Vaccines, Boosters, COVID, Joe & Me.

(Fortunately, in addition to having received two vaccinations and two COVID booster shots, the anti-retroviral drug Paxlovid helped me through this newest fight with COVID.)

COVID—this time the BA-5 variant, the most contagious of the five or so strains out there—has reminded us, once again, that it’s not ready to move on, just yet.  This week, this newest virus strain snuck up on Joe Biden and me, and tens of thousands of other folks.

Following five-days on Paxlovid, the anti-retroviral drug designed to moderate the virus and spare us severe symptoms, I’m coming out of my quarantine period feeling very strong, symptom-less and wearing my N-95 mask much more conscientiously.  Like lots of others, I let my guard down a bit, having been twice vaccinated and twice boosted—just as President Biden was.  I was feeling, kind of, invincible.

Fortunately—unlike the earlier killer-COVID strains that struck two years ago, emerging before vaccines, boosters and anti-retroviral drugs —we’re far better equipped today to handle this latest spike of a different sort, than we were for past variants.   Better, that is, IF we are double-vaxxed and boosted.

My last booster was administered in March, like Biden’s, and the four months between then and now, is the usual period when the boost begins to weaken. Unlike, Joe, I battled an earlier, more virulent strain of COVID in the Fall of 2021, before the first booster shots were available, which gave me a dry cough for days, and left me lethargic for more than a week.  This time around—thanks to two vaccinations, two boosters, and fairly regular masking (especially indoors and in public places), this COVID confrontation has felt no worse than a bout with post-nasal drip.

What astounds me, having battled the virus twice now—once before and after being boosted—is how clearly the boosters reduce the severity of the virus and the likelihood of hospitalization.  I find it incomprehensible that some 75% of Americans still refuseto take the boosters—choosing, instead to play Russian Roulette with their lives and the lives of the people they love.   Why is there even a question about coming up with a third, and fourth or more booster, if it’s going to help keep us healthy, reduce illness and save lives? Just because others don’t take it, is no reason to deny it to those of us who take our health, and the public’s health, seriously. 

Unlike President Biden, I have not done any foreign travel in a few years, and my only recent trip on public carriers was to NYC last month, when we avoided taking the subway and walked everywhere around Manhattan.  We started and ended that trip testing negative.

Like Joe, I still wore a mask in most crowded places—even outdoors– but was not as assiduous about it as my partner, Carol Villano, who—like Jill Biden, a fellow educator— also tested negative.  We differed on the kind of masks we wore: I was comfortable with a light blue surgical mask (since it was what our doctors made us put on before entering their offices); Carol, wisely, noted that the N-95 offered far more protection, even if it was more uncomfortable.  And, I’m the one who worked in public health for nearly 20 years.  Go figure. 

A few days after going to a crowded open-air concert in our town (when I stupidly let my mask down) I began to feel a sore throat, runny nose and slight headache.  We immediately took a home antigen test.  Carol tested negative, but my “Positive” line flashed bright.  

I immediately wanted a “second opinion”, and scurried to my Sutter Health facility in Santa Rosa, CA, where I was administered a PCR test.   The test confirmed my positive COVID status.

Like Biden, I’m over 70 years old, so my physician prescribed Paxlovid, instructing me to take the anti-retroviral drug for 5 days.   He asked me what prescription drugs I was taking.   

“Just Prosac and Viagra,” I said, assuming that most 70+ year old men took some combination of the two drugs.  

“You can keep taking the anti-depressants, “ he said,  “but cut out the Viagra while you’re on Paxlovid.” 

Yeeeesh, talk about a buzz kill.  (YES, some of us 70+ year old men, blessed with good health, still have sex, ride bicycles, walk or hike miles, and live a vigorous, love-filled life.)

I understood the smart, cautious medical reasoning behind not mixing contra-indicated meds.  In Viagra’s case, that miracle drug affected blood flow and heart rate, and could interfere with the effectiveness of Paxlovid, or worse.

