I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.
I neglected to mention—having forgotten all about it—a call I received on Tuesday. One that I received on my iPhone, Nell received on her iPhone, and we received on our landline.
I listened to the voicemail the woman calling had left me and decided it was not urgent.
The same person called me again on the morning of Wednesday, April 8, 2020.
When I went to bed the previous, err, night, I was wicked excited for what I had planned to teach our daughters Wednesday afternoon. And I was still excited when I awoke that, err, morning. Sleepy, but excited.
Once I had gone downstairs, however, I thought I should call back the woman who had called three of our phone numbers four total times in two days before lugging my desktop computer into the classroom.
As I have written elsewhere, my older sister Mindy has had severe mental disabilities since birth. In December 1974, she entered the Woodhaven facility in northeast Philadelphia; she has lived there ever since. I became Mindy’s legal guardian after our mother died in March 2004.
The woman trying so hard to reach me was calling from Woodhaven. I had concluded from her initial voice mail she was simply calling every resident parent and guardian to provide an update on how Woodhaven was dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic. But her persistence swayed me, and I called her back.
What I learned is that Mindy, who is 58 and has numerous comorbid conditions, has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. For now, her symptoms are fairly mild: elevated fever and runny nose. Nonetheless, they moved Mindy and a number of other residents to an unused residence on the same campus. But as the woman and I discussed, the novel coronavirus is going to sweep through these units like a scythe through wheat; there is little we can do about it. Not to be overly ghoulish, but a very practical part of me is now relieved I purchased a burial plot for my sister more than a decade ago. This was on the advice of multiple interested parties. Still, I was hit hard by the news—it is the closest the pandemic has come to us.
We had already come very close with my mother-in-law, as there is an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the senior care facility in which she lives. They have already moved her twice to keep her from becoming infected; she loves her current room, which overlooks a garden.
The upshot was that I was less excited when class started some 15 minutes later. We began with my asking if they had heard about United States Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders ending his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, making former Vice President Joe Biden the de facto nominee. They had, and we had a conversation about the relative ages of Biden and possible vice-presidential nominee picks. Then I told them about their aunt. They took this news in stride; to be fair, they have only spent time with her once.
In fact, at this point, our younger daughter needed to tell me about a “joke” she had inadvertently made that morning watching an episode of Seven Worlds, One Planet; they had finished The Blue Planet the previous week. At one point, narrator David Attenborough had been talking about Colombia before switching to a small island off the coast of China. Looking up then—and having missed the transition—our younger daughter exclaimed, “That’s Colombia?!?” This then became a running joke between the three of them for the rest of the episode.
My simple contention is that, despite a relative period of hibernation for rock and roll, American music actually flourished between February 3, 1959 and the arrival of The Beatles in New York City five years and four days later. It was only 12 years after the fact, and with a blindered, rock-centric view of music, anyone could claim music “died” that day. But in making my arguments the previous Friday afternoon, I rushed my presentation and played no music. So, I created a PowerPoint presentation replete with sample songs for every artist.
After listening to songs by the three musicians who died in Clear Lake, Iowa that winter day—with older daughter recalling Holly as “the geeky one” and Nell rocking out to “Chantilly Lace”—I played them one track each from three of the great jazz albums released in 1959: “So What” by Miles Davis, “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by Charles Mingus. The first and third tunes elicited little response, but our older daughter reacted excitedly to “Take Five”:
“Hey, I’ve heard that song on Donkey Kong!” (She reminded me later this is a level of Mario Kart.)
A few moments later: “Wait…if hearing this song is education, does that meaning playing Donkey Kong is education?”
Sorry, kid, it is not.
We then moved on to developments in popular music. Our older daughter could not get past Roy Orbison’s slicked-back hair to appreciate the effortless clarity of his tenor singing voice. I did get the chance to explain who Dick Clark was watching Bobby Darin perform “Splish Splash” on a companion program to American Bandstand. Our younger daughter then insisted that Dionne Warwick “sounded French” singing “Don’t Make Me Over.” Her older sister and I never did figure out exactly she meant by this.
The remainder of this section of the presentation elicited little comment, although our younger daughter was quite taken with Frankie Valli’s powerful tenor voice.
After a short break, I quickly ran through how the 1950s were not as sleepy as usually portrayed, all the way through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. I am laying the groundwork for a perhaps-vain attempt to explain why The Beatles made such an outsized impact in the United States in 1964.
And then we reviewed three very different artists who began to wake rock and roll from its sleep. I had summarized the formation of The Beach Boys and The Beatles the previous Friday, so I simply played “Surfin’ Safari” and “Please Please Me.” Our older daughter surprised herself a bit by enjoying the former song.
In between, I started to talk about a young Jewish-raised folk singer from Duluth, Minnesota. Just as I was saying he had been born Robert Allen Zimmerman, our older daughter interjected with, “Oh, is he Bob…Dylan?” When I played a clip of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the same daughter thought he was cute—in no small part because of his tousled hair.
And with that, class was dismissed.
Famished, and having been craving tuna fish salad for a day or two, I made what amounted to a deconstructed cheddar tuna melt—the ultimate comfort food, even if it lacked bacon, tomato and diced celery. That did not stop me from happily consuming one of Nell’s delicious cheeseburgers with sliced onion, lettuce and tomato, as well as the rest of the cheddar-flavored potato chip she had impulsively bought the day before.
When I went downstairs on Thursday, April 9, 2020 this is what greeted me in the classroom:
Once again, I schlepped my desktop computer into the classroom. This time it was to show them a set of slides I had prepared for the “What Is Film Noir” adult education course I taught in October 2018:
I focused on the role of what once was called the “lighting cameraman,” the chiaroscuro tabloid photography of Weegee, and the six collaborations between cinematographer John Alton and director Anthony Mann.
