MULTIPLE CHOICE

It’s Friday, July 17, 2020. It’s 109 days until Election Day.

It’s the 118th anniversary of air conditioning.

Willis Carrier unveiled the first plans for a devised that lowered both the temperature and humidity in the space in which it operated.

As we in New York prepare to hang out at home in the midst of the summer’s worst heatwave, appreciation of Carrier is in order.

Your kids carry your hopes and dreams. They’re the extension of your families into – hopefully – the 22nd century. They’re the manifestation of love itself.

So it’s quite understandable that many of you are pissed about having to decide whether or not to send them to school in the midst of this cursed pandemic.

If my kids were young enough, I’d be very leery of sending them back. And that leeriness would come as a surprise to them, since they thought of me as the evil parent who would have them in school 24/7/365 if he could.

And I live in New York. The virus, right now, isn’t nearly as bad here as it is elsewhere – or as it was here just a few months ago. School districts in areas where schools will be allowed to open have until the end of the month to develop plans for the safety of the kids attending.

So those of you around the country in places where COVID is rampant are probably even more reluctant to risk it.

The problem is that kids need an education. They need to go to school. And you know that.

When COVID-19 led to shutdowns in March, we first thought the disruption would last a few weeks. Maybe. Then we thought it would last a few months. Then we realized the rest of the 2019-2020 school year was lost.

But even then, there was no conception of what to do about the 2020-2021 year. Because no one knew what would happen to the virus. Would it just disappear with the warm weather or would it do, well, what it’s done, spread further and wider?

So there’s been no effort to plan for this school year in the event so many of us decided to keep our kids safe at home.

What’s needed here is some guidance on a national level. It would be nice if there’s some kind of federal Department of Education to establish curriculum standards and facilitate methods of delivery. That might help state and local officials develop plans they could adapt to their own requirements.

Instead, we have some organization with the title Department of Education. But its purpose under Trump collaborator Betsy DeVos is to fulfill her master’s political wishes.

So instead of solving the problem, DeVos’ mission is to parrot the open-at-all-costs mantra Trump believes he needs to win re-election.

Forget about them.

The lack of coordination and emphasis on kids learning, rather than on getting their bodies into a possibly virus-infested building, is another failure in this crisis.

State and local education departments – in conjunction with teachers and other professionals – should be establishing on a child-by-child basis the alternatives to in-person learning. Taking into account grade level, economic situation and special needs, and then formulating a plan to make that work.

Parents can’t be expected to teach kids themselves – particularly if they either work at home or actually have to go to a job. With sufficient planning and follow-through from educators, a little creative use of technology, it’s hard to believe kids can’t learn effectively.

But it was going to take an effort – a real effort – to accomplish this. And more than a little money.

Which goes back to how much of a priority education is. Unfortunately, it’s not that much,

For now, I don’t know that it helps any of the parents wrestling with what to do about their kids this fall. But someone should be thinking about how to help them out, instead of making them feel as though they can’t help the most precious parts of their lives.

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THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE?

It’s Tuesday, June 23, 2020. The presidential election is 19 weeks from today.

On this date 103 years ago, pitcher Ernie Shore of the Boston Red Sox probably expected a quiet day on the bench as his team started a game against the Washington Senators. 

But Boston’s ace, Babe Ruth, walked leadoff batter Ray Morgan. And, not thrilled by the strike zone, Ruth got into it with the umpire.

Not only did the ump throw Ruth out of the game, but Ruth responded by throwing a few punches.

Boston needed a pitcher – so in came Shore, who was no slouch on the mound himself. And the Red Sox manager came in to catch, because Ruth’s battery mate got tossed as well.

Morgan, figuring the new catcher was cold – tried to steal second and got himself thrown out.

And then Shore proceeded to retire the next 26 batters in a row – the only time that’s ever happened in the Major League Baseball history.

For many years, the game was listed in the record books as a perfect game. But the people who decide this stuff ruled that a perfect game really should be up 27 batters up, 27 batters down – no errors, no reaching base by walk, hit by pitch or catcher’s interference.

So Shore and Ruth are credited with a combined no-hitter.

The biggest change I want is, of course, the unceremonious ouster of the incumbent seat warmer in the Oval Office.

But Trump’s stay at the White House might have served a valuable purpose. (And, yes, I just inflicted pain on myself for writing that, but I’ll continue.)

Despite this nation’s deep political polarization, who really thought that the fundamental American political system was rife for a wannabe dictatorship?

In the last elections for president and both houses of Congress, Democrats received more votes than Republicans. Of course, because of the nature of our system, Republicans hold the White House and the Senate.

I understand that. Those are the rules we played by. If Hillary Clinton had won with 3 million fewer votes than Trump, I would have defended her election, too.

But instead of seeking to sway more Americans into supporting him with popular policies and conciliatory leadership, Trump seems to have driven through every loophole his henchpeople can find to enrich himself and entrench his power.

And that extends to the circle around Trump. In no advanced country would anyone as unqualified as Jared Kushner be allowed anywhere near the exercise of authority.

When I lie awake at night upset at the state of American democracy, it’s because of the fear that Trump could care less about its survival.

Lots of progressives talk about making changes to make sure an election like 2016 never occurs again.

Most of these center around eliminating the Electoral College and electing a president by popular vote.

There’s two problems with that.

One is that it’s not going to happen. The Electoral College is there just to thwart what we think should have happened in 2016 from happening. While Clinton won more votes overall, Trump was the candidate who got the most votes in more states.

It’s why a individual voter in Wyoming has more say about who’s in the White House than an individual voter in California. And it’s unlikely that Wyomingers are giving up the power.

