Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Social Distancing Journal: 2020 Pre-Social Distancing

Hand sanitizer at the True/False Film Festival - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
How are you doing? I know that’s a nicety which often passes for conversational filler--people tend not really to be inquiring about one’s state when raising the question--but as we work from home and physically separate ourselves to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, it’s something I find myself wanting to ask and needing to ask those I’m in regular contact with. Focusing on the well-being of someone else is comforting in a way I’m not sure I can put into words. Plus, when others share how they’re doing and what they’re doing to ease their minds, maybe they can also give me some ideas for dealing with a situation none of us have been prepared for. Then again, putting it in those terms makes being interested in others sound awfully self-serving, like a value proposition for social interaction, when at heart my simple query is rooted in an earnest wish to feel connected.

A writer writes for readers, but a writer also writes for himself. So what I’m going to try to post weekly, once these entries catch up with the calendar, is a social distancing journal focused on what I’m watching, listening to, reading, and doing while cooped up at home. I think it will be helpful for me to sit down and commit to scratching it down, and I hope it might provide some help for you, whether it’s a recommendation for a film or a means of escaping the news or your own thoughts for a bit.

Note: this first entry prior to social distancing may be more throat-clearing than those looking more for media recommendations, so feel free to jump ahead to the first week of holing up at home.


Before jumping to what’s going on now, I want to update you on what’s been happening with me. It’s been some time since I posted here with any regularity, which wasn’t a deliberate choice so much as it was the result of circumstances. With losing my longtime job, thus also bringing to an end the movie review TV show Now Playing that drove much of what I published here, along with taking classes toward an MBA, navigating the confusing and frustrating social benefits network, looking for employment, and co-producing and co-hosting a film podcast, the time and energy to write anything that wasn’t homework or related to professional pursuits didn’t exist.

Much has happened since late October 2017, which is when I learned the six-month countdown until being unemployed was starting. I doubled up the number of classes I was taking per term and graduated in April 2019. (How has it almost been a year already?) The job search felt like a perpetual exercise in futility, save for occasional freelance work, but I was contacted about a contract position in October 2019, a job that, especially now, looks like a lucky break for this particular moment in time. The podcast has yielded 109 episodes to date, with more planned as we figure out how to continue it in the time of a pandemic. Ultimately, I made it through what felt like a fairly extended rough patch.

So, of course, just as I’m beginning to feel like things have stabilized, the coronavirus pandemic unsettles everything. 

Western Michigan Broncos vs. Miami Redhawks - February 4, 2020
Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
The first time the coronavirus changed my plans was January 28. I hadn’t been to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio to see a college basketball game in a long time and felt like I might as well go since I have Tuesdays off. Around noon I bought a ticket online for that night’s game versus Central Michigan and then called the box office for information about parking. The person on the other end of the line told me the game had been postponed because two students had returned from China and might have been exposed to the coronavirus. This action seemed excessively cautious to me then, but what did I know?

Sloan at the A&R Music Bar - March 4, 2020 - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
Jump ahead to the first week of March. Time was already ceasing to have any meaning with the work schedule I’d been keeping, but just a month ago now feels like an eternity and practically looks like another era. On March 4 I went to see the Canadian power pop band Sloan at the A&R Music Bar, and the next morning I headed west to Columbia, Missouri for the True/False Film Festival. At the time I didn’t have any significant reservations about doing either of these things even though the Arnold FItness EXPO here in Columbus, whose dates were concurrent with True/False, was severely curtailing public attendance at events. Now the Sloan concert and True/False appear to be the last time I’ll attend live music or see a movie in a public space for months.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets co-directors Bill and; Turner Ross 
at the True/False Film Festival - March 5, 2020 - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
Although the film festival still had crowds at screenings, the early signs of what was to come were present. Festival organizers stressed that those who felt sick should stay home, and hand sanitizer was widely available at venues. More empty seats than usual were noticeable in the auditoriums and makeshift screening rooms, but in my observation attendance numbers were just experiencing a marginal difference.

Work has greatly reduced the amount of time I spend on social media, and while at True/False I mostly checked it to scan for opinions about what might be worth seeing at the festival. I had a mild sense that things might be starting to get more serious, like South by Southwest canceling, but the crisis still felt like something happening at a distance. After stopping in St. Louis for a quick overnight visit with family, being on the road driving home, and then returning to work, I was so unplugged from the news that what would follow in the next few days made it seem like everything was collapsing. College and professional sports stopped, schools were shifting to online learning, and grocery stores were being cleaned out of their stocks of some products. That Friday I learned work was transitioning to be done from home, and we could begin doing so the next day if we liked. 

Still not absorbing the gravity of what was happening or not wanting to accept it, I headed to the office on Saturday and Sunday, which are regular work days for me. As most of my co-workers elected to work from home over the weekend, the office presented a quiet, relaxed place to be. Nevertheless, in my gut I knew that I probably ought to stay home once my work week resumed on Wednesday, so I packed up everything I needed and left the office on Sunday night feeling like I was in mourning. Chalk it up to fear of the unknown, I guess, but I wasn’t ready for that reaction.

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