Posing after receiving my second vaccination: After my encounter with the wild turkeys but before meeting Baby Yoda!

It is perhaps befitting an extremely weird year that my final blog entry should revolve around wild turkeys and Baby Yoda. Though at first not obvious soul mates, these types of creatures do fit together in the menagerie of my mind as revealed during my second vaccination and immediately thereafter between February 16-17, 2021.

I will lay it all out for you.

The wild turkeys were unexpected. On February 16, I was duly driving up Otsego County Road 33 on my way to the Otsego County Meadows complex for my second Moderna vaccination. Having had my first vaccination without major side effects a month before and with the weather relatively clear for a February morning in upstate New York, I had few concerns. I was driving the sole car on a country road approaching my destination with a set goal in mind. I was listening to NPR. My second vaccination would put me on the path to immunity. I could teach the in-person part of my dual modality class with confidence. I would be protected from this awful disease and a life of  normality beckoned. Which of course is where the wild turkeys came in.

Let me assure you gentle reader that when a middle-aged professor is carefully driving below the legal speed limit up a country road towards a medical rendezvous the last thing he expects is a flock of not so bright birds sitting on the road. Now don’t get me wrong. I have a certain respect for the glory of the American turkey. Though raised in Canada, I partook of turkey dinners for Canadian Thanksgiving (celebrated in October but I digress). I eagerly adapted to American Thanksgiving and have eaten my fill of this fine bird for the November celebration. However, I was less than thrilled to see them sitting on County Road 33 without a care in the world. I cursed, hit the brake to slow down further, swerved ever so slightly and that did the trick. I avoided turkey catastrophe. The ungainly birds slowly took flight one after the other and thankfully avoided making communion with my windshield. I was safe and so were they. I did reflect briefly on the historical claim that Benjamin Franklin recommended the turkey as the official symbol of the United States rather than the bald eagle. However, I got over it. I got my second Moderna shot and drove home without incident.

Which brings me to Baby Yoda. The second vaccination went well. My arm did not hurt as much as after the first one (minimal Tylenol was needed). I wisely took the next day off from major work duties and thought I would do some academic reading or light work around the house. Boy was I wrong. My brain felt mentally foggy (though I guess my wife and work colleagues would say that was only slightly different from my brain on most days).  To be accurate my brain felt MORE mentally foggy than usual. My arm throbbed a bit. However, I was tired. What better way to spend the day than to lie on the couch and watch streaming of “The Mandalorian”? Which I did. I had been meaning to watch it for ages but have been too busy. As my brain drifted in and out of naps, I had some incredibly lucid dreams. I also met Baby Yoda on screen. Small, green, and wise, Baby Yoda was the polar opposite of those stupid turkeys that I almost collided with the day before. Baby Yoda endured numerous adventures, briefly revealed the powers of “the Force” and ran off with the Mandalorian’ s main character (a bounty hunter who has a fit of remorse) for safer pastures. What could be better?

In closing I hope to see much more of Baby Yoda in the future. I also hope never to see a wild turkey again.


January 15, 2021 will be a day I will always remember. It is the day that I received my first dose of the Moderna COVID vaccine. I drove up to the Otsego Board of Health Meadows complex near Cooperstown on a misty morning past snow covered fields. Once I got there, things moved smoothly. The staff were kind and efficient. The shot was painless. I would love to be able to say that as I drove back the sun broke through, the mist parted and the world shone in brilliant upstate New York winter sunshine. However, that didn’t happen. It was still a grey morning. The mist dissipated slightly and I arrived back at my office. I spent the rest of the day working albeit with a slightly sore left arm.

Still – I could not get over the fact that I had finally been vaccinated. As I am scheduled to teach an in-person section of a class in the Spring semester, I was eligible. I am the first in my immediate family to reach this milestone. I still need a second dose. I still need to be careful. However, I have been vaccinated.

Vaccination. It is just a word. However, after what my family, the nation and the world have been through in the last year it seems to mean so much more.

