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.

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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.

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