there was standing water three blocks away and significant basement flooding one block away. We had long carried flood insurance on our house, although it isn’t required by the (still outdated) flood maps; we will continue to do so, hoping that we never have to use it while realizing that the increased strength of weather systems and changes to the upper-level wind patterns brought on by global warming may someday send us another record-breaking flood that will reach our home.

Despite these prior events, September 11, 2020 feels even more fraught. The global pandemic has exacted a terrible toll on the United States. We are over six million cases and closing in on 200,000 fatalities. The economic impact, especially on those on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, has been severe, with rising rates of hunger and housing crisis. The pandemic also made more prominent existing problems with the health care system, racism, environmental degradation, education, infrastructure, jobs, wealth, taxation, and social programs. While some of the effects have been buffered by living in New York State, where Governor Andrew Cuomo has been leading an effective response to the crisis, I am appalled by the lack of leadership from the president and the callous intransigence of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which are prolonging and deepening the suffering in the country as a whole. Because the Senate hasn’t passed the HEROES Act which the House passed in May, additional federal assistance to households, state and local governments, the post office, and the election system isn’t available. As a result of the national inaction, states are going to have to lay off front-line personnel and the vote count in November’s elections will take a long time.

To make matters worse, this week has seen new evidence that the president’s failure to address the pandemic was not due to lack of understanding the crisis. A just-released recorded interview on February 7 with Bob Woodward makes clear that the president knew that the virus was highly contagious, deadly, and spread through the air, yet he continued to intentionally downplay the threat rather than mount an effective and protective response. If the president had lead the nation in the kind of efforts that Governor Cuomo did in New York, there would have been millions fewer cases of the virus and thousands upon thousands fewer deaths. There would be widespread testing and contact tracing. The test positivity rate would be below one percent, as it has been in New York State for over a month. Businesses and schools would be thoughtfully and carefully re-opening, ready to re-adjust if cases start to rise. Instead, Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, is telling the United States to “hunker down and get through this fall and winter, because it’s not going to be easy.” I only hope that people take the advice to heart in their own lives and at the state and local level, because Trump and McConnell are still not helping us mount a national response.

The Trump/Bob Woodward interview I mentioned above was just released because Woodward has a book coming out, part of a spate of books about Donald Trump being published with less than two months to go before the presidential election. These books reveal information that, while perhaps suspected, had not previously been confirmed about the president and his staff. The picture isn’t pretty. While there is some straight-up incompetence and inexperience at play, there is even more corruption, selfishness, greed, and disregard for the Constitution and laws, morals, ethics, and the common good.

Time for the pitch. Make a plan and vote! We need there to be a President Biden in January 2021 in order to have any hope of reclaiming our democracy.

Which brings me to another fear. While there is widespread and credible polling both nationally and in battleground states showing that Biden is leading Trump by several percentage points, the election process itself is under threat. The most frightening is that the Russians, along with several other countries, are once again attempting to interfere with election. This week, a whistleblower came forward with evidence that the administration is knowingly tamping down revealing the extent of the Russian interference, in particular. At the same time, the administration and the Republicans are filing lawsuits to disrupt mail-in voting. The postal service is slowing mail delivery, which could make ballots arrive too late to be counted. The president keeps saying that mail-in ballots lead to widespread fraud, which is absolutely a lie; states and local election boards have numerous, proven safeguards in place to prevent fraud. It is true that the final vote tally will take longer, especially in states that don’t count mail-in votes until days after Election Day. (Of course, some of the delays could have been averted if the Senate had acted on the HEROES Act which would have provided more training, machinery, and personnel to count ballots more quickly.) People need to be aware that we may not have final election results for a couple of weeks. This does not mean there is fraud; it means that election bureaus are diligently following their procedures to report an accurate tally.

Nineteen years ago, despite sorrow and shock, the people of the United States pulled together to help us get through the crisis. Nine years ago, our local community drew together to assist those impacted by the flood. Unfortunately, I don’t see that same sense of solidarity in the country as we face the pandemic, government corruption, and economic catastrophe, along with the long-standing problems of racism, lack of equal access to good-quality education and health care, environmental ruin, and other injustices. Granted, it’s a lot, but we can improve our lives and our nation if we act together. When we say in the Pledge of Allegiance “with liberty and justice for all”, we have to mean it.

And the hits just keep on comin’…

Our wonderful family news has been a welcome distraction from the ever-evolving disaster of living in the United States right now.