Vaccination. It hints at new possibilities and a return to a more normal way of existence: A life without masks. A life with actual human interactions. A life with travel. A life that includes going out to the movies, sharing meals with my friends at each other’s houses and all the other small human pleasures that make life worth living. A life that is not under constant threat of extinction. A life without so much suffering and death.

I dearly hope that once all my family is vaccinated that we can actually cross the border into Canada and visit with parents, siblings, nephews, nieces, in-laws, and friends whom we have not seen since summer 2019. I dearly hope that once vaccinations ramp up, my college can return to its usual routine of in-person teaching, student activities, visiting speakers etc. I dearly hope that we can put the pandemic year into the rearview mirror and think about living again.

On November 10, 1942 following almost three years of constant setbacks, the British secured their first major military victory over the German Army at the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt. To mark this occasion, Winston Churchill said the following in a speech at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon in London – “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”. The Second World War still had several years to run to its course but at that moment, hope in victory finally appeared.

It is my fondest wish that January 2021 marks the end of the beginning. I finally have hope that victory over COVID can be secured, however long the battle may be.

pandemic vacation


Can you go on a family vacation during a global pandemic?

With proper planning, suitable paranoia, and limited expectations, the answer is yes. What follows is a short description of the efforts of our family for a getaway during the pandemic summer of 2020. My tale shows that sometimes with a bit of planning, attention to safety, and flexibility, you can still have a bit of joy in the grimmest of times.

At first, I thought the suggestion was insane: “Can we please go on a family vacation?” The question came from my son Jon, who is on the autism spectrum and can get very focused on matters that are important to him. During the peak of the COVID pandemic in Spring 2020 this idea seemed extremely unlikely. With the spike of COVID cases in New York in the Spring, vacationing was the last thing on my mind. During the worst of the Spring COVID surge, my life revolved around teaching all my classes online and nervously venturing out to the grocery store once a week. I did not go to restaurants. I did not socialize with friends. I did not go into my office except briefly some evenings to grab some books or documents. No friends entered our house. It was like being in a siege (or in a prison) with my family as my only real social contacts. The highlight of the week was Friday night take out for supper.

By the summer things did improve a bit. Cases dropped. We kept on our masks and socially distanced from non-family members. We still abided by our rule of having no friends into the house. However, we began to have socially distant social gatherings of a few select friends on our front porch. We had a stone patio put in our backyard and started tentatively to host a few select friends there. We ordered take out and ate it all outside. We felt slightly more normal but were still quite careful. No shared cutlery! No shared drinks! Tons of hand sanitizers! Face masks when you are not eating! Everyone sitting more than six feet apart! By June I began to go into my office a few days a week to do academic work there.

By the time late July rolled around, the vacation idea could not be avoided. Jon persisted. He had a point. By then he was even working a few days a week (masked of course) in the kitchen at Applebee’s as a summer job. He felt a family vacation was a sacred family ritual. I relented.

We had cancelled a huge summer trip to Canada for 2020. We were going to visit our much-loved family in Ontario and then fly out to Newfoundland, Canada’s easternmost province. I had never been to Newfoundland (fondly called “The Rock” by Newfoundlanders). It was the first part of North America visited by Europeans (by the Vikings in the 11th century and John Cabot in the 15th century). It was the last province to join Canada in 1949. It had its own distinct dialect of English, its own extremely potent brand of rum (called Screech), a long history associated with the fisheries and shipping and distinct wooden architecture around the scenic harbor of St. John’s. It had history, scenery, whale and puffin watching tours. Ocean vistas and views beckoned. COVID shattered our Newfoundland plans. We could not cross the border. We did not feel safe undertaking a long vacation. So, we scaled back our expectations.