Here’s the other problem: Changing the way we elect someone isn’t going to solve the abuses of someone like Trump.

Because in addition to him, Mitch McConnell’s Senate has been complicit in his power grab, So have the complicit judges railroaded onto the bench by McConnell.

And if – this is what’s most important – if these abuses were committed by progressive Democrats, they wouldn’t be any less heinous.

So people throughout the political spectrum might see the benefit of making the following two changes.

  1.   Put some teeth in the Constitution’s emoluments clause

Thanks to reporting led by David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, we have a pretty fair idea of how much Trump’s businesses have benefitted from his presidency. 

Actually, we don’t need to see the reporting. Trump violates the emoluments clause every time he takes a wretched swing at a golf ball on one of his courses. 

That shouldn’t happen. That’s corrupting. And it applies equally if someone with a liberal bent – let’s say, for argument’s sake, Tom Steyer – was elected and conducted his presidency in a way that steered or encouraged his business to prosper.

So let’s make violation of the idea that the president should not have any business ties of any kind a sticking point. He or she would have to divest themselves and their entire family from those businesses within 60 days of inauguration or forfeit their presidency to the vice president.

2.     Create an independent anti-corruption body to assess and, possibly, adjudicate the performance of elected leaders

And this might be a way to use technology to solve the problem.

The agency could decide on an objective set of principles to determine degree of corruption. Does the president fire a federal prosecutor who was investigating his business? Did a House member from Pennsylvania take money from government contractors for a reelection campaign? Does the senator from Missouri have relatives working in the St. Louis office?

Put these into algorithms and spit out an annual integrity score. If the score is below the standard for honest governance, it would trigger an inquiry from the commission’s members – non-partisan choices from all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

If the commission finds an official acted corruptly, the matter is first referred to the appropriate remedial body – if it’s the president, for example, the House would get the case as grounds for impeachment. 

But, if no action is taken, the matter goes to a referendum among the voters of that jurisdiction, national, state or congressional district. And that will be done by popular vote – if the president loses, the vice president succeeds him or her.

Because right now, there is no check on Trump’s abuse of power. He – or more likely, the people around him who actually know how government works – can run roughshod on normal presidential behavior and ethics.

And this Senate, as it proved in February, won’t hold him to account.

I want the Trump era to end now. But I also want there to be nothing like this time in our country ever again.

I don’t know that there’s any sure way to do that – but it would be a failure on our part not to try.

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BEFORE YOU TEAR DOWN THAT COLUMBUS STATUE

It’s Friday, June 12, 2020.

Today is the 57th anniversary of the murder of Medgar Evers outside his Jackson, Mississippi, home.

Evers fought at Normandy before coming home to the same old Jim Crow crap when he tried to exercise his right to vote. So he spent the rest of his life trying to get it and other basic rights for African Americans.

Just before he died, he heard President John F. Kennedy give his strongest speech on the need to pass national civil rights legislation. Then he pulled into his driveway, emerged from his car and got shot in the back by a racist coward. 

He died 50 minutes later, but not before his frantic family convinced a Jackson hospital to make Evers its first-ever black patient. It was about to turn him away because it was whites only, but somebody in the place remembered the Hippocratic Oath thing.

To see Evers’ gravesite. don’t go to Mississippi. He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Because he’s an American hero.

Andrew Cuomo, my state’s governor, tackled the question of whether New York City should join the movement to topple the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle.

And by “tackled,” I mean he knocked it down hard – much like what those bothered by the statue would do to it given the chance.

“I understand the feelings about Christopher Columbus and some of his acts, which nobody would support, but the statue has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian-American contribution to New York,” Cuomo said. 

“So, for that reason, I support it.”

This is tricky ground for me.

I’m not only Italian American, but my paternal grandfather is from Savona, where Columbus spent his boyhood. He’s practically a homie.

So, over the years, I’ve tried to find ways of defending Columbus. I’ve wrestled with this the past few days as Native Americans state their case for demonizing him.

Now that might bother you. Like the governor, I get it – and that’s why you’re now in the midst of my rumination of how to reconcile two things:

  1.   Columbus symbolizes Italian American pride.
  2.   Columbus enslaved, murdered, sickened and colonized the people he supposedly “discovered.” That, understandably, bothers Native Americans and other indigenous people of this hemisphere.

There are seething injustices for which the craven murder of George Floyd is merely the tipping point.

African Americans, in particular, have reason to be aggrieved. 

Add all the unpunished police or wannabe police killing with less-than-human treatment by society, substandard service by government, economic inequality and a disproportionate amount of death from COVID-19 – and I’m still not sure that sums it all up.

So I get this idea of righting wrongs – those from last month and those from the last four centuries. And not just African Americans – everyone else in my household is wholly or partly Asian, and watching videos of jerks blaming Chinese people in America for the pandemic gets all of their blood boiling.

What complicates this is why there’s a Columbus Day and Columbus statues in the first place.

Brent Staples, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial board member of the Times, wrote an amazing piece last fall.

You should read it. But here’s a summary:

In 1891, 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans because a jury didn’t convict some of them for the shooting death of the city’s police chief. The city’s leaders had no problem with this. Neither, Staples points out, did his employer, the Times – it called the mob’s victims “a pest without mitigations.”

If the lynched had been black, it wouldn’t have raised much fuss. As African Americans know all too well.

But the Italian immigrants had allies – la patria.

The Italian government was so incensed by the incident that it broke off diplomatic relations with the United States and threatened to go to war over it.

