Pandemic Chronicles #24: Not so fast
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.
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.
On typing and typewriters
For many years I’ve quipped that Introduction to Typing and Driver’s Education were the two most valuable courses I took in high school. Actually it’s more than a quip. If you toss my junior year American History course into the mix, I think you’d have the academic holy trinity of my high school career. (Yes, I was something of a rebellious underachiever in high school.)
Anyway, back to typing class: I really wanted to learn how to type. Even as an adolescent, I felt that typing out my thoughts and ideas would somehow render them more, well, significant. Once I learned how to type, I would use my mom’s old Royal manual typewriter to bang out term papers for school. And when I got involved in the student council, I would learn how to cut mimeograph stencils for printing out the council newsletter.
Of course, just because I enjoyed typing doesn’t mean I was good at it. I made lots of mistakes…and still do. In the ancient era before word processing programs and home computers, that usually meant using either liquid paper or Ko-rec-type to cover up one’s mistakes and then type over them. I did this a lot, and it slowed down my typing speed.
Off to college
When I went off to college at Valparaiso University, my main off-to-school present was a Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Whoa…..I was now moving up in the world! This model used ribbon cartridges instead of old-fashioned spooled ribbons. If you made a typing error, you could swap out the ribbon cartridge for a correcting cartridge that would white out the mistake. It is a miracle that I did not develop a repetitive stress injury swapping out those cartridges.
My typing life changed when I joined the staff of my college newspaper, The Torch. You see, the newspaper office had two IBM correcting Selectric typewriters. Typing on those machines was a sublime experience. During down times when folks weren’t working on stories, we were free to commandeer the typewriters for our papers and projects. The presence of those typewriters is one of the reasons why that office became our unofficial hangout, even when we weren’t working on the newspaper.
Now, those of later generations might not fully appreciate these challenges, but writing term papers and other assignments in the B.C. era (Before Computers) was a very, very different experience, especially when minimum or maximum page limits were in play. Most of us would first write out our papers in long hand, and then estimate if the cumulative sheafs of paper would, when typed up, potentially run afoul of the page limits. If you didn’t have a good sense of how your cursive writing translated into typed pages, you might be in for some unpleasant surprises, leading to late nights before papers were due.
Lugging it to NYC
I took my Smith Corona with me to law school at NYU. I cannot recall how I got that heavy, bulky machine to its destination, but I may have even checked it as part of my baggage for the flight from Chicago to New York. In some ways, these challenges have not changed; even in the digital era, there are only so many ways to move one’s belongings from here to there.
This was right before the home computer revolution, and very few of my classmates had PCs. Most of us continued to type our papers, with added challenges in terms of margins and page length when writing out practice versions of legal documents. By this time, we were overlapping with the emerging age of computers. At NYU I worked on one of our scholarly law journals and on the law school student newspaper, and we had computer word processing capabilities for both publications.
A computer of my own
I would not own a personal computer until several years after graduating from law school, a Commodore 64 that supported a superb game library and rudimentary word processing programs. I would later move up to an IBM PC compatible machine, and at that point I transitioned from typewriter to word processing. I became enamored of the wonderful, awesome WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS program, which remains to me the best ever software package for writing productivity. In fact, ever since being more or less forced into using the tyrannical, control-freakish, and cumbersome Microsoft Word, my writing efficiency has declined.
Today, I’ve morphed over to Apple products, but I’m still stuck with Microsoft Word. Someday I’d like to give a serious tryout to Scrivener, a word processing program that has a fiercely devoted following. As for my blogs, I use the WordPress platform, which I find easy to navigate.
Changing technologies aside, it’s clear to me that my original motivation for learning how type — to share my thoughts and ideas — remains the main reason why I’m sitting before a keyboard today. And thank goodness that you, kind reader, get to read what’s on my mind with (most of) the typos cleaned up.
Temporary escapism: NYC teens are discovering “Friends”
New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante reports that New York City teens have discovered the popular 1990s sitcom “Friends.” A big reason for its draw is its portrayal of the relatively carefree lives of its main characters, young Manhattanites Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, and Joey. Bellafante writes:
What’s novel about “Friends,” or what must seem so to a certain subset of New York teenagers of whom so much is expected, is the absence among the six central characters of any quality of corrosive ambition. The show refuses to take professional life or creative aspirations too seriously.
. . . The dreamscape dimension of “Friends” lies in the way schedules are freed up for fun and shenanigans and talking and rehashing, always.
Among Bellafante’s interviewees was a 17-year-old high school girl in Brooklyn who sees “Friends” as a welcomed break from the stressors of school and prepping college applications:
It did not escape her attention that the characters are almost never stressed out about their jobs. “All they do is hang out in a coffee shop or a really nice apartment,” she said. “It’s the ideal situation.”
