Friday, January 01, 2021

Social Distancing Journal: Wrapping 2020

2020 has reached its end--and none too quickly, as common sentiment might snarkily interject with a hard nudge to the ribs--but if I’m being honest, it was a good year for me personally. Sure, there have been hard times, particularly that point in March when everything was upended and kicked off what has been the homebound status quo for the remainder of the year. The fear and uncertainty I felt then isn’t something I hope to repeat. The stress of the Presidential election and the collective tension in the country, whether that was justifiable anger over civil injustices or the ridiculous resistance to mask-wearing (as if doing so is an affront to individual liberty), wore on me. Overall, though, I feel like I came through 2020 in a better place. For the first time in nearly three years I have regained professional stability, or at least as much as I can presume to have when continuous employment rests with the will of those above me in the organizational hierarchy, and can enjoy the benefits of a “permanent” job. I’ve made new friends who have provided invaluable support through the pandemic. I’ve found new interests that expand my learning. I don’t think there’s any question that I’m happier than I’ve been in quite some time.

I suppose I feel somewhat apologetic for feeling this way, as if it’s indecent to find joy during what is a difficult time for many. Of course, this is a silly way of looking at things, but having been through a lengthy patch when each day brought worries for not knowing what was ahead, I acknowledge that I wasn’t in the mood to hear someone else be appreciative about the positive things they were experiencing. So consider this my disclaimer for recognizing that my lived reality in 2020 is mine alone. I worked hard. I caught some breaks. I got to know some people who have made my life better. The balance of the last twelve months tipped in a positive direction for me, even as I’ve been mostly isolated in my apartment. If there’s hope for others to find in my 2020, perhaps it is that I didn’t see it coming. The lesson for me is that although I will be blindsided by bad news, I can also be caught unsuspecting by blessings too, at least if I’m open to seeing them.

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When I started the weekly social distancing entries, I hoped to keep up with them. Then I intended to catch up. And then I was going to summarize up to a certain point, consider them current, and pick up again. Clearly that didn’t happen. I have some partial drafts that maybe I’ll get around to finishing. The more likely outcome is either that I’ll pull out what still seems relevant and tack that up in a backdated post or just leave them alone unseen by anyone but me. Nevertheless, I do feel compelled to put some kind of cap on 2020.

I had in my head that I would make a list of my top things of 2020, something like my friend Donna would do each year when she was regularly blogging. I started out attempting that, but frankly it just seemed like too much work to rack my brain for everything that might flesh out a long, respectable list. But why let the perfect be the enemy of the good or, as far as I’m concerned in this case, the adequate? I could really pour the time into refining this so it somewhat resembles whatever fuzzy, platonic ideal I hold in my brain, but maybe I’m better off just getting this done and having something to show for it.

So what follows are things that helped make 2020 a good year for me. Suffice it to say that things that would be commonly considered as givens--family, health, etc.--don’t need to be stated on something like this. This alphabetical list is for the meaningful and the frivolous. I’ve included these things if I valued them in some way (and remembered). All right, enough table-setting...

-AirPods Pro

I bought these with the intention of renewing a commitment to exercise and making it easier to listen to music or podcasts while doing so. The exercise aspirations mostly fell flat--using shared gym equipment didn’t seem like such a great idea--but this purchase turned out to pay off as a vital tool for video meetings for work and not having the cord in the way when going for walks or doing things around my place.

-Animal Crossing: New Horizons and the Nintendo Switch

This list isn’t just going to be a rundown of consumer acquisitions, but this game and console provided needed relaxation when my stress levels were at or near their highest in the spring. I’m sure my Animal Crossing residents are not pleased that recent months have featured my negligence in maintaining the island. They’ll just have to deal with it. There are only so many hours in the day and way too many things I want to do. I certainly sunk a lot of hours into hanging out in this virtual space when there were fewer demands on my free time. Even as my time with Animal Crossing has dropped off, I’ve continued to use the Switch to play something about every day, even if it’s for shorter sessions. Lately I’ve been hooked on Super Mario Bros. 35 since signing up for Nintendo Switch Online to distract me on Election Day.

