Monthly Archives: May 2020

Saturday, May 30 update

NYS update: Our little governance drama happening in New York is really nothing compared to the much bigger protests unfolding surrounding the murder of George Floyd. In a way, it’s a blessing that the farce that unfolded Thursday night about Phase 2 has remained firmly off the national media radar, or else it would become politicized in the wrong ways. In a quieter news cycle, Cuomo screwing up like this would be rich pickings for Fox or Twitter. The Republican party affiliation of most of the Upstate county officials who complained about the reopening process would have been twisted into a significance that it doesn’t really have in this moment. But it’s just going to remain our private little embarrassment.

It’s hard for onlookers to trace how we went from (1) a 7 p.m. series of conference calls that enraged Upstate officials so much that at least two of them went on record as not planning on enforcing a hold on Phase 2; to (2) a second round of late phone calls that apparently tried to placate the regions; and then (3) an even later, midnight phone call that one or some of the CEs had with one or some of Cuomo’s inner circle; to (4) a predictably dismissive Cuomo at 1 pm the next day, unveiling his testimonial slides from the experts. Slides with testimonials that went by so fast that they could barely be read. That’s because the “global experts” were, and always were intended to be, celebrity props.

(I am reminded of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones is told “We have top men working on it right now.” “Who?” “Top. Men.”)

They thought it was earlier today than one o’clock?…We wanted to make sure that the data was reviewed by all the experts. A county executive may be very good at what they do, but they’re not an expert in viral transmission in a global pandemic. I may be competent as a governor, but I am not expert in global transmissions in a viral pandemic. So I wanted to make sure we had the best minds look at all the data before we stepped forward… It’s stone to stone across the morass. If you take a step and you’re not on a stone, but a lily pad going across the morass, you will sink and that’s bad.

No, county executives are not experts in “global transmission.” They and their health departments are, however, experts in “local and regional transmission,” which is why they started testing in nursing homes and senior facilities on their own initiative, while you and your Department of Health were creating conditions that were causing hyperlocal transmissions that killed thousands of New Yorkers.

Once again, it’s pretty clear that the problem is Cuomo’s active-negative leadership personality combined with his group of advisors who really don’t know what the hell they’re doing (as nobody really does, but a little knowledge combined with a lot of power is really a dangerous thing).

The Post-Standard ran a vitrolic op-ed about the snafu yesterday.

Two weeks ago, you loosened the valve a tiny bit, allowing low-contact, phase one businesses to reopen. Since then, the data has gotten better, not worse. Fewer infections. Fewer hospitalizations. More testing by many magnitudes. That all pointed to loosening the valve a bit more on Friday and allowing phase two businesses to reopen. And then you slammed on the brakes, so that your panel of global experts could weigh in and you could make an announcement at your daily news conference. We’re all for experts. Just tell us the plan, Governor. The information vacuum is insulting and counterproductive.

Onondaga County update: A good portion of yesterday’s county briefing was taken up with trying to reconstruct the events mentioned above. However, there were also numbers to report. The county is now up to 131 deaths, which continue to be reported in irregular batches (hospital deaths get a daily report but there are often state-generated nursing home numbers added on, and it is never clear when these deaths occurred). The positive trend concerning senior facility transmission continues. Community spread continues to be within expected limits.

While the early evening “control room” phone call, where the bomb was dropped, was “spirited” according to McMahon (“rowdy” according to the Madison county chair), the late-night call between McMahon and Jim Malatras (Albany Dude) was the one that reporters seemed most interested in. You have to work hard to parse our CE on a good day. But it sounded very much to me like McMahon did indeed play Good Cop on Thursday night somehow. Or at least, perhaps playing the role of Voice of Reason, managed to make someone in Cuomo’s inner circle aware that sentient beings live in Central New York. And that we have a really good health department, smart scientists testing our wastewater, great hospital researchers helping us prepare for future virus waves, and largely obedient citizens who want to follow guidelines to get businesses restarted.

