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 #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 #2: Turning off the TV news coverage has made me better informed and less anxious
Television news coverage and commentary are designed to get an emotional rise out of us. They can inform but also inflame. That’s how they get and keep viewers and thus build their ratings. At the start of the coronavirus crisis, I found myself watching a lot of TV news programming. And with it rose my anxiety levels, without necessarily feeling better informed.
During the past week or so, however, I’ve cut my TV news viewing to a bare minimum. I’ve limited most of my television time to binge-viewing great television series. (For example, I’m delighted to recommend “Foyle’s War” — a crime drama set in WWII-era England — for its depiction of history, appealing characters, and rich story lines.)
I subscribe to a lot of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals, both online and in print. I also listen to radio news coverage. I’m a news junkie, and I like to be an informed citizen. Furthermore, my work as a law professor and legal scholar requires me to be well-informed.
Because of the coronavirus, however, my focus has become more intensely local. While I’m interested in the national and global aspects of the pandemic, I’m now closely drawn to what’s happening in Greater Boston specifically and Massachusetts generally. I find that three regional news sources, in particular, have become lifelines for helping me stay informed about, and feel connected to, my local scene during this challenging time: The Boston Globe (daily newspaper), WBUR-FM (public radio news station), and Universal Hub (online news site).
Of course, virtually any news coverage related to this public health crisis is going to push some emotional buttons, but I’ve found myself less anxious and better informed by turning away from TV news and toward sites like the Globe, WBUR, and Universal Hub. They have also given me an even deeper appreciation for the high-quality journalism that still exists in this city, despite the challenges facing the news business. We need these resources now more than ever.
The Great War, in stunning, detailed color
Lately I’ve been watching movies depicting aspects of trench warfare during the First World War, including “Journey’s End” (2018), “King and Country” (1964), and “Westfront 1918” (1930). I highly recommend each of them.
They also have been fitting lead-ins to a stunning new documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old” (trailer here), featuring a masterful restoration of film footage from the war, enhanced by expert colorization. Using this footage and recorded interview excerpts from WWI veterans, the documentary recreates the experience of British soldiers being recruited, trained, and sent to the front, where they are soon confronted by the terrible realities of trench warfare.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” presents the Great War as no succeeding generations have ever seen it. Director Peter Jackson headed up this project, and the visual results are breathtaking. I saw the film at a local movie theatre in Boston as part of a limited national release here in the U.S. It was accompanied by a fascinating short feature on how the restoration was done and how the sound component was developed.
If you want to read reviews and commentary about the documentary, these pieces from the Guardian, Atlantic, and New York Times are worth checking out. Variety reports that the limited release has been a huge success and that a wider release is scheduled for 2019. The Thursday afternoon showing I attended was sold out. If you have any interest in this important chapter of history, then by all means get a ticket to “They Shall Not Grow Old” when it comes around to a theatre near you.
Creating your own little patch of the internet
Can a sense of place be virtual? Can we create personal space in an online environment? Can we stake a claim to our own little home patch of the internet?
I know it’s just a bunch of digital images, technologically speaking, but the internet is a very real place to me. One of the main reasons why I revived this personal blog was because I missed having this virtual patch. While I post to my professional blog more often and to a wider readership, this blog gives me a platform for writing about more eclectic and personal matters.
Brad Enslen, a long-time friend and college classmate, is a fan of blogging as a social networking tool. Here’s what he wrote in a post earlier this month:
You can have multiple blogs. You may have a dormant specialized blog that you want to revive, plus start a generalist, personal, everything blog. I would find having one single topic blog too limiting.
If you are new to this I strongly recommend starting with a generalist blog and write about whatever is on your mind.
Me? I have 3 blogs:
- Micro blog on Micro.blog. I use this for short posts to both the Micro.blog and Twitter social networks because it’s so slick and fast.
- My Web Presence (you are here) on self hosted WordPress.
- A specialized self hosted WP blog.
