Winter’s a comin’

In the spring, I thought that lockdown might flatten the pandemic curve (remember that phrase?) enough that life could return to normal in the summer. I was willing, eager even, to press pause on seeing family and especially friends — to just stay home — for the greater good. But now it’s clear that we’re in this for months longer yet, easily through the winter and possibly even longer.

I’m mighty introverted and love spending time alone, but even I need some human contact. I feel it deeply — I’m not getting enough, even though I live with my wife and some of our children and thus have company whenever I want it. To be whole and healthy, I need to see family that doesn’t live here, and I need to see my friends. Videoconferencing hasn’t been a good enough substitute.

Obviously, risk of COVID increases the more you interact with people outside your household. My wife and I have read a number of articles about it, articles that were as agenda-free as we could find. The consensus is that when you spend time with people outside your household, the lowest-risk way to do it is outside, where whatever people around you breathe out dissipates into the air. Distancing of at least six feet, or masks when that’s not possible, further reduces the risk.

Indiana businesses are open again with a few restrictions (though in at least one county bars remain closed). This appears to have signaled a return to normal for many Hoosiers. I see people spending time in each others’ homes, riding in each others’ cars, and having meals inside restaurants. It saddens me to see it, as this behavior only spreads the virus.

My wife and I are still playing it conservatively — from our observation, much more conservatively than most. But we have loosened up some. Isolation has been hard on us and has contributed to our low moods. Right now, we do see our friends and extended family outside. We are beginning to travel together in limited fashion to places where we spend most of our time outside. We choose to take on what we believe is a small amount of COVID risk to get the mental health benefits of human interaction and being in the world.

We’re getting as much of it in now as we can, because this window will close when winter weather arrives. Indiana winters are cold and snowy, sharply limiting outdoor activity. I never look forward to winter, but I dread this coming winter more than any other in my life because it will mean intense isolation.

We’ve had occasional picnics in a Zionsville park and invited children, siblings, and parents who live in central Indiana. We’re having another on Sunday. We’ve taken dinner to my mom’s a couple times, and eaten it with her on her patio. A couple weeks ago my team at work had a socially distanced picnic together. And I’m starting to see friends a little, always outside, with reasonable distancing. On Tuesday I saw my brother and a mutual colleague for the first time since February. We met at a restaurant with a great whiskey selection, and sipped a couple bourbons on the patio while we caught up. It was wonderful.

Yesterday I took the afternoon off and drove to southern Indiana to meet my younger son, Garrett, at a state park. His mom moved way out into the country with her husband after he retired, and that’s where Garrett lives when he’s not away at college. The state park is about 20 minutes from his home. I don’t remember exactly the last time I saw Garrett, but it was before the pandemic and might have been a long ago as January. I’ve not gone this long without seeing him since he was born. We went for a long hike, and talked. It slaked a deep thirst.

My wife and I have also booked an Airbnb apartment in downtown Louisville for an upcoming weekend. Since we married, we’ve made a point of taking a long weekend away every three months. With all the hard stuff we’ve lived through, these trips help us remember that we love each other and enjoy each other’s company very much. Our last trip was in January. We need to get away. We chose an Airbnb apartment rather than a hotel because we think there’s some risk advantage to a single unit over a room in a large building. We were also able to learn about the owner’s cleaning practices in detail, and they satisfy us. While there, we hope to walk through downtown Louisville photographing its architecture and enjoying meals outside at restaurants. But if it rains all weekend we will buy groceries, make our own meals, and watch Netflix together. If this weekend trip is like all the others we’ve taken, we’ll return renewed in our relationship.

One of our sons moved out a few weeks ago. It brought us no joy as he’s on an unsustainable life path that will go badly for him. It’s been deeply stressful for all of us who live here. He is also estranged from the mother of his child. After he moved out we reached out to the mother, who has since been generous in bringing our granddaughter for visits. We were thrilled when the mother offered to make the visits to be regular, weekly if we can swing it, to build strong bonds.

Already bad weather has backed us into a corner, and we’ve allowed them into our home. We have reasonable assurance that the mother is managing pandemic risk as well as she can, and she has the same reasonable assurance from us. But in the end you never can really know and every person you add to your bubble only increases your risk. And again, winter is coming; the cold and snow will sharply limit our ability to see our granddaughter outside. We’ve judged that the better thing is for us to have time with our granddaughter, so we invite her and her mother in. We hope we’re right.

Holliday Road Bridge

Finally, I’m getting outside for walks and bike rides as much as I can. It’s a solitary activity and so I’m at no COVID risk. But the exercise is good for my body, mind, and spirit in these hard times. I figure I have about six more weeks on the bike before temperatures are too chilly for me to ride without special gear — it’s amazing how cold your hands, ears, and face get on the bike below about 60 degrees. I don’t enjoy wearing cold-weather gear on the bike, but this year it will be worth me investing in some so I can ride for as long as I can.