-Baking

I baked a lot in 2020 and mostly for others rather than myself. I can probably thank the unnecessary but useful cookie dough scoop for bringing more consistency to every batch I put in the oven. Chewy molasses cookies and intense chocolate brownies were big hits, although I did whip up other baked goods as the year went along. I know I felt better making something for friends, dropping it in the mail, and anticipating them receiving it. Who knows how much I might be able to keep this up outside of a pandemic, but I’d like to continue putting these care packages together as it was a nice way to stay connected.

-Christmas lights

I bought a dwarf Alberta spruce to make my place more festive for the holidays, so of course I needed some lights for the tree. Either I wasn’t paying attention to the length of the first string of LED lights I purchased or I badly miscalculated what the tree could hold. I ended up finding something just right, but I couldn’t let that first string go to waste. I draped them around and over the sliding door to my patio. I won’t be winning any interior design awards for how I decorated, but having the colorful lights shining through the day and night pleases me. I think I’ll keep them in place for awhile. They emit more light than I would have expected, so if I’m watching a movie, it’s been enjoyable to turn off the regular lights and leave those on. In its own way, it can make my place feel a little more like a movie theater.

-Dayton Flyers men’s basketball

To my dismay, the pandemic killed the opportunity to see what kind of historic run my favorite college team might put together in the NCAA Tournament, but I still had so much fun watching the best squad I’ve ever seen play for the university. I knew the 2019-2020 team had something special, so I’m glad I was able to get to a few big games and enjoy the others on television. Unless you root for the dominant teams that win championships on a regular basis, being a sports fan means absorbing a lot of losing. While it hurt for the chance to see the Flyers try to do the unthinkable as a mid-major program get yanked away, the 31 games they played in the 2019-2020 were a blast.

-Emeritus status

Receiving emeritus status at my former place of employment had been in the works for some time, but it was still gratifying for this recognition to come through. While I’m unclear exactly what comes with it, hopefully the honor will be useful to have on my resumé. I think emeritus status is mostly given to those retiring from the university, so I’ve received it at a far younger age than when it is usually bestowed. Nevertheless, as a signal that the departure was on good terms (even if, you know, I would prefer not to have been unemployed) and acknowledgement of my contributions, it has value.

-Fulltime employment

Wait, I thought I wasn’t going to include givens, right? Considering the time it took to secure this, I wouldn’t characterize it as a given. I found out I was losing my longtime job in October 2017, and it ended in May 2018. I started a job as a contractor in October 2019 and was hired on as a fulltime employee with benefits at the end of September 2020. At the start of work-from-home, I definitely worried if enough work would remain to hang on as a contractor. As the volume of work exploded, it became clear that we wouldn’t run out of things to do, although I still had concerns about meeting performance standards with a demanding workload. To wrap up the last quarter of the year with regained stability has been a massive relief.

-Gardening

File under activities I would not have expected to take up. This never would have happened if I weren’t home nearly all the time for the majority of 2020. There I was, though, planting flowers and figuring out how to keep them alive. (Let it be known that I was not always successful.) I expanded to getting a few indoor plants and attempted to grow some herbs and vegetables in pots. The indoor plants have mostly done OK--RIP my first dragon tree, though--while what I tried to grow from seeds produced false positive sprouts from the soil. I have neither the space nor the knowledge to go bigger next year, but as the annuals in my garden have withered and the perennials suffered from damage inflicted by roofers and, I suspect, squirrels digging around them, I’m ready to refresh that little patch again.

-Grandad’s Pizza

While I have preferred spots to get pizza, I will keep an eye out for others to add to the rotation. Food from this place was ordered and delivered to the office when that was still a thing, and I eventually found that one location is relatively nearby that driving to pick it up is convenient. 

-Knitting

I revived my knitting hobby to make some items for friends, whether just because or in a trade for a painting. As with baking, I feel good being able to produce something that I can give away, and the activity itself helps to reduce anxiety. I also think I understand how to do it better or to read the knitting. With one scarf I saw a mistake and, to my vexation, knew that I probably ought to rip out several rows to fix it. Taking an in-progress project off the needle, undoing a bunch of work, and then getting the stitches back onto a needle correctly had me like an action movie star attempting the delicate work of defusing a bomb. But I succeeded! Not that I want to do that sort of thing with any regularity, but repairing the knitting provided a confidence boost. 

