When Betty and I took our walk this morning we passed the Island Ad-Vantages building, which has a new paint job. It a pretty bold color scheme—which means it fits right in.
One of the things I like about Stonington is that people aren’t afraid to use bright paint on their houses. That is true in many seaside communities. To be sure, there are many houses that are white or coastal gray, but there also are vibrant yellows, blues, reds, and greens. It makes for a very pleasing palette. It also says “vacation.”
The new shades on the Island Ad-Vantages offices just add more hues to our multi-colored Stonington rainbow.
We’re up in Stonington this weekend to do so spring clean-up and planting. It is still very cool up here—the high today will be around 50—but it’s sunny and the weather app indicates that the below freezing temperatures are behind us.
This morning I took Betty for a walk and, as we ambled down the aptly named Sea Breeze Street I caught my first whiff of salt air. Its invigorating tang quickened my step, and when we reached the small harbor next to the mail boat dock, the sunlight was dazzling on the water. We completed the walk by trudging up Granite Street, looping back through town, then heading up the Pink Street walkway. When we crested the hill on Highland Avenue, we were rewarded with a bird’s eye view of the lobster boats in the harbor and the islands beyond.
It’s nice to be back on the coast, even if only for a short while.
I’m on the road this morning, with very early flights. Being the prototypical Uptight Traveler, I got to Columbus’ John Glenn International Airport early to make sure there were no snags, which meant I encountered a gleamingly clean and mostly vacant terminal when I headed to my gate. (And, for those who make fun of my U.T. tendencies, I should note that there were long lines to check in bags at many of the airline counters when I arrived, so I am firm in my view that getting to the airport early remains a good option.)
This is the first flight I’ve taken since the mask mandate was lifted and masks became optional. Some travelers are wearing masks, but the vast majority are unmasked. I’d say the ratio of unmasked to masked is about 9 to 1. It’s kind of weird to be in a mostly unmasked airport after two years of pandemic-fueled masking. It makes the two-year masking period seem like a strange, unsettling dream.
The Biden Administration is weighing a tough decision: whether to appeal the federal court decision striking down the mask mandate the federal government imposed on air and train travelers during the COVID pandemic. It’s a very tough decision on both legal and political grounds.
The legal and political stakes in the decision on a potential appeal are high. Legally, the issue is whether the federal government wants to take the risk that a higher court will agree with the district court judge and establish a firmer precedent that the CDC doesn’t have the kind of sweeping power it has exercised over the past two years. Some people describe the district court decision as a poorly reasoned “legal disaster,” while others contend it is a reasonable interpretation of statutory text that simply was not intended to authorize an administrative agency to unilaterally impose nationwide mask mandates. Regardless of how you come out on that issue, for now the decision is simply the opinion of a single district court judge. If an appeal occurs, the federal government runs the risk of an adverse decision by a federal court of appeals and, potentially, the Supreme Court–raising the possibility that, if the nation’s highest court agrees with the federal district court judge in this case, the CDC’s ability to issue future public health mandates could be eliminated, unless and until Congress decides to amend the statute to clarify what is permitted.
It would be interesting to know whether, behind the scenes, the Biden Administration is encouraging the CDC to move in one direction or another. It’s hard for politicians to restrain themselves from politicking. We’ll never know for sure, because if that information came out it would undercut the depiction of the CDC as the neutral, objective, apolitical entity that is focused solely on scientific and medical evidence and the public health.
Whenever I come to Washington, D.C. I try to pay a visit to the monuments on the National Mall to see some old favorites and check out the new additions. On this visit, I was interested in seeing the Martin Luther King memorial. Yesterday morning provided the perfect opportunity to satisfy that urge and, in the process, replenish some good feelings about the country. I headed out from my hotel at 19th and L, walked down to the Mall, and turned right. I was not alone. It was a brisk, partly cloudy day, and a lot of people were out.
