Latitude of Gratitude 2020: 43° 3′ N.

Thanksgiving evening, November 26, 2020


Hi Everyone,


This year my latitude of gratitude is 43° 3′ 52.5226″ N.  Nine significant figures:  amazing precision.  If I move 10 steps due south into the dining room it’ll prolly change the last two figures, at minimum.


It’s good to know where one is, and where one has come from.  This coming year, we’re especially hoping to navigate where we’re going.


Last year our family Thanksgiving was at my mother-in-law’s house in North Adams, MA, latitude 42° 41’ 55″ N.  We were celebrating what we knew to be the last such dinner in the house that had been her family’s homestead since 1968.  She was already contracted to buy a condo in Madison just a few blocks from our house.  The closing was set for December 19;  the big move was slated for early March.  And then came The Covid.  In the braided stream of life, it ended up that she moved into her new place overlooking Les Champs-Monroes on Election Day.


Not quite three weeks later (this past Monday), announced they rated Madison as the #1 Place to Retire.  I hope this is affirming news to my mother-in-law, who has lived her entire life in the Berkshires, the last fifty years in the shadow of Mt. Greylock, in the light of Williams College (where John Bascom of Bascom Hall fame is buried), and in the glow of the Clark Art Institute.


The high livability-ratings of Madison are understandable.  There’s an archeological record of continuous human habitation in the land of the Four Lakes going back at least 12,000 years. In 1948 a Life magazine story highlighted “The Good Life in Madison Wisconsin” and asked in the sub-headline, “Is it the best place in America to live?”


But to be rated high, let alone #1, as the best place to retire is astonishing.  This is a miracle. When I moved here in January 1982 as a new grad student, it was 27° below zero. It was the Rust Belt era and it was my impression that retirees who could get out of town got out of town and moved to Florida or Texas or Arizona or California or even Arkansas.


Yet here’s the thing: yeah, the winters are cold, but for a medium-sized city that’s easy to drive around and with great amenities and low cost or no cost museums, zoos, botanical gardens and arboretums, it’s hard to beat.  And add in all these young couples having babies and drawing grandmas and grandpas to the City on the Isthmus.

This new ranking is a big deal for science outreachers because retirees are a huge demographic in science outreach, as participants, providers and partners.  Part of being a public land-grant research & extension university is a mindset that the public not only should benefit from the university, but also that the university cannot be at its best without the public playing vital roles in the life of the university.  Therefore, anything that feeds the vibrancy of the community also helps fuel the vitality of the university, including its state-wide mission in public service.


Here in Wisconsin as across most of the world, nine of the past 12 months have been dominated by a little RNA virus that has triggered an epic epidemic that has bulldozed the normal structure of our lives.  The pandemic has taken the lives of at least 260,000 Americans and 1.4 million people worldwide, sickened at least 12.5 million Americans and 60.6 million worldwide, and stripped the livelihoods of millions.


For the more fortunate among us, despite the competitions & performances cancelled, the planned vacations lost, the get-togethers with families or neighbors or colleagues forgone, the pandemic has helped nearly all of us to focus on the essential and to find new ways to connect and communicate to folks near & far.


So this year I’m grateful for Zoom and Webex and Team Meetings and the basket of platforms that have enabled so many of us to remain in touch and in collaboration.  They’re not perfect, but I shudder to think what a pandemic would have looked like in 2000 when video conferencing was in its Clutch Cargo phase.


On several occasions in that skeptical period, when I was at outreach conferences or conventions, exhibitors would pitch their video systems to me.  My approach was this:  I’ll be happy to use them when I can tell a joke, the audience can get it, and I can tell that they got it.  Speed of timing and crispness of clarity are everything.  Today I am happy to use these systems, and grateful for the people at the university who support the infrastructure that make it possible for my colleagues and me to use them.


I greatly appreciate my Extension colleagues, and especially my 4-H colleagues who have been hammered on the anvil of covid, and who through their malleability have been able to sustain old relationships and to forge new ones.  These colleagues have not only the UW-Madison rules to follow, but also the expectations of partners in 72 different counties. They walk a tightrope strung through a gauntlet.  I admire their ingenuity and tenacity and their ability to take a blow that would lay me low, and yet, as the saying goes, they persist.


I’m grateful to be part of a campus-wide science outreach community that likewise has improvisedadapted, and overcome.  Some, such as the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, have adapted by producing and sending out kits of materials for hands-on experiments for schools or youth groups at home.  Others, such as the Currie Lab and PBS Wisconsin’s Meet the Lab project, have improvised by producing and promoting videos of lab tours and interviews with scientists.


I’m especially thankful to my colleagues at PBS Wisconsin’s University Place, who have been recording most of the Wednesday Nite @ The Lab presentations since October 2007.  With the arrival of covid, WN@TL had to go on hiatus because of the closing to the public of campus buildings and because of the shifting of PBS WI resources to support programming specifically for schools.


But by September we were able to put new portable equipment to work so that some WN@TL speakers could record at broadcast quality their presentations from their own homes.  Other WN@TL speakers continue to give live talks by Zoom and YouTube live.


I hope Thanksgiving 2020 has gone well for your and yours.  Dinner was at 2:00 at my house, the first round of left-overs are heating on the stove for supper, and the Zoom with my siblings & cousins in Illinois starts at 8:00.


Some things never change; some things happily do.


Best of luck with your navigation in the coming year!


Tom Zinnen