-Mardi Gras Homemade Ice Cream

This area has a couple heavy hitters when it comes to ice cream, but this local, independent shop is my preferred spot. (It  is currently closed for the season.) Their international flavors are a big differentiator, and I found myself gravitating to and working my way through them during the summer and fall.

-New friends

New friends echo through a lot of these list items and for good reason. While this isn’t a ranked list, they would come in at a clear #1. They offer help and support at work, and the best of these new friends also check in with me and stay in touch outside of work. Such friendship is always valuable, but for this unusual year in particular, these connections have been really meaningful and provide some normalcy and continuity to daily life. They’ve made me feel lucky, inspired, and deeply grateful. 2020 could have been a difficult year being as isolated as I’ve been, but my new friends did a lot so that I will think of this time with fondness for all they’ve done for me. 

-Painting

As with gardening, this is not something I would have predicted I would start doing, but a friend suggested participating with this group. I’m certainly no master, nor do I expect to ever reach that level, but I’ve enjoyed doing something creative that always seemed beyond my capability.

-True/False Film Fest

As shocking as it might sound based on how often I typically go to the movies, I didn’t miss movie theaters despite not being in a public space to see a film after attending this festival in Columbia, Missouri in early March. For that matter, I didn’t watch many movies after this. Maybe it’s because I prematurely ended my theatrical moviegoing in 2020 with a really fun time taking in a well-curated selection over four days. The event happened on the edge of everything changing in public life in 2020, so while there were signs of what was on the horizon, they weren’t fully understood. Hand sanitizer was plentiful at venues while attendance was noticeably lower. I was just glad to have a few days to catch my breath away from work after putting in an intense stretch heavy on overtime and little time off. It remains a good memory that has sustained me through a time when I’ve been less immersed in films.

-UGG men’s ascot slippers

Working from home definitely means dressing for comfort. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have shelled out as much for a pair of slippers, but these met the specifications of what I was looking for. Plus, I figured they would get a lot of use. No regrets.

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For the better part of the year I worked a lot of overtime. I also didn’t have a desire to watch a lot and don’t think I had the focus to read. I did have more time for listening to music, although weirdly the amount of that I did diminished later in the year. Who knows why? 

Books

If memory serves, I only finished three books in 2020, so I guess if I’m to name one, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (David Grann, 2017) would be it. I enjoyed re-reading Agatha Christie’s 1939 mystery And Then There Were None, which I think I last read when I was in junior high. I didn’t care for I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (Austin Channing Brown, 2018), a memoir that struck me as axe-grinding more than anything. I’m still working on Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (Erik Larson, 1999).

Film

Ordinarily I’d have a couple hundred new films to sift through to come up with a best of the year list. That is definitely not the case for 2020. While I will still try to cobble together a list for critics group voting and podcast purposes, as of this moment such a list doesn’t exist. What I’m enumerating is at best a rough draft and is loaded up with documentaries seen at True/False.

Boys State (Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, 2020)

City So Real (Steve James, 2020) (festival version)

Collective (Colectiv) (Alexander Nanau, 2019)

Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, 2020)

Emma. (Autumn de Wilde, 2020)

Mayor (David Osit, 2020)

Soul (Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, 2020)

Tesla (Michael Almereyda, 2020)

The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson, 2019)


Two older films new-to-me that stood out:


Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma, 1974)

Police Story (Ging chaat goo si) (Jackie Chan and Chen Chi-Hwa, 1985)


And one I’d seen before but really enjoyed revisiting:


Chungking Express (Chung Hing sam lam) (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994)


Music


I usually listened to podcasts when going on walks or driving somewhere while music dominated when I listened to anything while working or doing other things. Nearly half this list is dance pop released in 2020. The genre isn’t something that makes up the bulk of my collection, although its appeal has grown on me in recent years. If I were to guess, the big sounds, upbeat tempos, and overall catchiness created the kind of escapist atmosphere I wanted in a year where the physical space I occupied was small. Sorry Radiohead, love your albums, but bleak, futuristic despair wasn’t really what I was in the mood for in music in 2020. I’ll take a closer listen to Taylor Swift’s quarantine albums eventually, but autumnal, introspective music wasn’t really on the menu either. (Ignore what I just said when seeing that Fleet Foxes album listed, though. It is a balm.)


