Forty summers ago around this time, I was packing a small suitcase in preparation for a first-ever trip to New York City. This was to be a reconnaissance mission of sorts, an initial exploration of what would be my new home for at least the next three years. (It turned out to be more like twelve.)
After having grown up in Northwest Indiana and attended college at Valparaiso University, located in the region’s outskirts, I yearned to spend time in another part of the country. This desire was fueled by a final collegiate semester at VU’s overseas study center in Cambridge, England, which greatly expanded my horizons.
Plans to attend law school provided an opportunity to satisfy that exploratory vibe, and initially I was looking very intently at the West Coast. Back then, I harbored great ambitions of having a career in politics, and I figured that California might be a good launching pad for that. But when New York University extended an offer to attend its well-regarded law school, located in the heart of a Manhattan neighborhood called Greenwich Village, I opted to go in the opposite direction.
My impressions of NYU and New York City in general were mostly on paper, supplemented by images drawn from television shows and movies set in the city. You see, I had never been to New York. The meager state of my finances was such that I had done all of my research about potential law schools by poring over admissions brochures and published commercial guidebooks. I had accepted NYU’s offer of admission sight unseen.
With my first year of law school beckoning in the fall, I figured I should check out what I had gotten myself into. So I planned a short summer trip to New York.
I booked a tiny room at the Vanderbilt YMCA on 47th Street in Manhattan. The bathroom was down the hall. The guest rent was $18 a night. At least it was an upgrade from my youth hostel travels during my semester abroad.
I’ve kept the guidebook I used to help plan my trip. In Frommer’s 1981-82 Guide to New York, author Faye Hammel writes:
You should be advised that there is one dangerous aspect of coming to New York for the first time: not of getting lost, mobbed, or caught in a blackout, but of falling so desperately in love with the city that you may not want to go home again. Or, if you do, it may be just to pack your bags.
Well, that’s pretty much what happened. My short visit didn’t allay all of my anxieties about moving to another part of the country to experience the rigors of law school, but the city immediately started to work its magic on me. I did some of the standard tourist stuff, including visits to the Empire State Building, the United Nations, and the wonderful Strand bookstore. And I spent time at NYU, checking out Vanderbilt Hall (the main law school building) and Hayden Hall (the residence hall where most first-year law students lived), both located on historic Washington Square.
I returned from my brief sojourn believing that I had made the right choice. This first impression would prove to be correct. New York and NYU were the right matches for me.
Later that summer, I used my little portable cassette player to tape this classic Sinatra number from the radio, and I would play it over and again. The lyrics spoke to me, as they have for countless others who have found their way to New York, for stays short and long.
I now live in Boston, and this city is home for me, quite possibly for the duration. Its smaller scale, slightly slower pace, and bookish, “thinky” vibe are more in line with who I am today. But New York will always be a part of me as well, starting with that summer 1982 visit.
The phrase continues to enchant me, even if summers at late middle age fly by faster than ever before. And in this third summer of the pandemic, when life has morphed into a weird normal/not normal state and the world feels disturbingly unsettled, the idea of summer reading is the equivalent of literary comfort food.
Writing in the Boston Globe (link here), journalist David Schribman opens his reflection on summer reading this way:
I pack light for my summertime ramblings in New England.
For years I loaded in a pile of books for my trips — presidential biographies, World War II chronicles, Cold War spy novels, mysteries. Then I realized that I got to hardly any of them. I was distracted — by the cool waters of Echo Lake at the base of New Hampshire’s Cannon Mountain, for example, and by the view from Mount Willard in Crawford Notch, and by the tang of fried clams from Harraseeket Lunch in South Freeport, Me., the cool relief of a mid-afternoon ice cream from Round Top in Damariscotta, the smell of the pies baking across the region, and the rich crunch of picked-today sweet corn from an unattended wooden roadside stand in backroads New Hampshire.
I was also distracted by the books I borrowed along the way.
In houses we visited or rented, in inns we frequented or visited just once, and sometimes even in chain hotels, there were tucked-away jewels and gems, sometimes out in the open (on yawning bookshelves), sometimes on stone mantelpieces (leaning one way or another), occasionally employed under a wobbly table (to keep the crockery from sliding).
