On Surrender

It’s been over two long years since I first wrote about the pandemic, and it’s starting to be clear that it will never be over.

I think we all harbored a belief that one day we would wake up and everyone would be vaccinated and boosted, and the virus would slink away into a corner and never be heard from again. It’s abundantly clear that that isn’t going to happen. Instead, it feels like we face a perpetual bad flu season, one in which all choral singing will be masked, any large party risks a rash of people calling in sick, and we continue to swab at our nostrils and keep our fingers crossed.

I do the majority of the in-person shopping for our family and it’s always been masked. Until this weekend, when I got ready to head across the street to Wilson Farm, went to grab a mask as I went out the door… and stopped. And headed across the street without a mask.

Last summer when everyone was beginning to be double-vaccinated, going unmasked felt like a victory. This summer it feels more somber, like a surrender. Not that we are lying prostrate on the ground under the foot of the virus, but more that we now must acknowledge that we are not going to defeat this thing. We must instead learn to live with it.

In some ways this kind of surrender to the inevitable is painful, but in other ways it’s freeing. The mental tax of constant vigilance is high. It can feel better to let it go and stop worrying even though there is still risk.

But I struggle with it. Because it feels like giving up.

Plague diary, Day 14

As we end the second week since my company went all-virtual, I’ve been thinking a lot about some of my favorite memes about the pandemic—the ones that point out that Generation X, we of latchkey kids, self-parenting, and quiet isolation, as well as songs about “when to stay in” and being “stupid and contagious,” are well poised to survive this crisis. There’s more than a nugget of truth in these, and even though I was never a latchkey kid (thanks, Mom), I was always pretty good at entertaining myself and staying inside.

But there’s a darker truth under these memes. Somewhere in the back of most GenX’s mind is another archetypal narrative about having to be self sufficient indoors for an indefinitely long period of time while civilization ends outside. I’m talking about The Day After.

You can watch the movie on YouTube, but I don’t recommend it, especially right now. Suffice to say that the morning after this movie, which depicts midwestern families sorting through the rubble after a nuclear exchange blankets the entire world with radioactive fallout, was the only time that my thirty-plus-minute school bus ride across town to middle school was ever quiet.

It’s impossible to describe now how our psychology was shaped by the Cold War. Constant headlines about troop movements in Europe on the cover of Newsweek; the Doomsday Clock; saber-rattling from a hawkish president… all of it was in the background. But this movie was somehow more immediate and impactful. We might have done duck-and-cover drills in elementary school, but this movie was the thing that brought it home, particularly its depiction of the young heroine Denise running out of the fallout shelter to a beautiful blue sky… overlooking fields covered with highly radioactive fallout.

Thankfully, our current situation is wildly different in most ways from the world of The Day After. Our world is not going to end; in fact, it’s currently enjoying a respite from the normal air pollution caused by our global economy. And with the Internet unaffected by electromagnetic pulses, we can work, speak to our families, host virtual cocktail parties, even make it seem like we’re at the beach. (Thanks, Zoom and Slack.)

(Side note: I realized yesterday that video chatting on Webex may be forever dead to me, at least for the duration of the crisis. It’s one thing to show up on Zoom for a work meeting; quite another to put your face on Webex, with no virtual background blocking out the environment around your not-very-temporary home office.)

But the important difference with this crisis is the inversion in the danger profile. It’s not fatal for us to venture outside our houses—far from it, though I seem to be unable to make time for a brisk walk most days. But it might be really bad for us to meet another person. We cling to Zoom because it’s our lifeline, the only way for us to safely maintain human contact outside our immediate families.

Still, it’s important to remember, despite our GenX combination of resilience and post-traumatic stress*, that we are in a far, far better place. This pandemic will end. We will be able to greet one another again. And we can buy more toilet paper.

* It was a lot harder to write this than I thought it would be. The fear of nuclear annihilation is still in me all these years later. Scary as it is, I’ll take this future over that Cold War past.

Plague diary, Day 12

This was my impression of yesterday afternoon:

But it was. An early spring snowfall is far from unheard of in New England, but this felt more personal, somehow.

Massachusetts issued the order to stay home and to close the in-person operations of non-essential businesses yesterday. This is essentially where my company has been for the past week-plus, but it’s harder to shift businesses that aren’t already mostly digital to this mode of operation. I worry about the bankruptcies that are likely to follow.