I noticed there were many people in wheelchairs out on the walkways and realized that they were an “Honor Flight” group of Vietnam veterans who were heading to the Vietnam War memorial–better known as the Wall, because it is a sunken wall engraved with every name of an American killed in action. I decided to tag along, and I’m glad I did. As I walked over I overheard the veterans sharing their memories with their children, wives, and friends. When we reached the Wall itself it was enormously moving to see these seniors rise from their wheelchairs, search for the names of lost comrades, and give a salute or shed a tear in tribute.
The Vietnam vets weren’t the only people at the Wall. A number of kids were making rubbings of names, and of course people were leaving flowers, photographs, handwritten tributes, and “thank you” notes at the base of the wall, under the engraved names of loved ones who had fallen.
The Wall is a pretty intense experience on any visit, because the sheer weight of all of those names makes a powerful impression, and the personal mementos left at the base of the wall drive home the humanity of each one of the lives that were lost. Add in a group of veterans who have come to search for the names of long-lost buddies, and you’ve got a gut punch reminder of the cost of war.
It’s interesting to recall that when the commission that decided on the design of the Vietnam War memorial chose the Wall, it was highly controversial. Some people felt it wasn’t sufficiently heroic and was too dark and unsettling. How wrong they were! The Wall has a visceral emotional impact that can’t help but make visitors reflect on the war and the men and women who served in it. What more can you ask of a memorial?
From the Vietnam War memorial I walked over to the Lincoln Memorial, my favorite monument. It remains an awesome experience. There were lots of people there, taking photos. If you visit the Lincoln Memorial, you’ve got to expect to inadvertently appear in dozens of selfies as you walk around. It’s also interesting to hear the different languages spoken by the visitors. It’s clear that Abraham Lincoln is still a historical figure who is of interest not only to Americans, but to people across the world.
Whenever I visit the Lincoln Memorial I like to try to find a quiet spot where I can stand an get an unobstructed view of the seated Lincoln statue and then read the speeches–the Gettysburg Address on one side, and the Second Inaugural Address on the other–without being disturbed. Given the crowds in the Memorial, this isn’t easy, but if you walk close enough to the statue you’re out of the selfie zone, because it’s too close to get the whole statue in the frame, and you can reflect on what Lincoln somehow accomplished.
You can get a good position to read the speeches if you stand directly behind one of the interior pillars in the Memorial. I took this picture of the carved words of the Gettysburg Address, marveling once again that the most famous speech in American history can be recorded on one wall and read in only a few moments. But even now, more than 150 years later, the stirring words, and the concepts they so perfectly captured, still have the ability to grab you. Lincoln was a great writer who managed to convey more in a few words than other politicians can express in dozens of pages.
When I left the the Lincoln Memorial the crowds were out, taking in the view of the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol in the far distance. I turned right to walk over to the Martin Luther King Memorial, which is across Independence Avenue.
The entrance to the King Memorial is striking. Visitors walk through a rock formation that has been cleaved in two, with a view of the Tidal Basin through the opening. The massive statute of Dr. King appears on the other side of the missing piece of the rock formation, as if he has moved the mountain toward the water, and the theme of the memorial, written on the side of the stone bearing the likeness of Dr. King, is “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope.”
The statue of Dr. King is colossal and depicts him, speech in hand, gazing thoughtfully into the distance. The Memorial also features statements by Dr. King carved into a low wall that rings the statue, and the combination of the statue and Dr. King’s writings and speeches have an undeniable impact. When you stand by the statue of Dr. King, you notice that the Memorial location affords a fine view of the Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin, shown below. Interestingly, Dr. King’s statute doesn’t appear to be looking directly at the Jefferson Memorial, but at an angle to the side. I expect that was intentional.
As I exited the grounds of the Martin Luther King Memorial I turned right and walked up the Mall, past the Smithsonian Institution museums and National Gallery of Art, to the Capitol. A parade was going down Constitution Avenue, and the atmosphere was loud and boisterous. When I reached the Capitol I took in the dome and classical lines of the building, as I always do, and thought about the contrast between the graceful beauty and power and grandeur of the building and the petty politics of its occupants. I found myself wishing that our current political class had more of the spirit of Dr. King, President Lincoln, and those Vietnam War soldiers–all of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
Staying at a new hotel often can give you a glimpse into the future. If the hotel has recently been constructed or refurbished, the rooms are likely to involve new design configurations, furnishings, fixtures, and space-saving approaches that look to summon the future rather than reflect the past.