The question that people were curious about was why McMahon chose not to put on an impromptu briefing tearing Cuomo a new asshole, like Tony Picente, and why he released an oddly optimistic statement late at night. To the first point, that isn’t McMahon’s style. While he will stand his ground over the county zoo being open when the state now says no zoos can open (“It’s part of county government, and bigger governments don’t close smaller governments”), he claims not to be interested in Monday morning quarterbacking.

In the heat of the moment, there are a lot of things you can do or say.  I always try to understand that everyone else is in these roles that we’re in, has never had to do this.  What are the different pressure points?  I agree that what happened and the way it happened was not right.  But that did not mean we couldn’t get to the same result.  We all deal with these things differently.  We still had time to get to the result that was needed, so I took the approach that I’m used to.  Everything I said yesterday here was true.  There was no conversations that would ever suggest we would not be opening today.  A lot happened at night.  We need to learn from this.

To the second point, which McMahon politely wouldn’t talk about — it was bloody obvious to any experienced politician that Cuomo’s credibility was now hanging over the toilet bowl on a statewide level. No further ranting was required, especially after Picente and others did it so well. There was just so far that Cuomo’s brainlessly imperial instincts were going to take him before something like this happened, and he is too out-of-touch to know it. And it would do no good, in a crisis, for every local leader to get up on a tank. (To quote General Woundwort in Watership Down, talking to one of his underlings, “If my authority goes, where will yours be in half a day?”)

Thursday night was a dangerous moment for anyone who cared about keeping their own region on track for public health and economic recovery. We all live within a political system, here called a democracy, which is a construct; and when all goes well, we live and work to maintain this construct of order by mutual agreement and partnership. For a long time now, however, we have lived in a form of democracy where “great men” are consistently selected over the merely good — and have been allowed to morph into uber-leaders with monarchal styles, like Andrew Cuomo, or outright despots, like Donald Trump. These alpha office holders seem incapable of understanding the rich network of partnerships that once made the state and country great. We even live in a state that, unironically, styles itself “The Empire State,” and this is something we don’t feel ashamed of. (Make no mistake, New York State has a special historical complicity in America’s imperial impulse.)

But on the local level, the richness of the network is still real, and moving within that seemingly constrained space still requires actual political skills. Which can include, at various times, standing up and banging your shoe on a podium, or having a late night phone call with someone who is probably very insulated and maybe uninformed, but who it is worth having a civil conversation with, because of what you might learn about the actual situation. And because the network is connected, the people who are part of it all have to contributing to the right things happening, even if (infuriatingly) some of them don’t realize what they’ve been made to do, and pathologically need to take credit for it.

At yesterday’s briefing McMahon expressed his opinion that, despite the ugly “sausagemaking” of the last 24 hours, everyone had done the correct things in the end for the good of the state, the governor included. I wish I could have the same confidence for the United States as a whole. Like Tony Picente laying out the grievances of the local leaders, it is right for people to be out in the streets at this particular moment. It is an expression of the truth. But I don’t see any national leaders on the scene who can patiently explain facts and get through to the clueless alphas and their hapless assistants, however. And the alpha in the White House just is never going to do the right thing.

Friday, May 29 update

NYS update: At “press time” (for my usual evening update) last night, two things were going on: the emergent third night of rioting unfolding in Minneapolis and other cities, and the chaos descending on Upstate regions that had just been inexplicably told by the governor’s office that Phase 2 was not starting tomorrow because Cuomo — always needing celebrities by his side to deliver messages — somehow needed to call in newly hired “international experts” first. (More disturbingly, North Country officials, on their control room phone calls last evening, may have been told that Cuomo was scrapping the “phase” system altogether.) First, before you do anything else, if you haven’t already — take 10-15 minutes to observe Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente, last night at around 9 p.m., taking Cuomo’s office to school.