The Scottish indie pop/rock band Belle and Sebastian ranks among my favorites, yet I don’t know that I’d given their seventh studio album, Write About Love, or their three-EP compilation How To Solve Our Human Problems as many listens as their earlier work when they were shrouded in mystery and existed more of a word-of-mouth phenomenon. Maybe I latched onto these two albums because they are more buoyant. As with any band that manages to last--Tigermilk came out in 1996--consistency over time means later work gets taken for granted, so it’s been nice to grow more familiar with Write About Love, a stronger album than I recall it being, and HTSOHP, a listening casualty of the more recent phenomenon of new music having mayfly life spans in the cultural discourse.


David Bowie’s Scary Monsters may be here by virtue of being at the top of my Recently Added from the last time I could get music from iTunes on my computer transferred to my phone. Regardless, I found it highly relistenable. Billy Joel has been a longtime favorite, which probably comes with the territory when you start playing piano in second grade like I did. He’s not someone I’ve listened to a lot in recent years, but it was comforting to return to his music and its pop sensibilities rooted in early rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t recall Turnstiles ranking among my favorites or being as heralded--it isn’t as loaded with radio-dominated hits--so it was a pleasure to rediscover. Sloan’s discography is remarkably consistent, but I kept returning to Navy Blues perhaps because I saw them play it in full for their first set at the A&R Music Bar in early March and because it may have their strongest single collection of songs.


Annie Dark Hearts (2020)

David Bowie Scary Monsters (1980)

Belle and Sebastian How to Solve Our Human Problems (2018) and Write About Love (2010)

Dua Lipa Future Nostalgia (2020)

Fleet Foxes Shore (2020)

Carly Rae Jepsen Dedicated Side B (2020)

Billy Joel Turnstiles (1976)

Kylie MInogue DISCO (2020)

Sloan Navy Blues (1998)


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I know 2020 will have a negative connotation for many, but hopefully this explains in some small but long-winded way why it won’t for me and what helped me get through it. May 2021 improve those things that didn’t go well as well as enhancing and expanding the joys from the previous year.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Social Distancing Journal: Week 13 (June 8-June 14, 2020)

On the Heritage Trail - 6/8/20 - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer

As the weather has improved, I’ve wanted to make more of an effort to get some exercise. I could (and will) keep walking around my neighborhood, but I also got it into my head that I ought to check out some other area parks to add some variety. I ended up visiting one in Hilliard that I believe has a loop around it but which also has a point to get onto the Heritage Trail. I assumed the loop was shorter, so rather than doing laps, I decided to check out the trail.


The Heritage Trail runs from old downtown Hilliard all the way to Plain City and is reportedly 6.1 miles long. I didn’t know what to expect along the way, so I figured I’d walk until it seemed like a good idea to turn around. The park where I began was a little ways after the trail’s start. At first I was walking behind typical suburban homes. Then there was another park, although one that looked to be more for dogs. The view shifted to farmland. Where I decided to reverse course, as the trail crossed a country road, it looked like I was indeed in the country. Round trip, I logged about seven miles on foot.


Leaving Hilliard on foot - 6/8/20
Photo by Mark Pfeiffer

I’m tempted to conquer the entire trail, from Hilliard to Plain City and back, before the summer’s over, just as long as I can get an earlier start and on a day with a moderate temperature. I found that this trail, while easy in the sense that the section I walked was almost entirely flat, doesn’t really have services along the way. The park where I hopped on has locked up the drinking fountains and closed the restrooms because of public health concerns. I spotted a port-a-john at the dog park. So it would appear that you better bring whatever you need with you if you’re going to walk the whole trail and hope nature doesn’t call because, in a pinch, there’s not really any cover if you need to relieve yourself. (Spoiler alert: I walked the whole trail a week later.)


