This part of Maine is blessed with some fine hiking trails, and thanks to the Island Heritage Trust, Deer Isle has more than its share. A good hiking trail is a great place to rediscover the simple pleasure of a walk in the woods, and reengage with that inner child who has been buried under decades of life and countless layers of adult obligations. You can’t help but feel a bit like a kid again when you balance on some two-by-fours laid over the boggy areas or are tempted to skip a stone on the still waters of a pond.
It’s been a busy summer for us, and the occasional hikes have been an effective and much appreciated stress relief mechanism. As the summer draws to a close, we always regret that we didn’t take a few more, and vow that next summer we won’t make the same mistake.
I woke up at about 4 a.m. this morning, which is earlier than normal. I tried to go back to sleep, hoping for another hour or so of shut-eye, but after tossing and turning for 15 minutes and realizing I was wide awake, I decided to yield to the inevitable, get up, and enjoy the quiet of the morning.
I like sleep as much as the next person, but I also don’t really mind those days when absolute wakefulness comes early. Mornings are definitely a special time here. It is so quiet that your ears almost begin to ache as they search for any hint of a sound, and the thrum of a car on a distant street heading toward the harbor, or the cawing of a crow in one of the neighborhood trees, seems almost deafening. The headlights of pick up trucks turning onto the road toward Greenhead Lobster flitter briefly across the walls, and there is a faint taste of salt in the pre-dawn air. After last night’s rain, the sky was clear as crystal, with the morning constellations at first standing out brightly against the broad sweep of the Milky Way, and then hanging on to the west before being overwhelmed as the first glimmers of daylight emerge to the east and the dim outlines of the rocks below our deck start to emerge from the nighttime gloom.
Mornings are a good time to stand outside and enjoy the silence and then to putter about, straighten things up, put the dishes away, turn to some random Mozart on the Idagio app, and enjoy that first steaming cup of coffee and the coolness of the air. On mornings like this you need to relish the moment and let all of the senses run free. I’ll be more tired than normal tonight, for sure, but for now I will enjoy the quiet of the morning.
A heavy fog moved ashore last night, leaving the world mist-shrouded and opaque for my walk this morning. As I walked down Main Street toward the center of town, this scene seemed hauntingly familiar. It reminded me of a vista from a dream, where everything lacks sharp edges and seems somehow unfinished.
My theory about dreams is straightforward: while your conscious brain is sleeping, your subconscious brain is still at work, sifting through what you’ve read or heard or seen or otherwise experienced recently and trying to organize it into some kind of story — because our brains crave order and are hard-wired to try to put things into patterns. Dreams are strange and disconnected because it’s hard to turn random incidents into a coherent story, but the subconscious brain does its best.
I think the operative plot elements of your dreams all come from the recent brain input, but ancillary characters, background settings, and other details that fill in the inevitable, yawning gaps in the story line are drawn from your vast repository of memories. That’s why you might see a former work colleague who has been dead for years suddenly turn up, sharply etched from memory, as the boatyard attendant in a dream that involves some weird effort to take a boat to meet a friend. And because the settings seem to be based on decades of collective memories, they tend to involve, in some murky, dream-like sense, the world of the past.
That’s why it’s interesting to me that, four months after the coronavirus hit and the world tilted on its axis, I’m starting to have dreams that have some kind of COVID-19 element. Last night I had a dream in which one of the people in the background was wearing a blue paper coronavirus mask — certainly something that would not have been part of any dream I would have before March 2020 — and I’ve also had a dream where my dream self was troubled to see that there were discarded coronavirus masks on a roadway as I walked past.
So far, at least, I haven’t had any coronavirus embarrassment or anxiety-type dreams, where I’ve humiliatingly shown up for some important event without a mask, or in my dream I’m horribly late for something because I stupidly put off getting a mask and now I can’t find one anywhere. I imagine it’s just a matter of time before those kinds of dreams get worked into the nightly mix.