We settled on Ithaca, New York. I nervously booked a hotel near Cornell University for only 2 nights.  We planned it out so we would eat picnics outside or at restaurants with outdoor dining. My expectations were immediately exceeded when we stopped at Whitney Point (which we had driven through dozens of times on the way to Canada without it registering in my consciousness at all) and found a beautiful park by a lake for a picnic lunch. Upon arrival in Ithaca, we nervously checked into our hotel. We brought wipes to wipe down our hotel room. We wore masks. We got the takeout breakfast from the hotel and ate our muffins on a nearby picnic bench.

While in Ithaca we did not do too much yet it was such a pleasant change from our isolated lives in Oneonta. We went to several beautiful parks and hiked to see waterfalls. We walked around Cornell University. I read a trashy novel in the evenings. In honor of our vegetarian daughter Sara, we ate a great all vegetarian meal at tables outside of the famous Moosewood restaurant. We walked around the Ithaca Commons pedestrian area. We got ice creams. We tried to go swimming at a park at Cayuga Lake, but it rained. It was ordinary. But it was extraordinary. Even with masks, hand sanitizers, a bit of paranoia about keeping socially distant from strangers and no indoor dining or museums, it was great. It was wonderful to break routine and explore even for a bit. We felt rejuvenated. We stayed healthy. All went well.

In the months to come, especially when COVID’s next wave hit with a resurgence in the Fall. I kept telling my ever-patient wife Michelle, “You know, Jon was right about that summer vacation!”  At least we created one pleasant memory from the horrible season of COVID.


“I used to write

I used to write letters

I used to sign my name

I used to sleep at night

Before the flashing light settled deep in my brain” –  Arcade Fire, “We Used to Wait” (from The Suburbs)

It figures that Arcade Fire, a band from Montreal, would speak to my current frame of mind. I am a dual citizen of Canada and the USA who did graduate study in Montreal and am living through the great pandemic of 2020.  What I have been thinking about is this: In our new world of instant connectivity and constant social media interaction, have we lost something vital that helped past generations survive similar uncertainties – the venerable art of letter writing?

I must admit I have always been old fashioned about letter writing. To this day, I still like getting mail. I subscribe to print magazines. Every year I send out an actual hard copy Christmas newsletter and Christmas cards. Perhaps I am a dinosaur.  I have fond memories of getting mail from American grandparents when I was a child growing up in Canada, of receiving notes and letters from my parents when I was living away from home as an undergraduate and sending and receiving countless letters to my future wife when we lived in separate cities during undergraduate summers and graduate school (as well as research trips). In the day – I loved getting postcards too. There would be a professional photo on the front of the card with exotic stamps and a cheery scrawl on the back of the card outlining whatever foreign adventure the sender was on. I always got a kick out of picking up letters from the mailbox, sorting through them and opening them. Letters are so tangible and personal. There is something special when you realize that a person has taken the time to compose some ordered thoughts on a piece of paper by hand and send them your way. Better still, you can read them at leisure. If the letter is long you can even read it in segments and re-read it.  If the letter is meaningful you can keep it for years.

Which brings me to my two points – Why have we lost the art of letter writing and can the pandemic offer a chance at a revival?  I suppose no one writes letters anymore because it takes too long and seems to be too much effort. Better to send a GIF, make a post, send an emoji or tap out a few words on Facebook to “Stay in touch”. However, I would hazard to say that this does not really fill people’s hunger for connection. Social media’s greatest advantages are the ability to send images and quick succinct (hopefully witty) sentences and phrases. It cannot be denied that the ability to chronicle one’s trips, days, adventures by picture sent from mobile phones through Instagram or other apps as well as putting on Facebook gives a sense of immediacy. What I worry about though is that people cannot dig as deep when they have a character limit on Twitter or messaging services. Let’s also admit that there is not often too much contemplation put into most instant communication. The point is not to choose your words carefully but to send them quickly. It gives a dopamine hit to the brain to send and receive such things. Reflection is usually absent. People are busy and the technology exists, so it is used. It all makes sense. However, as Arcade Fire’s words point out – it has also created enormous anxiety over what people are missing or what others are up to.  Maybe no one sleeps at night anymore.

