Blockbuster Nostalgia

With the year 2020 being what it is — and we don’t need to belabor the point, do we? — can we expect to see an increase in nostalgia for years and things gone by?  Even things that, at the time, seemed like unexceptionable, even annoying, elements of our daily lives and routines, like, say . . . Blockbuster video stores?

exterior-hero-newsroomfeaturedThere is reportedly one — one! — remaining Blockbuster store in the United States.  Once a standard tenant in virtually every strip mall in every town in America, as overwhelming in sheer number as the immense clouds of passenger pigeons that formerly filled the skies of the Midwest as they flew by, Blockbuster video stores have followed the passenger pigeon into extinction.  The last of its kind is located in Bend, Oregon, where the local residents have apparently made a conscious effort to keep the store afloat.  I suppose there is a certain point of civic pride in having the last Blockbuster in your town.

And now the proprietor of the last Blockbuster wants to thank its supporters and give those who are interested a little up-close-and-personal taste of the ’90s video rental experience.  For a measly $4.00 — one penny more than a movie rental — you can rent the store and spend the night taking in every kitschy detail of the Blockbuster experience, from the familiar blue and gold ticket stub shaped sign on the wall, to the racks of movies and “new releases” in their sturdy plastic boxes, to the impulse purchase shelves groaning with supplies of candy, chips, and soda.

I guess I can understand the urge to immerse yourself in an earlier, pre-coronavirus experience, when no one wore masks and everyone handled the same plastic video containers without giving it a second thought, but spending the night in a Blockbuster store gorging on junk food, guzzling Mountain Dew, and watching Independence Day wouldn’t be my choice.  For too many years, my overwhelming emotion in walking into a Blockbuster was a brimming rage at having to pay late fees for some crappy Hollywood product — late fees that were totally avoidable if the person who rented the movie had just watched it and returned it promptly.  Even thinking about it now, years later, I feel a sour taste of that unique combination of anger, disgust, and embarrassment.

I guess I don’t need to spend the night in a Blockbuster to relive that sensation.  The scarring late fee experience will be with me, always.

At Greenhead Lobster

Greenhead Lobster is one of the places where the Stonington lobster fleet unloads its catch.  Once the lobster boats dock at the Greenhead pier, the lobsters are taken from the salt water tanks on the boats, put into plastic bins that are placed on a conveyor belt, then rolled up a ramp to a large holding facility where the bins are removed from the ramp and put into a large salt-water holding tank, shown above.  The holding tank takes up pretty much the entire building and can hold immense quantities of freshly caught live lobster that waits in the tank until it is trucked off to its ultimate destination. 

It’s an interesting operation, and a labor-intensive one.  From the lobster boat crews unloading their catch, to the guy rolling the bins on the conveyor belt, to the guy who removes the bins from the belt and lugs them over to the holding tank, the people you see at Greenhead are all working hard to get America the fresh lobster it loves.  

This year has been a really tough time for people in the lobster trade.  With the coronavirus, many restaurants are closed or operating at reduced capacity, which means reduced markets for the lobsters.  We can’t make up for the reduced demand all by ourselves, of course, but we’ve been trying to pitch in by going down to the retail shop and buying lobster regularly.  You know when you buy from Greenhead that the lobster is absolutely fresh, and you’re getting a great price, too.

If you’re thinking of what to have for dinner tonight, how about some lobster?  The hard-working folks at Greenhead Lobster would appreciate it.

A Football-Free Fall?

Will there be college football in the Midwest this autumn?  It’s become such a huge part of fall in the heartland that it’s almost unimaginable that the leaves could change and the air could chill without the clash of shoulder pads and helmets, tailgating, and the roar of crowds in huge stadiums.

ohio_stadium_2But it is 2020, and the coronavirus is still burning its way through America, and we’ve just got to accept that things may well be different this ugly, star-crossed year.

