Inching Back To The Norm At The North

Yesterday it was a brisk but bright day in Columbus. The B.A. Jersey Girl and I both had a hankering for some Momo Ghar dumplings and their killer sauce, so we decided to brave the stiff fall breeze and hike up to the North Market for lunch. It’s the first time we’ve been there since some distant time in the P.P. (Pre-Pandemic) Period.

I’m pleased to report that the North Market was bustling when we got there and decked out in its holiday finery. There were lots of shoppers downstairs, and diners like us looking for our lunches, and when we had purchased our dumplings and went upstairs to eat most of the tables in the large dining area were occupied. We grabbed one of the few open tables and proceeded to dig into our dumplings (which were exceptionally delicious, as always) and enjoy our lunch. Even when we left at about 1 p.m., and I snapped the above photo, there were still latecomers upstairs eating and lingering at their tables, and some shoppers downstairs, too.

I wouldn’t say the North Market is back to its normal, P.P. traffic and trade–yet–but I was heartened by the cars in the parking lot and the number of customers in the building. Of course, we wore masks when we were downstairs buying our lunch, in compliance with the order issued by Columbus’ mayor, but it was still great to see so many people out and about–Delta, Omicron, or other COVID-19 variants be damned. The North Market is a civic treasure and its businesses, like other Columbus small businesses, deserve our support. Yesterday’s experience suggests that other people share that feeling.

We’re gradually getting closer to the P.P. normal. And as more people get out and get back to their old habits like going to the North Market for lunch–and rediscover delights like Momo Ghar dumplings–the trend will grow stronger. It has been, and will be, a prolonged process, but we’re definitely getting closer.

Swept Out

On Sunday I was in a house project mood. On long weekends that’s not an uncommon impulse for me; after a few days relaxing at home I get antsy and want to do something productive. When the urge struck on Sunday, I replaced some burnt-out light bulbs and generally straightened up, but my big project was sweeping out our screened-in back porch.

The back porch is our gateway to the back yard. During the breezy late autumn weeks, when we open the screen door to take out the trash or let Betty out to answer the call of nature, brittle brown leaves are blown into the porch. The leaves swirl and tumble and accumulate against the inner wall, get stuck in the cracks of the wooden floor, and find every imaginable nook and cranny. After a few weeks, the porch looks pretty ramshackle and in clear need of a good sweeping.

Sunday I took on the job and quickly discovered that the elements were working against me. The wind was blowing from the west, which meant that a good percentage of the leaves I tried to sweep out of the porch were immediately blown back in. Such minor setbacks only increased my resolve to see that the job was done right, however. I moved the furniture around, used the bristles of the broom to get at the leaves in the corners, and bent down to pick out the leaves that had become devilishly lodged between the slats or in the crevices between the screen and the porch floor.

By the end of the project I was on a fervent search and remove mission, striving to get every last leaf, stem, and crunched brown remnant out of the porch. I took the rug out to the patio and gave it a good shaking, to set free the little bits of crumbled leaves, and swept off the back steps for good measure.

When I was done, I surveyed the little porch, saw that it was clean, and gave an approving nod for a job well done. With my impulse thus sated, I went back inside, enjoyed the warmth, and settled down to read my book.

A Spread-Out Shopping Season

“Black Friday” has come and gone, without a lot of the reports of shoppers pummeling each other or trampling security guards in a rush to get the special deals being offered on big-screen TVs or the hottest new toy. That’s because American shopping patterns appear to be changing, again and probably for good, and “Black Friday”–the day after Thanksgiving that had become the traditional madhouse start to the holiday shopping season–is becoming less of a focus.

CNBC is reporting that while shopping on Black Friday increased over last year, when many retailers operated on reduced hours due to COVID, in-store shopping was down 28 percent from 2019’s pre-pandemic levels. There was even a decline in on-line shopping on Black Friday, with retailers ringing up $8.9 billion in sales compared to $9 billion in 2020. And shopping traffic on Thanksgiving itself, when some retailers opened their doors, was down 90.4 percent from 2019 levels.

Analysts cited by CNBC believes that shoppers are spreading out their holiday shopping more than ever before and identified two reasons for the trend and the related drop-off in Black Friday traffic: continuing concerns about COVID and worries about the supply chain. A survey conducted by the National Retail Federation supports the “spread out” hypothesis. It found that 61 percent of American began their holiday shopping before Thanksgiving.

