Dispatches from the home front

“So, what you’re saying,” Betsy Kraat levels with me, online, “is that you’re writing a piece about ‘the Triumph of the Human Spirit in the Face of Adversity.’” Title case mine, but yes, Betsy, that is indeed my assignment: a straight-up THSFoA riff, but with a local focus, a downsized definition of what constitutes triumph and an emphasis on useful, practical and repeatable techniques of triumphing in the face. It will be somewhere dead-center between Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech (“I believe that [hu]man[s] will not merely endure: [t]he[y] will prevail”) and Life Hacks (“Tape a dryer sheet over the air conditioner vent”).

Few look to me for messages of abiding hope, though I stumble into them occasionally anyway. But no matter. This is about you, the people of the mid-Hudson, and how you are getting by and getting on. We are all facing exactly the same set of uniform restrictions: no congregating, no movement, no civic space, social distance. But that Great Clamp comes down over every unique personal and professional situation; the vice tightens differently on us all, and we all have our own toothmarks and means of squirming into a life we can run with.

Take me, for example, whom this piece is not about. Gigging was the first thing to go, and that pretty much sucks all the love right out of my life; but other than that, my two main responsibilities – writing at my home and taking care of a senior in her home – are unchanged. Without sports, nights were restless, until I rediscovered bourbon and recording. Now all is well. That’s the resting shape of my life under the suddenly beloved governor’s lockdown clamp. I think I can go a while.

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So, I hit the virtual pavement to dig up mope-and-cope stories, small instances of Faulknerian prevalence and insights into plague psychology. I was especially interested in how people are dealing with economic hardship, how people in the field of caring are finding ways to care, how people preserve and even advance a sense of community and what it is like for folks behind closed doors.

I started with my own offspring, the drag queen Strawberry, co-founder of Haus of Peculiar and a real player on the local drag performance scene. As always, my child impressed with an emotional eloquence very different from my own:

Strawberry

I find I’ve become the type of person who can go stir-crazy without a lot of stimulus. I used to be able to spend days on end alone doing absolutely nothing and being content, but my four years as a drag performer have kicked that content lethargy out of my life. My quarantine schedule is split into three types of activities:

  1. The times when I’m engaged with something genuinely exciting (digital drag projects, spending time with my roommates, going for long walks and listening to music)
  2. The times when I overload myself with so much media, I forget there even is a world around me. My recent way of digitally shutting my anxiety off is listening to Kurt Vonnegut on audiobook and playing Stardew Valley (a relaxing farming simulator) on my PS4. For some reason, the wild combination of repetitive activities on a charming cartoon farm and skin-crawling descriptions of World War II kinda works for me.
  3. The times in which I allow myself to be very sad about everything that’s happening around me and in the world.

To paraphrase an ancient proverb I just made up: A breakdown a day keeps the virus away.

 

Sean Schenker

Founder, Fighting Spirit Karate; songwriter in the Trapps

I have always operated with an inner compass that has pointed me towards “fighting on” and pushing forward amidst the obstacles. It is how I grew up as a Kyokushin fighter and martial arts practitioner. I consider myself blessed to have had that as my backbone philosophy, even when it came at the end of a bamboo shinai stick hitting me. It is also a big underlying part of my character as a musician, because God knows we as musicians have always had to “endure” long before any virus hit.

Here are some ways I have been using my resources (talents, if you will) and community approach to keep the fire burning and keep people (including myself) motivated, connected and healthy. I truly believe that doing our part, to the best of our abilities now and always, is not only our moral duty, but it is the only way out of this mess and beyond.

First, at Fighting Spirit we are encouraging all members and non-members and beyond to get involved with us and train. Staying healthy, physically and mentally more so, is critical right now, not only to help boost immune system response but to keep connected. The main thing we see is that people enjoy the FSK “community.” It is the family approach. The focus is on interconnectedness and our ability to be inclusive of so many, helping people to discover their path to self-discovery while remaining connected with each other.

So we are, for now, offering many resources for clients/students/families and people all over the world. We are doing weekly livestream training on Facebook Live. It includes fitness classes and circuits, tabata workouts, karate kata and fight training, virtual trail runs, body weight exercises for everyone, krav maga classes of self defense and cardio, traditional Japanese weapons training and Brazilian jiu jitsu and grappling. Every class has a fitness and martial component so that anyone can join in and do the entire workout or just the parts they wish to do. Beyond that, all of these workouts and live sessions are catalogued, along with so much other martial/fitness content, at our YouTube page. Anyone can access this.

I am the chairman of the IFK-USA, a huge international body of Kyokushin Karate practitioners all over the world. We have had people from all over the world training with us: Poland, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Canada and the list goes on. Fighting Spirit Karate Facebook page for livestreams: www.facebook.com/fightingspiritkaratestudio. YouTube page: www.youtube.com/user/senseisean1973.

