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Posts Tagged ‘pandemic’

Photo: Ann Hermes/Christian Science Monitor.
Shoppers in Chelsea, Mass., have benefited from cash payments during the pandemic.

How many years have we kicked around the idea of a guaranteed income to eliminate poverty? If you search at this blog on the topic, you will see several forms the concept has taken in the past. And since COVID-19 became part of our lives, the feeling of urgency around Universal Basic Income (UBI) has grown.

At the Christian Science Monitor, Simon Montlake as a report on Chelsea, Massachusetts.

“Inside the hillside church where she works part time as custodian, Ana Vanegas-Rivera rests on a wooden bench and pulls out her phone wallet. She holds up a blue debit card, similar to the others in her wallet, minus her name or any issuing bank. 

“The card belongs to Chelsea, a blue-collar city outside Boston that is using it to give cash to around 2,000 low-income residents during a pandemic that has disproportionately hit its Latino-majority population. Every month the card is reloaded with between $200 and $400, depending on family size, allowing recipients to spend the money as they see fit. 

“Ms. Vanegas-Rivera’s $400 goes toward buying food, household items, school supplies, and shoes for Dylan, her third grade son. For now, the family is getting by on her modest custodian salary and disability checks, along with what her husband earns from sporadic construction jobs, so every extra dollar counts.

“ ‘It has been a big help. I’m very happy that we have this opportunity,’ she says. 

“The pilot income program, which began in November and runs until May, has been underwritten by federal and state COVID-19 relief dollars, as well as private donations, and is geared to feeding families, as its name, Chelsea Eats, suggests. ‘Our overriding goal is to get people through the spring,’ says Tom Ambrosino, the city manager. ‘For some of our families that is the only money they have.’ 

“Chelsea is also a national testbed for a simple idea: to help people by giving them money. Not a housing voucher, not food stamps, but a cash-equivalent payment that ensures recipients have a basic income that they can spend any way they want. The rationale is that people know best what they need, and letting them make decisions on how to use the money, without restrictions, is direct and empowering, and doesn’t require a big bureaucracy to implement.

“Chelsea is one of several U.S. cities experimenting with unconditional cash transfers to help some residents quickly – an idea that could become the basis for an alternative to traditional welfare and other safety net programs that have existed for decades. Indeed, advocates see these cash experiments as a building block toward a federal guarantee of a basic income for all, or at least all who manifestly need it. 

“The idea of a universal basic income that would fill in some of the crevasses in capitalist economies isn’t new. … But UBI has always been a provocative notion that seemed just a little too provocative, an unfathomable expense – free money for all – that nobody would want to pay. That was before the pandemic.

Once economies started closing down, governments around the world began to dig deep and spend freely, putting cash directly in people’s hands. …

“Most U.S. social assistance is modest and conditioned on certain requirements, such as work and family size. Except for older adults or people with disabilities, it rarely arrives in the form of cash. This reflects an ethos of self-reliance, as well as decades of conservative criticism that welfare is wasteful and breeds dependence. Backers of basic income believe these traditional assistance programs no longer work. 

“Yet the politics of governments handing out cash remains complicated. Many liberals like UBI but some don’t. Many conservatives don’t like UBI but some do. 

“For now, momentum is building for at least some form of basic income in the face of a lopsided economy that seems to generate more losers than winners, even before the pandemic. But the question is: How far will the idea go? …

“In Chelsea, Mr. Ambrosino doesn’t really focus much on whether the idea of a basic income is gaining ascendancy in Washington or not. His priority is simply to help families in a tough spot, and he’s happy with what he’s seeing so far with Chelsea Eats. ‘We’re getting money in the right hands,’ he says. 

“Roseann Bongiovanni, a former city councilor and now executive director of GreenRoots, a local nonprofit, agrees that the extra money is helping families. But Chelsea faces challenges of housing affordability and environmental justice, and overall demand at food pantries hasn’t gone away. ‘This is a short-term fix,’ she says. ‘It’s not resolving a larger structural issue.’ 

“Ms. Vanegas-Rivera knows that her debit card is temporary. Though she owes less on her credit cards and is managing better, her money problems haven’t gone away. What has changed, she says, is that she and her husband are no longer lining up daily at food pantries.” 

More here.

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Photo: PD Rearick.
Sarah Rose Sharp’s “Avolare A Alveare (Fly Away from the Hive),” 2016, wool, salvage quilt fragment, found embroidery, printed cotton, iron-on letters, silk, hem binding.

You and your friends have probably already speculated about how many lockdown adaptations will survive the pandemic. Working from home, FaceTime and Zoom calls with distant family, increased handwashing and awareness of aerosols, paying for entertainment online, etc.

In today’s article, an artist praises the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits to freelancers and imagines a world in which basic income could provide a kind of at-home residency for creatives.

Sarah Rose Sharp writes at Hyperallergic that government payments allowed her to create without worry about money during the pandemic.

She says, “One of the basic truisms of freelancing is: You can have time, or you can have resources, but you will almost never have both simultaneously. A foundational lesson of this workflow is doing the work when it’s available and saving as much as possible for the slow times. But its counterpart is this: When times are slow, that’s the opportunity to do your own (uncompensated) thing, and you should not waste this time wallowing in anxiety about the next paid gig.

“I truly never expected the government to identify freelancers as a vulnerable population needing to be covered by unemployment. Mostly 1099 workers pay disproportionately into public benefit systems without being able to access them. Imagine my complete surprise when I discovered that freelancers were being offered unprecedented unemployment benefits through Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. In other words: every 1099 worker is being offered a paid artist residency. …

“In pre-pandemic times, artists competed tooth and nail for residency opportunities. Even when you get them, they tend to conceal sunken costs, such as requiring travel away from your life and home, thus necessitating use of resources you’re granted just to maintain your permanent homestead. You may have to pay to board pets. You may have to ship supplies or buy new ones when you get to New Hampshire or Maine or Houston or a tiny remote island and realize you left the perfect thing back in your studio.

“There are arguably many benefits of destination residencies, from offering new social connections, to providing bucolic surroundings, to the stimulation of a change of scene, but

In my experience, the best conditions for making art involve getting paid to make art where I’ve already built the infrastructure that enables me to make art.

“Since March of 2020, that’s what I’ve done, and it’s been a productive year.

“And it’s a terrific moment to have creative people collectively on paid residency, because this past year has otherwise been hell, with many of the things that inform and structure quotidian existence shaken to their foundations. Because artists make meaning out of chaos the pre-COVID world that others inhabited so effortlessly didn’t actually make all that much sense to us to begin with. During this time I find myself and other creative people asking a lot of questions about how necessary nine-to-five workdays were in the first place (or conversely, understanding how utterly crucial and underpaid teachers are), and dreaming about new ways we might approach what is to come — ways that centralize, value, and hold people when our labels peel back or entirely fall away.

“The work I’ve seen artists doing this year in lockdown, the solace and continuity the creative community has offered to a population scared, grieving, uncertain, and bored, the ways people have found a way to stay connected through distance, difficulty, and estrangement from social norms — all of these are testaments to the creative spirit. And on a policy level, they also make a strong case for Universal Basic Income. [Read three of Suzanne’s Mom’s posts on that concept here, here, and here.]

“I haven’t seen anyone working less, I’ve just seen them directing their efforts into things that feel meaningful, instead of clock punching.