Legitimacy is a funny thing. One moment it’s there, the next moment it vanishes forever. The Soviet Union became defunct before Yeltsin climbed on the tank, but no one saw it vanish. Everyone just instinctively knew it had gone. When county officials begin checking to see what other county officials and top local business owners are doing before they check to see what Cuomo is doing, that moment is not far off. While Picente’s emergency briefing may not be a Yeltsin-on-the-tank moment, he credibly put into words every frustration that county leaders across the state have been experiencing for weeks on end (and perhaps longer).

A few hours earlier, as Ryan McMahon was in the middle of his regular 3 p.m. briefing — perhaps even right as Cuomo was governing via the media in his usual manner — he was being asked if CNY really had the green light to go ahead, which McMahon (and every other Upstate CE) believed we did, since nothing conflicting with that had been communicated to them by “Regional Control” in the days leading up to yesterday.

If someone says, at another level of government, that Central’s not ready for Phase 2, there’s going to be a serious disagreement. If this gets to the point that nobody’s comunicating and Phase 2 is supposed to start, businesses will open up no matter what I say. Or what the state says. Businesses are going to go, “Of course we’re going to go, how is this possible? Look at the data.” If you want to deviate from the process, mid-process, there’d better be a really good explanation… You lose credibility from this microphone if you say “These are the rules,” and you follow the rules and do everything you’re supposed to, and then on the day when people reap the benefit of following the rules, you change the rules. I don’t come to this microphone any more if I do that. Because I’ve lost all credibility.

There was something else plainly obvious on display last night, which we already knew but could hear in Picente’s comments: Unlike Cuomo, the county executives have friends. They have a local support network. They have good relations with their neighbors. They have pre-existing practical relationships — not necessarily just within their own party — with other local leaders. This is probably one of the major reasons they aren’t having nervous breakdowns, foaming at the mouth and falling prey to destructive national red-blue rhetoric at a time when no one can afford that any more. This is the flip side of the cronyism that we so often are presented with in local politics. Relationships can be used for good, and in times of crisis, usual barriers must be broken down.

If only Cuomo’s bizarre mishandling of the crisis had something to do with red-blue rhetoric, it would be easy to explain. But the governor’s main issues however have to do with his style of governing — which has given New York State the crisis of governance it has reached this morning. Strip away Trump’s absolute psychological hollowness (something you honestly can’t say of Cuomo) and open racism and sexism, and add some basic embrace of political reality and principle, and in terms of style you don’t have that much of a difference between our governor and our president. He is profoundly isolated, spends more time talking about (and to) his immediate family members than the New York State family, and has to govern by press conference and WAMC because he has no real relationships on the ground. Like Trump, he has a rapt daily audience of national listeners who mistake lofty rhetoric for sound governing. What kind of social and political currents have given New York State this kind of leader at just the worst possible moment?

We’ll have to come back to that later, because McMahon already explained what the county leaders were already facing yesterday before Cuomo dropped this bomb on them: a struggle to wisely and efficiently manage a crisis and a reopening impulse that cannot be held back by them or by any proclamations. To that end, McMahon appears to be ready to play good cop to Picente’s bad cop. Our CE could not have delivered the message that was delivered by the Oneida CE to Cuomo last night — he has the wrong impromptu public speaking skill set, and maybe even the wrong last name. What McMahon is good at is playing straight-man, standing at the podium day after day and forcing Cuomo to live up to his own book of rules. This is why I fully expect today’s briefing to occur at the usual 3 p.m., with the usual numbers recitations and all the trimmings, and with the good news that Onondaga County can now present the state’s guidance for all those businesses realistically were always going to go ahead and open up anyway.

While Minneapolis burned last night, and as county executives got off the phone with the state and with each other — at some hour which nobody actually saw happen, yet already happened before Picente gave his briefing, initiative escaped from Cuomo’s lonely court and is now on the side of local leaders. Let’s hope they prove to be good ones, because they’re pretty much all we’ve got left.