We now have had over 5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, which is appalling and could and should have been averted. (For perspective, the US has about 4% of the world’s population but about 23% of the world’s cases.) I live in New York State and have posted a number of times how Governor Cuomo and his team followed the science and data to bring our once highest in the world levels down to about a 1% positive test rate. The daily fatalities once in the hundreds, is down to single digits. Businesses and services have been re-opening carefully and slowly, so our transmission rate has stayed very low for weeks. In September, schools will be allowed to re-open, with most choosing a hybrid model with a small subset of students in physical attendance on any given day with the bulk of instruction still happening online. As with everything else the state has done, data will determine if adjustments or temporary closures are needed to keep students, staff, and their families as safe as possible.

Many other states are having large numbers of cases, overwhelmed hospitals, and deaths, but are still opening schools, bars, gyms, and other businesses as though there wasn’t a pandemic going on. It’s as though they live in an alternate reality promoted by the president where coronavirus is just “sniffles” and the virus will “just disappear.”

Meanwhile, people are sick and dying.

Millions more are unemployed and/or impoverished. Most of the previously passed federal relief measures expired at the end of July. The House had passed the HEROES Act in May, which would have extended and expanded them, but the Senate didn’t take up the bill or craft a comprehensive plan of their own, despite the fact that the vast majority of economists, even conservative ones, say that a large-scale plan is needed to keep the economy from sinking into a depression.

Strangely, negotiations were going on between the Democratic Congressional leadership and White House chief of staff and Treasury Secretary; you would think that the Congressional Republican leadership would have been there as well, but they left town instead. Yesterday, the president announced some executive orders to address some of the issues, but they will almost certainly by found unconstitutional because Congress controls federal taxes and spending. We are dealing with not only the pain of the pandemic and its consequences but also with the shredding of our Constitutional federal government.

On top of this, the intelligence community has announced that several foreign powers are interfering in our upcoming election, partly be spreading and amplifying misinformation. Meanwhile, the president is casting doubt on the validity of our voting process, undermining confidence in voting by mailing in ballots (except in states with Republican governors, some of whom have purged large numbers of minority, student, and potentially Democratic voters from the rolls), and, through a crony as Postmaster General, slowing down the mail service. The president even floated the idea of delaying the election, something that is not at all in his power.

With both domestic and foreign interference at play, it may be difficult to mount a fair election. (By the way, the HEROES Act allocates money for both the postal service and for state election boards.) I am hoping that the vast majority of people will behave in a responsible, ethical, and legal way, so that the election really does reflect the will of all the citizens.

I don’t want to imagine what will happen if the election is unfair or disputed.

Sad stats

The horror show that is the United States and coronavirus continues.

My state, New York, was the world epicenter in the early spring. Through good leadership informed by science and metrics and residents who took the policies seriously, we were able to get the pandemic under control. Through a careful, phased, and data-driven process, we have also been able to keep our transmission rate low as we have opened more of our economy.

Still, when the map of case numbers would be released every day, New York, the fourth most populous state, showed the highest number of total cases, over 400,000, because our initial outbreak had been so severe.

Until this week.

California, which is the most populous state, passed New York this week on confirmed COVID case numbers. (All the public health experts agree that the actual case numbers are much higher, but the official count uses only testing results and death certificates.) While California had had early success in containing the virus, it re-opened businesses too quickly and many people abandoned needed precautions like masks. Hence, their caseload is soaring. I’m hoping that New York will continue to keep the virus from resurging so that we never again reach the top number of cases, but Texas and Florida, second and third most populous states, are also in the midst of major outbreaks and might surpass California’s numbers in the coming weeks.

It’s appalling.

What saddens me is that it didn’t have to happen this way. New York and some of our partner states in the Northeast learned a lot of lessons through our experiences this spring and, in the absence of a national program, have been offering to help other states deal with the virus and the economic/social fallout. This has resulted in some positive news in the states being hard-hit now, for example, the mortality rate is lower, in part because of improved treatments for the severely ill. Most of the news, though, is bad: overwhelmed hospitals, people not wearing masks and attending large gatherings, bodies being stored in refrigerated trucks because mortuaries are backlogged, more and more states where the number of cases is rising.

Meanwhile, there is still no national plan. The House of Representatives, led by the Democrats and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act or the HEROES Act in mid-May, which would address some of the current problems with testing, contact tracing, and treatment of COVID, as well as a host of economic and social impacts on individuals, families, businesses, agencies, and state and local governments. The Senate, under the leadership of Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, didn’t act on the bill this spring and just returned from a three-week break without their own version of a bill and, after a week’s work, they still don’t have a Republican proposal, much less a bill that has been negotiated with the Democratic and Independent senators so that it is ready for debate and vote.

Meanwhile, people are sick and dying, out of work, not knowing how they are going to be able to pay their bills, scared, and bewildered about their country’s dysfunctional state. The United States has become an object of pity around the world.

