On this last day of 2022, I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, to see a special exhibit devoted to the rich history of Life magazine and how photojournalism shapes our perceptions of world events around us. The exhibit was engaging and thought-provoking and well worth the visit. I made a bit of an event out of it by treating myself to lunch in MFA’s open air café and by visiting its excellent bookshop, where I made a couple of purchases.
Perhaps I was also drawn to MFA today because of an odd sense of nostalgia. It was roughly three years ago that I decided to join the museum, inspired by a visit there with my long-time friends Sharon and Don Driscoll. Don and I are college chums going way back, including a semester abroad in England. During that semester, I received by far my lowest grade in college, a D+ in Art Appreciation. I’ll spare you the bloody details about how I earned that grade, but suffice it to say that I was not interested in an early morning class that featured slides of a lot of old paintings. I had more important things to do. Like sleeping.
Anyway, during one of the Driscolls’ welcomed trips to Boston, the MFA was on our list. The highlight of that visit was a wonderful introductory tour by one of the super-knowledgeable MFA docents. One of my digital mementoes of that visit is this photo that Sharon took, with a painting of the Boston Common behind me:
I decided after that visit to join the MFA, which happens to be three short subway stops away from my home. With unlimited museum admissions as a benefit of membership, I figured that I could make periodic short visits as interest and opportunity dictated.
During my first sojourn there as a member, I texted Don and Sharon to announce my new quest for cultural literacy. Don, recalling my D+ in Art Appreciation, replied that I was proof of the theory of evolution. As I looked ahead to 2020, I figured that regular visits to MFA would be part of the upcoming year.
Well, we know what happened a few months later. Talk about a global tsunami of an event. And we’re still living with it.
This is my long-winded way of saying that with 2023 just hours away, I am making few assumptions about how the year will go. I have hopes and aspirations for it, of course, but if nothing else, the past three years have taught us how quickly our lives can change in dramatic ways outside of our control. The new normal puts a premium on changing and adapting to new circumstances.
So, I’m buckled up again for the journey. I hope it’s a happy and healthy one for you and yours. And maybe it will include visits to great museums and other fine places.
Forty summers ago around this time, I was packing a small suitcase in preparation for a first-ever trip to New York City. This was to be a reconnaissance mission of sorts, an initial exploration of what would be my new home for at least the next three years. (It turned out to be more like twelve.)
After having grown up in Northwest Indiana and attended college at Valparaiso University, located in the region’s outskirts, I yearned to spend time in another part of the country. This desire was fueled by a final collegiate semester at VU’s overseas study center in Cambridge, England, which greatly expanded my horizons.
Plans to attend law school provided an opportunity to satisfy that exploratory vibe, and initially I was looking very intently at the West Coast. Back then, I harbored great ambitions of having a career in politics, and I figured that California might be a good launching pad for that. But when New York University extended an offer to attend its well-regarded law school, located in the heart of a Manhattan neighborhood called Greenwich Village, I opted to go in the opposite direction.
My impressions of NYU and New York City in general were mostly on paper, supplemented by images drawn from television shows and movies set in the city. You see, I had never been to New York. The meager state of my finances was such that I had done all of my research about potential law schools by poring over admissions brochures and published commercial guidebooks. I had accepted NYU’s offer of admission sight unseen.
With my first year of law school beckoning in the fall, I figured I should check out what I had gotten myself into. So I planned a short summer trip to New York.
I booked a tiny room at the Vanderbilt YMCA on 47th Street in Manhattan. The bathroom was down the hall. The guest rent was $18 a night. At least it was an upgrade from my youth hostel travels during my semester abroad.
I’ve kept the guidebook I used to help plan my trip. In Frommer’s 1981-82 Guide to New York, author Faye Hammel writes:
You should be advised that there is one dangerous aspect of coming to New York for the first time: not of getting lost, mobbed, or caught in a blackout, but of falling so desperately in love with the city that you may not want to go home again. Or, if you do, it may be just to pack your bags.
