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.)


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.


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? 


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.  


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.


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. 

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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.

Previous Social Distancing Journal Entries:

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Social Distancing Journal: Week 10 (May 18-May 24, 2020)

My first garden - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
Part of the adjustment to working from home was figuring out how to be situated during the day. I had previously fired up the work laptop from my place on a few occasions and had tried planting myself at the dining room table and in a recliner. The former was functional and generally suited for the work to be done but definitely limited me to using one screen; the latter was more comfortable for sitting but not ideal for some of the tasks I need to complete. There was also another complicating factor: my background during Webex meetings when we are asked to have our cameras on.

I don’t remember how long I worked in a compromised set-up. Eventually I shifted to an arrangement that surely must violate feng shui principles but has been a satisfactory solution. I set the laptop on what I can only think to call a collapsible TV dinner table and rolled a desk chair in front of it. My CD shelves are behind me to provide a more compelling view for my coworkers than a blank wall or my kitchen. As I sat in this spot, one thing started to gnaw at me: my view, specifically the unused patch of dirt by my patio.

And so I began considering planting a garden in this approximate 2.5 feet by 6.5 feet rectangle. I asked for advice from one of my brothers who has done some serious gardening at his homes, and his answer was almost enough to have me punt the idea entirely. The flood of information and news that it might be too late for some things I had considered planting was not what I had hoped to hear as someone who has never planted a garden. It also seemed like the weather was still too cold here to put anything in the ground without having to cover it at night, among other issues.

Impatiens, begonias, and hosta - Phoo by Mark Pfeiffer
After asking around some more, I developed a garden plan that seemed more feasible for someone without the experience. I still had no idea what I was doing when wandering around the nursery and asking for help, but at least I had the guidance needed to get started. I selected three different hostas, two begonias, and two impatiens for my first garden. Aside from a tree root that may ruin a perfect line of plants across the front, you can see above that, at minimum, I have successfully planted the flowers. I’d never given any consideration to how this space is lit during the day until I was told that this detail matters. Now I’m more aware of my surroundings.

As my movements have shrunk and interactions limited, I’ve also become more aware of how meaningful small things can be. The noise and clutter of normal pre-pandemic life have fallen away to where a text from a friend or a flavorful meal have more significance in a day. This garden is literally not big, yet I have already taken a lot of enjoyment from being able to look out and see these flowers as I work. Already the flowers seem to have attracted more birds. I intend to put in a bird feeder and some herbs. It might seem a little silly to get excited about how I might transform this space. Still, I am curious to see how I can bring it along as work-from-home appears to be extended until at least early fall.


Harissa - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer

On the baking front, a friend shared a recipe for harissa, an Arabic semolina cake. The batter itself is easy to prepare and much denser than I expected. I asked for clarification about the instruction to cut the cake into diamond-shaped pieces before baking it because the batter I’m used to wouldn’t stand for that. All it took was mixing the ingredients to discover that the shredded coconut and yogurt help to give the cake its thickness. I think it’s possible that the cake is perfectly good as is, but after baking you pour a sweet lemon sauce onto the cake for it to absorb. I quite liked this finished baked good and can certainly see myself making this again.


Painting went on the back burner this week as the latest challenge in the group was announced near week’s end while I was in the middle of my work week. I had hoped to paint something anyway, but getting the garden in the round, baking, podcasting, and, yes, Animal Crossing got in the way.

I’ve talked about getting hooked on this game for a few weeks now, and if you’re not playing it, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. For me the game’s appeal is as simple as its promotion of being nice. Yes, I suppose there is a darker economic message underlying the way Tom Nook exploits you as the resident representative to improve the island to line the pockets of him, his nephews, and the other vendors. Overall, though, the game boils down to enjoying this digitized nature and making friends with the other residents and visitors. A game whose play involves fishing, catching bugs, digging up fossils, harvesting natural resources, and beautifying the landscape, all while expanding one’s home and belongings and bonding with your animal pals, sounds ridiculous and maybe even tedious. I wonder, though, if it hasn’t rubbed off on me to a degree. I’ve been planting flowers in the game for awhile. Now I’ve done it in real life. I need to do a better job of straightening up my place, and it seems more enticing based on doing it in this game. What has become of me?