We then moved into the living room to watch the 1949 Mann-Alton film Border Incident. I chose this film over the previous year’s He Walked By Night to demonstrate film noir did not always take place in the criminous urban jungle-and that it could feature, in the expert hands of Mann, an almost casual masculine violence. Our older daughter was favorably impressed when a young Ricardo Montalbán appeared on screen, noting his “charisma.”
I could not agree more, kid.
We stopped the film, however, with about 20 minutes left to go—which includes one particularly dark, in every sense, murder scene—because our younger daughter desperately wanted to watch the second Hunger Games film. The latter is 146 minutes long, and the goal was to watch it before Chris Hayes started at 8 pm.
As the film was playing, Nell came into the kitchen to ask if she could make pasta with sauce and turkey meatballs—well just cheese and butter for our tomato-sauce-loathing younger daughter. She asked me because, well, while Nell can cook almost anything brilliantly, I am better at preparing pasta.
Which is how I came to make dinner that night for the first time in weeks. It was merely boxed whole wheat linguine, a jar of Rao’s marinara sauce and frozen Trader Joe’s turkey meatballs, but I always heavily salt the water, simmer the sauce on low heat and gently stir the pasta in the boiling water to keep the strands from sticking together. Some things simply cannot not be rushed.
And, wow, was it good. Nell later came into the kitchen to say, “This is so delicious, I am taking seconds.” She also called me a “rock star” because I had already mostly cleaned the kitchen—the highest compliment I generally pay.
A few hours later, once everyone had gone to bed and the kitchen was completely clean, I sat down to write an e-mail I had been planning to send for months. It was to my maternal aunt and her son and daughter, and it began by apprising them of the health status of Mindy and my mother-in-law. It also finally brought them up-to-date on all I had recently learned about my genetic family—one of whom I met in person last August in Philadelphia—and my aunt’s father’s career with the Philadelphia Police Department.
One reason it had taken so long to write this e-mail was my desire to attach the chapter of the book I am writing that discusses my mother’s ancestry. But I had had yet to incorporate new information I had learned from this same aunt in January into the chapter, complete with validation through sources like Newspapers.com. This I finally began to do Wednesday evening, with a full chapter edit on Thursday.
The editing and e-mail composing took a few hours to complete, during which I needed to put our golden retriever in her crate. As much as I enjoy writing, this was a particularly emotionally draining experience.
And so, of course, I completely forgot to wish them a Chag Sameach–Happy Festival–in honor of the 2nd night of Pesach, or Passover, despite having just looked at black-and-white photographs of my maternal grandfather’s family holding its annual Seder–a meal during which the story of Passover is told in ritualistic fashion–in 1946 and 1953.
When I awoke on Friday, April 10, 2020, I found a voicemail from my maternal aunt on my iPhone. She had read my “captivating” e-mail and was in the middle of reading my chapter, wondering where the information on her mother’s family was. At this point, I literally said, “Keep reading. Keep reading. It is all there” to the voicemail.
Going downstairs a short time later, already running late to start a 2:30 pm class, I found this in the classroom:
It was thus closer to 3:15 than 3:00 when the three of us settled in the living room to watch Episode 3 of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. I prefaced our viewing with a brief summary of the first two episodes. Unlike the previous Monday, though, we watched the episode without rancor or hard feelings. And when we began to hear the story of a clarinet-playing Chicago-born son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants named Benjamin David Goodman, I paused the episode to point out the similarities with the family history we have been discussing on Tuesdays. And I also made the mistake of foreshadowing the tragic death of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, with whom our older daughter was quite taken.
In fact, both daughters have gotten into the flow of the series, even if our younger daughter fell asleep on the blue sofa about halfway through this one. I later learned a proximate cause: she had a fever of 102.2 degrees. Otherwise, she seems generally healthy. We shall see…
About halfway through the episode, we took a short break during which I toasted the last of our whole wheat bagels. Putting in onto a plate with a knife, I grabbed what I thought was opened foil-wrapped brick of cream cheese and took it back to my seat in the living room. As I spread it on my bagel, however, I noticed the consistency was too thin, and it melted almost like butter. It did not taste quite right, either, though it took me a few bites to realize this was not, in fact, cream cheese. I then found an actual brick of cream cheese in the refrigerator, which made all the difference.
Relaying this mistake to Nell later, her response was an alarmed, “What? You ate Crisco?” She had a similar reaction when I brought out from the office the half-full glass of kefir I had been too tired to finish before going to sleep. We will not even talk about the soggy wedge of life that has been floating in my green SodaStream bottle for a few weeks; you can see my bottle in the center background of the first photograph above.
Once the episode had ended, and our younger daughter had awakened, I dismissed class—and week four of home schooling. At this point, her older sister jumped up from her chair and took off for her bedroom, throwing over her shoulder, “See ya! I am off to play LankyBox!”
At that point, it was time to take Ruby out for her evening romp in the backyard, resulting in her second shower in 10 days. A few hours later, I sat down with Nell and a bowl of her delectable beef stew to watch the final two episodes of season two of Broadchurch, the capstone to our first month of sheltering in place. I followed the stew with a tall glass of non-fat milk and a mixed plate of Nell’s homemade dark chocolate brownies–the recipe being from Alton Brown led me to call them Alton-Brownies: one part from the batch she made for the entire family, one part from the batch she made only, with a special, newly-legal type of infused butter, just for her and me.
I cannot think of a better way to end the week than on this high note.
Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…