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.
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.
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.
Have you ever moved to another part of your city, state/province, or country? Have you ever relocated to another nation? Why did you do it, and how did you get there?
NPR’s TED Radio Hour had me contemplating this topic during a feature on migration (link here), exploring why and how people have uprooted themselves from their original surroundings to less familiar ones. If you’ve made a big move or two during your life, or are contemplating doing so, this hour offers an interesting set of reflections and insights.
Location and the pandemic
Of course, the idea that location matters has become very significant during the coronavirus pandemic. One’s experience of this pandemic and public responses to it are based in part on where we live. Infection rates, medical and public health resources, population density, and beliefs in science and prevention vary widely by location.
Here in Boston, after a brutal year we are allowing ourselves to take literal and figurative breaths of relief. Our vaccination rates are trending upward, our infection rates and fatalities are in decline, and we’re gradually moving towards some resumption of living more normally.
Yesterday, however, I was on a webinar with law students and lawyers in India. I knew very well that they are reeling from a terrible surge in infections that, for now, shows no signs of abating. We may have been in the same virtual room together, but our experiences of that event were no doubt shaped by our respective perceptions of safety and health.
During my lifetime, I’ve made two bigger moves, a temporary move abroad, and a smaller move that felt like a huge one.
Going in reverse order, the small move that felt very big was leaving my hometown of Hammond, Indiana to attend Valparaiso University, all of one county and a 45-minute drive away. To an 18-year-old young man who wasn’t very worldly, it felt like I had moved halfway across the country, even though I remained squarely in northwest Indiana.
The temporary move abroad was in the form of a collegiate semester spent in England. As I’ve written before on this blog, those five months opened the world to me. Even before that study abroad experience, I had aspirations of moving to the West Coast or East Coast for law school. My semester abroad basically cemented that intention.
A year after returning from England, I would pack my bags for a much longer stay — twelve years in New York City — starting with law school at New York University. In 1994, an opportunity for a tenure-track teaching appointment at my current affiliation, Suffolk University Law School in downtown Boston, prompted a move to my current hometown.
With New York City and me, it was love at first sight. I will never again be as taken with a sense of place in the way that New York captivated me. With Boston, it has been more of an evolving affection, marked by the city’s insularity and parochialism slowly giving way (uh, sometimes kicking and screaming) to a growing cosmopolitan culture. It also helps that Greater Boston remains a place where ideas, invention, creativity, and books still matter. (Two years ago, I reflected on a quarter century of living in Boston. You may go here to read that.)
Many academics, even tenured ones, opt to be somewhat nomadic, moving from university to university as perceived greener pastures present themselves. While I’ve received periodic invitations to apply for teaching jobs elsewhere, I’ve opted to remain in Boston. Whether or not any more big moves remain for me, I cannot guess. But over the years, I’ve also taken countless plane and train trips to places far and near, and I expect that I’ll resume doing so as public health circumstances permit.
With vaccinations on the increase and safer travel becoming a realistic possibility during the months to come, memories of past sojourns have become prominent in my nostalgic mind. Chief among them is my final undergraduate semester in 1981, spent at Valparaiso University’s study abroad centre in Cambridge, England. I have written with great affection about this formative time on this blog (e.g., “First-time sojourn across the pond,” here) and highlighted that experience in a reflective essay on my college years published in the university’s literary journal (“Homecoming at Middle Age,” The Cresset, here). Suffice it to say that seeds planted during that semester took hold in so many ways, shaping my sense of vocation and personal culture for a lifetime.
This writing finds myself contemplating a specific set of memories about that semester. Forty years ago this week, I was spending a part of our spring break in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which at the time were marked by “The Troubles,” a span of great and violent political and nationalistic discord over the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. My brief visit occurred during a period of hunger strikes by Irish prisoners being held at Maze Prison in Northern Ireland, known as “H-Block” because of its physical configuration. Ten of these prisoners would die of starvation.
Upon arriving in Belfast by bus, I felt very lost as I gazed around, with map in hand, wondering how to find the youth hostel where I planned to stay for a couple of days. Apparently I looked very lost as well, because a man approached me and asked if he could direct me somewhere. I explained that I was looking for the hostel, and he offered to give me a ride there. I readily accepted his offer. (Keep in mind that hitchhiking was a common practice for students studying abroad back then.)
In the car, I introduced myself and added that I had become interested in the political strife surrounding Northern Ireland. Well, that opened up a conversation. It turns out that this fellow was a BBC reporter, and he explained that he had just finished interviewing members of the Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary organization that was challenging British rule in Northern Ireland. He then asked if I had a few minutes to spare, offering to take me on a quick driving tour through parts of working class Belfast where he had talked to IRA members. Being a college newspaper scribe and fancying myself as a sort of foreign correspondent, of course I said yes.
