We’ve got a set of four white food containers, of varying sizes, on our kitchen counter. You could arrange them in varying ways — largest to smallest, smallest to largest, or at random, or you could even split up the set and put different containers in different locations on the countertop — but I prefer the containers grouped together in the largest to smallest set-up, going from left to right.
I like the sense of proportion that is presented when the containers are in the right order. In fact, I like is so much that I will make little adjustments to the arrangement if one container gets out of line, or the spaces between the containers varies too much. I prefer it when like things are arranged in logical, orderly fashion, and it bugs me when they aren’t.
I recognize that this makes it sound like I am fussy about certain things, but I’m not sure that fussy is quite the right word. I prefer to think, instead, that I just appreciate balance and symmetry. With objects on a kitchen counter, balance and symmetry can be achievable. With life in general and the world at large, it’s harder.
Well, at certain points we thought it would never get here, but it did. The end of 2020 is staring us in the face. I’m fairly confident that, during my lifetime at least, no end of the year has ever been as eagerly anticipated as the end of 2020.
And, along the same lines, it’s safe to say that no new year is ever going to look better by comparison to the year just ended, and get more of the benefit of the doubt, than 2021. 2021 is like the proverbial second-string quarterback who suddenly becomes the fan favorite as the starting quarterback struggles and finally gets benched.
I’m a firm believer in using the end of the year period, when things typically slow down for everyone and holiday time arrives, to do some reflection on the year gone by and some thinking about the year ahead. Just because 2020 has been dismal doesn’t mean it should be promptly thrown down the memory hole, never to be thought of again. Those of us who made it through the year have reason to feel that our mere survival, with health and sanity intact, is a meaningful achievement. And many people used the shutdown periods to develop new hobbies or interests, to read more, to focus on cooking, or to volunteer to help out front-line health care workers. And even those of us who didn’t become fluent in a new language probably acquired a useful perspective on what is really important in our lives.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m as glad as anyone to turn the page on the calendar and see luckless 2020 in the rearview mirror, and I’m obviously hoping that 2021 will be the year that sees things return to what we used to call normal. But as I consider 2020, there are some things that I will want to remember, and hopefully build upon. It’s been a year that we all won’t soon forget, but it’s important to remember the positives as well as the negatives.
Yesterday I went to the office. As I prepared to cross Livingston Avenue, which is the boundary between German Village and downtown Columbus, I realized with a start how rare it is for me to leave our neighborhood these days. The sad reality is that my personal world has become awfully small.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, I traveled regularly to different cities for business and recreation, stayed in hotels and cared about the points I was racking up on my different hotel rewards programs, and walked through airports without a second thought, trying to figure out the most healthy eating options on Concourse A. We entertained friends and family and were entertained by friends and family and went to their houses or met them at restaurants and talked about whatever. We enjoyed dinners at different eateries, and went to movies and live musical performances. On weekdays, I walked downtown to the office, checked out what was going on in the downtown area, talked to people in the hallways and elevators, and typically ate lunch at different places with friends from work.
None of that happens anymore. All of that interaction, that getting out and about, is pretty much gone. We drove to and from Maine this year, but that’s been it on the travel front. I worked at the dining room table and the kitchen table of our place in Maine and rarely left Little Deer Isle, just as I spend most of my days at our kitchen island or at the dining room table in our German Village home. If you graphed the amount of time I’ve spent sitting at the kitchen island over time, you’d see the biggest, most abrupt upward spike imaginable.
I’m not complaining about this — it’s just the reality of the current circumstances, and there’s no point in complaining about reality. But the way my personal world has narrowed is pretty remarkable. I’m ready to get out there and start experiencing different things and different places again and enjoying some of the mental stimulation that accompanies it. And I’ve decided I’m going to start going to the office from time to time, just to broaden my horizons even a little bit.
This month marked the 80th birthday of John Lennon. The founder and one of the cornerstones of the Beatles, and the writer of so many great songs as part of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo, was born on October 9, 1940. He’s been gone for 40 years, after being shot on the streets of New York City by a disturbed person, but for many of us the loss of this special man is still fresh, and stinging.
