Pandemic Chronicles #24: Not so fast
In my last entry (link here), I wrote — somewhat breathlessly — that “Americans are traveling again, and I’m among them.” Although I wasn’t claiming victory over the pandemic here in the U.S., I did suggest that we were returning to some semblance of normalcy that included a fair bit of travel.
Well…not so fast.
A month later, the highly contagious and potent Delta variant is changing our tune, vaccines notwithstanding. A lot of folks are putting the brakes on ambitious travel plans, instead adopting a wait-and-see attitude. And they’re placing on hold a lot of aspirations for more extensive face-to-face socializing.
In the meantime, schools at all levels are re-opening. Many of them are returning to live classroom instruction after being online for roughly a year and a half.
This includes my university. On Monday I returned to the physical classroom for the first time since early March 2020, with vaccination and mask requirements imposed for students and faculty alike. My first meeting with students felt weird, a bit unsettling, despite that I’ve taught this subject for years.
The second time I met with the same group, we started getting back into a groove. I was more directed and centered, and the students were responding with comments and questions. I left the classroom feeling energetic and buoyed. That was a stark contrast to teaching on Zoom, when I gave maximum energy into teaching online, but often felt exhausted once the connection was turned off.
I dearly hope that we’ll be able to continue teaching in face-to-face mode through the 2021-22 academic year, though I understand that circumstances largely beyond my control will determine that matter.
In the midst of this uncertainty, I look forward to enjoying the beckoning fall. Here in Greater Boston, it’s the nicest season of the year. In fact, I think of a traditional New England fall as capturing the heart of Americana, with its seasonal bridge from hot-to-cold, plenty of autumn color, and historical sites waiting to be explored.
The ongoing presence of the pandemic may temper some of those qualities, but I don’t think it will be able to douse them.
Pandemic Chronicles #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.
From college move-in days to reunions
Hello dear readers, it has been a while since I’ve posted! I’ve been hip deep in various publication projects related to work, and they’ve drained much of whatever writing energies I’ve had this summer. But with another academic year about to begin, I’d be remiss if I didn’t write something to mark it.
Here in Boston, the arrival of thousands of college students during late August and early September is an annual ritual. Here’s what the Boston Globe had to say about it this morning:
This late-summer ritual, the return of tens of thousands of college students to more than 50 area schools, replenishes Boston and infuses it with youth. The transformation is hard to miss. Boston traffic backs up and horns blare as families double-park to unload; the city’s shops and restaurants bustle with new activity; the Esplanade fills with joggers and bikers.
Boston, the country’s ultimate college town, is back.
The so-called “college experience” — that of going off to school, usually starting with a year (or three or four) of living in a residence hall — became a standard middle class aspiration during the last half of the 20th century. It holds this status today, too, even in the face of rising costs of higher education and a shaky economy.
And so in college towns big and small, the students are returning in droves. For those of us who enjoy seasons, this is a harbinger of fall, which in New England is our best time of the year weather-wise.
And fast forwarding…
Among the pieces of advice I want to share with today’s college students is this: If you work on it and are fortunate, you can start building some lifelong friendships.
Every five years, our Valparaiso University study abroad group holds a reunion to catch up with one another and to exchange increasingly exaggerated and dramatic stories from our semester together in England. Many of us manage to see each other on other occasions as well.
We met in Chicago earlier this summer. Our gathering was a little smaller than usual because of a tangle of family and personal schedule conflicts, but we had a wonderful time nonetheless. A photo of most of this year’s attendees appears below.
Sometimes it’s just the way things work out: A group of 20 or so people are tossed together for a term overseas, and many of the bonds created and strengthened during that time ripen into lasting friendships. True, the “college experience” should be about learning, growing, and preparing for the rest of life. And if it includes the forging of friendships that endure, well then, that’s an awesome thing indeed.