“The French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ While this year has made it clear that some of humanity’s problems stem from bats, it’s definitely given some of us the opportunity to attempt to live in the solution to our other problems — which is to say, there are worse things we could practice than sitting quietly in a room alone. There are lots of things that I will never see in the same way again, but personally, I no longer see the artist residency as an away-game activity, but one to be cultivated as thoroughly as possible on the home field.”

Pascal’s words are worth thinking about. As Maria Popova at Brain Pickings likes to remind us (quoting Ruth Krauss), “Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.”

More at Hyperallergic, here.

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Photo: The Telegraph.
The United Kingdom’s Marsh family has been singing spoofs of popular songs since the beginning of the pandemic.

Probably at some point during the pandemic, you saw the Marsh family’s early 2020 spoof of the song “One Day More” from Les Miserables. But did you know the funny, sometimes off-key, UK family has kept going?

Isabella Kwai has the backstory at the New York Times. “The family of six is lined up in front of microphones, ready to perform. The stage: their living room, complete with flowery curtains and family photos. The costumes: for the children, pajamas and bathrobes. The song: Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 raspy-voiced power ballad ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ [below], tweaked for the pandemic era.

“ ‘Third lockdown,’ the father croons, before his son Alfie cuts in: ‘2021 … and it’s a little bit lonely, no one’s ever coming ’round.’

“Meet the Marshes — Ben, Danielle, and their four children Alfie, 14, Thomas, 13, Ella, 11 and Tess, 9 — a family from the English town of Faversham that has gained unexpected fame for their revamped, tongue-in-cheek cover tunes about life in times of Covid. This six-voice choir, with its sweet harmonies and the occasional wobbly note, is creating songs that dramatize the mundane moments of lockdown life, from too much screen time to the horrors of remote learning.

” In their version of ‘One Day More,’ from the musical Les Misérables, the parents groan about grocery shopping online during the first lockdown as the children lament: ‘Our grandparents can’t Skype, we’re brokenhearted.’ …

“And with England crawling through a third national lockdown, they felt the time was ripe for ‘Total Eclipse’ — ‘Used to be bright eyes. Struggling to tell the days apart. Now we’re Lords of Flies.’ …

“In a time when there has been little cause for celebration, the Marshes are just some of the many people around the world who have embraced music as a way to boost morale or income, and to cope with a pandemic that has confined many people inside. During the first wave, Italians sang from their balconies, mariachi bands in Mexico played in the streets, and the percussion of people banging pots to celebrate frontline workers became a nightly soundtrack in New York and other cities.

The Marshes have not limited themselves to song; their performances have included moments of bickering, dance — captioned ‘interpretive angst dance’ — and dramatic flourishes that have amused an audience around the world.

“ ‘This is the first thing that made me not just smile but laugh out loud,’ said one fan online who had been depressed about Germany’s extending restrictions. ‘Can you adopt me?’ another joked.

“The fame is new but the singing isn’t. Mr. Marsh, 44, and Mrs. Marsh, 43, who both work at the University of Kent, met as students at Cambridge, where they sang in low-budget university productions. Reworking lyrics was a family affair even pre-pandemic. … The difference is those earlier spoofs were mainly for their own entertainment. Then the pandemic hit.

“In late March [2020], the family was searching for ways to celebrate some birthdays that suddenly had to go remote, including that of Mrs. Marsh’s mother. Their gift, they decided, would have to go virtual.

“ ‘There was no schoolwork, there was no nothing,’ Mrs. Marsh said. ‘That’s when the music became a focus for us all.’ …

“So now they’re famous, but are they cool? Well, no, Mr. Marsh said. ‘I think if we tried to do “cool,” it would all fall apart.’ But at a time when ‘so few can sing together in one place,’ the family members hope to use their sudden fame, which Mr. Marsh called ‘bewildering and incredible,’ to do some good.

“They said they are donating the proceeds from guest appearances to the W.H.O. Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund, which supports efforts to end the pandemic, and Save the Children. But recently they also decided to take a chance by encouraging people to get vaccines, a departure from their more comedic fare. …

“How did they deliver the message? Try replacing ‘Hallelujah’ in Leonard Cohen’s iconic song with this: ‘Have the new jab. Have the new jab. Have the new jab. Have the new-ew-ew-ew jab.’ (Sung by Tess, in fuzzy p.j.’s, as her father strums the guitar.) …

“ ‘I would have never spent this much time with my 14-year-old,’ said Mrs. Marsh.”

More at the New York Times, here.

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Map: Britannica
New Zealand is seeing a renaissance in the magazine business.

Sometimes a small, well-networked country or state can do a better job making challenging things happen than the big guys can. I’m thinking, for example, about West Virginia’s remarkable success in getting the Covid vaccine into people’s arms. (NBC has a cool story about Mom & Pop drugstores and the advantage of knowing your community.)

Today’s story comes from a very different part of the world and concerns a very different topic: the struggling print-magazine industry.

Elle Hunt reports at the Guardian, “At 8.31am on a Thursday, Henry Oliver received a text message from his employer, alerting him to a company-wide Zoom call in 29 minutes’ time.

“The day was 2 April 2020, a week into New Zealand’s national lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus. Oliver, who is the editor of Metro magazine, and his team had been scrambling to adjust to remote working and – with magazine publishing not among the ‘essential services’ permitted to continue through the pandemic – a new digital-first operation.

“Within an hour of that text, Oliver and the 300-odd other employees of Bauer Media New Zealand were told they were being made redundant, the titles they worked on would be put up for sale, and the entire company was to close. …

“A privately owned German company operational in 13 countries, including the US, UK and Australia, Bauer had been a pillar of the New Zealand magazine industry since 2012. In particular it was known for its current affairs and long-form features journalism, as the home of the Auckland-centric Metro, North & South and The Listener – titles with steady subscriber bases and some of the most experienced and awarded journalists in the country on staff.

“In its suddenness and its sweep, Bauer’s decision seemed to sound a death knell for an entire industry. … Yet less than a year later, not only have Bauer magazines been brought back to life under new ownership, but also new titles have been launched – reflecting a flurry of investment and innovation in New Zealand media precipitated by the pandemic.

“Sydney private equity firm Mercury Capital purchased Bauer NZ for an unspecified sum in June (later renaming it Are Media) – extending a lifeline to The Listener and four other mastheads.

Metro and North & South were both acquired by independent investors seeking to preserve New Zealand’s tradition of long-form features journalism.

“Meanwhile, four entirely new monthly titles – staffed by former Bauer editors and writers, with former CEO Paul Dykzeul advising – were launched by School Road Publishing in November.

“The recovery, since the dire outlook in April, has exceeded all expectations: testament to the appetite of New Zealanders not just to read magazines, but to make them.

“The day after he was made redundant, Oliver started work on a zine. With a budget procured from property developer Britomart Group, he was able to deploy the talents of many of the journalists and designers who had been let go with him from Bauer. He gave it the tongue-in-cheek title Essential Services, describing it as a ‘small affirmation of life in the face of media industry collapse.’

“Oliver went on to produce two more issues with funding from government agency Creative New Zealand. … ‘I just thought to myself, it’s not really up to a German billionaire whether I get to make magazines or not.’

