Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Walking Among the Ghosts and Lichens

Here’s a new idea for you. What have you been doing for exercise this winter—this socially distanced, pandemic winter, when half of what we need, really, is to just get out of the house?

Well, we’ve been taking walks out at Riverview Cemetery—one of Jefferson City’s big nondenominational cemeteries with rolling hills, lots of big, mature trees, and curvy, winding paved roads. It dates back to the 1910s.

We first started taking walks there in early December when we went to decorate my peoples’ graves—we realized how ideal it was as a walking location.

You want social distancing? There are very few people there—most folks don’t get out of their cars, and when they do, they stay close to whatever grave they’re visiting (decorating).

You want safety and solitude? Unlike walking on city streets, there’s no one brushing past you, and no traffic or noisy mufflers roaring by. You want fresh air? No stinky black exhaust fumes. Cemeteries are quiet places.

And we’re not superstitious. Neither of us is squeamish about being at the cemetery—we’re always intrigued and interested, reading the stones, noting the fresh graves (“ooh, do you think they died of COVID?”), straightening up dislodged decorations, etc. Indeed, we think of cemeteries as nice places. A place were mortality and eternity walk together in harmony.

Once, we came upon about a dozen deer walking around among the tombstones. When they noticed us, they all ran into the nearby woods. I’m pretty sure that was on Christmas Day. Yeah, indeed. We went walking there after Christmas dinner.

And the lichens! Championship flavoparmelias, bright orange xanthorias, sinewy ramalinas, ruffly parmotremas, etc., etc., etc., on the stones and the trees. Gorgeous, amazing organisms that make you glad to be stationed here on planet Earth for a time.

I guess cemetery trees get just the right amount of open sunshine, combined with lower air pollution and little mechanical disturbance, to grow nice, big perfect circles of lichens.

Sue and I probably look like weirdos out there, peering so closely at the trees and taking pictures. So far, no one has complained about us or asked us to leave.

Taking walks in cemeteries? We can recommend it!

Please enjoy some of the pictures I’ve taken on our walks.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

COVID Entertainments

Something about January makes me rather reflective. I guess it’s that the holiday busy-ness is over, and it’s usually always cold or grim enough outside that I don’t want to be outdoors, and that there’s not much yard work to do, anyway.

But before we got cooped up inside, watching TV and what passes for TV these days, we spent lots of time outside. Starting in March and continuing through October, we spend a lot of time in the backyard, enjoying each other's company.

When COVID appeared in the United States in March, it immediately affected big cities on the coasts. But while people in those areas quite reasonably freaked out and began to adapt to being stuck inside their high-priced urban apartments and missing contact with the zillions of big-city people they otherwise would see every day on their work commutes, at that time COVID wasn’t yet affecting us here in Missouri much at all. Naturally—just like cultural trends and fashion, the middle of the continent lags behind. Which proved deceptive—around here, most of us started taking measures in mid-March, but there was not much sign of the disease in our area. It really hadn’t gotten here yet. Hospitals kept up with cases. Only a few people had died. This probably fed the opinions of people who thought it was a hoax.

Our midwestern numbers started their steep climb in the summer and fall. I’m still amazed at how many supposedly practical, hard-headed, no-nonsense midwesterners didn’t watch and learn from the people on the coasts. I mean, looking over at someone else’s test is only illegal when you’re in school. But in everyday life, looking over your shoulder at others just common sense. Even though we had low numbers for so long, it made good sense for midwesterners to take precautionary measures: With so many people not following guidelines for one reason or another (or, despite all reason), it wouldn’t have taken much for an infected person to hop on a plane or drive into Missouri and start infecting people willy-nilly.

So, Sue and I have basically stayed away from folks since March. We wear masks when in public. We do go out for groceries and other needed purchases. We also get groceries and supplies for my folks and deliver them. (And we wear masks when we visit my parents.) We go to doctor and dentist appointments. We go to haircuts—though there have been some postponements, as our salon has had times when it could not be open. We initially made a point to spend money at our favorite local restaurants a few nights a week, getting carryout, to help them economically. For example, we bought wine from Vines on a carry-out basis.

