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.

The Semantics of Survivor

This article, about how “cancer survivor” came into popularity, is my first attempt at posting something on Medium.

Update: I got a note from Medium saying I had been “curated,” which is apparently a good thing, and would be promoted in the “Health” section. Woot!

Life in a Time of Pandemic (March 21-March 29)

In Florida, the temperatures have soared into the 80s. With my former fitness routines out the window, I take advantage of the cooler temperatures in the morning and evenings to walk around the neighborhood. I aim for 5000 steps per walk, tracking it on my phone, to reach the recommended allotment of ten-thousand steps daily. Who recommended that and when? I have no idea and lack the curiosity to look it up. It’s a round number, a goal, and is as good as any.

Others in my neighborhood clearly have established similar routines. I pass mothers with strollers, fathers and sons, couples. There are not many of us, so it is not crowded. We give each other a wide berth, wait at cross walks for others to pass, cross to the opposite side of the street if we find ourselves heading toward each other on the same sidewalk, smiling and waving to show that it’s not personal. There is a sense of solidarity in this.

But also, I realize, we are telling each other, with our smiles and waves, that it’s okay, we’re not a threat. Underlying the bucolic ambiance, the lush green, the Spanish Moss hanging from the trees, there is also a vigilance. I sense, through subtle, that the world’s hold on would-be predators is less than it was. The cats in the neighborhood have grown bolder. With car and foot traffic diminished, they sit in the middle of streets and watch the humans with brazen, even insolent expressions. One day a cat follows me for a block. The cars too, especially in the evenings, can also have a sense of prowling. They drive slowly down the block and the the drivers, often single men, don’t make it a point to smile and wave.

On Saturday evening, a car honks as it turns the corner near me. The man behind the wheel looks at me as he passes, at a moment when there are no other pedestrians around.

Later that same Saturday night a friend in LA posts on Facebook her story of walking alone, of a car with a group of men honking and whistling, of the car making a U-turn and heading back in her direction until a couple on foot turn a corner into view, scaring them away. The online conversation that follows explore the fears, not unique, but closer to the surface for women, of living in a world where men have no sports to watch, no bars to prowl, no gyms to work out their aggressions.

On my walk on Sunday morning, I pass a well-muscled man on a street spacious enough to go wide. Unsmiling, he maintains his course in the way of a man on a crowded sidewalk for whom asserting territory is unnecessary — he is merely occupying what is his. Probably he is immersed in whatever content is coming through his ear pods. Probably he is not even conscious of our passing, of my veering, as an interaction between us. But I am aware for both of us.

In addition to my Kindle edition of War and Peace, I’ve downloaded an audio version to listen to on my morning walks. On this morning, words fly by without me hearing them.

I’m distracted by fellow pedestrians, but also by my own ruminations. Though Paul and I know better than to read the news on our phones upon waking, we do, and in bed this morning Paul has shown me an article with graphs depicting, by state, at what point the health care system might or might not be overwhelmed depending on the amount of social distancing implemented.

In one scenario he shows me, the curve in Texas is hitting its peak the week we’re scheduled to leave. 
“Huh,” I say, “Do you think that means we should go earlier after all?”
Our conversation is mostly a rerun of a conversation we had just three days ago, with one new addition: “I just don’t want us to get stuck in Texas,” he says.
I’m confused. “Why would we get stuck in Texas? We’re in our car, we’ll just drive through it.” 
“What if they do terrible at containment and the other states decide they don’t want people coming in from Texas?” 
As soon as he says it, I can see the dystopian timeline where things get bad and states in disagreement about measures start closing their borders. 

So as I walk down our tree-lined street, my brain is continuing the conversation on its own: But we have California IDs, certainly they would let us in, right? 

Half a chapter of War and Peace has gone by without my noticing.

On Monday, March 22, more than 24,000 coronavirus cases have been reported in the U.S., with over 10,000 of those in New York state. Also on this day, Senator Rand Paul tests positive for the virus, and makes the news for using the gym and swimming pool while waiting for his test results. And Senate Democrats block a proposed 1.8 Trillion dollar relief bill, claiming that it is aimed more at helping corporations than people

On this same Monday, one student and one faculty member in our college are reported to have the virus, and Alachua County, where we live, mandates emergency “stay at home” orders effective at midnight. In accordance, UF reduces on-campus personnel to those identified as essential.