We also got a remote learning plan, sort of, from the Town of Lexington. The main details are clear enough—it starts next Monday, grades will be pass-fail, instructional time will be shorter, and there will be a combination of online and offline activities. What is less clear is how we will keep the kids on track when both their parents are working full time from home.

Plague diary, day 11

Beginning Friday, March 13, we were asked to work from home as a one day trial. The day before, it was announced that Lexington Public Schools would close for two weeks starting Friday, March 13. (They’ve since added another week.) Our work-from-home was subsequently extended for the same two weeks. The only thing bearable about this coincidence is that the schools don’t yet have their act together with respect to distance learning. This means that, so far, I haven’t had to be a teacher at the same time that I’m trying to work from home.

Which is good, because this week my company’s engineers and product managers are trying to do “big room planning” for the next quarter. Traditionally this is done by putting everyone together in a big hotel ballroom and putting up plans on the wall so they can be inspected by walking around. Not gonna happen that way this quarter. We are going to a system of Zoom and hope for the best.

On a related note, Zoom now appears to have become critical national infrastructure, judging from the companies, churches, and virtual cocktail parties that have moved there.

Here in Lexington, physical distancing appears to have translated for most as “work from home,” but there have certainly been other effects. Restaurants are now takeout only. The town shut down all personal care services (haircuts, nail salons, massages, spas) on Friday. The Trader Joe’s in neighboring Arlington Heights was controlling how many people could be in the store at one time, and how close we could stand to each other in the checkout line. (Strips of painter’s tape six feet apart on the aisle near the checkout bore handwritten thanks for our patience and support of keeping everyone healthy.) A week ago the bike path was more crowded than was probably healthy, but at least people have been able to get some fresh air.

This is the second week in a row we’ve done virtual church. We have been broadcasting our services for years on public access TV, and propitiously began live streaming on YouTube two months ago. The combination of YouTube stream plus Apple TV make for a feeling of almost human contact on the 55″ screen in the living room, but it is very clearly not the same. Watching the service, it was clear our pastors missed being with us and seeing our faces as much as we missed them. But virtual communion (described in the service bulletin) helped alleviate some of the pain of separation.

Honestly, my personal worst part of it all so far has been another gout attack. But there are somber notes elsewhere, including the death of a Franciscan friar I knew at the monastery where the Suspicious Cheese Lords have sung so many masses over the years.

Diary of the Plague

It is now day four of my exile from my office, as we (and most of our fellow human beings) are working from home in the face of the novel coronavirus. One thing physical isolation has done for me is to take me on a journey of spiritual isolation, which, as Kathleen Norris will tell you (read Dakota: A Spiritual Journey sometime), is good for the soul. I don’t know if I’m becoming any closer to God, but I am at least motivated to post here for the first time in more than a month, and that’s something.

Last Wednesday we had a company town hall at work. Normally these are given in our crowded office kitchen/meeting room and are standing room only; Thursday the chairs were set six feet apart and we were instructed to join by Zoom if we didn’t get a chair. We quickly learned that we needed a bigger Zoom license to accommodate all the remote viewers, but that was ironed out within a few minutes. When our CEO announced that we would all trial working from home on Friday, someone suggested on our company Slack channel that we should wear our best pajamas. The mood was ebullient, a little like the days that you know a big blizzard is coming.

Now I think the reality is starting to set in. Crowds were horrific at every grocery store over the weekend as people stocked up. We’ve had four days of no school with no distance learning plans, leaving those of us working from home to improvised educational activities while acknowledging that our kids were going to get a lot more screen time than normal. Going outside feels like cheating and like a revelation from God.

Things that seemed sensible on Monday that I no longer feel blasé about: going to the grocery store for some things we were running low on; visiting the liquor store to stock up on wine; trying a new cocktail recipe every night over the weekend.

Now we’re all settling in for the long haul and finding other ways to liven our moods. Everyone at my company discovered the virtual backgrounds feature in Zoom yesterday—we’ve all been on Zoom for two years, having mostly kissed Webex goodbye as a bad memory, but I can only remember a handful of us using the feature. Now it’s everywhere. (I might have to try this one out today. More here.)

I’m not ready to post the relentlessly upbeat mixes that I created for our (postponed) Hackathon, though. The cheer seems inappropriate; plus I keep holding out hope that I’ll have an opportunity to spring them on my surprised audience soon.