Walking will be easy enough and not unpleasant until the temps drop below zero Fahrenheit. Then I’ll break out my heaviest coat, a Korean War-era wool-lined Army trench that has blocked every cold I’ve thrown at it for the 35 years I’ve owned it. But walk I will, all winter. I’m making that commitment now. It will help me get through the long, lonely winter.


Settling into a new normal

It surprises me, but I think we’re already adapting to our new normal here. We’re even enjoying some aspects of it.

It helps a lot that Margaret and I remain employed at our pre-pandemic rates of pay. Unlike many, we have no money concerns right now. I’ve thought Margaret’s company would furlough everyone, and indeed they’ve told many that they should stay home. But they’re still paying everyone, and they appear to want to do that for the duration if they can.

Welcome to Zionsville

I have always wondered whether I could tolerate working from home every day. Before this I did it at most a few times a month, when I needed quiet and privacy such as to write employee reviews, or when I had a plumber here to fix the sink. It was a nice break, but I was always ready to return to the office. I like being in the office.

A couple years ago while I was unemployed, one of the job opportunities I pursued was with for a Happiness Engineer (support) position. I love WordPress and I was excited to possibly join the team. But I wasn’t sure if I’d take well to working from home every day.

I had made it to the interview stage when I accepted an offer from a local software company to manage engineers. I think I would have loved the Happiness Engineer role, but it would have meant a healthy pay cut. Margaret was encouraging and enthusiastic, telling me we’d adjust our budget for a job that made me happy. But I just wasn’t sure I could handle working from home for the long haul. When the engineering manager offer meant a return to office life and keeping my former salary, the decision was easy.

But now I know I can do this, and I believe I can sustain it. It helps a lot that we’re all working from home. I’m not missing out on any hallway conversations, or struggling to hear or be heard on a meeting I’m taking online with a bunch of people in a conference room.

There is a downside. As a manager I’m used to having a lot of meetings every day. But now my calendar is packed — I go from one Zoom room to another all day. I think this compensates for the lack of organic conversations that happen naturally at the office. There has to be a better way, but we haven’t found it yet as an organization. By the time I shut off Zoom at day’s end, I’m drained.

To give myself a break, I’ve blocked my calendar 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon so I can catch up on messages and go to the bathroom. I tell my colleagues that if God Himself sends me a meeting request for those times, I’m declining it.

I’m also blocking 90 minutes at lunch. I eat something in the first 30 minutes while I again catch up on messages, but then I step away from the computer the rest of that time. If it’s not raining and my old hip injury isn’t bothering me, I take a walk around the neighborhood.

I bring a camera on those walks. I’m shooting more film now that I’m stuck at home. At first, it was a distraction that helped me cope with all the changes. Now I see it as an opportunity to finally burn through my queue of new-to-me old cameras, and shoot the last few of my collection in Operation Thin the Herd. Soon you’ll see the fruits of this labor here on the blog. It’ll be a nice break from the road-trip posts I’ve been bringing over from my old site.

At home, it’s been lovely to see and talk more with Margaret’s children, the three that live with us. They’re hardly children anymore at 19, 23, and 28. They were seldom home as they worked and spent time with friends and partners. I like them, and I think they like me, but we’ve not been close. It doesn’t help that the orderly way of life I’m used to doesn’t line up very well with the bohemian way of life they’re used to. Thia more carefree approach to living appealed to me when I met Margaret, and I’ve adapted to it some. But I still need order and routine. I’m sure Margaret’s kids see me as rigid, and even irritable when order breaks down too much.

They’re just as stuck at home as I am now, and that provides more chances to interact. Where we used to eat dinner together maybe once a week, it’s now five or more times a week. Now that I have blocked downtime on my work calendar we even have random chats about everyday life as they pass through the kitchen, ten feet from my desk and the hub of our home. It lets us all see different sides of each other, and I hope will let us all feel closer and more connected.

One of the best times we’ve ever had as a family was a couple Saturdays ago when neither Margaret nor I could face making one more big dinner. I called the Mexican place around the corner and brought in a feast. We all sat around the table and bantered and laughed. Laughter is such the thread that stitches families together.

Other isolation reports from Christopher May, brandib, Simon, and Dan James.


Remembering Mariah

A sad anniversary passed quietly the weekend before last. It’s been a year since our son, Jeff, lost his wife, Mariah.

They had been married but a short time when she died. But it was clear that they were the love of each others’ lives.