But our restaurant patronage, even with carry-out purchases, has dwindled as the local government has never placed restrictions on restaurants or even bars, and there are plenty of people in this city, swallowing rightwing propaganda, who think COVID is somehow a hoax. With so many of them around and going to restaurants and bars unmasked, we opt to just stay away. Apparently the leaders in this city think that the best way to keep restaurants and shops in business is to have no restrictions at all; instead, it’s “do what y’all are comfortable with,” and then businesses just close temporarily whenever they find out someone in there had the ’rona. (“Oopsie.”) I guess that’s a plan, of sorts.

But it really just means that people like us, who really do not want to get sick, or to carry and spread the disease to others, are uncomfortable going into most places in town, even for the five to fifteen minutes we may have to wait when our pick-up order isn't ready on time. Some groceries, for example, insist on masks; others don’t and thus attract more than their fair share of anti-maskers, potential virus spreaders. You have to look carefully at the signs on the doors, to gauge the degree of danger within a business.

So we’ve decided we can’t feel responsible for the success of local businesses. Apparently, they are getting plenty of customers without us. I would feel better about shopping and dining out and getting carry-out—and I’d be more likely to do so—if most people around here took the virus seriously. Or if a local ordinance made it so that everyone was required to wear masks, meaning that business owners could shrug and say, “Well, we all have to do it, so please wear a mask.” But whatever. The lackadaisical people might finally have to change their attitudes and behaviors once the new, more easily-transmissible variant becomes widespread this spring.

I keep thinking the same grim notion: that people around here, and in other small-town, hinterland areas, simply will not take the disease seriously until someone they know dies from it, or until the dead are stacked like cordwood in the streets. The bad math of the anti-maskers often goes like this: “99 percent of people who get COVID don’t die from it, so what’s the problem?” I say: Bad math, because in a town the size of Jefferson City, 1 percent of the population is 430 souls. In the United States, 1 percent is some 3,282,395 people, dead. And the notion of “surviving” COVID is problematic, as many people who don’t die from it nevertheless suffer long-term, possibly permanent health effects and disability as a result: strokes, lung conditions, migraines, etc. And you know that if the insurance companies have their way, they would like to return to the days when they could zap you for preexisting conditions—oh, they’d be happy to sell you insurance, but at a higher rate, or a policy that won’t cover the very things you need—and having had COVID would be a reason to dock you.

So, our lifestyle has changed. With us eating out less, I’m cooking much more. Spring, summer, and fall, we enjoyed grilling and eating in the backyard. Many evenings, with the firepit. It was fun.

And I’ve perfected my pizza-from-scratch making—booyah! We’ve been saving a lot of money on food, since we’re mostly eating from scratch. We also save a lot on beverages, since restaurants have such a tremendous markup on those. We’ve both lost some weight—it turns out my cooking must be fairly healthy, or else we eat smaller portions than we would at restaurants. It’s certainly not because of more exercise.

Indeed, reviewing the past year, I realized we’ve watched more TV than usual. Which is to say, we watched TV. Ordinarily, from spring until fall, I listen to Cardinals baseball radio broadcasts whenever it’s convenient. It’s the soundtrack for summer evenings. Like, while doing the dishes. Or working the crossword and Cryptoquip. This year, I really missed the baseball broadcasts. Summer just wasn’t the same without it. Then, when we did finally get a baseball season, it was weird. That fake crowd noise! But at least we had some kind of season. I have a new appreciation for the ability of professional sports to deliver us from the tedium or pain of our daily lives.

So what did we do? We don’t get cable, so everything we watched was online: YouTube, Facebook videos, Netflix, or whatever. So here’s some of what has entertained us.

First on the list was the Metropolitan Opera! With its live performances closed because of the pandemic, the Met has been offering nightly broadcasts of its years of archived HD performances. These are beyond cool! The first one we watched was La Fille du Régiment, on March 20, starring the energetic coloratura Natalie Dessay in a hilarious comedic role, and Juan Diego Flórez as her love interest, a charming Swiss villager capable of singing multiple high Cs. The live performance was in 2008, but we didn’t see it then, so it was all new to us! They’re still showing these encore performances—a different opera each night, and each one is available for viewing for 24 hours. Check it out on the Met’s website.