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This week also marked the biggest step back into pre-pandemic life. I was supposed to have a dental check-up on March 23, but that was canceled for obvious reasons. I had some reservations about whether I should keep this rescheduled appointment, but a friend who was once a dental assistant felt that I shouldn’t have reason to worry about it. The protocol was different--fill out forms before arriving, wait in the car until getting a text to come in, have my temperature taken upon entry--and the workers were wearing more protective gear than in the past. I trust my dentist and his team, and while the dentist’s office isn’t a place that I would say I look forward to visiting whenever the time, I didn’t feel uneasy about doing this.


I don’t know whether I felt emboldened knowing that I was venturing into the public in this particular way so a line of risk had already been crossed or obligated to see a friend, but a couple hours after the dental appointment, I met up for lunch at a restaurant. I had just learned this friend had lost a longtime job, and while I wasn’t especially keen about dining out, he wanted to do so and didn’t think there was reason to be concerned. I don’t know that I was concerned so much as I felt like people in general were becoming too lax in remembering that we’re still in this situation. I’ve remained vigilant--I wear a mask whenever I go away from home--but noticed that even I was softening in the number of times I might leave my place. Having faced a lengthy stretch of unemployment myself and been treated to a meal here and there, I felt compelled to give in even if a big part of me thought this was a bad idea.


We had a later lunch, and the handful of people in the restaurant were spread out in a way that put considerable distance between everyone. Still, even with a reservation, an outside table was not available. Oh boy, what am I doing? I kept a mask on until it was time to eat. Menus and payment were contactless. In that regard, this visit was probably about as “safe” as it can be. I still didn’t feel great about having done this, though. Yes, I wanted to return a favor and provide some support. I also suppose I was tempted to talk to someone in person who isn’t a service worker for the first time since mid-March. If I’ve been cautious yet gave in here, it doesn’t bode well for the situation we’re in, especially when I see other people behaving like we’re back to how things used to be.


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Painting no. 7 - 6/9/20 - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer

The cosmos painting was one of the challenges before I was in the group. As I was looking for additional ideas to turn my brushes toward, I reached back to this one.  I think what I’ve produced looks like something that might get slapped on a cheap science fiction novel. Maybe that adds to the charm? 


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The problem in catching up on these weekly entries well after the fact is pinning down what was happening when or misremembering. (Note: it’s even worse having  left this unfinished a few months ago.) As I was sketching out topics for these updates, I knew that I wanted to touch on what I was feeling when the protests in response to the killing of George Floyd were at their peak. As I complete this entry on October 12, it is safe to say that I am too far removed to have anything meaningful to write. I recall being angry about yet another injustice and the lack of accountability by those in authority. That certainly hasn’t gone away even as the headlines have changed or coverage has faded. For a few days I would be jolted by the screech of the city curfew alert that emerged from my phone. I remember that it felt like maybe we were on the verge of protests initiating some real change, but the subsequent months don’t seem to have revealed that silver lining.  


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Look at me, just watching multiple movies in a week like someone who’d been doing that forever until a pandemic came along and switched up his routine. OK, so I was watching these for films for the podcast, but I was interested in both. Call it synchronicity if you will, but in light of what was in the news, some weird dynamics were cast on the romantic comedy/crime mystery The Lovebirds while Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods felt especially pointed and urgent. 


In a blatant but nevertheless effective bit of ViacomCBS synergy, the Paramount Pictures release--or intended theatrical release until the pandemic saw The Lovebirds sold to Netflix-- opens with a discussion of the long-running CBS reality TV series The Amazing Race and follows the arc of an episode of the globetrotting show while containing the action to New Orleans. The appealing lead performances from Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae go a long way in making this the kind of light entertainment that is especially welcome when you just want to escape. Although this is not a film with the makers looking to engage in a lot of social commentary, the driving force behind the characters starting their adventure to clear their names is because as a Pakistani-American man and African-American woman, they don’t feel they can go to the police and be believed that they didn’t run over a man on a bike. It’s no fault of the film’s that some of the upending of conventions seemed ill-timed--it’s certainly nowhere in the league of Let’s Be Cops coming out on the heels of the events in Ferguson, Missouri--but some of what would otherwise have been more innocuous moments required putting the news out of mind. Anyway, it’s a funny movie that, in the video store days of “if you liked that, watch this” recommendations, has some broad similarities with Game Night that could make for a good double feature at home.


