Breaking Apples


Two years ago, UTLA went out on strike for a 6% pay increase and Vista Middle School was selected as one of the sites for a picket line. As a neighbor and husband of a teacher, I walked up there in an act of skeptical solidarity, to see how the shakedown of Los Angeles taxpayers was progressing.

What struck me at the time was the amount of honking support they received from passing cars in working-class Latino Van Nuys.

The outcome was preordained. The union banged the spoon and L.A. surrendered everything it wanted.   Plus seconds. And dessert. What followed was Soviet-era astroturfed propaganda from UTLA bathing in the adulation of a grateful public, paid for by…the same public, who had no say in the matter.

Fast forward to 2020, and to the Wuhan virus.  In a time of shared sacrifice and difficulty, guess who didn’t want to report to work and had the power not to do so and to be paid anyway?

Only 36% of students in L.A. Unified regularly engaged in distance learning, i.e. turned in homework and completed tests, i.e., received an education.  This is desertion in the face of the enemy.  It would be bad to do this to kids for a semester. For three semesters in a row, across two academic years?

Suffice to say, this is not what schools are doing in China. Or Korea. Or Europe. Or Texas.  This is not what is happening at the prep school where Mrs. UpintheValley teaches.

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What if Wuhan isn’t killing people so much as breaking America as we once understood it? What if the pandemic is a political toxin in medical drag?

To judge it by its works, if you were told a year ago that one-third of small businesses would be put to death by government policy, would you have believed me?  What if I said the richest men in America would see their fortunes expand by 50%, also due to government policy? That the educational divide between public and private schools would become unbridgeable? That the tectonic plates between those who could telecommute and the service class who delivered their comforts would shift to the point they no longer touched? That the chief beneficiary of these changes would be China itself, which would exercise a veto over the discussion of pandemic origins by dangling the carrot of access to its markets? That the infrastructure of think tanks and academic departments which might serve as a bulwark of market critique would be revealed to be funded by China? That Zoom would become indispensable to our work life and TikTok embedded in our play and both would be Chinese owned? That teenagers in Wuhan would be throwing Lollapalooza-sized pool parties while Americans cowered in masks in the outdoors, fearing a scold of Karens. That bureaucrats would presume extra-constitutional powers. That the first amendment would become fully fungible to corporate diktats. That every cable network would maintain a death clock that magically disappeared with the departure of Trump, the first president to renegotiate trade agreements with China in terms more favorable to American workers, if only slightly.

A more fearless America, during the 1969 Swine flu

That’s a lot of damage for 12 months. We can’t do much about geopolitical arrangements, but we can do something about Vista Middle School.  We know a few things we didn’t know a year ago. Children are not at risk and are low vectors of transmission. Teachers are not retail workers.  They can temp check every child who enters the building. They can demand plexiglass barriers and daily disinfection of classrooms. They can also accept the reciprocal obligations of public service to the working-class Van Nuysians who supported them when they were banging the spoon for more money.

Erocide, USA

America 2020, waiting for tokens

Suppose you woke one morning to find yourself inside a sci-fi film…

…where no one was allowed to show their face in public. Everyone had to stand six feet apart and line up in rows for basic goods and services.  Most small businesses were closed by government policy but corporate chains like Target were declared essential and prospered.  People who couldn’t telecommute were paid to be idle.  Paid more than what they were earning before the movie started.

No one was allowed to name the virus or its point of origin. To say the words Wuhan or Chinese or was to self-denounce as racist and risk de-platforming.  The limits of speech were proscribed by three tech companies in San Francisco which made no apologies.  Without an ability to organize online, resistance dwindled.   People were bribed with their own money to be docile (TBC: their children’s future earnings)  and they accepted it.   They gave the minutiae of their lives to Chinese software.  They streamed webcams on 5G internet switching from Huawei. They made TikTok videos and attended Zoom cocktail parties.

Drug dealers and pizza delivery and porn prospered.  The fat and unhappy got a little fatter and unhappier than they were already.  Main Street declined, the stock market boomed. In the name of safety the media normalized this, then the rest of us. We agreed to be faceless in public.  There are no emojis IRL to hint at irony or dissent.

Schools were closed to in-person instruction.  Students pretended to attend online and were handed “diplomas” in the form of yard signs. They queued up in cars for graduation while teachers danced and waved goodbye.

On any given day only 36% of middle and high school students in Los Angeles participated, i.e., submitted work, took tests, posted on a discussion board.  Another 25% logged on, but didn’t participate.  40% never showed up at all.

Knowing the kill rate on distance learning was 64%, the teacher’s union refused to return to the classroom in the fall.   They had terms:

1% wealth tax
1% millionaire tax
3.3% income tax raise
$250 million federal bailout
A moratorium on charter schools
Paid sick leave for parents of sick kids
Defunding of police
Medicare for all
Homeless housing as a “right”

That these wishes were not politically possible, or virus related, was beside the point. With taxpayer money, UTLA erected hagiographic billboards to celebrate their refusal to report for duty.

In China, the teachers and students reported for class. In Sweden, they never closed.

If you are a really well-off Chinese businessman you fly your kid to Los Angeles and pay $40,000 to send them to the prep school where Mrs. UpintheValley teaches.   You get in-depth, hands-on instruction from her. You get an entire software package designed by her.  So do the children of the American professional classes and entertainers and professional athletes. The parents of unnamed prep school voted 70% to return to the classroom and were only prevented from doing so by Gov. Newsom. The minute waivers are allowed, the kids will return.   Until then, there is a brisk side business for private tutoring at $135/hr.

If you thought the country was divided by privilege before, what does it look like now?  Have another stimulus check. Consult Weedmaps. Buy porn tokens. Those girls in the top picture are America. They can be bought. It says so in their Twitter feed.  Tell me how this movie ends.

No Hay Almuerzo Gratis

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American children are seriously overweight,  and the kids in my neighborhood are fatter than most.

In its wisdom the LAUSD has taken the position kids are not getting enough calories, and has summoned them back to school during summer vacation with standing offers of free lunch. No studying. No playtime. Just waddle in and chow down, courtesy of the government.  You don’t even have to be a student, only a minor. Anyone will do. It’s free!  From the magic bucket of stuff you didn’t ask for and which has no bottom,  and no purpose but to grow the payroll downtown.

God help the politician who tries to put an end to this.  Para ninos!   Nino pequenos hambrientos!  Muere, hombre malvado!

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Apparently the feeding includes food trucks.  This was not my lunch room experience as a kid.  Okay, I went there.

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I was feeling curmudgeonly about this as I walked into Macleod yesterday and availed myself of the free peanuts. Like a horse I ate, munching contentedly, scattering the shells around my stall.  Chomp, chomp. Crack, crack. Glug, glug.

Well, they were free.…once I bought the beer.

It occurred to me, as I gazed upon Roderick’s peanut gallery, it was theoretically possible at this very moment an aspiring Matisse at Vista Middle School was working off her portion of carbs by etching dancing nudes on to the back of a styrofoam clamshell.  If Roderick can create portraiture from peanut shells, perhaps the clamshell itself will become a new textural form. Perhaps the food, like the peanut, is beside the point. It’s the shell that matters. The vessel is the gesture.