Sunday, November 21, 2021

On Circular Tracks

On Friday afternoon I went to get my booster shot at a grocery store twenty minutes away. It was the nearest location with any appointments, so I expected to find a long line. When I got there, though, I was the only person in the pharmacy who'd come to ask for the shot.

“Are you in a high-risk job?” the pharmacist asked. “Do you have a preexisting condition?”

“Ex-smoker,” I admitted, and she laughed.

“I got mine because I'm obese. We both need to make better choices.”

I couldn't argue with that. Just the other day I bought a pack of cigarettes and smoked two while wandering through Fountain Square alleys, killing time before an appointment. November, man. I don't know what it is about this month in particular but it always seems to crack things apart.

The pharmacist ushered me to a waiting area, and I killed a few minutes trying to install Microsoft Teams on my phone before someone came along to give me the shot. It was quick and mostly painless. The man with the needle looked very young, and wore a pair of leather slip-on loafers. He complained about the sticker placement on my vaccine card – “There's not really room for me to add another one” – but was otherwise cheerful. I sat a few minutes to make sure there'd be no adverse reaction, then went off to do some Thanksgiving shopping.

As with my last shot in April, the side effects didn't really kick in until late that night. I woke up sweating and shivering, then stumbled into the bathroom to pee. I was about halfway finished when I got very lightheaded and nauseous. I took a few deep breaths and tried to pee harder while clutching the side of the sink. Hurry hurry, I thought, get it all out. If I was going to faint, I at least wanted to minimize the bodily fluids my wife would soon find me lying in.

But I managed not to pass out or vomit, and made it back into bed to keep sleeping. Finally I woke up aching and tired, and killed most of the morning watching Night Court reruns. When I was a kid, the local Fox affiliate started rerunning Night Court at four o'clock in the morning. I would set my alarm clock so I could wake up, watch two episodes, then go back to sleep before school. I'm not sure why, exactly, except that Judge Harold T. Stone appealed to me in the same way as Groucho Marx or Bugs Bunny. I loved the idea that you could excuse yourself from adult reality with a few quips and card tricks. I still do.

After a little coffee and breakfast I began to feel better, and so went back to the book I've been reading, The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson. Right now in the novel, Revie's mother has left her husband and son to pursue her dreams of acting, and Revie is trying to figure out how to pull his family back together. He ends up in his local church, where Hip Pastor Mike tries to offer him some advice:

“Here's what I'm driving at,” he said. “God builds the universe on circular tracks. The bad part of this deal is that what we love goes away – our faith slips, we turn our backs on God's grace, we lose the ones we love.”

He paused, looking at the drum kit so long it seemed like he'd lost the thread of his thought. Then he leaned back and draped his arm over the pew again. “But the good news is that the track bends. Sometimes so gently that we start coming around without ever realizing it. Seasons change. The runner turns onto the homestretch. The son comes home and the father runs out to welcome him.”


But Revie isn't convinced.

 
“You should stick with God,” I said, getting up to leave. “Leave that universe business to the scientists. You obviously don't know what you're talking about.”

I walked toward the big swinging doors, leaving him, I hoped, dumbstruck. And maybe he was. But not long enough for me to make it out of the sanctuary.

“Hey,” he called. “Why'd you come here today?”

I glanced back, tossed up my hands. Even if I'd known, I wasn't about to confess anything else to him.

“Everything orbits,” he said, turning his back on me. “Even you.”

 

My wife also got her booster on Friday, and also went out to buy groceries. Being so close to the holidays, and with all of the ongoing shortages, we agreed we would shop the same list and get whatever we could. If we ended up with a few duplicates, so be it, but at least we'd cover our bases.

We ended up with doubles of everything, including oddballs like smoked paprika. We laughed a little at the absurdity of it all, like for an afternoon we'd been trapped in two parallel universes, living the same lives at a distance. Her side effects from the shot were minimal, though two days later there's a swollen spot on her arm the size of a walnut, while mine has no swelling at all.

