Balcony at the Palmer House

Balcony at the Palmer House
Apple iPhone 6s

I’m sad that Margaret and I won’t be able to make our annual wintertime trip to Chicago this year. It had become a tradition of our marriage. But Chicago requires travelers from Indiana to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, making the trip impractical. Even if we did go, our unwillingness to eat inside a restaurant would make avoiding hunger challenging.

We used to go every December to enjoy Christkindlmarkt, take in a show, and finish our Christmas shopping. Then Margaret took a job where December is the busy season, and we started going in January as a way of relaxing after the holidays.

Chicago is not a popular destination in the cold and snowy months, which is why we go then. We get such great deals on hotel rooms! Last year we stayed in the gorgeous Palmer House for what it would normally cost at a suburban box hotel.

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COVID-19, Photography, Travel

single frame: Balcony at the Palmer House

A view of the gorgeous Palmer House Hotel lobby in Chicago.


Was 2020 really terrible?

I’m starting to see posts on blogs and in social media about how terrible 2020 has been. Good riddance to it, they say. Bring on 2021!

For some, 2020 really was terrible. The pandemic cost them their job and they experienced serious financial difficulty. Or they lost someone they cared about to COVID-19. Or they got COVID-19 themselves and ended up a “long hauler” and spent many months too weak to fully function.

We all saw our freedoms curtailed through lockdowns and restrictions. Many of us still choose to limit contact with people outside our households and perhaps our “bubbles” of a few people whose behavior we trust, so that we stay healthy and keep the virus from spreading. This has led to isolation, which isn’t good for our mental health.

None of us escaped political stress this year, especially in the US because of the Presidential election, and in the UK as Brexit roiled.

2020 was undeniably hard in many ways, even for those of us not directly harmed by pandemic or politics.

But terrible? I’m not so sure. I bet that if you put your mind to it, you can find some good things about 2020 that would not have happened in a normal year. I’ll bet some of those things are very good. Here are four from my life that I can think of right off the top of my head:

  • I rode my bike a lot during the warm months. I love to ride, but most years I do it very little because I have so little time for it outside of work. But the pandemic forced me to work from home. I got an hour of commuting time back, and I spent a lot of it on my bike. It didn’t matter that I got sweaty. Nobody can smell you on Zoom!
  • The complete upending of my routines gave me a great deal of creative energy. I wrote more blog posts and made more photographs than ever in 2020. I even published a book of my stories and essays!
  • My wife and I enjoyed and appreciated evenings out more deeply. We couldn’t have them at all during lockdown, and as our world slowly reopened we could have them only when the weather was good. Businesses bent over backwards to create safe experiences for us. Indianapolis closed some of its streets to allow bars and restaurants to set up tables for outside service. Because of that, we spent a couple lovely evenings sitting in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue sipping lowland scotch. I’m sure we will remember these nights out for a long time.
  • We ate many more dinners together as a family, simply because we were all home at the same time more often. Especially during lockdown and in the weeks that followed, where were we going to go anyway?

What good things came to you in 2020 that were directly or indirectly due to the pandemic?

Even if you still think that 2020 was terrible, don’t delude yourself that life automatically trends toward the better on the first day of 2021. We’re still in this pandemic, amid a spike in new cases. I just captured this US new-case graph from the CDC’s site. The trend over the last several days is going in the right direction. Yet each day the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus is greater than the population of Providence, Rhode Island; or Santa Rosa, California; or Fort Lauderdale, Florida — all cities of about 180,000 residents.

The red line is the seven-day moving average

Also, on the first day of 2021 we will still live in a time of deep division between conservative and liberal, or educated elite and common working class, or the rich and the rest of us — choose your dividing line. If your man lost the election, you’re probably deeply worried about what’s to come. If your man won the election, curb your celebrations because the conditions still exist that saw the other guy elected last time.

In 2021, I hope you’ll continue to limit contact outside your household, and wear a mask when you go out. Even if you think this pandemic is overhyped, or is primarily a political tool, COVID-19 remains deadly for some and disruptive for all who get it. Please take these precautions so that as much as it depends on you, the virus doesn’t spread.

Also, I hope you’ll seek to understand people who aren’t like you and don’t share your views — especially if you think people whose core political beliefs are different from yours are mindless, deluded idiots. Please remember that they are human beings trying to make their way in life just as you are. Not only does their background and the reality they currently live shape them in concrete ways, but the information sources they consume tend to reinforce their views. Just like you. The more we seek to understand each other, the more we come back together as a nation. Our strength has always come from our unity. Let’s rebuild it in 2021.


Our COVID-19 scare

Margaret came home from work the Friday before last with news: one of the people on her team was COVID-positive. Worse, before the young woman got tested she worked several days not feeling well without telling anyone. Worse still, Margaret was feeling run down and achy.

We immediately quarantined Margaret to our bedroom and she called off work. I gathered toiletries and commandeered the downstairs bathroom, and figured out the sleeper sofa in the family room.

