Making It To Another Year

Well, it’s 2022. There’s no point in trying to capture 2021 in a few pithy words; everyone’s years are different depending on what happened in their personal lives. 2021 will have been a year with varying degrees of triumph and tragedy, wins and losses, fun and drudgery–all against the backdrop of COVID-19 and the continuing impact of the pandemic on our daily lives. By the time December 31 rolled around, my guess is that most of us were ready for 2021 to end and to turn the page to what we hope will be a new, and better, chapter.

If you’re a resolution maker, go ahead and make those resolutions to exercise more, eat less, quit smoking, step away from social media obsession, and finally make whatever other fundamental changes to your lives that you think need to be made. Why not? It can’t hurt, and a few weeks or a month of resolution-keeping–which tends to be the standard shelf life for resolutions–is better than nothing. And if you manage to keep those resolutions for the entire year, you can savor a real accomplishment.

If you’re not a resolution maker, appreciate the fact that you made it past another milestone into another year. That wasn’t true for many people. And the past two years haven’t been easy ones, from a big-picture perspective. Maintaining a positive viewpoint and going about our lives without being driven into a fetal position by scary headlines, testing angst, and breathless announcements of new COVID variants is an achievement in and of itself. Congratulations!

On to 2022, folks! May everyone have a happy new year!

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!

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.

The March Of Trivialization

Historians used to write and talk about the “march of civilization.” You can find books by that name on Amazon, and learned quotes that use that phrase on any search engine. The underlying notion was that the story of humankind was a continuous upward journey from barbarism to the glories of the modern world. And the implication was that the march would inevitably continue to ever greater heights of achievement and refinement.

I don’t think the “march of civilization” concept holds true anymore. The idea presupposes that human beings will continue to work hard and focus on bringing on the better world with its greater accomplishments and magnificence, and these days it seems like we are a lot more interested in being distracted than in knuckling down. You might say that we are in the midst of a “march of trivialization” instead.

Consider what happens when you go to the Google app on your phone to look for something. Before you can type in a word you’ll see snippets of a series of curious stories, like the ones shown on the screen shot at the top of this post, that are designed to pique your interest, get a click, and divert you from what you were going to do in the first place. And the stories that are featured are breathtakingly banal and ultimately pointless, like the story above about the “viral video” of a woman stepping out of an Amazon truck and how people you don’t know on social media have responded to it. Typically there are multiple stories about social media videos or feigned outrages, photos of celebrities and members of the British royal family, sports world “reactions” to a play or announcement, and speculation about when a fourth (or fifth, or sixth) “stimulus” payment might be made. If you went solely by the stories on the Google front page and tried to draw inferences from them, you probably would conclude that we live in a world where there are no real, significant problems that constitute news, which is why TikTok videos and celebrity fashion dominate.

Of course, that inference would not be correct. There are lots of actual problems out there that could be the subject of the Google front page stories–but they aren’t. Why do you suppose that is the case? Is it because Google once tried to feature actual news and saw that it garnered far fewer clicks than the junk stories, or that Google figured at the outset that people typically use Google for trivial purposes–like trying to find the actual name of the character called “the Professor” on Gilligan’s Island–and therefore would prefer the amazingly inconsequential fare that we see today?

Whatever the reason, the march of trivialization continues, distractions ever multiply, and the insignificant crowds out the significant. Social media has replaced religion as the so-called “opiate of the masses,” and is keeping people from paying attention to what actually counts. It’s a weird and troubling feature of modern life.

20 Years Later

On this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I can’t help but remember that fateful day. Although two decades have passed, the memories of the burning, smoking towers, watching the TV news and seeing the planes converted into missiles to achieve the murderous goals of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and feeling that the whole world was turned upside down, are still fresh and painful. As that terrible morning of shock and horror ended, we were able to go pick up the kids from school, and one of my lasting memories from that day was the immense feeling of relief at getting the kids into the car and bringing them home, where our family could all be together and we could be sure that all of us were safe and secure. I’ll never forget that feeling.