Reading this and the rest of Schribman’s contemplative piece, I’m imagining a lazy summer spent in assorted New England venues…relaxing, brewing up some coffee or tea, and reading books. Ahhhhh.
Well, even for me, an academic who actually lives in New England, my summers typically aren’t so tranquil. I’m usually working on a research and writing project (or fretting about not making progress on same), as well as keeping busy with a variety of non-profit and advocacy commitments. While I am grateful for the flexibility of my schedule and the freedom to take breaks and occasional trips, I have yet to experience that truly idyllic “summer off” during some 30 years of teaching. (Perhaps I should make this a priority!)
Nevertheless, I am looking forward to a summer that includes some enjoyable leisure reading. I’ve started off with a twisty murder mystery novel, Sulari Gentill’s The Woman in the Library (2022). It’s set in one of my favorite venues, the Central Library of the Boston Public Library! The novel has been getting rave notices, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
As for summer reading selections after this one, I haven’t decided. When not reading more systematically for a specific purpose, I tend to go with the flow when it comes to picking out what to read next. There are many worthy possibilities, so at least it will be difficult to make a bad choice.
I recall vividly what it felt like two years ago, as we awaited the arrival of the coronavirus here in Boston, with a deepening sense of fear and uncertainty. At Suffolk University Law School, where I’ve taught since 1994, we were heading into spring break. During our last faculty meeting before the break, I raised my hand and suggested that many of us had probably taught our last in-person classes for some time. I sensed that others thought that I was being an alarmist. If only….
Indeed, the virus was already here in Boston; most of us just didn’t know it at the time. In February, for example, a major tech company, Biogen, would host a national conference in the city that eventually would be linked to some 20,000 COVID cases, one of the first “super spreader” events of the pandemic.
During that spring break, I had intended to park myself in one of the booths of the law school cafeteria and toil away at a big writing project that I had hoped to finish by the end of the month. I managed to get in a few productive days, but public health responses were moving quickly in anticipation of the storm ahead. During the break, my university joined others in deciding to teach remotely for the rest of the academic year. In a manner that now makes me wince a bit, faculty returned to campus to pile into a classroom to learn about teaching by Zoom. I don’t recall anyone being masked yet.
During this time, I engaged in some modest stockpiling of food and household goods, including the canned foods pictured above. Fortunately, the pandemic would prompt me to learn how to cook a bit, which resulted in an upgrade in my food consumption — though I still occasionally enjoy all three products in that photo!
This two-year mark is resonating strongly with me. Maybe it’s because we’re now relaxing many of the masking policies, while experiencing a steep decline in infections. Of course, I don’t take anything for granted. Another coronavirus variant could change things very quickly. But presently, at least, we appear to be enjoying a higher degree of normalcy, at least with the pandemic. (The awful war news from Ukraine, however, is another story, as I last wrote.)
In any event, the impressions of February and March of 2020 are quite sharp in my mind. Those days represent to me the start of a new major life chapter, one that is still in progress, with the conclusion not settled.
This evening, I watched Lesia Vasylenko, a Ukrainian Member of Parliament and self-described “working mom of 3 lovely humans, lover of freedom, travel and all things green,” tell PBS’s Christiane Amanpour that she and her family are ready to defend themselves and their homeland against the Russian invasion.
MP Vasylenko meant so literally: Along with other elected officials in her country, she now possesses an AK-47 assault rifle and other weapons. Martial law has been declared in Ukraine, and all able-bodied adults are expected to take arms, if necessary, against this unprovoked, unjustified act of Russian aggression.
Appearing in makeup and professional garb befitting an elected official being interviewed by a major news program, Vasylenko nonetheless had a look of grim, determined resolve. I felt a sad moment of dissonance, contemplating her current role as a civilian public servant and parent versus her anticipated role as a member of the home guard fighting Russian troops in the streets of her nation’s capital city.