I’m staying in a new hotel in Washington, D.C., and the future here looks . . . well, square. Everything in my room is very angular and cornered, from the desk, chairs, and lamps, to the bed frame and, finally, to the bathroom sink and toilet. In my room, the hotel vision of the future involves a lot of right angles and sharp edges.
I was especially intrigued by the square commode, pictured above, that thoughtfully includes both right- and left-handed toilet paper dispensers. After decades of using standard toilets and training new generations of humans in their operation, can square toilets be in our future? Fortunately, this one works like the others. The only real difference is that the square design provides a lot more of a seating area.
Yesterday I conducted a random, admittedly somewhat anal check to make sure that I knew where our passports were. I flipped mine open and looked at the passport photo and shook my head. Between the fact that I wasn’t permitted to wear my glasses and the fact that the photo taker instructed me not to smile, the passport photo doesn’t look much like me–in my humble opinion, at least. The same is true of my Ohio driver’s license photo, where the employee at the deputy registrar’s location told me sternly that no smiling was permitted.
So, what’s a “natural, unexaggerated smile,” which is not a phrase I’m familiar with? The sample photos on the State Department webpage show people with no more than a hint of a smile–and no exposed teeth. Far from looking “natural,” they look like the kind of forced expressions you might see from somebody who really doesn’t want to get their picture taken but knows they have to, anyway. The passport photos you see therefore don’t exactly show people who look very happy about the fact that they are taking a trip overseas.
Why the encouragement of deadpan expressions? Since the whole point of identification documents is to allow the government to identify you, facial expressions that can interfere with identification–either by an immigration officer or a scanning computer–are frowned upon. (Pun intended.) Toothy grins that cause crinkles in your eyes and changes to other facial features fall squarely into that category. (In the case of driver’s license photos, one website advises: “It is best to simply wear a friendly expression, the same one you would be wearing if you were pulled over.” Yikes! That advice, if faithfully followed, is sure to wipe any happy expression from your face.)
The upshot is that passport and driver’s license photos show a deadpan America that is inconsistent with daily reality. If you saw such expressions on the faces of everyone you encountered, you’d question whether the general population has been replaced by pod people–but at least the computers would be happy.
Sunday night we took a Southwest flight from Naples to Columbus. The flight left and arrived on time, and the flight attendants were friendly and professional. Nevertheless, the flight was unpleasant. Why? Our fellow passengers.
The first irksome occurrence happened during boarding. We were in the “C” group, so we accepted that we wouldn’t be able to sit together. We found overhead bin space for our bags, and Kish grabbed a seat. I then encountered an increasing problem on Southwest flights: “saved” seats. A hat or a handbag is placed on a middle seat in the front of the plane, you ask if the seat is available, and occupants of the other seats explain that they are “saving” the seat for a friend who has a lower boarding number. It’s as if you’re back on a school bus during a field trip. There were four or five “saved” seats in the front half of the plane before I finally found an open seat. (The flight also featured a variant of the “saved” seat–a seat occupied by an overweight guy sitting in the aisle seat who was sprawled out into the middle seat area, sending an unmistakable message that he would intrude into your personal space without a second thought and causing any rational person to pass the seat by without an inquiry.)
The “saved seat” phenomenon is such a common problem on Southwest flights that it’s a topic for discussion on the Southwest on-line discussion forum. One writer suggests simply picking up the item on the seat and sitting there anyway, or calling a flight attendant over to intervene. I wouldn’t do that, because you’re just causing discord with a fellow passenger who is going to be sitting next to you for the next three hours. I’d like to think that people realize that “seat saving” is unmannerly behavior on an open-boarding plane flight, and at minimum will just head to the back of the plane to try to save a seat, rather than trying to save one at the front of the plane. Obviously, I’m wrong on that.