This fall, I’ll be revisiting Valparaiso University when I return to campus for homecoming (35th year) and an extended stay to do some work on my writing projects. I’m fortunate to have a research sabbatical this semester, and so I arranged to do a “visiting scholar in residence” arrangement at VU, whereby I’ll be camping out in the library with my laptop and research materials for a few weeks.
This also will give me another opportunity to connect with some of my VU classmates. I look forward to writing about this visit later this fall.
I may complain, but I like having real seasons
Today, the Greater Boston region got its first really serious snowfall, enough to close the city’s public schools for the day. Although my university was open for business, we don’t hold many law classes on Fridays. Had it been another weekday, getting into town would’ve been difficult for a lot more of our students.
Here in Boston, two of the four seasons typically give us something to complain about. Summers can be brutally hot and humid, and winters can be brutally cold and snowy (and icy and slippery). Spring doesn’t last nearly as long as I’d like. Fall, thankfully, is a showpiece of a season in these parts and often prolongs until deep into November.
All things being equal, my favorite overall annual climate is that of the Bay Area in California. But if I’m being honest with myself, I still very much enjoy seasonal changes. I grew up in America’s midwest, where changes of season were part of the cycles of life. That would continue when I moved to New York City, though the contrasts were not as sharp. Since moving to Boston many years ago, however, seasonal changes have once again been more significant and vivid.
As today’s snowfall was coming down, it made for a lot of picturesque views. I was particularly taken by the scene outside the subway station near my home, with the snow sticking to the trees, plants, and lampposts. It all made for some good photos, one of which I share with you above.
As the air chills and the days grow short, the semester chugs along
As I made tracks to my weekly singing class on Tuesday evening at around 6 p.m., both the chilly air and dusk were part of my brisk walk. I did stop to snap the photo above; I liked the way the lights were playing off the fountain. By the time I got to the adult education center where my singing class is held, it was fairly dark.
At work, the end of October means that the semester is now in full swing. I’ve got a stack of paper drafts and outlines to go through this week, and I’m taking a closer look at my course plans to get a sense of whether I’m on schedule in terms of subject matter coverage.
Many of you took your leave of school calendars some time ago, but those of us still in the business as an educator, administrator, or student know how the rhythms of the semester or quarter define our experience of time. I’ve probably said something along these lines before here, but being an academic is as much a lifestyle as it is a career.
For folks like me, whose lines between work, avocations, and civic involvement easily get blurred, it means that work-life balance is something of an irrelevant concept. A lot of stuff just gets jumbled together. Furthermore, although I work a lot, I am not the most self-disciplined person, which means that something another person might get done during a standard Monday through Friday work week might get pushed into the weekend in my case.
Such is the blessing and curse of a vocation that offers great flexibility in scheduling outside of classes and meetings. I offer this as an observation, not a complaint! I think I am wired to live like an undergraduate, so it’s good that I’ve found a way to earn a living that facilitates this personal quality.
New England autumn, that Halloween feeling, and scary stories
Friday was a raw, wet, overcast October day here in Boston. For me, it meant that fall has truly arrived in New England. As my wholly repetitive earlier posts about fall attest (here and here), this is my favorite and most nostalgic season.
The change of seasons from summer to fall is rooted in the equinox, an astronomical term. As explained by Wikipedia:
An equinox is an astronomical event in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes the center of the Sun. . . . The Astronomical Almanac defines it, on the other hand, as the instants when the Sun’s apparent longitude is 0° or 180°. . . . The two definitions are almost, but not exactly equivalent. Equinoxes occur twice a year, around 21 March and 23 September.
The month will culminate with Halloween, that most candy-coated of holidays. It will include a viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, a childhood favorite that still manages to get me in the Halloween spirit.
But Halloween is about much more than empty calories and chocolate fixes. Its origins are grounded in religion and death. Again, from Wikipedia:
Halloween . . . is a yearly celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It initiates the three-day religious observance of Allhallowtide, . . . the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. . . . Within Allhallowtide, the traditional focus of All Hallows’ Eve revolves around the theme of using “humor and ridicule to confront the power of death.” . . .