President Benjamin Harrison – a Republican with such a peculiar obsession with his wife’s niece that he married her after his wife died – caved to the Italians. Kinda like Sen. Pat Geary of Nevada in “The Godfather Part II.”

He paid an indemnity and declared a one-time holiday to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the hemisphere.

The holiday stuck. The powers that were realized that Italians are white people, too, and wanted to bring them on board. They might not be as desirable as the British and the Norwegians, but at least they’re not Asian or black.

Why Columbus? After all, he never sailed close to what became the United States.

I guess Harrison had the anniversary in mind, when he wasn’t thinking about his wife’s niece, and there wasn’t anyone else who fit the role.

So that’s where I am. I get why it’s hard for Italian Americans to let go of Columbus. He represents our begrudged acceptance in this country.

But here’s the thing:

Two wrongs, three wrongs, 27 wrongs, thousands upon thousands of wrongs – no number of wrongs make a right.

The evidence is overwhelming that Columbus did what historians say he did. That’s horrible. 

He deserves the vitriol he gets. As an American, Italian- or otherwise, injustice is anathema in whatever form it takes. 

Even – no, especially – when it’s done by a homie.

However, before we knock down Columbus’ statues and change the name of Columbus, Ohio, and Columbia University and the District of Columbia, can I make a suggestion about Columbus Day?

Let’s keep it.

Except that we should honor the original idea behind it rather than who it honors.

Let’s make it a day to celebrate the immigrants who make this country what it is. All of them, not just us Italians.

Let’s make it a day to celebrate where we all come from. A feast day with a dizzying array of food, music and ritual.

A day to celebrate my Italian heritage and my wife’s Chinese heritage and your Mexican heritage and your Senegalese heritage and your British heritage and your Cherokee heritage.

A day for parades down Broadway in New York and Market Street in San Francisco and High Street in whatever we end up calling Columbus, Ohio.

And that statue in New York that Gov. Cuomo opposes tearing down?

I’m perfectly happy replacing it with one of his grandfather. Andrea Cuomo came from southern Italy to run a grocery store in Queens and start a family that gave our state two governors. He’s certainly a more honorable man than Christopher Columbus.

But if that seems vain, maybe a rotating series of statues in the renamed Immigrants Circle reflecting the diversity of New York.

The point here is this:

I get why you might object to a statue of a slaver and murderer in a vaunted spot of your hometown. 

But he’s there to show compassion for the struggles of one of the groups that helped make this country.

If we can be more virtuous about who we honor – and generous about sharing that virtue – sending that statue a tumblin’ down might work.

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REVISIONISM

It’s Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

It’s the 125th anniversary of the birth of Hattie McDaniel.

She was the first African American to win an Academy Award, the best supporting actress for “Gone with the Wind.” 

McDaniel played Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in the movie. Indeed, her movie career, which lasted until she died at age 59 in 1952, was predominantly filled with maid roles. Because black women were pretty much restricted to subservient roles – subservient except to the black men who were portrayed as too weak to stand up to even them.

Even in the 1940s, McDaniel faced some pushback from other African Americans who thought she perpetuated negative stereotypes. In that way, she couldn’t win – criticized by black people on one side and not allowed to attend the movie’s premiere in Atlanta because of Jim Crow.

But, after her death, McDaniel’s reputation improved. When Mo’Nique won the best supporting actress Oscar for “Precious” in 2010, she praised McDaniel for putting up with Hollywood’s racism so that other actresses could be free of it. 

It’s funny how history works. 

I think it’s a coincidence that McDaniel’s birthday is when HBOMax – the latest streaming TV service you didn’t know you needed – announced it’s pulling “Gone with the Wind” temporarily.

The service said it will bring back the film once it’s put some kind of “discussion of historical context” in or around it.

This has been a surprisingly big year for “Gone with the Wind” news.

You’ll remember that at one of his last rallies before stopping them due to the COVID pandemic he said was a hoax, Trump lamented the best picture Oscar going to “Parasite.” And he wondered why they don’t make movies like “GWTW” any more.

Just an aside, my guess is that Trump is one of those assholes who talks during a movie.

Anyway, I believe the first time I saw “Gone with the Wind” was in college. I had heard about it all through childhood – it was the seminal movie event of my parents’ generation and, until “The Sound of Music” came around in the 1960s, was the biggest grossing film of all time.

I remember being unimpressed. 

Movie buffs would say that “Gone with the Wind” was the state of the art of movies in 1939, incorporating CGI-type effects without the benefit of the C. The burning of Atlanta – with Rhett rescuing Scarlett, Melanie and Prissy as the fires rage – is considered the Death Star destruction of its time.

OK, but the story sucks.

It sucked even before our current reawakening of racial tension that led to HBOMax’s decision.

Unless your sense of history is that the wrong side won the Civil War, this movie asks you to sympathize with the biggest collection of losers ever. 

Scarlett is a spoiled brat. Ashley is a mindless dolt who gives himself to this supposedly noble cause. Melanie is a dope who’s always letting Scarlett get off the hook with her lecherous approaches toward her husband. 

And Rhett would be a total jerk – he rapes his wife and exploits the side he’s supposedly on for financial gain – if it weren’t for the fact that he’s played by Clark Gable.

Then there’s the black characters. I’m sympathize with Hattie McDonald, Eddie Anderson and the rest, but it’s hard to watch this and accept the idea that these characters are content with life in bondage. Especially to the people I mention above.

But, I have to say, I long accepted the idea that this was considered a classic film. In the American Film Institute’s initial ranking of the top 100 films of all time, it came in fourth – only behind “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca” and “The Godfather.”

The re-ranking in 2007 put it sixth, raising “Raging Bull” and “Singin’ in the Rain” above it.