I also felt a deep sense of admiration. Vasylenko confirmed my strong impression that the Ukrainians are not a soft people. It already appears that Ukrainian armed forces are putting up a valiant fight against a vastly superior military force. At the cost of many lives and considerable destruction, the Ukrainians may make the Russians pay for every foot of ground gained.
A world grappling with a global pandemic and the ongoing specter of climate change has been suddenly confronted by a war in Europe that carries scary echoes of Nazi occupation strategies of the late 1930s and the Cold War that commenced a decade later. This morning, I watched a very sobering webinar briefing by editors and writers of The Economist news magazine that connected the plausible diplomatic dots for how this war could expand deeper into Europe and eventually become a global one. This is an extraordinary perilous time for anyone who cares about democratic rule.
Pandemic Chronicles #27: The holiday season having gone viral, I’m traveling abroad virtually for now
The experience of a second holiday season in pandemic mode, punctuated by the arrival of the latest coronavirus variant, serves as a stark reminder of how a state of abnormality has become our new normal. The other day, I was messaging with a long-time friend on Facebook (he started off by offering advice on protective masks — just another casual chat, these days), and we briefly speculated on how long these general circumstances might continue. I see us dealing with the pandemic at least through next year, and quite possibly beyond that.
For those whose 2022 aspirations involve travel — foreign or domestic — I’m not sure what this all means. Hopes for international travel, in particular, seem to be up in the air (pun intended) for next year. And for anyone whose travel abroad itinerary includes multiple countries, the varied and fluid public health regulations from nation to nation make planning especially difficult.
I’m still hoping to participate in a law and mental health conference that I’ve been helping to organize for next summer in France. I give it a 50/50 chance of happening. In the meantime, I’m going to do a bit of virtual traveling. Among other things, I was delighted to see that European travel guru Rick Steves has posted all episodes of his popular PBS series, Rick Steves’ Europe, to his company website (link here). While it may not be the same as seeing a show in London’s West End or checking out bookstalls along the Seine in Paris, virtual travel is a convenient — and, for now, safer — substitute for the real thing.
Most of all, I hope that safe and healthy travel will once again become a reality for those whose journeys have yet to be taken. I’ve been blessed to visit many fascinating places during my lifetime. And while I hope that more travel beckons for me, I especially wish for younger folks and others who haven’t had a chance to see much of this world opportunities to do so.
The pandemic has prompted me to revive a boyhood hobby of stamp collecting, as I’ve shared in my new blog on lifelong learning and adult education (here and here). It has been an enjoyable and relaxing pastime, and I’m sure I’ll be sticking with it for the longer run.
Among other things, I’m creating an album of postal covers and postcards that represent places and themes of my life. Toward that end, I’ve been searching eBay for old postcards of Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater) and New York University (my law school alma mater), and I’ve scored several good deals averaging a few dollars a piece.
One postcard pictures VU’s Lembke Hall, opened in 1902 as a dormitory. By the time I arrived in 1977, it housed faculty offices, including those of the political science professors, my major. Perhaps my memory exaggerates, but I recall it as being quite the ramshackle building, a model of what real estate folks and contractors might call deferred maintenance. It felt like the whole thing might simply collapse. I don’t know when VU tore it down, but the equivalent of a strong wind may have been sufficient.
Anyway, this postcard is especially cool because it is postally used. The back reveals a quick little note penned by one Elsie to her friend Edith in Pennsylvania. It was postmarked from Valparaiso on August 7, 1910. What a neat snapshot of everyday life over a century ago!
Below is a postcard depicting the Hotel Holley on Washington Square West, in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. There’s no date on it, but from the automobiles in the illustration and its overall design, it’s clearly from the early 1900s. Also pictured is the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. Alas, this postcard was never used, so I can only imagine who purchased it and why.
In the early fifties, NYU would buy the hotel and convert it to a residence hall for law students. It was designed to complement the opening of Vanderbilt Hall, the main law school building occupying the southwest corner of the Square. The new dorm was named Hayden Hall. Some 30 years later, I would live in it during my first year at NYU. The rooms were quite plain, shared with a roommate. But each room had a bathroom, and most had small study nooks to enable an early riser or a night owl to work without disturbing their roommate. Hayden Hall also had a cafeteria and group TV room on the ground floor, and it is via gatherings there with my classmates that I made many new friends.
