Back to school, after almost a year

Today marked a year and a day since my last work event outside home. It also brought our daughter’s first day at school–meaning in school–since last March.

What a long, strange, painful trip around the sun it’s been. The headlines in Arlington and across the region–not to mention the nation–have documented how dismally distance learning has failed in practice. It’s just hard for kids to pay attention and ask for help through a screen. And while it’s been difficult for everybody to spend a year mostly cut off from people, that’s especially harsh for kids who have had a large fraction of their childhoods stolen from them by this pandemic.

Picture of a side of a school bus, showing the word "Schools"

I don’t blame any of that on the teachers who have also had their worlds upended and have since been working harder than ever to do their jobs. I mean, I struggle to stay tuned into virtual events, and I’m a 50-year-old man with a college degree and decades of taking notes while staring at screens. Just how well should a 10-year-old be expected to tackle this problem?

Were my wife and I both people of full-time leisure, this might not have been that bad. We could have fielded our daughter’s questions, worked through problems with her, tried to cheer her up whenever necessary, and in essence acted like semi-competent substitute teachers. But this mortgage and these property taxes won’t pay themselves, so we have been reduced to doubling as incompetent, distracted substitute teachers.

The remote-learning technology involved hasn’t helped. I know a lot more about our schools’ software stack than I used to, and much of it has made me angry–such as the layer of mobile-device-management software that made updating iPad apps a Windows XP-esque experience, and the classroom-management app that seems designed against the idea of showing students or their parents a simple list of what work is due and overdue.

School isn’t back in a full-time sense for us; IRL classes are still only two days a week to keep class sizes unusually small (backed up by extra ventilation in classrooms), with the other three on the same dreadful virtual basis. But that’s two days a week our kid can have something of a normal 10-year-old’s life, just with a lot more masks. When so many people I know are still waiting for even a partial restoration of their kids’ lives, I’ll take that.

The ignominious pandemic anniversaries pile up

A year ago today, the novel-coronavirus pandemic got a little more real for me and yet remained nowhere real enough. That’s when I had to cancel my travel plans for MWC in Barcelona after the organizers of that wireless-industry trade show succumbed to a wave of withdrawals by their bigger exhibitors.

The blog post I wrote then about MWC’s scrubbing betrays a stunning refusal to consider what I might not know about the emerging pandemic and the possible inadequacy of our own response to it. So do the e-mails I sent to friends and family that week, in which I blithely talked about plans for work and family trips in March, April and beyond as if the disease would somehow soon go away.

Now the Earth has gone a full orbit around the Sun since those early and excruciatingly bad takes, and the pandemic anniversaries are starting to stack up. Last Friday marked a year since my last time speaking at a conference out of town, last Saturday a year since my last attendance at a sports event. The coming weeks will bring the anniversaries of my last in-person panel, conference reception and indoor dinner at a restaurant.

Since then, we have learned many things the hard way, while almost half a million Americans aren’t around to benefit from those lessons. Tens of thousands more get sick every day; this week’s numbers included an old friend who only today had his temperature drop below 100 degrees after a few tense and agonizing days wracked by this virus.

But as of tonight, just over 50 million Americans have now received at least one dose of the vaccine–my in-laws among them, my mom scheduled next week.

I believe that we have already reached the farthest point of our own orbit away from the Before Times. But after having been wrong so many times in my pandemic predictions, I will not now forecast when this trajectory might land us back on something like the Earth we knew.

A distanced, disconnected CES

Throughout this week I’ve spent covering CES in its all-digital incarnation, the Google Photos app on my phone has kept reminding me of how far this virtual experience is from the trade show that had me flying to Las Vegas every January from 1998 through 2020.

Photo of a 2020 CES badge held in front of a screen showing a schedule of on-demand videos from CES 2021

On one hand, the app’s Memories feature has been spotlighting the things I saw at CES years ago. On the other hand, Google Photos reveals that almost all of the pictures I’ve taken this week feature my cat–and none involve any new gadgets.

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show isn’t like other conferences that have had to adopt all-digital formats. (The same goes for the two other gadget shows on my calendar over the last several years, IFA and MWC.) Companies do their best to hype up their upcoming hardware, but you also get to inspect it firsthand and try to find the flaws the presenters didn’t think to mention.

