A Lost Sense Of Smell

The rich, earthy smell of freshly ground coffee on a crisp winter morning. The bright fragrance of a glass of orange juice, or the heady aroma of an uncorked bottle of shiraz. The over-the-top scented assault of lavender vanilla hand soap, or the utterly clean whiff of a freshly laundered bath towel. The smell of wood smoke from a neighbor’s chimney. These are little things that add color and flavor to our lives and that people with working noses take for granted.

But among us are people who have been infected with COVID who have lost their sense of smell. A year into the epidemic, many of us know people who have survived their bout with the coronavirus, and they often report that the strangest symptom of the disease–and the one that made them realize they’ve got the ‘rona in the first place–is the sudden absence of smells in their world. And the loss of the sense of smell (called anosmia) also can produce a lost sense of taste (called dysgeusia), which means victims of the virus may lose two of their familiar senses at the same time. And some unfortunate victims of the disease develop parosmia, in which the ability to detect smells gets scrambled, so that a flower might smell like an open sewer.

For some victims, the sense of smell comes back quickly as they recuperate from their exposure, but for others the anosmia or parosmia lingers on and on. You can get a sense of the extent of that problem by running searches on regaining sense of smell, which produces lots of hits. Doctors and hospitals have featured links on Google about the condition and their treatments, and there are first-person accounts about the battle to get the olfactory senses working again. The Los Angeles Times recently ran an article that described the sweeping range of potential treatments that people who are desperate to return to normal can try — which might include CAT scans, steroids, and aromatherapy. And the LA Times piece indicates that some victims will try just about anything.

Those of us who have dodged the COVID bullet can’t really imagine what this condition is like, and I certainly hope that I never find out through personal experience. But it’s also a reminder that, when victory is declared in the war on the coronavirus, there will still be people out there suffering from its after-effects, and wondering if their world will ever get back to the way it was before the pandemic hit.

When The Weather Breaks

Yesterday winter’s hard stranglehold was finally broken. The temperature shot up to the mid-50s, we saw a huge snow melt that finally freed the streets and sidewalks from most of the snow and ice accumulation, and we got some very warm sunshine in the late afternoon. With patches of grass emerging after weeks of snow cover and our bushes showing their first, faint signs of green buds, it was hard not to feel a surge of optimism that spring might be not far away, after all.

The days when the weather breaks are special days, and I sat on our back porch to try to take it all in. We’ll still have some tough weather, of course, and some more snow and cold temperatures, but for now we’ll feel good that the worst of the winter may be behind us.

The Pleasures Of Paper

Earlier this week I went to the office. I was working on comparing and organizing and incorporating the contents of two different documents, and I decided that would be easier and more efficient if I would print them out, bring them home, and do the comparison and organization work on paper, where I could lay the documents out side by side.

It’s the first time I’ve actually worked with paper in months, rather than editing and moving things around and cutting and pasting from one document to another on my laptop. When I was working from the office before the shutdown occurred, I was paper-oriented, although I was trying mightily to become more electronic, so as to minimize the need for paper files and storage boxes. But when the shutdown occurred, working on paper really was not an option, so I went full electronic of necessity.

Working with physical documents made me realize that I miss paper. Creating and editing documents on a computer is fine, of course, but there is a tactile element involved in working with paper that you just don’t get with a computer. Writing on the paper, drawing brackets and arrows to shuffle content around, crossing out duplicative sections with a definitive flourish, using an actual highlighter with that unique freshly opened highlighter smell, and then crumpling up and discarding the paper with a set shot at the recycling container when the work is done — each act has its own little satisfactions. If I had a spindle, I’m sure I would enjoy folding, spindling, and mutilating, too.

I suppose that, at heart, I’m a Dunder-Mifflin guy.

My return to paper was enjoyable, but it will be brief. The reality is that paper, for all of its pleasures, is just too bulky for remote work, and it’s easier, cheaper, less wasteful, and more environmentally friendly to do everything on the computer screen. But I did enjoy my brief return to the paper days.