When I finally found a seat that wasn’t “saved” and sat down, more unpleasantness lay ahead. First, the guy sitting next to me, who was well into middle age, took his shoes and socks off and then crossed his legs so that his bare foot was positioned inches from my left hand. Can there really be people out there who think it is okay to go barefoot on a plane? Later in the flight I dozed off, and when I awoke I saw that Shoeless Joe had put his drink on the left corner of my tray table to allow himself more space to work on his computer. When he saw I was awake he explained why he had done it, and I said “no problem,” thinking it would be a decent gesture on my part and he would polish off his drink quickly. Instead, he took tiny sips of his diet Coke and left the drink on the left corner of my tray table for virtually the entire flight, including when we encountered some turbulence and I began wondering if he realized he was putting me at risk if a spill occurred. And the kicker–literally–was that a child was seated behind me and periodically kicked at the back of my chair, without her parent doing anything to stop it.
I didn’t say anything or do anything about any of these issues. It seems pointless and risky to get into disputes with total strangers in an enclosed space 30,000 feet in the air or to try to correct the behavior of someone who is apparently heedless of the concept of personal space or the intrinsic rudeness of a bare foot on an airline flight. But our flight also made us wonder about the whole concept of travel as a fun leisure activity. When you’re packed like sardines into a plane, part of the social compact is that your fellow passengers will behave politely and reasonably. When they don’t, the whole travel experience turns sour.
Yesterday we went to the Baker Museum in Naples to check out an exhibit of New York Yankees memorabilia focused on Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter. It was a great exhibit, and as a Cleveland sports fan it left me shaking my head on how one franchise could have so many championships and so many truly legendary players.
Although all of the exhibit was interesting, I like the part about Babe Ruth best. The Bambino changed the game forever, and every pro athlete who is getting paid huge sums owes him a debt of gratitude, too. it was pretty cool to see his uniform, spikes, glove, and ball cap. The Babe part of the exhibit showed that the Sultan of Swat had impeccable penmanship. In fact, all of the featured Yankees did. Their grade school teachers would be proud.
If you want to gain insight on the important question of where the country is headed on the snacking front, head to an airport and find one of those concourse stores that sell just about anything. You’ll discover floor-to-ceiling racks of snacks. And if you’re like me, you’ll see snacks that are beyond your wildest imagining.
Clearly, chickpeas are hot, and are available in just about any form. The Phoenix airport store has a stand-alone rotating rack of puffed chickpeas, as shown below, as well as dried and salted chickpeas and chickpea chips. Plantain chips have moved from Cuban restaurant plates to the snack rack, and there are various kinds of crisps, pieces, and chips made from a smorgasbord of ingredients. Different kinds of jerky—including fruit jerky—also seems to be popular.
The weirdest snack in the store, shown at the bottom of the photo above, was chicken-flavored protein chips. Chicken-flavored? According to the packaging, the chips are made entirely from “100% natural chicken breast and tapioca starch” and are flavored with “Himalayan pink salt.”
Airports changed during the pandemic. One change, of course, is the mask requirement, but there’s another significant one: the TV sets playing CNN Airport News at all times are gone from the gate seating areas.
This is truly a positive development. Every airport I’ve flown through on this trip—Columbus, Santa Ana, and Phoenix—is noticeably quieter without the constant background noise. And the reduced noise levels seem to have reduced the stress levels among the people in the gate area seats, too. Maybe being forced to listen to a barrage of news reports about bad things that are happening in the world just isn’t good for the traveler’s psyche.
The mask mandate will hopefully end soon—perhaps sooner than we thought possible just a few months ago—but I hope to never hear a CNN broadcast in an airport again. It really makes for a much more pleasant travel experience.
We’re out in Tucson for a conference. It’s clear that many of the conference attendees are thrilled at the opportunity to participate in a live, in-person gathering again, after years of cancellations, “virtual events,” and video substitutes. But the desire to get back to normal tugs against the reality of emergence from the aftermath of a serious pandemic, and the lingering concerns of a significant part of the population that another variant might emerge and cause still more problems.