I’ve written about the death of John Lennon before, from the standpoint of a creative life interrupted, to question whether his killer should ever be paroled. I still have that question, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come for focus more on being grateful for the fact that Lennon lived at all, and made the contributions to my life that he did. So many of the tunes from the Beatles songbook and Lennon’s post-Beatles work are lodged in my head, and come naturally to mind at specific times. I feel especially tired, and the first few notes from the lone guitar that begins I’m So Tired from the White Album come unbidden from the memory banks, and I start singing the words. Who hasn’t thought of the song Rain on a rainy day? Who hasn’t thought of the song Help! during a difficult period? Who hasn’t been to a wedding reception that started slow — until the DJ played the Beatles’ definitive rendition of Shout, knowing that John Lennon’s screamed vocals and the chunky guitar chords and the ashcan drumming would be absolutely certain to get everyone with a pulse out on the dance floor and singing the words?
I’m sad that John Lennon was murdered, and am curious about what this witty, creative, interesting observer of life would be saying about our weird modern world had he had only had the chance to experience it. I wonder about what he would have done during his second 40 years — but am so glad that he had those first 40 years, for the musical and emotional contribution those 40 years have made, and continue to make, to my life. Happy 80th birthday, John Lennon, and thank you!
So much of what goes on in the world these days is vast and sweeping and far beyond the capability of normal people to control. It can make people feel overwhelmed and helpless.
That’s why I think it’s important for us to step back and focus on the small stuff. We may not be able to determine when the coronavirus pandemic will end, but there are bound to be little things that we can change to make our lives incrementally better. If we focus on those little adjustments, we can accomplish something that we can feel good about.
Here’s an example of what I mean. We use a Roku device to get access to Netflix and Amazon and other streaming services. It worked like a charm . . . until one day a service called Crackle appeared on the Roku menu and immediately made using Roku an unpleasant annoyance. Ever time we tried to access Netflix or one of the other services, we’d hear a “bee doop” sound and the screen would take us to Crackle —which we didn’t want and will never, ever want. Whether by glitch or design, we were unwillingly routed to Crackle multiple times every time we tried to use Roku. It made what was supposed to be the pleasant diversion of watching TV into a frustrating exercise in high blood pressure irritation.
This week I decided to take action. I actually watched a Roku tutorial to see how to delete a channel, followed the instructions, and successfully deleted Crackle. Obviously, I should have done that long ago. But last night, we were able to use Roku and watch shows without seeing the hated Crackle logo or feeling the blood pressure soar. It made for a very pleasant evening.
It’s a small victory, but I’ll savor it nevertheless. And I’ll be on the lookout for more of that small stuff to change.
One of the many cool things about Stonington is the presence of handmade signs—like these two carefully carved signs identifying Ocean Drive.
Why are there two virtually identical road signs, right on top of each other? Beats me! It’s just part of the charm of the place.
Many of the signs around town are hand-lettered and often involve artwork for some added panache. Lobsters are popular accents for signs, for example. I think some of the business owners feel that hand-lettered signs are a personal touch that says more about their business than a commercially produced sign. And the signs around town aren’t limited to commercial establishments, either. Some houses have joined in the hand-lettering parade and put up their own signs. Sometimes the yard signs are political, sometimes they are more personal — like asking dog walkers to please not let their dogs off the leash.
I find the personal signs to be affirming. You wouldn’t make a sign unless you believed it will have an impact. In a town where people do a lot of walking, it’s nice to know that neighbors believe that passersby will read their signs and at least acknowledge — if not agree with — them.
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.
This part of Maine is blessed with some fine hiking trails, and thanks to the Island Heritage Trust, Deer Isle has more than its share. A good hiking trail is a great place to rediscover the simple pleasure of a walk in the woods, and reengage with that inner child who has been buried under decades of life and countless layers of adult obligations. You can’t help but feel a bit like a kid again when you balance on some two-by-fours laid over the boggy areas or are tempted to skip a stone on the still waters of a pond.