A Famous Stutter

The other day I was listening to some vintage rock on my morning walk, and a true classic showed up in the mix — My Generation by The Who. The song is arguably the greatest youth anthem ever recorded, and is especially memorable for two reasons: the line “hope I die before I get old,” and Roger Daltrey’s ferocious stutter on some of the words in the lyrics, like “f-f-f-fade away” and “s-s-s-say.” The credit for the lyric goes to Pete Townshend, The Who’s guitarist who wrote the song, but . . . why the terrific stutter?

Apparently it was the product of one of those happy accidents that make for rock music legend. Daltrey recently explained that Townshend had originally written the song so that the “f” sound on “fade” would be held for a while, but when Daltrey performed it on one of the early takes of the track, he stuttered. He corrected that on the next take, but the group decided the stutter worked better in conveying the song’s aggressive message about frustrated and disaffected youth — and it does.

In the link above, The Stuttering Foundation declares My Generation as the most famous song with stuttering vocals, although Bachman Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet also gets a mention. And Daltrey’s stuttering got attention at the time, too: the BBC originally banned the song from its airwaves because it was deemed offensive to people who stutter. That decision was later reversed, and My Generation ultimately reached number 2 in Great Britain. The song didn’t do much in the United States when it was released in 1965, however, and didn’t even make the Top 40. Only later did people start to recognize the powerful message of the song, and now My Generation is generally viewed as one of the greatest rock songs ever.

The stutter really gives the song a punch — although these days I focus more on that “hope I die before I get old” line.

Just In Case . . . .

The stories we’ve been hearing from Texas over the past two weeks have been truly horrific. People went without heat during an unprecedented cold snap, without electricity, and without water for days, and many shifted to a survivalist mode. Obviously, the Texas authorities responsible for the power grid have a lot to answer for, and talking about a winter storm of the century doesn’t fully explain how completely the system failed.

Now that the worst of it is over, Texans have been talking on social media about what they learned from this experience–and what they can do to prepare for the next devastating winter storm, or hurricane, or other natural disaster. It’s an interesting topic, and one that those of us in other parts of the country would do well to think about, too. You never know when the weather might wreak havoc with expected utility services and food supplies and leave you to go into survivalist mode. And the unsettling question is: if that were to happen to you, would you be reasonably well prepared?

So what are our friends in Texas saying?

  • Lay in a supply of bottled water, and if a storm is bearing down, fill bathtubs and sinks. Humans need water, and if disaster strikes you just can’t have too much of it.
  • If you live in a standalone structure, buy a generator. People in Texas who had generators that they could rely on during this period say they’ve never made a better use of their money.
  • Know how to shut off your water and drain your pipes, and remember to turn off your water heater when you do.
  • Be sure you’ve got flashlights and batteries.
  • When your plumbing is inoperative, disposable plates, cups and utensils are essential.
  • Get a propane-powered space heater and don’t forget the propane for it.
  • Keep a supply of instant coffee and canned food in the garage.
  • Did I mention bottled water and a generator?

You never know when a crisis might hit. Being prepared for the worst isn’t a bad idea.

Walk/Don’t Walk

According to the trusty weather app, the prolonged frigid spell that has had Columbus in its icy grip is finally supposed to break this week. Today, for example, the temperature is supposed to briefly reach a point above freezing for the first time in weeks.

But this is no time to let down your guard, because we’re now entering the most treacherous period of all: when the snow and ice will melt, somewhat, during the day, but then freeze again overnight. The result of the melt/refreeze/melt/refreeze process is sidewalks that look like this one that I encountered on Third Street, on my way back from my morning walk around Schiller Park today. Try to navigate the icy patches, and you’re basically cruising for a (rear end) bruising in a fall. A good rule of thumb is to avoid stepping on any translucent area, and stick instead to the packed snow-covered segments. But soon, thanks to the melting and freezing, there won’t be any of those safety zones, and pedestrians will have to entrust their fates to the capricious whimsy of the winter gods.