So a couple of things happened after that.

When I wonder why I raised two kids who are embarked on show business careers, I think back to the Dad Film Festival – my attempt to show my youngsters what real movies were after being forced to watch “The Doug Movie” and other wastes of my time.

So I showed them movies perceived as classics. Some of them are – “Singin’ in the Rain” remains my son’s favorite movie of all time.

Then there’s “Gone with the Wind.”

They were bored. Not a lot really happens by today’s standards. It’s a freakin’ long movie, almost four hours with the intermission – and they wondered what was up with that.

The other thing that bothered them was the fact that this story is told from the point of view of the Confederate losers I mentioned above. Who cares what happens to them? They were fighting to keep people enslaved and got exactly what they deserved.

It’s a disorienting film for your kids if they’ve been raised to think the good guys won the Civil War.

One other thing to consider.

When I’ve taught my journalism class, I’ve given students an assignment to watch a movie that depicts the profession and critique it. Most of these are the standards: “All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight,” “Citizen Kane” and “Network” are among them.

One movie I considered was “His Girl Friday,” the adaptation of “The Front Page” that featured Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. It’s considered a classic screwball comedy of the 1940s and a depiction of old-time newsrooms.

So I watched it. It certainly has a lot of virtues.

It also is chockablock with racism. Mercifully, it doesn’t use the n word, but any other slur you can think of shows up.

And it’s not even as if it’s essential to the plot – as if the story is even about black people. It’s just casually dropped in there for what I imagine the writers thought was an easy laugh.

I could not imagine any of my students – especially, any of my African American students – considering this movie anything but insulting. What serious discussion could I have about what the movie tells us about journalism when unseen African Americans are so disregarded?

Obviously, this is a time of reflection about our multiracial society.

The COVID-19 pandemic, with the preponderance of African American victims – should have pushed us toward it. The murder of George Floyd did.

One of the things to think about is what is art.

There are people bothered by HBOMax’s decision to pull the film because of “GWTW’s” vaunted status. 

But do black people see art when they see the movie?

Or do they, as Malcolm X said about the movie, feel “like crawling under the rug”?

At the very least, HBOMax is right to frame this movie in some sort of context.

Because there’s a reason Trump sees this as the kind of movie Hollywood should be making – and it’s not because the cinematography stands out in the burning of Atlanta scene.

As far as I’m concerned, keeping “Gone with the Wind” off HBOMax might be a good reason to subscribe.

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THE NEXT 100,000

It’s Thursday, May 28, 2020. 

It’s the 76th birthday of Rudy Giuliani.

Tell the truth: You didn’t think he was that young. 

You also haven’t seen him around much lately. Why do you think that is?

The Johns Hopkins-compiled COVID-19 death toll officially reached 100,000 last night.

You thought we hit the milestone over the weekend after The New York Times published the stirring list of 1,000 fatalities beginning on Sunday’s front page. 

No. We just got close last weekend. We got there last night.

And it wasn’t as if we weren’t going to hit 100,000 deaths. There was nothing to indicate that the tragedy would just come to a stop at whatever number was on the Johns Hopkins page when the Times went to press Saturday night.

Just as there’s no indication that number won’t seem quaint before too long. We’re coming to a point when May 27 will be the day when there were only 100,000 people dead from COVID-19.

That seems cold, doesn’t it?

But if you think 100,000 deaths is jarring and tragic, how are you going to feel at 200,000?

Is there going to be the same gasp that afflicted Americans who care about this crisis? Or are we going to be numb to this level of unimaginable and unnecessary death?

There are people who already are.

The people jumping up and down in the streets outside the capitals of states where governors have taken this thing seriously. They’ve been conditioned to think this whole thing is overblown, a massive political hit job. At the very most, a bad flu season.

Obviously, 100,000 deaths isn’t a big deal to Trump. He didn’t seem to have a lot to say yesterday about the milestone, instead choosing to nurse the wounds inflicted Twitter dared to say the garbage he spewed was inaccurate.

And his bet – and it’s one he could very well win – is that you and I and everyone else in the country is going to accept that 100,000 number and move on. 

So that when we reach 110,000 sometime next week, 125,000 sometime in June and 150,000 by early August, who’ll care? It’s just a number – forget the victims and the lives they led and the families and loved ones they left behind – and there’s some other shiny object to focus on.

But we’re going to get to 200,000 dead Americans, because while the pace of death across the country is slowing a little, it sure as hell ain’t stopping.

And this administration and the people who support it – yeah, that’s right, all of the people who support it – are not interested in whether or not it goes on. 

Trump doesn’t give a good goddamn about 100,000 or 124,576 or 147,832 or whatever number pops up on the TV screen every night. He’s got his agenda and some people who were going to die anyway aren’t worth stopping to attain it.

He would be in a better place if he even pretended to care. When he even gave a hint of doing that, the cable networks – even the ones he maligned – fawned over the new Trump as if he were Scrooge after the ghosts visited. Just taking that tact would defuse so much of the vitriol hurled at him.

But he didn’t have the discipline or, more important, the empathy. 

You and I do.

No one I love has died from COVID-19. But I know people who have lost loved ones and I’ve heard the sirens wail down the highway that leads to the nearest hospital.

I’ve read the painful tales of parents denied the comfort of their children or spouse as they passed in a cacophony of tubes and machines. 

My students saw the mundane jobs they work as a way to pay for college become essential to our communities’ survival.

I care. I would love to have the power to slam the brakes and stop this death wave before it gets any further. I know you would, too.

We’ll try. We’ll wear the mask. We’ll stay home as much as we can. When we shop or take out food, we’ll only patronize places with strict mask-wearing policies.