Wednesday, May 27 update

NYS update: Cuomo’s briefing in Washington today was pretty much what you’d expect — the usual “Hoocoodanode?” that the virus came from Italy, etc, interspersed with appropriate potshots at Mitch McConnell. But I was infuriated by Cuomo’s comments later in the day on MSNBC when he was asked about nursing facilities.

If I were advising a friend, I would say: You have a vulnerable person.  Best to keep them at home and not put them in a congregate facility.  Keep them in a situation where you have the most control.  That is the blunt truth.  That is what I would do with my mother.

He needs to get off the daily air. Now.

Aside from the laying of the guilt trip on struggling and grieving families, there’s this bullshit where he made it even harder for people to provide care for their family members at home.   And now consider Cuomo’s proud boasting about our ultimate control of “the numbers.”  You remember this, he hammered on it every other day back in April:  “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that, fate did not do that, destiny did not do that.” But ah, when it comes to COVID running rampant through nursing homes and killing old people…  

At the end of the day, Mother Nature and God make these determinations.

I have no patience any more for my out-of-state friends who continue to worship this loser.  He is a somewhat more grownup Trump in Democratic costume.  Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for him in 2018 and don’t regret it for one second.  (Also don’t blame me, I voted YES on the Constitutional Convention — but that’s a superior-dance for another day.)

Whatever history has to say about the efficacy of shutdowns and masks, there is no question that most of New York State is on board, for better or worse. (Support for public mask wearing is an overwhelming 89% in favor, although it’s unclear what the actual question was and the context for the mask-wearing.) It will be interesting to compare the fortunes of upstate NY with those of the more lax “flyover” regions of the country. However, what people say to pollsters (and maybe even believe) and what they do are different things. We need more data about people who are not wearing masks. This information can be gathered quietly, visually and in a nonconfrontational manner. (By the way, at least one local hospital is already planning to use SwipeSense, which logs hand sanitizer use by hospital staff.)

As a joke I’ve been saying “Let’s do this all again next year, but without electricity.” Looks like we may not have to wait until next year for that…

Energy producers and distributors are quick to point out that America’s overall power usage has plummeted since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the shuttering of large commercial and industrial buildings. But those structures usually sit on the most capacious portions of an urban electrical grid, said Yury Dvorkin, assistant professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. By contrast, the power infrastructure in residential areas is typically designed to accommodate heavy use in the early mornings and evenings, with hours to cool off during the day. Consumption patterns in these districts have already changed during the crisis, with demand spiking in the daytime. Overall usage is already up by an average of 7 percent in New York City apartments, and by 15 to 20 percent in homes in California.

Lastly, the Erie County Fair has been cancelled. The Erie County Fair is bigger than the New York State Fair (or at least used to be before Cuomo got obsessed with State Fair attendance records). For the love of God, just cancel the State Fair already.

Oh, and state campgrounds aren’t really open yet.

Onondaga County update: While there was still no explanation of yesterday’s apparent jump in “real” hospitalizations, today’s data appeared to paint a genuinely encouraging picture on multiple fronts. The pace of testing has not slowed, but today there were only 14 new COVID cases reported, and only three of those were community spread. This good news puzzles the health department and the CE, who are cautiously trying not to get too excited. There is more good news in that the pace of nursing-home and senior-center-driven infections seems to have slowed as well. Could the wildfire in the senior-dense areas really be slowing? (Unfortunately, there was another hospital death and three more nursing-home deaths appeared on the state’s tally.)

Reporters decided to hold McMahon’s feet to the fire today on the controversial case of a local restaurant that started allowing people to sit outside on tables with their takeout. The county health department came in and told them to stop, but this enforcement was short-lived and was reversed. What ensued today was a long and convoluted argument about the finer points of takeout etiquette, outdoor dining furniture and restaurant competitiveness. The reporter pointed out, and rightly, that other restaurants are watching this and either seeing lax enforcement or special treatment. The CE counterpointed, and rightly, that there is no real guidance on where people are required to eat their takeout food at this phase, and if a restaurant just happens to already have some tables widely scattered around as part of the landscape, well, bully for them — but they’ll also have to clean the tables now. (As long as they don’t move tables outside that weren’t already there, at least not until after Phase 2, as McMahon thinks responsible outdoor dining might be a good thing to try.)