If all of this weren’t difficult enough for the walkers among us, the weather app reports that we’re supposed to get freezing rain tomorrow. The mind reels at what a dose of freezing rain will do to patches like the one shown above.

Fortunately, the temperature is supposed to shoot up to around 50 degrees on Wednesday, which should take care of most of the ice. It can’t get here soon enough.

Entrepreneurialism In A Pandemic

Many of us are just trying to ride out the COVID pandemic. We stay hunkered down in our houses, where we’ve been for months, fighting coronaboredom and hoping that, one of these days, we’ll get back to a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy.

Other people are different. They aren’t happy about COVID-19, obviously, but where we experience only apathy they see opportunity and are willing to creatively embrace the many challenges presented by doing business in a pandemic. If you’ve read about some of the innovative ideas that business owners have come up with–like bars that have developed ways to accomplish virtual bar crawls, or businesses that have retooled to provide supplies needed in battling the coronavirus–you know what I mean.

One of those people who is looking for opportunity, even now, is my long-time friend Chuck Pisciotta, who is seen at left in the picture above. Chuck went ahead with a plan he devised to assemble investors and buy manufacturing businesses, even after a pandemic intervened. He’s formed a new company called Valence Industrial and hopes to realize synergies and efficiencies by combining the former standalone businesses, investing in technology, and presenting customers with an integrated business model, and he’s got his eye on Valence being well-positioned when the post-pandemic rebound occurs. He recognizes that some people might wonder about the wisdom of that decision to invest in manufacturing during these unprecedented times and has written an interesting article about his thinking that you can read here.

How will it work out? No one can predict the future, but knowing Chuck I am confident that no one will be more thoughtful, or more hard working, in striving to make his business plan a successful reality. And I also know this: thank goodness for people like Chuck, who have foresight and business savvy and are willing to take risks. They are the entrepreneurs who make our economy work, and create the jobs that employ and benefit the rest of us. We could use a lot more of them.

The Car Rocker

This year we’ve gotten more snow — snow that has stayed on the ground, and accumulated over multiple snowfalls — than any winter during the years we’ve lived in German Village. And yesterday, I had a chance to use my “car snuck in snow” skills to help one of our neighbors.

Kish heard that familiar, whining, spinning tire sound, looked out the window, and saw the neighbor, who had her car in a cattywompus position, with the wheels down deep in impressive ruts in the snow. She was trying to turn out of the snow, which was a fatal mistake, and had even taken the floor mat out of her car to try to get some traction. Unfortunately, her car was well and truly stuck.

I went out to help and try to rock the car out of the rut. The first step was to straighten the wheels out and then push the car back out of the deep part of the ruts and against the curb, so I could brace myself and push from the rear. The second step was to make sure that she accelerated gently as we pushed and rocked the car up and out of the ruts and into the street, since too much acceleration usually just digs deeper ruts. Kish came out to join me, we gave the car a few good shoves, and with one last big push the car finally came out of the rut and into the street. We retrieved our neighbor’s floor mat and returned it to her, and then wished her well as she went on her way.

We’re sick of this winter weather and prolonged cold snap, but at least it afforded us the opportunity to show, in a tangible way, that we are good neighbors. That’s a positive.

Goliath

We’re constantly on the lookout for TV shows to binge watch during the never-ending shutdown period–especially when it’s snowy and frigid outside. On recommendations of friends, we just finished the three seasons of Goliath, starring Billy Bob Thornton as an alcoholic lawyer. It’s an interesting show with some really well-drawn characters, but boy! It has got to be one of the most consistently shocking and disturbing American TV shows, ever.

