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.

Previous Social Distancing Journal Entries:

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Social Distancing Journal: Week 8 (May 4-May 10, 2020)

Painting No. 2 - 5/4/2020 - Mark Pfeiffer

My work schedule is Wednesday through Sunday, so I’ve become accustomed to being on a different calendar than those with a typical work week. Saturdays and Sundays ceased to feel like those days once I was on my current schedule. Mondays and Tuesdays might be my equivalent of a weekend, but with the rest of the world operating differently, they never felt like broadly observed weekends but just days off. While it was strange to adapt to living on a timeline that most aren’t on, it happened eventually.

Having my week shifted from what most follow meant that it’s been easier for me to know what day it is. This week is when I started losing track of the days. I would wake up knowing if I had to work, but I needed a second or two to recall what day of the week it was. If anything serves as a marker of what day it is, it’s the TV schedule. With seasons winding down, it may only get more difficult to keep from feeling completely unmoored from time.

I’m writing this on May 12 and can hardly believe we’re nearly halfway through this month. Not that I’ve been going outside much, but knowing where we are on the calendar isn’t helped by the colder spring we’ve had. I’ve entertained the notion of planting a garden in the small patch I have by the patio. I’ve been told that it’s both too late if I want to grow something from seeds and too early, atypically, because we’re still getting overnight freezes.

Although I’ve received no indications on when we might return to the office, I’m beginning to think I’ll still be working from home until the fall at least. I can handle that emotionally--at least I believe I can--but time may lose all meaning if it extends that long.


Painting No. 3 - 5/4-5/6/20 - Mark Pfeiffer
I painted two more pictures this week. The lavender field at the top of this entry was one the painting group did before I joined. Because I was eager to do more, I went back and attempted this one. The tutorial made painting clouds with a trowel appear much easier than it was. I ended up doing something different after one repeated failed bids to render cirrus clouds in the sky. I’m still proud of how it turned out.

I had my reservations about this week’s challenge, which was Disney-themed and did not come with a tutorial. Drawing is not a strength when I have more control over the tools than I do with painting, so I was intimidated by this assignment. I really liked Wall-E--it was my top film of 2008--and thought his boxy dimensions would be easier for me to replicate in a way that wasn’t embarrassing. I was probably right in thinking that, although getting him to look like something a grade schooler drew was still a test.

The first thing I learned was that trying to use lighter colors on top of a dark background isn’t very easy, especially if the paint is still wet. I ended up letting this dry overnight before trying to paint the plucky robot. Even then, I had some trouble, particularly when adding Mars black to line the sides of his body. I was more frustrated doing this painting but still enjoyed trying to overcome the setbacks I created. 


Layali Lubnan - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
Last week I tried making Layali Lubnan for the first time but didn’t cook the layers until they were thick enough, so I ended up with a runny mess. My friend provided some additional advice, including how to crush the misk without spreading it everywhere or have the crystalized resin stick to the tool being used to do so. (A mortar and pestle would have been advantageous.)

As you can see, this time I made what I will declare a credible version of the dessert. The misk (or mastic) and rose water give this a flavor unfamiliar to me. It’s more perfumed than what I’m accustomed to. Still, the delicate flavors of the pudding or custard-like layers with some pistachios and honey to top it make this a cool, light treat.


For whatever reason I didn’t listen to music nearly as much while working this week. As Animal Crossing: New Horizons continues to overtake what appears on my television, it was back to watching very little other than the usual TV shows. We would have been due to record new podcasts this week, which would mean I had to watch a couple films, but as I had fallen behind in editing, that’s been delayed a week. I have a lot I’d like to watch, but at least for now, painting, dessert-making, and video game-playing took precedence.  

Previous Social Distancing Journal Entries:

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Social Distancing Journal: Week 7 (April 27-May 3, 2020)

Painting No. 1 - 4/28/2020 - Mark Pfeiffer
I’ve mentioned feeling pinched for time to do everything I’d like to do, so of course, the right choice for me to make is to pick up something else. I joined a painting group started by friends at work, which isn’t something I would have thought I would ever do. I’ve never felt like I was especially good at drawing, and in my mind, painting seems like it would be even more difficult. But sure, why not give a shot?