And that’s probably the most disturbing part of all of this. The coronavirus period has gone on long enough to work its way into our subconscious brains. If, like me, you still have dreams from time to time about missing an important exam — decades after your last exam ever occurred — you have to wonder: are we going to be haunted by periodic COVID-19 dreams for the rest of our lives? We may sincerely hope that a successful vaccine is developed, “herd immunity” is achieved, and the world returns to “normal” — but come night-time our subconscious brains may continue to give us a dose of the topsy-turvy coronavirus world of 2020 whether we like it or not.
For years, my daily routine when I’m at home has been unvarying: when I get up in the morning, I take a brisk walk, on the same route, in the same direction, to get the blood pumping and the brain engaged. I did it rain or shine, hot or cold, without exceptions, with no ifs, ands, or buts.
When we lived in New Albany, my route took my around the Yantis Loop. When we moved to German Village, my course changed to circumnavigation of Schiller Park. But in either case, the early morning walk was a key component of the day, mixing inner compulsion, simple enjoyment, and a desire to be sure to get some exercise before plopping myself down behind my desk.
I would call my morning walk routine a “habit.”
But when we came to Maine recently and had to self-quarantine on the footprint of our cottage for two weeks, I was unable to take my morning walk. The first few days I got up early anyway, but in short order I realized that I there was no need to do so because I couldn’t take my walk, so I might as well roll over in bed and sleep a little longer. And that turned out to be pretty enjoyable, actually.
By the time the 14 days was over, I found that my routine had been shattered. On the first day after the quarantine ended, I took my walk, but on the second day it rained, and I decided I should just stay home, without really giving it much thought. But when I did think about it, I thought: “What the hell?”
So clearly, my long-standing habit has been broken to pieces and needs to be reestablished. I thought the saying was, “old habits die hard,” but that turns out to be totally wrong. Maybe it should be, “good habits die easily.”
We took a long drive this week. It was our first extended road trip in a while, but it also was interesting in other ways as well. In fact, I would say it was one of the more memorable drives I’ve ever taken.
It’s as if the country is reawakening from a long sleep. Some people are up and wide awake, some are groggy from the long slumber, and some are still snoring. As a result, the roads weren’t nearly as busy as you would normally expect on the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend. In the early morning hours in Ohio, we saw lots of trucks on the road — a good sign, incidentally, for a resurgence in the nation’s economy — but virtually no cars. By mid-morning, as we rolled through northern Pennsylvania on I-80, the trucks still dominated the road and cars remained few and far between. The traffic picked up as we skirted New York City and Boston, but we didn’t hit any stoppages, even with lots of road construction. As a result, we made excellent time.
But the lack of traffic wasn’t the only reminder of the coronavirus. As has now become the norm, for me at least, once you are out of your personal space you become acutely conscious of every common surface you touch. Refueling means touching buttons on the gas pump and holding the nozzle. You don your mask as you enter gas stations — some stations have signs saying that masks are mandatory — and think about the safest way to open the bathroom door, flip up the toilet seat, and flush the commode if you need to use the facilities. (Your prim and proper grandmother was never more worried about the cleanliness of rest stops than you are right now.) At one stop, as I stood masked and trying to do my 20 seconds of vigorous, soapy hand-washing, a trucker stood next to me and brushed his teeth, which was a bit unnerving.
You put your mask on, again, as you pay at toll booths, which is probably the best argument ever for getting EZ Pass and just rolling on through. Every toll booth worker was wearing masks and gloves, and at the I-84 toll booth in New York City the attendant applied some kind of disinfectant to the dollar that I handed her. It makes me wonder if COVID-19 will drive another nail in the coffin of cash and spur faster adoption of contactless payment card technology. For that matter, it makes me wonder if toll booths where you can actually use the nation’s currency also aren’t going to be around for long.
In all, a very memorable trip. The coronavirus continues to affect just about everything.
