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.
This evening, I watched Lesia Vasylenko, a Ukrainian Member of Parliament and self-described “working mom of 3 lovely humans, lover of freedom, travel and all things green,” tell PBS’s Christiane Amanpour that she and her family are ready to defend themselves and their homeland against the Russian invasion.
MP Vasylenko meant so literally: Along with other elected officials in her country, she now possesses an AK-47 assault rifle and other weapons. Martial law has been declared in Ukraine, and all able-bodied adults are expected to take arms, if necessary, against this unprovoked, unjustified act of Russian aggression.
Appearing in makeup and professional garb befitting an elected official being interviewed by a major news program, Vasylenko nonetheless had a look of grim, determined resolve. I felt a sad moment of dissonance, contemplating her current role as a civilian public servant and parent versus her anticipated role as a member of the home guard fighting Russian troops in the streets of her nation’s capital city.
I also felt a deep sense of admiration. Vasylenko confirmed my strong impression that the Ukrainians are not a soft people. It already appears that Ukrainian armed forces are putting up a valiant fight against a vastly superior military force. At the cost of many lives and considerable destruction, the Ukrainians may make the Russians pay for every foot of ground gained.
A world grappling with a global pandemic and the ongoing specter of climate change has been suddenly confronted by a war in Europe that carries scary echoes of Nazi occupation strategies of the late 1930s and the Cold War that commenced a decade later. This morning, I watched a very sobering webinar briefing by editors and writers of The Economist news magazine that connected the plausible diplomatic dots for how this war could expand deeper into Europe and eventually become a global one. This is an extraordinary perilous time for anyone who cares about democratic rule.
Pandemic Chronicles #27: The holiday season having gone viral, I’m traveling abroad virtually for now
The experience of a second holiday season in pandemic mode, punctuated by the arrival of the latest coronavirus variant, serves as a stark reminder of how a state of abnormality has become our new normal. The other day, I was messaging with a long-time friend on Facebook (he started off by offering advice on protective masks — just another casual chat, these days), and we briefly speculated on how long these general circumstances might continue. I see us dealing with the pandemic at least through next year, and quite possibly beyond that.
For those whose 2022 aspirations involve travel — foreign or domestic — I’m not sure what this all means. Hopes for international travel, in particular, seem to be up in the air (pun intended) for next year. And for anyone whose travel abroad itinerary includes multiple countries, the varied and fluid public health regulations from nation to nation make planning especially difficult.
I’m still hoping to participate in a law and mental health conference that I’ve been helping to organize for next summer in France. I give it a 50/50 chance of happening. In the meantime, I’m going to do a bit of virtual traveling. Among other things, I was delighted to see that European travel guru Rick Steves has posted all episodes of his popular PBS series, Rick Steves’ Europe, to his company website (link here). While it may not be the same as seeing a show in London’s West End or checking out bookstalls along the Seine in Paris, virtual travel is a convenient — and, for now, safer — substitute for the real thing.
Most of all, I hope that safe and healthy travel will once again become a reality for those whose journeys have yet to be taken. I’ve been blessed to visit many fascinating places during my lifetime. And while I hope that more travel beckons for me, I especially wish for younger folks and others who haven’t had a chance to see much of this world opportunities to do so.
The pandemic has prompted me to revive a boyhood hobby of stamp collecting, as I’ve shared in my new blog on lifelong learning and adult education (here and here). It has been an enjoyable and relaxing pastime, and I’m sure I’ll be sticking with it for the longer run.
Among other things, I’m creating an album of postal covers and postcards that represent places and themes of my life. Toward that end, I’ve been searching eBay for old postcards of Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater) and New York University (my law school alma mater), and I’ve scored several good deals averaging a few dollars a piece.
One postcard pictures VU’s Lembke Hall, opened in 1902 as a dormitory. By the time I arrived in 1977, it housed faculty offices, including those of the political science professors, my major. Perhaps my memory exaggerates, but I recall it as being quite the ramshackle building, a model of what real estate folks and contractors might call deferred maintenance. It felt like the whole thing might simply collapse. I don’t know when VU tore it down, but the equivalent of a strong wind may have been sufficient.
Anyway, this postcard is especially cool because it is postally used. The back reveals a quick little note penned by one Elsie to her friend Edith in Pennsylvania. It was postmarked from Valparaiso on August 7, 1910. What a neat snapshot of everyday life over a century ago!
Below is a postcard depicting the Hotel Holley on Washington Square West, in the heart of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. There’s no date on it, but from the automobiles in the illustration and its overall design, it’s clearly from the early 1900s. Also pictured is the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. Alas, this postcard was never used, so I can only imagine who purchased it and why.
In the early fifties, NYU would buy the hotel and convert it to a residence hall for law students. It was designed to complement the opening of Vanderbilt Hall, the main law school building occupying the southwest corner of the Square. The new dorm was named Hayden Hall. Some 30 years later, I would live in it during my first year at NYU. The rooms were quite plain, shared with a roommate. But each room had a bathroom, and most had small study nooks to enable an early riser or a night owl to work without disturbing their roommate. Hayden Hall also had a cafeteria and group TV room on the ground floor, and it is via gatherings there with my classmates that I made many new friends.
Unless I win the lottery, Hayden Hall also happened to be the fanciest address that I will ever claim: 33 Washington Square West. (The ghost of Henry James must approve!) Here’s a shot of the building from one of my NYC visits several years ago.
It struck me the other day that during the pandemic, I have returned to a hobby that allows me to travel over distance and time. My years at both VU and NYU yielded many good memories and planted seeds of future endeavors, cultural interests, and lifelong friendships. I’m glad that I can capture some of these memories in a stamp album.
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.
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.
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.