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.
With spring showing tantalizing signs of genuine arrival here in Boston, the warming weather has prompted me to take more walks around the neighborhood. In fact, I’ve taken more walks during the past two weeks than during the preceding two months combined. Most of my sojourns are taken in Southwest Corridor Park, a stretch of urban park land that runs parallel to the Orange Line of the city’s subway system.
Generally speaking, folks remain masked up and give each other some distance if they’re walking past or by someone. This winter, we’ve had to wrestle down a second big spike in COVID-19 infections, and most people continue to take appropriate precautions. Like millions of others, I’m hoping that the vaccination programs lead us to a better place in terms of safe and healthy socializing, working, and traveling, but we’re not quite there yet.
In the meantime, keeping me company on my walks has been a lot of good music, courtesy of my iPhone. I’ve got a lot of old standards loaded up, such as Sinatra, various renditions of Gershwin and Cole Porter, and the like, as well as some pop tunes centered on the early 80s. While enjoying these songs as I bop along, I sometimes wonder what folks are thinking about as they take their walks. We’re all in the park together, yet living inside our respective heads. Might others also be listening to some of the greatest performers of the last century?
And so, as often is the case during this challenging time, I try to find contentment and pleasure in the small things. I suppose that’s an important lesson for when we’re out of this pandemic, as well.
The turn of the calendar to February drove home to me how many lives changed suddenly and dramatically when the coronavirus entered our communities. Between my natural penchant for instant nostalgia and Facebook’s daily notices of items we’ve posted in the past, reminders of life a year ago are very sharp for me. They often start with “the last time I….”
The photo above is from my last meal in Boston’s Chinatown, at a restaurant called Penang, a favorite eatery that serves Malaysian food. I had finished teaching an evening class and decided to treat myself to a nice meal there, so I walked over to Chinatown and ordered enough food to guarantee a big bag of leftovers to take home. The restaurant was pretty empty, a sign that people were (1) already nervous about getting sick, and (2) associating our Chinatown with the apparent Chinese origins of the virus (sigh).
February was also the last time I met up with friends visiting from out of town, sang at my favorite karaoke studio, went to a movie theatre, and took a plane trip. I know I’m not alone with memories like this. They are regularly popping up on Facebook, with friends posting memories about a last visit to the theatre, a 2020 Super Bowl party, and vacations of various sorts.
Most of all, though, I remember the odd blend of normalcy and foreboding. Here in Boston, we were a month away from going into shutdown mode. On the surface, life appeared to be going along as usual. But I did not have a good feeling about what was ahead. I’m not sure how many others felt similarly, but my forecasting instincts tend to be pretty good, and I sensed that life could be changing in big ways.
As the virus was spreading in other parts of the world, I started to feel like I was in a real-life variation of “On the Beach,” the Cold War-era book and film about Australians trying to live their normal lives, while knowing that deadly nuclear fallout from a third world war was heading their way and would soon overtake them. Although I didn’t fear that the virus would claim all of us, the news from abroad was becoming dire, and it seemed highly unrealistic that we’d avoid being affected. The question was when and how bad.
In Massachusetts, we were hit early and hard. Like many other parts of the country, we’ve also experienced a second, severe spike in infections. Our numbers total over 560,000 cases and some 15,500 fatalities. The individual stories behind each carry fear, suffering, and heartbreak. In addition, folks are struggling to make ends meet, businesses are scrapping to keep going, front-line responders are stressed and exhausted, and our health care system is stretched to the max. Now we’re in a race to get vaccinated, hopefully a step ahead of the various, predictable mutations that threaten to prolong the pandemic if we don’t wrestle it down promptly.
We’ve got a ways to go, but I still believe that this year holds real promise of getting better. In addition, a note to self: Never take for granted those everyday pleasures that have largely disappeared during the past year.
On a sort-of-related note, please visit my new blog about lifelong learning and adult education, More Than A Song (link here). The blog is inspired in part by the value of engaging in continuing education activities during this pandemic.
Many years ago, when I was easily inspired by catchy phrases, the expression “may you live in interesting times” first sounded waaaay cool to me. As a late Baby Boomer (i.e., a member of Generation Jones), I had missed out on all of the drama and tumult of the 1960s. As a history buff, I was fascinated by the Second World War (and remain so). Now those were times that mattered, I thought to myself.
In stark contrast, my formative years included watching lots of bad TV, being amazed at the culinary convenience of Stouffer’s French bread pizza, and wearing clothes that threatened to melt if I got too close to a radiator.
I would later learn that “may you live in interesting times” was thought to be an old Chinese curse, not a blessing! And now we know that its allegedly ancient provenance is apocryphal. Heh, perhaps the whole tale was invented by someone who knew that impressionable fellows like me would fall for it.
Anyway, I thought about the expression as I prepared to make one of my occasional trips to my university office yesterday, in order to pick up some materials to help me prep for the coming semester. You see, this decision involved a bit of personal calculus that directly reflects our current situation.
First, for me at least, every trip on the Boston subway now involves a standard risk assessment. If I catch COVID-19, I’m at moderate risk to develop a severe case of it. So, I wear a KN-95 mask, put on gloves (once our infection rate started to surge again), and liberally use my bottle of hand sanitizer. When I enter a subway car, I do a quick scan for folks not wearing masks. I will try to transfer cars at the next stop if there appear to be blatant violators.
Second, I decided to go in yesterday, even though classes don’t begin for another two weeks. According to credible news reports, the same insurrectionist cells that stoked the violent occupation of the U.S. Capitol last week are threatening similar events in both Washington D.C. and all 50 state capitals for next week. Boston is the capital of Massachusetts, and the State House building is a short walk up the street from my university office. I plan to avoid the area. (In fact, a few days ago, I wrote senior university administrators at my school to suggest that all buildings be closed for most of next week, out of an abundance of caution.)
Interesting times, indeed. The coronavirus has changed the way we live, while an ugly and deeply divisive election and its aftermath have been playing out before us. Although I sincerely believe that 2021 will be better than its predecessor, the next few months will be dire in terms of our public and civic health. This time will be remembered as one of the most challenging periods in our history.
I’ve always been a news junkie, but I’m following daily developments like never before. I guess you could say that I got what my younger self wanted. But that younger self was not always very wise or perceptive. In a 2017 remembrance published in The Cresset, the literary journal of Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater), I opened with an observation that I had long regarded my collegiate years as covering a rather dull, uneventful stretch of America’s history. Subsequent events, however, would prove otherwise, revealing that a lot of important developments were occurring during that time.
In reality, the ebb and flow of history suggest that there are no truly uneventful times. Something is always going on, even if its significances are not always evident in that snapshot moment. Moreover, we can live meaningful and interesting lives under virtually any general set of circumstances. I think that’s the more important consideration to keep in mind.