I was listening to a favorite album the other day, a collection of Gershwin songs by Michael Feinstein, one of the most devoted and talented keepers of the Great American Songbook. I reminded myself that I first owned this album in cassette format, back in the early 90s.
I further recalled a trip to London in 1992, a quick spring break visit across the pond when I had just began teaching as an entry-level legal skills instructor at New York University, my law school alma mater. Feinstein’s Gershwin album was among four or five tapes that I dropped into my backpack, along with my Sony Walkman portable cassette player. As I traipsed around London that week, I marveled at how entertainment technology now allowed me to listen to favorite albums in the palm of my hand. All I had to do was flip and swap out the tapes!
Fast forwarding to today, I’ve got several dozen albums loaded onto to my iPhone and iPad, downloaded via the MP3 platform. With this latest technology, we can carry a huge digital music collection in our pockets, bags, or backpacks. Way cool.
But here’s the rub: Suddenly, my need for such portability has decreased markedly. I venture out of my home infrequently. I have no idea when I’ll hop onto a plane again.
I’m sure that many of you can relate. If you’re in a part of the world heavily hit by the coronavirus, then you know how our lives suddenly became very small when stay-at-home advisories and social distancing became our everyday norms.
It’s hard for me to grasp that we’ve been at this for only two months or so. This has become a self-experiment of sorts, observing my daily moods while remaining mostly within the confines of my modest condo. So far, I’m doing okay, better than I expected, in fact. Over the past few years, I’ve done a lot of traveling and spent so much time out of my home. It has left me feeling exhausted at times. So in some ways, this solitude has been good for me.
I know I won’t feel that way for much longer, but future choices are largely out of my control. Advancements in public health and medicine will disproportionately shape those options, and for now the timeline is uncertain. While I am genuinely optimistic that we will get a handle on this virus, like most everyone else I must strive to be patient.
A couple of weeks ago, our study abroad group from college met for a Zoom-enabled happy hour/mini-reunion. It was the latest gathering of our spring 1981 semester abroad cohort from Valparaiso University’s program in Cambridge, England.
I can think of no other chapter in my life that so instantly flips on my personal nostalgia channel. I’ve written about that special semester many times on this blog (such as here, “First-time sojourn across the pond”). Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:
I was embarking on the most formative educational experience of my life. The semester would create enduring memories, new perspectives, and lifelong friendships. The seeds it planted permeate my life today, ranging from the way I live, to my choice of vocation, to how I spend my typical day.
One of the great sadnesses of the current coronavirus pandemic is how many thousands of college students may be denied similar opportunities. Right now, it’s highly questionable whether their main campuses will even be open for residential classes in the fall, much less offering study abroad options. Even when those possibilities begin manifesting themselves again, a lot of students (and their parents) may understandably be hesitant to take the plunge.
I dearly hope that a combination of smart public health practices and new developments in medicine will control the ravages of this virus sooner than later. Saving lives, preserving health, and re-opening our economic and civic society are, of course, our main priorities. The return of life-changing opportunities to spend meaningful time in other parts of the world would be welcomed, too, along with a renewed sense of adventure to take advantage of them.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, author Joan Didion opens her widely-acclaimed memoir about loss and grief with these words:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
I find myself coming back to those words in trying to comprehend the hard and sudden changes in our lives compelled by this pandemic.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. As a professor, I have a good job with a steady paycheck that I can do largely from home. Of course, that’s for now. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last and what its extended impact will be on higher education. I’m expecting, maybe sooner than later, pay cuts or required furloughs in response to what I anticipate will be reduced enrollments until the public health situation works itself out.
For many of us, various uncertainties mean that the new normal may well be a very fluid one, where life changes fast and in the instant on multiple occasions. A lot of these changes are communicated by way of social media and the internet: Emails, texts, public pronouncements, breaking news, and so forth. You log on and sometimes hold your breath.
In the meantime, I’ve been diligent about following public health guidelines and directives. On Saturday, I did go into my university office for the first time since mid-March, in order to gather materials that I need to do my work during the next month or two. Donning mask and gloves, it was pretty surreal entering the nearly empty subway cars. Thankfully almost everyone else was covered as well.