Remember, networks and networking, are human creations for humans. If you engage your readers and more importantly engage yourself, that is all that matters. I think blogging is a less toxic environment to do that from.
I embrace blogging as way of sharing more organized thoughts, information, and ideas in an essay or news column type of format. Although blogging originally became popular as a way for political commentators to beat the print media to publication, it has grown into a platform for many uses. Among these is the philosophy and practice of “slow blogging,” which uses the platform for reflective (rather than reactionary) writing. This is one of my preferred uses of the blogging medium, especially for this site.
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.
On typing and typewriters
For many years I’ve quipped that Introduction to Typing and Driver’s Education were the two most valuable courses I took in high school. Actually it’s more than a quip. If you toss my junior year American History course into the mix, I think you’d have the academic holy trinity of my high school career. (Yes, I was something of a rebellious underachiever in high school.)
Anyway, back to typing class: I really wanted to learn how to type. Even as an adolescent, I felt that typing out my thoughts and ideas would somehow render them more, well, significant. Once I learned how to type, I would use my mom’s old Royal manual typewriter to bang out term papers for school. And when I got involved in the student council, I would learn how to cut mimeograph stencils for printing out the council newsletter.
Of course, just because I enjoyed typing doesn’t mean I was good at it. I made lots of mistakes…and still do. In the ancient era before word processing programs and home computers, that usually meant using either liquid paper or Ko-rec-type to cover up one’s mistakes and then type over them. I did this a lot, and it slowed down my typing speed.
Off to college
When I went off to college at Valparaiso University, my main off-to-school present was a Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Whoa…..I was now moving up in the world! This model used ribbon cartridges instead of old-fashioned spooled ribbons. If you made a typing error, you could swap out the ribbon cartridge for a correcting cartridge that would white out the mistake. It is a miracle that I did not develop a repetitive stress injury swapping out those cartridges.
My typing life changed when I joined the staff of my college newspaper, The Torch. You see, the newspaper office had two IBM correcting Selectric typewriters. Typing on those machines was a sublime experience. During down times when folks weren’t working on stories, we were free to commandeer the typewriters for our papers and projects. The presence of those typewriters is one of the reasons why that office became our unofficial hangout, even when we weren’t working on the newspaper.
Now, those of later generations might not fully appreciate these challenges, but writing term papers and other assignments in the B.C. era (Before Computers) was a very, very different experience, especially when minimum or maximum page limits were in play. Most of us would first write out our papers in long hand, and then estimate if the cumulative sheafs of paper would, when typed up, potentially run afoul of the page limits. If you didn’t have a good sense of how your cursive writing translated into typed pages, you might be in for some unpleasant surprises, leading to late nights before papers were due.
Lugging it to NYC
I took my Smith Corona with me to law school at NYU. I cannot recall how I got that heavy, bulky machine to its destination, but I may have even checked it as part of my baggage for the flight from Chicago to New York. In some ways, these challenges have not changed; even in the digital era, there are only so many ways to move one’s belongings from here to there.
This was right before the home computer revolution, and very few of my classmates had PCs. Most of us continued to type our papers, with added challenges in terms of margins and page length when writing out practice versions of legal documents. By this time, we were overlapping with the emerging age of computers. At NYU I worked on one of our scholarly law journals and on the law school student newspaper, and we had computer word processing capabilities for both publications.
A computer of my own
I would not own a personal computer until several years after graduating from law school, a Commodore 64 that supported a superb game library and rudimentary word processing programs. I would later move up to an IBM PC compatible machine, and at that point I transitioned from typewriter to word processing. I became enamored of the wonderful, awesome WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS program, which remains to me the best ever software package for writing productivity. In fact, ever since being more or less forced into using the tyrannical, control-freakish, and cumbersome Microsoft Word, my writing efficiency has declined.
Today, I’ve morphed over to Apple products, but I’m still stuck with Microsoft Word. Someday I’d like to give a serious tryout to Scrivener, a word processing program that has a fiercely devoted following. As for my blogs, I use the WordPress platform, which I find easy to navigate.