I’m listening to more music now while I work than I did when in the office. Playing through a discography--or what I have in my collection that fits on my phone--has become a common approach that also means not having to tax myself with more decisions. (Work can require making one snap judgment after another so that I can reach a point of not wanting to have to choose something else.) I’m digging into music that, for whatever reason, I may not have listened to for a good long while.

The Apples in Stereo were on deck this week. The sugary melodies and peppy tempos of their indie rock filtered through The Beach Boys and, increasingly, Electric Light Orchestra are good for providing a boost when speed is an important part of the work I’m doing. 


At the tail end of last week I was mildly tempted to go to a drive-in movie theater to rewatch one of the films for a podcast episode we recorded this week. The Vast of Night will be available on Amazon Prime on May 29, but prior to its online debut, the studio released it to drive-in movie theaters. One here was playing it with Super 8, which is a nice pairing of small town alien invasion films. I first saw The Vast of Night at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Midnight Madness sidebar in 2019. While I was curious how this might play outdoors and thought it might be good to be away from home for a stretch, staying put won out.

Part of what kept me away is that going to the drive-in sounds like a fun novelty activity but has limitations in the audio-visual experience. I last went to the drive-in in 2017 to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets at Melody 49 in Brookville, Ohio. That’s also likely the last drive-in I attended somewhere more than twenty years prior. While there were aspects of the atmosphere I enjoyed, the image and sound simply don’t match what I’ve come to expect in modern auditoriums. 

So I ended up rewatching The Vast of Night on a screener link that didn’t handle a lot of the dark scenes as well as I would have liked. Regardless, I’m a big fan of this film. Sure, the story is highly derivative of any number of sci-fi sources, with War of the Worlds being a clear influence. I love how it observes small town life in a manner that feels more accurate to me than how movies tend to portray it. I love the analog nature of it, including having the two main actors operating a switchboard and threading a reel-to-reel and the sound of conversations on wired phones. I love the visual flourishes, like a thrilling tracking shot from one side of town to the other. I love how it creates suspense primarily out of people talking, going so far as to fade to black while we listen to a caller share secrets he knows from secret government work. Moments like that replicate what it can be like listening to the radio late at night with the lights off and inhabiting the theater of the mind, something I don’t do now but reminds me of being a kid and tuning in to the radio while in bed. I love the confidence of the director in the performances and the actors’ abilities to pull off often lengthy monologues or unbroken action. Order it up online late at night, turn off the lights, and let this small movie work its magic.

Previous Social Distancing Journal Entries:

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Social Distancing Journal: Week 9 (May 11-May 17, 2020)

Painting No. 4 - 5/13/20-5/15/20 - Mark Pfeiffer
The painting challenge this week was to make something that represents your culture. But what if you don’t really think of one having a culture? Sure, I’m aware of the heritage of ancestors who immigrated to the United States (whenever that was), but that’s never been something that had any particular importance in my family. At best it’s been a “fun fact” rather than a part of identity. I have two guesses as to why this is. First, while I’m uncertain when my great-grandparents came to this country, I’m going to estimate this happened somewhere between 1900-1915, which strikes me as a time when there would have been more social pressure to integrate and lose one’s heritage. Second, I imagine a German heritage was something one didn’t want to play up around World War I, so that, whether on its own or combined with the other factor, seems like a reasonable conclusion.

I’ve known my father’s side of the family better because we lived close to them, so I painted the farm where my paternal grandmother was raised and where three of her siblings lived (and where one of them still resides) for their entire lives. My dad and his mom ran the grain elevator, the family business that his dad built as physical structures and as a company, so farming and agriculture-related things are a significant part of my background. I worked at the grain elevator after school in junior high and high school. We didn’t live on a farm, although a corn field bordered our backyard. I’ve lived more time away from this area than I did in it, but as this was what I grew up around and what probably informs more of who I am than I might realize, it seemed fitting to depict this part of me.

