Celebrate National Poetry Month!

In the United States, April is National Poetry month.

Broome County Arts Council (BCAC) is joining the celebration by hosting a series of virtual poetry readings by poets with ties to our area. The first reading, featuring Elizabeth Cohen, Dante Di Stefano, and Andrei Guruianu is available here.

Enjoy!

I’ll be back with additional posts as the celebration continues, including a more extensive post the week that I am featured along with other poets from the Binghamton Poetry Project.

SoCS: Who knows?

Who knows?

These days, seemingly no one.

I guess that is a bit overbroad. It depends on the context and what comes after the “who knows” bit.

If someone asks, who knows what the dinner plan is for tonight, there’s a pretty good chance that I would have an answer. I couldn’t tell you if the plan would have follow through, but I could at least tell you the plan…

The hardest questions are the “who knows why” variety.

Yesterday, the Capitol Police, who are the ones who guard the Congress in Washington, DC, lost another officer in the line of duty. A second officer is hospitalized and expected to recover.

The man who attacked the police with his car and a knife is dead and the news reports are full of questions about why he did this.

So, who does know why?

Perhaps, no one knows. Even if he were alive, he might not be able to articulate a reason, especially if he was suffering from mental illness.

Even without knowing, I hope that everyone will offer support to all the impacted families and work together to reach out to those who are suffering. I also hope that Congress will honor the service of the Capitol police who protect them and their families by expanding the number of officers and giving them more resources for training, equipment, and protection. Of course, we should also expand medical care, including mental health care, so that every person always has access to it.

We may not know why this happened, but we can work to make it less likely to happen in the future.

*****
Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is to begin a post with who or whom. Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/04/02/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-april-3-2021/

2019-2020 SoCS Badge by Shelley!

vaccines vs. variants

Right now, the United States is a place of both hope and fear regarding COVID-19.

The hope comes from the increased pace and availability of vaccine distribution. The two-shot regimens from Pfizer and Moderna and the single-shot Johnson & Johnson have all been approved for emergency use and are being distributed as quickly as possible. There have been over three million shots given daily in recent days. It’s possible that a fourth vaccine, a two-shot course from AstraZeneca may also receive emergency use authorization in the coming weeks. Approximately 29% of adults in the US have received at least one vaccine dose. While most states concentrated first on the older demographic and health care workers, eligibility has expanded to include medically vulnerable adults and middle-aged adults. In some states, the eligibility age has or will soon drop to 16 where Pfizer vaccine is available or 18 with the other two vaccines. Trials are underway to determine the appropriate dosages for younger children. New data have shown that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 90% effective at preventing infection in real-world application; this expands the information from the trials which looked for COVID symptoms and could have missed asymptomatic infections.

There are problems looming, though. A significant proportion of adults say that they will not be vaccinated at all. There is also a political divide in evidence. A recent survey showed that 49% of Republican men are refusing the vaccine. It will be very difficult to halt community spread if so many millions of people remain unvaccinated.

This vulnerability is in addition to the fact that too many places have relaxed their rules about wearing masks, the size of public gatherings, and capacity of indoor venues. Travel within the US has skyrocketed, including air travel. Many college students have gone on spring break trips to warmer states and gathered in large crowds without masks. The majority of states are seeing their COVID cases rise. Yesterday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that she felt a sense of “impending doom” because cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising as restrictions have been lifted. She and other health experts fear that the US is at risk for a fourth surge. The protection of the vaccines won’t be able to keep pace with the virus spread by people not observing public health guidance on precautions.

There is also the problem of more infectious variants. The B1.1.7 variant is spreading rapidly in some regions and there is a separate variant that has been identified in the New York City area. While the current vaccines seem to be doing a good job preventing these variants, it will still be harder to stop community spread with the more infectious variants in circulation.

I urge everyone to get vaccinated as doses become available for their age group in their localities. Because spouse B, daughter T, and I all participated in the Pfizer/BioNTech Phase III trials, we are fully vaccinated, B and T last August during the blinded phase of the study and myself in February when the placebo group was offered the vaccine to join the study group on long-term efficacy. (There are numerous posts about our experiences with the vaccine trial if you type Pfizer in my blog search box.)