Of course, the state has not helped any of this because guidance never seems to be issued except at the very last moment. When asked if we were already headed into the Wild West of guidance-free Phase 2, McMahon conceded that we may be “headed West.” He scoffed a bit that Sky Armory, a wedding venue, thinks it doesn’t need to enforce social distancing because they will have their own contact tracing system (!)

“We feel that we could operate a very safe environment with a group of people that inherently have the desire not to get anyone else sick,” Samolis said. “Imagine someone in your family is getting married. If you have the smallest chance of having the virus you would decide not to go. That’s the basis of our plan.”

Yeah, sounds like a plan. And not in Onondaga County, but in the CNY region (Oswego County), there’s an infuriating example of a business owner who thinks she’s entitled to make up her own rules, and a local government that doesn’t seem to know what to do about it.

“I’m doing appointment only, giving myself up to a half-hour to clean up,” said Carvey. “I ask everyone before their appointment, ‘Are you feeling well? OK. Then we can have you in here.’ Face masks are up to the individual person. I believe that’s your right to wear one or don’t wear one.”

Brilliant. So we have a countywide, countrywide, health emergency, yet nobody knows how to really make anyone do anything. CNY generally seems well-behaved in this crisis — no white men dancing around with real or toy guns, no disproportionate policing of people of color on nice days, and public officials as sober and data-driven as you could want. But as a society we are lacking in anything resembling discipline. The kinds of balanced discussions we ought to be having about caution vs. restarting, should be around the finer points of a common understanding. (A common understanding voiced by someone who is less inclined to talk about God’s will in between lame comedy skits with his brother.) When I read about business owners who are making up their own rules and public officials who don’t ever envision their police really enforcing anything, I don’t know how smoothly Phase 2 is going to go. McMahon is looking for creative solutions to get businesses up and running. There’s a difference between “creative” and “crazy,” though. People need to be called out on the crazy once in a while, particularly by leaders who want to maintain enough authority to be allowed to try their own creative solutions before the state says you can.

The church issue has still not been settled, and the local governments are still caught in a tug-of-war between Trump and Cuomo, which will come to a head this weekend. This is what seems to have been on the CE’s mind the most. He’s now at the point where he seems willing to just screw it and write the playbook. “If it’s gray, you can’t ask every time. If you keep asking and you don’t get an answer, that’s an answer, to me.”

Tuesday, May 26 update

NYS update: It took all of my strength to keep my eyes from rolling straight back into my head as Cuomo gave fatherly instructions to the county executives during today’s briefing. The county executives who have been basically running the entire show for most of the state since day one, running around and putting out all the forest fires started by certain state agencies’ incompetence and/or his own. Gahhhh. This was one of the cringiest Cuomo moments since all this started, but I’m sure a lot of people didn’t cringe because they have no idea how much work the local governments have been expected to do. At least once a week, Cuomo makes a proclamation, and CEs of both parties are like

Homeland Carrie X Quinn GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

(Sorry. Sometimes a GIF says it all.)

There were plenty of other lowlights today as well, such as Cuomo musing on how the big fish always somehow magically swim to the top (winners always win, such a comforting truism) and that the sharks will be fine. Also, the governor apparently wants to resurrect NYRI, or something NYRI-esque. (This is too good to be true. I always felt like NYRI was one of my old blog’s B-sides and then fracking went to #1 on the charts. It’s never too late for a re-release!)

Today is the day that Mid-Hudson finally gets to open up. This region has been a house divided, with Ulster, Dutchess and Orange openly chafing at being yoked to the nether counties. Long Island gets to open later this week, which leaves New York City all by itself, something that is happening a lot lately.

