Pandemic Chronicles #15: Let’s get through this bleak midwinter
Here in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic continues at a brutal pace, as we await larger distributions of vaccines that will help us wrestle down this virus. In the meantime, our first full week of 2021 was marked by a mob attack on our nation’s Capitol building, fueled by a perverse rage over the 2020 Presidential election results.
Memo to self: It takes more than the turn of a calendar to truly change things. Memo to 2021: So far, you’re sucking badly.
But I have genuine hope that things will get better this year. We may even return to some semblance of normal living. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to travel for enjoyment without fearing what we could catch, or spread, along the way.
First, though, we have to get through what may be a very bleak winter. I confess that I have no one-size-fits-all advice on how to do this, because each person’s situation is different.
Obviously, for our own sake and that of others, we need to practice safe health habits. For me that means wearing a quality mask whenever I’m out, washing my hands when I return home, and practicing social distancing. This has been the public health mantra since March, and I’m not going to debate it.
My work is going to be pretty much the same. I’ll be teaching my courses remotely, via Zoom. I’ve got some speaking appearances lined up, also online. Of course, I’ve got a variety of writing and advocacy projects going, and most of that work will be done from behind a keyboard as well.
I’m devoting a lot of time to lifelong learning activities. My most significant one is enrolling in an adult education program at the University of Chicago called the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, a four-year sequence of courses devoted to the study of Great Books of Western Civilization. I’ll be writing more about this experience in a new blog that I’m planning on lifelong learning and adult education, to go along with this blog and my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.
In terms of hobbies, I’m playing favorite sports simulation board and computer games (I’ve written about that here and here), participating in online karaoke through the Boston Karaoke Meetup group, and reviving a boyhood pastime of collecting stamps. As I wrote on my professional blog some four years ago, it’s especially important to have healthy and engaging hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times.
Okay folks, I know it’s obvious that I am a major nerd. But hopefully that nerd status will help to enrich my life during an otherwise challenging time. If we can grow and enjoy various pastimes while remaining safe and healthy, I call it a win.
May you find good things to occupy your time as we find our way to a better and healthier springtime.
Pandemic Chronicles #8: And suddenly, our worlds became very small
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 #6: The new normal is fluid and still surreal
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.
From gadget to appendage
Sometime during the last year, my cell phone morphed from being a oft-annoying gadget to an occasionally annoying virtual appendage. I am not a likely candidate to have made this transition. I have cursed cell phones more than praised them. Multiple days have gone by when I didn’t even bother turning on my own phone.
But now it’s fully accurate to say that my cell phone has largely supplanted my landline and office phone. After some four years of owning an iPhone 4s, I am finally using it like so many other people deploy their smartphones. I use it for calls (the ear buds free up my hands), texting (I finally gave in and started texting), taking pictures (the 4s camera isn’t state of the art, but it does the job), and checking online sites (mostly e-mail and Facebook).
I haven’t come close to exploiting all of its features. When it comes to technology, I’m the opposite of a “first adopter.” But it’s now close to being an indispensable tool. It has become especially valuable while traveling.
Before this transition, I couldn’t understand why people went into a panic if they feared that they lost or misplaced their phone. What’s the big deal? Just get a new one, I’d say to myself. Not anymore.
I still don’t get how some folks basically live in their phones. I shake my head when walking the streets of Boston turns into an exercise in dodging people looking down at their phones. And I think it’s unfortunate when people can’t be in the moment with each other because their face-to-face social interactions are interrupted by ever-present pinging and furtive (or not-so-furtive) glances at their phones.
That all said, the technology contained in the average smartphone is nothing short of remarkable. Our phones shouldn’t be ruling our lives, but they sure can make certain aspects of life more convenient. Call me a qualified but devoted convert.
Life’s little scratch ticket wins
The other day I was getting ready for a short trip, and I went online to print out my airline ticket. I was delighted to see the TSA Pre-check designation on it. Pre-check means that you can go through a shorter, faster security line without removing your shoes, belt, computer, and small liquids. It saves some time and hassle and makes a plane trip a little bit more pleasant.
Of course, I could also send Uncle Sam a check and a completed form to fly Pre-check all the time. Maybe I’ll do so, because it does restore a dose of civility to the air travel experience. In the meantime, I greet the printing out of my ticket with hopeful anticipation that I’ll win the Pre-check lotto via whatever process the TSA folks use.
I call Pre-check one of life’s little scratch ticket wins: You know, those lottery tickets or customer cards where you scratch off an opaque covering to see if you’ve won a little something. Maybe it’s a small payout, a free sandwich, or a discount on your next purchase.
Life’s scratch ticket equivalents can pop up anywhere. Maybe you’re running late and you make the next subway train with seconds to spare. Or perhaps you discover that the very thing you want to buy is on sale. Until they went with all-day breakfast, making it to McDonald’s just before the morning menu ended would count, too!