I must say that as I sorted through papers, printed out documents, and the like, it felt somewhat normal to be back in the office. But even as I did my work, I couldn’t quite shake the reality that things have changed dramatically and that I probably wouldn’t make the trip back for at least another month or so.
As for downtown Boston, it was pretty empty. I did manage to score some toilet paper, spray disinfectant, and other sundries at one of the drugstores, which made it a useful trip in multiple ways.
Above, I share a view looking out from my screen door. I opted to use a shot that focuses on the screen lattices rather than on the outdoors, because it says something about the way we’re all living these days.
I know I’m hardly alone in spending more time watching television during this public health crisis. As I wrote a couple of a weeks ago, I’ve sharply reduced my watching of TV news, and that decision has held. Instead, I’ve been spending time with assorted series, especially highly-regarded police procedurals and historical dramas. Last night, however, I checked out the first episode of “The Last Dance,” a 10-part ESPN documentary series about the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association, centering around the final championship season (1997-98) of its iconic, superstar guard, Michael Jordan.
The series is being televised in weekly installments, rather than being released in its entirety. That said, I already understand why “The Last Dance” is drawing accolades from sports writers and fans desperate to feed the beast while professional and college leagues are shut down due to the pandemic. (As further evidence, the just-completed National Football League annual draft of collegiate standouts earned its highest-ever ratings.) It’s a basketball junkie’s delight. If you’re a sports fan, and especially if you followed the great 1990s Bulls teams, then you’re in for a treat.
For me, “The Last Dance” is prompting a major nostalgia trip. The Jordan-era Bulls teams overlapped with important events and transitions in my life. Jordan first joined the Bulls for the 1984-85 season, which happened to cover my final year of law school at New York University. Even in New York, the sometimes snobby sports intelligentsia knew that this guy in Chicago was something special. Jordan immediately became one of the league’s best players. I began closely following his career and the fortunes of the Bulls from afar.
Alas, Jordan had joined a team in a deep state of mediocrity. The Bulls of the late 1970s and early 1980s were a pretty sad bunch. It would take several years of key player acquisitions and coaching changes — most notably star swingman Scottie Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson — before the team became a serious playoff contender. In fact, not until 1991 would the Bulls win their first NBA championship, the first of six during the halcyon 90s.
By then, I had been practicing law for six years in New York City, first as a Legal Aid lawyer, then as an Assistant Attorney General for New York State. But in 1991, my career was about to shift. I had accepted an appointment as an entry-level instructor in NYU’s Lawyering Program, an innovative legal skills curriculum for first-year law students, starting that fall. I was tremendously excited to be returning to my legal alma mater,as a faculty member, no less! I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the start of an academic career.
I would decamp from New York to Boston in 1994 to accept a tenure-track position at Suffolk University Law School, where I’ve remained since. My devotion to the Bulls followed me, and watching the team’s successes provided welcomed breaks from the demanding workload of a new assistant professor.
The academic calendar would provide greater flexibility in my own schedule, with added opportunities for travel. My fond memories of that team include visits to home in Indiana. My mom, of all folks, had become an ardent Bulls as well. We would watch games together in the TV room, cheering on what would become one of the sport’s legendary dynasties.
As a lifelong Chicago sports fan who puts those great Bulls teams on a pedestal, I look forward to watching the rest of “The Last Dance.” I’m sure it will continue to inspire nostalgic episodes as well. It’s all good, as we comb the memories of our lives during this challenging time.
Before this public health crisis changed our lives, I confess that many of my meals were ordered and consumed at Boston eateries. This includes assorted pizza and fast food restaurants, various sit-down places, my university cafeteria, and occasional higher-end establishments. Food eaten at home usually was via delivery.
Obviously, I’m eating differently these days.
So, basically it has taken a global pandemic to get me to do more cooking and to cut my food expenses in the process. Indeed, this is the first time in my entire adult life that I’ve spent an extended stretch of time preparing most of my meals at home!
Take the photo above. I took some leftover pita bread, added pizza sauce, shredded mozzarella cheese, and sprinkles of shredded parmesan cheese (ingredients all organic), and popped it into the toaster oven for 8 minutes at 400 degrees (F). Out came a crispy, flavorful, fresh-tasting improvised pizza for lunch.
