We just did two live concerts!

Even with the masks, it was an incredible experience. Appearing live in concert usually is.

Not every singer I’ve known enjoys performing in public, a situation that can be anxiety-inducing. Yes, even chorus members suffer butterflies. Going on stage or the equivalent is a much different encounter than singing together in a rehearsal space, perhaps even in a circle facing each other.

Wisely, our part of the program was shorter than usual, reflecting the Covid-restricted rehearsal schedule and our return after two years of distancing and general inactivity. Our vocal cords were rusty and have had to get in running order again.

Even after some of the pop standards I’d sung in the Boston Revels autumn equinox affair on the banks of the Charles River, I still didn’t expect to be performing a rock hit, much less a five-part arrangement that was mostly counterpoint with some wildly shifting time signatures. REM’s “Shiny Happy People,” anyone? It’s more sophisticated than I would have believed, even with a bass part that felt, well, like playing air bass guitar.

The Wailin’ Jennys’ “One Voice” and Eric Whitacre’s “Sing Gently” were gorgeous paeans to the art of vocal music made when we unite as one, in this case including singers and audience.

There was the premiere of conductor John Newell’s five-part memorial to longtime Eastport arts inspiration Joyce Weber, “Lux Aeterna.” I hope we did it justice.

The traditional spiritual “Keep Your Lamps” was lively fun with a bouncy piano accompaniment and some fine bass lines, something that’s not always a given.

Dan Campolieta’s passionate setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Will There Really Be a Morning” gave us males a chance to sit out and just listen.

The heart of a concert is the audience, somehow completing the art at hand and making it real. I’ll add there’s a parallel with a readership for a writer or poet or a table of diners for a chef.

The arts center’s upstairs performance space seats about 120, so we were close to an audience of family, friends, and neighbors sharing our love of making music together.

How can I not be looking forward to more?

What’s the future of retail after Covid?

We all know the boost the Covid shutdown gave to online shopping and delivery. Ordering from the comfort of home, when everything went well, could be a pleasure. For some of us, it even meant being able to find exactly what we wanted, even after we had tried without success to find the item in a bricks-and-mortar store.

Of course, it could also be exasperating, as I discovered when a promised item failed to arrive before Christmas, even though it had been ordered more than a month before, and cancellation and refund weren’t available, due to the fine print that the product was being shipped from an independent source rather than the classy brand name. It was finally delivered in February, even after I had finally got the retailer to cancel the purchase.

As we also know, not every website is easily navigated, either.

~*~

I think about that when I look at the vacant storefronts in Eastport’s historic and charming downtown. Just what would fit in here efficaciously? Retail, of course, is the heart of it, along with a mix of offices and studios.

It’s a situation we share with many other communities, where the pleasures of being able to stroll from one option to another are countered by the expectation of easy parking. Just what do we really want or need, actually? More possessions? Services? Treats for the eyes or taste buds?

If you open a store, you’re not going to get rich at it, even though retailing requires a special insight and savvy. To be successful, you’ll also need value-added lines in ways the online rivals can’t compare. Think of the personal touch as a shopper when you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for to fix a particular problem.

Eastport has the additional complications of a small year-round population that swells in the summer, meaning the retail season can boil down to half-dozen prime weeks with a long slowdown in between.

~*~

You’ll hear people talk fondly of the old Woolworth’s or Newberry’s, with their lunch counters and swivel chairs or their extensive fabric selection or whatever, or the way these emporiums anchored the block. Not so for the dollar stores or Walmart.

I’m well into a stage of de-collection and downsizing, so I hesitate to add more possessions. Still, when I walk into a place like the Rock & Art store in Ellsworth or Bangor, I can be tempted.

Obviously, I don’t have the answer for what will revitalize the district, but my guess is that it will be an array of things not currently in our vision. Who would have thought of brewpubs a decade or two ago, for instance?

Or, as they used to say in the days of black-and-white television, “Please stay tuned.”

