B’s 2020 Look Back (Silver Linings Edition)

View from Baldwin Hills Overlook, December 25, 2020.

Wait… Did I send a 2019 update? I did not. I started (in my head at least), but so much was happening at the end of 2019 that I put it off, figuring I’d finish it once everything got “back to normal” in 2020.

To which 2020 said:

😂😂😂😂 HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA 😂😂😂😂

While I didn’t finish an update letter in 2019 because life was frenetic, the true-true is that even before the frenzy hit the fan, I was having trouble figuring out what to write. Though I’m a fan of “honest” holiday letters, no one needs a depressing whine-fest, and coming to the end of 2019, I was more than disheartened. Events and circumstances during the year had led to a loss of faith in people, in the universe and in myself. 

What were these events that led to my year-end funk? I don’t remember. Looking back, it’s all a blur. So, I guess a silver lining of 2020 is that it has pretty much obliterated my recall of  2019.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this update: Silver Linings. Winning out over topics like Year-End Podcast Lists, Great Books and TV, and Even More About Writing, I offer a small sampler platter of bright spots and blessings.*

JANUARY: Paul and I got the opportunity to go to Gainesville, Florida and teach film classes for the spring semester at University of Florida! Two days before leaving Los Angeles, our Florida housing plans fell through (thanks again, 2019!). When we arrived, Paul’s friend, Iman, and her family opened their home to us and hosted us for a month, sharing rides and meals and stories and downtime in front of the TV. I think my favorite form of getting to know people better is simply co-existing in their environment, which made this detour in our plans a gift.

MARCH / APRIL: In early March, the pandemic lockdowns began. While the best timing for a pandemic would have been never, the second best timing, for me, was when it happened. After a precarious 2019, a semester-long gig felt stable, and teaching 3 three-hour classes a week offered structure. I had the distractions of deadlines aplenty, learning  new technologies, and students who were depending on me.  All of this meant my existential angst was supplanted by a more fun “race to the finish line of this project” anxiety.  At the same time, friends Matt and Dmitry started a War and Peace Covid-19 challenge, with a goal of reading 50 pages every day. With the gyms closed, I listened to War and Peace on audiobook as I went on walks in the mornings and evenings. I didn’t always meet the page quota, but it was a simple pleasure and  a perfect distraction– and now I’ve read War and Peace

B and Paul outside the Publix in April, wearing 1st-gen, DIY masks made from paper towels and rubber bands.

MAY/ JUNE: We’d been back in Los Angeles a few weeks when the killing of George Floyd and other injustices prompted the Black Lives Matter protests. During this time, a friend, Beto, proposed an “anti-racist bookclub.” He and his friends did the work of planning,  organizing and facilitating a group with clear intentions and dynamics. Over the last six months, I’ve benefited from their insightful company while reading the works of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Ibram Kendi and others. In parallel, old friends Kendall and Annie nudged me to join their book club just in time to embark on Howard Zinn’s 800-page A People’s History of the United States.  Throughout my life, especially during pivotal times, certain books have helped me, prepared me, gifted me with new perspectives and a clearer vision of the world — and this year’s reading experience falls in that category.  

SEPTEMBER  The fires in California turned the skies to smoky haze, and then orange. For days we avoided going outdoors and felt unsafe breathing the air even inside.  We felt fortunate that our neighborhood was never in jeopardy, just as people everywhere feel lucky when disasters seem to be happening elsewhere. The other silver lining is that the fires added urgency to my growing feeling that, in the face of our social and environmental issues, it is not enough for me to simply be unobjectionable. Writing postcards, and phone banking for democratic candidates were steps too long delayed, but ones that have started me down a path of greater engagement. I owe thanks to folks (Megan, Caitlyn, Tracy) who made themselves vocal and visible on social media, offering instructions and opportunities that made it easier for people like me to become more a part of our political process. 

NOVEMBER / DECEMBER Amidst health concerns for the world, these two months were touched by family health concerns. November began with my mother’s knee replacement, ended with news my uncle had suffered a stroke, and in between, Paul experienced a painful bout of pancreatitis that was traced to some gallstones. Though travel to Indiana and then Texas during a pandemic had not been part of our plans, I appreciated more than ever the opportunity to be with loved ones, under any circumstances, and am happy and relieved to report that everyone is on the road to recovery.

And these most recent events have reminded me how, even with the world’s myriad problems, these are — as Paul Simon sings — days of miracle and wonder. Knees are replaced, helicopters airlift you from tiny towns in Texas, machines scan inside you and tell you what’s wrong, information and our own images zip and Zoom around the world in an instant— and scientists create vaccines that can help our cells fight (electron) microscopic viruses.