We’ll stay up to date on the latest developments in searches for treatments and vaccines. We’ll be ready to do whatever it takes, as a community, to stop the death counter.

Even though we can’t.

When I ran in the park near my home this morning, just 40% of the people I encountered wore a face covering. And this is New York, where mask-wearing in public is supposed to be mandatory.

That’s not nearly enough. You and I might stop some of the spread. But what are the other 60% doing.

And that’s why that 100,000 deaths is merely a mile marker on a long highway. The deaths aren’t stopping because there are too many Americans who have moved on to the next episode. They’re tired of this – as if the virus cares about their ennui.

For the people who love these next 100,000 victims, I’m sorry. I’ll do what I can – I’m going to assume the people reading this will do what they can. 

When the country – all of the country – does it, the counter will stop.

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GRACE

It’s Friday, April 24, 2020.

On this day 3,302 or 3,303 years ago, depending on the source, Troy fell to the Greeks, who used the old Trojan horse trick – which, then, was the first-time-ever Trojan horse trick.

Do you find yourself angry a lot these days?

It’s OK. You’re among friends.

I know I do. I’m angry a lot.

There are circumstances that make me angry and feel powerless to change or control.

There are people who make me angry, but railing at them today would defeat the purpose of this. So the prior sentence is the last you’ll see of anger on the page you’re reading. I hope.

So I’m doing a little experiment today. 

I’m reaching deep to see joy and grace and beauty at a time when those virtues are as direly needed as a roll of paper towels.

I’ve been lucky – no family member I know of has been afflicted with COVID-19.

I know that’s not true of others. My friends. My students. 

And for them, the tragedy of caring for a sick loved one is compounded by the maddening frustration that they must leave that loved one by face this disease alone.

So the first gift of grace I would want to bestow is on them. That those they love can feel that love amid the wires and the tubes and the noisy machines. Not only their love, but ours by proxy – both for the afflicted and the affected.

That extends to the people in the hospitals and nursing homes caring for them. 

I can’t imagine the trauma of dealing with so much tragedy. 

But when you see them on TV crying for those they couldn’t save and clapping for those they did, I think something a curmudgeonly friend of mine long passed once said – “You’re a freakin’ stone if you’re not crying.”  (Ed. note: He didn’t exactly say “freakin.”)

I’ve said I want a ticker-tape parade for these people when this is all over. But I do realize a ticker-tape parade is not optimal anytime soon given the circumstances.

So let’s be creative and think of something wonderful and, at the same time, healthy to show how much all of us appreciate the grace and beauty of health care workers and all the others rightly lionized in this crisis.

How about a new national holiday – a real one, in which everyone has the day off, combining the joyous elements of Independence Day with the somber moments of Memorial Day? 

I’d call it Life Day – honoring and remembering the people who enhance and protect it.

And there should be a monument on the Mall in Washington for those who fight this war and win it, and for those who have persished in it.

Grace is not limited to those who are deemed essential workers – many of whom never thought of themselves or were treated as that – in this crisis.

It comes in the signs in people’s yards – some mass produced, others individual and humble – extolling those essential workers. 

I see them when I walk or run near where I live and – when I do – I know the people who live there get it. They want themselves and the workers – and even you and me – to live and share joy.

Grace also comes from the good things of life that were there all along – but are appreciated more now that we’re limited to them in our homes.

Five years ago tonight, my wife, some friends and I saw Vienna Teng sing at a club in New York. She’s a wonderful singer-songwriter – and listening to her music today reminds me that there’s beauty in a lyric, in a melody, in the arrangement.

I’m reading a terrific biography of Frederick Douglass by David W. Blight. A work of incredible scholarship that won the Pulitzer Prize last year.

Great writers of all types bring knowledge and joy – especially now that we have more time to read. And that is grace bestowed on us.

Finally, of course, because it is how I spent most of the first 66 years of my life, grace comes from the journalism we see every day.

The reporters standing in the hospital hallways and calling sources. The editors working at home to make copy readable.

And, in a special state of grace, are writers and editors trying to do this while a young child 10 feet away needs help with school work, a toy fixed or a diaper changed.

It’s easy to despair right now. It’s easy to see the mounting death toll and worry about ourselves and those we love. It’s easy to fear that the cratering economy will wreck our homes and our way of living for a very long time. It’s easy to get frustrated with not being able to go where we want.

And it’s OK to be angry about a lot of it. 

Not me – today, anyway. I’ll be angry tomorrow.

Today, I’m going to think about the grace of the people helping us survive, and the grace of the people who entertain and inform us, and the grace of those whose love is given to those who need it – even when those who need it can’t see those giving the love.

So I wish you the following:

Joy. 

Beauty. 

Grace. 

Peace.

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PRIORITIES

It’s Thursday, April 16, 2020.

On this day 17 years ago, a gunman went through the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg and murdered 32 people before taking his own life.

As with most of these mass shootings, no legislation controlling gun purchases or registration were approved in the state or nation. 

There were, however, lots of thoughts and prayers.

About a half century ago, my grandmother, who was 70 at the time, complained after a bus trip to my family on Long Island.

She got on the bus and wanted her senior citizen discount – and was prepared with ID to show she was eligible. The bus driver just took her money and waved her onboard.

She was offended.

“How did he know I was over 65?,” my grandmother – who was 70 at the time – asked.

I thought of that today at BJ’s, a regional wholesale store, where there was a long, well spaced  line to enter. 

BJ’s opens at 9. I thought I had seen that it had senior shopping hours before the open – but there was this line, so I started to get on it.