Mortality and the passage of time

Realizing I really did need to get some regular physical exercise last winter, I finally caved in and ventured into the senior center for fitness class twice a week. It took three friends to nudge me into it, and it’s embarrassing to have to admit what 50 years of neglect have done to my body. I’m a long way from my yoga glory. Well, I’m also the only male in the circle, not that it inhibits the lively, enlightening, and laughter-riddled banter that occurs while we’re plodding through the routine. Their hour-plus dialogue could fill a hit sit-com or bestseller novel, if only I could find a plot. Well, much of the running commentary there is also about ailments afflicting folks in the community, sometimes leading to offering rides to their specialists or food deliveries – what I’ll call “good gossip.” And, oh yes, I much prefer to refer to the place as the Old Firehouse, skirting around the stigma of “senior center.”

That has me recalling an aside years ago when our managing editor told of a phone call he’d received from a reader complaining about being referred to as elderly.

“How old are you,” my boss asked and was told 78. “I see,” was the best he could respond with.

After that, I always struck “elderly” from news copy, along with “little” from child or kid.

Getting older is a multistage passage, most notably with the skin and stiffening joints, but the physical changes are only part of the experience.

One part is an awareness of being on borrowed time. Even when I was editing obituaries, I noted how many of the deceased were younger than me, and that was a little more than ten years ago.

Moving around the country has lessened some of the impact of aging, since I haven’t had to watch us grow older together. My high school classmates, for instance, will always never be more than 18 in my mind. Ditto for others left behind, they’re all frozen in time, even the few who are still in correspondence.

So another part is hearing that more of these colleagues of my generation are passing – a situation akin to personally knowing more people who have had been diagnosed with Covid and the recognition that it’s not just multiplying “out there” somewhere – that is, knowing only the abstract – but close at hand.

I recently posted two memorial minutes of Friends I worked with clerking Dover Meeting and have been reflecting on others in my Quaker circles.

Now I get word of the passing of an esteemed reporter who was six years younger than me, and somehow it hits more than those from the workplace who died earlier. To my surprise, it has nothing to do with how close we were in our daily interactions. (He and I weren’t, apart from a comment or two in passing. I should note that he produced “clean copy,” requiring little editing, and that meant little interpersonal friction.)

In his case, I think the blow comes as a sense of an end of an era. He carried institutional weight in covering the New Hampshire’s political scene and soared nationally during the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. With the decline of newspapers in general, his replacement at the statewide Union Leader will never achieve such prominence or influence.

What a joy to be finally rehearsing together in person

I had no idea how we’d sound as an ensemble or even whether I’d measure up. Officially, I’ve been a member of the choir more than a year now, but all of that time, we gathered only on Zoom. We soon learned to mute ourselves for even the warmups, and our director did accomplish a miracle in taking our individual home-recorded stabs at two pieces and blending them into a virtual performance that wound up sounding better than we had any right to expect, especially considering my horrid best efforts. I simply assumed he used only the finest voices in his studio note-by-note studio wizardry while mercifully sidelining the rest of us or at least me. I wouldn’t say that any of the other pieces recorded before Covid really offered a clue of what we’d be like now.

So Monday night was a kind of debut for us, our return to weekly live, in-the-flesh rehearsals at the arts center, nary a laptop in sight.

When we sat down in our semi-circle, just 15 of us, I had reason to be dubious. For starters, like the population in general around here, our median age skewers topside. Voices do change as they age. For another, a small body like this leaves no room for error, each member is more exposed and requires more precise breathing than we’d face in a group of 50 to 80, as I’d been privileged to have before. Five individuals were absent, all with decent excuses. Twenty can make for a fine professional chorus, but we’re amateurs of varying degrees.

I’d already met one of the basses and knew of a third, the one who can hit notes four steps lower than I’ll ever manage even with a heavy cold. And then, praise be, I was introduced to a fourth section member. Go team!

We were all masked as a Covid precaution, but even after ordering special singers’ coverings, we had no idea how freely we’d be able to breathe and enunciate.

I didn’t even know how well I could follow our conductor. You get adjusted to different styles of leadership and expression. On Zoom, he was always trying to juggle a keyboard, a score, maybe a screen-sharing insertion or a recorded track, plus beat time and throw cues to the little squares at the top of the screen while we wound up a half count off the beat as a consequence of delays in transmission or electronic hiccups.

All that was now irrelevant. Taa-taa! The time of launch arrived. We got our first pitch and then the upbeat, and when we opened our mouths and uttered the first notes, everything melted gloriously. And that was just in warmup exercises.