Now, it’s not as if I’ve turned into the kitchen magician. I’m experimenting with a packaged meal delivery service, in part to get some veggies in me. (I truly, deeply loathe most vegetables, so this is a form of force-feeding.) I’m ordering pizza or Chinese food about once a week. But I’m also making a lot of simple meals…pasta with marinara & meat sauce, eggs with a big dollop of salsa mixed in…peanut butter & jelly sandwich…that kind of thing. And I’m snacking on stuff like nuts, apple sauce, and crackers.
Granted, it’s not exactly a health food regimen. After all, my original food stash in anticipation of this situation included some canned ravioli and corned beef hash — all gone. But I realized the other day that I’m actually eating healthier than before. My food intake, overall, is of better quality. Among other things, I haven’t had a fast food burger and fries since early March, and I seemed to have recovered from the withdrawal.
As for caloric intake, well, I can honestly say that my belt isn’t getting any tighter, so that’s good.
It would do me considerable good if some of these better eating habits were to stick for the long run, beyond this compelled time indoors. When things open up again, I will appreciate the variety of eateries that city life provides. But hopefully I’ll continue to prepare more meals at home, while being a bit more discerning about food choices beyond it.
It has taken a global pandemic to get me to a point where I feel limited by not owning a car.
Here in Boston, we’re experiencing a predicted surge in COVID-19 cases. Sheltering-in-place and social distancing remain the recommended best practices for those of us not working in essential businesses, and I’m taking these directives seriously. Thank goodness that my local grocery store and a number of area eateries continue to offer reliable delivery. But a car would make it easier to take occasional trips for other goods.
It has been over a month since I’ve taken the subway, which during 26 years in Boston and 12 years in New York City has been my primary way of getting around besides walking. I haven’t ordered a taxi or Uber since then, either.
As for having a car, well, I haven’t had a car of my own since 1982, when I left my home state of Indiana to attend law school at New York University, in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. During college, I owned a 1968 Buick LeSabre, a hand-me-down from my parents. A quick visit to New York during the summer before starting law school easily persuaded me that keeping a car there was neither practical nor affordable. I decided that the gas guzzling Buick would remain in Indiana.
The seeds of my new lifestyle had been deeply planted a year before, during a formative semester abroad in England through Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater, which included a post-term sojourn to the European continent. Walking, buses, subways, trains, and the occasional boat trip became my modes of transportation, fueled by a sense of adventure. In addition, I didn’t have to worry about stuff like parking, upkeep, and insurance.
So, upon moving to New York, I became a happy city dweller and a creature of public transportation. I’ve never lamented a lack of wheels to take a quick trip to the country. In fact, since relocating to Boston, I’ve never traveled to Cape Cod or Nantucket, and I don’t have a burning curiosity to visit either.
In other words, for well over three decades, I’ve felt quite free bopping around cities without a car.
Until now, that is.
This afternoon, I left the immediate area of my home for the first time in a couple of weeks, to walk over to the drugstore for various provisions. Donning safety mask and gloves, I walked up the street, maintaining distance from the handful of others on the sidewalk. With a car, I could’ve completed a more ambitious shopping trip, and maybe hunted around a few other places for those elusive rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.
Honestly, though, I wasn’t unhappy about that. I did, however, feel genuine sadness at the eerie quiet in my neighborhood and the occasional sight of other masked pedestrians on what normally would’ve been a livelier Friday afternoon.
Okay, I’m not about to buy or lease a car because of this. I just hope that between various delivery options and occasional short walks to shop for necessities, I can continue to obtain the goods and supplies I need during this shutdown and any similar stretches, as we wrestle down this damnable virus.
Pandemic Chronicles #2: Turning off the TV news coverage has made me better informed and less anxious
Television news coverage and commentary are designed to get an emotional rise out of us. They can inform but also inflame. That’s how they get and keep viewers and thus build their ratings. At the start of the coronavirus crisis, I found myself watching a lot of TV news programming. And with it rose my anxiety levels, without necessarily feeling better informed.
During the past week or so, however, I’ve cut my TV news viewing to a bare minimum. I’ve limited most of my television time to binge-viewing great television series. (For example, I’m delighted to recommend “Foyle’s War” — a crime drama set in WWII-era England — for its depiction of history, appealing characters, and rich story lines.)
