What International Travel Is Like Right Now

So I’m a bachelor again…at least until Sunday.

On Saturday evening, I loaded my wife’s luggage onto a bus and kissed her through my mask…very 2020! She headed to JFK Airport, bound for her home country of Japan for the first time in a year.

Yes, you can travel overseas during a pandemic…if you’re very, very patient. Her flight was delayed by 8 hours. Once they finally let her on, the plane was almost empty and no one was sitting anywhere nearby. The lack of passengers and the powerful air filtration systems means flying is not nearly as dangerous as most people think. You’re a lot more likely to get COVID at the supermarket.

She arrived in Tokyo after midnight. Next came a required COVID test. She waited an hour or two for the results, and then was free to leave the airport.

One problem: it was the middle of the night, so no transportation was available. She thought she’d have to wait another 6 hours or so until a car service could pick her up. People who have just come from overseas are barred from using public transit, even with a negative COVID test, which strikes me as extreme.

Her brother saved the day by renting a car and picking her up. I didn’t even know he had a license! Soon, she was with her mom having coffee at a new cafe in their neighborhood. She later tortured me with pictures of beautiful dumplings they had for lunch.

This trip was actually the second one she booked…she had booked another on Air Canada that was cancelled. They refuse to provide a refund. The only option they give is rebooking on itineraries that take days to reach Japan. I strongly recommend avoiding Air Canada at all costs. She wound up going with ANA at a price around double what we paid last year.

Given the enormous number of delayed and cancelled flights, her friend who works for ANA strongly recommended booking a direct flight. My wife took her advice and was glad she did.

Being with her family is restorative for her, but for me, I’m not going abroad until all restrictions are lifted. The combination of delayed and cancelled flights, long waits, and high costs are enough to keep me close to home.

“File:Boeing 787 N1015B ANA Airlines (27611880663) (cropped).jpg” by pjs2005 from Hampshire, UK is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

My Friend Just Got the COVID Vaccine

My friend Lidia* got the Pfizer COVID vaccine on Saturday. She is the first person I know to receive it, and her experience was great overall. She said her arm was extremely sore, and she felt feverish for about 30 minutes the day after, but other than that she’s okay.

Lidia is 35 and works at a hospital, where she treats COVID patients. She has been on the front lines all year and, with the combination of a face shield and surgical mask, never contracted the virus. I remember being very worried about her this spring, especially when I heard about nurses wearing trash bags rather than gowns. But her facility had what it needed and she came through okay.

I am very happy for her. Maybe she can worry less now. And we, her friends and family, can breathe more easily too.

The side effects are real, but compared to a case of COVID, it sounds like a good bargain. My friend Jim*, who is the same age, had COVID last month and had headaches and body aches for two full weeks.

I can’t wait for my turn to get this wonderful drug! If anyone out there works at Pfizer, you got a steak on me. πŸ™‚

*Not their real names

“Syringe 1 With Drops” by ZaldyImg is licensed under CC BY 2.0

What Christmas Is Like in New York City Now

On Tuesday, I walked through Central Park and down Fifth Avenue, past Saks (great free bathrooms!) and into Rockefeller Center. I saw the tree, decorated with lights and perhaps more beautiful than ever before. I saw something else too: people loving the tree and each other, and being resilient in the face of the biggest challenge we have faced in our lives.

Everyone walking up to the tree wore their masks, joined arms to take a picture, briefly pulled them down and put them right back up. No one had to tell them. And they looked as joyful as any other year. Maybe a little more so.

Some say New York City is dead, empty, a wasteland. Have they been there lately? I see problems, but I also see enormous perseverance and hope.

Our snow is fading in the warmth, and 2020 is fading as well. We will face 2021 with renewed dedication to overcoming our challenges and improving our home. And our home is the New York area, the United States, and this planet.

With confidence in our armed forces with the unbounding determination of our people we will gain the inevitable triumph so help us God.

Franklin Roosevelt, 1941

We got through that crisis and we are well on our way to beating this one too. We will celebrate the holidays with a renewed appreciation for life, family, friends, and the chance to be together. That’s my plan, anyhow.