When we turned to the pieces we’ve been practicing at home, we were joined by a pianist who had already impressed me with a recent recital. Our director could turn his full attention to leading us cleanly and expressively. Yes, his mask prevented his mouth from conveying the words, but not every conductor does that anyway.

There were rough edges and other imperfections, but there was also a palpable feeling of support through the presence of each other and a certainty that we can accomplish what needs to be reached in time for two concert performances a month from now.

It’s exciting. Making music with them was one of the big reasons I had moved to Eastport. I liked their repertoire, akin to what I’d done in Boston, and I like the fact I can walk to our performance space. Learning something new about music, my own abilities, and us as a community is invigorating.

What are you especially enjoying as we come out of Covid restrictions?

Ready for a few recent thoughts arising from all of our teleconferencing (trademark?)?

(By the way, I’m wondering if that “?)?” is a first in the English language.) (Along with opening a writing in a parenthetical mark.)

To the point: After all of this time Zooming, specifically, I’ve finally found a visual background that works for me, almost a stage setting.

In our new old house, my workstation is in what’s also my bedroom rather than somewhere up in an attic. In common with many New England homes, there’s no closet, so when the laptop’s camera is in its usual, sharp focus, my hanging clothes are in full view.

How embarrassing. Or candid. At least I’m not naked, in all my senior-citizen glory.

I’ve played with several photographic backgrounds as alternatives, but they do use up valuable bandwidth, sometimes even interfering with the signal or pixilating my face, and they get wonky if I so much as twitch.

Moving myself and the said laptop to another room gets complicated, especially when I need to reach for a book or paper (back in the earlier room) for reference. New lighting conditions are an additional consideration.

Do we all need a stage manager or producer or even a dramaturge working on our behalf, much less sound engineers? I hope not!

So the solution, where low-tech me is? Voila! Or amazement. I chanced upon the “blurred background” option on the Zoom toolbar and like it. In fact, it can even look dramatic, keeping the focus on (drumroll, please) me. Maybe I’ll keep it.

~*~

As long as we’re on the subject of Zoom, does anyone else find conversation or dialogue unnatural and awkward? There’s hesitation when we’d simply join in and then jump out contrasting to talking over each other because we have no eye contact or other non-verbal cues regarding each other. There are times I’m sure I come off cold simply because I’m stepping back to listen yet other times I no doubt seem rude piping up the same moment others do, like drivers all trying to enter an intersection at the same moment.

By the way, I do think our faces are appearing in a less harsh light than we did earlier in this transition.

For a while, it seemed we were all at less ten years older, children excluded. We looked ghastly.

~*~

I’m also discovering there are many people I recognize more by the sound of their voice than by their faces. Maybe it’s a consequence of joining a new community in the age of Covid, but there is a world of difference between individuals unmasked on my computer screen and masked (or not) somewhere out in public, often miles out of context.

How has your Zooming changed? Any advice to share? Or off-the-wall particulars?

Yeah, cabin fever has kicked in

It had to happen, especially after the euphoria of last summer. The return of Covid only intensified it, especially when family and friends came down with it. A letdown was inevitable. The summer people are gone, and Eastport nearly resembles a ghost town.

So here we are.

Cabin fever. The winter blues. The blahs. Even if I weren’t up here living alone, building new friends I can’t quite drop in on yet. Zoom meetings go only so far. Ditto the radio. At least choir practice is resuming, even if we’ll still be doing it online.

Further dampening my spirit was finding myself stuck on breaking through on the next steps for the book. I don’t want to take up new projects till I see this one over the next few hurdles. So I keep nipping away at the edges.

Some nasty weather had me not wanting to leave the house at all, sometimes several days in a row. If only the place weren’t so cold, indoors and out. (And the fuel oil bill comes as a shocker, as does the electrical. Just for me, mostly.)

By now, I’m getting tired of my own cooking. There aren’t a lot of options up here that are better, either. One night I headed down to the brewpub for a cup of zesty soup or an imaginative panini by our resident culinary angels, aka Bocephus, only to find they’ve departed to his relations in Spain for a month. Well, they’ve earned that part and just might return with a supply of smoked paprikia for my wife. Fingers crossed. Otherwise? A boxed Newman’s Own pizza from the IGA managed to suffice.