“Others too had spied opportunity in among the rubble. German-born journalists Konstantin Richter and Verena Friederike Hasel … made a ‘spontaneous’ offer on North & South to ensure its survival, as subscribers themselves. Richter is also a board member of the Swiss media giant TX Group, founded by his family, and splits his time between the two countries. …

“Richter describes their vision as ‘a mix of change and tradition’: retaining North & South’s time-honoured focus on issues that span the length of New Zealand, bridging the urban-rural divide – while injecting news and perspectives from further afield. He sees an opportunity to build on the tradition of investigative and long-form features journalism in a nation that is more receptive than others to the concept.

Metro, meanwhile, was bought by media entrepreneur Simon Chesterman, who retained Oliver as editor and moved the magazine to quarterly publishing. It relaunched with a splash in November with an exclusive essay from Lorde.

“Oliver says they were aligned on the importance of an Auckland-centric title in the age of coronavirus. ‘We’re going to be living in a more local world for the foreseeable future, so a city magazine, an authority on a specific place, can be more relevant than ever.’

“Plus, at a moment of up-to-the-minute, pandemic-driven doom-scrolling, ‘here is space for a slower media,’ says Oliver. ‘That was really what was taken away with the shutdown of the magazines.’

“To [Colin Peacock, host of Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch programme], the industry’s reinvention suggests a new era of ‘start-up-style media’ in New Zealand. … Peacock points to Shepherdess – a new quarterly magazine for rural women, which launched in mid-March – and the free ‘mountain culture’ publication 1964 as examples of how print might be reinvented to serve a specific, perhaps localised audience. …

“In April, Bauer’s Australia and New Zealand chief executive Brendon Hill had said magazines would be ‘untenable’ in New Zealand through the pandemic: ‘Publishing in New Zealand is very dependent on advertising revenue and it is highly unlikely that demand will ever return to pre-crisis levels.’

“But the industry’s bounceback from catastrophe reflects New Zealand readers’ loyalty to their long-standing magazines – potentially to a fault, Peacock suggests. … The resurrection of The Listener, almost identical in form and focus, suggests there was next to no enthusiasm for a refresh, says Peacock. …

“Richter and Friederike Hasel are hopeful that North & South readers will embrace a new global perspective – especially at this time of transition, not just for New Zealand’s media but New Zealand itself. Bauer’s exit was ‘a shock to many,’ says Friederike Hasel – ‘but I think something good might come out of that.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Mike Birbiglia
Behind the scenes of one of Birbiglia’s virtual comedy shows.

My older granddaughter is having a birthday this week, and her joker dad told her she wouldn’t really be 8 until after the pandemic. Maybe sometime in the summer.

She is on to his tricks, but I laughed as I unnecessarily reassured her over What’s App that she would be 8 on her real birthday. Gotta be grateful for any wisp of humor in a pandemic, even goofy humor.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia always knew that laughter was important, but since he started putting his comedy online, he’s learned just how hungry people are to laugh in difficult times.

At Vulture, Birbiglia how his virtual shows got started. “On March 10, 2020, I drove from my apartment in Brooklyn to a weekend of club shows in Buffalo, New York, to work out new material for a theater tour. … I like Buffalo because I like the people at my shows and the hotel near the club and the people at the hotel and the coffee shops near the hotel. In general, those are the folks I encounter when I’m on the road.

“And I love being on the road. I like meeting people from all over the country and performing shows. … The further you go into more remote locations, the more people seem to crave live comedy.

“When I was 24, I was asked to perform in Seward, Alaska, which has a population of 2,700 people. I was booked there by, I believe, the town of Seward. If memory serves, I was pretty terrible and the crowd was pretty great. Same with Fargo, North Dakota. I remember driving there with my brother Joe through many feet of snow and thinking, This show is gonna be as bad as these roads, and then it was one of the most appreciative crowds I’ve ever played for. …

“These types of shows are typically called ‘hell gigs’ by comics — shows that don’t take place in clubs, but instead loud bars, town gymnasiums, bowling alleys, sometimes even laundromats.

I’ve performed in the center of all-night college walkathons and in the deli lines of cafeterias in the afternoon. I’ve shown up to at least 30 shows that didn’t have a microphone and 100 that didn’t have a stage. Hell gigs are part of the job.

“But the location actually doesn’t really matter. People just want to watch comedy. Everyone’s reason for watching comedy is different, but for me, it’s the shared catharsis of a person onstage talking about the same anxieties you might be experiencing. …

“At its best, stand-up comedy is one person taking the mic and providing the audience with an hour of escapism from the predictability of life. … In one moment, it shocks us, and in the next, it hangs a lantern on the universality of the absurd.

“Stand-up comedy on TV can shrink the format. It can feel like reheated pizza. When you show up in Fargo or Seward, you’re delivering the fresh, hot pizza of comedy right to their door. Showing up in people’s towns cements the communal upside of comedy, which is that it isn’t just the comedian who is seen and heard, but it’s also the audience.

“On March 11, 2020, I was driving to Buffalo via Ithaca, listening to epidemiologists on NPR weigh in on the spreading virus. I stopped at a local pizzeria called Thompson and Bleecker and sat down at the communal table. I was sitting with a couple of strangers who just drove in from Maryland, and they were concerned about the virus too. The guy said, ‘We were listening to Joe Rogan, and he had this scientist on, and we’re starting to think this is really serious.’

“That was the moment I knew I had to drive home. When the Venn diagram of Joe Rogan intersects with NPR, I know there’s something of a national consensus. Things are bad and are about to get worse.

“I drove the four hours back to Brooklyn. We postponed the Buffalo shows for what we thought was a shocking amount of time: four months. My agent asked me to consider doing some virtual shows, to which I was completely resistant.

“The next person I talked to was comedian Sam Morril, who [said] to me, ‘I actually get a lot out of it. I also didn’t expect that not only are you performing for people who can’t leave their houses from the shutdown, but you’re also performing for people who maybe couldn’t even leave their houses before COVID.’

“That’s when I decided I would try this at least once.

“In summer 2020, I did one night of Mike Birbiglia: Working It Out Virtually for 500 people who were located around the world. It was weird. And fun. Then I decided to do more.

“I started adding virtual crew members: a cinematographer, a sound technician, a director. We added three more iPhones to give us new camera angles. We lit my brother Joe’s Rhode Island office like a TV studio. It became this strange hybrid stand-up comedy interactive talk show.

“What I discovered was that the same thing people enjoyed about the live shows were things they were able to enjoy on the Zoom show. One of our producers noticed that during one of the shows someone wrote in the live Zoom chat: ‘I can’t unmute! I want to laugh!’ Those folks were unmuted by the hosts. They were seen. They were heard. …

“People Zoomed in from the most remote locations: living rooms with their cats and dogs and rabbits, gathered around bonfires with whiskey, families huddled in their children’s playroom because it has the best Wi-Fi, a woman knitting a shawl in her TV room, a couple carving a pumpkin with their family in the kitchen. Five continents and over 20 different countries were represented. …

“I’ve done about 18 of these virtual shows, and I’ve learned things from them that I thought I had long understood after 20 years of being a professional comedian. People need comedy. At very least, they need to laugh — particularly when life is most burdensome and unwieldy. People need to laugh to be reminded what laughter feels like and why anyone would have laughed in the first place. It’s the defibrillator that sends a shock to the heart to restore a normal rhythm. …

“I enjoy it because I feel connected to people all over the country and all over the world. I’m not saying it’s ideal. Arguably these are the worst conditions imaginable for comedy, but I think the people participating appreciate that I’m showing up at all. I mean, let’s be honest. It’s a hell gig.”