While I was chewing up Tylenol and watching Night Court on the couch, my wife went next door to check on our neighbor's ducks. By evening I was feeling much better, so I went to help her put them away in their coop. The ducks are no more used to this routine than they were when we watched them two months ago. They still run around back and forth like they have no idea what we expect them to do. Then one of them will finally get the right idea and run inside of the coop. After that, like a charm, the rest of them follow. It's the same routine every time.




Sunday, November 14, 2021

Concluding Unscientific Podcasts

Profile photo of Soren Kierkegaard
Kierkegaard at his iPad
So! You've been reading “Either/Or” by Søren Kierkegaard and it's all got you feeling a little bit stumped. Why is he using all these pseudonyms? What's the deal with aesthetics and ethics? And why does Kierkegaard bother to mention that he's built like a small kangaroo?

Lucky for you, I share your concerns, and decided to go find some answers. After sifting through podcasts for shows that talk about Kierkegaard, I am now prepared to rate and review my discoveries.

You're all very welcome.

The Panpsycast Philosophy Podcast

Podcast Description

“A weekly 'informal and informative' philosophy podcast inspiring and supporting students, teachers, academics and free-thinkers worldwide.”

Episode Review
This was by far the best of the bunch, for a whole lot of reasons. Panpsycast dedicates a full three episodes to Kierkegaard, which gives them the space to engage with everything from formative biographical details to Kierkegaard's “big ideas” in religion and philosophy. Throughout all of it, their approach stayed in keeping with Kierkegaard's own spirit of humor, irony, and inquiry.

By spending time on the man behind the ideas, the hosts help contextualize a lot of his work. The episodes paint a complicated portrait of someone eager to engage with the world, but who couldn't resist his own impulses to challenge it at every turn. There are hints of that person through all of Kierkegaard's writing – it's one of the reasons I enjoy reading him so much – but Panpsycast does a nice job of fleshing him out, adding a deeper dimension to his ideas that help ground them in a greater humanity.

This podcast is also just plain funny. The hosts are British and wry, but I especially appreciated bits like the pop quiz at the end of episode one, “Kirk, Guards, or Kierkegaard,” in which the hosts had to guess whether a quote came from Captain James T. Kirk, the guards from Skyrim, or the philosopher himself. When discussing someone whose name translates roughly to “Serious Graveyard,” a little unbridled silliness goes a long way.

10/10


Classical Stuff You Should Know

Podcast Description

“Our aim is to help both educators and laypeople enjoy the classical world as much as they enjoy fine ales and good tales.”

Episode Review
This episode was devoted entirely to “Fear and Trembling,” one of Kierkegaard's most challenging books in the sense that, if you agree with his arguments, you start to feel a nagging concern that you might be in favor of suicide bombers? At the very least, you take a very generous view of filicide.

The book wouldn't be so disturbing if Kierkegaard wasn't quite so convincing in his interpretation of the story of Abraham and Isaac. Kierkegaard complains that too many people treat the moral of this story as “we should all give God our very best.” Instead, he argues, the actual lesson is that faith is beyond reason, and the religious choice may sometimes be directly opposed to the ethical one.

No matter what your beliefs, it's uncomfortable to hear someone make these arguments. But Kierkegaard does in this book what all great writers do – he takes something very familiar, a story you may have first heard in Sunday school, and makes it something new and deeply alien.

Okay, so what about the podcast? Well, it does a pretty good job! I had to write all that preamble to explain why I think Classical Stuff You Should Know struggles a little bit with the material. It's hard to lay out Kierkegaard's arguments without a certain amount of knee-jerking. The hosts do a good job of explaining the material and Kierkegaard's views, but they can't stop themselves from editorializing. As a result, I think they undercut some of his arguments and don't quite do them justice.