I appreciate the things that are easier to do now that I am vaccinated. The most important thing is that I am much less worried when I visit my 96-year-old father, know here as Paco. Paco is also fully vaccinated and, while I still follow the protocols to mask and distance, I am now allowed to visit inside his apartment in assisted living.

I took an unmasked walk outdoors with a friend. I have been able to do some health care visits in person rather than virtually. I go to the grocery store with just one mask instead of two. I went to mass in person for the first time in a year and have reserved a place to attend Easter Vigil Saturday evening. My fully vaccinated sister stayed overnight at our house where we could safely be together maskless.

She and I even ate at an indoor restaurant for lunch, masked when we were not eating. The restaurant had good table spacing; our region currently allows 75% capacity at restaurants and our community transmission rate is low. In general, we usually still order carryout, but I think in a few months we may be more comfortable with dining in on a more regular basis. One of the good things about living in New York State is that we have generally been cautious about public health measures and the extent to which certain activities are allowed. Extensive testing is being done so that, if the number of cases begins to rise, they can react quickly to dial back on activities to keep the outbreak from getting worse. Having seen this measured, data-driven approach work in New York, I am that much more worried when I see other places abandon mask mandates and capacity restrictions precipitously. It not only hurts their own residents but also people in other locations because travelers can bring the virus home with them.

I don’t know yet when I will be comfortable resuming travel. If we can continue robust vaccine distribution and infection rates are low, maybe B and I will be able to take a short trip together for our anniversary in June. I had hoped to return to North Adams for another private writing retreat this spring, but I need to see what happens with vaccine distribution and transmission rates over the next few weeks to decide if that would be wise.

Of course, the big prize will be when we can go to the UK to visit daughter E, son-in-law L, and granddaughter ABC and finally get to meet granddaughter JG in person. We are hoping it will be on or before her first birthday in August, but it is impossible to plan. While the UK has also been on a vigorous push for vaccine distribution and re-opening, E and L haven’t been eligible for vaccination yet and what the rules will be for summer visitors from the US is a mystery.

Still, we are closer to being able to go than we have been before and we have also built up our own capacity for patience. Love, care, and concern for others are great motivators to remain cautious and vigilant until the pandemic is truly over.

filibuster update

Here at Top of JC’s Mind, I sometimes – and more frequently in recent years – wade into the political waters of the US. Last October, I mentioned the Senate filibuster and my hopes that is would be reformed, tangentially in this post and fleshed out a bit in the comments.

Remarkably, these early weeks of the Biden administration have given rise to a lot of public discussion of the filibuster and how this arcane Senate rule might be reformed or eliminated so that legislation can pass the Senate by majority vote rather than needing 60 of 100 senators to end debate and proceed to a vote. This is called “invoking cloture.”

For decades, filibusters and cloture votes were rare. Maddeningly, filibusters were used to attempt to derail legislation on civil rights, voting rights, labor rights, and anti-lynching. (Republican Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell has tried to argue that the filibuster was not used as a racist tool, but this twitter thread from Kevin Kruse proves him wrong with a long, but not exhaustive, list of past racially-motivated filibusters.)

During the Obama presidency, McConnell and the Republicans frequently used the filibuster to slow or prevent approving appointments and to keep legislation from reaching the floor for a vote. This was possible because all a senator needed to do was to say they wanted to filibuster and it would take sixty votes to end it, which, with all the Republicans sticking together, meant that there were never enough votes to invoke cloture and proceed to a vote. This led to a rule change that appointments were not subject to the filibuster, though other kinds of legislation still were.

One of the reforms to the process currently being discussed is to require that a senator wanting to filibuster must stay on the Senate floor and speak on the bill being debated. This revives the practice that was in place until 1975, although senators then weren’t required to speak on the bill and could read from the phone book or cookbooks or talk about totally unrelated topics.

There is also a proposal to change the cloture vote. Rather than needing sixty votes to end the debate, which puts the burden on the majority, the new rule would be that 40 or 41 senators would need to vote to continue the debate. This preserves the ability of the minority to put forth their arguments on something they feel strongly about but requires them to put forth effort to do so.