When somebody from the store waved me in. I could cut the line.

Now, I just turned 66, so I’m eligible for the senior discount.

But, like my grandmother, I’m wondering about something: Do I really look THAT old that it’s assumed I’m over 65?

Don’t get me wrong. I was happy to cut the line. Still: Sigh.

I had my cellphone with me at BJ’s and texted my wife that I wasn’t buying the BJs-brand version of Pam – because if we don’t like it we’re stuck with two big aerosol cans full.

And then I thought a little bit about the idea of texting my wife. 

Now she was only three miles away. But I could have texted my daughter in Pennsylvania 100 miles away, or a friend in London 3,459 miles away, or my son – if he were in his Seoul apartment and not asleep in my house – 6,862 miles away.

And they all would have seen my message instaneously. And – unlike my wife, who was ignoring her phone – answered me. 

In fact, if I wanted all those people to see what it was like at BJs this morning, I could have easily turned on a camera and showed them. Live.

Here’s the point: 

The world – over the course of my 66 years and a few days – prioritized innovation in communication. Not just the devices, but what the devices do.

Right now, if I want to get a copy of “Which Way You Goin’ Billy,” by Susan Jacks and the Poppy Family – an awful pop song I haven’t heard or thought about for nearly half a century – I can hear it within a minute of that thought. (I now am in the process of eliminating that thought – wish me luck)

We can get whatever we want when it comes to communication. We can order whatever we want on Amazon or eBay and it’ll be here – maybe even by tomorrow under normal circumstances.

That’s all great.

But why hasn’t the same degree of innovation applied to medicine.

Yes, there have been breakthroughs over the past 66 years.

And yet, this pandemic comes and we were so damn unprepared for it.

Anyone who’s seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” knows about the 1918 flu pandemic – that’s how Mr. Gower’s son dies, driving him to drink and causing him to put poison in the capsules.

We knew that could happen again. There are occasional outbreaks – bird flu and H1N1 and Ebola.

Why weren’t we equipped for this? Why aren’t we equipped for this?

Maybe it’s because great minds get paid more to find a faster cellphone than a rapid test for a virus.

So now, two things have to happen before this country and the world can resume some semblance of life.

One is that we have to come up with a vaccine. 

Why does it take 12-to-18 months? Why isn’t there an effort to have something in development that could be adapted quickly to address the specific virus? 

The other is we need to be able to test everybody. Not just the people who are sick. Not just the people risking their lives caring for them and providing for us. 

Everybody. All 329,526,567 of us as of 2:33 p.m. ET.

Why is it so hard to create something that is so simple to use that each of us could take a test in the morning when we wake up? Every day? When I can watch the Rakuten Monkeys of the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan play live on an iPhone in a park.

Is it because communications is cool?

You can see changes in communications. That gives them glamour. That gives them cachet. 

Medicine doesn’t do that. If medicine keeps you well, it means you’re functioning normally. You’re not more powerful or smarter.

There are lots of people who say things are going to be different when this pandemic runs its course. We’re going to be better about preparing for the next one.

I don’t believe it. There’s nothing shiny about virus tests and vaccinations and face masks. 

Unless they become the focus of something like Pokémon Go, they’ll lose out in an attention battle to the iPhone 12 or the PS5.

That’s a shame. Right now, a rapid coronavirus test would be the niftiest thing I’ve ever seen.

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BEFORE THE VIRUS

It’s Monday, April 13, 2020.

It’s the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The actual building – the one on Fifth Avenue – wouldn’t open until four years later.

If it were open, the exhibits that would most interest my family would be three related to its Chinese heritage – Celebrating the Year of the Rat, Children to Immortals: Figural Representations in Chinese Art and Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Up Close. 

The links are the best we’re going to do for now. If you want to mark this day by visiting the museum, here’s the home page: https://www.metmuseum.org/

Art museums – like ballparks and jazz clubs and 5k races and whatever mass events excite you – seem to be the stuff of dreams right now.

Sunday’s New York Times article detailing Trump’s failings in handling the biggest crisis of our lifetime is shocking to be sure – but it probably doesn’t surprise anyone who understands what happened.

And while all the failings that occurred since all those Met exhibits I flagged above are significant and heinous, what Trump did before the pandemic are the real problem.

For three and a-half years, it’s been Trump’s passion to disrupt the American way of dealing with the world. 

It could be because he perceives that government regulations – and not his own bad judgment – impeded his path to becoming the wealthiest man in America. Or it could be because he generally hates people who don’t kiss his rear end – particularly those of different shades from whatever is under that orange glop on his face.

Particularly Barack Obama.

So there are two things that happened before anyone got sick in Wuhan that exacerbated this crisis.

One is the trade war with China.

Remember that?

Trump and his minions have complained loudly about China’s rise as a world economy, much of it coming at the expense of the United States. China has been accused of manipulating currency and sucker punching previous administrations – especially Obama’s – in trade.

So Trump relied on tariffs to bring China to heel.

When my wife were in China last summer, we tried to avoid politics. We were there to do research for my wife’s memoir about her father.

But when politics did come up, it invariably turned to the trade war. China is a country building quickly – the number of high-rise buildings under construction boggles the mind – and its people accept the idea they get a higher standard of living.

A trade war with the U.S. gets in the way of that. It’s scary.

And with Trump, the idea is to throw people off balance. Your daily news would be like we’re negotiating, we’re close to a deal, we’re gonna sign it today, we’re walking away because it’s not good enough. Repeat.

It’s hard to trust someone so bewilderingly unstable.

Add to that the fact China is cursed with an almost equally self-centered leader at the wrong time in history. 