We’ve all grieved this loss in our own ways over the past year. It crushed Jeff. It was also especially hard for my wife and our daughter, who had close relationships with Mariah.

I had been slow to get to know Mariah, so for me her death was primarily a deep shock. But it was a shock too far, after a year (at the time) of serious life challenges for our family. It sapped me of all energy for months. It reduced my attentiveness and effectiveness at work. While they didn’t tell me why they fired me, this could have contributed.

Jeff wound up moving back in with us while he got his life together, but now he’s ready to fly free again. It seemed almost perfect when our tenant abruptly moved out of our rental house in January. We would paint, replace carpet, and do some needed repairs, and Jeff would then rent it from us.

We’ve discovered some serious problems with the house, which I’ll write about on Wednesday. They threaten to delay or derail the plan.

We had hoped the house would be ready in time for Jeff to welcome his new daughter into the world. Yes, that’s right, Jeff is going to be a dad, and I’ll have my first grandchild. This wasn’t a planned pregnancy but this little girl is very much wanted and will be deeply loved. She should arrive in late May.


Magic family moments

My uncle Richard was laid to rest on Friday. Given his military service, he chose a military funeral. It was brief. Taps was played, the flag was folded and presented to my aunt Suzanne, we drove away.

It’s funny how families turn out. Who knew that my grandparents were the glue holding us all together? We were broken in ways families break when some are alcoholics, but love was abundant. We used to have wonderful family times together, usually at their home on a small lake in southwest Michigan. But after my grandparents died, both in 1987, we all went our separate ways.

I see Uncle Jack every couple years. I was always partial to him; he used to take me fishing as a teenager where he spoke to me as an adult. It devoted me to him. I hadn’t seen Uncle Richard in probably 20 years. He and Suzanne used to come to Indianapolis about once a year for a military memorabilia show. He was a collector and he always rented a booth. I’d go visit. But they stopped, and that was that.

I hadn’t seen Richard and Suzanne’s two children, my cousins, since my grandmother’s funeral. Edward and I spoke briefly but he was busy with his active young son. Patricia hugged me harder than I think I’ve ever been hugged.

Nor had I seen my uncle Dennis since that funeral. His bad behavior that day estranged several of us from him, and frankly I had no desire ever to see him again.

So imagine my surprise when I ended up driving Dennis, Jack, and my mom — the three surviving siblings — from the cemetery to the restaurant where we’d all chosen to gather. Imagine my delight when the three of them sang songs together that they remembered from when days were better. I sang right along when they got to this old novelty tune:

It was a magic moment. It reconnected me to those good days, and healed old wounds.

Still, I expect nothing will change. I’ll see Jack every year or two as always, but everybody else only at the funerals that, given our ages, are bound to come frequently now.

We can’t go back and live the last 32 years differently. We all were who we were, and we all went through what we went through, and it etched the paths of our lives as if predestined.

Film Photography

Postwar memories on Kodachrome

My wife’s parents are pushing 90, which is apparently the age when you no longer care about the lifetime of stuff you’ve accumulated. When they moved into assisted living they left behind their house and most things in it, and declared no interest in ever going back.

My wife disposed of their unwanted stuff and put the house on the market. While helping her sort I came upon boxes filled with color slides, the vast majority of which are Kodachromes. They showed images of my mother-in-law as a teenager with her family, as a student at the University of Pittsburgh, and as a young wife with my father-in-law. Given her age, and given notes on a very few slides, these images are from about 1946 through the early 1950s.

These would be memories that my wife’s family would value seeing. So I brought them home and scanned all 743 of them, and shared them via Dropbox with the family. I haven’t asked the family’s permission to share with you photos that are obviously of family members. But I think it’s safe to share these photos of places the family visited. Because I think you’ll agree that they’re delightful.


I have little idea where most of these images were made, or why. As an aside, I realize that some poor eventual grandchild of mine might be similarly puzzled over my photographs, should he or she come upon them. I should document them better.


But for now just enjoy the great Kodachrome color. And for the camera geeks in this audience, you’ll enjoy knowing that some of these images are on 35mm film with its 36x24mm image, and others are on 828 film with its 40x28mm image. Both films are 35mm wide, but 828 was a traditional roll film with backing paper. I found a Kodak Pony 828 camera with these slides; I wonder if it was used to make any of these images.


Enjoy the scenery. While the people who made these slides were clearly not accomplished photographers, they captured some lovely scenes.


This family loved to go. The slides record planes, trains, and ships, and the places they reached on them.

IMG_20180302_0042 TWA Airplane - County Airport - Summer 1947

Here the photographer was about to board a boat to go see the Statue of Liberty. I guess this runs in the family — Margaret and I and two of our kids did much the same thing a couple years ago; see those photos here.