Letter writing is something different. It is almost a form of meditation. By getting out a blank piece of paper you can craft your own tale and tell your own narrative. Events, observations, thoughts over the past few weeks (or months if it has been a while) can flow out of your pen. Inner thoughts not always best shared through social media (which might be reposted to others) can also be revealed. Due to the pandemic, I have not been able to travel to see family in Canada or friends more distant in places like the UK. I have taken my own advice and begun to rediscover letter writing. I took a deep breath, got out some pieces of lined paper and started. I found it very rewarding. Sitting down for 45 minutes to an hour and just writing out my thoughts made me feel more focused and more connected. I was able to explain to myself as I explained to others the meaning of what I have been experiencing through the pandemic. I was able to shape my thoughts and put them into a narrative. It felt personal. It felt real. I felt more relaxed and calmer. When it was done it felt concrete. I put it into an envelope – sealed it up and then had an excuse to get outside and walk to a mailbox. Then (again as Arcade Fire sang) I waited until it was received. Inevitably the recipients got back to me in more modern ways through email or telephone conversations. However, they were as pleasantly surprised to get an 8-page handwritten letter as I was to send it. My mother complimented my letter as “newsy” which is a nice way to put it. I will see if my recipients are inspired enough to write me back but that is beside the point. The art of composing and writing letters was invigorating and I will repeat it. Though they are not always happy about it I have even conscripted my children into writing much shorter letters to their relatives as well.

As a historian I have read and continue to read countless letters from the past. In British archives, I have seen the indecipherable handwriting of Lord Curzon (one-time Viceroy of India). I have read over the letters of other early 20th century worthies like Lord Roberts and Lord and Lady Milner. I have sat in the home of the descendants of female aristocratic leaders like Lady Forster and read her words retrieved from a trunk in the basement of their home. I have held letters written and signed by British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan. I have sat in Hong Kong and read the letters and correspondence of past governors like Sir Murray MacLehose.  When I wrote an article about the Shakespeare Tercentenary of 1916, I did research in the National Archives in Washington, DC and read letters by President Wilson. There is something enthralling about holding the correspondence of long dead figures you are studying. They literally spring to life out of the page. I have no illusions that I will have any long-term historical importance myself. However, in a small way by reviving letter writing on my own I feel I am keeping the record going as well as reaching out to people I care about. Letter writing is both therapeutic and meaningful to me. Maybe others may rediscover it too.

To close with more words from Arcade Fire – (also from “We Used to Wait”)

“It may seem strange how we used to wait for letters to arrive

But what’s stranger still is how something so small can keep you alive”


It seems obvious in retrospect that history does not stand still even during a biological emergency. Long simmering problems like racial discrimination and racial inequality do not go away when plague stalks the land. Police brutality does not cease. Injustice does not take a break. However, it does lead to an important question:

How does one protest during a pandemic?

I suppose the answer comes in two words: Purposefully and carefully

My family decided to join the Black Lives Matter protest planned in front of the Otsego County Court House in Cooperstown, New York on June 7, 2020. Our children insisted that we go. As we are a bi-racial family this cause was not abstract to us. It was real. We made signs together including one that said “Black Lives Matter” which included the faces of people of color whose lives were ended far too soon by white violence – Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Emmet Till and Ahmaud Arbery.

Our family all wore masks. We all waved our signs and felt a sense of unity with everyone gathered. There were 500 people standing in the sunshine holding signs, but they kept socially distant. On that beautiful summer’s day in an idyllic setting of the place that is called “America’s perfect village”, speeches invoked the ugly underbelly of America – its historic record of racism. Just steps from the lovely old inns and shimmering waters of “Glimmerglass lake”, we heard Lee Fisher, the head of the local NAACP speak about systemic racism. We heard Shannon McHugh, a member of the Oneonta Commission on Community Relations and Human Rights instruct the crowd on how white people can be allies and what they should do. We heard Rev. La Dana Clark point to the links of religion and protest. We heard Bryce Wooden, a long time Oneonta resident who is biracial, speak of when the police burst into his home when he was a young boy in a mistaken drug raid. The speakers were powerful. The crowd was enthusiastic and peaceful. The sun shone with a gentle breeze. We left emboldened with a new sense of purpose and were glad that we experienced it as a family.