I realized the other day, as I was checking my messages while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, that my iPhone facial recognition software doesn’t work when I’m wearing one of my coronavirus masks. Like a character in a Lone Ranger TV show, the phone was left dumbfounded and asking: “Who was that masked man?”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The mask covers a significant portion of your face, including some noteworthy recognition-triggering features — namely, your nose and your mouth. Our identification of a person’s face is based on the eyes, nose, and mouth working in combination, and the masks are covering up two of those three features. We’ve been trained since birth to pay careful attention to the facial features of the people we talk to and notice any changes. And think about how much attention you pay to the mouth, in particular, as you interact with people. Are they smiling? Frowning? Grimacing? Does the combination of the mouth and eyes indicate that they’re angry?
I thought about the blocking effect of the mask when I went to get a haircut yesterday. Both my stylist and I were masked — of course — after I had gone through a doorway vetting procedure that included having my temperature taken and answering some COVID-19 exposure questions. As we talked during the happy haircut, she mentioned that she was trying to be more expressive with her eyes, because people couldn’t tell whether she was smiling or not. It was true, and I realized that she also couldn’t see my smile. After that, I tried to be more expressive with my eyes and eyebrows, but the eyebrows especially are not designed for nuanced non-verbal cues. You’ve got knitted eyebrows, and raised eyebrows, and that’s about it. Trying to communicate much with your eyebrows is like mugging for a camera.
Masks definitely change things, but we’re just going to have to get used to them because they are going to be a requirement for a while. I’m going to have to work on adding some additional, unmistakable eye and eyebrow communication techniques to my facial repertoire.
And I guess Apple is going to need to come up with a masked and an unmasked version of the facial recognition software.
I flew to New York City on February 19, 2020 on a business trip that would be just like a hundred business trips to Manhattan that I’ve taken before. My flight arrived at a packed LaGuardia Airport, and I steered my roller bag through concourse traffic, trying to navigate past the slow movers and the gawkers. I used the bathroom at the terminal, standing shoulder to shoulder with other random travelers needing to answer nature’s call, washed my hands without thinking about whether I was spending 20 seconds on that task, then moved with the flow of travelers down to the baggage claim level and outside the terminal.
I stood in line at the taxi stand with perhaps 25 other people patiently waiting to get a ride into the City. I took the cab that was next in line when my turn came, without giving a second thought to who might have sat in the passenger seat before me, or when the cab was last cleaned. I arrived at my hotel, located about a block from Times Square, and waited in the crowded lobby to check in. Because it was a nice night and I wanted to get some exercise before dinner, I walked over to Times Square, stood among hundreds of other residents and visitors moving through that NYC landmark, and took this picture of the heroic George M. Cohan statue in the middle of the Square like a true tourist. I then walked around the area, thinking about how hard it is to take an enjoyable walk in New York City because of the crowded sidewalks. I even wrote a blog post about it the next day.
I ate at a random restaurant suggested by the hotel concierge, without thinking about how close the other patrons were, or noticing whether they were sneezing, coughing, or having trouble breathing. I slept in my hotel room, made coffee the next morning using the coffeemaker in the room, plugged my computer cord and smartphone cord into the outlets, then spent the whole day in a conference room that was full to the brim with about 20 people sitting right next to each other. We all got coffee from a shared coffee urn and poured cream from a common cream container. At lunch we got sandwiches and cookies from a common tray. At the end of the day I took another cab back to the airport, stood in the TSA pre-check line with other passengers breathing in that LaGuardia terminal indoor air, and then navigated through the crush to get to my gate.
I was aware of the coronavirus at that point, but the only time I thought about it during the whole trip was at the gate, when I sat in one of the common seats in the gate area and wondered about the people who had sat in the seat that day, and where they might have been traveling from. But it was a fleeting thought that passed by, and I then concentrated on checking and answering the emails that had stacked up during the day. My flight was called, I stood in line to board with my group, and then sat in close proximity to other weary travelers on the 90-minute flight home. To my knowledge, no one on the flight was wearing a mask.