Obviously, I’m not the only one under this cloud.

The high school actually had a Cabin Fever Week before their winter break, and since I’d be up there anyway for that hour of indoor walking ‘round the gym, I thought I’d follow along.

  • Monday, for instance, had everyone wearing red, pink, hearts, something lovely. Xoxo. Well, it was Valentine’s Day. I could do that.
  • Tuesday was “anything but a backpack” day for carrying books and gear. More of a challenge, considering the gray messenger bag that goes everywhere with me. My eyeglasses, emergency meds, and cell phone got stuffed in parka pockets. As for the kids? It was backpacks.
  • Wednesday? “Wear your best flannel and/or camo. Let’s get real Downeast here, folks.” Now for me, that’s a challenge. My only flannel, apart from the sheets on the bed, was a shirt that’s rather black-and-white rather than the traditional plaid color choices. Forget the splotchy hide-from-the-enemy alternative.
  • Dress for Success came on Thursday, “Come to school Interview Ready.” Gee, I haven’t worn a tie in how many years now? I do, however, still have some loud ones.
  • The week ended with a school spirit activity. My version was having beloved company on the way up for the three-day Presidents’ Day weekend.

The arts center’s Sunday afternoon free series has been a lifeline – if only we could all take off nearby for more.

By the way, I was wrong about the last of those near-zero overnight lows. We’ve had a few of them return, but on the heels of some highs in the 40s and 50s. The trick is to not believe spring is just around the corner, even if you see a robin hopping around on repeated days.

What’s getting you through the depth of winter?

A ‘mild case’ can still be the sickest you’ve ever felt

Here we are, coming up on the second anniversary of the Covid outbreak here and abroad, and we’re still in the midst of its disorder. So much for that initial hope of a two-week or six-week lockdown, max, which even then unfortunately had too many holdouts from the precautions. Can we blame them for leaving the Pandora’s box open for all that’s followed?

Once that first round passed, after its devastation in large urban areas like New York City, we had a breather in which medical procedures were more clearly understood and improved and vaccines became available. We’ve even been able to gather in public again, albeit in fewer numbers and spaced apart while still wearing masks. Surface contamination is no longer a major worry, either.

Where I live, the illness has often seemed to be a distant threat. While I have friends who came out of retirement to resume long hours as medical professionals, their tales of a stress still seemed confined to largely quarantined hospitals and clinics, even though they were only just down the street. Well, I also got updates from fellow clergy who couldn’t visit patients in person, that sort of thing. Still, two years later, I knew of only two cases in our Friends Meeting, both quite mild. Further east, in remote Washington County, Maine, fewer than 3,000 cases and 43 deaths have been tallied, last I looked, though those figures have nearly tripled since November.

Still, the threat kept getting closer and more personal. The surge in the Omicron variant forced the cancellation of the final Christmas performances of our beloved Boston Revels, for example. Traditionally low-rate New Hampshire recently reported the highest per capita figures in the nation. Our twice-a-month local newspaper’s half-dozen or so obituaries now regularly mention “of Covid complications” as the cause of death. (Nobody, presumably, dies directly of the infection or is at least willing to admit that openly. Am I guessing there’s a social stigma?)

We have endured the screeching dissent and violent reactions from those who feel entitled to do whatever they want in public, regardless of any harm to others, and that seems to be spiking.

How long, though, will it take for the emotional frustration of the other side to erupt?

For starters, there’s a growing weariness among those of us who have been wearing masks and getting our booster shots, in part to protect others from suffering from the illness, while enduring the arrogance of those who pooh-pooh the odds, putting their own “liberty” above the common good, and then putting the rest of the populace at risk while expecting overworked medical professionals to come to their rescue and forcing heart attack patients and crash victims to be juggled about for unavailable intensive-care beds.