There’s no doubt that some people are still quite worried about the virus, and media reports on supply chain issues and potential shortages have likely had an impact, too, but I think the reason for the shift away from Black Friday madness has two other causes as well. One is earlier than ever holiday-themed commercials and retailer special deals (and holiday programming on outlets like The Hallmark Channel) that have served to remind people that Christmas is coming, and the other is a more fundamental shift in how to shop. During the height of the COVID pandemic shutdowns, even the most hardened in-person shoppers learned that they could basically do all their shopping on-line. When you see a special deal on TV in the weeks before Thanksgiving that you think would make a good gift and your computer is at your elbow, why wait to make your purchase?

I think the new approach might be something like this: start your shopping on your computer before Thanksgiving, take stock of the status of your shopping list when the boxes start hitting your doorstep, and then venture out to the brick-and-mortar stores in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the Black Friday madness has petered out, to fill in the gaps, get the stocking stuffers, and take advantage of any last-minute sales. Whether that scenario is borne out or not, we know one thing: the American consumer is flexible and always willing to try a new approach.

Another Month, Another Variant

The world is up in arms about the latest COVID-19 variant. The new variant, named “Omicron” by the World Health Organization, emerged in South Africa and in only a few days has traveled across the world. Dr. Anthony Fauci says he wouldn’t be surprised if the Omicron variant is already in the United States.

“Omicron” seems like an odd name for a virus, at least to me. It sounds like one of those anonymous planets visited by the Starship Enterprise where one or two guys in red shirts met an untimely death, or the name of one of the Transformers. But there is a rational basis for the choice. The WHO started naming the variants after letters in the Greek alphabet, and “omicron” is the 15th letter. That means we’ve cycled through 13 prior named variants. (The WHO skipped “nu” and “xi,” purportedly because “nu” could be confused with “new” and “xi” is a common last name–which just happens to be the name of the Chinese president). Of the 13 variants, the WHO has designated five as “variants of concern”: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and omicron.

The emergence of the new variant has produced the by-now-familiar scenes of government officials scrambling to determine their responses, because “Omicron” is seen as having the “potential” to be more resistant to vaccination protection. Some governments, including the U.S., have imposed travel restrictions in an effort to allow time to determine whether the new variant is more transmissible than the “delta” variant that we’ve heard so much about. The U.S. has restricted entry by non-U.S. citizens traveling from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. Other countries have gone farther; Israel, for example, has closed its borders to all foreign travelers.

Brace yourself, folks: we may be in for another round of government-mandated restrictions, closures, and mandates. This time, however, the surrounding circumstances are likely to be different: regulators will be dealing with a population that includes a lot of mask-weary, restriction-fatigued people that might not be as willing to comply with new edicts. In addition, the legality of the prior COVID-related orders, such as President Biden’s vaccination mandate, are working their way through our court systems, and some state courts have struck down such orders on state constitutional grounds. The legal challenges and prior court rulings are likely to complicate the issuance of new, sweeping mandates by federal, state, and local governments.

So now we’ve got “Omicron” to deal with. In case you’re interested, the upcoming letters in the Greek alphabet that could become the names of newly emerging COVID variants are pi, rho, and sigma. I guess we should all be grateful that the “pi” variant didn’t show up before Thanksgiving, our greatest pie holiday.

The Year Of The UFO

Some people have dubbed 2021 “The Year Of The UFO.” A Forbes article published this week recounts some of the UFO-related event that have occurred this year. They include a spike in UFO sightings, as well as the release of UFO-related reports and documents by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Forbes summarizes the latter report as addressing “144 UFO sightings by Navy pilots since 2004, with intelligence officials unable to explain 143 of the sightings, but concluding they are likely real objects that could pose a threat to national security.”

The most recent milestone in “The Year Of The UFO” came just a few days ago, when the Pentagon issued a press release announcing the creation of a new program called the Airborne Object Identification and Management Synchronization Group. The AOIMSG will collect and review reports of UFOs in special use airspace, like the areas around military bases, to “assess and mitigate any associated threats to safety of flight and national security.” The new initiative suggests that the U.S. military is taking the issue of UFOs seriously–which is quite a difference from the days when UFO sightings were routinely dismissed as reflections from “swamp gas” or other figments of overactive imaginations.

Of course, UFOs don’t necessarily mean we’ve been visited by technologically advanced extraterrestrial beings. But if other life out there wanted to visit Earth, it’s worth noting that our little planet wouldn’t be especially hard to find–as an interesting article published earlier this year points out. An Austrian astrophysicist considered whether other nearby star systems would be in a position to see our planet transiting the Sun, which is one of the techniques that our scientists currently use to identify planets in other star systems. She concluded that hundreds of star systems could have used that method to spot Earth since the dawn of recorded human history, and hundreds more could do so in the future.