The hope is that these two reforms would break the stranglehold on bills that became so stark during the Obama administration. It might also engender more bipartisan bills actually making it to the Senate floor for a vote. (Mitch McConnell famously once filibustered his own bill when it became clear that President Obama would sign the bill into law. McConnell valued gridlock over governing.)

Or, given that it is just a Senate rule and not a law, the filibuster could be eliminated. Many think this would be the simplest path, but a few Democratic senators are vehemently opposed to ending it totally, although the impetus for reform is definitely gaining momentum.

While I had hoped that, under President Biden who was a long-time senator, some of the more moderate Republicans would want to vote for common-sense and popular bills such as the American Rescue Plan, we have yet to see that happen. The American Rescue Plan, despite its popularity with the public and its many provisions that benefit people in their states, garnered no votes from Republicans in Congress; it passed with a simple majority in the Senate due to special budgetary rules that prevented a filibuster.

There are now some popular and much-needed bills that have passed the House that will become test cases on whether or not bipartisan support is possible or whether it will take filibuster reform or elimination to get them on the floor for a vote. The For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 1) addresses voting rights, campaign finance reform, government ethics, gerrymandering, and election security. Further voting rights issues are addressed in the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would help to restore provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which the Supreme Court struck down in 2013, on the grounds that these racial provisions were now obsolete. Sadly, we have seen evidence that they are not, as efforts are now underway in 43 states to restrict voting access to certain groups of people, including by making it harder for people of color to vote or by making it more difficult for students or elders to register and vote by mail.

There are two House-passed gun safety bills, one on universal background checks and one extending the time the FBI has to vet purchasers to ten days instead of the current three. Both of these measures have broad public support, including among Republicans and gunowners. An increase in the federal minimum wage is very popular with the public, as are bills to re-build our infrastructure, increase our production of goods and green energy to create sustainable jobs, and to increase taxes on the very wealthy.

If bills like these pass the House and appear on the Senate floor, what will the Republicans do? Will they vote yes in accord with their constituents? Will they filibuster to stop a vote from occurring? If they do decide to filibuster, they risk the Democrats reforming the filibuster, voting that certain kinds of bills such as voting rights are not subject to it, or eliminating it all together.

Fingers crossed that whatever scenario unfolds, these laws will be enacted for the common good. We have been waiting for Congress to actually participate in governing in the way the Constitution sets before them.

again and again and again

I didn’t want to write about mass shootings in the United States today. I’ve written way too many posts about this in the past, most recently about the Atlanta-area shootings last week.

But here we are again, mourning the deaths of ten people, including a responding police officer, at a Boulder, Colorado supermarket. A suspect is in custody, but it is early in the investigation so many details are not yet public.

It is likely that this will become the third Colorado mass shooting to lodge in the nation’s consciousness along with the high school in Columbine and the movie theater in Aurora.

The list of mass shootings in the United States is so long that only some of them are invoked as a litany. I live near Binghamton, New York, which suffered a 2009 mass shooting at the American Civic Association. This post that I wrote for the fifth anniversary of that shooting explains why I think Binghamton is not part of that litany.

There has long been a majority of the public in favor of taking measures nationally to curb gun violence. Some of the proposals are universal background checks to purchase firearms, limits on size of ammunition clips, banning of military-style assault weapons, and requiring gun licensing. At this point, each state has its own laws with some allowing municipalities to enact stricter regulations and others not.

There are also proposals to better diagnose and treat mental health issues. Some mass shooters, such as the one in Binghamton, suffer from mental illness. The biggest potential reduction in deaths from firearms related to mental health would be from self-inflicted shootings. In the United States, suicides account for the largest percentage of gun deaths every year. (For help with issues about suicide in the United States, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 orĀ https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ .)

What compounds the recent tragedies in Atlanta and Boulder, though, is that there will be sadness, outrage, prayers, vigils, fundraisers, and hopes that this will be the time when Congress finally takes action – and they won’t. Again.