Merry Christmas everyone!

I Found a Secret Gym!

One of the benefits of not travelling in 2020 has been discovering what’s right around me. I’ve made more new friends this year than in the prior 5 years combined. I find myself actually (perish the thought!) saying hello to neighbors! We’re even exchanging baked goods like something out of the 1950’s. And it’s totally awesome.

Besides new friends, I just discovered something else: the building I’ve been living in for 2.5 years has a gym! I peeked through a hole in the laundry room wall, where plumbers were working on a pipe. As I got closer, I could hardly believe what I saw. A secret room filled with…exercise equipment?

I passed through a door marked Meter Room, past our electric meters, and went through a second door…this one unmarked. Inside was a gym straight out of the 1970’s. Rusty iron weights, exercise bikes without a single transistor, and bodybuilding posters from decades ago.

Our superintendent created this gym entirely on his own. It’s not the Equinox, but the equipment is surprisingly varied and of high quality. He made it for himself and shared it with whoever might wish to use it. After his recent retirement and return to his home country of Colombia, he left all this here for us.

Working out in this secluded space alongside exposed pipes makes me feel like Arnold Schwarzenegger at Gold’s Gym in the 1970’s. Until I look into one of the mirrors, at least. πŸ™‚

I wanted to tell you about this to emphasize the wonderful things we gain from being at home more this year. We are not just missing out on travel, concerts, etc. We get something too…a new familiarity with and appreciation for the world right outside our own doors.

It also shows me the great effect one person can have on others, even others they’ve never met, with just a little care and individual initiative. People our superintendent will never see will be healthier because of what he did. What a great example for the rest of us!

How are you guys staying healthy this year? What have you discovered nearby? Let me know in the comments!

My Favorite Christmas Songs Now

These last few years, nothing gets me in the mood for Christmas more than music. It gives me the warm feeling of the holidays that we need more than ever this year. I love listening to Christmas songs in the mornings while making breakfast or while decorating the tree.

I grew up with the classics: Silent Night, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, etc. Beautiful as they are, I’m mostly listening to more recent, pop Christmas songs these days.

Check these out today while you finish up your work or buy those final gifts!

And if you’ve hit your limit on Christmas songs for the day, try this jam I put on while folding laundry last night. I wished I had more socks to fold!

Tell me what your favorite Christmas songs are in the comments. Merry Christmas!

Photo: Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, New York City

This Morning Jam Had Me Dancing In My Kitchen!

I heard this song in a grocery store on Sunday for the first time in years. I played it this morning and wound up dancing through my kitchen and swaying while doing the dishes. I just hope they’re clean.

We all need a little motivation and something to make us smile these days. Hope this works for you like it did for me today!

I Just Bought These FDA Approved Surgical Masks for My Family

I just bought these high quality surgical masks from Taiwan.

I’ve heard scary stuff about poorly made masks that don’t do a good job protecting people. I’ve worn these KN95 masks for some time (also FDA approved) and found them very comfortable, but I think masks are like clothing: they fit different people differently.

Some in my family prefer the surgical style masks (the mostly blue disposable ones you see frequently). So last night, I made it my mission to find a high quality, FDA approved surgical mask.

I found out that a good surgical mask should be ASTM-rated. This is an international standard of how the mask performs:

  • Level 1: low barrier protection. General use for short procedures and exams that don’t involve aerosols, spray or fluids
  • Level 2: moderate barrier protection. For low to moderate levels of aerosols, spray and/or fluids
  • Level 3: maximum barrier protection. For heavy levels of aerosols, spray and/or fluids

Every mask I’ve ever seen in normal stores has no ASTM rating at all, which means they’re less protective. The masks I bought are ASTM Level 1.

The FDA-approved higher level masks I saw appeared to be available in very large lots designed for hospitals. Since no one in my family works in the medical field, I am thinking an ASTM Level 1 mask should suffice. If you guys know of a Level 3 mask available in smaller quantities, please leave that info in the comments.

The FDA publishes lists of approved surgical masks and respirators (like the KN95 I wear). You can see the masks I bought on that list below. If you match the model number on the FDA list to the model number on the Mocacare website, you’ll see it’s an exact match.