There was a deep irony at work as we protested during the pandemic. Social distance and masks were used by the protesters as a conscious way to avoid the contagion of COVID. However, the point of the protest was that the contagion of racism cannot be so easily controlled. It has been long lasting, deadly and there is no easy cure. No masks and no vaccines will protect you from it. Nevertheless, we did leave the protest with a sense of hope. We signed up to join the local NAACP and gave a donation and prepared to think about how America could be better.

There would be other local protests that summer. Our daughter attended one downtown. Michelle and I went to Neahwa Park to celebrate Juneteenth (marking the formal end of slavery) with a candlelight vigil and listened on a summer’s evening to local speakers. All these events were masked and socially distant. They all mattered.

Still, I think the day together as a family in Cooperstown was the most memorable for us. Together we gathered with many others during a pandemic on a brilliant sunny day. We were passionate and peaceful. Purposeful and receptive.  It was a way to acknowledge that change might still be possible. Biological diseases are caused by nature and spread by people. Racial hatred is fanned by people and spread by people. If a nation can come together to conquer one, why can’t they conquer the other as well?  


The Groundhog in action


There are certain moments when you realize that everything you always assumed about the natural world was wrong. I knew that the pandemic had really changed things when I saw a massive furry beast in my backyard. A few mornings ago, I opened our downstairs blind and saw a groundhog the size of a small dog calmly staring back at me less than ten feet away. In the bright sunlight it was having a nice breakfast by eating our grass and back garden. Though the sight of this intruder was unusual, its attitude was what was most striking. It barely blinked but instead eyed me with a calm, even superior gaze. Our small fenced in backyard has always hosted cats, squirrels and birds. However, since  we live in the heart of the city of Oneonta and are less than 3 minutes’ walk from Main Street, the call of nature is usually muted for us. On ordinary mornings as we rush about to get ready for work, any groundhogs are hidden. They prefer to wait for nighttime to forage. Animals consciously avoid my family’s frenetic morning routine as we heave our bags and backpacks into the van to speed to work and take our daughter to school. However, now wildlife has taken over.

When I look for items online to update myself on news about the pandemic, I often come across similar out of kilter animal images on my computer screen: Mountain goats quietly strolling through empty village streets; bears checking out dogs with nary a human to intervene; lions having a nice mid-day nap on paved roads in Africa. What does it mean?  The animal kingdom, previously cowed by a loud and visible human presence, has been emboldened. As humans scurry into cover and hide indoors, the outdoors has changed.

When I was young, there was a powerful animated film I saw called Watership Down. As memory serves, it was about rabbits endangered by the encroachments of human development. Cars were lethal weapons to the rabbits. Bulldozers threatened their burrows. Man was out to conquer nature. Wildlife would be tamed. The animals’ arcadia was to be destroyed. Many precious rabbits died. I cried childhood tears as I watched the film. This theme has been repeated in many other stories and films, but it seems to be on hold for the moment. The pandemic has shown that humans are not always all powerful. It has shown that nature can reconfigure the lives of humans and beasts.

There is one final thing that my moment with the groundhog taught me. We have always assumed that we had the freedom to go anywhere. We had machines and large brains. Animals had to adapt to us.  We watched them and they hid from us. The pandemic has flipped the script. Now we hide and they watch us. Perhaps the wild ones were the wise ones all along.

From Afar

Most of my family lives across the New York / Ontario border in Canada. I have long been accustomed to crossing the border to visit. Piling into the family van for our summer road trips to Canada is an annual tradition for us. It is about a 9 to10-hour trip from Oneonta to see my relatives in the province of Ontario (when all the rest breaks and meal breaks are added on). The border never seemed to be any major impediment. At worst, it meant a 1 hour wait to clear customs on a busy day. However, the pandemic has made the border all too real. When there is bad news from afar it is more difficult to process.