I took the two snapshots above during that impromptu tour. To this day, I understand that this chance meeting gave me an opportunity to see parts of Belfast that I never would’ve ventured into on my own, during a violent and painful time in the city’s history.
Belfast felt like a proverbial war zone during my visit. Security checkpoints screened entry into the city centre. Stores and movie theaters employed guards to search bags. One afternoon, as I walked back to the youth hostel, I saw a British troop car ahead of me. Soldiers were exiting it quickly, while their leader was focused on looking across the street. As I passed by, I asked what was going on, and they told me in a terse tone to just keep walking. I followed orders, briskly so. I have no idea what, if anything, happened later. However, I did manage to snap the photo above.
From Belfast I traveled south to Dublin, via three hitchhiked rides. It was Easter weekend, and this marked the 65th anniversary of the historic Easter rising, an armed insurrection by Irish nationalists challenging British rule. Dublin was at the center of the insurrection, which led to nearly 500 fatalities and some 2,600 wounded.
Obviously, the current H-Block hunger strikes gave this anniversary considerable meaning. I took these photos of the Easter weekend protest march and rally. Above, the young man pictured struck a pose for me. (Note also the titles of movies playing at the city cinema!)
The Old Post Office and Bank of Ireland buildings, both of which were occupied by Irish nationalists during the Easter Rising, were prominent sites for this rally as well. I got snapshots of both.
Looking back, I now grasp how I had dropped myself into places that could’ve made for dangerous situations. At the time, I was sufficiently young and ignorant to assume that if any bullets flew in my direction, they would simply miss me.
That I visited Belfast and Dublin during this tumultuous time was a bit of a twist. You see, among our student cohort, I was not the most adventurous of travelers, often preferring to spend weekends remaining in Cambridge, while many of my fellow Valparaiso U students traveled around the UK.
Happily, though, the days spent traipsing around Cambridge did stick with me. I did not have plans to pursue a career in academe at the time, as I intended to go to law school as a prelude to entering the bloody world of politics. But the time I spent drinking in this historic, medieval university city worked its magic on me and contributed to my opting for the bloody world of academe instead.
In any event, my ongoing gratitude for that study abroad experience leads me to dearly hope that international study programs will recover and revive as we get through the worst of this pandemic. As I wrote last May (here), “(o)ne of the great sadnesses of the current coronavirus pandemic is how many thousands of college students may be denied similar opportunities.” We need to restore these chances to have life-shaping experiences.
As I anticipated receiving my first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Friday afternoon, I did not expect the experience to leave me feeling so, well, hopeful and even patriotic. In fact, I half expected the scene at the giant Hynes Convention Center in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood to be like something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie, replete with long lines and military personnel.
It turned out there were long lines, but they moved with brisk efficiency. And while the operation was indeed staffed mainly by various branches of the military, the folks carrying it out did so with unceasing courtesy, friendliness, and encouragement. I found myself thanking them over and again for how well this was all handled.
So rather than feeling like I had been cast as an extra in said sci-fi movie, I came away with a deep sense of gratitude, buoyed by optimism that we can get through this and reclaim some sense of normalcy in our lives.
It was quite something to walk into this giant hall and witness a mass vaccination campaign in actual operation. It may be a once in a lifetime experience — er, maybe twice in a lifetime, as I have a return appointment for my second shot in a few weeks. In any event, there wasn’t much time to dwell upon it, because the lines were moving with a speed that an airport traveler standing in a security line could only dream of.
Honestly, when news of effective vaccines first broke, I imagined myself getting my shots in a private room at my doctor’s office. The thought of getting jabbed at a mass vaccination site was not very appealing.
But at the risk of sounding very corny, today’s experience left me feeling like we really are in this together in terms of wrestling down this pandemic and being part of the public health response. Given how divisive things have been in the U.S. during recent years, this was a refreshing sentiment. I know it may not last forever, but for now, I’ll happily take it.
After I got my shot, I treated myself to a bookstore visit at Barnes and Noble, followed by a pickup order of clam chowder from Legal Sea Foods. Although I had planned to get some work done on Friday evening, it didn’t happen, as I fell soundly asleep on my couch after eating. As far as side effects go, I’m doing fine, with some injection site soreness and fatigue. Purely small stuff, all normal.
In sum, it was a good day that helped me to imagine better ones during the weeks and months to come.