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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