The Mid-American Conference, which traditionally provides early season opponents for Big Ten schools, has postponed its entire fall sports season, including football, and apparently hopes to play games in the spring of 2021.  The Mountain West Conference has followed suit.  And yesterday there were news reports that the presidents of the colleges in the Big Ten Conference, the grandaddy of Midwestern college football conferences, had voted to cancel football and other autumn sports — although reports are conflicting, and some news websites are saying an official vote and announcement will be forthcoming today.

Of course, this possibility sends a collective shudder through the stalwart members of Buckeye Nation.  We love our football, and every year we look forward to seeing the Men of the Scarlet and Gray head out onto the gridiron.  Every year seems filled with special promise, and this year — with many Ohio State players returning from a team that came within a whisper (and a few dubious referee calls) of playing in the national championship game — was no exception.

But even a huge fan like me realizes that this is not an easy decision.  Many of the coaches and players are urging the league to go forward with games.  They want to play, and they note that football is a dangerous game even during normal times.  But, obviously, there is a unique health risk during a pandemic where disease transmission is so easy, and playing football — with players repeatedly in direct physical contact with each other, touching the same ball, huddling together, and breathing heavily, inches apart from each other, on the line of scrimmage — seems like the riskiest sport of all.  The colleges need to decide for themselves whether games can be played with a proper margin of safety, or whether the risk of players suffering permanent harm for the sake of playing games is just too great.

We’ll have to see, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we experience a football-free fall this year.  And I really couldn’t blame the colleges if that was their decision.

If so, it will give us another reason to remember 2020 with regret and disgust.

Without The Mighty Tourism Dollar

Italy is suffering.  Every year — until 2020 — Italy has welcomed millions of tourists from the United States, who spend billions of dollars enjoying the charms of one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  Those tourism dollars are a huge part of the Italian economy and help to keep thousands of people employed.

empty-rome.jpg.1200x800_q85_cropBut . . . it’s 2020, which means everything has changed.  With Italy being a COVID-19 “hot spot” in the early days of the pandemic, and the United States and other countries continuing to deal with coronavirus issues, tourism from America to Italy has plummeted.  The principal hotel association in Rome says 90 percent of the hotels there remain closed, and estimates that the hotel  closure is causing an economic loss of about $115 million per month.  Restaurants are operating at much lower capacity, and the residents of Rome report that it feels almost empty without the throngs of tourists.  It’s hard to imagine Roman landmarks like the Pantheon, shown above, without huge crowds of visitors.  In fact, you might say that this would be an ideal time to visit Italy . . . but for the global pandemic.

And you have to wonder — will there be a long-term impact on tourism and travel, to Italy and elsewhere?  It’s pretty clear that travel helps to spread pandemics, which gives the notion of tourism a kind of risky taint — but once they get going, pandemics are notoriously nondiscriminatory in their impact and eventually are going to hit, and hurt, every country.  If a reliable vaccine is developed — a big if — will Americans go back to favorite destinations like Italy, or France?  Or, will they to stick closer to home for the time being and choose to travel within the U.S., until the dust settles and other tourists returning from their trips give the all-clear to travel overseas?  The Italian tourist industry representatives quoted in the article linked above seem confident American tourists will be back because they just can’t get enough of Rome and the Tuscan sun, but  after 2020 . . . well, who knows?

We’ve got an overseas trip planned for 2021 and certainly hope to be going — but between now and then we are going to be paying pretty close attention to news about vaccines, and outbreaks, and other medical developments that we wouldn’t have even considered before this year.  I’m guessing that we’re not alone.

A New “Value Proposition”

As July nears its end, the 2020 Major League Baseball season has finally begun.  Teams are playing before empty ballparks to try to avoid further spreading the coronavirus.  Soon the NBA and the NHL will be playing, also with no fans in the arenas.  And if the NFL and college football start up, the teams will almost certainly be playing in front of thousands of empty seats.