It’s been a busy summer for us, and the occasional hikes have been an effective and much appreciated stress relief mechanism. As the summer draws to a close, we always regret that we didn’t take a few more, and vow that next summer we won’t make the same mistake.
I woke up at about 4 a.m. this morning, which is earlier than normal. I tried to go back to sleep, hoping for another hour or so of shut-eye, but after tossing and turning for 15 minutes and realizing I was wide awake, I decided to yield to the inevitable, get up, and enjoy the quiet of the morning.
I like sleep as much as the next person, but I also don’t really mind those days when absolute wakefulness comes early. Mornings are definitely a special time here. It is so quiet that your ears almost begin to ache as they search for any hint of a sound, and the thrum of a car on a distant street heading toward the harbor, or the cawing of a crow in one of the neighborhood trees, seems almost deafening. The headlights of pick up trucks turning onto the road toward Greenhead Lobster flitter briefly across the walls, and there is a faint taste of salt in the pre-dawn air. After last night’s rain, the sky was clear as crystal, with the morning constellations at first standing out brightly against the broad sweep of the Milky Way, and then hanging on to the west before being overwhelmed as the first glimmers of daylight emerge to the east and the dim outlines of the rocks below our deck start to emerge from the nighttime gloom.
Mornings are a good time to stand outside and enjoy the silence and then to putter about, straighten things up, put the dishes away, turn to some random Mozart on the Idagio app, and enjoy that first steaming cup of coffee and the coolness of the air. On mornings like this you need to relish the moment and let all of the senses run free. I’ll be more tired than normal tonight, for sure, but for now I will enjoy the quiet of the morning.
A heavy fog moved ashore last night, leaving the world mist-shrouded and opaque for my walk this morning. As I walked down Main Street toward the center of town, this scene seemed hauntingly familiar. It reminded me of a vista from a dream, where everything lacks sharp edges and seems somehow unfinished.
My theory about dreams is straightforward: while your conscious brain is sleeping, your subconscious brain is still at work, sifting through what you’ve read or heard or seen or otherwise experienced recently and trying to organize it into some kind of story — because our brains crave order and are hard-wired to try to put things into patterns. Dreams are strange and disconnected because it’s hard to turn random incidents into a coherent story, but the subconscious brain does its best.
I think the operative plot elements of your dreams all come from the recent brain input, but ancillary characters, background settings, and other details that fill in the inevitable, yawning gaps in the story line are drawn from your vast repository of memories. That’s why you might see a former work colleague who has been dead for years suddenly turn up, sharply etched from memory, as the boatyard attendant in a dream that involves some weird effort to take a boat to meet a friend. And because the settings seem to be based on decades of collective memories, they tend to involve, in some murky, dream-like sense, the world of the past.
That’s why it’s interesting to me that, four months after the coronavirus hit and the world tilted on its axis, I’m starting to have dreams that have some kind of COVID-19 element. Last night I had a dream in which one of the people in the background was wearing a blue paper coronavirus mask — certainly something that would not have been part of any dream I would have before March 2020 — and I’ve also had a dream where my dream self was troubled to see that there were discarded coronavirus masks on a roadway as I walked past.
So far, at least, I haven’t had any coronavirus embarrassment or anxiety-type dreams, where I’ve humiliatingly shown up for some important event without a mask, or in my dream I’m horribly late for something because I stupidly put off getting a mask and now I can’t find one anywhere. I imagine it’s just a matter of time before those kinds of dreams get worked into the nightly mix.
And that’s probably the most disturbing part of all of this. The coronavirus period has gone on long enough to work its way into our subconscious brains. If, like me, you still have dreams from time to time about missing an important exam — decades after your last exam ever occurred — you have to wonder: are we going to be haunted by periodic COVID-19 dreams for the rest of our lives? We may sincerely hope that a successful vaccine is developed, “herd immunity” is achieved, and the world returns to “normal” — but come night-time our subconscious brains may continue to give us a dose of the topsy-turvy coronavirus world of 2020 whether we like it or not.