I don’t want to place too great a pressure on 2021 — January 1st will not be the day we arrive at the light at the end of the tunnel. But I do think we can see it from here, and that we have the opportunity to make the tunnel itself a little brighter and easier to travel with the light we carry with us. So, with lots of love and good wishes, here’s to a —

Happy 2021!

* A few disclaimers: 1) The overarching fact that we are healthy, we are housed, we are together… those alone mean it has been a great year. 2) This list leaves out so many moments and people, of course. My thank you list would be longer than at any Oscars speech. 3) Several of my silver linings exist against dark clouds like pandemic, systemic racism, fires that have caused countless people to suffer. I don’t know what to do with that fact, except to acknowledge it, and pray and work for an end to those clouds.

I Might Start a Vlog…

Guys, I’m thinking about starting a vlog. It’s not something I’ve considered before because I don’t love being on camera or speaking spontaneously and especially for the style I’m thinking about it will require camera and editing skills far beyond what I have. I can already envision the amount of media collection and organization that will be called for, and I know I will want to kill myself. But still, I’m thinking about it.

I think it’s because I have two things going on simultaneously in life right now:

  1. In my freelance “content creation/consulting” career, I’m working with a client who is considering adding various types of video content to her business.
  2. I’m writing a fictional screenplay where the main character is a YouTuber/Influencer.

The result is that I am researching, reading about and watching more YouTube vlog-type content than ever before. And I’m thinking… “this looks interesting!” It’s kind of like personal essay, kind of like blogging, and kind of like documentary…

Would it be fun, or just a ton more work? Actually I can tell it would be a ton more work. Would it also be fun?

More as this story develops.

Life in the Time of Pandemic and Lies (9/24/20 – 10/02/20)

I think it was last Thursday (9/24) that in the wake of an article in The Atlantic, a member of the press asked the President if, were he to lose the election, he would facilitate a peaceful transfer of power, and he responded, “We’ll just have to see.”

This roiled things up for a day or two going into the weekend, but then, on Sunday (9/27), The Times announced they had gotten access to Trump’s tax reports, and that for more than a decade he had been paying almost nothing in American taxes, due to declaring losses. In the past couple of years, while president, he has been paying $750 dollars. 

That was the news for two days until the first presidential debate on Tuesday night (9/29) which would have been noteworthy in itself because it was so much less like a presidential debate than like watching some hapless student (Biden) try to do a presentation for his classmates (American public)  in the company of a deranged and disturbed child (Trump) whom the teacher (Chris Wallace) didn’t have the authority to discipline or kick out of the classroom. (Apologies to Mr. Biden for this comparison as he was as presidential as one could be, but sharing a frame with Trump unfortunately regresses us all.) Trump interrupted, spoke over, flung accusations and blatant untruths… all so par for the course that we have grown bored with ourselves even trying to unpack and lay them end to end, so…

CUT TO: The focal point of the evening, which was when Chris Wallace asked him to denounce White Supremacists like the Proud Boys, and Trump muttered the catch phrase “Stand Back and Stand By” which the Proud Boys immediately grabbed onto and started printing on shirts as the rest of the country (and the world) looked on in horror, confusion and disbelief — held hostage by our classmate who might end up bombing the school but might just be seeking attention. 
 
This dominated the cultural conversation for Wednesday and most of Thursday, until, Thursday evening (10/01) it was announced first that presidential advisor Hope Hicks had tested positive for Coronavirus, and then, a couple hours later, that President Trump and his wife Melania had also tested positive.

As of Friday morning, October 2, 2020, that brings us up to date.

There is a world where the announcement of the President contracting a potentially dangerous illness would elicit concern and worry from some,  pleasure or glee from others, and certainly no shortage of “he was warned by science” observations from almost everyone — but where few would question the veracity of the announcement itself. However, that world — we’ll call it “World A” — exists only in some alternate reality.

In our own reality, in our world — should we just call it “World WTF?” — any sense of what is truth and what is not has been so systematically stripped away that as soon as the news hit, there began widespread speculation as to whether or not the announcement were true, and what might be the motivations if it were a lie.  

What are all the reasons that the highly unstable kid at school — or a President exactly one month away from election day — lie about being sick? He might, at some level, be embarrassed by the recent debate and want to avoid those upcoming. He might be looking for ways to postpone the election. He might plan to “have the virus” for a few days, then recover fully and easily in order to support his claims that it’s no worse than the common flu. He might be setting up plausible deniability for some coming action by other persons (here the possibilities begin to range darker and more violent). Or he might finally be collapsing under the pressure of keeping all his fictional plates in the air.

In World A, any of these ideas, since they are rooted in the premise of a bizarre hoax, would belong to the fringiest of the fringe elements and would be quickly dismissed by the majority as conspiracy theories.  In World WTF, despite the amount of coordination it would take to carry out such a hoax, it feels like any of those has a legitimate possibility of being true.