More at Vulture, here.

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Photo: Anslee Wolfe/ Colorado Springs School
Sophomore Haegan Malone works on composing music for the radio play with junior Finnegan Thompson in the background of the sound booth at Colorado Springs School.

Pandemic adaptations have led to many changes we may want to keep. Which isn’t to say I’m not desperate for my turn at the vaccine and more quality time with grandchildren. But I’m grateful for some of the online things that have become part of our lives. Here’s a story about renewed appreciation of the radio play.

Ali Budner writes at Colorado Public Radio (CPR), “One of the casualties of the coronavirus has been the traditional school play. You know, the kind with a stage and a live, in-person audience. But instead of giving it up altogether, some drama teachers have re-imagined the annual student performance.  

“At the Colorado Springs School, a private K-12 college prep school, the fall production morphed into a radio drama. ‘Trap’ is a meta mystery thriller about a school play gone awry and set (somewhat ironically for the circumstances) inside a high school auditorium. 

“When theater director Jonathan Andujar realized the show couldn’t happen in person on a normal stage, his mind spun through other options.

“Could they perform outside? No, too cold. Could they film it? No, too much equipment, and besides, filming on location became impossible when the school went virtual. 

“When he finally landed on the idea of a radio play, Andujar said it felt like an ‘aha’ moment. … He had originally chosen the play because he loves sci-fi and mysteries. However, more than anything he loves a good plot twist. And real life in 2020 has been full of its own plot twists. …

‘A radio drama as its own art form is super exciting because the play lives in a complete world of sound,’ Andujar said. ‘You can be in point A and point B and point C instantaneously. And you don’t have to worry about the set.’

“He did, however, have to worry about how he’d create characters, scenes and plot using sound alone. And that’s where sophomore student Haegen Malone came in. 

“Malone voice-acted several characters in the play. He also helped out with the sound effects like doors opening and footsteps on stairs. And he composed original music for the scenes. Malone refers to himself as a house musician and makes tracks at home on his computer all the time.

“But this was his first time scoring a radio drama. And he happily took on the challenge. …

“Andujar had students’ record their lines straight into their computers or iPhones at home and send them in to be woven into a final mix. 

“ ‘We live in a wondrous age of technology with a bunch of teenagers and they all definitely had a phone,’ he said. ‘So that was super handy.’

“Recording her lines into a phone, and acting without costumes, sets, or props was all new and a little overwhelming for senior Whitney Richardi. Even without a stage to rehearse on, she found ways to develop her character’s persona. She plays a few characters, including a detective. 

“ ‘I found myself pacing around my room or using my hands to express something,’ she said. … ‘You really have to concentrate on how you use different pitches and tones to convey to the audience what the scene is about. And that takes a lot of focus. …

” ‘I’m very extroverted, but the voice portion taught me a lot about just how I can utilize that to best portray my character.’

“Her fingers are crossed that she’ll get to transfer those skills into a role in the spring musical. It’s her senior year, so these are her last high school plays. 

“It’s been bittersweet not to be able to rehearse and perform in person with her castmates, but she’s grateful there was something to do. …

“ ‘I think one of the best parts about theater for me is just being able to go in every day and hang out with my friends, you know, in between scenes or after rehearsal. So it was definitely different. You didn’t get that, you know, physical face-to-face social time.’ …

“Andujar encouraged the students to let their guards down during virtual rehearsals because he knew it could be hard to build that rapport from afar. 

“ ‘I try to make it very clear,’ he said. ‘We can be silly. Let’s do these crazy voices.’ …

“ ‘When I found out that we were going into lockdown, I was just like, Oh my gosh, I didn’t know if I was able to get through it,’ [Malone] said. ‘But when I found out I could get a part in the new upcoming radio play, I thought this is like a perfect opportunity. It just made everything feel like so much more possible.’ ”

More here.

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From trying to maintain holiday traditions like Christmas-tree cutting to getting kids to wear masks and maintain social distance in school, it was a year to remember (or forget).

Normally, this is a week when people take stock of their year, maybe make New Year’s Resolutions. But how to summarize 2020? What to resolve for 2021 other than to stay alive and donate more to people in need?

Kara Baskin at the Boston Globe, having taken on writing a pandemic newsletter for parents, decided to ask them what they have learned from this strange time.

“This year has been piercingly difficult for most of us in ways ranging from soul-shatteringly epic to mundanely depleting,” she writes. … “As parents, we’ve cared for kids in close quarters — and our own parents, often from afar. We’ve tried to work while serving as supplemental tutors, counselors, and IT gurus. We have sworn at Google Classroom. We have cursed Zoom. We have vowed to never, ever take teachers for granted again. … The daily rhythms of life faded and morphed. Our circles often became smaller; our waistlines sometimes got bigger.

“But there were glimmers of happiness, too: more time for stuff that really mattered. Perspective. Gratitude. Reframed expectations. Hope? …

“I’ve learned that true colors come to light in the darkness. I’ve watched as my community and friends have stood up for causes they believed in, donated to businesses they felt compelled to support, and rallied around the sick and hurting. I’ve also realized that some connections fray without sustenance. … Most of all, I hope this year has allowed us to be vulnerable. … To realize that there is no shame: in being hungry, in being sick, in feeling inadequate or lost. …

“How about you? What has this year taught?

“ ‘That I don’t give myself enough credit after surviving COVID-19 for almost three months with three children as a single mom.’– April Golden-Shea

“ ‘I’ve learned that I need to be able to ebb and flow with how my kids are feeling. That might mean cutting them some slack one day and keeping them on task on another day. My parenting style has never been one-size-fits-all with my kids, but this pandemic has only crystallized how important it is for me to see them as individuals.’ – Eric Berman

‘That volunteering has saved me in every conceivable way.’ – Julie Lucey

“ ‘I have learned that I crumble without external structures.’ – Susan Anderson Garcia

“ ‘I appreciate that I’m not constantly comparing myself to others (and feeling like I come up short), because there’s not the constant level of activity or achievements which are usually happening. I hope I can continue this practice of not comparing, as it gives me more peace.’ – Roslyn Fitzgerald

“ ‘I will never take seeing a full, smiling face for granted again. The eyes can show a lot of emotion, but so much is hidden behind masks.’ – Alysia Tardelli Rourke

“ ‘My lesson learned (or emphasized?) from this year is that you can’t compartmentalize yourself. Being a parent and being a worker are intertwined. … In a former pre-COVID life, I would feel embarrassed (as though I were failing at work) when I had to leave early to pick up a sick kid or take a phone call from my child’s teacher. Now, it’s clearer to me that expecting work and family to stay separate is not only unrealistic but unhealthy.’ – Mallory Rohrig

“ ‘One lesson that is often internally known is that our kids come before ourselves. However, this year I feel like we’ve really had to live up to that. I’ve had to put my own college grades and aspirations aside in order to help my kindergartener through her homework and starting school during the strangest time of our lives.’ – Karlie McDaniel Le

“ ‘I’ve learned the importance of neighborhood and how it almost seemed irrelevant until a crisis. Our son’s second birthday was a Facebook Live production. And instead of having a handful of people over, we had 100!’ … – Michele Aron.”

So many awesome comments: hard to choose! Read others at the Globe, here.