Margaret got tested Monday morning, by which time she was running a low-grade fever. I felt sure she was positive. Margaret wasn’t as certain. “This could just be a cold or the flu,” she said.

She was right. Thursday she got her test results: negative. But by Wednesday night she figured that would be the result, as she had been feeling better and better all day. By Thursday morning she felt mostly normal.

I’ve been worried about the two kids who still live with us, who want so much to hang out with their friends as they used to. I’ve feared that they would bring the virus into our home. We keep having to remind them to stay out of their friends’ homes, out of restaurants, out of any place where people aren’t wearing masks.

It’s been easy to forget that our biggest risk factor is Margaret’s workplace. She works in retail facility management, a job that must be done on site. Her staff is mostly in their 20s and 30s, and they live up to the news reports that this age group puts themselves at risk of the virus more than any other. The young woman who tested positive has a second job in a restaurant and freely hangs out with her friends, both strong risk factors.

Last week another young woman on Margaret’s staff tested positive. She may have become infected in the workplace. Now that Margaret is back to work, she’ll have to work long hours six days a week to cover the short staff.

Look at today’s new-case graph from the Indiana State Department of Health. We had 6,825 newly reported cases yesterday. I’m trying not to overreact to the spike.

ZOMG IT’S OUT OF CONTROL!!!!!1! Except that Indiana has 6,732,219 residents (U.S. Census Bureau estimate). Yesterday’s new cases affected one tenth of one percent of all Hoosiers. 251,597 Hoosiers have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 — 3.7 percent of us.

Further, let’s say that 5,000 Hoosiers tested positive over each of the last 14 days, and that they’re all still contagious. (When you look at the actual new cases per day since Nov. 1, 5,000 per day is a reasonable working number.) That’s 70,000 people, one percent of all Hoosiers, who could infect you.

Meijer sign

Let’s say every Hoosier who has or ever had COVID-19 are uniformly distributed across the state. Let’s also say that 1,000 random people in my county are currently shopping at the Meijer (big-box store) near my home, and I’m one of them.

37 of them have had had COVID-19 at some point. 10 of them currently have the virus. But in reality, many of those 10 are home in bed.

A young, healthy woman on my team at work got it and was laid up for two solid weeks. She said that just getting up to use the bathroom exhausted her for hours. I’ve heard of cases that went more easily, and cases that were much harder. But it sounds like few people get through this illness without some need to rest and recover, which means not shopping at Meijer or doing other things in the world.

I’m unlikely to get sick at Meijer, especially if everybody’s masked and I don’t linger.

I’m writing this to walk myself through it as much as to share it with you. This is still an illness I wish my whole family to avoid. We will continue to avoid places where people we don’t currently live with are unmasked. It’s prudent to do so. Here’s hoping a good vaccine comes soon. But there’s no need to freak out, not yet.


It’s not time to return to normal no matter how much you want it

Margaret and I had such a lovely weekend early this month enjoying autumn color and sipping good bourbon in central Kentucky! To protect ourselves from COVID-19, we wore our masks when we went into shops, we kept away from crowds, and we took our meals outside. This added a little hassle, such as the dinner we didn’t eat until after 9 pm because restaurants were busy, and the breakfast we ate in a misty drizzle. But our good times far outweighed our challenges.

As we drove home we weren’t ready for our good times to end, so we swung through picturesque Brown County in Indiana. We thought we’d stop for lunch in Nashville, the county seat and a charming artist’s colony. It’s full of galleries and kitschy little shops. It was a lovely day, and we were sure local restaurants would have outdoor seating.

Nashville, IN
Shops in Nashville (2017 photo)

We started to feel apprehensive when traffic grew heavy and slow as we approached town. Police directed cars where the highway turned into town, and the main street was choked with cars. I knew a last-resort parking lot on the edge of this little town, so I headed right for it. It was mostly full.

The closer we walked to Nashville’s main street, the more people we encountered. The main street itself was crowded, so we put on our masks. A lot of people walked unmasked despite it being impossible to maintain six feet of distance from anybody. We looked in on a couple restaurants and found gaggles of unmasked people waiting shoulder to shoulder for a table.

That was enough for us. We headed right back for our car and drove on to nearby Bloomington, which wasn’t nearly as crowded. We stopped at a little pub near Indiana University and had a lovely lunch on their patio. After a couple of beers I needed to visit the facilities, so I masked up and stepped inside. There I found nearly every table full of diners.

I’m seeing busy restaurants all over. Margaret and I wanted Mexican a couple weeks ago, so we walked to the Mexican restaurant near our home. It was overcast and chilly, but not too cold to sit on their patio. We were the only ones out there. When I stepped inside to get that table, the din from the many diners inside was so loud I had to project my voice to be heard over them.

The other night we were wrung out after work, so I called in carryout from a nearby restaurant. When I went into the restaurant to get it, I saw that they had removed maybe a quarter of their tables to keep dining parties at least six feet from each other. But almost every table was in use.