8/10


The Idea Store

Podcast Description

“When I was 4 years old, my dad decided it was time for my intro to philosophy. So he told me, 'Did you know that I get all my ideas at the idea store?' This didn't sit well with me and I kept insisting 'No you don't!' For the next two years, many car rides were spent talking about the idea store. It baffled my little mind but I kept trying to reason with him the best that I could. At age 6, I found the solution. 'You can't see and touch ideas. You can only buy things you can see and touch. Ideas are different.' My dad was ecstatic. He had just taught his daughter the basics of metaphysics.”

Episode Review
As the description above lays out, the format of this show is a father and daughter talking about philosophy. This particular episode was only twenty minutes long, so it doesn't really have enough time to go very deep. The analysis stays pretty light, and I thought both hosts were a bit harsh on poor old Søren, so I probably wouldn't recommend this as someone's first introduction to Kierkegaard.

However: If you had a certain type of father, the kind who will stay up arguing ideas with you until 2 in the morning just for the sake of debate, then this show will feel very cozy. Having grown up with a dad whose beliefs were very hard to pin down – no matter what position I took, he'd vigorously argue the opposite side – this podcast made me feel right at home. For that, it gets a few bonus points.

7/10


Theory & Philosophy

Description

“This channel is dedicated to the distribution of ideas so that they be made accessible to anyone.”

Review
Unlike the podcasts above, Theory & Philosophy is a solo show, scripted and produced by one-man-band David Guignion. The episode I listened to was on “The Sickness Unto Death,” although Guignion had previously discussed “The Concept of Anxiety” as well.

Technically, I think Kierkegaard and Guignion both would have preferred I start with “Anxiety” and end with “Death” (way ahead of you, guys), but I read “Death” on its own and thought it stood up just fine. Still, the back half of that book got pretty dense, so I was more than happy to have someone as smart as Guignion explain it to me.

And he does a great job! Guignion breaks down Kierkegaard's concepts and jargon into digestible pieces and parts so that I came away from this episode with a fuller understanding of the text. I'll keep Guignion in mind when I finally get around to reading “Anxiety."

The one bummer is that Guignion doesn't seem especially fond of Kierkegaard. After finishing his explanation of “The Sickness Unto Death,” he makes it pretty clear that he's had quite enough Kierkegaard on his podcast, thank you. And I get it – he's not everyone's cup of tea. But Guignion does such a nice job explaining things that I hope he changes his mind.

7/10


Drunken Philosophy

Description

“Dan has a degree in philosophy. Connor has a degree in High School. Together they have a bit of a drinking problem. Each week they explore the work of a new philosopher or a new philosophical idea and do their best to learn something before getting distracted.”

Review
Meh. This was fine? Maybe they suffered a little from the fact they came late in my playlist, but there wasn't a lot here to latch on to. The discussion of Kierkegaard and philosophy stayed pretty shallow, with the hosts seeming much more interested in talking about comedians and comedy. But if you like your philosophical discussion peppered with bong rips, this one might be right up your alley.

5/10


Eternalised

Description

“In pursuit of meaning.”

Review
This podcast is ten minutes long. At minute three, I checked the time to see how much was left.

Look, podcasts are like any other kind of media: they can be made well, or they can be made really poorly. This one sounded like it was recorded in a bathroom made out of Campbell's soup cans, with a non-stop plinking piano track in the background that was loud enough to be grating but too quiet to add to the mood. I have no idea what this guy thinks about Kierkegaard because I was too irritated by every aspect of this podcast's production to pay much attention.

2/10

Sunday, November 7, 2021

After Receiving 100 Rejections


In my senior year of high school, I only applied for a scholarship once. I wasn't what you'd call a great student. My four-year GPA was mediocre at best. Any hope that the SAT might reveal some untapped natural genius was dashed once I actually took it. And the one class I did pretty well in, AP English, was too little, too late to resuscitate my academic career. 

I tried searching online, just in case some eccentric billionaire had set up a fund for middling students from the Midwest, but the results were mostly discouraging. 