Our cruise merely passed by Lady Liberty; this cruise stopped on the island.


The slides include many images of Canada. From my mother-in-law’s stories I gather that they either lived in Vermont or at least had property there, which made Canada an easy place to visit.

I’d love to know what bridge this is. I did about a half hour of research trying to figure it out with no luck. My whole life Canada’s flag has been the maple leaf, but that certainly wasn’t the case in the late 1940s.


As I try to piece together story from these slides, I believe the family took at least one extensive trip through eastern Canada. I believe this image to be somewhere along the Ontario-Quebec border.


The family also traveled domestically. This is Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Check out especially the signs for Routes 501 and 528 in the image, with the Civil Defense logos on them. Apparently in the early 1950s Massachusetts had a set of numbered, marked routes for use in times of national crisis, when main routes might be needed for military use. What a time the early Cold War years must have been.


Speaking of route markers, here’s a photograph of the T junction of Vermont state highways 111 and 105. A little roadsleuthing helped me find that this is near Derby, in the northeast corner of Vermont. Click this link to see on Google Maps Street View what this looks like today.


Downstate from Derby is the city of Rutland. 70 years ago, its fair always began on Labor Day. Maybe it still does.


My mother-in-law may have been a majorette in the marching band while she studied at Pitt — there are several photos of her in such a uniform. There are also several photos of the band on the ball field. This is the best of them.


I’m betting this is Pittsburgh. I’d love to know exactly where, and whether the buildings are all still there.


It’s too bad that these slides were stored in random order, and were processed before Kodak started stamping processing dates on the slide mounts. It made it challenging to group these photos into their stories. I made a stab at it for the family and hope some of them can refine the organization more.

I’d better get busy documenting my photos. I just keep them in a folder system organized by date. If I wrote a Readme file in each folder I’d be doing future family a favor — if I’m so fortunate that some photo geek, maybe even yet unborn, stumbles upon them after I’m no longer interested.

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Stories Told

The sounds of Christmas

This Christmas memory was originally posted in 2009.

The Christmas season begins for my family when we put up our tree shortly after Thanksgiving. But it’s really not trimming the tree itself that does it – it’s that as we string the lights and hang the bulbs, we listen to the traditional Grey family holiday CDs for the first time. So it’s really the music that ushers in the season for us.

And so it was when I was a child. Mom would drag out the big “portable” record player and her short stack of Christmas records and twist the volume knob up high enough that you could hear the music in the front yard. The whole neighborhood knew Christmas had arrived!

Mom favored Christmas music in pop, standards, and jazz styles, and her record stack reflected that. One of her records, Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas, has been part of the family tradition since it was issued in 1945. My mother’s parents bought it as an album of 78-RPM discs, one song per side. Mom had it as a vinyl Lp, and I of course have it as a CD. You can own it today, too, as it is the best-selling Christmas album of all time, even though a few years ago the knuckleheads at the record company renamed it White Christmas.

But of all of Mom’s Christmas records, I liked those by Johnny Mathis the best. Johnny really gets Christmas, from hopeless sinner to joyful child. I just can’t help but sing along! When the boys and I decorate the tree, I play Johnny Mathis first.

Johnny has recorded many Christmas albums over the years but his first two are the best. His first one, also named Merry Christmas, was released in 1958. It featured lush arrangements by Percy Faith and his orchestra. But Johnny’s 1963 Sounds of Christmas is, for me, the benchmark against which I measure all other Christmas music. Johnny moves seamlessly between bright, bouncy numbers that capture the happiness to which we all aspire during this season, and traditional songs that show the full power of his voice.

Sadly, you haven’t been able to buy this album in its entirety since the 1960s. Capitol Records reissued it in the early 1970s on one of its budget labels, deleting two songs in the process, and only that abridged collection has survived. You can buy it on CD today as Christmas with Johnny Mathis. It is better than nothing.

Yet I yearned for the two deleted songs. When I discovered many years ago that Mom still had her heavily worn 1963 pressing, I recorded it on cassette. Then a couple years ago I digitized those songs into my computer, ripped Christmas with Johnny Mathis in as well, arranged the songs in the original order, and burned my own custom Sounds of Christmas CD. I made a copy for Mom, too.

If you have wished for those missing songs, then I offer them to you here in glorious mono, with all the scratches, pops, and distortion you expect from a record that was played until it was almost worn out. First is what I consider to be the definitive version of The Little Drummer Boy.

By far the best track on the album is Have Reindeer Will Travel. As my mom says, it just isn’t Christmas without the doop-doopee-doos! You’ll know what I mean when you hear the song.