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I’ve been reminiscing about past good times during my time of isolation, viewing many photos from my years in China and from some of my travels. My favorite photos are of food; among the hundreds of images, I can remember the exact location and the taste of every dish as I savor it again in its afterimage. During the COVID-19 lockdown, there’s a lot of time – too much, even – to reflect on the world as it used to be, when people moved freely and wandering through crowded places didn’t pose untold dangers.
In many ways, however, the isolation suits me. I’m an introvert, and what others call “loneliness” is actually my preferred existence; you see, I enjoy my own company. In the midst of global uncertainty, I’m actually developing new skills as an online teacher, and as a designer of online study materials. My visual contact with students is limited to four hours a week of virtual Zoom classes. Zoom is a poor substitute for personal contact and moving through an actual classroom, monitoring students and viewing their work. However, it’s the primary tool for social contact in this new existence, even though I reach out to my students in other ways: by email, text messages, video lessons on YouTube, Brightspace (a virtual learning platform used by my college), Google Docs, and the occasional personal phone call.
My personal sheltering-in-place will last until at least August, when summer classes end, and some speculate that in-person classes won’t resume until early 2021. No one knows. Our country’s response to the pandemic has been criminally inept, endangering health and lives, and proving that our government’s real allegiance is to profits over people. I’m not naive enough to believe that we’ll emerge from the pandemic with a system of universal, single-payer health care, a more a equitable society with job and income guarantees, or greater democratization of our social and political processes, but it’s nice to envision such a country.
Winter this year hasn’t been too severe. I wouldn’t mind if it were, because I love this season. It’s nice to be living in a place that experiences the four seasons.
Life has settled to a continuous hum. I have my work, teaching two classes that I love, and I look forward to the opportunity to eventually add more teaching hours. I have my daily writing practice, in which I rotate my various fountain pens and inks in filling page after page with the best handwriting that I can produce. It’s not exactly a journal, but a form of meditative practice that leaves me feeling incredibly content. It’s the physical act, the movement of writing instrument across paper, that’s captivated me since childhood.
I’ve just finish a book by Anne Fadiman on the joys of reading, book collecting, and yes, becoming attached to writing instruments. In her case, it was a special 1940s Parker 51 pen given to her by a classmate at age 15, who had evidently stolen it from his father. The pen eventually was lost, and no instrument, even a duplicate pen of the same vintage, ever wrote as well or made her as happy as the original. I can understand that sense of irretrievable loss.
I’m currently deep into James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s one of the items on my personal bucket list. This is the year in which I’ll turn 65, and my thoughts naturally turn to my own mortality; for goodness’ sake, I’ll qualify for Medicare in a few months. Other items on this list, in no order of importance, include: trekking in the Himalaya, circumnavigating the globe, attending a wild sex orgy, and parachuting from an airplane (once). I’d also like to become really good at something; abilities such as playing the guitar, calligraphy, or becoming fluent in French come to mind. I secretly envied other kids while I was growing up who developed talents and did something really well. I never managed to develop a real proficiency at anything, except perhaps for academic writing (so guess what I teach now – academic writing). I felt inferior. Add to bucket list: no feeling of inferiority!
A relaxing evening draws to a close, and it’s time to put myself to bed with my current murder mystery (Ulysses is not bedtime reading). Perhaps this year I’ll be better at updating my blog, but that’s not a promise, since it’s not on the bucket list.
Open House Chicago, 2019 edition, proved almost as exciting as the previous two annual events I’ve attended. Sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the weekend-long viewing opens hundreds of building interiors to the public, who might otherwise never have the chance to view them.
My favorites this year: The Nederlander Theater (formerly the Oriental, a 1920s movie palace) and the more modern interiors of the 333 North Michigan Avenue Building, offering stunning views over Chicago’s skyline.
This year, I learned to pace myself, confine myself to the downtown area, and not to scurry madly all over the city in an orgy of architectural indulgence. I also took breaks whenever my feet got sore. In short, I concentrated on quality over quantity.
As a side note, I’m learning better how to adjust the color temperature settings in my camera for interior photography, not always an easy thing to accomplish.
Summer is having its last hurrah, as we head into autumn and cooler weather. We’re well into the new term at Wright College, halfway through the first 8-week session. The semester is divided into two parts, with new registrations each 8 weeks, so sometimes a sense of continuity gets lost between the new and returning students.
At long last, after paying my dues for two years with split shifts, morning and evening classes with long gaps in between, and hideous commutes, I now have the perfect teaching schedule. My classes are now back-to-back, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. I finally have later afternoons and evenings free, and I no longer sacrifice huge chunks of my day to between-class breaks.
I continue to teach Level 2 ESL, and I’ve recently been assigned a Transition reading and writing class, which bridges the top ESL level and college credit classes. I’m finally able to make use of my experience teaching academic reading and writing skills, and I’m quite content with my new work situation.
Reading and writing are both immensely complicated, multi-level skills requiring critical thinking, fluency, and using the language for purposes other than day-to-day communication and survival skills. It’s taken the first four weeks to decide what activities best fit the needs of my 20+ students. I focus on sentence-level grammar, progressing to paragraph writing, and finally, in a week or two, will introduce basic essay writing. I’ve settled on three or four textbooks that, I feel, best present the materials I want to cover.
As I’d previously discovered while teaching in China, there’s a fine line between teaching “correct” English-language academic writing and encouraging individual creativity. I make sure to acknowledge students’ use of vivid description, and their use of descriptive adjectives that is sometimes original and startling. At this point, I hold back from “correcting” student writing too much; as in my speaking classes, I believe that fluency is more important than accuracy. The students are eager to learn, and seem to be enjoying the course so far. I’m feeling my way, and as in every endeavor, creating a new class is a process that requires trial and error.
I’d been inside the Rookery Building many times before, to marvel at its two-story skylighted atrium, but then I found out that the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust offered an in-depth visit to the building that included the 11th-floor Burnham Library, a part of the architectural offices of Burnham and Root of Chicago.
I eagerly reserved my $11 ticket online, and met a small tour group inside the building on a gorgeous August morning. The oldest-remaining tall office building in Chicago, the Rookery has a multi-layered history, as well as a connection to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The tour included a rare opportunity to view the semi-circular iron stairway winding to the top of the building, as well as the Burnham Library, restored to its original appearance.
The building has connections not only with its principal designers, Daniel H. Burnham and John Wellborn Root, one of Chicago’s major architectural firms, but with Frank Lloyd Wright, who was commissioned to update the light court in 1905.
On the 11th floor, reached via the freight elevator, we viewed the Burnham Library, the setting for an iconic photo of Burnham and Root (see below). It was also in this library that many of the plans were carried out for the World’s Columbian Exposition, under the leadership of Burnham following Root’s early death at age 41 in 1891. The sense of history in the room was overwhelming; I felt that I’d been transported to another time and place.