Xi Jinping is not quite as full of himself as Trump. But he made sure his picture is all over China and that he’ll serve as president beyond the constitutional limit – something Trump must think about. 

And, like Trump, he’s about image. That crippled China’s initial response to the Wuhan outbreak and what the rest of the world would know about it.

So, when there was an outbreak in Wuhan, there was almost no chance what was needed to happen would.

Do you remember the death and hardship of the first COVID pandemic in 2003?

There’s a reason you don’t. It was kept to a minimum.

That’s because the United States, working with China and other nations, came together to stymie a disaster when the virus broke out in Guangdong Province.

According to a 2004 study in the journal Nature written by doctors at UCLA, the outbreak was limited to 29 countries. There were 8,422 cases worldwide – as of now, there are 1.87 million COVID-19 cases – and the death toll was 916, a number overwhelmed just by New York City alone this time aroubnd.

The president in 2003 was George W. Bush – previously thought to be neck-and-neck with James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson for the low water mark for American leaders.

And while there’s no forgiving the Iraq debacle, the fact is Bush’s word was respected enough throughout the world that there could be a united front to prevent deaths everywhere.

That’s the second point I want to make. 

Trump’s word is worthless.

China didn’t trust him enough to let the U.S. assist it in handling this crisis – as it trusted Bush in 2003. 

The rest of the world didn’t trust him enough to join the U.S. in a coordinated effort to stop the virus from traveling all over.

American political leaders didn’t trust him enough to join in a coordinated federal-state-local effort. Why would Nancy Pelosi or Gavin Newsom believe Trump when he constantly denigrates them in petulant tweets or by snubbing them in public?

Most of all, how do you trust someone who lies about something as obvious as the way he tried to manipulate Ukraine into investigating the Bidens? When he provided the evidence himself in his “transcript” of the “perfect” phone call with the Ukrainian president?

The fight picking. The bridge burning. The dumb tactics. The cruelty. The inappropriate tweets. The self-centered, self-congratulatory behavior. The utter lack of compassion.

The lying. The constant, round-the-clock, blatant, mind-numbing, toddlerish lying.

Trump and his sycophants want to blame China for this crisis. And China – under its own over-indulged leader who tried to cover up a health calamity – certainly bears some responsibility for this global catastrophe.

But before he didn’t do all the things the Times said he didn’t do, Trump did things that made the world ripe for this tragedy.

He’s not merely to blame for so many of the 22,000 U.S. deaths in this crisis. He shares responsibility for the nearly 118,000 deaths around the world.

By the way, this nonsense about calling it a Chinese virus is nauseating.

Most recently, Bill Maher went off on this idea during his HBO show Friday night, complaining about those complaining about the effort to label this pandemic.

Why does it freaking matter where this thing started? Why does it need to be pinned on the Chinese people as if they wanted it in order to share misery with the world?

Early cooperation between the United States and China wouldn’t have completely stopped this pandemic. But it sure would have been a lot less awful. 

But China didn’t trust Trump and Trump kept trying to play China. The world paid the price.

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SOUL CRUSHING

It’s Monday, April 6, 2020.

On this day 303 years ago, black slaves and some indigenous people rebelled against colonizers in what’s now New York’s Financial District.

They set fire to a building and, while firefighters fought the flames, shot, stabbed or beat to death nine white colonists, according to an account of the time by the British royal governor.

Eventually, British troops from the area put down the insurrection. 

There were 27 people were convicted for taking part. Of them, 21 were executed – mostly by burning, although one was described as “broke on the wheel,” which is a gruesome form of killing involving breaking bones and writhing in pain until death. Six others were said to have committed suicide.

The insurrection led to even more draconian prohibitions on slaves in New York City.

By the way, if you don’t think New York seems like a place where slavery flourished, a visit to the African Burial Ground National Monument – once this pandemic ends, of course – is well worth your time. 

Sorry to start your latest day of this downer existence with this downer from the past.

It’s understandable, though, that Americans might be inclined toward the sad side as this pandemic continues.

Today, the 10,000th American will have died from the coronavirus. That number is staggering to a nation that blissfully watched Kansas City beat San Francisco in the Super Bowl just two months ago and didn’t imagine this.

What’s more staggering is that the death toll is headed higher – perhaps much higher.

This is a tragedy. It’s compounded by the circumstanes. 

A horrible form of death from something caught while just negotiating life. An illness that not only kills the victim but endangers the people trying to save her or him. And death that comes without the comfort of loved ones – or even the freakin’ remembrance of mourners at a burial or memorial.

One other thing compounds this: A President of the United States who doesn’t give a damn.

Frank Bruni’s excellent op-ed piece in today’s New York Times captures this. And, because it’s written by Frank Bruni, it’s that much more potent.

I don’t watch Trump’s daily self-adulation fest masquerading as an update on the crisis. I want information, not narcissism.

But what appears to emerge from this is a complete lack of empathy for what the American people are experiencing.

Part of it, I truly believe, is that Trump sees where people are dying – particularly in New York – and sees people who didn’t vote for him. In his eyes, they deserve their fate.

Let one of the reporters at these briefings ask that question if you want to see the orange rug on his head fly off.

A nation that should be inspired to fight this enemy is instead forced to endure petulance when a frustrated governor complains about the chaos of the government’s response – or cheers that the ratings of these “briefings” are so high.

It goes against mainstream journalism’s instincts to not cover a presidential briefing. In generic terms, it would seem like malpractice not to show the nation’s leader in a crisis – would radio networks have ignored FDR speaking on the war effort?