According to many scholars, All Hallows’ Eve is a Christianized feast initially influenced by Celtic harvest festivals, . . . with possible pagan roots, particularly the Gaelic Samhain. . . . Other scholars maintain that it originated independently of Samhain and has solely Christian roots.
Perhaps it was inevitable that ghosts, goblins, and haunted houses would eventually enter the picture!
I’m in the right part of the country for religion and the supernatural to mix. It’s a combination that goes waaay back. Rosalyn Schanzer opens Witches! The Absolutely True Tale of Disaster in Salem (2011), a short, lively, fact-filled narrative of the Salem, Massachusetts witch hunts of the 17th century, with a description of the Puritan mindset of the day:
Yet with all their fine intentions, the voyagers had brought along a stowaway from their former home — a terrifying, ancient idea fated to wreak havoc in their new land. For the Puritans believed in the existence of two entirely different worlds.
The first of these was the Natural World of human beings and everything else we can see or touch or feel. But rooted deep within the Puritans’ souls like some strange invasive weed lurked their belief in a second world, an Invisible World swarming with shadowy apparitions and unearthly phantoms in the air.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this New England milieu has produced legendary writers of scary stories such as Stephen King and H.P Lovecraft.
After polling friends on Facebook and elsewhere for their Stephen King recommendations, I bought a small bagful of his books (Pet Sematary, It, and Needful Things), all with Maine settings. This one is first up on my reading list:
In his new introduction to Pet Sematary, King calls it his scariest book, so much so that he believed it would never be published.
In other words, it’s a great choice for an October reading.
Fall, fantasy football, and a song or two
Thursday night kicked off the NFL season, which for several million fans also meant the beginning of fantasy football. Somehow I find myself in three fantasy leagues this fall, which means that I’ll be managing the fortunes of three fake football teams: The JP (Jamaica Plain) Storm, the JP Blizzard, and the JP Nor’easters.
Fantasy football offers an added element of fandom. In addition to following your favorite pro team(s) (in my case, primarily the Chicago Bears, and secondarily the New England Patriots), you follow the individual statistical performances of players you’ve drafted for your fake teams.
Sometimes the scoring systems are simple, such as that in the league I organized, where points are awarded almost exclusively on actual scoring. This means that when one of your players scores a touchdown, that six points goes to your team. Easy peasy! Other scoring systems are much more complex, using a longer list of statistical measures.
For me, the start of the NFL season also signifies the “real” start of fall, even if the official seasonal change doesn’t occur until later this month. And here in the Boston area, it just so happened that an early September heat wave cooled off markedly for Thursday’s first Patriots home game in nearby Foxborough.
But there are healthy limits to this fandom. On Wednesday evening, for example, I missed the real-time player draft for one of my fantasy football leagues in order to sing at an open mic cabaret night at a club here in Boston. (The Yahoo! fantasy football platform made my picks for me, based on a player ranking list I compiled.)
I wrote previously that I’ve been taking a weekly singing class for many years, and more recently I’ve been joining friends from that class at open mic nights. Over the weekend I had practiced a duet number with one of my friends, “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail. We performed it on Wednesday night and did a fine job! (Actually, she did great with it, but I felt a little shaky in parts.)
Singing is very therapeutic for me, a form of mindfulness that allows me to be in the moment in a very good way. Performing favorite songs and listening to others do the same is a genuine treat. Following my fake football teams online is fun, but live singing with good company is much, much better.
Summer reading 2015
Summer reading is a term that catches my fancy every year. It calls to mind images of reading a good book on the beach or in a hammock, with a beverage at one’s side and without a care in the world. (Cue up Seals & Crofts, “Summer Breeze.”) Problem is, I don’t spend a lot of time on beaches, and the small yard of my three-unit condo building contains no hammock, at least the last time I looked.