As I sit and think about what was a pretty routine, uneventful trip to Manhattan only two and a half months ago, it seems like a totally different world. I don’t know if or when I’ll take another business trip to New York City, but I can be sure of one thing — it won’t happen with the kind of carefree nonchalance that I felt, without thinking about it, on that last trip, or during the hundred or so trips that preceded it.
So far, I haven’t been in an enclosed structure other than our house since before the guidance on masks started to change. You will recall that, initially, health authorities took the position that masks weren’t needed and actually might be counterproductive, because donning and doffing a mask might cause you to touch your face, which was totally discouraged. Then the prevailing view changed, and masks became recommended. Now, in at least some instances and for some people, they apparently are going to be required when you are in a structure.
So far as I can tell, however, there is no requirement that you wear a mask if you just go outside for a walk. I don’t wear one for that purpose, and most people I’ve seen around German Village don’t seem to do so, either. I’m not aware of any studies or medical information indicating that, if you maintain proper social distancing when you are out in the open — and I do — you are at risk of contracting coronavirus, or communicating coronavirus to others. And a mask really interferes with one of the key elements of a walk, which is to breathe in some deep gulps of fresh air while you are out stretching those atrophied muscles and appreciating nature.
Nevertheless, some people now seem to be arguing that everyone should be required to wear a mask when they exit their front door. That’s because the whole mask/no mask issue plays into the busybody gene that those people have in abundance. They decide to do something, and because they do it they think everyone else should be required to do it, too — and you’re a hopeless idiot and horrible person if you don’t. And they will gladly share their opinion with you, in stern and certain terms. But just because they conclude that they want to be masked when outdoors doesn’t mean I must follow their lead. In our land of liberty, you have the right to wear a mask outside if you choose, and I have a right to go maskless — at least, until our elected representatives instruct to the contrary. That hasn’t happened yet.
I’ve heard of some busybodies taking people to task for walking, jogging, or biking without masks. That hasn’t happened to me, yet, and if it does I’m just going to ignore it. The masked among us can judge us all they want, but they need to remember that when they’re wearing a mask we can’t see them scowl. And that mask pretty much muffles their hectoring comments, too.
I’ve been thinking about the Great Depression lately. Not because I think we’re heading toward another one, but because it is one of those historical events that left an obvious, lasting mark on the people who experienced it.
If you knew somebody who lived through the Great Depression as an adult — and not as a kid who probably wasn’t fully aware of what was going on — you know what I mean. The adults who lived through the Depression clearly had a world view that was forever, unalterably affected by that difficult time. After the Depression ended, they generally lived frugally and saved money. They wanted to avoid debt at all costs. They tended not to trust newfangled ideas and were as cautious and conservative in their investments as you could possibly be. And they generally did not have the sunny faith that things were necessarily going to get better. There was a hard edge, a Depression-inflicted scar, that was lurking just beneath the surface that tended to influence and affect, in some way or another, just about everything they did. My grandfather, for example, always wanted to have plenty of cash on hand — just in case everything went to hell tomorrow and he needed it.
Later generations of Americans didn’t share that same worldview. They lived when times were flush, and they expected that the high times they had always known would inevitably continue. Sure, there were some bumps in the road, but for the most part we lived lives and developed plans and made decisions about buying cars and houses, determining whether we could afford a particular college for our kids, and planning for retirement on the assumption that life as we always knew it would be pretty much the same in a month, or a year, or five years. There was a kind of presumed certainty about the future that served as the unconscious basis for all of those kinds of decisions.
Now we’ve had the fates throw an enormous wrench into the works. We’ve learned in a brutal, stunning, totally unexpected way that we can’t presume to know for sure what will happen in the future. How is that going to affect people’s decisions going forward?
