Street Walking

Since we’ve returned to Colimbus from Stonington, I’ve had to get my street walking reflexes back.

Not that kind of “streetwalking,” of course. I’m talking about literally walking in the street, with the traffic — exactly what your Mom told you not to do. In German Village, if you want to walk (and I do) and you want to maintain social distancing (and I do), you’re inevitably going to be veering out into the street from time to time to avoid approaching walkers and joggers on the sidewalks.

Street walking requires special awareness that wasn’t needed in Stonington. Up there, in our neighborhood, most streets don’t have sidewalks, so you walk in the street as a matter of course — but there’s really not all that much traffic, and not many parallel-parked cars (or joggers or bicycles, because of the abrupt steep inclines everywhere). In German Village, those are three of the things you’ve got to look out for when you venture into the street. You’ve got to be mindful of whether there are people who are in those parked cars you’re thinking of walking between in order to dodge those approaching walkers, because people in parked cars may be getting ready to pull out. And you need to be sure to look both ways, because you could have a cyclist or jogger approaching from either direction. And you’ve got to watch the cars, too, obviously— some of them are moving pretty fast, flouting the speed limit, and angry at the world. They don’t like sharing the street with us social distancers. And you need to be sure to wear white or other bright colors, to ensure you are seen by the drivers, cyclists, and joggers you’re trying to avoid.

I sometimes wonder whether walking in traffic to maintain social distancing is more dangerous than the coronavirus. It probably is, but it does keep you alert and on your toes first thing in the morning.

Back To The Oven

Yesterday I went back to my favorite restaurant to have my favorite dish for the first time in months. The restaurant is Indian Oven, located over on East Main Street on the outskirts of downtown Columbus, and the dish is lamb korma, at medium-plus on the spice scale.

No words can adequately capture what it is like to have your favorite meal after a prolonged withdrawal period. Let’s just say it’s almost a religious experience, and the lamb korma was every bit as good as I remembered. I took my time in eating, carefully mixed the meat, sauce, and rice as shown below, and savored every delicious bite.

If you haven’t had your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant in a while, I encourage you to do so, whether through in-person dining, as I did for lunch yesterday, or through carry out if you are more comfortable with that. Restaurants have been hit hard and need our support. Who wants to get to the end of this cursed pandemic only to find out that a favorite restaurant that helped to define the contours of your enjoyable “normal” life has closed forever?

Suits And Ties

When we got back to Columbus for the first time in months, I went through the house, checking to make sure everything was OK. When I got to the closet where my suits and ties are kept, it was kind of weird to see them. They weren’t quite dust-covered, fortunately, but they looked kind of strange after four and a half months of cold turkey suit-and-tielessness.

I’d be surprised if anyone who has been working remotely over the last four months has donned a suit or other form of pre-COVID professional business attire. On the video conferences I’ve participated in, it’s been business casual, tops — and in some instances a cut or two below business casual, all the way down into the casual skirting grungy category. Nobody seems to care about it, either. There clearly are events where a suit and tie will still be required — some of my colleagues have been in trial recently, and for court appearances of course suits, ties, and other professional garb are a lawyer’s standard issue uniform — but so long as working remotely via videoconference and computer is the norm, I think business casual is going to be as high-level as the clothing expectations will get.

What I think is more interesting is whether anyone will go back to regular workday wearing of suits and ties when — some blessed day — the COVID-19 pandemic is over. There was a strong trend away from suits and ties before the coronavirus hit, and that may well continue and accelerate. But among some people I sense a strong yearning to get back to “the way things were” before the world turned upside down. Wearing a suit and tie and other professional attire would be one tangible way of signalling that we’ve returned to business as usual. For some people, at least, you’d have the weird scenario of putting on a suit and tie — a pretty uncomfortable combination — as a way of achieving comfort that things are “back to normal.”

I’ll be putting on a suit and tie for the first time in months in the near future when I’ve got a presentation, but I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll go back to regular suit-wearing when, at some point in the future, our office opens up at full capacity again. One thing is for sure — my suits are going to last a lot longer than their original life span.

A Signature Item

I bought my lobster coffee cup from a local shop in Stonington a few years ago. I got it because it screams “Maine!” — with a noticeable Maine accent, I might add — and I thought it would be a fun, kitschy way to enjoy my coffee in the morning.

Of course, that was before anyone dreamed of global pandemics, months of working remotely, and routine video conferences with people in faraway places. But it turned out that the lobster coffee cup served a useful purpose in the crazy world of 2020. It became a kind of signature item that was the subject of pre-video conference comment as we waited for other people to join calls, and later it reminded people that I was still up in Maine. Some people have a carefully curated bookshelf or wall of kid art, others have their menu of fake backdrops, and I’ve had my lobster coffee cup.

But now that we’re heading back to the Midwest, I must bid farewell to the lobster cup. it would be jarring to insert such a Maine-specific item into the German Village video conference setting. So I must say so long, lobster cup! You’ve served me well, and I’ll look forward to taking hearty, hopefully post-pandemic gulps from you next year.