Twenty years is a long time, and today is a time for reflection. A lot has happened in the years since the attacks. America is still here, of course, but there is no doubt that the country has changed in the interim. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. A shock like 9/11 is bound have some long-term consequences, like a colossal rock thrown into a pond causes ripples that ultimately touch every part of the pond’s shoreline. The key point now, in my view, is to focus on where we go from here. The war in Afghanistan is over, and obviously it ended badly. How does the country respond to that reality, and will we finally learn the hard lessons that we have been taught at the cost of twenty years of fighting, thousands of American lives, and billions, if not trillions, of dollars? Or will we forget those lessons the next time a tragedy tempts a President to take the country into another foreign adventure?

And more fundamentally, where is our country headed as a free, democratic society? Just this week President Biden announced that an administrative agency is working on an emergency regulation that is designed to affect the jobs and livelihoods of tens of millions of people who have made a choice to remain unvaccinated and the companies that employ them. Those of us who remember the Schoolhouse Rock song about the process of how a bill becomes a law wonder how in the world the President can presume to exercise such extraordinary power without hearings, amendments, and ultimately a law passed by Congress that specifically authorizes such sweeping action. But in the years since 9/11, we’ve gotten used to Presidents ordering deadly drone strikes, changing policies set by prior administrations, and imposing new obligations with the stroke of a pen.

In a way, has the long road that began with 9/11 led us to this point, where Presidents feel they can unilaterally exercise such vast powers, without the checks and balances that we learned about in Civics class? And, however we may feel about the best way to deal with the COVID pandemic (and for the record, I’m vaccinated), are we comfortable with a form of government where the executive branch, and in many instances unelected administrative agencies, wield all of the power and can issue emergency decrees that would have profound impacts on the lives (and bodies) of millions of Americans, without Congress, as the collective representatives of American citizens and our diverse communities, having voted to require that course of action, set the structure for how the action will occur, established the rules, and determined the penalties for non-compliance? The likelihood that the Supreme Court undoubtedly will ultimately have its say doesn’t make up for the fact that Congress, which was intended to be the primary instrument of government, has withered into insignificance and plays no role in debating and setting such important national policies.

It’s a lot to think about on a quiet Saturday morning, 20 years after a shocking day that we will never forget. But 20 years provides some perspective, and anniversaries are good times for reflection.

The Old Cemetery Gate

The Stonington town cemetery, which I walk past on my morning jaunts, is an interesting place, and not just because of random deer encounters and the gravesites of Civil War veterans. I’ve also been fascinated by this battered cemetery gate, which looks like it has some interesting stories to tell, about each of the many twists and bends in the aged metal.

But the most provocative untold story is the one about why the gate is there at all–since there is no fencing whatsoever around it. Why add a gate to an otherwise open area? My guess is that the gate was added as the first step in what was supposed to be a process that involved some kind of fencing–a stone wall, perhaps–that never came to fruition.

The plans are long gone, but the old gate remains. It helps to give the cemetery an identity, and a bit of a wistful feeling, too.

A Tale Of Three Boats

We visited Bar Harbor yesterday. Unlike Stonington, where virtually every boat in the harbor is a working lobster boat, there are a variety of different types of pleasure crafts docked in Bar Harbor.

I was struck by this scene of three boats docked side by side near the Bar Harbor Inn. The guy in the middle must have been feeling pretty good about himself when he eased his big, bright, gleaming boat into the harbor—until the huge yacht parked itself right next door. And some day, of course, the big yacht will be outdone when an even bigger super yacht shows up, because there’s always someone with a bigger boat, somewhere.

And what about the guy whose Boston Whaler looks like a shrimp in comparison to these two monsters? I bet he’s happy he’s not paying for their upkeep, storage, outfitting, maintenance, and crew. And I’d guess that he has more fun zipping around in his little boat than the other two boats combined.

The Glorious Fourth

In Stonington, the lampposts and businesses are bedecked in flags and bunting, and at private homes tiny American flags wave gently in the breeze from the harbor as the citizens celebrate our oldest, and most bedrock, American holiday. The local newspaper has done its part by reprinting, in full, the text of the Declaration of Independence, which is of course the reason for this celebration in the first place.