Still, that AP English class did a number on me – it showed me firsthand how the right instructor can shape even the most unpromising clay. So deeply did I love the class that it began to feel like direction. Maybe, if I became a teacher, I could help other students feel the same way.

As luck would have it, a couple teachers at my school had gotten together to fund a $200 scholarship for future educators. It wasn't much – just enough to pay for 2/7ths of a textbook – but if I could win that scholarship it would prove I was headed down the right path. It would mean I'd figured things out.

I completed the application, sat through interviews with the scholarship sponsors, and then waited until Academic Honors Night. That was when the school awarded its own scholarships, including the one I'd applied for, with a ceremony based on the Oscars. No one knew in advance who had won. We had to wait until a presenter opened the envelope and announced from there on the stage.

When the night arrived, I didn't tell anyone in my family I was going, let alone that I was up for a scholarship. I wanted to be cool and casual about it – I figured I'd come home with the certificate and leave it on the kitchen table for my parents to find.

Oh, that thing? I would remark over breakfast, as my parents marveled at my award. Just a little something I won at Academic Honors Night. Didn't I tell you? It must have slipped right out of my mind.

I got to the school and found a seat in the back of the auditorium, where I impatiently flipped through the program. Once the awards started, I could see how it flowed: I wouldn't be asked for a speech, but I would shake a few hands, smile, graciously acknowledge the crowd. Maybe I could find out who I'd beaten, then offer them words of encouragement. It's a shame we can't all win. I think you're very deserving.

Finally, after forty minutes, my category was up: The Future Educators' Award for a Graduating Senior. My speech coach, who I knew for a fact adored me and was one of the interviewers during the applicant process, approached the podium. The twinkle in her eye confirmed what I already knew: She was pleased as punch to personally deliver my $200.

“Tonight, we're very pleased to award this scholarship,” she said, leaning into the microphone, “to our very own Ashley Krulinski.”

I sat there stunned in the dark auditorium, watching as Ashley walked into the light of the stage to accept her award. I would learn, much later, that she'd spent all four years of high school tutoring students, far more hours spent volunteering than I'd ever worked for a paycheck. I couldn't argue she didn't deserve it.

But as I left the auditorium that night, never to speak a word about it to anyone, it felt as though I had failed some crucial referendum. Not on whether I deserved $200, but on who I was as a person. That, I knew, was the real reason I didn't tell anyone I was going. The only thing worse than leaving a failure would be to leave as a failure with witnesses.

*

So many of our failures happen alone. Quiet and unremarked, barely a ripple in the status quo of our lives. It feels inside out. Because while your circumstances may not have changed, in one way or another the failure's changed you. Is it better or worse if nobody sees?

I started this year with a finished novel manuscript. It's not the first time I've finished a book, but it's the first time I thought, “I'm ready to look for a publisher,” rather than, “Well, I guess that was good practice.” I also started the year with some new writing goals. I wanted to submit more, write more, improve how I managed my time. I also wanted to get more rejections.

"One hundred" was the number I landed on, thanks in part to an article that posed a hundred rejections as a significant milestone. You have to work pretty hard to get your ass kicked that many times, and I wanted to work hard. I also wanted the inevitable byproduct of racking up that many failures, which is the thick skin that comes with rejection becoming a standard part of your day.

By my tally, I'm on track to hit a hundred by the end of the year. To date I've received 58 rejections on my novel, and another 36 on various short stories. Given that I've still got 48 active submissions waiting for a response, I feel pretty confident that I'll hit my goal. And you know what? Rejection still fuckin sucks!

How did this catch me off guard? Why did I think by the end of the year it wouldn't faze me anymore? Have I ever met me? I don't get over things! That's my whole schtick!

So at the start of last week I was beat. A rejection arrived in my inbox on Monday and I just thought, What the fuck am I doing? Why do I keep sending queries? Why not just invite strangers to hit me in the face with a shovel, if I'm feeling so masochistic?