Tax revenues for New York City and the state are on the line as some of the region’s wealthiest residents flee to the suburbs or beyond while employers keep out-of-state commuters in their homes. Both the state and city rely disproportionately on the wealthiest taxpayers to fund social services such as schools, hospitals and police officers. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, people who typically commuted into New York City but live in New Jersey or Connecticut paid New York taxes for income earned in the state.

“Geography is destiny” can be viewed in many different ways — including the zip code data on who lives and who dies from COVID, which Cuomo mentioned today. But New York State has a literal, structural, geographic problem, except we never had to really think about it until this pandemic happened. The state’s only real remaining economic engine is a large city that is located in a boundary bottleneck between multiple states. What happens when rich people and businesses decide to take a step back, flee to the surrounding less dense areas across state lines, and — if they actually are now working at home — can’t be taxed by New York? What if they all join the Bridge and Tunnel Club?

This is a geographic pinch that may have unfortunate consequences and cannot, like the Clinton’s Ditch infrastructure project, be solved with hearty immigrant labor and dynamite.

Onondaga County update: Although the community spread number was “normal” (an estimated 13 new cases per day), the hospitalization figure given today caused me a double take. It was surprisingly not questioned by whatever media were there: a total of 85 hospitalizations, with 41 of those “the nursing home asymptomatics.” That still leaves… 44 hospitalized. Which seems like a big jump from the last report on Saturday of 28 “real” hospitalizations. Say what? (And as I recall, McMahon was very happy about that 28 figure.) How did this increase not get questioned or commented on?

We are clearly seeing a moderate rise in cases (Elbridge, the benchmark for COVID-freedom, has seen three new cases this week). Nevertheless, McMahon stated that we are on track for Phase 2 on Friday, which is when the new, non-health-department contact tracers will start working. He demurred from grading county residents’ social distancing this weekend, saying he might do it in a couple of days. A main topic of discussion today was DestiNY USA and the complexity of reopening it — not just because of social distancing (the mall seems cavernous enough for that) but because of public perception. If not enough people come out to the mall to shop, stores will lose even more money by being open and staffed. (Staffing may well be the biggest problem that local businesses have; a Chick-Fil-A in Cicero had to close when one employee tested positive and, presumably, all the other workers had to be quarantined?)

McMahon was asked again about his phone call with Cuomo which took place on Saturday. This was a phone call with the six “big county” executives (I guess that’s where Cuomo realized they exist and are doing most of his job). Always circumspect about commenting on the governor, the CE gave few details of the call, except to once again note that Onondaga County had been given leeway to arrange a solution to the nursing-home-dumpee issue, and that Cuomo had made an amendment to his executive order (the one that caused this bottleneck) over the weekend.

It was a pretty short, low-energy briefing today (not even any good news at the end, what’s up with that?) and when they started talking about the malls, the whole ordeal started to seem like even more of a weary road. We’re only just getting to the malls reopening. There’s no solution yet for schools. The solution for colleges on the Hill seems even farther off and more daunting. (With Phase 2, those of us lucky to still have our jobs and work from home, will be going back into the office worlds we left behind.)

And the big governments are still causing headaches for the little governments. The church-opening issue is by no means settled, according to McMahon, and there is not much time left for the county executives to sort through the latest mess they’ve been handed.

The state has given guidance, the federal government has given guidance. They conflict. That’s a challenge, when you’re the enforcement government in this scenario. So we brought that up today on our call with our state partners. I said I would appreciate an understanding that there’s two different guidances out there, and if it doesn’t become clearer on what’s what going into this weekend, we’re not quite sure what we’re going to do. But certainly we do not want to be in a position where people are calling in for physical distancing complaints for churches, mosques or synagogues. That’s just not a fair position to put the local governments in, because there’s two separate guidances from two larger governments than us.

Monday, May 25: Goodbye to all that

There’s no reason why the changes wrought by COVID-19 have to be punitive, nor temporary. For example, it turns out that car buyers like the new system so much that one major dealer chain in Syracuse wants to switch to it pemanently.