It is interesting that, in America, our first national holiday commemorates the simple publication of a declaration, not a victory in a bloody battle. In fact, most of us would be hard-pressed to identify the date of the Battle of Yorktown that caused Great Britain to finally acknowledge our independence, or the date of the peace treaty that formally recognized it. We celebrate the Fourth of July because that is when the united colonies bravely issued a document that spoke of concepts of equality, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the proper relationship between citizens and their government. Many people in mighty England laughed at the temerity of the sweeping declaration issued by this disparate group of states, but it is the Declaration, and not the scoffers, that has stood the test of time. They are long forgotten, while the Declaration is still remembered and celebrated, 245 years later.

Of course, the authors and signers of the Declaration weren’t perfect, and the colonies themselves did not meet the lofty ideals the Declaration articulated. There were slave holders among them who not only didn’t implement the concepts of equality and personal liberty reflected in the Declaration, they personally, and brutally, enforced the opposite. Women’s equal rights also were not recognized, and there were countless other instances of imperfection and benighted thinking. But, as Abraham Lincoln recognized, the Declaration of Independence is best seen as an aspirational document that established goals for what the new nation hoped to be. Lincoln repeatedly drew on the Declaration for inspiration, including in the Gettysburg Address. He knew that its concepts would help to rally the Union forward, end the scourge of slavery, and allow the nation to experience a “new birth of freedom.”

In the same way, we can always benefit by reading the words of the Declaration, understanding it’s aspirational message, and never losing sight of the importance of striving to reach the concepts of equality, liberty, and the true role of government and governed that it embodies.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

House Names

Many of the houses in Stonington have formal names, like “Morning Mist,” designated by signs on the house itself. That’s pretty unusual in my experience; I don’t remember seeing houses being given names in Columbus, for example. I’m not sure exactly why this house-naming tendency is so, but not surprisingly I have a theory. Many of the residents of Stonington owns boats, and the boats are always named. If you’re going to name one object or possession, why not name another? I wouldn’t be surprised if they named their cars, too.

My two favorite names are “Yonder,” shown by the sign above the barn doors above, and “The Snow Goose,” on the trim house below. “Yonder” is a great, now archaic word that dates from the Middle Ages. It indicates something in the distance that is within sight or capable of being identified by a gesture. As a house name, it has a certain mystical quality. And “The Snow Goose” is similarly evocative. It conjures up clear mental images, and it also makes you wonder what caused a prior owner to settle on that name.

Driftwood

One of the great incidental benefits of living in a seaside community is driftwood.

I like pretty much everything about driftwood—starting with its name. It’s not “washed-up wood,” it’s driftwood—as if it has been out for a pleasant journey, leaving the forest behind, taking its time and seeing the sights, without a care in the world. And the physical characteristics of driftwood reflect its ocean journey. Driftwood has a special feel. Its bark has been washed away, and the water and salt and sun and wind exposure somehow have left the driftwood with a smooth, silky feel. It’s warm to the touch, but also feels lighter than branches of similar size, as if its waterborne experience has sucked the weight away, leaving just the essential sturdiness behind. It’s one reason why gnarled pieces of driftwood make great walking sticks.

And the other great thing about driftwood is its innate air of mystery. Where did it come from, and how far has it traveled, and how long did it take for it to reach its destination on a rocky beach? Consider this huge piece of driftwood, below, that we saw on the beach at Barred Island this past weekend. From the notching, it’s clear it has been shaped by human hands for some purpose—but what? We’ll never know for sure, which makes it all the more interesting.

Memorial Day, 2021

This morning, to commemorate Memorial Day, I hiked up to the Stonington town cemetery to pay my respects and walk among the headstones of veterans and the small American flags and metal service medallions that had been placed at those gravestones by the groups that recognize how important it is to always acknowledge our veterans and their families.

The cemetery is located inland–given the literalist approach of Stonington street namers, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s found on Cemetery Road–and it is neatly kept, regularly mowed and maintained, and surrounded by towering trees. Like many cemeteries, it is a quiet, peaceful place. A misty, rain-shrouded morning, as this one was, was a good time to visit and reflect on the veterans who served and to say a silent “thank you” for the sacrifices they and their families have made on behalf of all of us.