Photo: Cherry Lane School
Suzanne says if she’s learned one thing this year it’s that “school is essential.”

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Shelter

America, January 12, 2020

At a time of year that many communities around the world are telling the story of finding shelter in a stable, it feels ironic that even in a pandemic wealthy countries can’t find it in their hearts to protect people from being evicted.

In America, if the December rescue bill is signed, renters will be protected until the end of January 2021, about a month.

Coronavirus shut down businesses, and people lost jobs and couldn’t pay rent. Have we no collective will to protect the most vulnerable? Landlords, especially small landlords, need protection, too. It’s not just up to them.

The burden of pandemic losses must fall on us as a group. As a taxpayer, that would be my priority. I can do without more bombers and military aid to Saudi Arabia. As a people, many of us celebrating Christmas today, what are our priorities? What does Christmas mean?

At the Washington Post, Heather Long and Rachel Siegel interviewed Americans who are in danger at this season.

“Most told The Post they are ‘not political people’ and are struggling to understand why Congress and the president would be able to celebrate Christmas when 14 million Americans are slated to lose unemployment aid on Saturday, the government is set to shut down on Tuesday, and an eviction moratorium that has prevented millions from losing their homes during a pandemic ends on New Year’s Eve.

“Waitress Robyn Saban summed up the sentiment of many: ‘I’ve worked for 18 years at a diner under very hard conditions. I never called in sick except when my husband died. And now Congress is just leaving town. It makes me furious because they are leaving people hanging.’ …

“Tony Bowens, 31, spent nine days in a hospital in March fighting for his life against the deadly coronavirus. In many ways, he’s just grateful this Christmas to be home with his wife and two kids, even though very little is the same. As his family struggles to pay rent, he can’t believe [there’s no] agreement on aid. …

“Bowens has ongoing complications from covid: Headaches, temperatures that spike for a day, crippling leg pains and trouble breathing. He lost his IT job in March and has not been able to work since. He received $65 a week in unemployment through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that Congress created this year to assist independent contractors and gig workers like him, but it will end the day after Christmas unless a relief bill gets enacted.

“His family is barely getting by on his wife’s job as a state government worker in Illinois. They are behind on rent and the electric bill, and they worry about more layoffs for state workers.

“Bowens said extending unemployment is ‘one of the most important things’ in the relief package because a $600 one-time check won’t last long, ‘but unemployment would go for 11 weeks. I was going to be able to get that again.’ ”

More on evictions at the News and Observer in Charlotte, North Carolina, here, at US News, here, at the Washington Post, here, and at CNBC, here. Eviction Lab is worth checking, too, here.

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Photo: CNN “The Good Stuff”
Guy Stanley Philoche, seen here with his own work, has helped fellow artists survive the pandemic by buying their art.

No one can solve all the problems of the world, but if we each try to address a problem we see in our particular corner of the world, we can move civilization forward. In today’s story, an artist saw other artists struggling in lockdown and knew what he could do to help.

Alaa Elassar, writes at CNN’s “The Good Stuff,” “Painter Guy Stanley Philoche, a New Yorker known for his colorful textured abstract artworks, has spent more than $65,000 buying work from struggling artists affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Philoche, 43, has dedicated himself to seeking out artists from around the world who are unable to make ends meet and has so far purchased more than 150 artworks for up to $500 each. His own pieces sell for up to $120,000, according to Cavalier Galleries.

” ‘The art world is my community and I needed to help my community,’ Philoche told CNN. ‘People say New York is dead, but it’s far from that. There’s an artist somewhere writing the next greatest album. There’s a kid right now in his studio painting the next Mona Lisa. There’s probably a dancer right now choreographing the next epic ballet.’ …

“When the pandemic began to affect families across the country, many people found themselves unable to pay rent, afford WiFi for their kids’ distance learning, or even put food on the table.

“As the ability to afford the basic necessities slowly diminished, art became a luxury not many could splurge on. In turn, hundreds of thousands of artists and independent creators were left without an income stream in the midst of the chaos.

“One of these artists was Philoche’s own friend, who just had a baby and had lost his job because of the pandemic.

‘I told him, “Don’t worry, we’re New Yorkers. We’ve been through 9/11, the blackout, the market crash, we’ve got this,” ‘ Philoche said. ‘But he was scared, so I bought a painting from him to help him get through it.’

” ‘It was such a big deal for him at that moment, and that’s when I realized if he’s panicking like this, other artists are too.’ … So, Philoche took matters into his own hands.

“On March 20, he posted on Instagram a video asking artists who were feeling the effects of the pandemic to direct message him their work. Whenever he saw a piece he fell in love with, Philoche bought it and paid for it to be shipped to his East Harlem studio.

“Within months, artists from Los Angeles and Chicago to London and New Zealand — and even artists who were in prison — reached out to him with their stories and their creations. … ‘It meant a lot to me. I want to help as many artists as possible, to make sure they are able to buy groceries, or pay their rent, or get their kids diapers or formula.’

“For Tara Blackwell, an artist from Stamford, Connecticut, art is her sole source of income. The only way she can survive off her art is through showing her work to collectors at exhibits, galleries, and studio visits — all which stopped because of the pandemic. …

” ‘The struggle to make a living as an artist is something I’ve known from a young age. I’m used to the ups and downs, but this felt different. There were so many unknowns.’ …

“Philoche purchased ‘Free Speech’ for $500 from Blackwell’s ‘Corner Store’ series, in which she uses retro pop culture imagery from her childhood with graffiti influences and the incorporation of subtle social-political commentary. ‘His support meant the world to me at a time when things seemed really bleak.’ …

“When Philoche was 3 years old, his family immigrated to the US from Haiti with nothing to their name. ‘Leaving one country to come to another was difficult. I didn’t speak the language, I was awkward and weird and trying to find myself in a new country,’ Philoche said. ‘I learned the language by watching cartoons and reading comics, and found my voice by drawing Disney characters. It’s how it all started.’ …

“Philoche started off by sliding business cards under apartment doors and hopping from art gallery to art gallery in hopes of meeting interested collectors. ‘Fast forward twenty years, I’m in the game,’ he said. ‘But throughout those years, I had no one open a door for me. It was me going through the back door, the window, until I found a way in the room by myself. Now that I have a seat at the table and I actually have a voice, I vowed to myself to open that door for other artists.’

“After struggling for years to make a name for himself, the artist now has a philosophy: ‘Sell a painting, buy a painting.’ ”

More at CNN, here.

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Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, Chronicle
Michael Houston brightens San Franciscans’ day as part of the San Francisco Creative Corps, a program that pays performing artists to be community health ambassadors.

One of my brothers, the science professor, used to perform regularly as a clown, particularly at church and Sunday School. Clowns-in-ministry is actually a thing, a way to engage parishioners and provide a different perspective on teachings.

In San Francisco during the pandemic, clowns and performers of all kinds have heard the call to keep people healthy using laughter, entertainment, and public-service messaging.

Lily Janiak has the story at the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Robin Lara and Stella Adelman of Dance Mission Theater were strapping on stilts. Michael Houston of San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company was affixing a red clown nose on top of his face mask. Marcelo Javier, also of SFBATCO, was trying out a jury-rigged pandemic-era clown prop — two extendable massage rollers tied together, allowing him to interact with passersby from a safer distance.