And then, inevitably, there will be another mass shooting which gets attention and hundreds of other murders and thousands of suicides which won’t.

And the cycle will repeat.

hate crimes

The United States is once again mourning the victims of a mass shooting. This time, it was in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Six women of Asian heritage who owned or worked for three day-spas were killed, along with a white man who was an employee at one location and a white woman who was a customer.

The gunman has admitted that he did this, citing his sex addiction as a motive. He bought the gun that he used that day. Unlike some states, Georgia has no waiting period to buy a firearm.

Somehow, much of the public discussion has centered around whether or not charges will be brought specifically as a hate crime in addition to murder charges.

I think the answer is clearly yes, this is a hate crime. The statute is written to account for gender-based violence and the gunman has already admitted that he set out to kill women. Further investigation may reveal that there was also racial motivation, which would add another parameter to this hate crime.

The racial aspect of this crime has spotlighted a disturbing rise in abuse and violence against Asian immigrants and people of Asian/Pacific Islands descent across the United States, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic. Thousands of incidents have been reported and many more are likely unreported. While the majority of attacks are verbal, others are physical and have resulted in serious injury or death. In some majority AAPI neighborhoods in cities, volunteers accompany elders when they go out on errands to keep them safe.

The discussion about this crime has also engendered discussion about a particularly virulent form of sexism against AAPI girls and women, in which they are subjected to hypersexualized comments and assault. Sexual harassment and violence are always wrong but the addition of a racial/ethnic component compounds the damage.

Sadly, discrimination, abuse, and violence against AAPI people in the United States is a long-standing problem. There were official government policies that hugely damaged communities, such as the Chinese Exclusion Acts in the nineteenth century and the shameful interment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans during World War II. Many AAPI people have been subjected to discrimination in schooling and employment, name-calling, exclusion, and, as we are highlighting recently, abuse, assault, and murder.

The recent rise in incidents seems to be tied to the pandemic. Because the prior administration blamed China for the COVID-19 pandemic, some members of the public decided to attack individual people verbally or physically. While the administration was blaming the Chinese specifically, these attacks have been against people with roots in a range of Asian and Pacific Island countries because the perpetrators think they “look Chinese.”

Whatever the motivation, all these incidents are appalling. I hope that the exposure of these attacks will lead to greater protection for AAPI communities and greater accountability for perpetrators.

Hate must not go unchallenged.

In the United States, there is supposed to be equal protection under the law. The race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, religion, age, health status, or any other attribute of the person does not change that.

We all deserve safety.

SoCS: the last year

I had planned to post about the pandemic anniversary today, so it was fortuitous that Linda took the occasion to have us write about our past year. She also gave us permission to edit if we chose, so this post will be only stream-of-conscious-ish. I’m hoping to only need to do light editing.

So, compared to most other people in the US, I have been fortunate over this pandemic year. My spouse B has been working from home so we didn’t take a financial hit. He and I and daughter T have been safe in our home. My state, New York, was initially hit very hard by the pandemic, although not as much so in my home region of the Southern Tier. While we did have a period of time as a local COVID “hot spot,” we followed the precautions on masking, avoiding gatherings, handwashing, etc. and stayed safe.

This is not to say that we didn’t have to make changes in our lives. T’s job search has been on indefinite hold. Grocery shopping and meal planning became a major endeavor for me, due to shortages and restrictions. Some of my poetry activities moved online, but the year hasn’t been as productive as I had hoped. The Boiler House Poets Collective annual residency at MASS MoCA was cancelled due to COVID, although I did craft my own writing retreat in North Adams in late summer which turned out to be a perfect time, given the sooner than expected fall surge. (Additional posts from that time are here and here.)

There are two big personal impacts for me as a result of the pandemic. The first is the separation from daughter E and her family, who live in London, UK. We visited in December, 2019, with plans for several 2020 trips, including a visit to meet our new grandchild, and a plan for them to visit us here in the States in December 2020. None of that happened, due to COVID. While we have been in touch virtually, we have all been largely confined to our respective homes. It’s been hard watching from a distance as they dealt with likely cases of COVID in their household at a time when there wasn’t even testing available unless one needed hospitalization. We missed granddaughter ABC’s third birthday and the birth of granddaughter JG. We missed ABC starting nursery school, which has been variously in person and virtual depending on how viciously the virus was spreading in London at any given time. JG is now seven months old and we have no idea when we will be able to visit. She may be a toddler by the time we get to meet in person.