Thornton plays Billy McBride, a once-successful lawyer who has crawled into a bottle after his legal work in a criminal case led to a very bad incident. McBride is a high-functioning alcoholic for the most part, though, and in each of the seasons he tackles a particular case–but it’s not really a courtroom drama show, although there are plenty of courtroom and law firm scenes. (As a lawyer, I simply adopt a willing suspension of disbelief when watching any show about the law and the workings of law firms because of the inability to portray legal work realistically, and any lawyers will need to do that with Goliath.) Much of the show involves deeply unsettling characters and situations: people with disfiguring burns, sexual predators, soullless defense contractors, people who use amputation as punishment and people with amputation fetishes, cold-blooded and crooked politicians, a brother and sister whose dysfunctional relationship involves playing suicide games, and of course Billy’s raging alcoholism and the never-ending issues it causes. It’s one sick, ongoing parade in Billy McBride’s dark little corner of the world.

It doesn’t make for bad TV, although you sometimes will want to cover your face with your hands and watch through the cracks between your fingers. Thornton is quite good as Billy McBride, but our favorite characters are his support team, which includes his daughter, his co-counsel, an escort who serves as his paralegal, and his indomitable legal secretary, who is capable of going through a storage unit of documents by herself to find helpful evidence. We particularly like Nina Arianda, who is just great as Patty Solis-Papagian, a realtor-solo practitioner who becomes Billy’s trusted co-counsel and who has to constantly tell people how to correctly pronounce her name. She’s shown at the far left in the photograph above. Patty’s wisecracks, and the glimpses we get of her family life, are hysterical and much-needed comic relief against the dark backdrop of the show.

We’re told there will be one more season of Goliath, and we’ll watch it with interest just to see what happens to Patty, Billy, and the other characters we’ve come to like. But we’re bracing ourselves already for another deep dive into the seamy, sick world that Billy inhabits.

High-Rise Woes

I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a 96-floor condo skyscraper in New York City, where units individual units were sold for millions of dollars and the structure towers over neighboring high-rises and undoubtedly offers fabulous views of Central Park and the surrounding skyline. But I do know this: if I had enough cash to pay millions of dollars for a condo in a brand-new building, I’d expect to get something that was as close to perfect as is humanly possible.

The New York Times recently reported that condo owners as one such Manhattan building aren’t exactly getting that kind of experience. Some residents complain that their building on Park Avenue, constructued only a few years ago, has a number of problems, including water damage from plumbing and mechanical issues, elevator malfunctions, and creaky walls. The Times article cites engineers who say that some of the problems at the building, and other titanic residential high-rises in NYC, are due to the challenges involved in building immensely tall structures and trying to find materials and construction methods that are up to those challenges. That shouldn’t be surprising; pipes can burst and walls and floors can creak even in single-family homes, and it’s obviously even more difficult to reliably deliver water, electricity, elevator service to residences that are hundreds of feet above the ground. And creaking and groaning is only going to be exacerbated by being up in the wind currents.

The developer of the building says it was a successfully designed and constructed project, points out that the building is virtually sold out (at an estimated value of more than $3 billion), and says that it is working collaboratively with residents and the condo board to address reported issues.

One of the residents who is quoted recognizes that there probably won’t be much sympathy for fabulously wealthy people who spent millions of dollars for their condos far above the streets of Manhattan. My reaction in reading the Times article is that it confirms that I would never want to live in a super-tall high rise in the first place, even if I could somehow afford to do so. But I also had this reaction: if I did own a condo in such a building, I sure would not want to see the problems at my building splashed across the pages of the New York Times.

A Ramen Story

I’ve been eating a lot of ramen noodle lunches during this COVID shutdown period. I cook up the noodles, toss the unopened, too-salty-for-my-tastes flavor packet into the trash, and then add various items to the noodles and water, like chopped hard-boiled egg, tofu, spinach, tuna fish, chopped onion, or other leftovers from the refrigerator, and always some sriracha sauce, mustard, and horseradish to give the concoction an extra spicy kick. It makes for a hot, satisfying lunch that’s a nice break from sandwiches.