Lego reviews


It’s reached the part of my Lego collecting lifetime where I’m starting to upgrade sets that I bought years ago—in some cases at the dawn of my adult Lego life. As I noted a year or so ago, I’m a grown up who still likes Lego, a so-called AFOL, and have now been so for close to 15 years. In that time Lego has dramatically improved their range and building techniques have evolved. So I’ve started replacing sets that I built when they first came out with the latest and greatest.

So far there have been three: the Burj Khalifa (21031 replacing 21008), the Guggenheim Museum (21035 replacing 21004), and the Y-Wing (75172 replacing one of the models in 7152). I’ve previously published a review of 21031 incorporating a comparison with the older model on Brickset, and just published (and am awaiting moderation on) a comparison of the Y-Wings. There may be more coming in the future…

Redding up

It was a busy weekend, the kind that began with a clean and purge of the basement (four more boxes unpacked! more floor space opened up!) and ended with a trip to IKEA to build a desk for The Boy. The Girl spent most of the weekend with Lisa working on cleaning out her room and bagging up enormous amounts of trash, books to donate, and so on.

I said in passing to someone that they were “redding up” and I got a look of utter confusion. It occurred to me that the use of “redd” as a verb is not one that I hear much outside of my Lancaster County relatives, so I went hunting.

To my utter delight, it turns out that “to redd” is not a Pennsylvania Dutch utterance—it actually comes from Scots/Irish/northern English dialect and appears to be related to the Middle English verb riddan “to clear (an area, a way).”

So now I can continue to use my word in perfect satisfaction that it’s good English… just slightly older than most people use.

New year, new resolutions

Here we are at the beginning of 2017. Last year I made my first ever public New Years resolution. It’s a time to check in on how I did and to do the next turn of the page.

The resolution last year was an easy one: write more, on my blog. It was easy because I wanted to do it. It was hard because it meant finding time to do it. But I managed to pull it off. I did a statistical check-in back in September on how I did, and reached the conclusion that I was keeping to the goal of writing every weekday at about an 88% success rate. I finished the last four months of the year at 92% average, thanks to a very strong September. So yay me!

The reward was substantial in other ways as well. I started finding writing was easier, both on the blog and at work, and started finding it easier to dig deeper and say more interesting things. That later in the year I got my first public speaking conference slots, in New York, Bristol, and Seville, I attribute at least in part to this trend. That is a classic unexpected outcome to a relatively simple change in habit.

Personally, I found the writing took me in some unexpected directions. I knew I liked learning about cocktails; now I like writing about them as well. And on a more serious note, I didn’t start digging deep into America’s history of slavery until this year, when I started finding the fossilized remnants of it lurking just beneath the surface.

So what’s next? This is a harder question. I have some harder habits to change, but I need to change them. First, I need to get more exercise. Second, I need to change my diet to lose some weight.

I’m not committing to how I’m going to do the exercise, but I know how I’m going to measure it. We’re going to close the rings, with a goal of increasing my number of weeks that I close all three.

Regarding the weight thing, I’m not concerned about the amount of weight I want to lose, though I have an idea. Mostly I just want to eat healthier. And I’m going to start with the low hanging fruit: no beer on weeknights. I’m in the habit of drinking beer with dinner, and I think I need to unwind that habit, or at least make it a less frequent thing. Wil Wheaton’s reboot is my inspiration here. I hope I don’t completely go off beer as he did, but I think it’s a reasonable starting point. So we’ll see!

Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance

Carrie Fisher with Paul Simon, from People magazine

Yes, of course I’m sad about the loss today of Carrie Fisher, probably my first preteen crush and certainly my first model of a strong female lead. (At least in A New Hope.) And then she was my first seriously funny, seriously damaged novelist (I read Postcards from the Edge in high school), and later a kind of shamanic touchstone in any movie in which she appeared. But the main thing is she was there, fiercely telling critics even this year to blow her. As more people who seemed eternal verities in our cultural hoard are taken by 2016, of course I want to roar.