Well, that’s pretty much what happened. My short visit didn’t allay all of my anxieties about moving to another part of the country to experience the rigors of law school, but the city immediately started to work its magic on me. I did some of the standard tourist stuff, including visits to the Empire State Building, the United Nations, and the wonderful Strand bookstore. And I spent time at NYU, checking out Vanderbilt Hall (the main law school building) and Hayden Hall (the residence hall where most first-year law students lived), both located on historic Washington Square.
I returned from my brief sojourn believing that I had made the right choice. This first impression would prove to be correct. New York and NYU were the right matches for me.
Later that summer, I used my little portable cassette player to tape this classic Sinatra number from the radio, and I would play it over and again. The lyrics spoke to me, as they have for countless others who have found their way to New York, for stays short and long.
I now live in Boston, and this city is home for me, quite possibly for the duration. Its smaller scale, slightly slower pace, and bookish, “thinky” vibe are more in line with who I am today. But New York will always be a part of me as well, starting with that summer 1982 visit.
The phrase continues to enchant me, even if summers at late middle age fly by faster than ever before. And in this third summer of the pandemic, when life has morphed into a weird normal/not normal state and the world feels disturbingly unsettled, the idea of summer reading is the equivalent of literary comfort food.
Writing in the Boston Globe (link here), journalist David Schribman opens his reflection on summer reading this way:
I pack light for my summertime ramblings in New England.
For years I loaded in a pile of books for my trips — presidential biographies, World War II chronicles, Cold War spy novels, mysteries. Then I realized that I got to hardly any of them. I was distracted — by the cool waters of Echo Lake at the base of New Hampshire’s Cannon Mountain, for example, and by the view from Mount Willard in Crawford Notch, and by the tang of fried clams from Harraseeket Lunch in South Freeport, Me., the cool relief of a mid-afternoon ice cream from Round Top in Damariscotta, the smell of the pies baking across the region, and the rich crunch of picked-today sweet corn from an unattended wooden roadside stand in backroads New Hampshire.
I was also distracted by the books I borrowed along the way.
In houses we visited or rented, in inns we frequented or visited just once, and sometimes even in chain hotels, there were tucked-away jewels and gems, sometimes out in the open (on yawning bookshelves), sometimes on stone mantelpieces (leaning one way or another), occasionally employed under a wobbly table (to keep the crockery from sliding).
Reading this and the rest of Schribman’s contemplative piece, I’m imagining a lazy summer spent in assorted New England venues…relaxing, brewing up some coffee or tea, and reading books. Ahhhhh.
Well, even for me, an academic who actually lives in New England, my summers typically aren’t so tranquil. I’m usually working on a research and writing project (or fretting about not making progress on same), as well as keeping busy with a variety of non-profit and advocacy commitments. While I am grateful for the flexibility of my schedule and the freedom to take breaks and occasional trips, I have yet to experience that truly idyllic “summer off” during some 30 years of teaching. (Perhaps I should make this a priority!)
Nevertheless, I am looking forward to a summer that includes some enjoyable leisure reading. I’ve started off with a twisty murder mystery novel, Sulari Gentill’s The Woman in the Library (2022). It’s set in one of my favorite venues, the Central Library of the Boston Public Library! The novel has been getting rave notices, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
As for summer reading selections after this one, I haven’t decided. When not reading more systematically for a specific purpose, I tend to go with the flow when it comes to picking out what to read next. There are many worthy possibilities, so at least it will be difficult to make a bad choice.
I recall vividly what it felt like two years ago, as we awaited the arrival of the coronavirus here in Boston, with a deepening sense of fear and uncertainty. At Suffolk University Law School, where I’ve taught since 1994, we were heading into spring break. During our last faculty meeting before the break, I raised my hand and suggested that many of us had probably taught our last in-person classes for some time. I sensed that others thought that I was being an alarmist. If only….
Indeed, the virus was already here in Boston; most of us just didn’t know it at the time. In February, for example, a major tech company, Biogen, would host a national conference in the city that eventually would be linked to some 20,000 COVID cases, one of the first “super spreader” events of the pandemic.