But the appearances have gone beyond the misguided extolling of an unproven COVID-19 treatment, or the dissing of overmatched governors or trashing reporters for asking simple questions.

They’re crushing America’s soul and impeding its will to fight the virus. 

Trump’s daily briefings are the emotional equivalent of putting the victims of the coronavirus on the wheel and breaking their bones.

You and I can make the choice not to watch them. But they shouldn’t be on TV – under the guise of informing the American people – in the first place.

One other quick thought:

I’ve long advocated a celebration of health care workers, first responders, grocery and drug store workers, and food preparers and deliverers. Once this is safely over, of course. 

A ticker tape parade down Broadway seems the least we can do.

But there should also be a national monument for the victims of this scourge. A beautifully rendered tribute to the people who shouldn’t have died for this government’s inaction.

Where should it go?

How about 721 5th Ave. in New York City? 

The city and state could seize the land in an eminent domain action and we can tear down the useless structure that’s there, building something for the public’s benefit.

OK, maybe we keep the escalator as a reminder of something that should never happen again.

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SICKNESSES

It’s Saturday, April 4, 2020.

On this day 179 years ago, William Henry Harrison – the ninth President of the United States – died.

One month earlier, he delivered a two-hour-and-40-minute inaugural address on a raw, rainy day. 

The 68-year-old wanted to show his vitality at an age that most Americans of the time failed to reach. He ditched the tophat and coat for his mammoth oration.

Somehow, he caught a cold.

For a long time, people – led by his doctor – said he developed pneumonia as a result.

But a terrific New York Times article from six years ago revealed that the problem might not have been the obviously dumb idea of dressing light on a lousy day and talking for 160 minutes.

Instead, it might have been the fact the water supply for the White House was tainted by sewage dumped in a marsh nearby. And that was coupled with the questionable treatments of 19th century medicine, including a steady dose of opium and frequent enemas.

So Tippecanoe’s real cause of death might well have been typhoid or some other disease related to bad water.

Here it is, 2020, and the good news is we appear to have solved – at least in the United States and the developed world – the water hygiene problem.

Clearly, however, not the novel virus problem.

I’m now 66 years old. With the encouragement of government and business, I’ve spent much of my life preparing.

Preparing for a nuclear attack. 

Preparing for hurricanes and blizzards.

Preparing for terrorism.

Preparing for an active shooter.

Preparing for retirement.

Some of them came. Fortunately, some didn’t.

But I spent no time before 2020 preparing for a pandemic.

Maybe you were smarter. Maybe there are people who thought about this.

It might have been nice if they shared it.

This situation is jarring enough for all of us. What complicates it is the fact that it’s such a shock.

Be honest, if you had been asked on Feb. 4 what you’d be doing on April 4, what you’re doing right now wouldn’t have made the first 100 guesses you’d have made. That might even apply to March 4.

I sure as hell expected to be watching the Mets on TV playing the Nationals in Washington. Instead, I’m “playing” the game on the computer baseball game my son gave me (OOTP21 – highly recommended!). 

That’s as close to Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil I’m going to get today.

We’ve complained a lot about how ill-prepared and ill-responsive Trump and his “all the best people” have been. Their complicity – and, by the way, all the people who support and voted for this buffoon – in this tragedy is unmistakeable and unforgivable.

But we weren’t ready. We never thought about something like this. Ever.

For some reason, either we didn’t listen to our grandparents or they didn’t say much about the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed millions. That’s the nearest parallel to this in recent history.

Maybe we were lulled when would-be pandemics were foiled. When Ebola was limited mostly to three African nations from 2014 to 2016 – in large part to a coalition led by the United States and President Barack Obama. When the first SARS virus – this is the second – was held in check in 2003 by an international coalition led by the United States and President George W. Bush.

So maybe we’re guilty of thinking party politics wouldn’t matter when it came to dealing with pandemics.

Oops! Gotcha.

So as we negotiate this ordeal – as we in greater New York and the other hotspots of this outbreak listen to the wail of sirens and see the tears of people who’ve lost loved ones without the ability to say goodbye – let’s keep this old expression in mind:

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Of course that means getting rid of Trump on Nov. 3.

But it also means being sure we, the survivors of COVID-19, and future generations are ready for the next one. Even if it doesn’t come until the 22nd century.

It means developing the protocols for treatment in medical facilities throughout the world.

It means building enough of the life-saving devices lacking in this crisis – and inventing new types of equipment that are easy and quick to build anywhere they’re needed.

It means returning some of the manufacturing we’ve outsourced to China and other nations on the other side of the world. Particularly apparel and paper products. There’s no good reason there aren’t enough masks and gowns and other personal protective equipment.

It means finding a quick and easy way for everyone to find out if they’re sick. The test situation in the United States is ridiculous. You and I should be able to wake up in the morning, take a quick test, find out if we’re OK – and then either eat breakfast or call the doctor.

It means establishing orderly methods of handling the crisis – from a national clearing house for essential goods to maintaining safe zones in which people who are healthy can go to find help for who those who aren’t.

It means preparing for the mental and emotional strain that this crisis imposes.

And, again, it means getting rid of Trump. That can’t be emphasized enough.

By the way, two of the next three presidents after Harrison – Zachary Taylor and James K. Polk – died of intestinal diseases that might have been linked to the lousy water in the White House. (Taylor died as president, Polk died shortly after he left office.)

Eventually, though, Washington solved the problem. 

I don’t know that we can ever solve the problem of pandemics. In an interconnected world, that seems unlikely.

But if sicknesses are going to happen, let’s not forget this. We owe it to those we’re losing.

Let’s prepare for the next pandemic. And hope it never comes.

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