The only side-effect I’ve experienced from taking Paxlovid this week was having a metallic-like taste in my mouth, which neither tomato sauce nor chocolate could erase for too long, but which tasty Thai food, and peppermint life-savers, didtemper.

Still, one week without Viagra—and without wine or alcohol– were small sacrifices when it came to knocking out COVID, one-more time.   Far bigger, but necessary, sacrifices, were staying isolated from my partner of 50 years, sleeping in separate beds, using separate bathroom, and eating meals in separate sections of the house.  Doing without hugging, or kissing, or touching, were the toughest precautions to take, to protect those we love from COVID.

Night Terrors Without End.

Uvalde Schools Police Chief Peter Arredondo (far left, holding cellphone), tries to negotiate with the Mass Murderer of 19 children just down the hall from him, while the killer is still slaughtering children with an Assault Weapon. Other heavily armed Police Officers — among an astounding 376 on the scene — stand down the school hallway, while hearing shots being fired in two classrooms. The clip is part of a Police Body Cam video hidden from the public for more than a month by the City of Uvalde, and the State of Texas.

Please tell me that I did not see this —
An armed manchild walking through a school,
Clutching, waving a weapon of war;
Young boy, exits bathroom, spots him; runs.
Where? How can he ever outrun what he saw?
Tell me that I did not see this.

Please tell me that I did not hear this —
Sounds of gunfire echoing through a hall,
Where 10-year olds usually laugh,
Police in armor standing, waiting up against a wall,
While more shots ring out, in place of joyful shouts.
Tell me I did not hear this.

Please tell me I imagined what I watched —
That I didn’t really see a Police Chief negotiating on a cellphone,
With the mass murderer while he was still killing kids —
While the killer was still killing children.
Or, that 376 trained police, carrying guns and shields, stood by,
Listening to the sounds of death coming from two classrooms.
Tell me I imagined what I watched.

Please tell me this is a nightmare, a night terror —
Grandchildren like mine, torn to shreds, bullet-raped,
Trusting us to keep them safe,
To put thoughts of love, beauty and wonder in their heads;
Instead, some stay alive by masking in the blood of friends, now dead.
Night terrors without end;
Never will I sleep in peace again.

The Mass Murder in Highland Park Multiplies My Hate for July 4th.

( A police officer responds to the horrific scene of bloodshed at the site of the July 4th Mass Murder in Highland Park, Ill. (photo by Brian Casella, Chicago Tribune Photographer via AP)

I’ve always hated July 4th since I was a working–class kid growing up in North Babylon, Long Island.  That was a lifetime ago, decades before 4Chan existed, “Mass Murder Websites” had followers, and Assault Weapons were as easy to buy as fireworks. 

My father, a tough guy from Brooklyn and a newcomer to the suburbs at 40 years old, despised the Fourth of July, hated driving a car—a suburban necessity– BBQing, mowing the lawn, or hosing down the driveway each night, the way every single one of our mostly Italian neighbors did.   To him, it was all a stupid, empty waste of time.

We never hung the American Flag up in front of our house, even though my father fought the Fascists in WWII, and bore tattoos from the War burned into his arms.   Patriotism, like religion, was something we just didn’t flaunt.

“I ain’t no holy roller,” my father would proclaim.  He hated “mosses”, an Italian-phrase he butchered, meaning that he despised making a big deal about anything.

Our “fireworks” celebrations were always understated, consisting mostly of lighting sparklers in our small back yard with my cousins from the City, who came out to the “country” to visit us each year on the Fourth. The rest of the “holiday”— a bombastic celebration of militarism– was simply a paid day off from work for working stiffs like my father.

Although I couldn’t yet fully comprehend peoples’ obsession with fireworks,  I illegally sold them one year. To me, it was absurd that people would pay virtually anything to literally set their money on fire.    

My older brother, Vinnie—shrewd and savvy in the ways of the world– brought home “mats” of firecrackers, loose cherry bombs, bottle rockets, and exploding “ashcans” that could blow off your hand.  I was his underage “dealer”, selling the stuff to any of my friends who would buy them.  In our working class neighborhood on the North Babylon/Deer Park border, setting off fireworks was a defiant pleasure which made some feel far more powerful than they ever imagined they could.   Back then, in the 1950’s and 60’s, assault weapons were only used in war zones around the world.  Otherwise, only the police, and criminals & mobsters had guns.