It's a funny thing – no matter how many times these thoughts come around to gnaw at your edges, it always somehow feels new. Yet any writer with the least bit of self awareness knows you have to keep some kind of lid on it. I'm getting rejected at least twice a week, and believe me, no one in my life needs to hear my thoughts every single time. I don't even want to hear my thoughts, I just don't have a choice.

Thank God for Bonnie Friedman.

I've written before on this blog about her essay Glittering Icons, Lush Orchards: On Success. I actually read it for the first time at the start of this year, so it's fitting that I'm circling back as this year starts to wind down. What stands out to me now is not the same as what stood out to me then. Like this paragraph, which now jumps off the page:
“We expect when we are successes we will be changed. We will be different from who we are now. We will live more intensely when we are successful, and our joys will be magnified, and our frustrations and sadnesses fewer and more meaningful because set in the context of our more significant lives—as if fame itself, or whatever we mean by success, establishes a force field within which everything counts, everything matters, simply because it has happened to us. When we are successful, then we will have reason to love our lives.”
What did I expect from that $200 scholarship? Surely not that it would mean anything tangible for my college career. But as a symbol of success and validation, yes – on the other side of that, everything would be different. My poor grades and academic frustration wouldn't mean quite so much, because I would be setting sail toward a bright new horizon. Where I had been bad, now I would be good, marked by that small first success.

Sometimes you fail and the world still goes on and yet, somehow, you are changed. Losing that scholarship was not the end of anything, because the spark I found in those English classes wasn't really about teaching. The real spark, the one I would fan into flame, was a deeper, more critical love of the language. Of reading and writing and thinking. Of how a certain kind of study and close observation can unlock things you never knew were there.

It would take me years to understand that writing, in itself, was enough. That it could be a career and a calling, that I could write as a job during the day and write as a passion at night, and that I would find both of these things deeply rewarding.

All those years that Ashley was tutoring her students, I wasn't thinking about teaching – I spent those same years writing. Obsessively, joyfully, relentlessly, even at the expense of my grades. I never wondered where it might lead because I didn't see how it mattered. Jobs were what you did to make money so you could survive to do what you loved. That's what I believed, and surely that's what my speech coach heard when she interviewed me about that scholarship.

Our failures teach us things. Although I majored in English Education, it never became my career. What I kept going back to, no matter how futile it seemed, was the fact I was desperate to write.

When I remember this, the rejections don't sting quite as much. They're no longer the demarcating line of the “force field in which everything counts.” Instead, they're only posing a question: “Are you sure you still want to do this?”

And a hundred times or a thousand, I'll answer exactly the same.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Existentialism the Easyway®

After a few too many sleepless nights of doomscrolling, I finally buckled and bought a copy of “Smart Phone, Dumb Phone.” I'd been putting it off for a while, because there's something fairly pathetic about being a compulsive phone person, but willpower alone wasn't doing the job. It was time to call in the experts.

In this case, the expert is Allen Carr, whose Easyway® method to quit smoking has grown into a cottage industry of … well, what would you call it? Cessation techniques? Carr's adherents claim that his methods can help with everything from smoking and drinking to gambling and weight loss to, well, just about any other compulsive behavior you can think of. Best of all, the programs promise no willpower required – just follow the steps and you'll be free of your problems in no time.

I'd heard of Carr before, but always had him in my mental Rolodex between Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey, pegged as one of those self-help gurus beloved by people desperate to be told what to do. Unfortunately,  after spending too many nights reading about the collapse of Western democracy until 3 a.m. in the morning, I had to accept I was one of the damned. So, the hell with it: Tell me what to do, Allen Carr! I'm desperate!

Carr's Easyway method works the same way regardless of your substance of choice. He describes it as undoing the “brainwashing” that got you addicted in the first place, which you might have received from any number of sources: family, friends, advertisers, the culture at large, etc. Regardless of how it happened, Carr argues that your addiction is proof that you have, in fact, been brainwashed.