Changing technologies aside, it’s clear to me that my original motivation for learning how type — to share my thoughts and ideas — remains the main reason why I’m sitting before a keyboard today. And thank goodness that you, kind reader, get to read what’s on my mind with (most of) the typos cleaned up.
The joys of YouTube music videos
One of life’s little pleasures is getting lost in the world of YouTube music videos. I can watch some of these over and again. Here are a few of my repeat favorites:
If you need an energy boost, does it get any better than Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like The Wolf”? The early to mid 80s is one of my favorite pop music periods. On my iPad I have a music compilation of favorite songs from that time, and Duran Duran singles are prominent among them.
I spent a chunk of the weekend watching and re-watching the incredibly hilarious number from Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” (1967 movie version), “Springtime for Hitler.” With every viewing, I keep finding new things to laugh at. (If you know the movie, then the quick cut to Kenneth Mars at around 2:18 is a guaranteed crack up.) From the lyrics, to the choreography, to the crowd reaction, it is singularly brilliant.
“Carousel” is one of the darkest shows of the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon, and it also has one of the most beautiful scores. This London performance of the ballet scene with Louise and the Fairground Boy, featuring Dana Stockpole dancing to “If I Loved You,” is simply exquisite.
One of the very best opening movie scenes ever produced is that from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” set to George Gershwin’s lush, beautiful “Rhapsody in Blue.” It is a loving tribute to the Wonder City.
Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” is one of the best shows ever produced. This Tony Awards performance of the title number, featuring the awesome Sutton Foster, is worth multiple viewings.
I love this Antwerp train station flash mob performance of a rocked up version of “Do Re Mi” (from “The Sound of Music”). It is so much fun to watch, over and again.
My favorite scene from my favorite movie: Gene Kelly singing and dancing to the title number is truly one of the most joyous scenes in the history of motion pictures. I first saw “Singin’ in the Rain” during a study break while in my first year of law school at NYU, a Sunday night screening at the legendary Theatre 80 on St. Mark’s Place. I knew before it was even half over that I was watching something special.
Olivia Newton-John singing “Magic” in 1980 on “The Midnight Special.” It doesn’t matter that she’s lip-syncing. How many of us had monster crushes on her? (If the comments are any indication, we still do.) Sigh, what a contrast to today’s voice synthesized pop tarts.
And finally, some (probably unintended) humor. It appears that Lawrence Welk had no idea that “One Toke Over the Line” was about smoking pot, not — in his words — a “modern spiritual.” I crack up every time I watch it.
Lost traditions: The Sunday newspaper
Not too long ago, a popular Sunday tradition was spending a good chunk of the day reading through the Sunday editions of the daily newspapers. Millions experienced the tactile delight of opening up a big Sunday paper, wondering what interesting stuff waited to be discovered. Even the advertising flyers were fun to page through, especially around holiday season.
The hefty Sunday newspaper has been a journalistic tradition for well over a century. One of my favorite coffee table books is Nicholson Baker & Margaret Brentano, The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911) (2005), which celebrates Sunday newspapers published during the turn of the last century.
The World on Sunday and the tradition of Sunday newspaper reading represent an aspect of pre-digital culture that may be hard to understand for those weaned on an online world where wishes for news and commentary are instantly gratified. Fortunately, some of the major newspapers still land on doorsteps with a healthy thud on Sundays, containing some of their best in-depth reporting, feature articles, and opinion pieces.
Growing up in Chicagoland
My Sunday newspaper habit goes back to growing up in Northwest Indiana, where local papers and the Chicago dailies were readily available. Among the Sunday editions that regularly got my attention were the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Hammond Times, and Gary Post-Tribune. The Tribune excelled at covering my beloved Chicago sports teams, and the Post-Tribune did a very good job with local news.