On Tuesday, March 24, in reaction to Wall Street executives warning of another Great Depression if America doesn’t get back to work soon, President Trump talks about “opening up the economy” by Easter, which is April 12. Elsewhere in the world, Prime Minister of India bans 1.3 billion people from leaving their homes, and, after some initial resistance from the organizers, the Summer Olympics in Japan are postponed for a year.

On Wednesday, March 25, the senate passes a 2 trillion dollar relief package. It’s announced that Prince Charles has Coronavirus.

On Thursday March 26, the U.S. takes the dubious honor of the lead in Coronavirus cases: 81,321 and over 10000 deaths. Three million people apply for unemployment benefits. Florida requires visitors from New York to quarantine for two weeks after arriving.

On Friday, March 27, Trump signs the $2 trillion economic relief plan. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain tests positive for Coronavirus.

On Sunday March 29, Trump extends the federal governments social-distancing guidelines until the end of April. A plane from Shanghai touched down at Kennedy Airport carrying 130,000 N95 masks, 1.8 surgical masks and gowns, 10 million gloves and 70,000 thermometers touches down at Kennedy Airport. It is, we’re told, the first of 22 such shipments.

As of Sunday evening 141,096 people in the U.S have tested positive for the virus, and at least 2469 patients with the virus have died.

Two Weeks Outside the Epicenter of America’s Coronavirus Crisis.

Inspired by the New Yorker article, “A Week in Seattle, The Epicenter of America’s Coronavirus Crisis.”

I’m writing this on March 13, and already I’m forgetting the dates, having to reconstruct them: It was the second to last day of February, (Friday, Feb 28, 2020) when Paul and I flew from the airport in Jacksonville, Florida to our home city of Los Angeles. Heading from the east coast to the west coast, I felt what one of my film professors used to call the point of attack: describing it as “not the storm that hits the village, but the sound of thunder in distance.”

The thunder in the distance was 50 or so sick people in Seattle, the first cases of “community spread” of Covid 19 in the United States. While two-thousand people had died in far away lands, no one had died in the U.S. From our temporary home in Gainesville, Florida, Seattle felt far away, barely real. Was I over-reacting? I wondered as I directed Paul to pick up some TSA approved sized containers of hand sanitizer. But arriving at the airport early enough to spend several hours in the company of travelers, I wondered if I had reacted enough. In the waiting area an man was repeatedly coughing. We were about twelve feet away. I felt the urge to move farther, until Paul spotted some medical equipment and pegged his malady as something non-virus-related, like emphysema, or possible lung cancer… and I felt an ignoble sense of relief about the fact that this man likely had something chronic and serious, instead of contagious.

On the plane, the woman in front of us wore gloves and a mask by the window. Looked with trepidation as two Chinese men took the seats beside her. For the duration of the flight, the two Chinese men never coughed, but as on every flight I’ve taken ever, it seems, there were coughs throughout the cabin. In truth, all coughs on planes make me flinch; I have too many memories of catching colds on planes and having to deal with illness while juggling whatever itinerary prompted my travels. This week I had a series of meetings planned and didn’t want any crimps in my plans, be they Corona or common cold. I took the scarf I wore around my neck, and wrapped it instead over my face, feeling it must offer some protection against any stray droplets floating through the cabin. 

We arrived in Los Angeles late, slept, and woke the next morning — Saturday the 29th — to read on our phones that the first virus-related death had occurred in the U.S., in Seattle. 

On Monday, I had my first meeting. The exec was mildly apologetic when opted to bump elbows instead of shaking hands. At Tuesday’s meeting with another exec, we forgot and hugged. On Wednesday, a TSA worker at LAX reported he had come down with the virus.

For the rest of the week the people I met with were becoming more vigilant. The execs offered elbow bumps. An assistant and and intern still offered their hands to shake, Instinctively I took their hands – then sanitized afterward. I declined all offers of water, opting to stick to my own bottle.