Who knows? If there is life in those other star systems, maybe they’ve decided to pay us a visit. Let’s face it: as weird as 2021 has been, nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.

Post-Pie Remorse

After a terrific Thanksgiving, with lots of family time, football, food, amber ale, thorough analysis of The Game, and a few friendly hands of euchre, today I’m dealing with the traditional bout of post-Thanksgiving remorse. Specifically, I’m feeling guilty that, when we returned home last night, I was unable to resist scarfing down a piece of pumpkin pie, followed immediately by a piece of pecan pie.

At that point, sated by my late-night pie intake, I went to bed and slept soundly. But the morning’s light always seems to bring second thoughts, and there is no doubt that the two-piece-of-pie nightcap drove my overall caloric intake into the red zone, setting the stage for the equally traditional winter weight gain that typically occurs over the next few months.

But this year, I vow to resist the norm. There was only one response, therefore, to my post-pie guilt: leash up Betty and take a few laps around Schiller Park on a cold, gray morning with snowflakes drifting down, hoping that the prompt walkabout will burn the calories before they find the waistline.

In reality, if I hope to make a meaningful dent in yesterday’s calorie count, multiple walks will be in my future, and maybe a short jog, too.

Sportsgiving

We’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a pot-luck family gathering at JT’s Pizza, which is closed for the day. That means we get to watch football on JT’s bank of TVs.

It’s not a bad way to celebrate the classic American holiday. My Dad, my Uncle Tony, and my Aunt Bebe would have loved this. Mom and Grandma Webner, on the other hand, would have hated it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! I’m a big believer in specifically identifying at least some of the many things I’ve got to be thankful for, and then reflecting on them when Thanksgiving Day rolls around. Here’s this year’s list:

  • I’m thankful that I and the other members of my family made it through the last, star-crossed year in good health.
  • I’m thankful for the family, friends, colleagues, and clients who have added color and dash and interest to every one of the 365 days that have passed since last Thanksgiving.
  • I’m thankful that I have happy memories of Thanksgiving days gone by that I can recall with pleasure, like the little wax turkey candles (like the ones shown above) that Mom put out on the dinner table when we sat down for our big meal.
  • I’m thankful that, this year, our extended family will be able to get together to celebrate Thanksgiving as families ought to do, after skipping last year due to the COVID pandemic.
  • I’m thankful for the fact that the apparent supply chain problems won’t keep us from enjoying turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and a slice or two of pie today.
  • I’m thankful for living in a free country where my friends and I can agree to disagree, even about crucially important things like appropriate Thanksgiving pies.
  • I’m thankful for the people who laughed at my jokes, for those who gave me the benefit of the doubt from time to time, and for the kind words, the compliments, the encouragement, and the attaboys that helped me make it through every day.
  • I’m thankful for the people who take a few moments from their day to read my random thoughts on this blog, post likes, and leave comments.

Happy Thanksgiving, folks!

Cherry Pie (And Other Odd Family Thanksgiving Traditions)

Yesterday at lunch, the Bus-Riding Conservative, JV and I got to talking about the Thanksgiving family meals we enjoyed as a kid. Thanksgiving is one of the most tradition-bound celebrations in the pantheon of American holidays, and you could tell that everyone participating in the conversation was enjoying their memories about their particular Thanksgiving family food rituals.

Until, that is, both the BRC and JV shocked me by saying that it was traditional for them to have cherry pie as part of the Thanksgiving meal. That really stopped me cold. Pumpkin pie? Obviously! Pecan pie? Of course! Apple pie, or mincemeat pie? A bit on the edge perhaps, but . . . acceptable. But cherry pie? Cherry? Shouldn’t the only red fruit served on Thanksgiving be cranberry?

Then I realized that I was being unfair and improperly judgmental. The strength of America lies in our diversity, and our willingness to embrace and value differences–even if it involves something as basic and beloved as Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t particularly care for cherry pie. In fact, I find it rather cloying and would never voluntarily order it. But I’ll defend to the death some family’s right to install it as a treasured Thanksgiving family tradition. And upon reflection, I’m sure that some of our family traditions, like the cranberry relish plopped out directly from the can so that it can be sliced with a knife with only a sprig of parsley as a garnish, might strike others as a bit odd.