My sister who lives in Canada has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Fortunately, it seems to be a mild case. She was diagnosed through tele-medicine. Since it is not a severe case, she has not been given a COVID-19 test in accordance with policy in the province of Ontario. She is suffering from fever, aches and pains and lethargy. Thus far she has no major issues with shortness of breath or coughing. However, any COVID-19 in the family is deeply worrisome. When distance intervenes, worry increases. I have been in frequent communication with my sister and parents. I worry about how her family is coping. She is isolated in the attic room of her house. Her husband is dealing with their two active children while also trying to work from home. My parents who are both about 80 have left some supplies on my sister’s porch but can’t enter the house. I feel a bit helpless being so far removed.

My family’s COVID-19 situation has got me thinking about how people dealt with distant emergencies and crises in the past. My grandfather was in the US Navy in World War Two and fought in the Pacific. He left his family in Wisconsin and could only communicate with them from afar by the occasional letter. The situation of my grandparents and their children was not unique. Throughout history, many families have sent their loved ones away to war or foreign service and have waited patiently for them to come home safe. They probably only got small bits of news from their loved ones and tried not to think too much about how the global crisis might affect their family.

Our modern globalized world likes to believe that distance and borders do not matter. Technology has supposedly erased distance. Before the pandemic experts liked to say, “The world is flat”; not literally but in the sense that it was more open and accessible than ever before.  You can easily be in communication with anyone anywhere at any time. Borders are irrelevant. We can travel and work in different countries. However, this pandemic is both confirming and undermining those past truisms. For COVID-19 borders and distance don’t matter. It is a globalized virus. It has circled the globe and is flaring up everywhere. Within a year there will be nowhere immune from it. However, for the people stuck in the middle of the pandemic borders and distance do matter. The US / Canada border, the longest undefended border in the world, is closed. This pattern has been repeated all over the world. We are supposed to minimize unnecessary travel. Distance has re-remerged. My world has shrunk to working from home, walking around the block and going to the grocery store once a week.

What this means is that now once again we listen to news from afar and we cannot do much more than worry. It gives me new admiration for my grandparents’ generation. I think of them as I wait and hope for my sister’s recovery.

Getting by in the pandemic

Hard to believe that Easter (which is usually the sign of the start of Spring and a time of rebirth) is going to be spent hunkering down inside our homes during a global pandemic.  I can honestly say this is not something I ever thought I would experience.  Having been quite sick in January with H1N1 Influenza A which put me out of work for a week and led to a rather dramatic visit to the emergency room, this fresh pandemic is fairly disturbing to our whole family. Fortunately, we are all well.

We are now leading a relatively simple life.  Michelle and I have been working at home for almost two weeks straight now which is a mixed blessing. It is difficult to keep up with meetings etc. online and I have had to evolve my teaching into an online format as well. I am quite low tech so much of my teaching is converting point form notes into crisper written format for students and converting their tests into open book online tests. Students are responding fairly well. Michelle is also doing meetings online and also virtual reference work.

Our daughter Sara is also at home. Her lifestyle consists of waking up at 10:30 a.m. and playing video games as well as virtually chatting with her friends. Usually we find some of her social media habits annoying but, in this case, it is helpful to keep her connected with her crew albeit virtually. She has also been doing schoolwork online. All students in our school district have Chrome Books (minicomputers) which allow them to do work remotely. Her teachers have been quite organized keeping touch about schoolwork and assignments. Keeping Sara motivated is a bit of an issue.

We don’t venture much out of the house except to go for walk around the block and to the grocery store once a week. Visits to the store now include the obligatory face mask. I have stayed away from my office and brought all my files home. The highlight of the week is getting takeout once on the weekend. We had Jamaican food last week and Sara votes for Tex Mex burritos this week.