At L.A. restaurants, I gingerly opened the plastic menus, thinking how many had touched them before me. On our last evening in town, Saturday, March 7, we visited our favorite restaurant in Thai Town and found it at half capacity. That day, in the first cases of Coronavirus in Florida, who’d been announced earlier in the week, died, and two new cases were diagnosed. These cases were in counties far from our temporary home, but I knew that the campus we were returning to campus would be the convergence point for thousands of students who had just traveled over their spring break, across the state, the country and the world.

By the time we boarded our return flight on Sunday March 8, Italy and Iran had become hotspots and cases in the U.S. had climbed from 50 to 500.

Our route back to Florida took us through two international airports. Dallas, where we changed planes, and Nashville, where stopped to take on new passengers. I watched as the new people entered. A woman attempted to put her large bag in an overhead bins but it was too heavy for her. A man helped, grabbing the hard surfaces of her luggage with his hands. Soon after, a flight attendant came through, closing every bin with flat hands. The bin with the large case wouldn’t close; she pulled the same suitcase out again, rotating it all around until it fit. Nothing out of the ordinary for a week before, but now I could only count: touch, touch, touch. With the luggage arranged, the flight attendant she laid her palms flat to the bin to slam it closed, touch, then approached our row, taking the laminated safety card from the seat pocket of nearby passenger and using it to demonstrate safety protocols before replacing it the card. Touch.

Back in Florida, Paul joined others on the parking lot shuttle to pick up the car while I waited in the crowd for my bag at the carousel. Though it was 2am when we reached our Gainesville home, I wasn’t too tired to shower.  

The next morning (Monday, March 9), while Paul went to school. I walked to the Family Dollar and purchased a three-pack of Clorox wipes. There were still plenty of options on the shelves, and I again wondered if I was planning for something that wouldn’t be an issue where we were.

That day the stock market plunged, and that evening, we received an email from Public Affairs at our university saying the provost was advising us to move our classes online where possible, but that nothing was mandatory. A fellow teacher texted immediately, opting out of in-person teaching, because she was caring for an older, immune-compromised relative.  Another fellow teacher, who taught mostly hands-on production classes said she wouldn’t be teaching online. She said nothing, but I detected in her manner the slightest judgement about our fellow teachers decision to opt out.

All my life I have dreaded being thought of a malingerer, have built an identity around being a “hard worker.” Partly due to a reluctance to be perceived otherwise, and partly because it felt too late to figure out how to teach online in half a day, I wrote to my Tuesday (March 10) class – comprised of 19 students who met in a classroom with seating for about 40 – and said that we’d be meeting in person. I explained that I’d be putting a canister of Clorox wipes by the door, that they should grab a Clorox wipe on the way in, space themselves a chair apart, and wipe down their desk area before sitting. This felt like an abundance of caution as I reminded each student who entered. They laughed as they complied. I was being safer than most, I thought, we could continue this way for the semester.

Yet one student said that my class was her only class that wasn’t online, and that otherwise, she would be flying home. Home was New York.

“You’re more likely to get it on the plane to than here,” said one of her classmates.

“I don’t care, because then when I get it, I’ll be home with my family, not alone in my dorm room,” she retorted.

That night I sent the same Clorox / spacing announcement to my Wednesday class , adding that if that if any student had extenuating circumstances they should let me know. One student wrote to say had traveled internationally over break break. Another had a cold she thought was just a cold, but didn’t want to miss class or make her classmates uncomfortable.  By now I’d had time to watch a tutorial on how to create a Zoom meeting. I decided to make the switch and teach the class online. On Thursday the edict came down, that starting this coming week (beginning Monday, March 16) online classes will be mandatory.

The First Cloned Cat

A couple years back, I conceived of a series which involved a fair amount of research about clones. I still perk up my ears when I see articles about clone advancements. People have been cloning their pet dogs for several years, but now the the first cat has been cloned.

Of particular interest:

For their pet cloning services, Mi says Sinogene hopes to someday transfer the memories of the original animals to their clones using artificial intelligence or man-machine interface technology, according to the Global Times