So let those special Thanksgiving traditions run free! Jello molds with embedded grapes? Hell, yes! Tofurkey? Why not! Squid on a stick for an appetizer to go with the early football game? It’s just another thing to be thankful for.

A Song Selector’s Promise Of The Future

When I was a kid growing up in Akron, I really liked going to Bob’s Big Boy. Grandma and Grandpa Neal used to take UJ and me there for lunch. I was a roly-poly kid who enjoyed a good cheeseburger, so I identified with the statue of the jolly, tubby boy in checkered overalls with lacquered hair who obviously was overjoyed to be holding a cheeseburger.

The statue was great, and so were the cheeseburgers and french fries and Cokes, but what I liked most about the Big Boy was that it had those tabletop song selectors at every table. They were just about the coolest, most futuristic thing ever. The song selectors were highly polished, gleaming metal, like all futuristic objects such as rocket ships were supposed to be. You could use a dial to flip the pages of available songs back and forth–which was fun in and of itself–to find a song you liked, read the selection code, and punch in the number right at your table. Your song then played on the big jukebox in the corner, which meant everyone in the whole place was hearing your song. My favorite choice was Nat King Cole’s rendition of The Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.

In those days, the tabletop song selector seemed like extremely impressive technology, as mysterious in its inner workings as TV sets with their rabbit ear antennas and transistor radios that somehow pulled images and music out of the very air around us. But that was all to be expected, because we were on a relentless march into the future, and the future was going to be a wondrous place, just like the New York World’s Fair and the Disneyland World of Tomorrow ride promised.

Now, almost 60 years later, the future that has come to be is a pretty wondrous place in some respects, when you reflect on it. I’m listening to music that I’ve selected using an app on a phone that also serves as a camera, calendar, newspaper, library, mailbox, and message sender, among countless other functions, and fits easily in my pocket, to be carried anywhere and everywhere. I’m typing this entry into a laptop computer that will transmit my musings into the ether, where they will be published for anyone in the whole world to see. I’m pretty sure the little kid who marveled at the song selector at Bob’s Big Boy would marvel at those devices, too–but of course we tend to grow out of our sense of wonder, and eventually take these things for granted. That doesn’t make them any less amazing.

Thinking about this, I’m glad my laptop has a gleaming metal finish, because my youthful self would have expected that of such a futuristic item. And the next time I buy a cell phone I might check to see whether they’ve got an aluminum case, too.

The Angst About The Game

It’s the week of The Game. That’s the football game between Ohio State and That Team Up North, of course. In the Midwest we like to say it’s the greatest rivalry in all of sports (although I suspect that Army and Navy and the Red Sox and the Yankees might disagree with that), and every year this week features its unique, The Game-specific mixture of angst, fear, and loathing. Both members of Buckeye Nation and fans of the Maize and Blue know what I mean because they feel that unsettling mixture of emotions deep in their bones.

The loathing part is obvious: we hate (but nevertheless respect) the opposing team. But the angst and fear part require some explanation.

This is a rivalry game where both fan bases are haunted by memories of past losses and disasters, to the point where we each have sports-related PTSD. No Buckeyes fan who lived through the catastrophic failures of the ’90s will ever be comfortable about any game against TTUN; traumatic experiences have taught us, again and again, that calamity lurks around every corner. Fans of our opponents have the same feelings, only about the more recent games. That’s where the heavy, oppressive sense of angst comes in.

The fear, on the other hand, is that our greatest rival will ruin a fine season, and give bragging rights to the opposing fan base. This year is a good example. As has often been the case with The Game, the Buckeyes and TTUN will be playing for all the marbles: the chance to go to the Big Ten Championship Game and, potentially, the College Football Playoffs. But that’s not all. Every fan of either team knows a number of ardent fans of the opposing team, and we know that if The Game ends with a loss we’ll be hearing about it, in the most pointed, terrible ways imaginable, from now until next year’s contest offers a chance at redemption. We dread that awful possibility.

Angst, fear, and loathing: it’s the holy trinity that dominates our characters during the week of The Game, and it will always be thus. Go Bucks! Beat the Blue!

The Concept Of Applause

On Saturday we had the pleasure of watching the Austin Symphony Orchestra perform in a program that included a beautiful choral selection from Mozart and ended with a bravura rendition of Beethoven’s titanic Ninth Symphony. After the last, moving notes were sounded the crowd leapt to its feet and gave the performers (who included Julianne Webner on the lead oboe) a richly deserved and prolonged standing ovation. In fact, it was probably one of the longest and most genuine standing ovations I’ve ever experienced, as everyone in the audience clapped furiously until their hands hurt and their arms grew tired.