We’re working from YouTube tutorials, which make producing these pictures look easier than they can be for someone with zero training. Whether in an educational setting, at work, or in life in general, I think we all have some fear about learning by doing. Who likes to make mistakes? I certainly can be hard on myself for not doing things perfectly or not achieving the Platonic ideals in my head. A funny thing happened as I painted, though. I just did the work and didn’t get caught up in whether I was doing it right or realizing the better version I envisioned.

When it comes to painting, my lack of self-criticism--OK, fine, highly reduced self-criticism--likely is because I hold no great expectations of what I can do. I don’t know that it’s healthy to approach everything as though you have no belief in your abilities so you are then pleasantly surprised at the outcomes, but in this particular case, freeing myself from self-judgment allowed me to just do it and enjoy the intrinsic value of making art. Using acrylic paints grants some forgiveness for errors. I learned through accidents, some of which yielded results I liked and some I didn’t. Mistakes could be easily covered, for the most part.  

I hold no illusions that what I’ve made compares with the paintings done by people with even a semblance of knowledge, but I’m happy with what I completed and to feel the support of the group, which has a wide range of experience among its members. I also really enjoyed having something different to focus on that, for a change, didn’t require riveting my eyes to a glowing screen.


A friend and I have been texting pictures of what we’ve been making in the kitchen during this time, and I expressed interest in trying my hand at some of the desserts she has shared. After tracking down some ingredients at a Middle Eastern grocery store, I attempted to make Layali Lubnan, which translates as Lebanese Nights. I will not bother posting a picture of my failed first attempt, which has the consistency and appearance of a plate of glue, but I got the general idea of what it should taste like while also learning how I botched this so thoroughly. Spoiler: the second attempt the following week was a success.


Guided By Voices ranks as one of my favorite rock bands, but I haven’t listened to them much in recent years. Getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume that Robert Pollard’s project released has as much to do with it as anything. I have a certain fondness for artists who produce a lot for fans to enjoy, but the indie rock legend from Dayton can push the limit because he cranks out new music with such frequency that it can be hard to keep up. (Take a look at the GBV discography alone, never mind side projects and solo material.)

I was inspired to listen again after reading, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, an oral history of Alien Lanes, one of the band’s finest albums. (To humblebrag, I went with a friend to the infamous album release concert at Gilly’s in Dayton, later released as the bootleg vinyl double album Benefit For the Winos.) What struck me most during this fairly lengthy reacquainting with a good bit of the band’s output was there was more consistency and purpose than I recalled even among the songs that hadn’t always worked for me. GBV has a lot of great songs--they have a lot of songs, period--and at some point I think I began to wonder if there was any quality control. This extended listening session didn’t venture into the latter days leading to 2004’s then-”final” album or the all of the reunion and post-reunion releases, but I’m curious to revisit (or hear for the first time) this music.


You can put me down as thoroughly hooked on playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Once I finished my long work days, I turned to my peaceful island for some fish and bug catching, fossil and shell collecting, and home and community expansion. At some point I’ll have to write more extensively about the game’s appeals. I foresee there being plenty of time for that as it seems like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Animal Crossing contains.


Podcast recording was on the calendar, so I actually watched some movies this week. Again, I marvel at how steeply my viewing has dropped off during this time because of everything else I want to do, limited unplanned time, and little impetus to need to watch anything. I suggested  the 2002 inspirational baseball drama The Rookie to tie into the lack of sports currently and because I recalled it being a solid film that has maybe become a little forgotten.

I got a little worried when the film begins deep in the past with a story suggesting it’s going to lean hard on the earnest tone that professional baseball and its fans frequently invoke about the noble game and tradition, especially as a proxy for American exceptionalism. (Football and its supporters do something similar while adding a healthy dose of militarism and war veneration.) If you like soaking in all that nostalgia, you can have it. I imagine I ate up that stuff as a kid in the time of Reagan, but a lot of it rubs me the wrong way now. Maybe it’s because I see wallowing in the good ol’ days deployed as a way of not addressing the present. As a Cincinnati Reds fan who has seen the franchise flog memories of the Big Red Machine while enduring more down years than up ones, I recognize the method of asserting past glories to distract from today’s shortcomings. I don’t object to remembering the past, but solemn reminiscences of how things used to be make me cringe.