471768148.jpgCOVID-19 has obviously affected our lives in more ways than we can count, but one of the interesting potential effects will be a changed perspective on the value of large, taxpayer-funded stadiums and arenas in towns with major league sports teams.  In the B.C. (“before coronavirus”) years, professional sports team owners argued that there was a significant “value proposition” in professional sports venues that made them worth the investment of tax dollars.  But the assumed presence of thousands of fans in the stands was a crucial element of the “value proposition” equation.

Fans were supposed to come in from out of town, fill up the hotel rooms, and pay the absurdly inflated hotel guest taxes into city and state coffers.  Fans were supposed to buy merchandise and food and beer — lots of beer — at the stadiums and arenas, paying sales taxes and creating jobs for hundreds of security guards and concession stand workers and parking lot attendants and fan entertainment teams, who would also pay taxes.  And, after the games were done, the happy fans were supposed to go out to restaurants in the city to celebrate their team’s victory, and the disappointed fans were supposed to drown their sorrows in a cold one — Keeping the city’s food and entertainment and hospitality sector healthy, and paying still more taxes.

Now games are being played with no fans, and who knows when fans will be permitted back to cheer on their teams.  None of those contemplated tax revenues are being paid.

COVID-19 might be a once-a-century pandemic, or it might be the harbinger of a new norm of social distancing and mask wearing and fewer fans in seats — if any are permitted at all.  The next time a professional sports team owner tries to convince a city to spring for a new, even more lavish venue, how receptive are city officials going to be to the “value proposition” message?

The Maskfog Factor

Eyeglasses and masks really don’t go together.  The masks cause warm, moist air — i.e., the air that just was exhaled from your warm, moist mouth and lungs — up onto the lenses of your glasses.  The result?  Fogged glasses, and the familiar embarrassing, blinded, stumbling sensation that the bespectacled among us really hate.

jimmyBefore anyone jumps down my throat, I’m not suggesting that fogging is a reason not to wear a mask.  Masks are a basic precaution when you’re going into an enclosed area during the global pandemic, and people should wear them in public places.

But I am saying that foggy glasses are unpleasant and a pain in the rear.  And there doesn’t seem to be a good response to the maskfog factor.  When I donned my first mask and experienced my first maskfog, I checked the internet for suggestions on how to deal with the issue.  I found pages like this one.  I tried the suggested approaches, I really did.  I pinched the nose of my mask until it felt like a binder clip on the bridge of my nose.  I tried using my glasses to “seal” my mask.  Neither of those approaches worked.  I admittedly didn’t try taping the mask down, because I don’t know how to do that, and in any case it doesn’t seem like a practical solution for the instances where you put on a mask to enter a commercial establishment and remove it when you leave the place.  And “soap and water” typically isn’t readily available in that scenario, either, unless you’re supposed to keep a supply with you at all times.

So I appeal to the glasses wearers out there.  Have you found a way to solve the maskfog dilemma?  If so, I’d definitely be interested in hearing it.

A Future Of Dancing Robot Dogs

Sports franchises across the globe have struggled with how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.  In some places, like the United States, sporting events for the most part haven’t occurred at all.  In other places, like Japan, the games have been going forward, but without any spectators due to contagion concerns.  And that raises a question:  what do you do, if anything, to substitute for the fans in the stands?  Do you play the games in eerie, empty, silent stadiums?  Or, like some Korean teams have done, do you put cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats?

A Japanese team, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, took a different approach: dancing robots and robot dogs.

The YouTube clip above shows a recent performance of the choreographed moves of jersey-wearing robots and a number of ballcap-wearing, four-legged, black-and-yellow machines (which are supposed to be dogs).  The annoying song they are “dancing” to is apparently a kind of theme song for the Hawks, and the moves they are performing are normally performed by human fans.  The whole thing comes across as pretty creepy to me.  Is the future of live sports a future of dancing robot dogs?  And I thought furry mascots like Slider were annoying!