During that spring break, I had intended to park myself in one of the booths of the law school cafeteria and toil away at a big writing project that I had hoped to finish by the end of the month. I managed to get in a few productive days, but public health responses were moving quickly in anticipation of the storm ahead. During the break, my university joined others in deciding to teach remotely for the rest of the academic year. In a manner that now makes me wince a bit, faculty returned to campus to pile into a classroom to learn about teaching by Zoom. I don’t recall anyone being masked yet.
During this time, I engaged in some modest stockpiling of food and household goods, including the canned foods pictured above. Fortunately, the pandemic would prompt me to learn how to cook a bit, which resulted in an upgrade in my food consumption — though I still occasionally enjoy all three products in that photo!
This two-year mark is resonating strongly with me. Maybe it’s because we’re now relaxing many of the masking policies, while experiencing a steep decline in infections. Of course, I don’t take anything for granted. Another coronavirus variant could change things very quickly. But presently, at least, we appear to be enjoying a higher degree of normalcy, at least with the pandemic. (The awful war news from Ukraine, however, is another story, as I last wrote.)
In any event, the impressions of February and March of 2020 are quite sharp in my mind. Those days represent to me the start of a new major life chapter, one that is still in progress, with the conclusion not settled.
A greater appreciation for the cultural amenities of my home town of Boston and its surroundings has been an unintended but welcomed benefit of this otherwise awful pandemic. Yesterday this manifested in a short visit to the city’s venerable Museum of Fine Arts, which reopened for visitors earlier this year.
I spent most of my time at a special exhibition celebrating the work of impressionist painter Claude Monet. Among my favorites was his 1900 oil painting of the Charing Cross bridge in London. You can check out the photo above and the story behind the painting below.
It was an exceedingly pleasant visit, including lunch at one of the museum’s cafés and a stop in its bookshop. I’ll be back for more visits during the months to come. Among other things, later this year, MFA is reopening its redesigned galleries covering Ancient Greece and Rome, two historical periods of interest to me.
Monet’s Charing Cross painting triggered a bout of nostalgia, for London has long been one of my favorite cities, a huge yet walkable metropolis steeped in history, tradition, culture, and entertainment. I first discovered it during my 1981 semester overseas as part of Valparaiso University’s Cambridge, England study abroad program. My grainy, first-ever photo of London is below.
That semester would draw me to city life forever. No doubt those days spent in London would pave the way for my decision to go to law school at New York University, located in the heart of Manhattan.
When I began teaching in the 1990s, a week-long, spring break visit to London was made affordable by $300 round trip tickets from the East Coast. My fascination with the city and the relative affordability of traveling there made for some great visits during my younger days. I haven’t been to London in some time, but it’s definitely on my bucket list for a return trip.
(I will save for another writing the explanation behind the once extremely unlikely prospect that I would ever write with affection about a visit to an art museum. For now, let me say that the backstory also traces its origins to my semester abroad and what was, by far, my lowest grade in any college course!)
“Have I not enough without your mountains?”
In 1801, Charles Lamb, essayist, poet, and lifelong Londoner, declined an invitation from friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth to visit him in England’s northwest countryside, explaining:
The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, wagons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes – London itself a pantomime and a masquerade – all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fullness of joy at so much life.
Ultimately, Lamb asked, “Have I not enough without your mountains?” (You may read the full letter here).
Now, unlike Charles Lamb, I’m not so totally stuck on cities that I cannot appreciate a beautiful countryside. But I get where he’s coming from in terms of being stimulated by city life. I’ve lived in cities my whole adult life, first New York (1982-94), then Boston (1994-present). And if New York has been my stateside London, then Greater Boston has been my stateside version of the historic university city of Cambridge (UK variety).
In short, I’ll probably be a city dweller for the duration.
A Foggy Day
Because I’ll use any excuse to listen to Sinatra, I will close with his perfect rendition of Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day (in London Town).” Enjoy.
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.
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.
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.