“If these artists were backstage — at a side room in the Mission District restaurant West of Pecos — their theater was Valencia Street on a recent sunny afternoon. And if they were about to open a show, their message was public health.

“These four, along with Rodney E. Jackson Jr. of SFBATCO and Aura Barba of SF Carnaval, were just one shift of artists in San Francisco Creative Corps, a pilot program that recruits underemployed local artists as community health ambassadors to promote healthy behavior during the pandemic.

“A partnership between the San Francisco mayor’s office, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and the San Francisco Parks Alliance, the program launched last month. It employs 30 performing artists to encourage mask wearing and other best practices and 30 visual artists to paint murals about public health on boarded-up storefronts.

“The city chose Valencia Street and Washington Square in North Beach as pilot sites because of their high pedestrian traffic, significant amounts of outdoor eating and drinking, low mask compliance and high or increasing case rates, according to Jeff Cretan, director of communications at the mayor’s office. …

“Deborah Cullinan, YBCA’s chief executive officer, approached the city with the idea after being part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery.

‘What’s the WPA program for today?’ she recalls thinking, referring to Depression-era initiatives such as the Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Art Project that employed artists not just as work relief but as a broad public investment in art. …

” ‘Artists are very effective in driving health outcomes in communities,’ she said, citing projects ranging from a radio drama combating the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone to National Endowment for the Arts-backed therapy helping veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. …

“On Nov. 29, Lara and Adelman — decked in feathers, bustiers and leg flares in addition to their stilts — paraded down Valencia Street. … Houston, with blazer, tie, rainbow wig and microphone, in addition to the red nose and mask, approached passersby for man-on-the-street interviews, asking — in a news announcer baritone — what they were doing to keep themselves safe from COVID-19. …

“The artists never scolded those without masks — emphatically not the point of the program — and pedestrians who were offered masks usually weren’t hostile. Only once in the first two hours did someone yell in response. Most either kept going or accepted, smiling sheepishly as if to say, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I knew I should have been wearing one.’ …

“ ‘If we need people to take care of one another, they have to feel taken care of first,’ said Cullinan. ‘Messages that make us feel bad aren’t going to work. Messages that make us feel good and want to be a part of something. … That’s what theater makers do.’ ”

More at the San Francisco Chronicle, here.

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Photo: Robert W. Hart / Dallas News contributor
Ron Olsen, who launched the rock art trail, holds one of the hundreds of painted rocks at Parr Park in Grapevine, Texas.

People like to paint rocks. It’s an art that’s simultaneously permanent and impermanent. In New Shoreham, for example, the beloved Painted Rock is like a mural or community bulletin board (there’s a real bulletin board, too, online). I’ve blogged about it often, including in 2015, here.

In the summer, you need to photograph your artwork quickly because the rock gets painted over faster than you can say Jack Robinson. But an archaeologist would find all the layers still underneath, and the rock itself has probably been there since the last Ice Age.

Similarly, there are small, smooth rocks people paint for sale, for charity, or for gifts. In a May post I wrote about local kids painting rocks during the pandemic and raising money for medical workers.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post has a story on another pandemic-inspired rock project, one featuring thousands of painted rocks from around the country.

Cathy Free reports, “Chris Penny figures that his mail carrier must have spectacular biceps by now.

“Most every day for the past seven months, when the carrier arrives at Penny’s home in Grapevine, Tex., he unloads a few heavy bins and hauls them one by one up the driveway to Penny’s front porch.

“The boxes are filled with packages containing painted rocks, most of them intricate works of art, handmade and mailed from people all over the country. Since the beginning of the pandemic, people have been sending them to Penny so that he and his family can place them along the Parr Park Rock Art Trail — a mile-long public walking path that has become a wonderland of more than 4,000 art rocks. …

‘These aren’t just any rocks — they’re works of art,’ said Penny, 44. …

“The rocks — painted to resemble everything from the Beatles to Mickey Mouse to a face mask — started arriving at Penny’s house ever since he bought a bunch on eBay after noticing a dozen painted rocks scattered along a nature trail in Parr Park. Penny said he knew right away that he wanted to flood the trail with them and make it a destination.

“Penny learned that the colorful rocks he’d stumbled upon were painted by [Grapevine photographer and RV dealer] Ron Olsen and his three grown children in March, after Olsen returned from a trip to Iceland and discovered that Grapevine, a city of around 46,000 people, had practically become a ghost town due to the nationwide coronavirus shutdown. …

“Soon, he and Penny decided to join forces to transform the trail into an artsy attraction for anyone in Grapevine and beyond who wanted to escape the stress of covid-19 for a while.

“ ‘We wanted to make it a getaway for people and give parents something safe to do outdoors with their children,’ said Olsen, 62. …

“Penny, who runs the nonprofit Broken Crayon, focused on helping women and children living in poverty in the United States and Ghana, said the project has provided his family with something fun and positive to do close to home during the pandemic.

“In the early days in March, after he’d painted several dozen rocks with his daughters and bought dozens more online, Penny posted on Facebook, asking anyone who would like to contribute to the project to mail him their rocks and he’d pay for the shipping. …

“Penny said he’s contributed almost $10,000 of his own money for shipping costs (rocks are heavy), although many people now pay to ship their rock masterpieces on their own. …

“All along the nature trail, visitors will now find painted owls, unicorns, tigers and humpback whales, along with the emblems of favorite sports teams, salutes to fallen soldiers and paintings of beloved cartoon characters and classic cars. Somebody even mailed Penny a giant tic-tac-toe board. …

“Penny’s favorite part of the project is that every rock tells a story. ‘Some people have painted rocks in memory of family members who have died, and others have painted memories of high school, like a favorite teacher or a favorite song,’ he said. ‘One woman painted a rock to honor her daughter because she’s serving with the military in Afghanistan and she misses her.’ …

“Whether a rock is painted by a professional artist or a 2-year-old doesn’t matter, Penny said. ‘When it comes down to it, there’s really no such thing as a bad rock,’ he said.”

Check out photos of some beautiful rocks at the Washington Post, here.

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Photo: Mahdi Khmili
Aam Salah is always saving seeds. The way he thinks about time has lessons for anyone living through a pandemic.

Have you been reading any of the advice columns on ways to deal with undifferentiated time in a pandemic? The columns with titles like “What day is today?”

Not knowing what day it is was one thing I dreaded before I retired, but I’ve developed my own systems. In today’s article, agricultural time suggests another approach.

Layli Foroudi writes at Sierra, “In the second half of January, I met a friend in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. He was agitated and said that he needed to go back to his hometown of Gabès. …

“He said he needed to plant trees. It was that time of the year, when temperatures are mild at night and cold in the day — the ideal climate for planting fruit trees. It’s known as the layali essoud.

“In March, I followed my tree-planting friend to Gabès. A few days later, the country went into lockdown to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. And so, I became a guest in a ghabba.

“The word ghabba means ‘forest’ in Tunisian Arabic. But it also means a plot of farmland within an oasis. The ghabba that I passed my time in was a hectare of land (around 2.5 acres), much of it overgrown with reeds. …

“I didn’t look for a way to leave. I was ready to replace humans with plants, and the uncertainty [with] the work of making things take root.