I’m sure all of us feel considerable fatigue after eight months of this pandemic. We all very much want life to be normal again. We can do more things safely now than we could in the spring, to be sure.

But crowds and close contact still put us at our greatest risk for COVID-19. The CDC has studied it and reports that people who test positive for COVID-19 are twice as likely to have eaten inside a restaurant than people who test negative.

It’s been a while since we’ve looked at Indiana’s new-case graph. (The last time was in July, here.) We thought things were frightening when cases spiked in April, but that was nothing compared to now.

I’m sure I suffer from more than one cognitive bias when I link crowded restaurants to this dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases. Or maybe the link really is this obvious.

Because of what I do for a living I’ve learned to model risk as the product of likelihood and impact. How likely is the thing to happen, and how bad is it if it happens? Something that is unlikely to happen, but will possibly be really bad if it does happen, is still high risk.

Even though new cases are rising, likelihood is still low that you’ll get COVID-19 in Indiana. Here in Boone County, Indiana, we currently average 154 new cases per week for every 100,000 residents – a 0.154% new case rate. (We have only 68,000 residents, so that’s about 105 new cases a week.) Boone Countuy’s new-case rate is typical in Indiana. Your chance of randomly encountering a contagious person is not terribly high. The less time you spend in public, the more you cut that chance.

But the potential impact of COVID-19 is high. Death isn’t the big worry for most of us — you’re unlikely to die from it unless you have serious health issues already, or are older. People 70 and older make up more than 75% of deaths in Indiana. Add people ages 60-69 and you cover more than 90% of deaths.

But this thing can lay you out for weeks. Consider a young woman I used to work with who I think might be all of 30. Here’s her story of how COVID-19 kicked her ass. And it can have long term effects on your heart and your mind.

I hope I’m preaching to the converted here, but COVID-19 is no joke. You want to avoid getting it.

I hope we can all find the discipline to protect ourselves and each other. Mask up. Stay out of crowds. Don’t eat inside restaurants.


No ironing required

I did something on Saturday that I did often before COVID-19, but haven’t done at all since: I ironed my shirts.

I haven’t found a shirt for sale in the US in 20 years that didn’t swear its fabric requires no ironing. Yet they all look at least slightly rumpled fresh from the dryer. I prefer to look crisp. So I iron.

I sort of enjoy ironing, for much the same reason I sort of enjoy washing dishes. There’s a quiet meditativeness to these simple, menial tasks.

When I’m out in the world, when I spend my days in the office, I like to look good. I dress a little nicer than the situation requires. I take care in choosing my clothes, and I take good care of the clothes I choose.

I’ve felt differently about it while I’ve worked from home. In my videoconference meetings, people see me only from about the chest up. When I’m not in meetings, the only people who see me are my family on their way to the kitchen. I don’t see the point in wearing clothes I’ll have to iron.

All summer I wore untucked polos and shorts. Now that it’s getting cold, I’ve been buying rugby shirts and crewneck sweaters to wear with jeans.

However, about ten shirts still needed to be ironed from before the pandemic. And a half-dozen more shirts needed to be ironed from date nights with my wife. It felt like old times on Saturday when I broke out the ironing board and my good German iron.

Old times aren’t coming back. We can’t predict yet how things will be different in the post-pandemic world, but different they will be. But when this is all over, I hope I’ll need to wear my nice, crisp, button-down shirts again.


Being out in the world as much as we safely can before cold weather prevents it

Sunday might have been the last warm (upper 70s) day of the year. So Margaret and I went out in the evening for dinner and drinks, to places where we could sit outside. Forgive my regrettable selfie skills, but here we are wrapping up our night with a delicious lowland scotch at a Scottish restaurant on the downtown avenue where all the hip kids go.

I’m sure we’ll have a few nights in October where we can do the same, as long as we dress for chilly weather.

We need to make a point of being out in the world, and of seeing people we care about, as much as we safely can before cold weather prevents it. In Indiana, except for wintertime activities like sledding or snowball fights, we stay inside from sometime in November through sometime in March. That’s four to five months of isolation.

With that in mind, I bought a propane fire pit for our deck. It was advertised as putting out 50,000 BTUs. That sure sounded impressive! I hoped it would make our deck hospitable until it gets truly cold here. We’ve used it a couple of evenings now, inviting extended family to talk and laugh with us.

Unfortunately, the fire pit is warm within only a few feet, and only across your face and torso. After the sun set the other night, temperatures fell into the upper 50s — and we all went in for jackets and blankets. If we keep bundling up and we have a mild autumn, the fire pit could let us use the deck through about the end of October. I guess that’s better than nothing.

Margaret and I have made it clear to the kids who still live with us: no spending time inside with friends, and no going into places where people don’t wear masks (e.g., restaurants). We’ve talked about how we might be able to see our friends and family during the cold months, but so far none of us has come up with any bright ideas.

This is going to be a long winter. We’ll need to show each other extra grace and kindness.