And at the moment, it feels like BIG news… but there is also the feeling that whatever happens in 48 hours will eclipse it.

Thinking about Chadwick Boseman, Cancer and Hollywood

Would you rather be famous / remembered / rich / accomplished / loved / fill-in-the-blank-with a dream — and die young? Or struggle in obscurity / not accomplish said dream and live longer? Would you rather feel healthy for a shorter period of time, or feel sickly but live longer?

“Would you rather” games are the worst, because for the most part we don’t get to choose anyway, we just have to learn to take what comes. Love, kids, success, health… you don’t always get what you want. But then sometimes we do get to choose, and the choosing is at best bittersweet because the opportunity to get things we want tends to involve sacrifice. The dream job is going to take hours or years away from people you love, children may cost or delay a career goal,

I’ve been thinking of Chadwick Boseman since his death was announced a little over a week ago. We didn’t have much in common in terms of race or gender, specific profession or level of success… but we shared an industry built around storytelling, and aspirations to succeed in that industry, and were part of a much smaller subset: He was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer when he was still fairly young, just as I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer when I was young.

I’ve never specifically asked other cancer experiencers, but I think many of us feel a special kinship with people whose diagnoses most closely match ours, type and stage and special characteristics. There is a sense of having someone who is about to undertake the same challenging journey we are. The kinship is based on prognosis as well… having similar goals and obstacles and hopes. It’s like when two friends bond over wanting kids or money or success… and, like in those circumstances, sometimes one gets one thing and one gets another, and a chasm opens up. But because at one time you were in the same place, you watch that person, even if from a distance, because in another universe, maybe their fate is yours, or vice versa.

I’ve always been grateful that when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, I was in the middle of the Outback. In a way that, looking back, feels almost magical, everyone in the community was supportive of me devoting the better part of a year to flailing, figuring things out and exploring healing methods — physical, nutritional, psychological, spiritual. I remember I’d just finished some kind of grant application before I left for the hospital, planning to turn it in after my surgery — but when what I’d assumed would be a small, Stage 1 tumor, ended up being Stage 3, with lymph nodes involved, that project vanished from my mind. I don’t think I ever turned in the application, and today I can’t even say what the project was. It was something that seemed important, and then it didn’t. It clearly must not have felt like something pivotal to my life or career?

But what if it had felt that way? Would I have walked away from a BIG opportunity in the same way, or would I have grabbed for the brass ring? And would that choice have made a difference in my outcome? Did — and this feels like a tremendously unfair question to even ask — did Chadwick’s Boseman’s decision to keep working through his illness affect its outcome? The answer is there’s no knowing. He might have stepped away from work and had it change nothing in terms of his health. He still would have died, but died without having been the King of Wakanda. Or, maybe the long hours and stress shifted something — or prevented something from shifting — such that if he had sacrifice the role that would make him famous he might have lived… but he might have always regretted the lost opportunity, and would never have known if that choice made a difference.

The second time I was diagnosed, with uterine cancer, was nine years after the first time. I was living in Los Angeles, a year out of grad school. And it did feel like a pivotal moment in my career. I’d won a screenwriting prize and been hired to do my first rewrite. But — I was still working full time, so was swimming in the long hours and stress of trying to do both well. I was doing things I knew, given my history, could be detrimental to my health, but I didn’t think about it, I thought if I can just get through this I would come out on the other side and everything would be worth it.

Los Angeles was a very different place to be diagnosed — and, looking back, I see how much I was again swayed by my environment. Inclusive of a fairly major surgery and recovery time, I missed only two weeks at my day job. Though people said I should take the time I needed, I couldn’t let go of my reluctance to inconvenience people, and I feared falling behind. Despite everyone’s admonitions to take care of myself, I believed that whenever I did return, everything I missed would have piled up, and I felt responsible for that. And, on the screenwriting front, I made sure to turn in my rewrite draft before telling the producer I was working with about my upcoming surgery. It was awkward timing, as they were about to fire me anyway– and did. Looking back, I’ve concluded that was “lucky” I got fired (or not re-hired) when I did, since if I hadn’t, I might have spent my recovery time continuing to try to fix something that no writer would have the power to fix (as evidenced by the two writers who followed me on the project and the fact the company did not make an original feature film until a decade later). So with hindsight I can feel secure it wouldn’t have been “worth it.”

But is there a scenario that would have made it worth it? What if I’d gotten the screenplay I loved made? If it had become something that other people loved as well? What would have been a fair price to trade?

I’m going to stop writing, because I have more thoughts and feelings than I can address in a blog post of reasonable length, and there’s too much dangerous speculation I could wander into. I will close with the observation that we, as a society, engage a lot of conflicting views about illness, and that I as an individual, do as well.

