Winter

Winter in a nineteenth-century village was a season of stilless and restoration.  Snow fell, waterways froze, earth hardened to stone.  Farmers envisioned next year’s crops, sat by the fire, visited neighbors.  They drank.  Women cooked from larders bulging after a harvest season they had spent cellaring root crops and preserving perishables with the help of smoke, vinegar, salt, fat, and alcohol.

When night fell, folks sat up a while, then went to bed, mainly because they were tired or cold, or because there wasn’t enough light to see.  Barn animals still had to be cared for in the morning, but otherwise winter was a time of reflection, togetherness, and relative leisure.  Young people, freed from helping in the fields, could study or play.  Sundays, people worshipped at church.  Afterward, if conditions were good, skaters ventured out to glide across ice.

Joesph Moriller’s 1869 lithograph depicts villagers engaged in peaceful winter routines.  This winter, my habits, homebound due to the pandemic, are more like those villagers’ than they’ve ever been.  I seldom go out.  My days, if busy, are sedentary.  I don’t commute to work.  I seldom drive.  I cook like crazy.  My circle of association is cherished and tiny.  I notice the moon in the limitless black sky.

Yet, the nineteenth century featured a type of serenity, an intensity of direct experience, we creatures of mass society cannot attain.  Its conditions were more elemental and earthy.  Illness, injury, and death loomed large, starkly menacing life, love, and prosperity.  Humans, defenseless against certain types of suffering, endured with a sincere and fervent reliance on Providence.  Modern people, so much more heavily equipped with knowledge and remedies, need faith less, living from cradle to grave without what’s divine.

Nor can we access the simplicity of a purely local, face-to-face society.  In the nineteenth century, the society of the village and household was strictly bounded, a condition the railroad and telegraph had just begun to break down.  Local people knew one another thoroughly.  The intimacy of home life was seldom punctuated, as ours is, with distressing communications of all sorts streaming in everyday.  Word traveled less.  The very mystery of what lay beyond the horizon, or beyond human ken, paradoxically promoted tranquility and intense personal joy.

Image: from this source.

The Freedom to Assemble in Covid Times

Since the first case of covid-19 was reported in the US, Americans have had to face a new cause of illness and death.  Two years into the experience, society remains divided in its willingness to combat the virus, protect itself, and limit the harms that this pernicious, sometimes mortal contagion wreaks.  Covid is just dangerous enough to interfere with ordinary social pleasures, disrupt institutional regimens, and cramp habits of congregation outside. Continue reading

Covid 2.0

Editor’s note: This previously unpublished post is seeing the light of day today, 3 Dec 2021, as the Omicron variant has begun to sicken Americans, sending the covid epidemic into a third distinct phase.  The basic distinction made here, in the divergent risks the virus poses to the vaccinated and unvaccinated, remains as salient today as in September, when this piece was composed.

Instead of continuing to wane. the pestilence known as COVID is surging, and a nasty new phase of the pandemic lies ahead.  Since the more contagious delta variant arrived from overseas, it has moved into areas previously left untouched.  More Americans in out-of-the-way places are getting sick.  Delta is spreading over the South and other “red” regions where a fatalistic or defiant attitude toward preventive measures reigns.

At the same time, delta confounds the simple narrative of “victory through vaccination” that federal officials and the scientific community have been telling.  Two starkly different fates await the vaccinated and unvaccinated, but, unfortunately, even vaccinated people are still contracting and transmitting the disease. Continue reading

Chicago’s Downtown: Dead or Alive?

LaSalle Street is deserted. A post-pandemic norm

Though the pandemic is waning, downtown Chicago remains semi-comatose.  On a Monday at mid-day, the financial district was empty except for a handful of pedestrians.  Absent were the Ubers, trucks, and cabs usually clogging this part of town.  South LaSalle Street, which has been in decline since the Chicago Board of Trade (center) closed its trading floors, is even more of a ghost town than before.


How sound are the balance sheets of these massive commercial buildings?  The Real Deal reports that, by the end of 2020, the vacancy rate in Chicago’s central business district had climbed to a “grim” level of 14.2 percent, with 148.2 million square feet of unrented office space.  Meanwhile, businesses still holding leases tried to reduce their obligations by offering to sublease 5.4 million square feet of vacant space, a 93-percent increase over 2019.

Commercial real estate broker MBRE reports that the vacancy rate has since increased to 15.36 percent at the end of March, 2021.  When the sublease space is thrown in, the total rate of surplus office space comes to 19.20 percent.  (Office vacancy in the Chicago suburbs has been rising, too.)


With so few Chicagoans commuting downtown, and tourism at a standstill, entities that provide ancillary goods and services are languishing.  It’s eerie seeing so few people on this particular stretch of Adams.  Normally, people would be strolling toward the Art Institute (center), going for lunch at the Revival Food Hall (left), or doing business at the Federal Court Buildings and Post Office (right).


In-person activity in the vicinity of the Federal Court remains subdued.  Chicago’s downtown, while paralyzed by COVID, was also gravely injured by the opportunistic violence perpetrated during the summer of 2020.  Many businesses went under in the wake of the looting and the trauma; others, though solvent, remain indefinitely closed for want of custom.  Some storefront businesses, like the Intelligentsia in the Monadnock Building (center), stand poised to reopen should their former clientele materialize.

Given the relative expense of doing business in Chicago and prevailing wait-and-see atmosphere, it’s doubtful when the city will wake up and regain its health.

Day 29: Sicko

Hospitalized with a contagious disease, the president continued to behave recklessly.  Yesterday, he demanded that his Secret Service detail pile into a hermetically sealed car with him to parade him past a few well-wishers congregating outside.  Trump’s macho spree, which needlessly compromised his agents’ health, marked a nadir in his relations with Americans already disgusted and fed up with his grossly irresponsible, inconsiderate ways.

It is terribly demoralizing to realize that someone so ungoverned and ungovernable will be returning to the summit of American power. Last week, the New York Times’ expose of Trump’s finances showed cheating to be one of Trump’s lifelong passions, whereas Tuesday’s debate showed Trump to be deeply unreliable when truth and trust are needed most.  Trump is like a faithless husband to the US, his bride.  His love of lying and threats toward voters and other segments of the American population are abusive traits, which, in a marriage, no self-respecting spouse would tolerate.  Yet no one in America can rein in Donald Trump or call him to account.

As Trump returns to the White House from Walter Reed, the nation braces for the next episode of this excruciating charade.  Even though Biden is ahead in the polls, whether the US is on the verge of being rid of Donald Trump or Republican control of the Senate is still very uncertain.  The people in Trump’s administration, his allies in the Senate and elsewhere, donors and capitalists who support Trump for cynical reasons: their actions threaten America’s very being.  Today, I wonder whether the US can survive as a republic if they pull off a win.  In any event, it will take years of effort to build back better, to check the destructive forces that Trump has summoned.  American voters have the power, if only they will wield it, to stave off further disaster, so that reform can begin.