Imagine Driver’s Village — Central New York’s sprawling car megamall — on a sunny Saturday. Dozens of shoppers wander the lots, some trying to get the attention of a salesperson, some trying to avoid it. Pandemic-style shopping has none of that chaos. To talk to a salesperson, a shopper has to make an appointment, even if the appointment is in 10 minutes. Both sides get undivided attention when they want it. “I don’t want us to live in fear of the virus,” Driver’s Village President Roger Burdick said. “But if we could continue like this, customers like it. They get better attention. It’s efficient for staff.”

Is there a person on earth who really enjoyed the old car-buying process, other than the naturally aggressive, competitive and dominant? Most customers don’t enjoy it. It seems as if many car salesmen don’t enjoy it either. There was a reason why Saturn’s sales process in the ’90s was popular, even if the cars themselves weren’t. The car buying process — a holdover from the horse buying process — felt predatory and designed to confuse, and the aforementioned “chaos” of going to the dealership is a big part of manufacturing that confusion. Consumers are in a rare moment where they can actually seize the opportunity for some concessions.

The moment may disappear quickly, and predators, initially thrown off by the unprecedented restrictions, may soon be back. For a blessed couple months, robocalls just didn’t happen. This week, at least at my house, they’ve started trickling back in — and the pickings may be richer than ever for phone swindlers who can take advantage of the confusion created by the shoddier government responses to the crisis. (Think of all the newly unemployed people, and especially the scared and grieving seniors.)

But there is still a lot of junk to be thrown in the dumpster. How about primary care physicians’ office operations? That’s another thing that should die and not come back. Nobody needs to take three hours off from work for the privilege of waiting in a germy doctor’s office for 90 minutes, and then a cold exam room for another 30 minutes, so that a doctor who doesn’t even remember your name can see you for 15. These are the kinds of rituals in our society that chip away at our sanity and dignity every day. Pull the plug on them, and maybe we can get back to having doctor’s office appointments where they are actually ready for you when you get there.

These changes do not have to be one-size-fits-all, which was part of the problem with the old rituals in the first place (along with predatory aspects). Teachers are discovering that some of their “bad” students are actually pretty good ones, if you just give them a break from the aggressions and distractions of other students. Instead of testing these kids to death, how about assessing the children periodically to see if they should be allowed to do schoolwork from home, or even prescribed at-home schoolwork?

My dad, who was a smart man, didn’t hate learning — he was an avid and expansive reader. But he hated being in school. Somehow — back in the mid-1940s — he had a thoughtful teacher who recommended that he be removed from the spring semester of second grade for his attention problems and mental health, with assignments sent home to him, as if he were sick (it was not framed to his parents as a punitive measure). He was never told why he was being kept out of school (he only learned why many years later) and remembered being happy and relaxed. He wished that someone had told him why he was furloughed, because it might have made it easier for him to get through the next few years of school, where he continued to be disengaged and rebellious until he dropped out permanently after the eighth grade.

(I would caution that while the one-size-fits-all model is not good, an indifferently prescribed “track” model can also be disastrous. My sister, unfortunately, was one of the kids who got caught up in the ill-advised ITA system of teaching reading to first-graders in the late ’60s, and she did not have a good experience switching back to “regular” reading, which she thinks affected her throughout life.)

I suspect that hollow shells of ritual and convention that need to go — the things that nobody really wants any more — will go quickly and quietly. This collapse of the old may open up surprising new fronts that are more controversial, but may not be the same fault lines we’ve always talked about. It was always assumed that the personal automobile would go away because of increased urbanization and peak oil. Those things may still happen. However, nobody would have predicted that suddenly RV sales and rentals would go through the roof. The idea that many people would be interested in driving less, yet spending more time in personal vehicles for health, work, recreation and tasks of daily living, would have seemed almost freakish last year at this time — yet here we are.