Da 5 Bloods, a Treasure of the Sierra Madre-esque drama about four Vietnam veterans reuniting in Ho Chi Minh City decades later to search for buried gold and the remains of their fallen leader, considers the Black experience at war and in this country back to its origin, so seeing it as protests were at their peak this year surely made this a more potent viewing experience. In diving into history and bristling against what’s happening now, Lee lands gut punches whose power doesn’t rely on the timing in relation to real life matters. Da 5 Bloods can meander too much at times to place this among the director’s best films, but it’s a vital work of fury and historical education even if I feel it can be ungainly for stretches.


I’ve been egregiously slow in editing these, especially the latter, but you can hear the Filmbound podcast episodes on The Lovebirds and Da 5 Bloods for other thoughts I had on these films.


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I started writing this entry in mid-July and have now picked it up again in October to get it into the world. While it would have been nice to have kept up week-by-week, I’ve simply not been able to do so. Call it the curse of having too much to do. My intention is to write the next entry to catch up on the last, gulp, four months but with nowhere near the comprehensive nature I’ve tried to capture in these weekly pieces. From there I’ll try to keep up with them periodically as it certainly doesn’t seem like a return to something resembling pre-pandemic life is imminent. 


Previous Social Distancing Journal Entries:
Pre-Social Distancing

Week 1 (March 16-22, 2020)

Week 2 (March 23-29, 2020)

Week 3 (March 30-April 5, 2020)

Week 4 (April 6-12, 2020)

Week 5 (April 13-19, 2020)

Week 6 (April 20-26, 2020)

Week 7 (April 27-May 3, 2020)

Week 8 (May 4-10, 2020)

Week 9 (May 11-17, 2020)

Week 10 (May 18-24, 2020)

Week 11 (May 25-May 31, 2020)

Week 12 (June 1-June 7, 2020)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Social Distancing Journal: Week 12 (June 1-June 7, 2020)

I started a contract job in October that, thankfully, has provided me with steady employment. My work week goes Wednesday-Sunday, which isn’t my preference, but as with many aspects of the position, I’ve adapted to it. From one perspective, why should it make any difference? It’s not like there’s a natural law bestowing special qualities upon Saturdays and Sundays. Having two consecutive days off is what matters, not which days of the week they are. So, not wanting to work Saturdays and Sundays is more about mindset or the perception that those days are more worth defending. Granted, the cultural and societal values ascribed to the traditional weekend mean they seem more like days when work should be out of the picture. Also, if most people follow a “normal” Monday-Friday work week, then having your schedule out of alignment may feel like a greater imposition on the freedom to do what you want to do. Not that my calendar is an unceasing competition among social events. Instead, the circumstance of my non-standard schedule conjures the illusion of restrictions or loss of choice.

Of course, between working from home and lacking events these last couple months that might fall more on weekends, every day tends to be indistinct anyway. The date on the calendar and the day of the week have increasingly been freed from significance and meaning. Generally I’ve done well keeping track of what day it is, but I’m starting to lose that. A couple times this week I woke up and had to pause for a moment to remember what day it was. I suppose that’s not a big deal, but the experience of time has grown increasingly strange. At least here the seasonal changes help to distinguish that indeed I’m not stuck in some Groundhog Day scenario. Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that this is the twelfth week of the current normal of social distancing. 

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Painting no.6 - 6/5/20 - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
Bonneville Salt Flats - Tooele County, Utah - June 26, 2019
Photo by Mark Pfeiffer

I was tasked with choosing the week’s painting challenge. Wishing to stick with something aligned with my newbie skill set, I suggested an inspiring landscape. I dipped into my photos taken from my 5,000-mile round trip drive out west that was almost a year ago. That trip was semi-planned but featured a lot of making it up as I went along. My destination was Colorado Springs to visit family. From there I thought I might use it as a springboard to visit other states out west that I hadn’t been to. If something popped up with a recruiter or potential employer that required coming back, then I’d come home.