Another source of entertainment was a variety of our favorite musicians who have been posting regular or occasional house concerts on Facebook. These are fun and sometimes . . . interesting. We’re so used to hearing pop musicians via professionally engineered recordings, or in concerts with full bands where professional sound technicians work to perfect what booms out of the speakers. But here were these musicians, in their living rooms or music rooms, sitting alone with their guitars, sometimes reading off of music, telling stories, and occasionally squinting at their devices and responding to live comments . . . suddenly looking like real people negotiating their video devices, instead of being completely polished, shining icons. It’s refreshing. Some of these we’ve watched were Melissa Etheridge, the Indigo Girls, and Cris Williamson. I think it really takes a lot of guts to offer such casual performances, often from their own homes.

Of these, perhaps my favorite has been Lucie Blue Tremblay, a French-Canadian singer-songwriter who’s a legend in the women’s music genre. Bonjour, Lucie Blue! She has become a US citizen and, per her website, “In the summers you can find Lucie and Pat managing their new guest house ‘The Princess & The Sea Nova Scotia’ as they live life deeply and gently in a wonderful fishing community on the Bay of Fundy.”

Their live Facebook events have been really fun. In the first of these that we saw, in midsummer, Lucie and Pat were simply walking around the pandemic-empty tourist town of Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, stopping in shops and showing us the sights, playing a song or two, say, in a mostly empty ice cream parlor or in a local park. Keeping people’s spirits up—including ours.

On the flip side of these casual, and I’m sure they would all admit, less-than-professionally-engineered performances, we’ve also seen some very slick, well-rehearsed and well-engineered performances by Sue’s favorite performer these days, Brandi Carlile. In case you didn’t know, Brandi and her family, and the three men who are in her group, and their immediate (and interconnected) families, all live more or less in a compound in the Seattle area. Thus, they basically have a bubble in which they’re all able to interact with each other with few restrictions.

To raise funds for charitable causes, and to provide money for their idle road crew, who would otherwise have plenty of paying work traveling to all their concerts, Brandi and co. have had a series of live pay-per-view concerts. They basically play one of her albums as a single concert. I think we’ve seen all of them. There was even a live “Still Home for the Holidays” Christmas concert broadcast from her living room. As I understand it, in their compound, they have a bona fide recording studio that easily doubles as a stage for these programs. Nice lighting, videography, and sound. The music is polished and rich; they can be together as needed to rehearse. But since it’s live and informal, there’s a fun sense of spontaneity. We’ve enjoyed these a lot. We’ve even watched a few twice!

Other entertainments we’ve enjoyed have been on Netflix, which we finally broke down and subscribed to. We tried hard not to binge-watch The Crown, once its new season was finally released. We watched a lot of old movies—Sue’s a big fan of Joan Crawford. Sue subscribed to Criterion, so we have a plethora of nifty old classic movies to watch. And on Netflix, we watched several old Star Trek shows; for instance, we looked at the (generally humorous) Lwaxana Troi episodes of Next Gen and DS9; then we watched all the Vic Fontaine episodes from DS9. All quite fun and diverting; we didn’t watch any of the episodes about dysfunctional, evil, orange-colored authoritarian aliens hell-bent on destroying the universe.

Then, of course, we enjoyed a lot of miscellaneous Christmas programming on Netflix. I’d kind of forgotten how fun TV can be.

Any videos watched on a device can be watched on a laptop, and anything can be plugged into a screen, so we watched a lot of non-programming programming together, too. Chief among these were the offerings of Virtual Railfan on YouTube. Our default is the live webcam from the Amtrak station at La Plata, Missouri. VR keeps adding new webcams, so there’s always something to enjoy. Fort Madison, Iowa, was new this year, for example, and it shows not only the train tracks but also boats, barges, and bald eagles on the Mississippi, and the turning bridge over the river. Plus, every few days, VR posts “grab bag” videos that compile the most unusual and interesting moments from all the cameras: bears crossing the road late at night in Revelstoke, British Columbia; cars that crept too far forward at intersections getting “knighted” by railroad crossing gates in La Grange, Kentucky; and a bewildering variety of executive, heritage, and anniversary locomotives, “meets,” “races,” “power moves,” “slugs,” unusual cargoes, rusty old boxcars bearing logos of “fallen flags,” railroad employees waving at the cameras and giving horn salutes, and more. The chat is well-moderated, cordial, and informative. Thousands of people tune in to VR to watch trains, chat while waiting for trains, and forget our troubles for a while.