As an educator, I used to think of snow days as being a scratch ticket win. But then came Snowpocalypse 2015 in Boston, with so many class cancellations that we had to have monster make-up classes once we dug out of winter. Suffice it to say, I greet snow days much less enthusiastically than before we got hit with 100+ inches of snow that winter.
Obviously we’d all like to win Mega Millions, but winning scratch tickets can put smiles on our faces as well.
Clothes shopping: My imitation of a Japanese bullet train
As faithful readers of this little blog might guess, I can spend an hour in a used bookstore, and ultimately leave with a $5 bargain and a smile on my face.
But when it comes to clothes shopping, I can drop $200 with the speed of a Japanese bullet train, out of pure desperation to minimize the misery of the experience.
There are few tasks that I enjoy less than shopping for clothes. When I can, I do it online. But sometimes it’s easier to bite the bullet (there’s that word again — this topic gets me violent) and head over to Macy’s in downtown Boston, where I will do a super quick grab & pay for whatever I need.
And so it was a few days ago, when the sorry-a** state of my wardrobe demanded a replenishing of dress shirts, pants, socks & underwear, and a few other things I seem to have already forgotten. As I made my instantaneous choices, with an eye out for sales signs, the stuff was falling out of my arms. Within a few minutes, I plunked down my credit card and assessed the damage. Mission accomplished, I rushed out to reconnect with civilization.
I hauled all it home on the subway, and the next day I started the arduous process of removing the packaging. It took me almost as long to remove all the stickers, tags, tape, needles, and those make-me-homicidal little plastic fasteners as it did to buy the clothes in the first place. I will never be able to recover those minutes of my life. They’re gone — poof.
By contrast, this is why Hawaiian shirts are my top garment of choice: You open the package, you remove a sticker or tag or two, it’s ready to wear, and it’s comfortable. No drama, no multiple-safety-hazard needles, no stiff cuffs or necks to cramp my style — to the extent I have a style.
Anyway, I have survived my annual/semi-annual/whatever clothes shopping ordeal, and now I can breathe easily. I don’t think I’ll have to enter that retail zone again for at least another half year. Phew.
On bucket lists, f***it lists, and the happily mundane
The title of the 2007 movie “The Bucket List” introduced a new phrase into our popular culture, referring to the making of wish lists, written down or simply in our heads, of must-do trips and activities before we die (hence, kick the bucket). The film itself starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two older men with dire medical diagnoses who decide to leave their hospital beds for a whirlwind road trip around the world.
Especially among folks of a certain age (umm, 40s and older), “bucket list” creeps fairly often into conversations about making the most of our respective futures. It’s also an easy peasy invitation to daydreaming big.
But hold on a minute, maybe there’s more to a good life than checking off items on a bucket list! How about the benefits of offloading certain burdens and of pursuing everyday pleasures?
While some are making their bucket lists, others are working on their “f***it” lists, made up of those life matters worthy of jettisoning. As Huffington Post blogger Kathy Gottberg suggests, “we should be both willing and able to let go of anything that drags us down and holds us back from living a happy and content life.”
Furthermore, by choice or circumstance, most of us aren’t in a position to tackle a bucket list that includes a private jet at our beck and call. Not to worry, reports New York Times personal finance columnist Ron Lieber, citing research indicating that simple, pleasurable everyday experiences — “like a day in the library” — can bring us happiness comparable to taking that big trip.
I think I get it. While I have neither a bucket list nor a f***it list, I understand that adding items to the latter can be incredibly freeing. Some of life’s B.S. just isn’t worth carrying around! Also, while I still enjoy visits to cool places, I’m quite happy with stretches that don’t involve long plane flights and that allow time for leisure reading or some quality binge viewing.
In other words, thank goodness there are good ways to pursue happiness besides vagabonding around the world in a Lear jet. Besides, the jet lag would be horrific.
Thinking young and thinking old: The best of both worlds
So here’s the question for the day: In looking for books that help us to play the game of life, should we seek insights that encourage us to be young and adventurous or old and wise? Our popular culture worships youth, but there’s much to be said for maturity, too.
How about seeking out both perspectives?!
On that note, here are two books that might be interesting back-to-back reads: Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity (2010) and Charles D. Hayes’s The Rapture of Maturity (2004). They were written with different generational audiences in mind, the former pitched at younger folks, the latter aimed at older folks.
From Hayes’s Autodidactic.com website, here’s a description of The Rapture of Maturity:
The Rapture of Maturity affirms the joys of discovery and insight that accompany thoughtful reflection on our years of lived experience and a pursuit of deeper understanding. It encourages the kind of thinking that can transform human relations on a global scale.
Rapture is the reward of living authentically and acting deliberately to leave the world a better place than we found it. For those who seek such a goal, this book is indispensable.
And here’s an online description of Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity:
If you’ve ever thought, “There must be more to life than this,” The Art of Non-Conformity is for you.
Based on Chris Guillebeau’s popular online manifesto “A Brief Guide to World Domination,” The Art of Non-Conformity defies common assumptions about life and work while arming you with the tools to live differently. You’ll discover how to live on your own terms by exploring creative self-employment, radical goal-setting, contrarian travel, and embracing life as a constant adventure.