However, the young woman asked that her name not be used, lest she appear to be frivolous in the eyes of college admissions officers!
It’s wholly understandable why these young strivers might welcome “Friends” as a break from the pressure cooker of jockeying for grades and acceptances from top colleges. But it’s sadly telling that they’re seeking such escapism in a sitcom. One senses the anticipation of an early midlife crisis, grounded in the revelation that the game of obsessive hoop jumping often leads to more of the same, while already yearning for some healthy downtime.
Throwback Thursday: High school football benchwarmer
Some forty Augusts ago, I was sweating it out on a blazing hot northwest Indiana practice field, along with 60 or so other guys who wanted to play football. Yes folks, despite my lack of physical prowess and athletic talent, I was on my high school football team for several years.
The caption of the team photo above is a bit misleading. Any sophomore, junior, or senior who tried out for football and survived the grueling two-a-day August practice sessions was on the “varsity.” However, my role was to be practice fodder — a member of what today is called the “scout team” — helping to prepare the starting players and top reserves for the Friday night games. I would get to play in the Saturday morning junior varsity games, and occasionally at the tail end of varsity games when the result was quite settled.
Given that I wasn’t very big, you’d think that my “natural” position was running back and/or defensive back. However, my blinding lack of speed and quickness made that problematic, so the coaches put me on the line. Yup, I was a 150 lb. center, guard, and nose tackle. This was largely for practice purposes only, because unless the phalanx of guys ahead of me on the depth chart all suddenly got sick, hurt, suspended, or quit the team, no one needed to be concerned that I’d be in the lineup during key moments of a game.
At some point I smartened up and realized that this was not the most best use of my extracurricular time. I would get involved in activities such as student government, which proved to be a better match for me.
But looking back, I know the experience of high school football toughened me up in valuable ways. Lining up in practice every day against bigger, stronger, faster players, and getting up when you’re knocked down, may not be fun, but you learn that you can get up and be ready to go again. Plus, I liked being on the team. It planted the seeds for being a lifetime football fan.
Fortunately, my eventual absence from the team was not felt acutely. As one of my former teammates told me, “Dave, we missed you in football this year but managed to suck without you.”
Dreaming of spring training
During this winter of our discontent here in Boston, baseball season seems as far away as the moon. Perhaps that’s why I find myself waxing nostalgic about the game, thinking back to my boyhood years when I became a fan.
During my latter grade school years, I discovered baseball, both watching and playing. The watching was inspired by my 80-something grandfather, who was living with us in Northwest Indiana and enjoyed Chicago Cubs games on television. He didn’t speak much English, but he could follow the ballgames, and so after school and during summers, we’d often watch with him in our little TV room. Here’s the song that would open many a Cubs telecast:
The playing was by way of my friends, who were big sports fans. A few were on organized Little League teams, but for most of us baseball was a pick-up game played on the local parkway, with improvised diamonds. I was terrible at first, but I had fun and kept at it, to the point where I could hold my own hitting and fielding.
In fact, my affinity for the game grew quickly, and the slightest sign of spring became reason to get out my baseball glove and bat. Once the temperatures hit the 60s, I would be full of anticipation for the coming Cubs season and for our parkway ballgames. I’d check the newspaper for news about spring training and search out neighborhood pals to play catch. I also became a fan of tabletop baseball games that used statistical charts and cards to simulate the performances of real-life baseball players — the forerunners of today’s sophisticated computer and video games.
As I got older my focus on baseball waned. But after I graduated from law school, I rediscovered the game. I was in New York City by then, and in the mid-1980s it was still possible to get Mets grandstand seats for under $10. I shared a pair of season tickets with friends during the Mets 1986 World Series championship season, and it was a blast. I also joined fellow Legal Aid Society lawyers for weekly softball games in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Yup, those were good years.
Today, I’d be in better physical shape if I was still playing softball, instead of anticipating the start of fantasy baseball season and playing baseball board and computer games! Whatever. Until this snow starts to clear up, any manifestations of baseball around here will be virtual anyway.
The hot mess that is “Glee” is in its final season
When Glee (Fox) came onto the scene in 2009, it was all the buzz due to its edgy humor and snappy musical numbers, built around the ongoing fortunes of a high school glee club in small-town Ohio. It quickly gave notice that it would tackle, often in unorthodox fashion, topics such as teenaged angst, sexual orientation, jock culture, bullying, and the dynamics of a dysfunctional American high school.
Glee‘s ensemble cast of emerging stars, including Lea Michele as ingenue Rachel Berry and Broadway veteran Matthew Morrison as glee club director Will Shuester, would be joined regularly by notable guests drawn from stage and screen, some jumping into self-mocking roles.
