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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently I visited my university office, the latest occasional visit to gather or return materials related to my teaching and research. When I reached the elevator bank of my building, I noticed the electronic events calendar shown above. It hadn’t changed since the week of spring break in March, when the university announced that we would be shifting to online teaching because of the pending coronavirus situation.
It was a stark reminder of how quickly we closed things down.
As recounted in the Boston Globe‘s superb investigative feature on the early days of the pandemic in Massachusetts (link here), as of Monday, March 9 — the first weekday of our spring break — we had only 41 known COVID-19 cases and no fatalities in the state. The next few weeks were surreal for so many of us, as we began transitioning to a stay-at-home mode and started wearing masks when we went out.
When March 20 brought news of the state’s first reported COVID-19 fatality, along 328 new reported cases, I felt sadness and foreboding. It was becoming clearer and clearer that our lives were in the process of changing significantly, perhaps for a long time.
Still, when various public health projections told us that Massachusetts could expect six-figure infection levels and thousands of deaths, I could not wrap my head around the possibility that we would be one of the early hotspots for the virus. I held onto hopes that somehow, someway, we would avoid meeting those scientific projections.
We’ve wrestled down our numbers of infections, at great cost in so many ways. And we’ve lost nearly 8,500 people to this virus, according to official counts.
In the meantime, our March shutdown, and the weeks leading up to it, are starting to feel like a long time ago.
It’s too early to know how we’re going to look back at this time, but I’m guessing that for most of us, this has already become one of the defining events of our lives.
As some of you may know, Massachusetts has been one of the nation’s worst hotspots for the coronavirus. It has taken a lot of sacrifice and commitment to reduce our infection rates and fatalities. It now appears that we are finally wrestling down this damnable virus.
Here in Boston, we’re going into the next phases of what I hope will be a safe re-opening of everyday economic and civic life. That became obvious to me on Saturday, when I embarked upon one of my rare treks into my downtown office at Suffolk University Law School.
As soon as I left my home, I was delighted to see that across the street, my beloved little neighborhood grocery/convenience store, City Feed & Supply, had partially re-opened for outdoor business. City Feed has a much larger store elsewhere in my neighborhood — “Big Feed” — that has been providing welcomed deliveries during this time, but this original “Little Feed” is my sentimental favorite. Alas, the Little Feed occupies such a tiny space that, given current social distancing guidelines, it may be some time before it fully re-opens for customers, but I nonetheless rejoiced at seeing this sign of neighborhood life making a reappearance.
After getting off the subway in downtown Boston, I then made my way to my favorite bookshop in the area, the venerable Brattle Book Shop, one of the oldest used bookstores in the country. Bookstores are both sanctuaries and places of discovery for me. Among the everyday activities that I’ve missed the most, dropping into bookstores ranks high among them. I actually felt a bit emotional, as I surveyed the Brattle’s outdoor stalls — source of many delightful bargain finds over the years — and then went inside to explore more. Four books and a modest $25 expenditure later, I left with new treasures.
Finally, I made it to my office at Suffolk! Despite wildly uneven levels of personal productivity in recent weeks, I managed to work through my checklist and print out a lot of materials for writing projects this summer. I made a useful afternoon of it and felt that the trip was fully worth the effort.
Then it was time to hop back on the subway for home. The evening’s main activity was a three-hour, online karaoke session with the Boston Karaoke Meetup Group. Despite some wacky challenges of integrating two online platforms and teaching one another how to make mic and setting adjustments on our various devices, it is turning out to be a surprisingly enjoyable alternative to face-to-face gatherings!
Singing is my favorite hobby, and I’ve missed it terribly. For years I’ve taken a weekly voice workshop through a local adult education center, and more recently I’ve become a regular at a downtown Boston karaoke club. Months before the coronavirus hit, I had also discovered this wonderful karaoke meetup group. Sadly, the pandemic has forced all of these activities to stop, and it may be a while before they return. That’s why I’m especially grateful that we can harness online technology to bring folks together to sing, however distanced for now.
I keep reminding myself that, at least here in Boston, it has been only three months or so since we’ve gone into this shutdown mode. Over the course of history, and currently on our small planet, countless millions of people have experienced much longer, more brutal jolts to their everyday lives due to circumstances largely beyond their control.
Nevertheless, I must admit that this time has been a head spinner for me, and I know we’re not through it yet. It has also been a firm reminder of the things that I must simply accept. So, I’ll take days like Saturday, which provided a wonderful taste of life before the term “social distancing” ever entered our vocabularies. I hope there are many more to come.