But I’m also wistful. Paul Simon, Fisher’s ex husband and longtime friend, in some ways eulogized her best in songs on Hearts and Bones, Graceland, and Rhythm of the Saints, the youngest of which is now over 25 years old. And today I think about “Hearts and Bones”:

Thinking back to the season before

Looking back through the cracks in the door

Two people were married

The act was outrageous

The bride was contagious

She burned like a bride

These events may have had some effect

On the man with the girl by his side

The arc of a love affair

His hands rolling down her hair

Love like lightning, shaking till it moans

Hearts and bones

And “Train in the Distance”:

The thought that life could be better

Is woven indelibly

Into our hearts

And our brains

And “Graceland”:

She comes back to tell me she’s gone

As if I didn’t know that

As if I didn’t know my own bed

As if I never noticed

The way she brushed her hair from her forehead

And she said “Losing love is like a window in your heart

Everybody sees you’re blown apart

Everybody feels the wind blow”

And “She Moves On”:

And she says “maybe these emotions are as near to love as love will ever be”

So I agree

The moon breaks

She takes a corner, that’s all she takes, she moves on.

Dammit. And now I want to read her autobiography and hear her side of the story.

The long way around the sea

Christmas is a complicated time for me. On the one hand, I love the holiday—tree, lights, carols, smiling kids, what’s not to love?

On the other hand… the weeks before and after the solstice are the hardest weeks of the year for me. I’m prone to fits of the Black Dog at odd times but it hits especially hard in these dark days of the year.

I’ve been reading Comet in Moominland to The Boy for a few weeks. He didn’t quite get hooked on the Moomins with Finn Family Moomintroll, but the narrative sweep of the journey of Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin (not to mention the Snork Maiden) to learn about the approaching comet and then try to get home, where “Moominmama will know what to do,” seems to resonate. And last night I found an image that resonated for me within its pages.

The wanderers are on their way back home but are challenged on the journey because the hot approaching comet has boiled away much of the water. This is a subtheme for a few chapters, which talk about streams running low, until they get to the ocean and find it’s gone.

They can’t cross the ocean on a boat—no water. They can’t cross it on foot—they’ll get mired in the muck that was the ocean floor. So they cross it on stilts.

It feels like that sometimes. You can’t get down too close to things because you’ll get trapped in the muck. So you have to approach them at a distance, or else (as Low once sang) take the long way around the sea.

Our brickbuilt future

Fan-built massive Lego spaceship from BrickCon 2016; photo courtesy Tom Alphin/Flickr
Fan-built massive Lego spaceship from BrickCon 2016; photo courtesy Tom Alphin/Flickr

Having fun paging through Tom Alphin‘s photos from Seattle’s BrickCon 2016. I think if you had showed me this much Classic Space LEGO in one place as a kid, my head would have exploded.

Is that a Lego wave motion gun on that thing in the background? I’d love more pictures of it.

That strange fragile feeling

This has been a winter of illness, unusually so for me. Between Thanksgiving and New Years I was down for almost six weeks with a hacking cough that started with a week of fever and was so hard-pressed to clear stuff from my lungs that I ended up fracturing (or at least pulling) a rib. And now at the end of the winter or beginning of spring I was laid low for several days with another fever + upper respiratory condition, just in time for Easter.

And man, I had forgotten how logy I get when I have a fever. I’m three days on from the last fever and still tired around the edges.

It reminds me of the summer after my third year at the University of Virginia. I had just finished my first summer away from home, doing a lab internship, and I headed back to my family home and slept. For like a day. That in itself was not so unusual, but the fever was. The doctor confirmed that I had finally contracted mono. My third year roommate had had a bad case of it before we went home for break, so apparently it incubated over the summer and then started out slowly.

The end result was brutal. I had enough energy to do a few things, if I forced myself, but then had to sleep for hours. I pulled myself together well enough to get back to the University of Virginia, where the truly painful part of the sickness revealed itself: I was going to have to tough it out without air conditioning, since I was living that fall in a Lawn room in Mr. Jefferson’s original part of the University Grounds. So there were a great many afternoons spent exhausted, sweating, sleepless. And, reinforcing the ambience, I was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General In His Labyrinth, about Simón Bolívar’s dying journey down the Magdalena River. Languishing in the August (and September) Charlottesville heat, I felt as the Liberator must have felt.

I still feel little echoes of that day any time I spend more than a few days sick, as though I’m preparing to return to that sweat-dampened bed with barely enough energy to stand. At this point in my life I know that one day, I hope many years from now, it’ll be a return for good. These illnesses, inconsequential as they are, are just brief glimpses of that ultimate end.

—And that’s why men have a reputation for being bad patients.