The other day I was waiting for the water to boil and noticed that the back of the noodle packet included a short tribute to the founder of the Nissin Top Ramen brand that is shown in the above photograph. You don’t see tributes to founders on food packets much anymore — in fact, you really don’t see them at all. This one says that the founder, Momofuku Ando, invented instant ramen in Japan and brought it to America in 1970, includes a sketch of his head, and describes him as a “legendary inventor and humanitarian.” The packet also directs you to the Nissin Foods website for more information.

Well, why not learn more about a legendary figure? You can find the referenced website here. It says that Mr. Ando invented instant ramen to deal with food shortages in post-WWII Japan and also invented instant noodles in a cup after noticing Americans eating noodles from cups. It includes photographs of Mr. Ando, including one with him in a lab coat posing with a microscope that sure makes him look like an inventor. The photos indicate that the sketch on the packet is a pretty good likeness, by the way. As for his humanitarian status, the website includes some of Mr. Ando’s sayings that are claimed to still inspire the company, like “be meticulous, yet bold.” Some of Mr. Ando’s other quotes are “always look around you with a great deal of curiosity,” “food is a peace industry,” and “when you cast away greed in adversity, you can find unexpected strength.”

It’s nice to know a little bit more about this person who came up with the idea of instant noodles, which have helped to make my personal shutdown period a bit more tolerable. And, in his honor, I will strive to always “be meticulous, yet bold” in chopping up leftovers and adding inventive combinations to my ramen creations.

A 2021 Look At Presidents’ Day

It’s Presidents’ Day, 2021. Originally designated a federal holiday to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, and later expanded to cover both Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who also was born in February, the holiday is now supposed to be a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents. Still, people mostly use it to celebrate George and Abe and the other great Presidents of American history.

But we’ve just come out of one of the worst years we’ve had in a while, and 2021 hasn’t exactly been gangbusters, either. So let’s acknowledge the current sour mood and use this Presidents’ Day to recognize one of the worst U.S. Presidents ever: James J. Buchanan. Historians may disagree somewhat about precisely who is the best U.S. President, or the absolute worst, but there is surprising unanimity about Buchanan. Everyone thinks this guy was a disaster.

Buchanan had an impressive resume when he was elected in 1856, having served in Congress, as Secretary of State, and as U.S. minister to Great Britain. But the 1850s were deeply troubled times in America, as the country was being pulled apart by slavery. Buchanan immediately provided evidence that he wasn’t up to the task of dealing with the issue in his inaugural address, when he amazingly stated that the issue of slavery in the territories was “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.” With constant bloody fighting between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and western Missouri, Buchanan managed to stake out a position that absolutely no one on either side agreed with.

Buchanan is reputed to have influenced the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, which was issued shortly after his inauguration, and he thought it would put the slavery issue to rest — when instead it served only to further inflame abolitionist forces and spur people like Abraham Lincoln to reengage with national politics. But Buchanan didn’t stop there. He rarely spoke or appeared in public, and did nothing to try to bring the country together as it was spinning apart. Even worse, when Abraham Lincoln’s election caused southern states to begin seceding from the Union, the Buchanan Administration — which was heavily populated with pro-slavery Southerners — allowed the seceding states to seize federal forts and stockpiles that helped the Confederacy arm itself for the coming Civil War. Buchanan threw up his hands at the action of the southern states, and stated: “As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more fight to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.”

Even more bizarrely, Buchanan thought the President had no real role to play in the great issue of the day. He said: “It is beyond the power of any president, no matter what may be his own political proclivities, to restore peace and harmony among the states. Wisely limited and restrained as is his power under our Constitution and laws, he alone can accomplish but little for good or for evil on such a momentous question.” When Abraham Lincoln finally took office, states had seceded, treasonous activities had gone unpunished, and James J. Buchanan had done nothing about any of it. Having brought the country to the brink of disaster and disunion while refusing to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to address the moral scourge of slavery, Buchanan sought to excuse his inaction. Fortunately, Lincoln was no Buchanan. If he had been, the world would be a much different place.

