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.

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)

Last Day in Gainesville (Life in a Time of Pandemic, April 24, 2020)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Woke anxious this morning, and it makes sense. Today is the day we need to clean our whole apartment and pack all our things. Packing always makes me edgy, and today we have a few added elements.

One is that, although my back is feeling largely better, the way we packed the car to come east didn’t allow for any adjustment of the seats, so we’re trying to change that situation by transferring the contents of two large bins to trash bags (my least preferred way to pack!), and then Tetris-ing those bags into the trunk to leave some room behind the passenger’s seat to recline if needed.

And of course, the need to recline the seat is related to the fact that our 40-hour drive will have few breaks due to the pandemic. With some trepidation, we’ve made arrangements to sleep in beds for two nights; but the days will be long: with dining areas of restaurants closed and the friends in isolation, there’s not anywhere to be but the car. We’re unsure whether there will be waits or issues at the reported checkpoints on the borders between states. Overall, it feels safest just to make good time and get home.

In a way, being in Florida has allowed us to compartmentalize the pandemic — to imagine that all the strangeness was just part of our trip, and that when we get home, things would be normal again, but of course that is not the case.

That Time I Went on The Swings (Life In The Time of Pandemic, March 30 -April 4)

Monday, March 30

I’ve become obsessed with swinging on the swing in the park not far from our house. For the past few weeks I have been walking and walking, until my I.T. bands are tight as braided steel. I yearn to feel other muscles work – my abs for instance, or my upper arms. I think of how it felt to move through the air on my neighbors’ swing-set as a kid, how the grass changed angles, the sky became closer, and my troubles on the ground — whatever kid troubles they were — felt farther away.

I know it’s against the rules, but like crossing an intersection against a red light when there are no cars on the road, who would it hurt if I occupy this unused equipment for ten minutes one morning ?  

I’m not someone who breaks rules easily – most often I am someone who waits for red lights even when there are no cars for miles. Thus, I have to make cognitive leaps as well a logistical and guilt-reducing preparations to conduct an illegal heist such as this. From what I’ve read, I know the chains of the swing set should be virus-free after hours in the sun, but even so, I pack Clorox wipes in a plastic baggie to wipe down the chains before and after. I put this in one pocket of my hoodie, while in the other pocket I carry a second layer of protection — to disinfect my hands after they have touched the wipe that touches the chains — in the form of a spray bottle of hand sanitizer. The sanitizer is something I discovered in my travel case one day, after all sanitizers had disappeared from the stores. A bauble I’d tossed into my luggage just because I’d come across it while packing, that has now become a rare treasure.

On the chosen day, I head out of the house early. My skin is too hilariously susceptible to burning to swing in direct sun, so even though I walk past the park both mornings and evenings, the swing heist must happen in the morning when the swings are still in partial shade.

But, as if the universe has read my mind, when I arrive at the park, a city security vehicle – never before seen by me – is suddenly resting at the edge of the park, and I must abandon my cause.

The next day the car is gone, someone is walking the grounds in a florescent vest. Do they work for the city, or are they just someone wearing a vest? I circle the park, unable to be sure and now already it has become too hot and sunny for my project.  I wrap my hoodie around my waist and proceed to jog the non-park portion of my circuit. When I arrive home I find I’ve lost my hand sanitizer and mourn it. For the next couple days I try to retrace my steps and keep an eye out for the bottle but don’t find it. Feeling somehow defeated, I let go of my plot to swing in the swing.

But this morning, as I reach the park, I find it empty, and not too sunny. I have my Clorox wipe in my pocket. In a burst of rebellion, I use my Clorox wipe on the metal of the swing, and take my seat.

It feels good to swing. It feels good to pump my arms, although the chains occasionally pinch the skin of my palms. It feels good lean back and lift my legs high, though I have lost the bravery I had as a kid willing to swing so high that there would be a moment of slack and a jolt as the swing considered continuing it’s arc clear around and then decided against it.

And it feels freeing to be in the air — kind of. I am conscious of people – not authorities, but dog-walkers and other pandemic pedestrians—watching me as they pass. They look, and I imagine they are judging, or feeling threatened by my cavalier behavior… they can’t know the Clorox consideration I plan to lavish on the chains when my moment of swinging is over. 

I’m reminded of a time when I was twenty and traveling in Greece. I removed my top at a sparsely populated beach, which I’d been told was both legal and so customary that it wouldn’t warrant a second glance. I wanted to feel the freedom of it, and for a few moments, maybe I did, but those moments were quickly overshadowed by the gaze of a weathered man who appeared on the rocky bluff above me. He did not look away when I glanced his direction and made it very clear he was not planning to look away. I tried defiance for five or ten minutes, going about my business, trying to recapture what I’d almost felt, but trying not to notice is noticing, so I replaced the top of my bathing suit, and my shirt over it, and left the beach soon after.

And on this day in the park, though eyes are on me, I keep swinging for a few more minutes, because I know I won’t have the heart to do it again.

On Tuesday, March 31, the news tells us that as many as 25% of people carrying the Covid 19 virus could be asymptomatic.

On Wednesday, April 1 there’s a prediction, that if we continue with the steps we have taken thus far, the U.S. might expect between 100,00 and 240,000 deaths.

On Thursday, April 2, the New York Times reports that Trump is expected to recommend that everyone – not just medical workers, should wear masks in public.

The actual announcement on Friday April 3, is mitigated – the actual recommendation comes from the C.D.C., and the president notes that it is only a recommendation and “I’m not going to do it.”

Still, overnight, here in Florida, there is a change. On Saturday April 4, I enter the Family Dollar, and find that two of the four customers inside are wearing masks. I’m not one of them – I’m buy rubber bands to use as elastic for the homemade masks we’ll soon be making.

That evening I walk into through our neighborhood, and, long after I’ve given up looking, find the broken carcass of my hand sanitizer.