The recruiter’s initial contact turned into silence, so I decided to keep going west to visit friends in Boise, Idaho. They wouldn’t be ready for me when I was looking to leave Colorado Springs, so I ended up stopping in Salt Lake City for a few days. When leaving SLC, in a completely nonsensical decision in terms of travel efficiency, I drove north of the city to Antelope Island State Park to see the lake and other sights, like bison that were freely roaming. Then I drove back to Salt Lake City and headed west to be able to see the Bonneville Salt Flats before cutting across Nevada en route to Boise.

The Bonneville Salt Flats are such an unusual landscape to come across along the highway. One can be forgiven for thinking all the white dusting the ground is snow, but no, it’s salt. (Like a character on a salt planet does in Star Wars:Episode VIII - The Last Jedi, I too dipped my fingers and took a taste. I don’t know why, and yes, it was probably a stupid thing to do.) There isn’t a park, so to speak, just an area you can pull off and then walk onto that great expanse. I’ve never been anywhere at all like this. While I had to backtrack a fair bit and added a good amount of time onto my drive to be able to see the Great Salt Lake and the salt flats, I’m glad I saw both.

I based my painting on one of the photos I took at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The foreground was giving me fits until I started messing with texture and discovered that doing so came close to achieving the kind of look and effect I hoped to achieve. I’m inclined to believe it’s the best painting I’ve done to date.

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The garden is coming along, so I decided to plant some broccoli and arugula seeds to see if I can produce a little bit of food in addition to beautifying the space. This week I also added a bird feeder to my (mostly) enclosed patio area. I filled it up and proceeded to be annoyed that the birds didn’t seem to show any attention to it. Dinner’s ready, birds! Where are you? A friend suggested putting some seed on the ground below the feeder, so we’ll see if that entices them to check out the area. It’s almost as though the birds are punishing me for sweeping the patio. Until now, I would see them pop by to check out what was on the ground. I set out a meal, and these avian ingrates decide to stop flying by. We’ll see if they make their way back.

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I’m not sure why, but I’m still in more of a TV or undemanding viewing mood. Space Force, a Steve Carell-starring satire about the newest U.S. military branch, debuted on Netflix and was an easy choice of something to watch. (There’s a marketing campaign for Netflix: It’s There, So You Might As Well Watch It.) The reviews I came across characterized the show as middling and I agree. The series struggles to find a tone. Space Force is supposed to be funny but also possesses some Prestige TV aspirations that I don’t think are to its benefit. I would have been happy if the creators utilized this setting along the lines of the short-lived, single-camera 2014 sitcom Enlisted that had fun with misfits in the military. Space Force indulges some fairly broad, scattershot humor--the topical jokes are particularly half-hearted--while attempting to take on some more serious character beats. Unless I missed the explanation, I don’t know what the point is of playing coy about why Lisa Kudrow’s character, the wife of Carell’s Space Force-leading general, is in prison after the “one year later” time jump in the pilot episode.

It’s nice to see John Malkovich in this, strange as his participation is to me. I don’t recall coming across him in much recently even if a review of his filmography does pull up a decent number of films I have seen. Bringing him up allows me to share that, when seeing actors and actresses in real life, it is common for them to be smaller than you imagined. Whether it’s Sylvester Stallone or the great French actress Isabelle Huppert, the largeness they convey on screen can be jarring when seeing them in person. On the other hand, Malkovich, who I encountered a couple times at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival and was in line with at the University of Illinois student union coffee shop , is a fair bit bigger than I expected. That’s it. That’s the observation.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Social Distancing Journal: Week 11 (May 25-May 31, 2020)

A quick note: I haven’t had enough time to accomplish everything I want to do, so I gave myself permission to let some things slide, including these weekly journal entries. I am going to try to get caught up by writing these as I can, which defeats the purpose of documenting at the moment but is better than nothing. Have I forgotten some things I might have wished to put in these? Most likely. Does this mean some of these will be shorter? Definitely.