Why? Because addiction fails to deliver. Every time you reach for that cigarette to calm your nerves, Carr points out, what you're really doing is relieving the anxiety caused by smoking itself. He compares it to wearing tight shoes for the relief of taking them off. If you really wanted to be happy, you wouldn't wear such small shoes in the first place. 

So when you take a drink, puff a cigarette, or spend five hours scrolling through Facebook, you're actually causing the anxiety these things are meant to relieve. Your entire baseline shifts: instead of living in a neutral state with occasional big spikes of happiness, you spend most of your time feeling awful and needing help to climb back up to neutral.

With me so far? Good, because that's the key to this thing. Carr's method is based on the idea that once you understand the lie of addiction – once you see that it doesn't make you feel good, and can only make you miserable – you'll be able to un-brainwash yourself and stop. When you reach for a drink, you will no longer believe it can ease your anxiety; instead, you'll see that it's actually to blame.

You get the impression Carr never drank himself sick for weeks at a time. He probably never looked at his own bloodshot eyes in the mirror and thought, This is what you deserve, you piece of shit. In Carr's worldview, addiction is all just a misunderstanding. There's no room for the person who wears painful shoes because they believe, deep down, they deserve it.

Now I know what you're thinking: What does Kierkegaard have to say about all this?

Lucky for you I've been reading The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard's book on despair. Now, for Kierkegaard, despair is a very particular thing: “to be unaware of being defined as spirit.” In other worlds, "despair" means to think of yourself as strictly a material thing, no different from any other object or animal.

There are different flavors of this, of course, and since this is Kierkegaard he naturally spends much of the book cataloguing each different kind on painstaking detail. There is despair caused by over-attachment to material things, and despair caused by wishing you were somebody else. But there's one kind of despair in particular that I think might be useful here: the person “in despair to will to be oneself.”

Well, wait, what does that mean? He describes someone so attached to their own idea of who they are that they refuse any kind of outside comfort:
“And to seek help from someone else – no, not for all the world does he want that. Rather than to seek help, he prefers, if necessary, to be himself with all the agonies of hell.”
Kierkegaard continues:
“[A person] is pained in some distress or other that does not allow itself to be taken away from or separated from his concrete self. … Once he would gladly have given everything to be rid of this agony, but he was kept waiting; now it is too late, now he would rather rage against everything and be the wronged victim of the whole world and of all life, and it is of particular significance to him to make sure that he has his torment on hand and that no one takes it away from him – for then he would not be able to demonstrate and prove to himself he is right.”
In other words, the despair here arises from identification with misery. Instead of letting pain go when relief finally arrives, it becomes a core part of that person's identity. And so when you threaten the misery, and you threaten the person.

There's a saying I've heard in recovery meetings, and that I've quoted before in this blog: “Poor me, poor me, pour me another drink.” Self-pity, self-flagellation, self-inflicted wounds; all these things are as much drivers of addiction as the belief that a substance can offer some happiness. Carr's method addresses the hope for pleasure, but in my experience it's sometimes the misery that addicts hold the most precious. And although there doesn't seem to be an easy way to fix both, that doesn't mean that it can not be done.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Train to Metamora

The train to (and from) Metamora
About a month ago, we purchased four tickets for a train that runs from Connersville to Metamora, Indiana. 

Metamora, like Brown County's Nashville or Mackinac Island in Michigan, is one of those quaint tourist towns with a local economy built around fudge. When we bought the tickets, we imagined it would be a nice way to ring in the fall – we'd enjoy a slow train ride through the colorful Autumn leaves, buy a couple bricks of peanut butter fudge, then snooze our way home in a sugary daze as the train cars rocked to and fro.

So we bought the tickets and invited my in-laws, then spent the next month blissfully ignoring the fact that we live in Indiana. Because in Indiana, fall is a bastard.