At our hotel, the signs of COVID-19 policies remain–from the masks worn by the staff, to the signage reminding people about social distancing and hand-washing, to the disposable sleeves covering the TV remote controllers in the hotel rooms that notify guests that their room has a “fresh remote”–which presumably means one that has just been sanitized. At pretty much every turn, you can’t help but be reminded of the pandemic.
And the signs aren’t just on the hotel side, either. Since the pandemic began, it’s been clear that there is a wide spectrum of risk tolerance among the population, and that continues to be true. Most of the guests out here are walking around unmasked, indoors and outdoors, but there is a percentage of mask-wearers. I’m sure they wouldn’t be comfortable if they saw no signs of COVID awareness and due care on the part of the hotel, which poses a challenge for establishments that are trying to appeal to the broadest range of visitors.
It seems obvious that, for some time into the future at least, we’re going to be in an interim, transitional period as the pandemic apparently winds down and we move into the next phase. We’ll be living with masks on airplanes and in health care facilities for a long time–perhaps forever–but one indicator of whether we get back to “normal” will be how long hotels feel they need to advise guests of “fresh remotes.”
On yesterday’s plane flight I received a new kind of in-flight snack with my water. The days when passengers would invariably receive a tiny foil packet of peanuts or pretzels are long gone. These days, in their zeal to be seen as cutting edge, airlines are experimenting with new snacks . . . which is how I ended up with this packet of “Love Corn.”
To be honest, I didn’t want the “Love Corn.” I typically don’t accept the airplane snack, if there is a reasonable chance to decline it. But in this case the flight attendant had dropped off the snack in a rush, and the only way I was going to get her to retrieve it would have been to call out, for all to hear: “I don’t want any Love Corn.” Not surprisingly, I hesitated, and then thought better of it. For similarly obvious reasons, I didn’t turn to the woman sitting next to me and ask if she would like to have my “Love Corn,” either.
It seems like a baseline requirement of an airline snack should be something that you can easily refer to in communications with flight attendants or fellow passengers without risking a misunderstanding. From my perspective, at least, “Love Corn” pushes the envelope there.
For the record, this particular snack, which is advertised on the package as gluten-free and vegan, consisted of salty, dried kernels of corn that were very noisy to eat. I tried one and decided I would let the rest of the “Love Corn” quietly stay in the field.
We had a great vacation in St. Lucia over the holidays, but boy–traveling these days isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m not talking about spending long hours in a mask, either. There is so much uncertainty about pretty much everything, plans can change on a dime, and you’ve got to be willing to endure some stress and be quick about making alternative arrangements if necessary.
Here are some of the things that make travel so difficult:
Departure COVID tests — Many overseas destinations, like St. Lucia, require them. Some people have experienced long lines to get tested; that was not a problem for us (we took one of the self-administered tests at the CVS drive-through pharmacy). Other than the basic unpleasantness of the test itself–I always think of the Vinnie Barbarino comment from the ’70s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, “Up your nose with a rubber hose!”–the main issue for us was trying to time the test to provide the results in time to meet the reporting requirements while also falling within the three days of departure time period. If you’re getting ready to travel, you’ll probably spend a fair amount of time checking your phone for results.
Flight cancellations — There were a lot of flight cancellations over the holidays, and you wonder how long the cancellation problems will continue. The cancellations seem totally random and unpredictable, and the airlines tend to rebook you as if there is no problem (or schedule disruption, or cost) iinvolved in your staying longer somewhere. We lucked out and didn’t experience a cancellation, but our travel partners did and had to stay an extra day. Fortunately, it didn’t mess up their plans too much. If you’re traveling, I’d recommend building a potential “cancellation day” into your travel plans.
Return COVID tests — In my view, the return COVID test is a lot more troubling than the departure test, especially if you are overseas. There are lots of reports of fully vaccinated people who faithfully followed mask rules and maintained prudent social distancing and still tested positive. Once that happens, even if you are asymptomatic, you’re looking at multiple days of quarantine, and in some places you apparently have to go to a special quarantine facility. When your departure test comes back negative, it is an enormous relief.