That’s not an option at CES 2021, where the product presentations are even more like long-form ads than the CES press conferences of prior years. And while an online format can still allow for a live Q&A afterwards, that hasn’t been the case with the CES press events I’ve attended watched. I’ve had to e-mail PR types and wait for a response to a question I probably could have gotten answered in a few minutes were we all in the same physical space.

I don’t write that to take away anything from the people at the Consumer Technology Association who work incredibly hard to make CES happen in a normal year and then had to tear up the script in late July and write a new one from scratch. Some real-world interactions are just difficult or impossible to replicate online.

That also goes for all the unexpected connections you make at CES and the conversations you enjoy over bad food in a press room and better food at a reception or a dinner. As much as I hate tearing myself away from my family at the start of every January, the chance to catch up with old tech-nerd friends and maybe make a few new ones helps compensate for that.

Like most of the social interactions I’ve surrendered since last March, they now await at the far end of a long tether. I hope it’s not too many more months before I can pull myself back.

2020 in review: persistence required

Back in August, when 2020’s nightmare status had become numbingly obvious even if we didn’t know how much worse the novel-coronavirus pandemic would get, I recounted here what I’d typed to a friend in a chat the day before: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

As I type this, 2020 only has hours left to go, so simply being able to write this recap feels like a minor victory. But as I type this, I also see that the Johns Hopkins University pandemic dashboard I have checked far too many times year now lists a total of 344,030 Americans dead from the pandemic–a staggering, heartbreaking toll made worse by President Trump’s careless stewardship and pointless politicization of things as basic as wearing a mask. Among the earliest of those casualties: my senior-year roommate’s father.

Screenshot of the Mac Calendar app's year view of my work calendar, showing many days with no appointments at all.

Spending most of this year in what often felt like a form of house arrest seems like such an inconsequential side effect compared to that loss, or the brief hospital stays two relatives endured. But beyond leading to such developments as my briefly growing a beard, my cooking and gardening like never before, and our adopting a cat, the pandemic took a hammer to my own business.

As the economy crumpled, some of my clients cut their freelance budgets drastically or to zero; one of my best clients closed at the end of May. With business travel shut down–see how empty that screengrab of my calendar looks?–my sideline of moderating panels at conferences became an exercise confined to my desk instead of a way to get free trips to fun places.

I somehow scraped together enough work to see my income drop by only about 14 percent compared to 2019–but that year was itself not great. I can’t lie to you or to myself: Freelancing isn’t working as well for me as it did five years ago. But the entire profession of journalism is in far worse shape than it was five years ago.

Inconveniently enough, I still love the work. And I loved writing the following stories more than most.

In a year that’s seen me so cut off from people, the chance to call out abuses of power that made things harder for everybody else cooped up at home helped me feel a little more connected to you all.

So did my four long days of work as an election officer, concluding with the tiny role I played Nov. 3 helping Americans vote in unprecedented numbers and end Trump’s reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence. That service for a cause much bigger than myself was nowhere near my best-paying work this year. But it may have been the most satisfying.

Home for the holidays–except it’s my own home

We spent Christmas in an unprecedented place: our house. Like many of you (I hope all of you), we scratched our travel plans on account of the pandemic that as of today has killed more than one in every thousand Americans. The end of December has involved travel by plane, train or automobile for me ever year since high school, but that streak finally ended.

Homemade wreath on a front door

I have to admit that it felt oddly calming to wrap up my shopping on the evening of Dec. 23, the latest day I’ve headed out of town, and realize I could take my time browsing at the Downtown Holiday Market instead of worrying about having to pack once I got home. Between this immense simplification of holiday logistics and the absence of the usual barrage of CES PR pitches, it’s been a less stressful season.

Celebrating Christmas at home also allowed our cat to be part of the festivities. It turns out that Abel likes playing with wrapping paper and ribbons, so this worked out well for him and for us.

Plus, we had a few snow flurries, so the day met the technical definition of a white Christmas.