Publisher’s Weekly aptly noted that “although directed at readers of all ages, [Guillebeau’s] message is likely to appeal most to those without dependents.” So consider the interesting twist: A book that understandably may be discounted as unrealistic by parents raising kids may suddenly be more relevant to them once they become empty nesters.
And for those who are younger, what better way to get a head start on what’s important in life than to read about lessons learned by Charles Hayes, an insightful, thoughtful, largely self-taught philosopher and writer of more senior vintage?
Each book is full of inspiration, sound advice, and thought provoking observations. Here are parts from each that stand out for me:
In a chapter titled “Graduate School vs. the Blogosphere,” The Art of Non-Conformity explores the question of grad school vs. independent learning. Guillebeau shares his own graduate school experience (a master’s degree program in international affairs) and compares its time, cost, and activities to the benefits of pursuing a largely self-defined course of independent study.
He includes a suggested outline for a “One Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience,” basically a low-cost, do-it-yourself program of reading, multi-media learning, travel, and online publishing. For lifelong learning junkies, this is catnip and gets the wheels turning. It’s a wonderful reminder of how much good stuff is out there for independent learners.
For me, the most memorable passage of The Rapture of Maturity is a story of regret that Hayes shares from his younger days when he lived for a short time in a boarding house:
In the room next to mine was an old man in his eighties who often asked me to have dinner with him. Most of the time I was in too much of a hurry and declined. When I did accept his invitation, I ate quickly and never stayed very long. The recurring memory I have today sees through that old man’s screen door to the table always set with an extra plate in case he might have company for dinner. Today I understand that he was lonely. Back then I didn’t have the time or the patience to notice.
Hayes goes on to explore the role of regret in helping us to shape better lives. “Reflecting on this kind of unfinished business,” he writes, “prepares us for similar decisions in the future.”
Freedom and responsibility
For me, at least, the broader takeaways from these books, considered together, is that life is a balance of freedom and responsibility. It’s about the freedom to do things and make decisions about one’s life, along with a self-defined responsibility to live in a meaningful, authentic, and difference-making way.
Within those very broad parameters, there may be plenty of room to navigate between family, friends, work, faith and spirituality, and various activities.
Not everyone has these choices. Life’s opportunities are not equally distributed, and for some they may be very constricted. But for those who are blessed with, at the very least, some capacity to create these options, these two books may be valuable.
On being a night owl
One night last week, I got home around 9 p.m., quickly grabbed a bite to eat, and started to feel very sleepy. It was around 10 p.m. when I decided to go to bed, an unusually early time for me. I couldn’t even keep my eyes open to read a book before dozing off. I had a good sleep — REM sleep with dreams and all — before waking up pretty energized.
There was just one glitch: It was only a little after midnight when I woke up! I got out of bed, knowing I wasn’t about to fall asleep again any time soon. I attended to some work before hitting the hay at around 3:30 a.m.
I have been a night owl for as long as I can remember. By this I mean going back into my early childhood. I loved being up late at night when everyone else was asleep. Very early in life, I began thinking, the night is mine!
Throughout my childhood, I associated a later bedtime with independence. Being able to stay up to watch late night TV was especially fun. When a local Chicago station began running Creature Features, a weekly classic horror movie on late Saturday nights, I’d huddle under a blanket in the TV room while the rest of the family slept, hoping that mummies and werewolves would not jump out of the screen.
As adolescence kicked in, my night owl rhythms felt more like insomnia. On school nights, I tried to get to sleep before midnight, but usually I’d fail, and get anxious about it in the process. I’d then listen to the radio, either a music station or overnight talk shows, the latter, I would learn, were the province of other night owls. It made for some tired mornings at school.
In college and law school, my nocturnal schedule actually fit in well with the overall student lifestyle. In fact, during those years I came to understand that I was quite productive during the late night hours. While the proverbial “all nighter” was more an act of desperation (as it is for most students), a steady stream of late night work was well within my productivity zone.
Heh, I’m only somewhat joking when I say that I became a professor so that I could revert back to the schedules of my student days! I am grateful to have such flexibility.
Fortunately, unlike my younger days, I’m able to adapt my schedule much easier than before; when I need to be up earlier, I can do so without much difficulty. But when given a choice, I tend to default back into burning the midnight oil, and then some.
Over the years I’ve read various, conflicting studies over the supposed strengths and weaknesses of “morning people” versus “night people,” but even if they hold some truths, they are aggregates, not determinants of individual traits and behaviors. As I see it, it’s a combination of personal proclivities, wiring, and circumstances, that’s all.
Will I ever flip over and become a “morning person”? I know many people who like to get up early for a head start on their day. I am much more productive during mornings than I used to be, so I can sort of understand. Sort of. Maybe this older dog will learn some new tricks, but for now, it’s likely to be late at night rather than early in the morning.