One good thing about this:  after watching the robots and robot dogs cut a rug, I’ll never feel embarrassed to dance at a wedding again.

Coronavirus Dreams

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.   

The Last Of The Little Bottles

Once, not too long ago, I had an extensive bathroom collection of little bottles — the kind that hotels give (or used to give) to guests that contained small portions of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and hand lotion.

I had dozens and dozens of the little bottles stored in various places in our bathroom.  I would go on trips for work and faithfully bring the unused bottles back from from my travels so I could use them at home.  Waste not, want not, my grandparents taught, so why go out and spend good money on a bottle of shampoo when you can supply your needs through the little bottles the hotels hand out?  It’s not like my grizzled mane needs the kind of luxurious concoctions featured on shampoo commercials, anyway.

When I was traveling regularly, bringing home more bottles every week and month, it seemed like the vast collection of little bottles would supply my shampoo and body wash needs forever.  But over time the little bottle collection shrank a bit, as hotels transitioned to big push dispensers of shampoo and conditioner to protect the environment from plastic bottle waste, and then the coronavirus pandemic hit, all business travel vanished in the blink of an eye, and the opportunities for replenishment of the little bottle collection abruptly ceased.  And now, after going almost half a year without any business travel of any kind, we’re down to only a few of the little bottles left — a mere fraction of what the collection once was.

This coronavirus period has been strange, for sure, but one of the interesting things about it is how quickly we can adjust to and accept the “new normal” of masks, and spending more time at home, and steering wide of people on the street, and the other changes in behavior that become accepted.  You’re going along, living your life in the new way, and then something — like some little bottles in your shower stall — reminds you of just how much things have really changed.

A Summer Without Baseball

Major League Baseball is tying itself in knots over the decision whether to have some kind of baseball season this year.  So far this summer — and we’re more than two-thirds of the way through June, the third full month of the normal baseball season — we’ve had no games, and the baseball coverage has been all about fitful negotiations between the players and the owners.

brj-2010-summer-060It hasn’t exactly been a rewarding season for a baseball fan.

The current proposals don’t really resemble baseball as we know it.  The players and owners are debating a season that will have somewhere between 50 and 70 games, whereas the normal season has 162 games.  The owners apparently have withdrawn their proposal for expanded playoffs and also are offering a universal designated hitter for 2020 and 2021, which means National League fans won’t be able to watch pitchers at bat or the managerial strategery that flows from the fact that most pitchers can’t hit worth a lick.  And all of the wrangling is happening against a backdrop of the country opening up after the coronavirus shutdowns, with some states experiencing increases in the numbers of cases and hospitalizations.  Already there are stories about how some players are testing positive for COVID-19, and we can expect to see more of them.  Ultimately, if the players and owners can’t negotiate their way out of a corner, baseball’s commissioner may have to unilaterally impose a dramatically shortened season — which some players could simply refuse to participate in.

It’s a mess, and it raises a fundamental question:  should there be a baseball season at all this year?  What’s the point of playing a truncated, gimmicky season that will amount to a small fraction of the normal season?  On the other hand, can baseball afford not to play, when viewership and attendance have been declining for the past few years and the stench of the Houston Astros cheating scandal remains in the air?  If there is no Major League Baseball this year, will the sport be able to recover in 2021?

I enjoy baseball and follow the Tribe, but I find I am not missing watching games or following the team this year.  2020 has been such a weird year already that not having baseball just seems like another, easily accepted feature of this masked and misbegotten period we are experiencing.  We can expect that money will call the tune — it always does in professional sports — but if I were the Commissioner I’d just call the season off and plan for baseball’s return, for a real season, in 2021.

And by the way, there is still some baseball being played in 2020.  My Facebook feed features pictures of little kids’ games.  If you like summer baseball, there’s still a way to get your fix.

Masked Market

Stonington holds a farmers’ market in the parking lot of the community center every Friday from 10 a.m. to noon.  Last Friday we paid our first visit to the market during the COVID-19 era.