After the performance, I thought about the concept of applause. The concert had been such a wonderful experience, shared by both the performers and the audience. Imagine how different the experience would have felt if, after the concert ended, the audience had simply quietly filed out of the auditorium without any reaction, while the musicians gathered their scores and packed away their instruments! Fortunately for us all, the basic human urge to show appreciation for such a fine performance and to participate directly in the shared experience is irresistible. The impulse to clap like crazy and cheer loudly under such circumstances seems to come from deep within.

That’s why I suspect that, although some people date the concept of applause back to the ancient Greeks, I suspect the history of applause is much, much older. I imagine it probably dates back to the first performances of music, dance, epic poetry, or plays around a campfire by fellow members of the tribe. The notion of making positive noises to express approval is intuitive; it bridges the gap between performer and audience and establishes a connection and a feedback loop of encouragement and support. And since every audience member has hands and mouths, clapping and cheering were pretty much inevitable.

I love going to live musical performances and live sporting events, and part of what makes them so enjoyable is the chance to participate in cheering and applauding. To whoever first beat their hands together and shouted with pleasure, at the dawn of human history, I salute you. In fact, I applaud you.

Austin International, 5:09 a.m. Central

We have an early flight out of Austin this morning. We got here early, and thank goodness for that: the airport is jammed with travelers and a bit of a madhouse. The regular security line snaked along for hundreds of yards, filled with anxious people worried about catching their flights. It was the greatest advertisement for getting TSA precheck status you could imagine.

It’s officially Thanksgiving week, folks, and the packed airport proves it. If you’re traveling don’t take chances—get there early!

A Baker’s Dozen

I’m a Baker Mayfield fan. I think he is a tough guy and a good leader, and in normal circumstances he would be perfectly okay as the starting quarterback of the Browns.

But these aren’t normal circumstances. Mayfield has been hurt so many times this season I’ve lost count. He’s been trying to play, but he’s clearly not even close to 100 percent. And with the kind of running game the Browns have, I’d rather play Baker’s back-up, go to a less wide-open game plan, and rely on the running game to carry the team through while Baker gets healthy.

Today’s game against the winless Detroit Lions is a good example of what can happen if the Browns continue to play Baker in his hobbled state. He had another dismal game, throwing two picks and trying desperately to make plays when he’s just not physically capable of doing so. His quarterback rating for the game was a terrible 53.2, and the Browns scored a measly 13 points–a baker’s dozen–against one of the work teams in the league. Every time he drops back to pass you cringe in anticipation of a bad pass or a seaon-ending injury. The accurate Baker Mayfield that we saw earlier this season is a distant memory.

Kevin Stefanski is a fine coach, and I know that he wants to stick with Mayfield. But with two games against the Ravens coming up, wrapped around a bye week, it’s time to give Baker a break and let him recuperate. Let Case Keenum play next week, give Baker the following week off to heal, and then reassess before the second game against the Ravens. Having Baker continue to play is just not fair to him, or to the rest of the team.

The Hill Country Building Boom

On Friday we drove from Austin out into the Texas “hill country” and traveled around towns with evocative names like “Dripping Springs” and “Driftwood.” For decades, such places were part of the wide open spaces to be found in this area, with a rolling landscape dotted with small trees, mule deer, and roadrunners.

That is true no longer. Now the area is home to housing development after housing development, with many other new housing developments visible on the horizon. We drove through some of them, and were amazed at the size of the developments and the number of houses being built. There were houses in every phase of development, from cleared land being staked off to homes in the framing stage to homes where workers were putting on finishing touches and landscapers were getting the lots ready for a for sale sign. And all of the activity was right next to completed homes where families had just moved in. I’m surprised we didn’t see any moving vans.

According to the 2020 census, Texas added more population from 2010 to 2020 than any other state in the country, assimilating almost four million people. The Austin area has gotten its fair share of the newcomers, and people who live around here have gotten used to seeing cars with license plates from other states. And the accompanying development isn’t limited to the cities, as our road trip to the hill country demonstrated: the Texas countryside is being transformed, too. Given the frantic pace of the development, areas like the hill country that are near the growing cities will look a lot different in three or four years than it does right now. The traffic patterns are bound to change, too.

When you decide to go deep in the heart of Texas a few years from now, expect to see a lot more houses, and the stars at night might not look quite as big and bright with all the house lights on the horizon.