The show was nominated for a slew of Emmy awards following its first full season. That would prove to be its high water mark, for although Glee would continue to have a core of devoted fans, it would soon lose some of its novelty. It also experienced real-life tragedy when Corey Monteith, a beloved core cast member, lost his battle with drug addiction and died due to an apparent overdose.
When Glee appeared, I found myself comparing it to another TV depiction of high school, the brilliant (and criminally overlooked) Friday Night Lights, a drama about life and football in small town Texas. With a few exceptions, the story lines and dialogue in Friday Night Lights were pitch perfect, even when dealing with sensitive subjects such as race or abortion.
By contrast, Glee has been a hot mess, sometimes nailing its messages, other times eliciting grimaces, but almost always in an entertaining mode. Pushing the envelope via a quirky mix of humor, music, and emotional drama is not an easy thing to do on network TV, but Glee has succeeded more often than not.
I haven’t been a steady Glee viewer. Like others, I was drawn to it at the beginning, and then kind of lost interest. But I’ve decided to tune in for the final season, and it has proven rewarding. On the whole, Glee has been good for television and spoken to a lot of kids (and some adults) who have felt like misfits while navigating the halls of their high schools and life in general.
Throwback Thursday: That back-to-school feeling
This time of year prompts those back-to-school feelings. I’m betting that for most people, memories of new school years are more emotionally laden than infused with any of the educational content of those first days back. Depending upon one’s experience, those memories may include doses of excitement, dread, enthusiasm, anxiety, or some combination thereof.
For me, the start of an elementary school year (K through 6 in my hometown district) felt like a leap into the unknown. It usually involved a new classroom teacher, a mix of familiar and new classmates, and speculation over what it meant to be in the next grade. Fortunately, my elementary school in Hammond, Indiana, featured old-fashioned, dedicated teachers. Some could be a little gruff on the outside, but all of them deeply cared about kids.
When it came to starting new levels of higher education, well, let’s just say that the term “new student orientation” still gives my stomach a small rumble, calling to mind those well-meaning but ultimately fruitless attempts to soothe rookie anxieties. It usually took me a year or two to find my comfort zone and cohort group. Once that occurred, I would greet the start of an academic year with a sense of purpose and belonging.
For example, during my final two years of college, I was a department editor of the college newspaper, which became my hangout and social outlet, not to mention a training ground in the art of writing clear prose. During my last two years of law school, I was active in student publications and various public interest law projects, as well as a cast member in the annual law student musical (a ton of fun), all of which became sources of friendships.
The painting above was the work of Samuel Morse, inventor (yup, Morse Code!), artist, and New York University professor. Portrayed on the left is the original 19th century NYU building on Washington Square (since torn down), where Morse had his faculty office. He placed the Gothic structure in a classical landscape to suggest the idea of the university as paradise.
Today I’m wise enough to know that such a paradise exists only in fantasy, but it’s a beautiful painting nonetheless. And though I have many concerns about the state of formal education here in the U.S., I can still get a tad sentimental about the start of a school year.
School supplies nostalgia (2013)
Throwback Thursday: Playing baseball and discovering “dinosaur bones” on Baring Parkway
Baring Parkway makes up two big rectangular plots of grass and trees in the Woodmar neighborhood of Hammond, Indiana, the small northwest Indiana city where I grew up. For me and many others during the late 60s and early 70s, it was our baseball diamond, football field, and — on one occasion — archeological dig.
Fields of dreams
Some of my best memories of those days are of playing pick up baseball games with improvised rules and teams made up of guys who showed up on any particular afternoon or early evening. It was slow pitch hardball; a batter could strike out but couldn’t wait out a walk. If we didn’t have enough players for full teams, a ball hit to an uncovered part of the outfield was considered an automatic out. There were no fences, so a home run had to be earned by hitting the ball far and running fast. (Umm, my home runs were few and far between.)
I spent chunks of five or six summers playing in those pick up games on Baring Parkway. When I started, I was pretty terrible. I could barely hit the ball, and my fielding skills were pretty bad too. Early on, if there was an odd number of players, I’d be designated the “official catcher,” which meant that I caught the slow lob pitches for both teams and didn’t get to bat. 😦 But I was becoming quite a baseball fan, so I stuck with it, enough so that I could hold my own at bat and in the field. Such improvements are the little things that can build a kid’s self-confidence.
Baseball was still America’s national pastime. Although I don’t want to over-romanticize those days, a love of the game was very much a part of the culture of this gritty little industrial city. Youth baseball leagues were very popular, and a fair number of future high school and even college standouts cut their teeth that way.