(As an addendum — Something I didn’t know about Chadwick Boseman is that he was a writer too. He is someone cared deeply about his art. I’m so sorry he didn’t have time to do more work, and so sorry that he and his family didn’t have more time for love and life and all that entails.)

FILE – In this Saturday, March 30, 2019 file photo, Chadwick Boseman poses in the press room with the award for outstanding actor in a motion picture for “Black Panther” at the 50th annual NAACP Image Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Actor Chadwick Boseman, who played Black icons Jackie Robinson and James Brown before finding fame as the regal Black Panther in the Marvel cinematic universe, has died of cancer. His representative says Boseman died Friday, Aug. 28, 2020 in Los Angeles after a four-year battle with colon cancer. He was 43. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

That Time I Almost Unfriended April Ludgate

Americans are stressed. Here’s a poll taken in June by the American Psychological Association, and here’s an article about about how we’re more stressed now than in the 90s — especially if we we are old enough to remember the 90s.

Individuals in my life support this. They report incidents of road rage, scuffles between maskers and anti-maskers, flare-ups on social media and in life. Nerves are fraying, people are getting more judgmental and less patient with the quirks and foibles of others.

Except for me… or so I thought. I hadn’t yelled at Paul or gotten worked up on Facebook. I was doing pretty well…

Until the April Ludgate incident.

My husband’s lunchtime break of late has been rewatching Parks & Rec. Occasionally, I’ll wander in from the back room and join him or listen from the next room while working on a jigsaw puzzle (we all have our own ways of self-medicating).

A couple weeks ago, I brought my lunch in in time to catch the last half of an episode from Season 5. The storyline was that Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott’s character) had taken a job running a campaign for a congressman in Washington D.C. and he’d brought April Ludgate (played by Aubrey Plaza) with him — I think because she’d been flailing about what to do with the rest of her life.

So in this episode, Ben is having problems getting the respect of the interns, who are young, good-looking, richer and better connected than he is. In particular, one intern doesn’t do the work Ben asks him to and and seems to be the source of disrespectful drawings of Ben with a stick up his butt.

The combination of these things cause Ben to regress into a pandering high schoolish nerd trying desperately to fit in with the cool crowd. It’s funny but painful to watch him buy everyone pizzas and organize an ultimate Frisbee match while everyone quietly mocks him–and it’s a relief when he finally gives up this ill-fated effort and puts his foot down with the privileged ringleader intern.

But the twist is — it wasn’t intern who drew the pictures that sent Ben into a tailspin.

It was April.

Ludgate.

So to recap, Ben gave April a job, drove her to Washington DC. Was only nice to her… and she sabotaged his ability to do a job he was excited about, and undermined his sense of self worth.

And then I started to think about how April she treats Ann and Leslie, who constantly try to help her; how she’s mean to Jerry, who has no one on his side; how she fell into a job that, at its core, should be about helping people, and how she consistently and militantly uses her power to make people’s lives harder — remember how at the very beginning she charms Ron Swanson by not passing on any messages and scheduling his meetings on dates that don’t exist? Ha ha, so funny…. Unless you are the citizen blindly hoping that people at a government office might actually do their job and listen to you.

Since I’m not usually one to get triggered by fictional characters in a decade-old sitcom, I’m guessing my reaction might be related to other things that were going on in my life: Like the fact that for three months and many hours of calling and writing the EDD, Paul and I still couldn’t get a response, or that I was caught in a negotiation involving a lawyer who was so deeply offended I asked a simple question that he seemed to be at every turn choosing to make things more expensive and difficult for me, or that daily I was reading headlines about another government worker who fell into a job he had no intention of doing, and who views his constituency with about the same disrespect an lack of empathy as… April Ludgate.

That day, as I watched April’s sulky, non-apology for her betrayal of Ben, something flipped in me. I thought “I’m done.”

I had not become blind to the fear and insecurity beneath her behavior or the well-placed hints that she’s emotionally vulnerable under her prickly surface.

I had just ceased to care.

I no longer had any interest in untangling her psyche or even watching her grow to be slightly less of a garbage-person. I didn’t want her working for me, I didn’t want to work for her. I didn’t want to attempt to understand her dysfunction. I didn’t want to apologize or explain things on her behalf to people she’s supposed to care about or do the emotional labor she refuses to do. I just wanted to avoid her completely.

I was ready to unfriend her completely but I didn’t, because, you know, she’s FICTIONAL.

And a few days later, I could again — grudgingly — see the amusing side to April’s antics and acknowledge that I had overreacted. It’s probably just because there’s some shit going on in the world… and it’s making us stressed.