There’s no doubt the coronavirus has had an impact on the market.  For starters, there were fewer tents and tables set up by sellers, and they all were all distanced from each other, which gave the market a more spread-out feel.  There were fewer people walking around, too — and of course everyone was masked.  There was a pleasant young woman at the entrance to the market who was the designated “masking enforcer,” tasked with keeping the unmasked from entering.  She reminded us of the need to be masked and had hand sanitizer that she was ready to share with anyone who wanted to scrub up.  The potential customers weren’t supposed to touch or handle anything and also were supposed to keep their distance from each other — as the posted signs indicated.  As a result of all of these factors, the market didn’t have the bustling, crowded atmosphere that you associate with a good farmers’ market and that we saw at this market last year.

Still, in a weird year where all kinds of performances and events and community gathering opportunities are being cancelled outright, it was encouraging that the Stonington farmers’ market was being held at all.  And my sense from interacting with them was that the artisanal farmers who were participating definitely appreciated just having the opportunity to sell their vegetables and fruits and smoked meats and farm fresh eggs directly to the public.  If you are a small-business owner who is counting on different farmers’ markets as venues to sell your products, outright cancellation of all of your sales outlets would be devastating.  If the economy is truly going to recover, and the recovery is going to small-business owners like artisanal farmers, it is crucial to have events like farmers’ markets.

As has been the case throughout the coronavirus reopening period, Kish and I spent more than we really needed to, just to try to help the sellers get back on their feet and recover from a challenging time.  We bought eggs and cheese and smoked meat from multiple stands, and it all was great.

We’ll be going back to the farmers’ market on Friday, and will try to pay the market a visit on every Friday when we are here.  And I bet that we’re going to see a definite pick-up in the number of people selling and the number of people buying, as the word gets out that you can do so safely and people decide they are willing to accept the risk.  While appropriately masked and distanced, of course.

Tie Died

Yesterday the Bus-Riding Conservative (who hasn’t been riding the bus much these days since the office has been closed) sent around a picture of himself wearing a mask and a suit and tie.  He was donning his lawyer garb and mask to attend an important meeting, and he looked like a dashing corporate raider or somebody getting ready to rob a high-end country club — after cocktails, of course.

title-image-1But the BRC made a somewhat shocking confession in conjunction with sending his photo.  He admitted that it actually felt good to put on a tie after enduring a long, tieless period.

I’m surprised that the BRC’s astonishing statement didn’t produce thunderbolts from on high or breathless news reports that hell had frozen over, because it is likely the first time in the history of western civilization that a man has said that it felt good to put on a scrap of colored cloth that is specifically designed to cinch down on your windpipe and your sagging neck wattles and serves no functional purpose whatsoever, other than to become stained by splashes of food during power lunches.

The BRC’s mind-boggling confession got me to thinking, and I realized two things.  First, I don’t miss wearing a tie in the slightest, although I will certainly put one back on, as part of the lawyer’s uniform, when things get back to some semblance of normalcy.  And second, this has undoubtedly been the longest I’ve gone without wearing a tie in decades.  This coming week will mark my three-month anniversary in the untied category.  That hasn’t happened since at least law school — which ended, incidentally, during Ronald Reagan’s first term — and maybe since college, back in the Carter Administration.  And even in college, we periodically had parties following a Blue Brothers theme where the costume required attendees to put on a hat, tie, and sunglasses.  We may be going all the way back to high school.

I’ve written before about what parts of the new, coronavirus world will continue, and what parts will end when a vaccine is invented or “herd immunity” is achieved.  Even before COVID-19 struck, there was a strong push against standard business attire — including tie — and in favor of general “business casual” requirements, in which the tie went the way of the Dodo.  It will be interesting to see whether we’ve seen the last gasp of the necktie in the business world, and it turns out to be one of the many victims of the coronavirus.