"The farm" - 8/1/15 - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
Before starting the painting I knew that I wanted to use a photo as a reference. The only one I could find was not taken from an ideal angle, but you use what you have. I also wanted to figure out how I could get something house-like on the canvas rather than slopping paint onto it and attempting to correct for all the mistakes. I know I placed the house too high vertically and didn’t leave much room for other buildings on the same plane. I added a cornfield, which is on the property but not in relation to the way I’ve painted it, because I thought there was too much empty space at the bottom.

Does it work? Well enough, I think, considering my lack of training. Unprompted, my mom asked if this was the farm I was attempting to paint, so I must have done something right for it to seem familiar. My friends in the painting group were supportive and complimentary, which is really what the group is about, and made me feel better about the finished result than I did in the immediate aftermath of completing it.

One thing I was reminded of from blindly jumping into painting is that making art, even works with competent-at-best or (in kinder terms) less technically accomplished results, is challenging. My fourth painting may not look like I put a lot of effort into it, but this wasn’t something haphazardly created. I fussed over how the grass looked for much longer than you would assume. (Never mind that I proceeded to cover a lot of it.)
Of course I already knew plenty of time and energy go into creative efforts even if they may widely be viewed as unsuccessful. After all, a bad film still requires a lot of work to bring it to life. I’m not suggesting the attention and care put into making something renders criticisms irrelevant. Rather, the lesson for me is that the struggle to get that ideal version out of one’s head and into a consumable form is where masterful artistry is found. I can envision a better version of what I produced. Right now I’m not equipped to transfer my vision into a painting others can see as I fully intend. Maybe I will never reach that point. For me painting is primarily a process-driven endeavor. I would like for the finished pieces to be assessed as good--who creates something and desires otherwise?--but for me the fun comes in making them and, more often than not, being able to appreciate the good qualities despite aspects that didn’t turn out as I hoped.


Painting is supposed to be a relaxing activity, so that calls for chilled out music. Air’s Talkie Walkie and Pocket Symphony proved to be the right soundtrack, even as a French duo’s electronica is quite unlike the subject I was working on. It does occur to me, though, as I write this that Air has collaborated multiple times with Sofia Coppola, whose films often study characters in isolation. My situation isn’t dire or tragic like they can be for characters in her movies, but I am amused by the synchronicity that could be read into listening to music with those associations at a time of social distancing. (As an aside, the live version of “Cherry Blossom Girl” embedded above really misses the flute on the album, but if you’re unfamiliar with the band, this is representative of what they sound like.)


Intense chocolate brownies - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
Intense chocolate brownies were the big baking undertaking this week. Come to think of it, this might be the first time I’ve made brownies from scratch. Box mixes were a staple growing up, and when I’ve made them since then, that’s what I’ve used. This does take more effort, especially with chopping the chocolate and melting it per the recipe, but I can safely say they’re the best brownies I’ve ever made. 


At the tail end of this week I managed to squeeze in one film in preparation for podcast recording. The Half of It slots very comfortably among Netflix’s original content aimed at young adults. I don’t say that to be particularly critical. This version of Cyrano de Bergerac, which turns the tale into a high school movie with an LGBT twist, has a big heart, can be wise about the loneliness and longing many feel, and develops a sweet friendship between the letter writer for-hire and the second string football player paying her to give a more eloquent voice to his feelings. The film also makes some missteps, especially later on, but I’ll leave those comments for the upcoming episode.

Anyway, going by an admittedly small sample size in my viewing, The Half of It’s Netflix-y essence comes in being more thoughtful and contemplative about teenagers’ insecurities and fears while also having an Instagram sheen and, I hypothesize, a subdued directorial voice. (I mean no offense to writer-director Alice Wu, whose only other feature film I saw fifteen years ago and have essentially no memory of. I’ll reiterate. I liked The Half of It.) Like other Netflix originals that aren’t prestige titles, the film has a prefab quality that doesn’t diminish it as a narrative delivery vehicle but also doesn’t distinguish it. The industry has a history of cranking out product, so this isn’t anything new. In general, these films tend to be good enough. It’s just funny that one of The Half of It characters mentions that what separates great paintings from the rest is five bold strokes, which is exactly what many of these Netflix films lack.

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