 

Alissa R. Fairlie, DVM

Owner, Creature Comforts Animal Hospital, Poughkeepsie; board member, Hudson Valley Veterinary Medical Society

As a member of the veterinary medical profession, I took an oath to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society. Therefore, even during times of a human pandemic, I still have to strive to promote animal health and welfare, relieve animal suffering, protect the health of the public and the environment and advance comparative medical knowledge. As a veterinarian, I have an obligation to be ever-present for my clients and patients who need their illnesses and injuries cared for and their medicines provided to them. This is necessary not only to treat current or ongoing conditions, but to inoculate and prevent other conditions or epidemics from occurring.

As an employer, I have the burden of continuing to manage all aspects of the hospital’s business. During this pandemic, I have now had to additionally focus on my ability to keep my employees paid and healthy in a time when many businesses are cutting back, closing or letting their employees go. As a mother, wife, daughter, sister and pet-owner, I have the responsibility to keep myself safe and healthy and do everything possible to prevent contagious disease from coming home with me.

At the animal hospital, we have taken preventative actions by making our office a handshake- and body-contact-free facility, with few exceptions, known to both employees and clientele via social media, e-mail blast and with a sign on the front door of the building. We are educating our clients about COVID-19 in the same manner. We have increased disinfection of surfaces after every single patient that leaves and the common areas multiple times throughout the day, especially ones with frequent use, including writing utensils and doorknobs.

Because pets may act as a fomite (an inanimate object or substance that is capable of transmitting infectious organisms from one individual to another), we put ourselves at risk every day. We are having to use our own leashes and sanitize them between every patient to reduce exposure from the pets’ belongings. We are forced to offer more phone consults, and many veterinarians are having to resort to telemedicine through video measures over important physical exams. We have lost business as many medications are now needing to be picked up from an online pharmacy or local pharmacy to reduce exposure. Like many other businesses, there are veterinary offices being asked to donate their supplies and equipment to the local hospitals who may need it more. We all have to do what we have to do to thrive and deal with the economic repercussions later.

 

Jesse Doherty-Vinicor

English teacher at Oakwood Friends School, Poughkeepsie; musician in the band Battle Ave.; new father

This period of quarantine has come at a very strange time for me personally and professionally. I had just returned to work after an eight-week paternity leave, which could be called a strangely similar period of self-isolation, so life right now feels a bit familiar. I find myself falling into the same routines I was in during my leave: reading, taking small walks and spending most of my time with my newborn daughter Esther. Of course, there was an end in sight while I was on leave; now, I have no idea if this will last a month or a year.

A couple of years ago, I created a songwriting challenge: Write and record one song a day for five days. This project, undertaken by myself and a few friends, was revived recently, and is one of the only things keeping me sane as an artist. I was in the process of recording my band’s next album, and now that I can’t go to the studio, I feel like I’m in musical limbo. This songwriting challenge, at times silly and at times frustrating, helps me feel that I’m not just standing still. I’m hoping to have another album’s worth of demoed songs by the end of this.

The biggest difference in my life is how my school, which also happens to be my community (I live on campus), has been affected. Like most schools, we have switched to a distance learning model, which has a lot of students (and teachers) stressed and concerned. As an English teacher who prizes discussion and interaction over all else, I am having to seriously adapt and reformat my tactics; of course, this is made doubly hard due to some students’ lack of technology or Internet access. Thankfully, we have no Regents numbers to justify or superintendent to answer to, so I have the freedom to use this time to focus on the important things: the well-being and sanity of my students and a consistent feeling of community, even if it is a digital community.

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I think using the term “silver lining” during this time is flippant, but switching to distance learning has allowed me to reinforce some of my beliefs about what the priorities of education should be. If they don’t read Shakespeare or finish a research paper, it won’t hurt them, as learners or as people; but this is a paradigm shift, and we need to make sure that what we carry over is not insistence on learning how to use a semicolon properly, but rather a sense of compassion and consideration.

 

Rhett Miller

Songwriter, Old 97’s and solo

I saw that my gigs were all getting canceled. The solo acoustic shows are really how I feed my kids and pay my mortgage. I do shows with the Old 97’s that are much bigger, typically, but I bring home so much less money from those shows because of overhead. The solo shows are what we depend on 100 percent because there is, as you know, no more income from sales or streaming or anything, and usage is only something you can count on as like a Christmas bonus, if you get a song used in TV show or something.

