Tag Archives: coronavirus

Pandemic Chronicles #22: There’s a lot of middle-aged self-reflection going on these days

Inside the Pantheon, Rome (2019) (photo: DY)

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #21: Migrating

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.

My moves

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #19: First jab, with gratitude

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #18: Walking

Southwest Corridor Park, Jamaica Plain, Boston (photo: DY)

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #17: “A year ago this month…”

Last meal in Boston’s Chinatown (photo: DY)

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.

Pandemic Chronicles #16: “May you live in interesting times” (Umm, on second thought…)

My school during more celebratory times, including being on the parade route for championship celebrations

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.

As a young collegian, I yearned for interesting times

Pandemic Chronicles #15: Let’s get through this bleak midwinter

Recent snowfall viewed thru my kitchen window, Jamaica Plain, Boston

Here in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic continues at a brutal pace, as we await larger distributions of vaccines that will help us wrestle down this virus. In the meantime, our first full week of 2021 was marked by a mob attack on our nation’s Capitol building, fueled by a perverse rage over the 2020 Presidential election results.

Memo to self: It takes more than the turn of a calendar to truly change things. Memo to 2021: So far, you’re sucking badly.

But I have genuine hope that things will get better this year. We may even return to some semblance of normal living. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to travel for enjoyment without fearing what we could catch, or spread, along the way.

First, though, we have to get through what may be a very bleak winter. I confess that I have no one-size-fits-all advice on how to do this, because each person’s situation is different.

Obviously, for our own sake and that of others, we need to practice safe health habits. For me that means wearing a quality mask whenever I’m out, washing my hands when I return home, and practicing social distancing. This has been the public health mantra since March, and I’m not going to debate it.

My work is going to be pretty much the same. I’ll be teaching my courses remotely, via Zoom. I’ve got some speaking appearances lined up, also online. Of course, I’ve got a variety of writing and advocacy projects going, and most of that work will be done from behind a keyboard as well.

I’m devoting a lot of time to lifelong learning activities. My most significant one is enrolling in an adult education program at the University of Chicago called the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, a four-year sequence of courses devoted to the study of Great Books of Western Civilization. I’ll be writing more about this experience in a new blog that I’m planning on lifelong learning and adult education, to go along with this blog and my professional blog, Minding the Workplace.

In terms of hobbies, I’m playing favorite sports simulation board and computer games (I’ve written about that here and here), participating in online karaoke through the Boston Karaoke Meetup group, and reviving a boyhood pastime of collecting stamps. As I wrote on my professional blog some four years ago, it’s especially important to have healthy and engaging hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times.

Okay folks, I know it’s obvious that I am a major nerd. But hopefully that nerd status will help to enrich my life during an otherwise challenging time. If we can grow and enjoy various pastimes while remaining safe and healthy, I call it a win.

May you find good things to occupy your time as we find our way to a better and healthier springtime.

Pandemic Chronicles #14: I’m learning how to cook

First-ever beef stew with Instant Pot, my most ambitious effort so far.

When I thought about how I might conclude this year’s blog posts with something that encapsulates what the past ten months have been like, I found myself unable to come up with a big idea that could pull together such a momentous time. Professional writers and journalists are certainly making the effort — assessments of this challenging year now abound in the media — but for now I’m unable to do so in one modest posting.

So, instead I’m writing about something that came about unexpectedly: Faced with a lockdown mode of living, and realizing that I cannot survive on pizza and Chinese food delivery for every meal, I started to cook for myself. This is no small development. For decades, most of the pre-pandemic meals I’ve eaten have been prepared by others. For me to actually prepare meals with more than, say, two ingredients has been a rarity.

To my great surprise, I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve prepared! I’ve largely improvised my so-called recipes, with a few assists from Google searches and suggestions & tips from friends. So my year-end post involves sharing some of these meals with you, dear readers.

My most ambitious meal is pictured above — beef stew — made with my new Instant Pot, a holiday gift from my dear friends Denise and Magic (the latter, a cat) in Northern Virginia. It took a bit of tweaking, but I figured out how to use the pressure cooker function without blowing up my condo, and the result was the best meal I’ve ever made on my own. I made it with stew meat, potatoes, baby carrots, onion, celery, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, sea salt, pepper, corn starch, and beef broth. I put it over noodles or rice.

Chicken wings with broccoli and corn, surprisingly tasty.

I discovered that a mix of olive oil, crushed bread crumbs, sea salt, and pepper resulted in fall-off-the-bone, baked chicken wings — done with my toaster oven. I was surprised how much I enjoyed these wings. I need to make these again.

Quickie lunch: Packaged ramen plus an egg and scallions.