If it is, there won’t be many male mourners — other than the BRC, of course.

A Class In The Mist

The Class of 2020 hasn’t exactly been the luckiest class in the history of the American high school system. 

Just as they were nearing the end of their senior year, getting ready for prom, and their senior class parties, and their graduation ceremony, the coronavirus pandemic hit, classes in most high schools across the country were abruptly cancelled, social distancing and limitations on congregation were imposed, and everything had to happen remotely — which isn’t exactly the ideal setting for your last hurrah with your high school chums and besties.

In Stonington, as in many U.S. cities and towns, the community has rallied behind the Class of 2020 and tried to give them a memorable graduation notwithstanding all of the limitations.  In the downtown area, small posters of the members of the graduating class have been put up on light posts and telephone poles to recognize their achievement.  Stores are displaying signs to congratulate the seniors, and the town organized a parade in which the seniors rode, individually, in back of open-air cars while they were cheered on along the parade route by members of the community — all of whom maintained appropriate social distancing, of course.

High school wasn’t the favorite time of my life, and I didn’t feel like high school graduation was a particularly big deal.  At the same time, I enjoyed the graduation parties and senior prom and the graduation ceremony itself.  For me, at least, it gave a sense of closure of one chapter in my life and the message that it was time to move on to college, and beyond.  Thinking about it now, with the knowledge of what has happened to the Class of 2020 in mind, I think I probably would have missed the whole process if I hadn’t experienced it.

I’ve written before about doing what we can to help people whose lives have been turned upside-down by COVID-19 to make up for the loss and disruption — by frequenting restaurants, giving very generous tips, and so on.  The same goes for the Class of 2020, and it’s nice to see that communities like Stonington, and other communities across the country, are doing special things to recognize the unique impact the Class of 2020 has sustained.  If you know of a 2020 graduate, give them an especially hearty congratulations, will you?  And when the Class of 2020 gathers for their 10th, or 25th, or 50th reunion, we can hope that they’ll have some positive memories about parades, and signs, and special recognitions to recall. 

Coronavirus And Commerce: One Town’s Story

The coronavirus pandemic, and the shutdown orders issued in response to it, have affected pretty much everything, and everywhere, over the past few months. Stonington, Maine is no different.

There’s no doubt that there has been a huge economic impact on this beautiful little town and the surrounding community. Stonington’s economy has two primary engines — the lobster trade, and tourism. Tourism clearly has been affected by Maine Governor Janet Mills’ orders closing hotels until June 1, and requiring visitors to Maine to quarantine for 14 days before interacting with locals. There aren’t many visitors to the town, and the businesses that depend on tourists have felt the resulting pinch. Three of the tourist-type shops in town are closed, and it isn’t clear whether they will open at s as you time this summer. One restaurant has announced it won’t be operating at all this year, another is running at dramatically reduced hours, and a third isn’t nearly as busy as it normally would be. There isn’t much foot traffic in town, either.

The lobster trade has been affected, too. The word is that prices are low, due in part to reduced demand caused by restaurant shutdown orders. The locals are hoping that prices increase when the Canadian lobster fishing season ends and only the U.S. supply is affecting the market.

2020 is going to be a tough year for all of these businesses. Stonington doesn’t have big box stores, chain restaurants, or franchises — it’s a small business haven where all of the businesses are locally owned, and the summer tourism provides a huge chunk of their annual cash flow.

The real estate market, on the other hand, is reportedly very strong, with places going on the market and being sold promptly — in some instances, solely on the basis of a video tour. Realtors are attributing the strong market to East Coast residents who want to establish a second home far away from the overcrowded cities where “social distancing “ is a challenge.

So, the coronavirus giveth, but the coronavirus mostly taketh away. It’s sad to see businesses closed and favorite restaurants going unopened this summer. We’re just hoping that the businesses can ride out 2020 and will be back in full swing in 2021, when things get back to normal — hopefully.