The downside is that it’s now been more than 13 months since I’ve seen my mom and my brother, and it’s been almost as long since my wife saw her parents and her sister. FaceTime and phone calls have been poor substitutes for hugs.

I would very much like to think that by the end of March, enough people will have been vaccinated to have the pandemic rapidly receding and family travel plausible again. But I’ve been wrong so many times in my pandemic forecasts here before that I’m nervous even writing that hope now.

An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

The wrong kind of endless summer

Today is Aug. 22, and I need to look at the lock screen of my phone more than usual to confirm that fact.

Months after the novel-coronavirus pandemic’s swift demolition of my business-travel schedule, the days and weeks blur into one another. Not only has no work travel since appeared on my calendar, personal travel has vanished too.

Visiting my mom and brother in Massachusetts became a non-starter once that state declared a 14-day quarantine for arrivals (you’re exempt if you can produce a negative COVID-19 test result from no more than 72 hours before your entrance, but good luck with that turnaround time). We thought about visiting my wife’s family in the Bay Area but decided to hold off on spending that much time in airports and airplanes, and now the latest bout of wildfires make a visit there ill-advised for anybody.

And we never got it together to plan any other trip anywhere because of [gestures weakly] all of this.

So for the first time since… ugh, 1993, I will go nowhere for the summer. And back then, at least I had plenty of opportunities to leave my sad Crystal City apartment and get lost in the city.

This summer offers almost nothing: no lunchtime panels, no evening receptions, no weekend parties, not much of anything aside from such brief escapes as a timed-ticket visit to the National Zoo or a crab feast on a neighbor’s deck. Lately, I can’t even count on the arrival of the mail to remind me that it’s Saturday versus Sunday.

The only respite has come from, of all the things, the weather, which has mixed things up with a delightfully cool spell over the last week and change. Opening the front door to temperatures in the 70s has let me pretend I’ve woken up in California or Europe–until seeing the untidy state of the lawn reminds me of overdue chores here.

Having written all that, I feel utterly unentitled to any pity. The three of us may be growing weary of all this time cooped up at home, but lots of people have never had the money or the time off to go anywhere fun for vacation. And many others have been treated exponentially worse by this accursed pandemic.

Yesterday, I was chatting online with a friend who has been recovering from some severe depression this summer. Not quite knowing what to write, I typed this: “This entire year… I think if we can all get through it, nothing will ever seem as hard.”

God, I hope that’s true.

So this is what it will take to interrupt my CES streak

Next January will not be like the 23 before it, because for the first time since 1997 I won’t be going to CES. And neither will anybody else, thanks to the Consumer Technology Association’s Tuesday announcement recognizing the impossibility of staging a giant in-person tech event during the novel-coronavirus pandemic. Instead, CES 2021 will become what the Arlington trade association is calling an “all-digital experience.”

The event formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show has been a fixture in my life for so long that my child has never seen me at home during its allotted days in early January. Neither has my wife.

Now they will. I won’t get up too early too few days after New Year’s Day to tear myself away from my family, spend hours in a pressurized metal tube flying to Las Vegas, and spend the rest of the week walking in circles through a series of enormous convention-center halls between demos, meetings and receptions.

As dreadful as the logistics of CES get, I will miss the thing. No other event all year provides as many opportunities to take the measure of the tech industry, see what the executives running it think (often inaccurately) we want to buy, and inspect the actual hardware. Plus, CES offers some first-rate networking that historically has generated a fair amount of business for me.

I already feel the CES Stockholm Syndrome settling in… will I feel compelled to recreate the awfulness of CES bandwidth by hobbling my phone in 3G mode and then tethering my laptop off that trickle of connectivity? Should I ask random strangers “ship date? price?” 15 times a day to remind myself of the joys of CES reporting? Will I have to gobble a Clif bar for lunch and then eat dinner standing up to re-enact the usual CES sustenance scenario?

I would like to think that I could use the time that will be liberated from the annual gadget pilgrimage to do things like go skiing or visit museums, but I’m sure the coronavirus will still be Ruining Everything in early January. Instead, I can only hope that week can bring the highlight of one of my last pre-CES, post-New Year weeks: a blizzard of epic proportions.