Summer reading also conjures up a certain type of book, one that appears on erudite lists of, well, suggested summer reading. However, despite the photo above, I actually can’t tell you what staffers for The New Yorker have on their summer reading lists, because I took a quick look and realized that our tastes are, uh, different. But hey, it makes for a nice screenshot.
So what does summer reading mean to me? As an educator, it’s mostly about time to read books that I may put aside during a busy academic year, sometimes with a seasonal twist.
Earlier this week I finished David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers (2015). I’ve raved about it so many times to Facebook pals that probably half of them have unfriended me by now. It’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in recent memory. (For more extended praise, see this piece from my Minding the Workplace blog).
Perhaps McCullough has triggered a summer leaning towards Americana. I’m now reading Hattie’s War (2014), by Hilda and Emily Demuth, a historical novel for younger readers set during the American Civil War. Here’s how the Demuth sisters describe their book:
In 1864 Milwaukee, eleven-year-old Hattie Bigelow, who is more interested in baseball than in sewing circles and other women’s efforts to support the Union cause, loses her back yard to a garden for the new Soldiers’ Home and rebels against her family’s expectations in a society transformed by the Civil War.
Hilda is a dear friend going back to our student days at Valparaiso University. A high school English teacher and novelist, she gave me a copy of her latest when I met up with her and her family during their recent pitstop in Boston. The first clue that I’d like Hattie’s War comes right in the opening scene, with kids playing baseball. It contains a neat little detail revealing that the Demuth gals did their homework in understanding the vintage rules of the game. I can’t claim to be a young reader, but I’m enjoying the book a lot.
The baseball theme continues as well, in the form of John Feinstein’s Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball (2014). It profiles the lives of players, managers, and umpires in baseball’s highest level of minor leagues, called AAA or Triple-A.
Feinstein is one of our best sports chroniclers, and he’s done a great job of capturing both the ongoing draw of the game and the realities of professional baseball played one tantalizing, frustrating step short of the major leagues. So close, but yet so far certainly applies here.
Eventually my reading will break away from the North American continent. Later this summer, I’m presenting a paper at a law and mental health conference in Vienna, Austria. I’ll want to read up on a city that I haven’t seen since a quick visit during my collegiate semester abroad. In addition to a travel guidebook or two, I’m considering crime novels by Frank Tallis (A Death in Vienna, 2005) and J. Sydney Jones (The Empty Mirror, 2009), set in the turn of the last century.
Because I am somewhat undisciplined and impulsive when it comes to pleasure reading, this is not the last word on the matter. At least one of Stephen King’s recent books will likely enter the picture, and maybe one of Alan Furst’s atmospheric thrillers set in WWII-era Europe.
There’s one book, a big bestseller right now, that I’ve been carrying around but just can’t seem to crack: Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2014). It’s about the “Japanese art of decluttering and organizing,” a talent that I’ve managed to avoid despite my Japanese heritage. Especially when it comes to work, I tend to be the type who creates order from, and makes sense of, what may appear to be cluttered pieces. Alas, this can produce ferocious piles of books and papers, and I’m not good at tossing. Whatever.
As summer approaches, winter has given way to spring in Boston
The brutal winter that we experienced here in Boston has finally given way to more civilized weather, even if piles of snow collected during January and February and deposited in designated snow removal areas have not fully melted.
Summer beckons, even though the temperature here remains very cool and spring-like. I’m not complaining — I can live with spring and fall weather very happily, thank you. But especially now that my classes are done and I’m finished grading exams and papers, I sort of expect it to be warmer.
Nevertheless, the cool, nice weather has made it comfortable to walk around a bit and take a few snapshots, which I’m happy to share with you.
This time of year triggers bouts of nostalgia for me. Thirty years ago, I graduated from NYU School of Law and began studying for the New York bar exam, a fun little ordeal I wrote about last year.
I had already accepted a position with New York City Legal Aid Society, fulfilling my wish to work as a public interest lawyer. First, however, I had to get through the summer bar study. I managed do to so, but not without feeling sorry for myself an awful lot of that time. In particular, as I wrestled with studying for the exam itself, I badly missed many of my best friends from law school, who took their talents across the country to start their legal careers.
