Author Archive: David Yamada

Pandemic Chronicles #12: This fall, my “back to school” experience is a computer screen

I had a feeling it might be this way. Back in March and April, when people in the know started sharing possible timelines for coronavirus treatments and vaccines, it quickly became obvious to me that we might be in this stay-at-home mode through the calendar year and perhaps going into 2021.

For many of us in higher education, this fall means teaching online. Last spring, when my university decided to teach remotely for the rest of the semester, we quickly had to adapt to this online environment, right as the emerging pandemic began to swirl around us.

Commencing an academic year in an online modality is a different kind of experience. There’s no opportunity to establish a face-to-face rapport, so we must do our best to create a positive classroom vibe with our faces on the screen. I’m very happy to report that my students have been engaged and interested in our Zoom classes so far, and that says a lot about their ability to adapt and to make the best of the situation.

Missing is the normal ritual of how the start of a school year parallels the shift from summer to fall. With the exception of my six years of full-time legal practice and an interim year between finishing college and entering law school, I’ve been living on a school or academic calendar continuously since kindergarten. I still keep my schedule and appointments in a hard copy annual planner that runs from July through June.

This fall will be different, however. Although the New England weather is already showing signs of cooling down, the fall will be more observed than experienced, because of the pandemic. As I’ve written in previous entries, Massachusetts (and Boston especially) has been a brutal hotspot for COVID-19, and it has taken a lot of self-discipline and painful sacrifice to bring down our infection rates. To avoid a recurrence of what we experienced during the spring, we will have to limit the degree to which we re-open.

All of which triggers a bit of soggy nostalgia for me. Thinking of grade school and childhood anticipation of the fall holidays, especially Halloween. And then there’s football (American, that is), with all the pageantry of the college game, and Sundays and Monday nights featuring the NFL. Add to that memories of fall semesters in college and law school, wondering what the coming year would bring. All of these memories are fueled by living in parts of the country — the Midwest and Northeast — where we have seasonal weather changes.

I’m grateful for technologies that allow for live interaction on the screen. This is truly “space age” stuff when viewed from my grade school days and our visions of what the future might bring. Nonetheless, it’s not the same. I do hope that next fall will be more reminiscent of days gone by.

Pandemic Chronicles #11: Remembering March 2020

As if time suddenly froze.

Recently I visited my university office, the latest occasional visit to gather or return materials related to my teaching and research. When I reached the elevator bank of my building, I noticed the electronic events calendar shown above. It hadn’t changed since the week of spring break in March, when the university announced that we would be shifting to online teaching because of the pending coronavirus situation.

It was a stark reminder of how quickly we closed things down.

As recounted in the Boston Globe‘s superb investigative feature on the early days of the pandemic in Massachusetts (link here), as of Monday, March 9 — the first weekday of our spring break — we had only 41 known COVID-19 cases and no fatalities in the state. The next few weeks were surreal for so many of us, as we began transitioning to a stay-at-home mode and started wearing masks when we went out.

When March 20 brought news of the state’s first reported COVID-19 fatality, along 328 new reported cases, I felt sadness and foreboding. It was becoming clearer and clearer that our lives were in the process of changing significantly, perhaps for a long time.

Still, when various public health projections told us that Massachusetts could expect six-figure infection levels and thousands of deaths, I could not wrap my head around the possibility that we would be one of the early hotspots for the virus. I held onto hopes that somehow, someway, we would avoid meeting those scientific projections.

We’ve wrestled down our numbers of infections, at great cost in so many ways. And we’ve lost nearly 8,500 people to this virus, according to official counts.

In the meantime, our March shutdown, and the weeks leading up to it, are starting to feel like a long time ago.

It’s too early to know how we’re going to look back at this time, but I’m guessing that for most of us, this has already become one of the defining events of our lives.

Pandemic Chronicles #10: Taking stock of our lives

Is the coronavirus pandemic prompting you to take stock of your life? Are you spending some of the compelled time at home examining your past, present, and future? If so, you’re in good company. Put simply, facing one’s mortality and living under lockdown conditions has a way of encouraging big picture thinking.

In a recent piece for the Boston Globe (link here), journalist Beth Teitell examines this phenomenon:

If an entire region can have an existential crisis, we’re having one.

With COVID-19 cases mounting and the fear of death hovering, therapist Sam Nabil captured the question lurking barely beneath the surface:

“If I die now, have I lived the life I wanted to?”

For many, the answer is no. Spouses are being left, retirements pushed up, friends dropped. People are moving to rural spots and strengthening their faith, and those fortunate enough to have a choice are saying “no” to commuting.

At the core, so many of the individuals interviewed in Teitell’s piece refer to reassessing their values and priorities. It’s deep stuff, leading to decisions about how we want to live, what we want to do, and what people we want to hold close.

Perhaps this reassessment will not only lead us to better our own lives, but also individually and collectively move us toward creating a better society. Exploring this possibility for the New Yorker, author Lawrence Wright interviewed Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute of the History of Medicine, about how the pandemic may shape our futures (link here). Dr. Pomata is an authority on, among other things, the history of the Black Plague of the Middle Ages.