I subscribe to a lot of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals, both online and in print. I also listen to radio news coverage. I’m a news junkie, and I like to be an informed citizen. Furthermore, my work as a law professor and legal scholar requires me to be well-informed.
Because of the coronavirus, however, my focus has become more intensely local. While I’m interested in the national and global aspects of the pandemic, I’m now closely drawn to what’s happening in Greater Boston specifically and Massachusetts generally. I find that three regional news sources, in particular, have become lifelines for helping me stay informed about, and feel connected to, my local scene during this challenging time: The Boston Globe (daily newspaper), WBUR-FM (public radio news station), and Universal Hub (online news site).
Of course, virtually any news coverage related to this public health crisis is going to push some emotional buttons, but I’ve found myself less anxious and better informed by turning away from TV news and toward sites like the Globe, WBUR, and Universal Hub. They have also given me an even deeper appreciation for the high-quality journalism that still exists in this city, despite the challenges facing the news business. We need these resources now more than ever.
Back in November 2018, I wrote here about my “dream vacation” (link here):
My current dream vacation doesn’t involve traveling to popular or exotic tourist sites. In fact, it may sound downright geeky and dull to a lot of folks: A few weeks with a box of selected books, DVDs, and magazines. Television with cable. Favorite music. Some tabletop sports games to play. Several good eateries within walking distance. Maybe a few tourist attractions or get-togethers with friends, but no demanding sightseeing or social calendar. I’d have my computer with an Internet connection to keep up on the news and do some writing, but work-related activities would be kept to a minimum, including e-mails.
. . . Maybe I can make this aspiration a reality. At the very least, I could plan it as an extended staycation. I wouldn’t need a list of sites to see, performances to attend, or beaches to visit. Just a comfortable space to read, binge watch, order pizza delivery, and think big and little thoughts.
As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. To the extent that 2020 delivers a “vacation” of any sort, it will likely resemble what I described in that blog post, only without the occasional restaurant and sightseeing visits that I imagined a couple of years ago.
Of course, this is looking at things from a positive angle. Truth is, this global pandemic has suddenly and deeply reached into our daily lives at the most granular levels. We are still in the early stages of understanding and responding to this coronavirus, which is hard to grasp given that the past few weeks have felt like, well, forever. This time is scary and heavy and unlike anything most of us have ever experienced.
Here in my Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, I’m hunkered down in my modest little condo, grateful to be able to do my academic job from home and to have the ability to order deliveries from my local grocery store and restaurants. I’m taking this public health threat very seriously. Massachusetts has entered a dangerous stage of this pandemic, so I’m mostly staying inside and wiping down package deliveries with disinfectant spray.
In terms of work, like countless other professors, I’m now teaching my classes via distance learning. The mass migration from face-to-face teaching to classes by videoconference has been a major adjustment for instructors and students alike. Still, I’m glad that we have the technology to continue the semester, and we’re making the best of the situation.
Which brings me back to my so-called vacation. It’s not going to happen, at least not in the carefree way I envisioned it. But in looking ahead to the summer, I hope I’ll be able to carve out a few days to dive into my personal library, for the pure pleasure of reading. In my home, I’m surrounded by good books, and perhaps a silver lining of this terrible situation will be an opportunity to spend more quality time with them.
I’ll be using this blog as a personal chronicle about this experience. During this time, I hope that I’ll be relatively healthy, physically and mentally, but I also know that difficult times are ahead. Like during the early stages of a war where your side is losing, the news seems relentlessly bad right now. Although I’m confident that effective therapeutic treatments and vaccines will be developed, the time between now and then will be very challenging. I hope that we can find ways to cope with the uncertainties, support one another, and find meaning in activities that bring us satisfaction and healthy distractions.
Friends, it makes my head spin to think that I’ve been living in Boston for a quarter of a century.
In the summer of 1994, I packed my bags and left New York City for a tenure-track teaching appointment at Suffolk University Law School in downtown Boston. Leaving New York was not easy for me. I had moved there from my native northwest Indiana in 1982 to attend law school at New York University, located in the heart of Greenwich Village, a truly wonderful urban neighborhood and one of my favorite places on earth. I fell in love with New York instantly, and that strong affection remained throughout my time there.
