Pandemic Chronicles #29: Recalling the calm before the COVID storm, March 2020

Part of my initial food stash, which fortunately improved mightily during the months to come

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.

 

Pandemic Chronicles #28: And now, war in Europe

She’s now preparing to use her new AK-47 against Russian aggressors.

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.

 

Pandemic Chronicles #26: Old postcards as time travel experiences

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.

Hayden Hall, contemporary view (photo: DY)

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #25: Monet, London fog, and memory at the Museum of Fine Arts

Monet and Boston exhibit, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (photo: DY)

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.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (photo: DY)

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.

Soggy nostalgia

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!)

My first-ever snapshot of London, January 1981 (photo: DY)

“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.

 

Yeah, I loved TV dinners

Processed, chemically enhanced goodness

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #24: Not so fast

(image courtesy Clipart Panda)

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #23: Americans are traveling again, and I’m among them

Logan Airport, Boston (photo: DY)

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.

Nostalgia trigger: Tower Records is back (sort of)

I’m taking a short break from my Pandemic Chronicles entries to indulge in some deep nostalgia, prompted by a Facebook ad touting the online revival of Tower Records, the one-time brick & mortar retail shrine for music lovers. The announcement immediately set me off on a time travel journey going back some 38 years.

Tower’s massive store on 4th Street and Broadway in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village appeared in 1983. In the early 1980s, Broadway was the dividing line between the Village proper and the “frontier” of the East Village. I was a law student at New York University back then, and the law school’s Mercer Street residence hall happened to be only a few minutes walk from Tower. Even though discretionary spending under my tight budget was mainly devoted to exploring New York’s many wonderful bookstores, Tower became a draw as well.

Of course, back then I had no real music set-up, not even a boom box. Throughout law school, my cassette Walkman was my stereo system. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop me from periodic visits to Tower in search of music bargains. I was in awe of the selection. Imagine the endless rows of cassette tapes in every musical category!

I was hardly alone in recognizing Tower’s significance. In a 2016 piece for Medium, “When Tower Records was Church,” David Chiu waxed nostalgic about visits to Tower in the Village:

When you walked into the Tower Records store in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood back in the day, you just didn’t go in there to buy an album and then rush off to leave. To me, going to Tower was like visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art or attending a baseball game — it required a certain investment of time.

Sometimes it was the overall experience of being inside the store that mattered more than the purchases: the act of walking through the aisles and aisles of music, finding out what the new releases displayed out front, and hoping to meet an musician who was doing an in-store appearance. There was always a sense of anticipation as you went through Tower’s revolving doors underneath the the large sign displaying its distinctive italicized logo because you just didn’t know what you’d discover.

Sigh. The new Tower is online, and even though the variety may well exceed what the brick-and-mortar stores had to offer, it’s not the same. Similar to how I’m feeling about online booksellers and music & video streaming these days, what’s missing now is that wondrous sense of anticipation that came with entering a record store, bookstore, or video store, and making new discoveries. I can’t say that I’d trade in the vast warehouse of popular culture available to us today in return for that on-the-ground retail experience, but it’s a closer call than first meets the eye.

Pandemic Chronicles #22: There’s a lot of middle-aged self-reflection going on these days

Inside the Pantheon, Rome (2019) (photo: DY)

The pandemic appears to have prompted a lot of self-reflection among middle-aged folks during the past year or so, and the results of these inner dialogues are starting to emerge. More and more we’re hearing about career and job shifts, accelerated retirement timelines, moves to places near and far, changes in personal relationships, new hobbies and avocations, and more active pursuits of “bucket list” plans.

This stuff is popping up in everyday conversations, Facebook postings, and news features about life transitions in the shadow of COVID-19. I don’t know if it’s a temporary blip on the screen or the beginning of some major social ground shifting, but for now the phenomenon is real.

Even in normal times, the years commonly classified as middle aged (45-65 years old) are often accompanied by a growing awareness of one’s mortality. The pandemic has put a sharper spin on that inevitability. Put simply, the combination of living in semi-quarantine mode for the past year while watching this virus claim millions of lives has caused a lot of folks to ask how they want to live their remaining years and with whom they wish to spend them.

Of course, the freedom to make these changes assumes a certain amount of resources. Not everyone is in a position to set their lives in a dramatically more enriching direction. Many will simply be trying to pull their lives together as we hopefully continue to push back on this virus.

But for those fortunate to have some flexibility of choice, there may be changes afoot, perhaps even big ones. Stay tuned to see whether this will become a mega-trend with major generational impacts. It may get very interesting.

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