I’m disappointed that, even when the crisis is monumental, the Republican leadership can’t muster the will and/or competence to do their job and govern for the good of the people. If they had integrity, they would resign to make way for leaders who can and will serve the people and the Constitution. Resignations would be less disruptive than the current inaction.

unprecedented

For decades, public opinion polls in the United States have asked how satisfied people are with the way things are going in the country, which is often referred to often as the country being on the right or wrong track. A Pew Research Center poll released on June 30th reveals that only 12% of respondents are satisfied with the direction of the country.

Twelve percent is a shockingly low number, but the number today could be even lower, given that the poll was conducted before the revelations about Russia paying bounties for the deaths of United States and coalition troops in Afghanistan, before the daily national number of new positive COVID tests reached 50,000+, and before 38 of 50 states reported rising numbers of cases on a 14-day rolling average.

The COVID numbers are going to get worse in the coming days because the seven-day rolling averages are already worse and because there are likely large numbers of people who are positive but not yet showing symptoms or being tested.

The rise in COVID cases is all the more upsetting because much of this precipitous spread was avoidable. I have written often, for example here, about the battle against the pandemic in New York State, where I live in its Southern Tier region. By following the science and metrics, our state went from having the worst infection rate in the country to the lowest. Mask-wearing, physical distancing, travel restrictions, and enhanced sanitation are part of daily life for nearly all people here. New York, which suffered the first wave of COVID cases coming in undetected from Europe, pioneered many ways to crush the coronavirus curve and keep infection rates low through robust testing, contact tracking and quarantine. It breaks my heart that other states and the country as a whole are not following a similar path to protect their residents and visitors. Governor Cuomo’s office has been in contact with governors’ offices around the country, offering assistance in fighting the virus, but it seems that few are willing to put the lessons we learned into practice in their states.

While we continue to methodically re-open different types of businesses and increase the size of (reasonable and still distanced) gatherings allowed, we keep constant watch on our testing numbers, ready to change plans immediately if the number of positive tests starts to rise. Our greatest threats at this point are complacency among people here leading them to get sloppy with our preventive measures and the risk of travellers bringing the virus with them from another state or country. New York does have quarantine rules in place for those entering the state from places with high infection rates, but we would be much better off with a national policy based on science and metrics.

I think the national polling numbers with which I began this post show that our ship of state is seriously off course and in danger of shipwreck. The vast majority of the country knows it, as does most of the rest of the world. Travel from the United States into the European Union is banned. Both our allies and our adversaries wonder how a strong and proud democracy could have a national government in such impotent disarray.

Long-time readers know that I occasionally indulge in political fantasy. I had one for a while that both DT and the VP were forced to resign due to corruption and that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would become the first woman president of the United States. During the impeachment of the president, some argued that we should wait for an election to get DT out of office. I don’t think any of them imagined the dire mix of pandemic, attack by foreign adversaries, economic collapse, and cries for long-overdue justice and equity with which we are currently dealing. To avert more disaster and to safeguard lives and well-being, we need new leadership now, not on January 20, 2021.

I call on the president, the vice-president, and all appointed Cabinet and high-ranking officials of agencies who are not career professionals within their departments to resign, so that Pelosi, aided by experienced civil servants, can put in place national policies to stem the pandemic and to run a fair election in November, so that the newly elected president has a chance to inherit a country that isn’t a complete disaster area. Some problems could be addressed by executive order and, one hopes, others could be handled legislatively, if enough Republican senators step up to govern, instead of letting Majority Leader Mitch McConnell kill nearly every House-passed piece of legislation that lands on his desk.

2020 has been a year in which we hear the word unprecedented on a regular basis. My suggested course of action certainly would be unprecedented, but I think it offers hope of alleviating at least some of the suffering around us and averting more. It is also constitutionally valid.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.

another strawberry season

We are almost at the end of strawberry season here in upstate New York.

When I was growing up in rural New England, we always went strawberrying every spring and made lots of recipes with the fresh, flavorful berries. Back then, you only had access to fresh strawberries when they were available locally. Now you can buy them in the grocery store year-round grown somewhere far away, but we seldom buy them because they are never as good as local ones.

For many years, I picked my own from nearby farms, but now I buy them from the farmstands and embark on the annual strawberry binge.

This year, we had some of our old favorites – strawberry shortcake, fresh strawberry pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie, strawberry salad, strawberry sundaes, strawberries with yogurt, and strawberries on pancakes. We also tried some new recipes – strawberry spoon cake, strawberry-rhubarb muffins, fresh strawberry tarts, and strawberry bread pudding.

Wow! That looks like a lot when it is all written out.

I think it will tide us over until next spring, when I’m sure we’ll be ready to dive into strawberry season once again.