Boston, on the other hand, would prove to be an acquired taste. In fact, I struggled mightily with it for years. I found truth in its reputation as being a cold place for newcomers, and my early years here were downright lonely. In addition, I badly missed the 24/7 energy of New York. Boston, I would quickly learn, turns in a lot earlier by comparison. At times, it seemed more like an oversized, sleepy college town than a major metropolis.
And yet, I am still here. Although I have not yet claimed the status of Bostonian in the full-throated way I quickly called myself a New Yorker, I now understand that here is where I have grown into the best and truest version of myself so far. It hasn’t always been easy, and it has taken a heckuva lot longer than I would’ve preferred, but I feel pretty grounded, and I’m happy about that.
Among other things, in Boston I have developed my true vocation. At the time I left New York, I had yet to discover the core focus of how I could make my most meaningful contributions to the world. Little of what I now teach, research, write about, and advocate for was on my radar screen back then. Today, however, I have a strong sense of what I should be doing with my life. (You can get a better sense of my work by visiting my professional blog, Minding the Workplace, link here.)
But there’s more to it than that. In Boston, I have matured as a person and honed my personal culture. Important seeds of who I am today were definitely planted during my time in New York and other locales, but here they grew into something more definitive.
I’m still processing how and when Boston eventually felt like home to me. I do know that Boston is a more cosmopolitan place than the city that, uh, sorta greeted me in 1994, largely because of newcomers who have decided to stay and helped to make it a more inclusive and vital community.
I’ve also become more appreciative of Boston’s older, traditional side. Among other things, Greater Boston retains a strong intellectual component. This remains a place where books, ideas, learning, and history still count for a lot. I’m especially fond of its bookstores and libraries. Although I need to take greater advantage of them, I also enjoy Boston’s historical sites and museums.
In addition, as I’ve written before, there’s a lot of music here, including opportunities for even complete amateurs such as yours truly to make some of it. They include the voice class that I’ve been taking for many years and the karaoke studio that I frequent on an almost weekly basis.
I also enjoy the way I am able to live on a day-to-day basis. My neighborhood of Jamaica Plain is a neat place to live, with a diverse, eclectic populace. Boston is a great walking city. Its public transportation systems are showing their age, but they usually get me where I need to go. I have never owned a car here. (In fact, I haven’t owned a car since I moved to New York in 1982!)
Through it all, I’ve made a core group of friends here through the work we do and the music we make. (Interestingly, most of them are from other places, too.) I have also enjoyed playing tourist guide for friends and family who want to explore the city’s attractions.
As for New York, it will always hold a special place in my heart. I typically travel to Manhattan several times a year, and I always look forward to those visits. I have family and friends there, and on occasion I participate in conferences and workshops in the city as well. I long assumed that I’d move back to the Big Apple at the drop of a hat if the right circumstances arose. But in recent years I’ve reached a point where visits to New York are followed by a welcomed train ride back to Boston and its slower pace.
So is Boston to be my home for the duration? I’m inclined to think so, but who knows!? For now, at least, I am happy to call this place my hometown.
During the last week of July, I found myself in the grand city of Rome. This first ever trip was occasioned by the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, a biennial global gathering at which I participated in panel discussions and other activities. (Go here to my professional blog to learn more.) Although I am not the best travel planner, Rome had been on my bucket list for many years, so beforehand I actually talked to people who had visited before and read up on sightseeing options.
More than with any other great city destination, friends and associates urged the importance of good tour guides to maximize the experience of a Rome visit. I picked up a copy of Rick Steves Rome 2019 (Steves has been my European travel guru for decades) and checked his listings for guided walking tours. There I found a company, Context Tours, that promised in-depth, small group tours conducted by guides who were genuine experts (often scholars) on the sites covered. Given my characteristic lack of patience for shopping, I decided to go “all in” with this company and signed up for three of their tours: Introduction to Rome, the Vatican, and Ancient Rome.
All three tours turned out to be excellent, led by guides — thank you Lauren, Jade, and Giulia — who are scholars of the city. It is the Ancient Rome tour that I’d like to spend some time talking about here.