I miss going to ramen shops in Boston. This quick version wasn’t a real substitute, but it made for a good fast lunch. I’ll be doing this again sometime soon, as well.

Pretty healthy meal by my standards!

I discovered that a salmon meal is easy and healthy, and it tastes good. I used a skillet for the salmon, microwave for the broccoli, and toaster oven for the spuds.

French toast…yummy treat.

French toast has turned out to be a quick breakfast treat. I mix an egg, some soy or oat milk, and some cinnamon together, soak two pieces of buttered bread in the mixture, and put them on a frying pan with high heat. Add real maple syrup (this is New England, after all) and you’ve got a delicious start to the day.

English breakfast, Boston style, addictive stuff!

If I was to pick my two favorite home-brewed meals, my version of English breakfast would come in second behind the beef stew. I’ve been to England many times and always enjoyed the full English breakfasts served in B&B hotels. So I decided to make a Boston version of those breakfasts. The key non-local food item is British-style bangers (sausage), ordered from RJ Balson and Son. You need that taste authenticity — other types of sausages just don’t work.

Linguini tossed with garlic and olive oil, and some chicken and broccoli for variety.

The linguini dish was another improv. I had some leftover chicken, and I’m always up for pasta. It needs a little more punch to it, but it satisfied my appetite. By the way, I noticed that this is the third photo that includes broccoli. It’s not because I particularly like broccoli. Rather, it’s the easiest frozen vegetable to nuke in the microwave, while feeling somewhat virtuous for eating something healthy. I typically pick out the broccoli first and eat it quickly, so I can then enjoy the rest of the meal.

I made several pumpkin pies — not as good as my mom’s, but pretty good.

My mom made the best pumpkin pies. When I’d visit home for the holidays, pumpkin pie was always part of the food mix. My pandemic efforts at pumpkin pie have not come close, but given that I’ve been basically following the recipe on back of the pumpkin pie mix can, they’ve turned out pretty well.

Atmospheric shot of Martha and Myra’s backyard, site of socially distanced dinners via their grill.

I have been living very carefully during this pandemic. Here in my Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, my socializing has been limited to socially distanced, outdoor cookout dinners with my long-time friends Martha and Myra, who encouraged me to move to this wonderful ‘hood many years ago. I have photos of neither our meals nor our persons, but here’s a stylish shot I took of their backyard fence as dusk settled in.

Part of a food delivery from City Feed & Supply.

Thank goodness for my local City Feed & Supply store, whose dependable deliveries have been a lifeline for me during this time. I haven’t owned a car since 1982, so having several bags of food delivered to my home makes a big difference. City Feed specializes in locally grown and organic foods, so the quality is very high. Just about everything here — except for the sausages — came from that store.

I do look forward to dining out more regularly, but I’m pleased to report that homemade food will likely supplant my penchant for fast food burgers even after it’s safer to eat out again. I’ve enjoyed making these relatively simple meals, and I’ll continue to do so. I see this as one of the personal bright spots of this otherwise difficult year.

As for 2020 as a whole, well, I just hope that it’s followed by a better and healthier year for this world. Best wishes to you for a 2021 worthy of gratitude and even celebration.

Pandemic Chronicles #13: America votes

As the United States experiences an alarming, nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases, we face an election that will define us for the foreseeable future. The nation’s fundamental integrity and heart quality are on trial. If we do not elect a new President, it is quite possible that the American experiment is over.

Among many other things, I have been saddened and appalled at how the current administration has mishandled the pandemic. Reelecting the incumbent will be the equivalent of imposing a death sentence on hundreds of thousands of unwitting victims, fueled by the dishonesty, ignorance, and cruelty that have defined this man’s nearly four years in office.

The incumbent is doing everything he can to suppress the vote in battleground states and plant seeds of doubt in the election results if he loses. We have never seen anything like this in the modern history of presidential politics.

No other public figure has ever had such a negative effect on my day-to-day quality of life. I feel like I have been forced to endure an abusive civic relationship. The fact that much of my work as an academic addresses behaviors such as bullying, gaslighting, and abuse of power has sharpened my understanding of what we’ve been enduring.

By contrast, I think well of Joe Biden. He is a decent human being and a capable, street-smart public servant. I have long believed that he is the best candidate to win back the White House from its current occupant. When I put my ballot in the mail a few weeks ago, I was happy to vote for him and Kamala Harris. I pray that I voted for the winning ticket.

The weeks to come will determine the future of America’s soul, not to mention our ability to defeat and recover from a deadly pandemic. We live in momentous times.

***

Cross-posted to my Minding the Workplace professional blog.

 

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.

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