Fortunately Hancock tends to dial back the most syrupy conventions sports filmmakers indulge. While this is unquestionably a feel-good movie aimed at a family audience, The Rookie is also clear-eyed about the lack of glamour involved in a mid-thirties pitcher nearly a decade removed from competition trying to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player. An even tougher film could be made from this material, particularly in examining how this pursuit challenges the protagonist’s marriage, but as I’m pretty sure this is the version signed off on by its subject, The Rookie presents a credible look at the situation. Still, the end title mentioning how he played two seasons in MLB is technically true but extremely generous when time at the top level was closer to two months over two seasons.

I also suggested we do an episode featuring Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film (In film nist), which I first saw at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011. I wasn’t being glib in pitching a movie made while the director was under house arrest by the Iranian government--his circumstances and the ones we’re currently under are not comparable, to be completely clear--but I thought it might be interesting to watch in light of staying at home far more often than not. 

What do you do when a defining part of how you live is inaccessible is the urgent question that emerges in This Is Not a Film. Artists feel compelled to create, and the title, which references Magritte, provides a cheeky denial that Panahi has violated the filmmaking ban imposed on him at this time. Again, his house arrest and staying at home during a pandemic are not at all equivalent, but the yearning to be able to resume what one loves doing and frustration in having it withheld is common between the experiences. 

Previous Social Distancing Journal Entries:
Pre-Social Distancing

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Social Distancing Journal: Week 6 (April 20-April 26, 2020)

If I didn’t make a morbid but sarcastic joke in a previous entry about this journal functioning as proof of life, it was one I considered making. If I did, I suppose that failing to keep up with posting entries in a timely manner for weeks six and seven might not be the greatest thing to do. I don’t think anyone who might read this believed I succumbed or anything, but I recognize that if I’m going to commit to weekly documentation of my thoughts, activities, and media consumption, I need to try to be consistent. My reason for not writing new entries in a timely manner is not an exceptional one. Simply put, free time has been at a premium, and if I haven’t been able to fit this in on my off days, time and will have been in short supply. 

In an ironic twist a la The Twilight Zone, I have gone from being a high capacity viewer of films, television shows, and sports in normal times to someone who has reduced consumption of those things by a massive amount while being home nearly 24/7. Obviously I’m watching fewer sports--OK, zero sports--because games aren’t being played, but I wasn’t starving for the NFL draft and haven’t been turning to airings of classic competitions. Movie theaters aren’t open, so that rules out one place to see them. Still, I have more than enough films on hand, whether with physical media or streaming options, that access is not an issue. I have squeezed in some TV shows a little more regularly, in part because they are less of a time commitment.

I haven’t lost interest in movies or sports. Maybe what’s missing is the urgency. Without a slate of new releases that will leave theaters before long, there’s no rush to watch anything in particular. Without scheduled games, why bother getting agitated that they aren’t there? Am I living more in the moment? I think there’s some truth to that, even if it isn’t the whole story.


Molasses cookies - Photo by Mark Pfeiffer
If my television is getting a break, then what am I doing to pass the small window of free time I have? Cooking--baking in particular--has been a good way of stepping away from a glowing screen and being present in the task at hand. This week I made molasses cookies

Week six of social distancing also marks when precious spare hours start to be devoured by the Nintendo Switch. The preorder bundle I managed to snag arrived, and I can tell you that video games have been an enjoyable way of unwinding after some particularly long work days. I began with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and was amazed at the vastness of the digital world the game creates. I also had to log some time behind the wheel for Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, which was also the only Switch game I’d played before buying one. Then Animal Crossing: New Horizons was delivered two days after the console. 

I wasn’t really sure what the seemingly hottest game of this social distancing time was, but I knew friends were enthusiastic about it. I don’t know if I can explain it all that well other than to say you help build up and tend to your own island, but I can certainly see how this game can fuel obsessive playing. This week I didn’t get all that far in developing my island, but the laid-back nature of it underlined with the need to perform tasks to unlock more modifications provide fiendishly clever motivations to keep hanging out in this world to discover more and tailor it to one’s liking. 


Here’s where the media log information would go, but as I’ve already said that my viewing has fallen off a cliff, I don’t have anything to talk about in that area. I watched zero movies this week. I can’t recall the last time a week passed with that occurring. Nothing I listened to jumps out at me to document here. Truthfully, without having written it down, I also don’t remember what might have stood out. This was not the most exciting week to talk about, but as I’m writing this in week eight, I can say that week seven gives me more to write about.

Previous Social Distancing Journal Entries:
Pre-Social Distancing