January 29, 2022

Birmingham Snowpocalypse of 2014

Another Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody… Feeling a little alone and melancholic this evening so I guess it’s time to write. Per usual, I have absolutely no idea where this is going to go but some of my best essays just start with a mood and a little bit of free association. I’ve had a friend staying in the guest suite the last couple of weeks and just having someone else around the place a bit is a reminder of how alone my home time has been over the last few years when Covid made most of my usual pastimes and escapes impossible. I remains optimistic that we’re going to get past the omicron crunch in the next month or so (case counts are coming down in the areas that were impacted earliest) but we still have the hump of hospitalizations and the hump of deaths to get through before we get clear. I’m pretty sure we’ll pass one million US deaths sometime this spring. That’s an obscenely high number, higher than usual all cause annual mortality, and so many of them have been unnecessary and were preventable with better adherence to public health measures and a more robust early response to the pandemic by the previous administration.

Why am I optimistic? Because at least partial immunity is becoming widespread. We still don’t have the vaccination numbers we would like by a long shot but I read earlier today that roughly 95% of the US population is now showing antibodies to Covid, either from vaccination or from earlier infection. That’s quite a wall and is giving us significant protection going forward. If the antibodies could last, we might be close to achieving the mythical herd immunity that keeps being brought up, but they fade with time which is likely going to result in continued boosters in the future or suffering multiple bouts. I don’t recommend this latter as it really is a nasty bug and we still don’t really understand all of its end organ effects from its thrombotic characteristics. We’ve also managed to get roughly 10 billion shots in arms over the course of the last year world wide. That’s a rather stunning achievement. It’s not enough, of course, as there are 8 billion of us sharing the planet so we need to raise that number up over 15 billion. Africa, in particular, lags as the richer countries take care of themselves first leaving a very large unvaccinated population pool on that continent, a problem in our global and independent society.

It’s snowing fit to beat the band up and down the east coast with low temperatures reaching down as far as Southern Florida – wind chill in Miami and the Everglades is expected to dip into the low 20s. Expect a lot of stunned iguanas falling from trees as they cannot regulate their body temperatures and their nervous systems fail. It’s the eighth anniversary this weekend of the great Birmingham Snowpocalypse of 2014 so my time line was full of a number of ‘do you remember’ posts. Of course I remember, the Pick’s disease variant that I may inherit from my mother hasn’t set in yet. For those not of Birmingham, some explanation may be needed. When snow is forecast this far South, panic sets in. Grocery stores immediately sell out of bread, milk, and toilet paper. Most optional activities are canceled and everyone waits with bated breath while less than an inch falls. At the end of January, 2014, snow was forecast but the local meteorologists read their tea leaves and assured the populace that there would be none in the greater Birmingham metro area – it would pass well beyond. It therefore became a normal Tuesday with everyone headed off to work and to school. Around 10:30 AM it began to snow, a few flakes at first and then an unpredicted heavy fall. The alarm went up. Schools to close immediately -parents come get your children. Work schedules went quickly into snow day mode. By 11 AM, most of Birmingham was on the road trying to get the kids, get home, get to the grocery store for milk, bread, and toilet paper. Then mother nature played her joke; there was a sudden drop in temperature and all moisture on the streets flash froze and every pavement in town suddenly turned into a skating rink. Mix this with heavy traffic and complete and utter disaster. Everything came to a shuddering halt as the roads were quite frankly undriveable. People were stranded on highways. Kids were stranded in schools for several days. People had to spend the night bedded down in the aisles of the local Wal-Mart. It took several days to unsnarl it all.