The second personal difficulty has been trying to care for my almost-96-year-old father, known here as Paco. Before the pandemic, we visited him every day in his apartment in the independent living building of his senior community. His memory was poor, but we were able to keep him safe and on an even keel. Once the pandemic began, though, we needed to limit contact, so we reverted to handling most things by phone with screened staff handling some tasks that had to be in person. This proved to be difficult but when Paco developed a medical problem that required a few days in the hospital, it became impossible for him to be safe in his apartment. In December, he moved to the health care building, first for three weeks of rehab in the skilled unit and then permanently to the assisted living unit. This is where he needs to be at this point, but due to state COVID rules, it was very difficult to visit in person. I am happy to report, though, that yesterday and today we had our first visits to his new apartment; before that, we had to meet in the visitors room or do window visits where we spoke by phone on either side of a window. We still have to mask and distance, but we could at least organize and tidy his rooms for him.

The greatest difficulty that is more universal is the sorrow at the immense cost the pandemic has exacted. So much illness. So much death. So many without even the most basic essentials for a secure existence. So much social isolation. So many who risked their own health to meet the needs of others. In the United States, the bewildering politicization of the crisis.

As we have been commemorating this first anniversary of the pandemic, though, I am feeling hopeful. We are about seven and a half weeks into the Biden administration and vaccine distribution has seen a big boost. Although the number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths is still much too high, it is lower than it has been in months. In New York State, we are able to continue our gradual, science-and-metrics-driven increase in public activities. I went to church in person for the first time in a year today. It feels like we are making real progress toward ending the pandemic.

Real hope after a year of fear.

I’m very grateful for the vaccines and the people who are being diligent in observing public health measures. I’m grateful that B, T, and I were able to be of public service as participants in the Pfizer vaccine trial, which I’ve written about frequently here at TJCM.

I admit the fear isn’t totally gone. It’s upsetting to see people who are ignoring public health advice still. Especially with so many variants of the virus active and so many people unwilling to be vaccinated, it’s possible the virus will start to surge again.

Still, for the first time, the hope outweighs the fear in my mind.

Please, everyone, be careful. Stay safe. Protect yourself and your neighbors. We can end the pandemic after this awful year.

Together.

*****
Linda’s prompt this week was to write about our experiences over this last pandemic year, stream of consciousness style or not, or “day/week/month/year.” I chose the first option. Join us! Find out more here: https://lindaghill.com/2021/03/12/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-march-13-2021/

good news, bad news, and uncertainty

Yesterday, I got my second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine as part of their ongoing Phase III trial. As I have written about previously, spouse B, daughter T, and I are all participants but they both received the vaccine last August, while I was in the placebo group. After the vaccine received emergency use authorization, Pfizer unmasked the study so that placebo group folks could receive the vaccine as well, which I gladly did.

B and T both had a day after their second vaccination that they didn’t feel very well, so I planned today as a down day for me. I do have a sore arm, headache, some body aches, fatigue, and a low-grade fever, but ibuprofen and rest are helping somewhat. Only a small minority of people have this level of side effects, but I am more than willing to not feel well for a day in order to have as much protection as I can from the severe form of COVID-19. While the science is not yet clear if the vaccine prevents asymptomatic or mild disease, the data show that moderate and severe cases that lead to hospitalization and/or death are rare.

I am grateful that Paco was among the first at the Health Center in his senior residential facility to receive the vaccine. Two weeks from now, when I will be considered to have peak immunity, it will ease my mind when I am allowed to meet with him indoors to know we are both fully vaccinated. We will still need to wear our masks and keep some distance, but it will feel safer than it has over this past year.