The 2020 Garage And Yard Sale Report

2020 has been a bad year in more ways than we can count, but it’s been a pretty productive year for us in terms of garage and yard sale acquisitions.  After an early slack period in deference to the coronavirus, the ads for sales started to appear in the local paper, and by the end of the summer the Stonington-Deer Isle area was back to its normal complement of Saturday sales.

I’m not the big garage sale expert in our household — Kish and Russell are the true aficionados — but in my limited experience there are two types of people who put on garage or yard sales.  In the first category are people who are really hoping to make a lot of money on their unwanted items.  The people in this category tend to overprice their stuff, not fully realizing that it is, after all, unwanted stuff of dubious provenance that doesn’t carry any special memories or value for the potential buyer who is just looking for a bargain on a used item.  The people in this category tend to be kind of stiff and rigid.  The other category features people who just want to get rid of stuff, have put an ad in the paper in hopes that people will stop by and take stuff away, and have priced everything to sell.  I like garage sales put on by people in the second category better.  Last weekend, we went to a sale put on by some people who were leaving to move to a different state, and after chatting with them for a while they were basically trying to give us stuff just so they could get rid of it and not have to cart it to their new house.  

Garage and yard sales are interesting for a lot of reasons.  One reason is that they show you, in tangible form, just how much stuff people tend to accumulate over the years — stuff that, at some point, has moved from useful to unwanted, from prized possession to clutter, from key parts of a new hobby to nagging reminders of past failures, from potential treasured heirloom to junk.  Another reason is that garage sales tend not to be organized in any meaningful way.  Normally, when I am going to buy something, I know exactly what I want, go directly to get it, and then end the shopping excursion.  That doesn’t work with garage sales.  Even if you go to one with a specific thing in mind, it might not be there, and even if it is what you’re looking for is going to be mixed in with a bunch of stuff that is totally unrelated.  And, of course, in looking over tables of household debris you might just find something that you hadn’t thought of but really could use.  Once in a while, the saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” really turns out to be true.

This year we’ve used yard sales to buy a nifty circular painting of a ship that is now hanging in our main room, acquire a sturdy used wheebarrow and some useful yard and gardening tools, get the cream pitcher and sugar bowl pictured above, and fill in some of the gaps in the household.  It’s all stuff we like and can use–for now, at least.

Of course, at some point in the future it all could end up in a yard sale of our own, on a table filled with other bric-a-brac.    

A Summer Like No Other

Today is, officially, the last full day of summer.  Tomorrow morning at 9:30 or so the autumnal equinox arrives.  In Stonington, it feels like the northern hemisphere has been moving speedily away from the sun for some time now.  As I write this the temperature outside is a bracing 39 degrees, and you can definitely get a heady whiff of winter in the sharp breeze.

It’s been a unique summer in Stonington, as it has been across the country.  The statue of the stonecutter downtown has been masked up for months, and so were most of the people around town.  Here, like everywhere else, things that used to be strange and different have become second nature — like donning a mask before entering a building, working remotely with your office in a laptop, or automatically veering off to the other side of the street to keep that social distance from approaching pedestrians.   

Some businesses opened, some didn’t, and some found new ways to operate while scrupulously obeying the coronavirus rules.  The restaurants that opened seemed to start slow but gather momentum, and our guess is that grateful patrons will feel a long-term loyalty to the places that figured out a way to safely serve food to customers who just had to get out of their houses during a pandemic.  The shops in town all stayed open through the season and seemed to do a reasonably good trade, and while the Opera House was closed in 2020 it decided to offer drive-in movies on a big screen set up at the old ballfield and experienced a string of sell-outs.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the summer drive-ins become a permanent part of the Stonington arts calendar.

Of course, it wasn’t like a normal summer, and a lot of the things that we enjoyed in the past — like live musical performances at some of the venues around town, and the end of summer Labor Day party in our neighborhood — just didn’t happen this year, for totally understandable reasons.  But with summer now ending, the key point seems to be that the town and its businesses made it through, and will still be here next year.  That’s not true elsewhere, as thousands of American restaurants and shops and other small businesses closed their doors for good.  We’re grateful that our favorite places dodged that bullet.

The summer of 2020 truly has been a summer like no other.  We’re not sorry to see it ending, but it’s safe to say we won’t forget it.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XXXIX)

I can’t even remember the last time I had lunch at a food truck.  It’s been at least the six months of COVIDmania, for certain, and given that winter isn’t prime food truck territory, it was probably a good six months before that.  So when we saw that a food truck was going to be parking at Billings Marine, the boatyard in our neighborhood, going there to have a food truck lunch was an easy call.  I didn’t even care what kind of food the truck was offering–just the chance to get something hot and eat it outside, in a different setting, was irresistible.