My previous law school summers were memorable. I spent the summer after my second year working as a summer associate at a large corporate law firm in Chicago, an experience I wrote about in a post last year. It taught me a lesson that I share with many of my students: Sometimes experiences that help you eliminate options are as valuable as those that help you to create choices.
I spent the summer after my first year working at the New Jersey Public Defender’s office, while living in one of the NYU law dorms. Heh, one of the things I remember most about that summer was the opening of Steve’s Ice Cream in the Village. Steve’s was a Boston ice cream brand that popularized the practice of toppings hand mixed into your chosen flavor of ice cream. I was making the princely minimum wage that summer, and a chunk of those meager earnings went to Steve’s.
Thirty-five years ago, I had finished my junior year at Valparaiso University. I spent a lot of time serving in a key Indiana volunteer role for the independent Presidential campaign of John B. Anderson, which I wrote about here last June. I also studied hard for the Law School Admissions Test, which I took that summer.
A few weeks after taking the LSAT, I would learn that I did well enough to have some attractive options for law school. Originally I had every intention of attending law school on the west coast, but NYU was too appealing to turn down.
Since becoming a professor, most summers have been devoted in large part to various research and writing projects typically leading to the publication of articles in scholarly law journals. During the summer of 1998, for example, I did a lot of the spadework on my first article examining the legal and policy implications of workplace bullying, eventually published in 2000. It would prove to be a groundbreaking piece that helped to plant the seeds for a movement to enact workplace anti-bullying laws.
This summer I’ve been finishing up a piece on legal scholarship and “intellectual activism,” the latter being a term that I use to describe the process of engaging in research and analysis of a significant legal problem, designing proposed law reform and public policy responses, and then going into a more public mode with those proposals. It harnesses many of the experiences I’ve had and lessons I’ve learned over the past twenty or so years.
Of course, I also am grateful for the flexibility my job affords me to spend the summer working on a largely self-defined schedule. That very flexibility allows me the time to step out the door and take a few photos of this walkable city.
Dreaming of spring training
During this winter of our discontent here in Boston, baseball season seems as far away as the moon. Perhaps that’s why I find myself waxing nostalgic about the game, thinking back to my boyhood years when I became a fan.
During my latter grade school years, I discovered baseball, both watching and playing. The watching was inspired by my 80-something grandfather, who was living with us in Northwest Indiana and enjoyed Chicago Cubs games on television. He didn’t speak much English, but he could follow the ballgames, and so after school and during summers, we’d often watch with him in our little TV room. Here’s the song that would open many a Cubs telecast:
The playing was by way of my friends, who were big sports fans. A few were on organized Little League teams, but for most of us baseball was a pick-up game played on the local parkway, with improvised diamonds. I was terrible at first, but I had fun and kept at it, to the point where I could hold my own hitting and fielding.
In fact, my affinity for the game grew quickly, and the slightest sign of spring became reason to get out my baseball glove and bat. Once the temperatures hit the 60s, I would be full of anticipation for the coming Cubs season and for our parkway ballgames. I’d check the newspaper for news about spring training and search out neighborhood pals to play catch. I also became a fan of tabletop baseball games that used statistical charts and cards to simulate the performances of real-life baseball players — the forerunners of today’s sophisticated computer and video games.
As I got older my focus on baseball waned. But after I graduated from law school, I rediscovered the game. I was in New York City by then, and in the mid-1980s it was still possible to get Mets grandstand seats for under $10. I shared a pair of season tickets with friends during the Mets 1986 World Series championship season, and it was a blast. I also joined fellow Legal Aid Society lawyers for weekly softball games in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Yup, those were good years.
Today, I’d be in better physical shape if I was still playing softball, instead of anticipating the start of fantasy baseball season and playing baseball board and computer games! Whatever. Until this snow starts to clear up, any manifestations of baseball around here will be virtual anyway.