These papers deserve credit for turning me into a Sunday paper junkie. The Chicago influence was especially strong. The Windy City was a great, great newspaper town back in the day, fueled by the city’s colorful politicians, sports figures, and crime bosses. Beyond the headliners, however, the reporters and columnists who toiled for Chicago’s daily papers also had a knack for digging out the stories of everyday people. The human interest story had a regular place in the city’s newspapers.
Sundays in New York
When I lived in New York City (1982-1994), the Sunday papers were a special treat. The Sunday New York Times was an especially heavy load, a multi-pound door stopper packed with goodies and advertising circulars. The early edition of the Sunday Times would come out on late Saturday evening (and still does), and many a weekend night out included picking up a copy on the way home.
My personal favorite, however, was New York Newsday, the now gone NYC edition of the venerable Long Island daily. New York Newsday wasn’t as worldly as the Times, but it spoke more closely to the city’s middle class and did a superb job of covering local politics and sports. Its thick Sunday edition was chock full of extended features and commentaries. To this day, New York Newsday remains my favorite-ever newspaper.
And now in Boston
My Sunday paper of choice remains the New York Times. The Times has not abandoned the idea that the Sunday edition of a newspaper should be something special. I especially look forward to its Week in Review and Book Review sections.
The major daily here is the Boston Globe, and I have an online subscription. I have an on again, off again relationship with the Globe, and for now we are on digital terms only. In fact, despite a surfeit of subscriptions to printed periodicals, I increasingly get much of my news and commentary online.
And to be honest, I wouldn’t trade the remarkable world of information and news available online for the days of waiting for the paper to be delivered. I, too, have been spoiled by point and click access to news coverage from around the nation and the world. However, at a time when we can use more civilized, enjoyable, and affordable rituals in our lives, reading the Sunday newspaper remains a pretty good choice.
This is a revised version of a piece I wrote for another blog three years ago.
Too many road warrior gadgets?
This week I took a super quick, one night trip to Washington D.C. for an awards banquet, and I found myself chuckling over how much gadgetry I was packing for my short sojourn: My MacBook, iPad, Kindle, and iPhone. (Yeah, I’m mostly Apple these days.) That means four charging cables as well.
That’s a lot of gear for a 24-hour trip!
Curiously, on balance, I’m a light traveler. For all but the lengthiest of trips, I will travel with a backpack and a roll aboard bag that fits comfortably into even a small overhead aircraft bin.
So why all the gadgets?
For starters, the laptop is a work machine. The tablet is my most-used device when I’m en route anywhere…the subway, a short pitstop on a walk somewhere, and certainly out-of-town trips. The cellphone, while perhaps my least used hardware, is invaluable at times and takes pretty good photos. And although I much prefer printed books to an e-reader, the latter allows me to travel with the equivalent of a small library.
A pain in the ash
Maybe I now err on the side of taking all these devices with me because five years ago, I was stranded in Germany for several days without them and felt quite disconnected as a result. In packing, I had decided that for a short international trip, I could leave my laptop at home. Dumb move.
You see, I was participating in a conference at the University of Augsburg, and it so happened that during that time, the big volcano in Iceland was spewing out ash clouds that swept across Europe and shut down the airspace.
Now, there are worse places to be stuck than the beautiful medieval city of Augsburg, but I had not planned on an extended stay. Because my hotel had only one guest computer and the proprietor looked sternly at anyone spending too much time on it (i.e., me), I made multiple treks to the local Internet cafe in order to catch up on e-mails and keep track of the news.
After all, in a pinch, you can do some laundry in the sink or the tub, but you can’t turn your scrubbed out socks into a computer.
Perhaps the march of technology will allow me to consolidate functions into fewer devices. My current gadgets are of slightly “older” vintage — iPad 2, iPhone 4, etc. — so I’m thinking it’s time to be on the lookout for an upgrade. I was looking covetously at the newly announced iPad Pro, but I’ll wait to see the reviews.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to pack all my toys whenever I’m about to hop on a plane or a train.
Have our gadgets sapped some of the adventure out of travel? (2014)