“The Tunisian traditional agricultural calendar splits the year into unequal slots of time that indicate how crops behave and what activities to carry out. Layali essoud comes just after layali el bidh — the white nights from December 25 to January 13 when temperatures plunge in the night. ‘The plant sleeps, so it is the time to cut it — it doesn’t hurt them,’ explained Hassen Waja, a 74-year-old retired teacher. …

“In Gabès, dates came up often in my conversations with those aged over 50. … Back in the day, dates were the go-to food for breakfast or a snack, and Gabès-grown dates were bought in bulk by nomads because they travel well. …

“The demise of the local date has transformed the oasis, said Nizar Kabaou. … Since the 1970s, he said, Gabès has seen a 60 percent reduction in the surface area covered by date palms. …

“Now, it is the smell of sulfur that is a marker of home. … Since the 1970s, the region has served as a zone for the treatment of phosphate, a key natural resource for the country, used for the production of fertilizers — an irony given the devastating effect the industry has on local agriculture. …

“Cement and phosphate treatment plants [have] exhausted the region’s natural water resources. …

“Water comes every 40 to 50 days and costs three to five dinars per hour ($1 to $1.7), plus a five to 10 dinar bribe for those who want to skip to the head of the line. ‘Before the creation of the industrial zone, the oasis benefited from 750 liters of water per second — from a natural source. Now we are at 150 to 170 liters per second, with a pump. That is the ecological catastrophe that Gabès has undergone,’ said [one man]. …

“In some parts of Tunisia, people still count their days according to the agricultural calendar, though this is rare now. In Gabès, only the farmers still use it, said Waja, the retired schoolteacher. When Waja was a child, he said, ‘the oasis used to be life.’ …

“Ninety-five percent of the population of the Chenini Oasis were full-time farmers, according to Nizar Kabaou. Today, about 20 percent are. But 40 percent still practice agriculture in their spare time, and, in the past five years, Kabaou has seen a small renaissance of part-time oasis farming, which has only grown during the lockdown.

‘This period gives value to the old type of agriculture,’ he said. ‘To live, we need to do our own production. In situations like this, we need to be self-sufficient.’ …

“In Tunisia, the economic toll of the lockdown sparked protests in parts of the country where people were struggling to eat. This did not happen in Gabès, where the ghabba remained. ‘In Chenini, you never go hungry,’ said [farmer Zakaria] Hechmi, who still trades produce with his neighbors. …

“At the oasis, I [read] Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, In one chapter, a character describes two types of time. ‘Sedentary peoples, farmers, prefer the pleasures of circular time, in which every object and event must return to its own beginning, curl back up into an embryo and repeat the process of maturation and death.’ Linear time, which is ‘able to measure progress towards a goal or destination, rises in percentages,’ was more favored by nomads and merchants. …

“When I arrived at my friend’s ghabba, only a portion of the land was still being used to grow fruit and vegetables. Gradually, we began to plant more and clear away reeds that hadn’t been touched in 25 years. No one had the time, and then we did.”

More at Sierra, here.

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Photo: Abhinaya Rohan
Nrityagram, what the New York Times calls “a refuge with a single-minded focus on classical Indian dance,” includes studios, a small temple and living quarters.

I guess that for people with little outside contact in normal times, coronavirus doesn’t pose much of a threat. At least, that seems to be the case with a dance school in India, where the pandemic is otherwise taking a huge toll.

From Marina Harss at the New York Times: “The other day, I took a tour around Nrityagram. This small community near Bangalore, in southern India, is an oasis of calm and utter devotion to an ancient art: classical Indian dance. Birds were calling, and around the low, earth-colored buildings containing dance studios, living quarters and a small temple, stood hundreds of vibrantly green trees. …

“This early morning scene — the trees, the gray sky threatening rain, people sitting at breakfast — unfolded as I peered into a screen on my phone late at night in my New York apartment. The tour was virtual, conducted on WhatsApp. That is more or less the only way you can visit Nrityagram these days, since it closed its doors to the outside world at the beginning of the pandemic.

‘We have been living our lives exactly as if nothing has happened,’ Surupa Sen, Nrityagram’s artistic director of 23 years, said later in an interview on Zoom. Under her leadership, Nrityagram continues to be what it always has been, but more so: a dance haven. …

“Even before a general lockdown was declared in India, Nrityagram limited access. The dance students — nearly 150 from nearby villages and as far as Bangalore attend classes — have been asked to stay away, for fear of introducing Covid-19 into this small, intimately entwined community.

“Because there is so little communication with the outside world, the people who live within this self-contained hamlet don’t wear masks, and training continues unperturbed, in studios that are open on the sides to the elements, allowing the breeze to blow through year-round.

“The only people who come and go are a small group of women from the nearby village, who help with daily chores. Upon arrival, they are asked to change into clothes that have been washed on-site and to don masks.

“The form practiced by Ms. Sen and her dancers is Odissi, which originated in the eastern state of Odisha. It is one of India’s eight official classical dance forms, with movements and shapes that evoke the sculptures and bas-reliefs on medieval temples. …

“ ‘The idea is that you submit yourself to a universal something,’ Ms. Sen said. … Ms. Sen and her dancers devote most of their waking hours to perfecting this art, refining and strengthening their bodies through exercise, and perfecting their dancing through technique classes and rehearsals in which they learn traditional Odissi choreography as well as new works by Ms. Sen. …

“At 6 a.m., they rise for a morning run. Then, each woman is responsible for cleaning some part of the hamlet and for placing flowers on the small altars in the dance studios. …

” ‘It’s part of their training,’ said Lynne Fernandez, Nrityagram’s executive director. Next, they warm up by doing yoga or practicing the Indian martial art form Kalaripayattu.

“At 10:30 a.m., dance class begins, starting with exercises that target one kind of movement and then another — sharp and fast, slow and supple, low to the ground, up in the air, and more. In its gradual, almost scientific progression from one part of the body to the next, it is not dissimilar to a ballet class.

“After lunch — ‘our favorite moment of the day!’ one of the dancers, Abhinaya Rohan, said during our WhatsApp tour — they return to the studio for another three or four hours, more if Ms. Sen is creating a new dance.

“In the evenings, they teach. These days, that happens over Zoom, though everyone agrees that it’s not good for conveying the nuances of dance. …

“That makes for at least six hours of dancing each day (except Mondays, their day off), plus conditioning. It sounds exhausting, but Ms. Rohan said: ‘The strange thing about dance is that it energizes you. I never feel tired.’ …

“There are six other members of the community, whose work allows the dancers to devote themselves to their art: Two office workers and two volunteers who are helping to set up a Food Forest, a haphazard-looking but productive and low-maintenance agricultural system that produces most of the community’s food; And there are Ms. Fernandez and her mother, whom everyone refers to as nani, or grandmother. Nani makes meal plans and prepares pickles to last them through the year.”

More of the story here. Lots of gorgeous pictures, too.

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Photo: JN Phillips
A white-crowned sparrow sits near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. “During lockdown,” writes the Christian Science Monitor, “traffic in the city dwindled to levels not seen since the 1950s.” The lack of noise caused surprising changes.

One thing that’s been interesting in the pandemic has been reading about various wild animals that apparently feel safer exploring suburbs and streets now that they are quieter. Today’s story is about birds that have stopped feeling the need to shout.

Eva Botkin-Kowacki reports at the Christian Science Monitor, “When the pandemic began, Elizabeth Derryberry wasn’t thinking about her research. Her focus was on the basics: how to teach remotely as an associate professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; how to manage the lockdown with her young family; and how to keep everyone safe and healthy.