Well, wherever you are, I hope you’re well and staying entertained. Stay safe, my friends!

Friday, January 22, 2021

Ukulele Fun

So, what have you done in the past year that you had no idea you’d be doing?

We have been playing our guitars and ukuleles more than we’d imagined. Especially since, until November of 2019, we didn’t have any ukuleles except for the lame, cheap soprano uke I’d gotten in college (or whatever) and never changed the strings on.

But in November 2019, Sue got me a sweet little tenor ukulele. It’s even got built-in pickups and outlet for an amplifier (ha ha ha ha) as well as a built-in electronic tuner. The latter is rather handy.

Sitting around in our house, and in our backyard, has been rather conducive to playing some occasional chords on the fretted instruments. It’s been very relaxing and pleasant, and very old-school.

Sue, especially, has made great strides in her guitar and ukulele skills. She’s been working from YouTube instructional videos as well as downloading exercises. She’s been plugging along at a steady pace with her practice—the logical, compound-interest plan—and she’s gotten really pretty good!

For Christmas, I got her a nice little baritone ukulele. It’s tuned just like the highest-pitched four strings of a regular guitar.

As for me, I have more theoretical background, more of an overview of how it’s supposed to work, how to go about staying in tempo, and which chords usually go together . . . but that doesn’t mean anything about my ability to actually perform. In that department, I rely on the finger and strumming patterns I’d learned in high school.

The fun part is just relaxing and tuning in to each other’s chord patterns and musical ideas. Just going with the flow. Kinda like how we’re all coping with the pandemic, if we’re lucky.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Shameful, What I'm Doing

You can take the word shameful two ways, as in “I should be ashamed of myself,” but also as “I am shameful—full of shame—and I’m trying to make amends somehow.”

It’s not as if I haven’t meant to post blogs these past few years; I have, in fact, prepared all over the place for them. I’ve taken pictures and made videos. I’ve even written entire posts . . . then simply failed the last, critical step: the posting.

Blogger has gotten stupider to use in the last ten years. You have two ways of posting, as plain text, where you can edit codes yourself (“HTML view”), or in the semi-convenient “Compose view.” Neither has ever been completely convenient, but now the Compose view is bananas with the extraneous codes that it adds (after using it, peek at the HTML codes, and you can hardly find your actual text anymore!). Meanwhile, the HTML view no longer provides simple niceties like automatically transforming hard returns into paragraph breaks. Not that I can see, anyway.

So now that I’ve been coding it mostly myself, posting takes more time and it feels more like work. Fortunately, there are still buttons for uploading links, images, and videos, but anyway . . . This last step—putting the content online—has been irksome enough that I’ve gotten way behind in posting.

So, while I have some time without yardwork, and no big work crunches, by golly, I’m posting some older material. To mess up everyone, I’m posting them retroactively, dating them on the actual dates I composed them, and would have posted them, if I hadn’t gotten sidetracked by other things first. So they’re suddenly shuffled into my blog as if they’d always been there.

I can picture people checking my blog, rubbing their eyes, and going, Hey, where’d that post come from?? I didn’t see it before! Am I losing my mind?

If you want to find these new, but older posts, you’ll just have to scroll down and look for something you hadn’t seen yet. Hint: anything posted as 2018, 2019, and 2020 might be “new.” Another hint: these new/old posts may go back at least as far as August 2017, when we had the big eclipse!

So, I am ashamed of myself—so much so, that I won’t hesitate to alter history by making it look like I’d been posting all along. Maybe then, I won’t feel like such a slacker.