More good news on the vaccine front is that Pfizer and Moderna have been able to ship more doses of their vaccines than they had previously and that the Biden administration has improved distribution in conjunction with the states and local pharmacies and health centers. Pfizer has applied for permission to store its vaccine at regular, rather than ultra-cold, freezer temperatures for up to two weeks, which will make distribution easier. Another positive development is that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine candidate may receive emergency use authorization as early as this weekend. It is a one-dose vaccine that can be stored in the refrigerator, which will make distribution in rural areas and neighborhoods without good transportation options much more effective.

The worry, though, is that more variants of the virus are appearing. Some of them are more easily transmitted and may cause more severe disease. It’s not clear how well some of the vaccines work against some of these variants. It’s also not always apparent which variants will become widespread. For example, a new variant has been identified in New York City, but no one knows if it will become dominant, cause greater sickness, or be prevented by the vaccine.

To combat this, both Pfizer and Moderna are looking at changing their mRNA vaccines to account for new variants, as well as studying if a third dose – or even an annual booster – might be necessary to tame the coronavirus and keep it at bay. It’s part of the reason that it is so important for the Phase III trials to continue collecting data, so we can keep immunity levels in the populations as high as possible.

For now, I’m resting, cuddled under a black fleece throw that the clinical research center gave me, with their name embroidered on it, of course. While study participants do receive a stipend, they also occasionally receive little gifts and it’s nice to have this throw to keep me warm today. The best thing, though, is knowing that the vaccines are helping people and that, despite the uncertainties, we are gaining ground in the battle to end the pandemic.

There is still a long way to go and I beg people to continue to wear masks, keep appropriate distance, wash their hands, and avoid large gatherings. Get whatever vaccine is available to you when it is your turn. Check on vulnerable people in your community to see if they need help to stay safe. Support efforts to get the vaccine to vulnerable people around the world.

It takes all of us working together to end the pandemic and rebuild our communities.

Grim milestone

It has just been announced that the United States has reached 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.

A half a million deaths among the 28 million confirmed cases. About 30% of those infected continue to have symptoms for weeks/months.

All of this in about a year’s time.

I had been watching a recording of mass for the first Sunday of Lent. When it finished, I tuned to a news channel. One of the frequent medical contributors, herself a physician, was speaking about the deaths and was struggling to keep from crying. The host noted how appropriate it was to react emotionally, as she herself was.

Such enormous loss. So much suffering. A reminder that, despite medical advances, we are nearing the death toll of the 1918 flu pandemic.

My eyes are filling with tears as I write this, both from the huge losses in our country and the world and from the losses of each one. Just recently added to the list a friend of my sister’s, the father of B’s co-worker, a resident in the apartments of Paco’s senior community.

Even with the vaccines becoming available, there will be many more illnesses and deaths. There will be uncertainty from the new variants’ effects, how long immunity will last after infection or vaccination, how people will behave as recommendations and policies change.

But today is overwhelmingly sad.

Again.

Valentine’s Day

The usual greeting for today would be “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

Not this year.

I’m having a difficult time using “happy” as an adjective after the last week.

My family has been struggling with caretaking issues for Paco, complicated by the pandemic. I’ve spent this weekend feeling as though I want to cry, but not quite being able to let myself do it.

It’s the opposite of “happy.”

The United States is also dealing with the first day after the second impeachment trial of our former president. The trial was sobering, as it drove home the extent of death, injury, and damage done during the insurrection and how very close the vice president and members of Congress came to being injured or killed. Somehow, even though more than 67 senators said that DT was responsible for inciting insurrection, only 57 voted to convict falling short of the two-thirds majority needed for conviction. There are likely to be legal repercussions for the former president coming through the judicial system, possibly both federal and state. Meanwhile, he is likely to seek revenge against those Republican members of Congress who voted for impeachment or conviction by advocating that their state parties censure them, by advertising against them, and by funding primary opponents.

Let me be clear that even if DT had been found guilty in the Senate trial, it would not have been an occasion of happiness. It is impossible to feel happy in the face of so much suffering, pain, and fear.

I am trying to find comfort in the message of Valentine’s Day that love is strong, enduring, and the most important aspect of our lives.

May it be so.

May it overcome our present situation.