Now living in Italy, one of the original hot zones for COVID-19 outbreaks, Pomata shared her historical perspective with Wright:

When we first talked, on Skype, she immediately compared covid-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—“not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.” She went on, “The Black Death really marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of something else.” That something else was the Renaissance.

…“What happens after the Black Death, it’s like a wind—fresh air coming in, the fresh air of common sense.”

Although Pomata expressed shock over the resistance of so many Americans to follow basic public health precautions such as wearing masks, she sees the potential for a similar revitalizing response on a global level once we get through this pandemic:

“What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen, not so much in medicine but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”

So, I’m going to put on my law professor’s hat and say that the jury’s still out for me on whether our post-pandemic world will be a more enlightened one. After all, here in the U.S., we are witnesses to some of the most appalling ignorance and selfishness when it comes to undertaking preventive public health measures, and we have an alarming absence of competent leadership at the head of state.

Nevertheless, if humanity can come out of the utter carnage of the Black Plague to create the Renaissance, then we have the capacity to emerge from this pandemic with a vision for a much better world as well. That’s all the more reason to wear those masks, wash our hands, and stay socially distanced.

Pandemic Chronicles #9: Tastes of re-opening in Boston

City Feed & Supply, Jamaica Plain, Boston

As some of you may know, Massachusetts has been one of the nation’s worst hotspots for the coronavirus. It has taken a lot of sacrifice and commitment to reduce our infection rates and fatalities. It now appears that we are finally wrestling down this damnable virus.

Here in Boston, we’re going into the next phases of what I hope will be a safe re-opening of everyday economic and civic life. That became obvious to me on Saturday, when I embarked upon one of my rare treks into my downtown office at Suffolk University Law School.

As soon as I left my home, I was delighted to see that across the street, my beloved little neighborhood grocery/convenience store, City Feed & Supply, had partially re-opened for outdoor business. City Feed has a much larger store elsewhere in my neighborhood — “Big Feed” — that has been providing welcomed deliveries during this time, but this original “Little Feed” is my sentimental favorite. Alas, the Little Feed occupies such a tiny space that, given current social distancing guidelines, it may be some time before it fully re-opens for customers, but I nonetheless rejoiced at seeing this sign of neighborhood life making a reappearance.

Outdoor book stalls at the Brattle Book Shop, downtown Boston

After getting off the subway in downtown Boston, I then made my way to my favorite bookshop in the area, the venerable Brattle Book Shop, one of the oldest used bookstores in the country. Bookstores are both sanctuaries and places of discovery for me. Among the everyday activities that I’ve missed the most, dropping into bookstores ranks high among them. I actually felt a bit emotional, as I surveyed the Brattle’s outdoor stalls — source of many delightful bargain finds over the years — and then went inside to explore more. Four books and a modest $25 expenditure later, I left with new treasures.

Finally, I made it to my office at Suffolk! Despite wildly uneven levels of personal productivity in recent weeks, I managed to work through my checklist and print out a lot of materials for writing projects this summer. I made a useful afternoon of it and felt that the trip was fully worth the effort.

FB posting about Zoom karaoke!

Then it was time to hop back on the subway for home. The evening’s main activity was a three-hour, online karaoke session with the Boston Karaoke Meetup Group. Despite some wacky challenges of integrating two online platforms and teaching one another how to make mic and setting adjustments on our various devices, it is turning out to be a surprisingly enjoyable alternative to face-to-face gatherings!

Singing is my favorite hobby, and I’ve missed it terribly. For years I’ve taken a weekly voice workshop through a local adult education center, and more recently I’ve become a regular at a downtown Boston karaoke club. Months before the coronavirus hit, I had also discovered this wonderful karaoke meetup group. Sadly, the pandemic has forced all of these activities to stop, and it may be a while before they return. That’s why I’m especially grateful that we can harness online technology to bring folks together to sing, however distanced for now.

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I keep reminding myself that, at least here in Boston, it has been only three months or so since we’ve gone into this shutdown mode. Over the course of history, and currently on our small planet, countless millions of people have experienced much longer, more brutal jolts to their everyday lives due to circumstances largely beyond their control.

Nevertheless, I must admit that this time has been a head spinner for me, and I know we’re not through it yet. It has also been a firm reminder of the things that I must simply accept. So, I’ll take days like Saturday, which provided a wonderful taste of life before the term “social distancing” ever entered our vocabularies. I hope there are many more to come.

Pandemic Chronicles #8: And suddenly, our worlds became very small

Approaching Boston’s Logan International Airport (photo: DY)

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #7: Adventures lost

Our study abroad group at Coventry Cathedral, England, 1981

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #6: The new normal is fluid and still surreal

Looking out the screen door.

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #5: Sports-inspired nostalgia

L to R: Players Steve Kerr, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, coach Phil Jackson

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #4: Could I actually be eating healthier than before?

Improvised pizza

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #3: Carless in Boston

Model and make of the only car I’ve ever owned

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.

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