I hated the idea of (obviously) not making any money, but beyond that, the idea of not having any purpose, of being form without function. It drove me crazy immediately. I started thinking that there must be a way to do this from home, given all the technology we possess. But I am not good at technology, so I had to overcome my fear. I did a little research and discovered a platform called Stageit that makes it really easy to do shows from my office. I did it quickly. I kind of saw that musicians were all going to be in the same boat. It’s not like I wanted to get there first and take a big piece of the pie; I truly believe that it is not a pie that we have to split, but an infinite pie that we all share. I’ve done two shows now, and they’ve gone better than I ever could have expected.

I’ve been able to replace some lost income. For instance, I was supposed to be in Ardmore, Pennsylvania last night. And I was able to replace that gig with an online gig where I was performing for people from all around the world. That feeling of helplessness overcome was just so powerful. It’s a brilliant way to combat the despair, and I get the sense that the people at the show are having a similar experience. I couldn’t make peace with the idea of charging a lot of money. I don’t begrudge anyone who puts a fixed a price on a ticket. I just know, for me, I feel a lot better knowing that no one is going to get shut out. I’ve also found this weird counterintuitive thing that if you tell people to pay what they can, a certain number of people will pay five cents, but a lot of people will pay more than a fixed ticket price – because they want to support me, or art.

I’ve been trying aggressively to find a bright spot in all this: this time to be with my kids, in their teenage years. I feel so bad that their childhoods are being put on hold, but I love getting to be with them. I love where we live, getting to walk the River-to-Ridge Trail – maintaining social distance, of course, but being in nature.

 

Dr. Stephen Weinman

Owner, FirstCare Walk-In Medical Center;

Author of A Rock With A View: Hiking, Biking and Skiing the Shawangunk Mountains

Stephen Weinman

I have continued to work at our medical center, which is oddly quiet. I have gotten to clean spaces I haven’t seen in years and uncovered equipment I didn’t even know I had, like a coffee-cup warmer and a professional quality N95 mask! Timely! We have more time to sit and chat with patients now that we aren’t swamped, like it has been for the last two months during the crazy flu season: busiest we had seen it in 13 years. I feel like an old-timey family doctor spending a half an hour chatting with a patient. Also interesting is I have now done my first Telemedicine visits, and my one patient I have known for years took me on a house tour and showed me his cat and dog and his stereo, playing bebop jazz. I never would have seen that without a video home visit.

At home our three children, 16, 14 and 10, all are having birthdays in quarantine, and our 10-year-old did a Zoom video chat with 15 or so of her friends. That was fun, and the cleanup so much easier than the standard little-girl party. All three are playing instruments more than they had, especially our 16-year-old. They also go outside a good amount now – which they had before, but now they have more time to play and play together, which is really nice to see. They have become closer, and we hope that they won’t get cabin fever as time goes on and start to cannibalize each other.

An obvious answer to the isolation crisis is catching up on TV shows, which we were always woefully behind. While certainly a guilty pleasure, it seems the variety of in-home entertainment has come so far in the last ten years. I cannot imagine quarantine with what we had available only 20 years ago – although I’m sure I would get more reading done.

 

Seth Davis Branitz

Co-owner of Karma Road; songwriter; author

Seth Davis Branitz

Business was already suffering, but when the mandate came down, it was quickly obvious that operating with curbside/contact-free delivery was losing us money. That, combined with growing anxiety over potential exposure, led us to shut down until it’s safe. Seventeen employees laid off and my partner and I out of work.

I’ve gotten several e-mails from customers who asked to purchase gift cards and for me to give them to someone in need. Family of New Paltz will be distributing them. Our landlord called yesterday to assure us that he’ll work with us and to take care of our family first. What a relief.

I feel incredibly fortunate to be healthy, warm, well-fed and part of a community that’s proactive and shows concern for its members. My insecurities are tempered by the short-but-exciting list of creative and personal projects I’ve begun attacking. I’ve been showing my 14-year-old some moves on the guitar and ukulele. I’ve captured video of me playing some of my songs into my iPhone and posting them to spread some connection. I’ve been adding to my series of nude-tree sketches. I’ve been working with an editor/friend on last tweaks for my first book: a memoir focused on growing up in my troubled family. I attacked the garage, which has been a constant source of irritation for me. I’m in the process of discarding, organizing, gifting and donating loads upon loads that have been cluttering our space and my mind. Sorting through a thousand of my parents’ and grandparents’ photos, scribbling who, when and where on the back of each of the handful I’m keeping, feeling some feelings and moving on. I’m looking forward to facilitating some online writing workshops with TMI Project (my other professional gig). And I’ve been checking in with at least one friend per day.

These are filling me up in ways that are on par or even more gratifying than making beautiful food and connecting with my staff and our customers. I’m pretty rich in friends and good work. This quarantine has got me reconsidering how I spend my time. While horrified that people are sick and dying, I’m sure, if we’re paying attention, there will be valuable lessons here for the rest of us. Let’s make the most of every moment.