I wonder if this coronavirus experience, too, is going to also have a lifelong effect in terms of where people choose to live and how they choose to live. At minimum, when we are trying to make a decision about a course of action, will we always be thinking: “what if another global pandemic occurs?”
Of course, none of our elected officials asked me to weigh in on the subject, but if they had I would have argued the gardening is an “essential service.” When you’ve been cooped up all day, nothing lifts your spirits like seeing some pretty spring flowers.
But therein lies the good news challenge. The curve seems to be flattening and potentially bending precisely because the vast majority of American have taken the stay-at-home instructions seriously and have tried, responsibly, to isolate in their households. But if you give people good news, might they relax in their precautions and let up a bit in their zealous pursuit of social distancing, thereby increasing the risk of a new flare-up and outbreak? And if you get people’s hopes up, won’t they feel even worse if it turns out that these preliminary signs aren’t the bend in the curve we are hoping for?
In this case, I’m in favor of giving people the good news as it comes out, with appropriate caveats. People have made a lot of sacrifices during this shut-in period. Some have lost their jobs — for now, at least — and everyone has experienced disruption and more personal isolation than they would want to experience otherwise. We all need to know that our sacrifices are making a difference. And, as Andy Dufresne wrote to his friend Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a good thing . . . maybe the best of things.” In this case, there’s nothing wrong with a little hope to leaven our collective spirits during difficult times.
I’ve got a lot of respect for the innate sensibilities of the American people. For every jerk who has ignored social distancing to party on a beach, there are tens of thousands who have acted prudently and without complaint during this period to protect themselves, their families and their communities. I’m confident that people will continue to act responsibly if they receive some positive news about how their efforts are making a real difference. In fact, I think there is a good chance that Americans react to such news by redoubling their social distancing efforts, to finally bring this scourge of a virus to its knees and drive a stake through its ugly heart.
We’ve all been hunkered down for a few weeks, and now the authorities are telling us we need to be bracing ourselves for the worst week of COVID-19 data yet. According to the models, at least, we’re apparently somewhere near the top of the curve on that chart we keep seeing, like the people on a roller coaster who are a few clicks of the chain drive from the top of the first hill, scared about the view from the very top but eager for the exhilarating rush down the other side.
I’m not sure what, if anything, we can do to “brace” ourselves for more coronavirus news. What does it mean to brace yourself for news of tens of thousands more people who have tested positive and are “confirmed cases,” thousands more who have been hospitalized, and thousands more who have died? The numbers are so big and so out of context it’s hard to even conceive of them, much less put them into a framework where you can truly prepare yourself mentally to hear more of them. “Bracing” yourself under these circumstances, for this kind of gush of large-number news, isn’t like readying yourself for the inevitable death of a loved one who has been on a long slide. Instead, it’s like the old footage of the carnival performer who gets shot in the stomach with a cannonball. He clenches one fist, spreads his arms wide, tightens his torso muscles, and dons what look like welding goggles, then accepts the inevitable punishing jolt to the system that he knows is coming and is going to hurt.
So, we’ve been “hunkered,” and now we’ll “brace,” too — to the extent we can, at least. And it seems like “hunkering” is actually a component of “bracing.” Part of preparing yourself for bad news is thinking about what you can do to deal with it and, hopefully, help the situation in some way. We might not be able to personally aid the doctors and nurses and health care workers in Manhattan and New Orleans and other hot spots that are dealing with this pandemic, but we can do our part by acting responsibly, staying inside and maintaining social distance when we go outside for exercise, and not adding to the caseload. That’s how Kish and I are going to “brace,” anyway.
And, because another key part of “bracing” is preparing yourself to move ahead after the bad news comes, we’re also going to look forward to the ride down the slope on the other side of that coronavirus chart.