Our Baring Parkway games harbored no such sporting ambitions. We played for the fun of it, and by and large, the experience delivered. Furthermore, we mostly got along with each other, with only an occasional disagreement blowing up into fisticuffs.
The photo above shows a lush green park. Our makeshift baseball diamonds made Baring Parkway less picturesque, with carved out bases and basepaths pockmarking the landscape. But on a nice summer day, you could see kids enjoying themselves with a game of baseball, which I think was a good tradeoff.
Football was less popular those days, but occasionally we’d turn a stretch of the Parkway into a makeshift gridiron. We played both touch and tackle varieties, adding necessary rules such as minimum counts before a defender could rush the passer (“one Mississippi, two Mississippi…”). We usually played without safety equipment, but I cannot recall any injuries of note other than some bumps and bruises.
In search of dinosaurs
One early fall — I’m pretty sure as we were starting the 6th grade — a big utility company dug up much of the Parkway to do some work on the underground pipes. This meant a temporary suspension of its use as a playing field, but what we discovered there caused us to shelve our growing obsession with sports.
Unlike today, when fences, orange tape, and big signs will warn people (er, kids) to stay away, we could simply walk right into the work site. I cannot recall who first ventured into the excavation area, but I remember how quickly the news traveled among our small group of friends: There are lots of bones down there, as in bones from big animals.
And so we went, with small shovels and garden tools in hand, during early evenings and the weekends when the workers weren’t on site. And we dug up these big bones and all thought, whoa, I wonder if these are dinosaur bones???!!! We took bags of them to show & tell at our grade school, breathlessly speculating about whether they were the remains of giants that once roamed the planet.
Well folks, it turns out that none of our archeological discoveries will be found at your local natural history museum. Indeed, the fact that we also dug up rusty horseshoes at the site should’ve told us that we weren’t on the trail of a mighty T-Rex. But our excitement over this discovery allowed us to suspend disbelief, and also would make for a good childhood memory along the way.
Kids and unstructured time
Back in the day, a childhood for a someone born into America’s emerging middle class or robust working class came with free time, especially during summers after the school year ended. Sure, for some there were activities such as scouting, church groups, organized sports, and the like, but overall our days didn’t seem quite as packed as those of today’s young folks.
Although I’m not a parent, I understand how modern child raising often involves a lot more structured, adult-supervised activities than we saw with earlier generations. Still, it saddens me a bit that the kind of self-organized play that we engaged in on Baring Parkway is less and less of a typical kid’s experience. This was an era when parents (usually moms) could tell their kids to go outside and play, and about the only mild concern was whether you’d be home in time for dinner. Yup, times have changed.
School supplies nostalgia
If you get a warm fuzzy feeling when you walk through the aisles of your local Staples or Office Depot, there’s a good possibility that you’re caught in the grip of a condition we might call school supplies nostalgia. If mere mentions of terms such as “Trapper Keeper” and “Crayola 64” trigger pangs of sentiment, then you’re really deep into it. And if you’re a parent whose school supply purchases for your kids are influenced by memories of your own pencil boxes and notebooks, well, perhaps we need to talk about counseling options.
School supplies nostalgia can happen to someone of any age, but those of us who went to grade school in the days before everything went digital are especially susceptible. Shopping for school supplies was part of our fall ritual, and our local retail stores would stock up on them in preparation for the annual onslaught.
If you have this condition, the good news is you’re not alone. Google “school supplies nostalgia” and you’ll see what I mean.
More than soggy sentiments
Childhood memories may be at the core of school supplies nostalgia, but there’s more to it than that. Crayons, pens, index cards, notebooks, and simple blank paper were among our earliest forays into creating, expressing, and preserving our emerging knowledge, ideas, and art. They served as open invitations to use our minds.
As the regimens of memorization, testing, and grading become a bigger part of our lives, it seems like those invitations are withdrawn from us. I fear that a lot of creative lights are snuffed out that way.
Try it out
So . . . perhaps the school supplies aisles aren’t just for kids.
If you’re a writer, artist, or other creative sort (or want to be!), try this out: The next time you want to do some thinking and brainstorming at your local coffee shop or library, leave your laptop at home. Instead, bring a notebook and pen and spend an hour or two jotting down thoughts, ideas, and lists or making drawings and doodles.
Maybe we all should put our gadgets away long enough to express ourselves on paper. A lined sheet of paper or ruled notebook allows us to preserve our thoughts and ideas in our own handwriting. A blank page or sketchbook invites us to draw, diagram, and imagine.
Before you know it, you’ve got your own portfolio of stuff, and you never had to worry about clearing a jam in the printer.