For years, my daily routine when I’m at home has been unvarying: when I get up in the morning, I take a brisk walk, on the same route, in the same direction, to get the blood pumping and the brain engaged. I did it rain or shine, hot or cold, without exceptions, with no ifs, ands, or buts.
When we lived in New Albany, my route took my around the Yantis Loop. When we moved to German Village, my course changed to circumnavigation of Schiller Park. But in either case, the early morning walk was a key component of the day, mixing inner compulsion, simple enjoyment, and a desire to be sure to get some exercise before plopping myself down behind my desk.
I would call my morning walk routine a “habit.”
But when we came to Maine recently and had to self-quarantine on the footprint of our cottage for two weeks, I was unable to take my morning walk. The first few days I got up early anyway, but in short order I realized that I there was no need to do so because I couldn’t take my walk, so I might as well roll over in bed and sleep a little longer. And that turned out to be pretty enjoyable, actually.
By the time the 14 days was over, I found that my routine had been shattered. On the first day after the quarantine ended, I took my walk, but on the second day it rained, and I decided I should just stay home, without really giving it much thought. But when I did think about it, I thought: “What the hell?”
So clearly, my long-standing habit has been broken to pieces and needs to be reestablished. I thought the saying was, “old habits die hard,” but that turns out to be totally wrong. Maybe it should be, “good habits die easily.”
We took a long drive this week. It was our first extended road trip in a while, but it also was interesting in other ways as well. In fact, I would say it was one of the more memorable drives I’ve ever taken.
It’s as if the country is reawakening from a long sleep. Some people are up and wide awake, some are groggy from the long slumber, and some are still snoring. As a result, the roads weren’t nearly as busy as you would normally expect on the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend. In the early morning hours in Ohio, we saw lots of trucks on the road — a good sign, incidentally, for a resurgence in the nation’s economy — but virtually no cars. By mid-morning, as we rolled through northern Pennsylvania on I-80, the trucks still dominated the road and cars remained few and far between. The traffic picked up as we skirted New York City and Boston, but we didn’t hit any stoppages, even with lots of road construction. As a result, we made excellent time.
But the lack of traffic wasn’t the only reminder of the coronavirus. As has now become the norm, for me at least, once you are out of your personal space you become acutely conscious of every common surface you touch. Refueling means touching buttons on the gas pump and holding the nozzle. You don your mask as you enter gas stations — some stations have signs saying that masks are mandatory — and think about the safest way to open the bathroom door, flip up the toilet seat, and flush the commode if you need to use the facilities. (Your prim and proper grandmother was never more worried about the cleanliness of rest stops than you are right now.) At one stop, as I stood masked and trying to do my 20 seconds of vigorous, soapy hand-washing, a trucker stood next to me and brushed his teeth, which was a bit unnerving.
You put your mask on, again, as you pay at toll booths, which is probably the best argument ever for getting EZ Pass and just rolling on through. Every toll booth worker was wearing masks and gloves, and at the I-84 toll booth in New York City the attendant applied some kind of disinfectant to the dollar that I handed her. It makes me wonder if COVID-19 will drive another nail in the coffin of cash and spur faster adoption of contactless payment card technology. For that matter, it makes me wonder if toll booths where you can actually use the nation’s currency also aren’t going to be around for long.
In all, a very memorable trip. The coronavirus continues to affect just about everything.
I realized the other day, as I was checking my messages while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, that my iPhone facial recognition software doesn’t work when I’m wearing one of my coronavirus masks. Like a character in a Lone Ranger TV show, the phone was left dumbfounded and asking: “Who was that masked man?”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The mask covers a significant portion of your face, including some noteworthy recognition-triggering features — namely, your nose and your mouth. Our identification of a person’s face is based on the eyes, nose, and mouth working in combination, and the masks are covering up two of those three features. We’ve been trained since birth to pay careful attention to the facial features of the people we talk to and notice any changes. And think about how much attention you pay to the mouth, in particular, as you interact with people. Are they smiling? Frowning? Grimacing? Does the combination of the mouth and eyes indicate that they’re angry?