The Ancient Rome tour covers three tightly-clustered sites, the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. Giulia, our guide, met up with her five guests (myself plus a four others who were traveling together) at a café across the street from the Colosseum, and we proceeded from there.
Let me just say that had the tour started and ended with the Colosseum, I would’ve considered myself fortunate. This is an imposing historic structure, a marvel of engineering. Moreover, there is a very haunting quality to it. Imagine some 60,000 people packed in there, watching and cheering for various spectacles and sporting competitions. Some were pretty gruesome person vs. animal and person vs. person fight-to-the-death contests, including gladiatorial combat so often depicted in pop culture portrayals of historic Rome.
Once you learn about the Colosseum, you instantly grasp the origins of today’s modern sports stadia, including seating according to status, the ancient equivalent of tailgating parties, and even access to restrooms inside the building.
At the conclusion of our walk around the Colosseum, this small group tour suddenly turned into a private one, as the other guests had to depart because of a schedule conflict. Although I enjoyed their company, this would be such a blessing for me, as my tour with Giulia became a sort of walking conversation, facilitated by a Ph.D. in archeology who has actually led and participated in digs in this very area.
From the Colosseum, we walked over to adjacent Palatine Hill, the locus of Rome’s origins (according to ancient lore) and site of the Emperor’s Palace. It took all of a few minutes to get there.
As you can see from the photo above, it felt as if we were whisked away from the city and dropped off in a pastoral getaway setting. The contrast was kind of magical. I have felt that effect in other big cities, such as visiting the Cloisters in New York City — the big difference being, of course, that the medieval look & feel of the Cloisters was the 20th century result of the Rockefeller family donating money to create this old-looking structure. (OK, so maybe that’s not much of a difference at all, if you get my drift?!)
Now we’re getting into the ruins of the palace. Closer looks at these structures would reveal a variety of designs and colors, using raw materials imported from other parts of the world. This was a way of showing off one’s wealth, not to mention an early example of globalization. This reminded me of the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by Thorstein Veblen, a late 19th and early 20th century American social scientist, to capture how rich people during the Gilded Age would buy things for the primary purpose of displaying the size of their bank accounts.
Indeed, as I learned more about the cultures of ancient and Renaissance Rome during my trip, I was reminded over and again that human motivations have not changed much over the centuries.
So here was a major revelation to me: Ancient Rome wasn’t a constant display of white marble! The photo above shows an example of the colorful designs that adorned many buildings and structures. According to Giulia, many of the buildings would look a bit kitschy by modern standards!
The photo above shows the front of the palace’s long dining hall, marked by an elevated dais for the Emperor and his family. Food and drink would be brought up from a lower level by servants, who also lived below. This prompted us to make comparisons to the upstairs/downstairs dichotomy of old English houses portrayed by the likes of the popular “Downton Abbey” television series!
If you’re trying to picture what mealtime looked like in this palace, don’t imagine tables and chairs. Instead, try to visualize these folks eating in bed! Yes, that’s right, the rich and powerful dined in the comfort of beds.
Thus, if someone ever treats you to breakfast in bed, then know that you’re dining in a fashion fitting for a Roman Emperor!
Here we’re still on Palatine Hill, now looking over at the site of the Circus Maximus, in the background. Folks, this is where they held chariot races.
There’s not much left to see except for the outline of the track itself, but it’s still fun to imagine the scene many centuries ago.
The Forum was the site of government and the courts. If you look closely you can see the bases for lots of pillars. Imagine them supporting a huge rectangular structure.
For someone like me, trained in law and public policy, looking over this historical site was breathtaking.
I would be remiss if I did not include a photo of Giulia, whose deep well of knowledge, easy going manner, and sense of humor made the tour feel like a walk with a long-time and very intelligent friend!
Before my trip to Rome, I figured this was a one-and-done visit. I knew that I could squeeze in some quality sightseeing while participating in this conference, and I assumed that would be plenty enough to satisfy my curiosity about the city. But after sampling some of the city’s history and culture, not to mention consuming a good share of gelato, pizza, and pasta, I now understand why Rome attracts so many returning visitors. Perhaps one of them will be me someday.