Deer Isle, where Stonington is located, has a long tradition of military service. It was mentioned several times in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, and the Stonington cemetery reflects that tradition of service. There were gravestones for Civil War veterans–the headstone in the foreground of the photograph above is of John M. Gookin, who served in Company B of the 7th Maine Infantry, a volunteer regiment that fought at Antietam, Gettysburg, and most of the other major Civil War battles in the east theater, as part of the Army of the Potomac–and there are markers that indicate that some of those who are laid to rest in the burial ground served in just about every war since. The many small American flags and medallions that were visible in the mist demonstrate that Deer Isle has held up its end of the bargain involved in living in a free society. Sometimes, unfortunately, our soldiers and sailors and pilots must fight for our freedoms.

Thank you to those who serve, those who have served, and the families that have supported them in their service. America really can’t thank you enough.

The Trouble With Harry

The other day I called up Google on my phone to do a quick search. As always happens, clickbait articles popped up, including this one on Yahoo about Harry Windsor sharing some new photos of his son and reporting on some of his child’s first words.

You remember Harry, I’m sure. He’s the guy who moved to the United States from the U.K. because he desperately wanted to get away from the suffocating attention paid to him and his extended family and go his own way with his wife and child. But poor Harry seems confused. He doesn’t seem to get the notion that if you want to live a private life and make it on your own, you need to actually live a private life. That means not giving interviews with famous celebrities and participating in docuseries and sharing details about your life that are sure to attract more of the public attention that you claim to abhor.

Harry’s evident problem is that he seem to really like the attention, which he’s gotten his entire life. But it has to be the right kind of attention. Positive attention is just fine with Harry, but negative attention, or any criticism, makes him wonder why journalists and paparazzi and commentators can’t just leave him and his family alone.

Harry’s approach reminds me of our kitchen screen door during the summer months when I was a kid. We didn’t have air conditioning, so the only way to get air circulation in the house on a hot summer’s day was to open the inner door and let any precious breeze come through the outer screen door. But with five children in the family and a neighborhood that was chock full of rug rats, kids were constantly going in and out through the door, which had one of those spring devices that made it shut with a loud metallic clang. After putting up with a few dozen unsettling bangs, Mom would say, in exasperation: “In or out?”

And that notion applies equally to Harry. When it comes to celebrity status, you’re in or you’re out. If you want privacy, live privately. But if you crave some of that celebrity adulation, don’t come around whining when somebody makes a joke at your expense or raises questions about whether you are profiting from your family connections.

In deference to Harry’s tender sensibilities, I haven’t included a photo of him with this post, and because I’m writing this in America, where we don’t have titles–except for nicknames, like the Sultan of Swat or the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air–I’ll just call him Harry Windsor. And in further deference to Harry’s apparent wishes, I also promise that I will never write about him again.

Liquid Normalcy

In normal times, I’m a big office water fountain guy. There’s a water fountain on my floor, only a few steps away from my office. I would twist the little white knob and take a healthy draught of ice cold water at least a dozen times a day, maybe more. It’s refreshing, and my doctor says it’s good for me, and it’s one of the few easy things I can do to comply with those nagging aspirational physician lifestyle suggestions. Walking to the water fountain for a drink is also a good way to take a quick break and think about what I’m working on, away from the glow of the computer screen.

But since the COVID pandemic hit, our office water fountain has been closed down. There’s a sad sign on it saying that it has been deactivated as part of our office pandemic protocols. As a result, if I want to have a drink of water at the office, I need to fill up my coffee cup with tap water at the communal sink, rather than getting a brisk drink directly from the bubbler.

It’s not the same. The water temperature isn’t as frigid and bracing, and in my mind I also intuitively think that I’m just drinking some tap water, rather than water fountain water. (It’s probably exactly the same water, of course, but just try getting your subconscious brain to rationally accept that fact.)

Many places are struggling to figure out how to reopen their work spaces, and many workers like me are looking for signs that we’re finally getting back to whatever is going to be defined as “normal” once the pandemic is over. For me, one of the leading economic indicators of being back to normal will be the removal of that sad sign, and the opportunity to drink some of that cold water fountain water again.

Mixed Messages

We’re at a weird time in America. At the same time many of us are completing our COVID-19 vaccinations, getting our vaccination cards, and feeling like we are on the cusp of returning to some reasonable measure of personal freedom, and some states are beginning to loosen their restrictions, we’re getting dire warnings from national leaders and public health officials about a potential “fourth surge” of the pandemic in the United States.

(Would it really be only a “fourth surge”? I’ve lost count, frankly.)