I thought about the blocking effect of the mask when I went to get a haircut yesterday. Both my stylist and I were masked — of course — after I had gone through a doorway vetting procedure that included having my temperature taken and answering some COVID-19 exposure questions. As we talked during the happy haircut, she mentioned that she was trying to be more expressive with her eyes, because people couldn’t tell whether she was smiling or not. It was true, and I realized that she also couldn’t see my smile. After that, I tried to be more expressive with my eyes and eyebrows, but the eyebrows especially are not designed for nuanced non-verbal cues. You’ve got knitted eyebrows, and raised eyebrows, and that’s about it. Trying to communicate much with your eyebrows is like mugging for a camera.
Masks definitely change things, but we’re just going to have to get used to them because they are going to be a requirement for a while. I’m going to have to work on adding some additional, unmistakable eye and eyebrow communication techniques to my facial repertoire.
And I guess Apple is going to need to come up with a masked and an unmasked version of the facial recognition software.
I flew to New York City on February 19, 2020 on a business trip that would be just like a hundred business trips to Manhattan that I’ve taken before. My flight arrived at a packed LaGuardia Airport, and I steered my roller bag through concourse traffic, trying to navigate past the slow movers and the gawkers. I used the bathroom at the terminal, standing shoulder to shoulder with other random travelers needing to answer nature’s call, washed my hands without thinking about whether I was spending 20 seconds on that task, then moved with the flow of travelers down to the baggage claim level and outside the terminal.
I stood in line at the taxi stand with perhaps 25 other people patiently waiting to get a ride into the City. I took the cab that was next in line when my turn came, without giving a second thought to who might have sat in the passenger seat before me, or when the cab was last cleaned. I arrived at my hotel, located about a block from Times Square, and waited in the crowded lobby to check in. Because it was a nice night and I wanted to get some exercise before dinner, I walked over to Times Square, stood among hundreds of other residents and visitors moving through that NYC landmark, and took this picture of the heroic George M. Cohan statue in the middle of the Square like a true tourist. I then walked around the area, thinking about how hard it is to take an enjoyable walk in New York City because of the crowded sidewalks. I even wrote a blog post about it the next day.
I ate at a random restaurant suggested by the hotel concierge, without thinking about how close the other patrons were, or noticing whether they were sneezing, coughing, or having trouble breathing. I slept in my hotel room, made coffee the next morning using the coffeemaker in the room, plugged my computer cord and smartphone cord into the outlets, then spent the whole day in a conference room that was full to the brim with about 20 people sitting right next to each other. We all got coffee from a shared coffee urn and poured cream from a common cream container. At lunch we got sandwiches and cookies from a common tray. At the end of the day I took another cab back to the airport, stood in the TSA pre-check line with other passengers breathing in that LaGuardia terminal indoor air, and then navigated through the crush to get to my gate.
I was aware of the coronavirus at that point, but the only time I thought about it during the whole trip was at the gate, when I sat in one of the common seats in the gate area and wondered about the people who had sat in the seat that day, and where they might have been traveling from. But it was a fleeting thought that passed by, and I then concentrated on checking and answering the emails that had stacked up during the day. My flight was called, I stood in line to board with my group, and then sat in close proximity to other weary travelers on the 90-minute flight home. To my knowledge, no one on the flight was wearing a mask.
As I sit and think about what was a pretty routine, uneventful trip to Manhattan only two and a half months ago, it seems like a totally different world. I don’t know if or when I’ll take another business trip to New York City, but I can be sure of one thing — it won’t happen with the kind of carefree nonchalance that I felt, without thinking about it, on that last trip, or during the hundred or so trips that preceded it.