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I love getting mail. Let me qualify that: I love getting good mail. Lately it seems like I’m not getting much in the mail period, whether it’s fun mail, bills, or junk. I don’t miss the absence of the two latter items, but a package from an online order can still be exciting to anticipate.  My fascination with getting things in the mail started as a kid. My hometown didn’t have home mail delivery, so my family had a post office box that was shared with the family business and my grandmother. You needed to turn a dial to enter the combination to be able to get what was inside, an element that might have made utilizing this public service seem more thrilling. I always looked forward to taking a break from working at the grain elevator to pick up the mail.

As a kid and teen I sent letters, mostly to current and former professional baseball players, seeking autographs. I used the reference book The Sport Americana Baseball Address List, which provided the addresses for “virtually every player to debut in the major leagues since 1910.” I’d drop a letter in the mail, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope that raised the chances of a response, and then wait to see if anything came back. 

I learned that sending baseball cards to be signed was probably a fool’s decision, as there was no guarantee you’d ever get them returned. Sometimes the athlete would simply sign an empty space on  the letter I hand wrote and send that. Some were more generous in providing a signed memento while others used a stamp or autopen. I haven’t looked through all that correspondence in ages, although it occurs to me that one of the weirder things I have is a letter from pitcher Bob Knepper, which, if I recall correctly, addresses why he didn’t think a woman should be an umpire. (He made some controversial statements about the role of women as it pertained to Scripture and, in this particular situation, about a woman making calls in baseball games.)

In college a care package from my parents or grandmother was always welcome, and this week I was reminded of the simple pleasure of getting homemade baked goods in the mail. As everyone has been isolating, a friend and I have been exchanging photos of what we’re making in the kitchen. She’s also shared recipes with me, which I’ve had fun making. While these are small things for friends to do to stay in touch, they help me feel more connected and regain a sense of normalcy amid this strange time being physically disconnected from everyone but service workers at the grocery or drive-through windows. She offered to send me some cookies she and her family made for Eid, and I wanted to reciprocate by baking some things to mail her.

There’s nothing noteworthy about getting cookies in the mail, especially when they’re not even from out of town, but awaiting and getting that package lit up my day. I also really enjoyed the time I spent making molasses cookies and mini apple and strawberry rhubarb pies to send her. I think I’ve said it before--and this is not intended to sound like I’m patting myself on the back--but during this time of social distancing, I have found doing nice things for others has been a great way of spreading some happiness and getting out of my own head. I was happy to receive cookies in the mail, but I also found it really rewarding to spend time making desserts to give away too. 

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Painting no. 5 - 5/28/20 - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
Flowers were this week’s painting challenge. I thought this assignment would be easier to tackle--the video tutorials always make it look so effortless--but this one tested me quite a bit. I put more paint on the canvas than was probably beneficial and kept trying to correct from these early missteps. Texture is where I attempted to salvage what I began. I don’t think this is my best painting out of the few I’ve completed, but it didn’t end up the total mess that I worried it was headed toward being.

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As I’m writing this in early July, I don’t specifically recall what I was listening to or watching during this week. It’s likely I was still in a mode of not watching much at all. I’m going to assume that David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was among what I was spinning as it’s something I’ve turned to regularly. The album ranks among his best, but it’s also near the top of Recently Added in the library on my phone, which is as responsible as anything for it racking up plays. After his death in 2016 I bought several of his earlier albums to fill in gaps in my knowledge, mainly anything that wasn’t a single or rock radio staple, of his discography. This album was a more recent acquisition as I’d been holding out for a deluxe reissue that I don’t think  manifested. It features “Ashes to Ashes”, one of my favorite Bowie songs. This album sounds to me like a significant influence on Nine Inch Nails, but that may be less of a sharp observation and more of me remembering reading that when Trent Reznor’s band toured with Bowie. I’ve never had much interest in NIN, but of concerts that were nearby that I wish I’d seen, that’s one high on the list.

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