It’s hard to imagine that we could ever have a worse President than James Buchanan — one more inept or ill-equipped to deal with the compelling issues of the day. Let’s hope we never find out.

Jack Frost’s Beard

Today is one of those days where it is just warm enough for snow to melt, but still cold enough that that melted snow isn’t going to get far before turning into ice. It’s ideal icicle weather, and we’ve got some impressive ones around German Village, including this specimen that formed on a bush on City Park.

My grandmother called these multi-icicle creations “Jack Frost’s beard,” in recognition of that wintry sprite. According to Grandma, the impish Mr. Frost not only nipped at your nose on cold mornings, he also was responsible for the icy etchings on windows that formed on super-cold days.

Driving Reflexes

Last night Kish and I went out for dinner for Valentine’s Day. Our restaurant destination was within walking distance, but given that many of the sidewalks along the way are still snow- and ice-covered, and the fact that it would be dark by the time we walked home, we decided driving was the safer approach.

As I got into the car, I realized with a start that it was the first time I’ve been behind the wheel of the car for . . . well, I don’t know exactly how long. Weeks, for sure, and maybe a full month. There has been no period in my adult life where I have gone for such a long period without driving. And the reason is: there’s just been no reason to drive anywhere. Kish has been out, but I’ve limited my movement to walking around our neighborhood, walking to work on a few occasions, walking to get a haircut, and walking to restaurants. It actually felt weird to slide into the driver’s seat.

We use the car so infrequently, and for such short trips, that we couldn’t even remember the last time we filled the tank. When was the last time you ever wondered about that? Gas prices are going up, apparently, but we certainly aren’t contributing any pressure to the demand side of the pricing equation.

Although it felt strange to drive, the deeply ingrained driving reflexes and motor memory came back with a rush. Driving again was like riding the proverbial bicycle. Still, the experience did make me think that I should take the car out every once in a while, just to keep the reflexes sharp. Put me down for a Drivers’ Ed refresher course.

A Neutral Place In The Bidding Wars

If, like us, you aren’t in the market for a house right now, consider yourself lucky. The real estate market is crazy right now — so crazy that bidding wars for homes are commonplace. It’s not just a seller’s market, or even a seller’s market on steroids. It’s more like a seller’s fantasyland where any imaginable price or egregiously unreasonable condition can be put on a house and some desperate soul will accept it just to get their foot in the door. If you know anyone trying to buy a house right now, you’ve heard ridiculous stories of some listings getting more than 30 offers and selling for prices more than a third above the asking price.

This CNBC article sketches out some of the macroeconomic indicators at play. The number of houses listed for sale has fallen to a record low. More than half of all prospective home buyers are facing bidding wars for the house of their choice, and the primary reason people who are in the market for a new house haven’t bought a home already is that they’ve been repeatedly outbid. More than half of new homes offered for sale are in contract in less than two weeks.

And here’s another sign of a superheated real estate market: a Google search for bidding wars will call up multiple website pieces advising on tips and strategies on how to win the inevitable bidding wars, like “11 Tips To Win A Bidding War On A House” or “Best Strategies To Win A Bidding War.” What are some of the strategies? Stay on top of the market in your target area and go see new listings the minute they appear. Pay cash if you can, or be pre-approved for financing, so you aren’t requesting financing contingencies. Offer more — sometimes far more — than the asking price. Agree to quick closings. And if it’s a house you really, really like, be prepared to waive the home inspection contingency, take the place as is, and hope that such a decision made in a crazy market doesn’t come back to bite you when you discover a new roof is needed immediately. Anybody who has bought a house knows just how risky that last strategy can be.

Those of us who are in the Switzerland position in the bidding wars — that is, neither buying nor selling right now — can view all of this with academic interest, but if you are a first-time home buyer this craziness has to be incredibly frustrating. Those of us who have homes can hope that the superheated market continues until we sell, but unless you’re moving into an apartment or an old age home, you’ll be a happy seller on one hand and a frustrated potential buyer on the other. I’d rather see things get back to normal.