Unless I win the lottery, Hayden Hall also happened to be the fanciest address that I will ever claim: 33 Washington Square West. (The ghost of Henry James must approve!) Here’s a shot of the building from one of my NYC visits several years ago.
It struck me the other day that during the pandemic, I have returned to a hobby that allows me to travel over distance and time. My years at both VU and NYU yielded many good memories and planted seeds of future endeavors, cultural interests, and lifelong friendships. I’m glad that I can capture some of these memories in a stamp album.
A greater appreciation for the cultural amenities of my home town of Boston and its surroundings has been an unintended but welcomed benefit of this otherwise awful pandemic. Yesterday this manifested in a short visit to the city’s venerable Museum of Fine Arts, which reopened for visitors earlier this year.
I spent most of my time at a special exhibition celebrating the work of impressionist painter Claude Monet. Among my favorites was his 1900 oil painting of the Charing Cross bridge in London. You can check out the photo above and the story behind the painting below.
It was an exceedingly pleasant visit, including lunch at one of the museum’s cafés and a stop in its bookshop. I’ll be back for more visits during the months to come. Among other things, later this year, MFA is reopening its redesigned galleries covering Ancient Greece and Rome, two historical periods of interest to me.
Monet’s Charing Cross painting triggered a bout of nostalgia, for London has long been one of my favorite cities, a huge yet walkable metropolis steeped in history, tradition, culture, and entertainment. I first discovered it during my 1981 semester overseas as part of Valparaiso University’s Cambridge, England study abroad program. My grainy, first-ever photo of London is below.
That semester would draw me to city life forever. No doubt those days spent in London would pave the way for my decision to go to law school at New York University, located in the heart of Manhattan.
When I began teaching in the 1990s, a week-long, spring break visit to London was made affordable by $300 round trip tickets from the East Coast. My fascination with the city and the relative affordability of traveling there made for some great visits during my younger days. I haven’t been to London in some time, but it’s definitely on my bucket list for a return trip.
(I will save for another writing the explanation behind the once extremely unlikely prospect that I would ever write with affection about a visit to an art museum. For now, let me say that the backstory also traces its origins to my semester abroad and what was, by far, my lowest grade in any college course!)
“Have I not enough without your mountains?”
In 1801, Charles Lamb, essayist, poet, and lifelong Londoner, declined an invitation from friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth to visit him in England’s northwest countryside, explaining:
The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, wagons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes – London itself a pantomime and a masquerade – all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fullness of joy at so much life.
Ultimately, Lamb asked, “Have I not enough without your mountains?” (You may read the full letter here).
Now, unlike Charles Lamb, I’m not so totally stuck on cities that I cannot appreciate a beautiful countryside. But I get where he’s coming from in terms of being stimulated by city life. I’ve lived in cities my whole adult life, first New York (1982-94), then Boston (1994-present). And if New York has been my stateside London, then Greater Boston has been my stateside version of the historic university city of Cambridge (UK variety).
In short, I’ll probably be a city dweller for the duration.
A Foggy Day
Because I’ll use any excuse to listen to Sinatra, I will close with his perfect rendition of Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day (in London Town).” Enjoy.
My childhood years overlapped with an era that a twisted nutritionist might call the Golden Age of Processed Foods. Convenience was the touchstone, and frozen, canned, and packaged food containers helped to deliver the product. (During this time, the organic and natural food gods apparently were being held hostage, perhaps in the basement restroom of a remote General Foods plant.)
Many moms of America’s burgeoning middle class, including my dear mom, were quick to take advantage of these easy-to-prepare meals. My favorites were TV dinners, like the Swanson Salisbury steak dinner pictured above. Mom was a much better cook than she ever gave herself credit for being, but when she’d announce to my brother and me that we were having Swanson frozen dinners for our evening meal, it was cause for small celebration.
I don’t know why I was so happy to be served a TV dinner. But there was something about those tin foil containers of food, typically featuring a good-sized chunk of some sort of meat, as well as a nice little dessert to wrap up the feast, that appealed to me.