Consider these masks as a good alternative to a KN95 or to surgical masks that came from who-knows-where.

The New COVID Strain in the UK

A novel variant has been identified which has spread rapidly within the UK.

Public Health England

Like you, I’ve been hearing about this new strain of COVID cropping up in the UK. I did a little digging on it this morning. Here’s what I found:

  • The new mutation makes the virus easier to transmit. These are still estimates, but this strain may increase how many other people each sick person transmits to from 1.1 to 1.5 (the R-naught). That’s a very big difference.
  • The new mutation doesn’t appear to make people any sicker than any other strain of COVID.
  • Since the new mutation involves changes to the spike protein that vaccines target, it might make vaccines less effective, but we don’t really know yet. It’s more likely the vaccines would need a tweak than that the vaccines would be rendered useless.

I suggest checking out Peter Horby’s Twitter account. He’s one of the leading UK researchers in this area and has been posting some great information on this new strain of COVID.

Whatever the details, what we do remains the same: masks, distancing, wash hands. Everything we’ve done since March. We can do it!

The Best NYC Comedians You Haven’t Seen (Until Now)

I’m a huge fan of comedy. For years, I’ve gone to open mics to see the very newest talent work out their material in front of largely indifferent audiences of fellow comics waiting to do their 5 minutes. I’m often the only non-comedian there.

The payoff: I’ve found some great comedians you guys need to know about:

  • Ryan O’Toole. This guy is truly from the Lenny Bruce school of comedy. He says what he wants and dang if it isn’t hilarious.
  • Alexx Starr. I’ve rarely seen anyone hold an audience as powerfully on stage, including major national acts.
  • Mike O’Rourke. I’ve watched him do hours of material, seemingly from nowhere, and he kept me laughing the whole time.

What comedians should the world know about? Leave it in the comments!

Bonus video: Impeach DeBlasio

How I Know Virtual Christmas Will Be Special

Photo: My great grandfathers Will (left) and John putting the world to rights. Connecticut, approximately 1987.

My family has always been spread across the country. When I was little, we moved away from my mother’s side in the Northeast to Wisconsin. My father’s side of the family lived in Kentucky. We had no relatives within 500 miles. And for a while, we didn’t have any friends either.

On Christmas day, I’d open my eyes to a sea of presents, despite my mother’s modest resources. She must’ve saved all year to give me that moment in the morning. Then, once the last gift was opened, the phone calls would start.

We’d usually begin with Granny Mary and Grandpa Jim in Kentucky, continue to Aunt Carol and Uncle Tony in Connecticut, and then on to Grammy up in Maine. Last was Will, my great grandfather. You didn’t have a short conversation with Will. You dialed 10-10-321 (leave a comment if you know what that is), punched in the rest of the digits, and connected to Stratford, Connecticut.

My part of the conversation was generally short. I remember he would always tell me at the end, “Pay attention in school, and learn all you can!” Will had worked as a trapper and later in a factory making asbestos brakepads. He did not have the opportunity to go to college. But he clearly wanted something different for us.

Even into his 80’s and 90’s, he read widely about ancient man, mammoths, and astronomy. In different circumstances, he might’ve been a professor. For me, he was a kindly grandfather. Maybe that’s enough.

Then, I’d hand him back to my mom. She would stand near the receiver, ever closer to hanging up, but the conversation would continue like that for hours, or so it seemed. I wondered when we might ever watch a movie or play.

After about 4 hours, they’d finally run out of steam and call it a night.

Those calls always felt like a marathon, but they also gave us a wonderful feeling of connectedness to a family spread far and wide. We didn’t have the money to fly to visit anyone, but we did what we could do. This year, a lot of people will be finding ways to connect without being in person. I can tell you it’s possible and it can be truly satisfying and joyful.

Many of the people we called then are gone now. Some remain. They’ll be on my list to call this Friday. And I’m adding someone new: my mom, whom I cannot safely go see this year. Maybe we will be on the line for 4 hours. If so, that’s fine with me.

Get into it