“But as she scrolled through social media one evening, she saw a picture of a coyote at the empty Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. She recalls thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, there really are no cars.’ And as she stared at that image, Dr. Derryberry thought about how quiet it must be nearby without the normal hubbub of traffic – and about the birds she had been studying there.

“Along with her colleague David Luther of George Mason University, Dr. Derryberry had been recording the songs of white-crowned sparrows in both the urban setting of San Francisco and the more rural Marin County to study how the birds responded to the hum of human-made noise. They’d found that the city sparrows sang more loudly, but with a much more limited range, than their country cousins. And the shutdown presented an unprecedented opportunity for the researchers to see if those urban birds changed their tune.

“Indeed, the urban sparrows took full advantage of the relative silence. When the research team recorded birdsongs near the Golden Gate Bridge in April and May of this year, they sounded notably different – and of higher quality – from those recorded during previous springs. Their findings were published [in September] in the journal Science. …

“As people stayed home this spring, many noticed more wildlife around them. Some pondered whether there were actually more birds, for example, or if the quieter cities just made their songs (and presence) more obvious. …

“ ‘When we’re going about our daily lives, we get used to the patterns of the animals that we see,’ says Allison Injaian, a lecturer in the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, who was not involved in the study. ‘It’s pretty hard to know what we’re missing out on if that never is visible or audible.

“ ‘But when this really unprecedented shift in human behavior occurred,’ she says, it presented ‘a great opportunity for all of us to realize the impact that we ourselves are having on the wildlife around us.’ …

“For the birds themselves, their songs encode information crucial to their existence. White-crowned sparrows, for example, listen to each other’s songs to pick potential mates in spring, and as a way to assess the fitness of another male from afar when deciding whether or not to fight him to try to take over his territory.

“But in cities, they’re typically making a trade-off between the quality of their songs and simply being heard, says Ken Otter, a biologist at University of Northern British Columbia who was not involved in the new study. …

“Before the shutdown, Dr. Derryberry and Dr. Luther found that birds in San Francisco were competing with nearly three times as much noise as those in Marin County. But when the pandemic closed everything down, there was no difference in noise levels. They attribute that to less traffic, as the amount of cars passing through had reverted to levels not seen since the 1950s.

“As a result, birdsongs could travel much farther. The researchers found that the birds sang more softly because they didn’t have to be louder than the anthropogenic noise, and even still, their songs could travel twice the distance as before the shutdown. 

“The bandwidth of the trill at the end of the sparrows’ song is also key to communicating physical fitness to potential mates or rivals. Researchers found previously that the urban birds limit their trills to higher frequencies so they don’t have to compete with the low hum of traffic. But during the shutdown, the team found that the city sparrows utilized their full range – and when they compared the 2020 songs to historical recordings in the area, they found that some of the sparrows were singing in ways not heard in the city since the 1970s. 

“Whether this has a long-term effect remains to be seen, says Dr. Derryberry. But she plans to study the San Francisco sparrows’ sounds during the breeding season once again next year. ‘I’m really excited to see what happened with the nestlings that learned their songs this year,’ she says. …

Birds don’t just adjust their songs’ volume and range. Research has found that some urban birds will adjust the time of day that they sing to avoid rush hour. …

“Studies like this one, Dr. Otter says, can also help give us direction. ‘It’s really important for understanding how we can move forward with planning,’ he says, ‘so that we can create spaces that not only attract the birds, but allow them to be successful.’ ”

More here.

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Bedrock Gardens in Lee, New Hampshire, is open to the public.

Many of the activities people used to seek out for entertainment are closed these days, so more of us are walking in woods and shady cemeteries or looking for nearby public gardens. One of our favorite gardens was started by friends in Lee, New Hampshire, but we haven’t visited there for a while. Silly reason, I suppose: since Covid-19, I’m afraid to use a public bathroom on the highway.

Arnoldia, the voice of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, recently touched base with staff of public gardens around the country to learn what their days have been like in the shadow of coronavirus.

“Public gardens,” the magazine reports, “like other cultural institutions, were confronted with the same stay-at-home mandates that shuttered their communities. According to the American Public Gardens Association, more than 25 percent of gardens closed on a single day (Monday, March 16), and by the end of March, only 4 percent remained fully open to the public. The plants, of course, did not wait to begin growing until gardens reopened. The sunshine-colored blossoms of forsythia and daffodils put on their radiant shows no matter what.

“The unrelenting arrival of spring was, in many ways, incongruous with the national mood. It also meant that horticulturists at public gardens continued working despite closures and event cancellations at their institutions. Schedules changed. Procedures changed. But there were plants to be tended. [Thirteen] horticulturists from gardens around the country describe the on-the-ground realities of caring for their collections during the first months of the pandemic — the months in which an old normal faded and a new normal was created.”

Among the updates is one from the Bellevue Botanical Garden near Seattle, the New York Botanical Garden, the San Francisco region’s Filoli (“birdsongs provide a sense of vibrancy during the day, and large animals [like cougars, coyotes, foxes, and raccoons] leave evidence of nighttime visits”), Utah’s Ashton Gardens, the Boston region’s Wakefield Arboretum, Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservatory, Pennsylvania’s famed Longwood Gardens, Denver Botanic Gardens, the Morton Arboretum in Illinois, and Florida’s Naples Botanical Garden.

Conor Guidarelli, Arnold Arboretum’s horticulturist, had a rather sad entry about the Covid-19 version of the annual Lilac Day, and event that Suzanne and I loved to attend when she was small.

He says he “spray-painted white arrows on the sidewalk to request one-way traffic to limit potential exposure of those in the garden. I spent the afternoon posting normal signage (‘Please don’t pick the lilacs,’ ‘No picnicking at the Arboretum’), along with another, ‘Don’t smell the lilacs.’ ”

Golly. There’s almost no point in going if you can’t smell the lilacs. We once spent a whole day sniffing as we tried to find a particularly fragrant variety we thought was called Persian Lilac.

The Arnoldia article concludes, “By the end of the spring, gardens and arboreta began to reopen. Bellevue Botanical Garden and the Arnold Arboretum were among the few whose grounds remained fully open throughout the early months of the pandemic. Ashton Gardens reopened on May 1, allowing visitors to catch the late-blooming tulips, and Filoli reopened on May 11. Attendees at both gardens were required to purchase timed-entry tickets. Filoli initially offered eight hundred tickets each day and later raised the number to fourteen hundred.

“Prepurchased tickets became the modus operandi for gardens — a way of preventing attendance surges and of reducing interactions between visitors and staff at entrance bottlenecks. Denver Botanic Gardens reopened with a ticketed entry on May 22. The Morton Arboretum reopened to members on June 1 and to the general public on June 15. Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens reopened on June 13, allowing a one-way path through the indoor conservatories. Longwood Gardens reopened on June 18, about three weeks before a massive corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) came into bloom.

“Due to state-mandated limits on guest capacity, the garden significantly expanded their evening hours so that more visitors could obtain tickets to experience the rare and short-lived bloom. Some visitors were relieved to find that the notoriously foul smell of the flowers was muffled by their masks.

“Naples Botanical Garden fully reopened on July 6. New York Botanical Garden partially reopened on July 21. By the end of July, the Wakefield Arboretum had opened for limited reservation-only tours and special programs.” Read more at Arnoldia, here.

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