Of course, I wasn’t looking at food labels back then. So I was blissfully unaware that each TV dinner tended to contain, oh, about a month’s recommended intake of salt, as well as a list of chemicals that rivaled the periodic table. But seriously, something had to be added to those foods to keep them “freezer fresh” for months on end.
While my food intake is hardly ideal today, I am happy to report that I’ve moved on from TV dinners. I must confess, however, that if a Swanson dinner suddenly popped up in my freezer, I’d be inclined to heat it up and give it a try.
In my last entry (link here), I wrote — somewhat breathlessly — that “Americans are traveling again, and I’m among them.” Although I wasn’t claiming victory over the pandemic here in the U.S., I did suggest that we were returning to some semblance of normalcy that included a fair bit of travel.
Well…not so fast.
A month later, the highly contagious and potent Delta variant is changing our tune, vaccines notwithstanding. A lot of folks are putting the brakes on ambitious travel plans, instead adopting a wait-and-see attitude. And they’re placing on hold a lot of aspirations for more extensive face-to-face socializing.
In the meantime, schools at all levels are re-opening. Many of them are returning to live classroom instruction after being online for roughly a year and a half.
This includes my university. On Monday I returned to the physical classroom for the first time since early March 2020, with vaccination and mask requirements imposed for students and faculty alike. My first meeting with students felt weird, a bit unsettling, despite that I’ve taught this subject for years.
The second time I met with the same group, we started getting back into a groove. I was more directed and centered, and the students were responding with comments and questions. I left the classroom feeling energetic and buoyed. That was a stark contrast to teaching on Zoom, when I gave maximum energy into teaching online, but often felt exhausted once the connection was turned off.
I dearly hope that we’ll be able to continue teaching in face-to-face mode through the 2021-22 academic year, though I understand that circumstances largely beyond my control will determine that matter.
In the midst of this uncertainty, I look forward to enjoying the beckoning fall. Here in Greater Boston, it’s the nicest season of the year. In fact, I think of a traditional New England fall as capturing the heart of Americana, with its seasonal bridge from hot-to-cold, plenty of autumn color, and historical sites waiting to be explored.
The ongoing presence of the pandemic may temper some of those qualities, but I don’t think it will be able to douse them.
Although I’m not altogether confident that we’ve whipped this pandemic here in the U.S., it has become eminently clear that Americans are traveling again. Witness the photo above, the passenger security line at Terminal A of Boston’s Logan International Airport, just two Thursdays ago…at 8:00 a.m.! Alas, yours truly was at the tail end of this line. Without going into unnecessary details, let me say that I reached the gate with minutes to spare, the closest I’ve ever come to missing a plane flight outright.
Indeed, with my vaccinations in tow and a mask ready to go (hey, I made a rhyme!), I’ve been taking some shorter trips, such as hopping on a plane to Washington D.C. to help out a dear friend with an apartment move (hence, the Logan line) and to revive a periodic breakfast tradition with a group of friends, taking a commuter rail trip to Salem, Massachusetts for sightseeing with friends and researching the 1692 Salem witch hunts, and boarding an Amtrak train to Manhattan for a visit with family and friends.
I am grateful that I managed to get through this period of semi-quarantine in a state of solitude rather than loneliness. In some ways I benefited from the extended time alone. Socially distanced outdoor meals with two long-time friends in my neighborhood, trips to favorite stores, and various types of digital and social media helped to melt the isolation.
But I am enjoying connecting and reconnecting with people in person, and I look forward to more of the same during the coming months. That said, I am not overly sanguine about the public health situation. It appears that once again, numbers of new COVID-19 infections are creeping up, especially in locales with low vaccination rates. The Delta variant is the latest to present challenges, and we cannot assume that current vaccinations will be effective against future variants.
Of course, for Americans, this is a First World state of affairs. Many other nations are experiencing severe spikes in infections and have little access to the much-needed vaccines. Wrestling down this pandemic everywhere must be a shared global priority, and right now it isn’t. So, I accept as blessings my current ability to travel in relative safety, while hoping that we can safeguard everyone from this virus much sooner than later.