For a poor kid who sold my toys and comic books to have spending money in the summertime, my brother opened my eyes to the serious money I could make by selling fireworks.    As July 4th approached in the Year I Lived Dangerously, sales were so outrageously brisk that my schoolmates were running up the block, waving $20 bills in their fists for any scrap of fireworks I had left. 

The cherry-bomb clamoring crowd grew so noisy on our front steps, that our next door neighbor threatened to call the cops and report us. I went to sleep with several gross of firecrackers under my bed, worried that either the police were going to raid us, or our house would catch fire, and light up like a rocket in the night.  

 “Controlled” fireworks displays—or controlled anything for that matter– were not part of our consciousness. Our lives were completely out of control. Chaos reigned. Money, or lack of it, ruled.  We wanted to exercise some power—to show we existed— and fireworks were an easy way to do it, and a quick way to make a buck.  Also, we rationalized, they weren’t drugs or guns.

This week’s mass murder at the July 4th celebration in Highland Park, Illinois—a wealthy, mostly Jewish-suburb 25 miles north of Chicago—has brought all of those mangled memories rushing back to me.  If only I had protested louder and sooner about how stupid I thought July 4th celebrations and fireworks displays were, maybe some lives could have been saved.  If only I hadn’t sold fireworks; if only, if only, there were national traditions far different from military parades and simulated  bombs in the sky.  If only there were no weapons of mass destruction in civilian hands, that ripped the bodies of babies to shreds.   If only it poured heavy rain that day, or people stayed home and read books to their kids, or went swimming or binge watched something on Netflix or Disney or HBO… if only, if only, if only…

It took me more than 50 years to speak out against such July 4th foolishness.  We were living a long, long way from North Babylon, in the northern Napa County town of St. Helena, California, a wealthy town experiencing a devastating drought.  Fire warning levels were “extremely” high; water rationing was mandatory. Only the rich, enamored as they are with controlling everything, still wanted controlled fireworks displays. The rest of us thought any  fireworks were far too high a fire risk, unnecessary, and a grotesque waste of money.  

But, some wine country benefactor was willing to bankroll the entire $50,000 cost of a “controlled” fireworks display to make sure that July 4th was a “patriotic” celebration—despite the rampant risk of fire, and reams of research that demonstrated fireworks displays triggered PTSD episodes in Veterans who have fought in wartime.  Right down the road from us in Yountville, was the largest Veterans Facility in the State of California.  None of that mattered.  The fireworks show must go on.   How else could they boast that this year’s fireworks display was better than last?  How else could patriotism be powerfully demonstrated?

At virtually the very same moment that wealthy fireworks fans forked over private funds to pay for their patriotism, St. Helena City officials cut nearly $250,000 of public funds from the budget of its’ terrific local public library.   The full-time Library Director was fired, and the City Council reduced the hours the Library was open to the public, including a complete shutdown on Sundays.  Some things just didn’t matter as much to the rich as flashy fireworks displays.

Money spent on fireworks isn’t spent on books.  I know. I saw it in the eyes of my North Babylon friends throwing money at me for fireworks 60 years ago. If books could have given them the same sense of power, and the same kind of buzz, they’d have burned them too. 

I thought of this peculiar American absurdity of lighting money up into smoke, and feeling powerful from fireworks and mock-military parades on “Independence Day” this year, when American democratic freedoms and individual rights are in grave peril–especially the right to vote; a woman’s right to make health care decisions about her own body; and the right of every child already born to live a healthy, full life, free from the threat of gun violence.

The latest American Killing Field coming during a July 4th celebration in Highland Park—a friendly, Mid-Western city which welcomed Jews cast out by the rest of the world after World War II– should inscribe a message in blood upon all of our doorposts:  humanity matters far more than guns or power or politics or parades.   Forget fireworks; protecting real, existing, human life is the ultimate act of patriotism.