So yesterday we hoofed it over to Billings during the lunch hour and took stock of Gott Lunch?, a truck that serves breakfast and lunch and is going to be camped at the boatyard from 9-4 every day.  Gott Lunch? offers a delectable array of hot sandwiches, all of which are served on toasted bread.  Everything on the menu looked good, so choosing a sandwich was tough, but after careful deliberation lasting about three milliseconds I went for a Philly steak melt with some mac ‘n cheese on the side.  The sandwich was great, and what really put it into awesome territory was the bread–a dense, crunchy multigrain that was loaded with flavor.  Put some grilled steak, melted cheese, and grilled onions on that toasted bread, let the melted cheese and grilled steak juice sink into the nooks and crannies of the toasted slices, add a few forkfuls of mac and swigs of cold water, and gobble it all down outdoors, and you’ve got a lunch to savor.   

We’ve all been good about accepting the reality of the coronavirus and modifying our behavior to responsibly account for the risks posed by a global pandemic, and our family has been no exception.  And that was one of the things that made our visit to Gott Lunch? so special.  Having lunch at a food truck was a highlight, because even though the food was terrific, what we really got to taste was a tiny bite of normalcy.

Virtual Everything

Last night we had a special treat:  listening to the opening program of the 110th season of the Austin Symphony Orchestra.  It was a wonderful performance that kicked off with Handel’s The Music for the Royal Fireworks–featuring our favorite Principal Oboist playing my favorite genre of classical music, baroque–followed by Benjamin Britten’s Les illuminations, and closing with Aaron Copland’s beautiful Appalachian Spring.

It was an excellent program — but like pretty much everything else these days, it was of course strictly a virtual experience. The performances were videotaped and recorded, and we watched and listened to them on a laptop.  It was clear that the orchestra had taken great care to avoid any potential pandemic transmission problems, including having the conductor and all string players wear masks, and separating the horn and wind players from each other by plastic dividers.  And Mela Dailey, the soprano who sang brilliantly as the centerpiece of the Britten work, wore a contraption that looked a lot like a beekeeper’s headpiece.  Amazingly, the device did not seem to interfere with her dynamic voice, so a tip of the cap to whoever has spent the last few months designing COVID-safe devices for classical music singers.

Of course, a virtual performance is lacking one thing that is an important part of the live music experience:  the audience.  There’s a definite energy generated by a concert crowd, whether it is the subdued, pre-performance murmurs, the immediate hush when the conductor enters, the thunderous applause and shouts when each piece concludes, or the standing ovation at the end of the program.  I’m sure the performers miss that energy.  The ASO tried to emulate a live performance by having an intermission, but that’s difficult to recreate virtually, too, because during intermission the crowd is the performer–filing out, getting a drink, and talking excitedly about the first part of the performance.  Last night the ASO tried to fill the intermission void with recorded performances by the principal harpist and the principal tubist.

So we’ve now had our first virtual concert.  It wasn’t the same as attending a live performance, obviously, but it was nevertheless hugely enjoyable to listen to some beautiful music and support one of America’s many deserving cultural and arts organizations, all of which have been hit very hard by the pandemic and need the support.  A virtual performance may not be quite as terrific as the real thing, but virtual music is better than none at all.

Masked Messaging

Now that it looks like masks are going to be with us for a while, we can expect to see a trend away from those blue-and-white paper masks and homemade cloth masks to more high-end masks with special messages or corporate branding. The process is already starting, as shown by this mask that is for sale at one of the downtown Stonington shops.

Will masks with the Starbucks logo, for example, become as much a part of the Starbucks employee “uniform” as the barista’s apron? Will the political types among us use masks to alert us to their voting preferences? And will matching masks be offered as part of the complete ensemble at women’s fashion websites? How long will it be before mask ads become a familiar part of the Facebook experience?

The American economy tends to move pretty quickly on this stuff when there is money to be made, and American consumers will lead the way. Before we know it, masks will be just another part of keeping up with the Joneses.

The New Litter Gross-Out

I can’t stand litter of any kind.  Back in the pre-coronavirus days, I would regularly pick up the litter found around the perimeter of Schiller Park and fume inwardly at the jerks who deposited the litter in the first place.  Of course, the emergence of a global pandemic with multiple pathways for transmission made the litter pick-up approach especially ill-advised, so I stopped.

But now a new, and in my view especially gross, form of litter has emerged:  coronavirus masks.  It seems like you see them everywhere, and I find myself wondering why.  Are people wearing masks for a time, then casually tossing them by the side of the road because they used them for one wearing and feel like disposing of them properly is risky?  Or are masks just another form of debris, like soda cans or fast-food wrappers, to the litter-bugs among us?  It certainly doesn’t seem like the number of masks you see could be the product of, say, masks inadvertently falling out of someone’s pocket.

I applaud the use of masks as a sound public health measure, and I am happy to see that more and more people are accepting masks as part of reality of life during a grinding pandemic and wearing them in appropriate settings.  But mask responsibility has to extend beyond simply wearing the mask to include proper disposal, too.  It’s disgusting to see mask litter, and the people who are doing that littering aren’t holding up their end of the societal bargain.  Somebody else is going to have to go around and pick up those dirty masks that have been in touch with some unknown person’s mouth and nose.  It’s not only gross, incredibly jerky behavior, it makes any kind of contract tracing impossible.

So to the mask litterers out there, I say thanks for wearing a mask, but please — keep track of it and discard it properly, will you? 

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.

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.