Look, I know Christian Scientists who have gotten the shots, not for themselves – remember, they generally avoid doctors as a matter of their faith – but out of a sense of social responsibility for others. In contrast, I’m sensing that many of those who refuse vaccinations are also among those accusing lower-income Americans of “entitlement” when it comes to economic and social support, rather than turning the focus to the One Percent who actually benefit financially from overt entitlement in public legislation and regulation. Are these the same ones who scoff at widespread examples of global warming and impending disaster? The willful ignorance, selfish, self-centered behavior, and bullying outrage me. And before they quote – or misquote – Scripture for their positions, I can imagine them refusing Moses’ orders to paint lambs’ blood above their doors for protection from the Angel of Death – “Who are you to tell me what to do?” – but it’s the firstborn who suffer if they don’t. Drat! I can confess a vindictive urge – you know, of the smite-my-enemies vein – but revisiting the Exodus text, I’m seeing that in only one of the first nine plagues are the Israelites exempted from the evil consequences. Pointedly, all Egyptians, not just the pagans, suffer from Pharaoh’s refusal to act in accord with Divine direction.

No matter what, in the end, reality will win out, though it won’t be selective in choosing its victims.

What happens if this affliction spreads to strike down all who haven’t been vaxxed? Costly treatments that could have been avoided will be borne by all, regardless, through Medicare, insurance companies, and unpaid debts to hospitals, more than by the defiant unvaxxed ill and dying. The workforce will continue to be impacted, too.

The Omicron variant, as we’re seeing, is also hitting vaccinated people, but with lesser impact.

We look at the statistics and hear the stories that the new variety is less deadly but more infectious, along with the note that breakthrough cases among the vaxxed hit far more gently than among the unprotected, but we need to listen more closely.

Unless a patient is in need of a respirator, the diagnosis is to stay home, there’s no room at the hospital. Good luck if you’re living alone, and good luck to the rest of the household if you’re not.

Moreover, it’s considered a mild case unless you’re hospitalized or die.

As for those “mild” cases? More than one person has been quoted as saying they’ve never felt so sick in their life.

So far, I’ve been lucky, but my family’s finally been hit, notably in their recent visit to me. My test and my wife’s came back negative, but not so for the rest, despite all their precautions.

Would coming down sick be a sufficient lesson for the nay-sayers? Or would it make them dig in more deeply in denial?    

 

The turmoil’s turned up, blowing the lid off simmering pot

Let’s take a look.

Over the past year, we’ve witnessed a range of economic jolts that seem vaguely related to the worldwide Covid outbreak, though I’d say the virus only precipitated troubles that would have been inevitable even without it.

The pandemic simply turned up the heat, as it were.

Among the headlines:

  • Soaring prices of houses, many of them going to buyers from California or New York, sight unseen. Who can afford these mortgages? None of us in our old neighborhood could have moved in today.
  • The relocation from big cities to small towns, for those whose jobs can be done from home. Will they stay or fit in? What will their impact be, especially in places that have been economically struggling?
  • A retail apocalypse in the face of rising online shopping – what’s the future of downtown or the malls? (If you’re “going to work” on Zoom, you don’t need to dress up in new clothes, for one thing.)
  • Superrich and corporate takeover of American farmlands – and mobile home parks. Another blow to the middle and lower classes.
  • Systemic problems in the nation’s health-care system, including the uneven distribution of medical services. A fourth of Americans, mostly rural, have no primary physician, and many others are afraid to use the system because of serious past racial abuses. (These appear to be the leading reason many people have not been vaccinated.)
  • The failure of “just-in time,” including the supply-chain issues that have plagued retailers and manufacturers alike. It’s also exposing the vulnerabilities of offshore sourcing to places like China and Indonesia, as well as looming national security weaknesses. (I blame the Walmart influence in shuttering American factories.)
  • While automakers have shut down assembly lines because of the unavailability of computer chips, what we found most striking was all the empty shelves during a run to IKEA, the home design line built on its international flair and savvy. Row after row, empty. So much for our shopping list and research.
  • Inflating food prices. Fuel and weather are only part of the problem. (Well, we should note climate change somewhere in here, though it has nothing to do with Covid.)
  • Customer and voter nastiness, no doubt intensified by the isolation and resentment.

~*~

More telling is the shift in the workplace, with all of the help-wanted signs for jobs that go begging. It’s not that people are lazy, but rather they’ve realized the positions are demeaning, or meaningless, and it costs them more to work than they’re paid. It’s time to admit that minimum wage is insufficient. Many apparently discovered during Covid that their jobs were costing more than they were earning, once child care, transportation, and related costs were factored in.