One thing about the coronavirus: you can’t really get away from it. At least not for long. You think about it as soon as you wake up and automatically consider what you’ve got going that day. You feel it when you sit at your home office and work remotely. You see news stories about it dominating every news show and website, and you notice it, again, in the absence of the baseball games and basketball games and hockey games that you would normally be following and the fact that ESPN is showing footage of decades-old sports event. You see its fine hand, again, in the absence of any social events to look forward to on your calendar.
And even on something simple like a morning walk on a fine, bright spring day — and thank God for us all that we are still allowed to take those, incidentally! — the specter of the coronavirus looms over everything, like the shadow of a giant beast that has crept up from behind and is getting ready to lay waste to a group of stupid, oblivious teenagers in a bad scary movie. I find that I am acutely aware of the spatial orientation of every visible car, pedestrian, jogger, and cyclist, and am constantly calculating and recalculating the clearance vectors and paths around trees and cars so that I can safely pass everyone else who’s out. I find that I get a bit anxious and irritated when somebody gets too close and, even inadvertently, invades my now-extended zone of personal space, although I haven’t called out anyone for that, yet. That’s a big and somewhat unsettling change for me, and I’m hoping it’s not permanent.
And there are things that I used to do that I wouldn’t do now if you held a gun to my head — like petting a friend’s dog, stopping to chat with a cluster of people gathered on the sidewalk, texting while I’m walking and losing immediate cognizance of where everyone else is during those moments of distraction, or picking up a piece of blowing trash to keep our neighborhood looking neat and clean. Now I not only won’t pick up random debris, I probably wouldn’t pick up a $50 bill — at least, not without thinking pretty long and hard about it.
It’s bad enough that COVID-19 had wrecked school years, and college visits, and spring breaks, and long-planned weddings, and has prevented people from gathering for funerals or concerts. The big issue will be whether the coronavirus will continue to cast its long shadow after the curve has been flattened and the case counts stop dominating the daily news. How much of the changes in our daily lives will become a permanent feature, and how much will vanish like the wisps of that rapidly receding nightmare?
Ohio has been in shutdown mode for some time now – hey, can somebody remind me how long it’s been, exactly? — and I feel like we’ve adjusted pretty well. Human beings are good at that; genetically, we’re hard-wired to assess new situations, figure them out, and come up with new strategies and approaches. In only a few days, changed routines have been established, new daily patterns have become the norm, and what was once unusual has been accepted and incorporated into our lives with a kind of resigned, collective shrug.
FaceTime and Zoom and Microsoft Teams and countless other video applications have gotten a workout. What used to be simple, voice-only calls have morphed into video calls as a matter of course, not because video makes the calls more efficient, but because it’s incredibly nice to see other human faces from time to time, to get a smile or a laugh and hope that you’ve lifted someone’s day as they’ve lifted yours. Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, we’ve had virtual coffees and virtual beers after work and virtual cocktail parties with friends and family and colleagues to keep that human touch and to know that everyone looks okay and seems to be hanging in there. Seeing faces turns out to be pretty darned reassuring and uplifting, when you think about it.
When we go outside for walks, we maintain that assured clear distance of six feet to the extent we can, veering into the street or onto the grass at Schiller Park to respect that buffer zone. Social distancing is a physical concept, though, and it doesn’t mean we can’t maintain non-physical social contact with the people we see, through a smile and nod and a cheerful greeting and a brief chat as we stand appropriately apart. People seem to be more consciously outgoing, as they steer clear of each other. Maybe it’s just the fact that everybody is at home all day long where they used to be at their offices for most of the day, but it sure seems like there are lot of people out on the street at any given time. Perhaps that’s because it’s another way to get that human contact — even if it’s remote contact. That’s another element of this new paradigm that seems to have been adopted and incorporated without too much trouble.
During this shutdown period, we’re all living a kind of virtual life, but of course it’s our real life. We’re all like the boy in the bubble, living in our little zones. It’s a fascinating social experiment, and I hope people will remember this instinctive need for contact with fellow humans when this isolation process ends, as it will. I, for one, will never take walking into a friendly restaurant or bar for granted again.