The condition of airports — Admittedly, our return flights yesterday probably were on one of the peak days of the holiday travel season. Still, the conditions were pretty grim. There not only were long lines, documentation issues, and lots of trying to understand what masked people were saying, but when we reached the U.S. the conditions at the Miami airport were pretty pathetic. Trash cans were full to the point of overflowing, lots of eating places seemed to be closed, and the restrooms didn’t exactly pass the white glove treatment. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that one of the levels of hell is eternity spent in a men’s restroom in a busy American airport during a hectic holiday travel day. I found myself wondering if the conditions were due to staffing shortages, which seems to be a problem with a lot of places right now.
We don’t have any travel on the horizon in the immediate future, and that’s probably a good thing. Perhaps, in a few months, the craziness will subside a bit
Our trip to St. Lucia was the first time we’ve been out of the United States since the COVID pandemic turned the world topsy-turvy. It was interesting to see how a different country was dealing with the issues presented by a pandemic that still lingers after two years.
St. Lucia is one of those countries that requires a lot of documentation before you can enter. That’s totally understandable: it’s an island nation, and its health care facilities could be overwhelmed if there was a bad outbreak. The necessary paperwork includes vaccination cards and booster cards, on-line submission of travel authorization forms that have to be approved by the St. Lucia travel office, and proof of a negative COVID test that was taken within three days of your departure date. The three-day test and travel authorization approval can create some friction. You hope to get the test results quickly enough to transmit them to the travel office in plenty of time to get the approval.
In our case, we didn’t get the test results until the day before our departure and then hit a snag when the travel office asked us to retransmit data only a few hours before our early morning flight was scheduled to leave. That required us to do some scrambling at the airport, by calling the travel office to ask them to look at the resubmitted data and send a new authorization approval so that the airline could print it out on paper and we could take it as part of our packet of documentation. That started off our trip with a jolt of stress, but fortunately, thanks to the help of a friendly woman at the St. Lucia travel office, the very nice people behind the counter at American Airlines, and the fact that my uptight traveler ways caused us to get to the airport very early, we got the paperwork done and were on our way.
When we arrived in St. Lucia, we had to present all of our materials–vaccination and booster cards, printed travel authorization approval form, and negative test results–in the new first step of the arrival process. We waited in long lines as nurses wearing full COVID-proof garb, including face shields, went through the paperwork for each traveler and carefully examined the various materials. If you passed muster and were fully vaccinated, as we were, you were given a plastic wrist bracelet just like the kind you would get at an amusement park and told to wear it during your entire time in St. Lucia. (I’m not sure what was done with the unvaccinated.) Then, with bracelets on, we were directed to a different line for different officials to review our passports and other entrance forms.
On our drive from the airport to Ti Kaye we didn’t see any locals wearing masks or bracelets. At our resort, however, the staff always was masked, and the rule was for guests to wear masks in common areas, such as when you were entering the restaurants for lunch or dinner. At the upper restaurant, our wrist temperatures were taken and logged in a book whenever we showed up for breakfast and dinner, so somewhere there is a fulsome record of my temperature on each day of our stay. No one wore masks on the beach or poolside, and temperatures weren’t taken at the seaside grille where we had lunch.
The morning of the day before our departure we had another COVID test taken, by a nurse on site at Ti Kaye, and then got a document attesting that we had tested negative. We took that to the airport when we left. At the airport, we had our temperatures taken again and had to fill out an additional form attesting that we had tested negative, and then presented the airline desk with all of the paperwork (including our vaccination cards) in order to get our boarding passes. Whether it was the time involved in paperwork review or just the holiday travel crush, the airport featured long lines, and even though we got to the airport more than two hours before the flight we just barely caught our plane. When we finally got back to Columbus, early this morning, we breathed a sigh of relief and finally cut off our bracelets.
In short, if you’re traveling internationally, be prepared to jump through a few extra hoops, endure some stress, and pay careful attention to the paperwork requirements. And give yourself some extra time at the airport!