The statement made yesterday by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the CDC, is pretty jarring for those Americans who hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, just ahead. After reporting on increases in the number of COVID cases (now topping more than 30 million Americans) and hospitalizations, Dr. Walensky went off script to confess, in emotional terms, to feeling a sense of “impending doom” and said she was “scared” that the country could be on the verge of a new surge as COVID variants infect the unvaccinated parts of the population. President Biden also said that “now is not the time” to remove masking and social distancing requirements.

The statements by Dr. Wallensky and President Biden have to rattle the confidence of people who believe a return to “normal” is not far away. The average citizen is getting pretty mixed messages right now. We’re feeling good that vaccinations are being made available to most age groups and seeing lots of social media posts with pictures of bared arms getting jabbed and vaccination cards, and we know that restrictions are being loosened in many places–but at the same time we are getting alarming warnings and, for many of us, we know people who are continuing to come down with COVID even now.

And part of the problem with this confusing mix of data and messages is that it is occurring against the backdrop of obvious pandemic fatigue and, in some quarters, a growing distrust of the pronouncements of our public health officials and concern that they are never going to let the world get back to 2019 normality. The CNN analysis piece linked above describes the unsettled situation this way: “The nation is caught on a ledge between triumph and a late game disaster in a fight against a pathogen ideally engineered to exploit lapses in public health, resistance to mask wearing mandates and the frayed patience of a country disorientated after a year when normal life went into hibernation.

These different perspectives necessarily inform how people react to the messages we are getting. When the doctor who is the head of the CDC admits to being “scared” and feeling a sense of “impending doom,” is she conveying a legitimate, albeit emotional, reaction to the latest data, or is her message part of the newest effort to keep people frightened, masked up, and in their houses indefinitely?

Now that we are vaccinated, we’re going to try to get about our lives–but prudently. I’m still going to engage in social distancing, and I’ll gladly continue to mask up in enclosed spaces. I don’t think we’re done with COVID-19 just yet.

The Arc Of A Year

This week marked the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of our office and the beginning of the remote work period. I’ve been reflecting on that year and our ever-changing, shifting, constantly morphing reaction to it. We’ve all gone through our own stages during the past 12 months, in a way comparable to the classic notion of the seven successive stages of grief: at first shock and denial, followed by pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, the upward turn, reconstruction and working through, and finally acceptance and hope.

The first stage, for me at least, involved feelings of newness and trepidation; I’d never worked from home before, so the technological and behavioral challenges of doing so were interesting and a bit daunting. And there was a certain giddiness to the idea of not going to the office; I remember sharing photos with colleagues of what we had made for lunch during that first week of remote work, and doing a lot of texting.

Then that constant texting stopped, the interest in making different lunches ended, and there was a creeping realization that what was initially presented as a brief interlude was going to last a lot longer than people thought. Weddings, vacations, sporting events, and other things on the calendar got cancelled or delayed indefinitely, and those developments packed a punch. And we wondered, with an element of deep concern, about what a prolonged shutdown would all mean for the economy, our families, and our friends.

This was followed by a settling-in period, where people accepted that remote working was going to be the rule and the work needed to get done, so we would just have to deal with it. New routines were established and adopted, home working spaces were identified, defined, upgraded and reconfigured, and Amazon got a workout.

Then the sameness or staying inside and working in the same setting, day after day, set in, and people began to think more creatively about the situation and whether they could combine working remotely with a much-needed change of scenery. People moved around to change things up. Some people started going back to the office more frequently, while others changed their base of operations to lake houses, second homes, or rentals just to break up the monotony.

As working remotely went on and on, ultimately we hit the trough. I think it began in later autumn, as the pandemic continued to rage and we were heading into winter with no apparent end in sight. That was followed by a grim realization that we would just have to put our heads down, take it one day at a time, and just soldier on through the bleak winter months.

The current stage seems to be one of vaccine-fueled hope that the true end of the shutdown is coming someday soon, coupled with an uneasy wariness. I think the wariness recognizes that there could be more disappointments and case spikes and the discovery of new coronavirus variations ahead, but also involves an acknowledgement that there might be a different “new normal” lurking ahead that we’ll also have to adjust to, somehow.

Dare we say it? We want this to be the last stage, but this year has trained us not to get our hopes up too high.