Add to that the fact that a certain percentage of the populace is, candidly, unemployable – in the old days, you could give them chores around the farm, but even those have been mechanized. So what can they do to still be contributing members of the wider society?

There has been a serious breakdown in the social contract that underpins democracy. And in the work ethic – or ethics, for those who look closer.

For decades now, employers have demanding loyalty but offering none of their own. Sometimes, there’s even a requirement of noncompete agreements, no matter that the worker has paid for the needed education and career. In reality, in a big company, you work for your immediate boss and colleagues and whatever satisfaction you can find – not the remote layers above. The fact is, nobody entering the workforce today will be at the same enterprise at the end of their career. Maybe public service – especially education – will remain the rare exception.

One of the more shocking reports I saw in the past year noted that only a minority of American males between 18 and 65 hold fulltime jobs – I think the figure was just a third of the total. What are the rest doing? School, prison, early retirement, or – as I’m suspecting – under-the-table ventures. They’re not all stay-at-home dads, are they?

~*~

My new community is an interesting place to watch all of this play out. The place has long been stressed economically, with few adequately paying jobs to sustain families, and that’s led to a population outflow.

Qualified contractors, on the other hand, have been booked out solid, as has been the case nationally. (See above housing sales.)

Our new old house needs tons of renovation, but we’re stymied. As my wife says, “I have money I want to give to somebody but just can’t find anyone to take it.” Well, if we had a crew lined up, there would have been the problem of getting building supplies, and then at prices twice what they’d been just months before.

We’re hoping that will all change in the months ahead.

~*~

These are all things that need to be examined closely in the months ahead, especially in the public arena like the upcoming elections, not that I expect much of it will come coherently from the candidates. The fixes, after all, aren’t easy or painless.

In a way, it’s reflected in the matters of even wearing a mask (or not) or getting the vaccine (or not). I’d say Covid has simply made more obvious the deep polarization at work in our nation – and the wider world.

We all have some important and difficult work to do ahead. We can start with small steps.

 

Why we’re all waiting for the border to Canada to really reopen

Having to wait 72 hours for a Covid test result – but don’t you dare delay much longer – as well as the other current restrictions have meant that the U.S.-Canada border really isn’t open, not the way it was before the coronavirus outbreak.

That’s made for a hard burden where I now live. New Brunswick is very much a part of our community. Just about every long-established family has kin on the other side of the boundary. For almost everyone, it’s meant jobs or services or shopping or even cultural pursuits. There are good reasons our local newspaper covers the two adjoining counties, which share the tidal waters and weather. The virus constraints have devastated the economy of the small city of Calais, to our north, which usually carries heavy truck traffic between the two countries as well as local business at groceries, hardware stores, and other retailers and restaurants; likewise for the town of Lubec, to our south, which has the only bridge connection for Campobello Island. Many folks also have property on the other side of the line, or maybe their boat, or even dear ones buried in cemeteries, and are cut off. You go to the dentist and realize the radio is tuned to a Canadian station, that sort of thing. It’s not all one way, either. I would be back to swimming laps in the nearest indoor pool, for instance, only 45 minutes or so distant. The nearest Costco would be only an hour-and-a-half drive off, rather than eight or nine down around Boston. We’d have some fine dining options available, so I’ve been told, as well as museums and nightlife and even festivals.

The local Passamaquoddy population has long been torn by the international division, especially the differing laws regarding Indigenous peoples. I’ve also heard how the already tightening border regulations have changed other interactions. Guys my age have told me about dating girls on the other side of the water (way back then we were all teens), rowing over to court them and then returning (merrily), something nobody could do today without being detained by the Coast Guard, Customs officials, and who knows else. (Not so merrily.)

It’s also dampened summer tourism, especially by travelers who were hoping  to continue on but couldn’t, or by Canadians who usually boost the crowds at our week-long Fourth of July revels and Pirate Festival weekend.

For me, this has been a lesson in the ways seemingly arcane regulations made in distant places can hit home personally. You know, the kind of thing you might glance over in a news story with a shrug, as I would, not anticipating a trip to Europe or a Caribbean cruise or even a cross-country flight anytime soon.

What unexpected ways have you experienced Covid restrictions?