I don't even think “fall” is the right name for the season that happens this time of year, although summer is long gone by now. What should we call these cold, gray, rainy weeks that grip the Midwest in October? “Spite” works, I think; so we found ourselves on the train to Metamora at the height of spite season.

It shouldn't be a surprise that the trees are all still very green during "spite." Of course they are, just to make a mockery of your pathetic attempt to enjoy the cool weather. That didn't stop us from spotting a few changing leaves. We just had to work a bit harder.

“There! That tree in the gulley, I think I see yellow!” one of us would shout, and the other three would crane our necks to look. Never mind that the tree was lying flat on the ground, and that the yellow leaves were fringed with dying brown curls. It was a seasonal color, dammit, and by God we were going to enjoy it.

The train cars were not heated, and the doors were kept open for air circulation. This seemed to be a nod toward COVID safety, but otherwise precautions were pretty relaxed. While signs encouraged us to wear masks in the station and on the train, only about one in five passengers did, which is about as good as it seems to get anymore.

After a ninety-minute journey, during which we saw eleven and a half yellow leaves, we arrived in Metamora. As the train slowed to a halt, the conductor recited the plan: We'd be given two hours to see the town and eat lunch. Five minutes before departure, the train would sound four long horn blasts; if we weren't back after that, we'd be on our own to get home.

No problem! Two hours seemed like plenty of time to get food, buy fudge, and maybe even feed the exotic ducks waddling along the canal. But we hit our first snag just moments after disembarking the train.

Before we'd arrived, my mother-in-law consulted the Visitor's Guide to Metamora and announced that she wanted us to all eat at The Smelly Gourmet. Concerned that she did not recognize a red flag when she saw one, I asked what, exactly, Smelly had on the menu.

“Eight kinds of grilled cheese!” she told us, handing over the brochure. My wife and I scanned it for detail. Besides the grilled cheeses there was also something called "Smelly chips," which were not described in much detail. But ah, what the hell. What's an adventure without questionable choices?

Unfortunately, despite the map in the visitor's guide, we couldn't find the place. My wife finally had to consult with a local to learn that Smelly himself had taken early retirement, and that The Smelly Gourmet was now closed.

After a little more wandering, it looked like Smelly wasn't alone. Shop after shop seemed to be closed, and buildings had gone up for sale. I suddenly felt kind of stupid: What was I expecting a tourist town to be like after two years of COVID? Just how bustling did I think it would be?

Not everything had closed, of course, but this seemed to make things harder on the surviving restaurants. Because there were fewer places to eat, there were fewer options for the tourists, and so each restaurant we visited had lines out the door while harried staff scrambled to get people served. Meanwhile the tourists were grumbling, all keenly aware of the same clock counting down that would end with four sharp whistles.

Eventually we did find a place with a few empty seats, Gold Diggers Family Diner, where we ate pizza, warmed up, and dried off. On our way out the cashier gave my wife a ticket for a "free gift" at a gem shop across the canal, which was irresistible even in the face of the five-minute whistle. My wife and in-laws went inside to claim the free gift while I got sidetracked by a bin labeled "BOOKS - $1." (The bin contained the copies of What Color is Your Parachute? and The Da Vinci Code that all dollar-book bins are legally required to have, but otherwise not much of note.) My wife emerged from the shop with a new necklace in hand, and we all headed back for the train.

The cold rain never relented. We rode back to Connersville, then decided to find some place for hot coffee to warm up before the drive home. Not far from the train station we found a place called Brian's Bistro, right across the street from a courthouse. We ordered coffees and hot chocolate and chai, and ogled the desserts by the register: there was pie and cookies, brownies and cake, all charmingly served from the Pyrex in which they'd been fresh baked that morning. Nothing cost more than a dollar. We couldn't resist the temptation.

And so we sat and we ate and we warmed ourselves up, expecting at any minute for crowds from the train to arrive. But no one else ever showed up. We had the small place to ourselves.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...