I was oblivious to it at the time as my Tuesday morning was spent on a prolonged conference call with folks in Kentucky and my academic office lacks a window. I finished up my call, walked down the hall to the chief’s office (which had a window) and was just in time to see a car go spinning down the 19th street hill. It was pretty clear nothing else was going to happen that day so I started for home. After three hours, during which time I managed to go about a mile and a half, I abandoned the car to a parking lot and walked the other two and a half miles back to the house. Silly me hadn’t worn my winter coat that day so I was quite the sight wrapped in my car blanket trudging through Avondale Park and down Crestwood Boulevard. When I finally got home, I found that Tommy, who was off that morning, had made homemade soup so all was right with the world as I thawed myself out. Needless to say, since that storm, if there’s even a hint of a freeze, Birmingham goes to full scale red alert and probably will continue to do so for some years until 2014 recedes into a comfortable past.

We seem to be having significant issues at the moment with uncomfortable pasts with a sudden and pervasive movement around the country to protect our precious children from naughty words, alternate sexualities and the hard truths of racism and the holocaust. Everyday, there’s a new news story about a school district banning Pulitzer winning novels, self appointed parent groups demanding that titles be removed from libraries and reading lists, and right wing policy czars going in to school libraries and removing ‘objectionable’ titles wholesale before any sort of review or public hearings are actually held. When something like this happens ‘spontaneously’ in many places at once, I get very very suspicious. This reads to me as carefully planned, probably some years ago, but put into action at this juncture as omicron, with its effects on schools and school staffing in particular, has weakened the ability of the educational system to fight back so someone is striking while the iron is hot. Some enterprising investigative journalist needs to start digging through these various groups and start following the money. I don’t know where the trail will lead but I suspect it’s a very small and very coordinated cadre of very wealthy individuals behind it all.

Why would they do this? I can think of several reasons, most of which have nothing to do with religious zealotry – that’s simply a smokescreen that allows them to recruit a certain type of parent into their ranks and gives those individuals hot button talking points that will resonate well in the press. First and foremost, it’s probably about money. Public schools are just that – public, owned by the people for their benefit. This is anathema to capitalists who believe that the purpose of society is profit and that the commons needs to be privatized and monetized. As the profit motive enters education, wealthy communities will be just fine. Poorer communities will struggle and we could easily be back in the days of separate but equal within a generation. Second, it’s about destroying the trust society has in teachers and education and that’s being born out in some of the other harebrained ideas that have been coming out of the right wing in the last few months such as putting all teachers on constant audio/video surveillance to make sure they aren’t touching on verboten subjects such as ‘critical race theory’ or the latest goofy thing that just cleared the Indiana House that would make teachers make publicly available all of their lesson plans for an entire year to be scrutinized by anyone who could challenge anything. Anyone who has actually taught knows that lesson plans and rubrics are where you start but not where you finish as they must be constantly adapted to the needs of individual students and a constantly changing environment and trying to figure things out a year in advance is pure folly.

If trust is undermined, then fewer capable individuals will choose education as a career path and, more importantly for the right wing, the political power of the teachers unions will be undermined. These unions tend to be a base of Democratic politics and therefore they need to be destroyed. It’s similar to the shenanigans at the Post Office over the last few years which are, for the most part, aimed at weakening the postal unions. No one seems to be giving a thought as to what the students might actually need in their educations to compete in a globalized society. The extreme right wing seems to think a little readin ritin and rithmetic should do the trick. I’m not sure where they think the next generation of physicians or engineers are going to come from if education is limited.

Of course, the kids will be fine. The current high schoolers of generation Z have probably downloaded all of the banned titles through torrents and are busy reading them under the covers at night to see what all the fuss is about. There’s nothing that will drive an adolescent faster to a book or a film, or a piece of music than a societal proscription. Back when I was in 8th grade, the books were The Godfather, The Exorcist, and The Happy Hooker. We weren’t supposed to read them but I can assure you that every 8th grader at Eckstein Middle School had devoured all three through clandestine copies handed around by the middle of February.

To sleep, perchance to dream… I wonder why the modern day Parrises and Danforths have not gone after Shakespeare yet. My guess is they’ve never actually read him. Better not give them a copy of Titus Andronicus.

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