Life in a Time of Pandemic (April 16-17, 2020)

Thursday, April 16, 2020

I’ve turned a corner somehow, and lost my intrinsic motivation to take my morning walk — maybe because it was raining on a couple of days, maybe because I threw my back out a few days ago. Lately I wake and think, what if I just stay in bed? 

I’ve let nine days pass without updating my journal, and without even noticing. In the news as in life, the days are blending together — the number of COVID illnesses and deaths feature less as unemployment numbers, and and the political work of assigning blame for the pandemic take center stage. In neglecting to journal, I’ve also neglected to record the day-to-day events — but today’s news feels mostly like yesterday’s news: Retailer are facing catastrophe because no one is buying much. There still aren’t enough Covid 19 tests to give an accurate picture of the virus’s spread, and there is speculation that the virus was active in Europe and the US before anyone realized it. (Half a dozen people I know personally surmise they’ve “probably had it” because they had some kind of flu or malaise in the past few months.)

Those of us with direct deposit received stimulus checks arrived yesterday of $1200 each. Paper checks have been delayed by a couple days so President Trump could add his name on the checks. He couldn’t sign them, as he wished to, because by definition he is not the Department of the Treasury, but his name will appear on the left-hand side, below the memo line.

Because of my career aspirations and interests I am on numerous Facebook pages and email lists for various organizations which are offering free content for my consumption during this time. After working and teaching online, it’s hard to feel enthused about more hours in front of a computer . but I try to occasionally take advantage.

There’ll be more time for such entertainments after the next couple weeks. Tonight is my last Thursday class — my pitching class. In a burst of energy, I decided to invite outside guests to our final pitches on Zoom, and, as with life events IRL, I am living with the anxiety and partial regret phase of that decision now. Nervous about my ability to play MC and wrangle the Zoom settings and make people feel appreciated.

Saturday, April 17, 2020

Our little Zoom pitchfest went very well last night. All the students rose to the occasion! Their pitches came in right at ten minutes, which was the target — I could tell they had planned and practiced.  I think we’d all been working toward this and been distracted from the reality of it being the last class. At the end, we let our guests go had a pretty emotional farewell! 

And now I am feeling a little sad. I’ve been pushing through these last weeks of class. I’ve been extra glad to be working during the pandemic, but also feeling I’ll be relieved when the performance anxiety (because even though I feel I’m a good teacher, it is my nature to feel anxiety before every class) is over. But the flip side of having that small version of “stage fright” is that I also tend to feel what I’ve labeled over the years “post-show depression.” Plus I won’t see my students anymore…

But here’s a little inspirational side note. My friend Dmitry offered the students some advice that I could stand to follow myself: “Write first thing in the morning.” During my time here in Florida, I’ve been consumed with teaching, then pitching my TV show, and then, with the pandemic and the closure of my yoga studio, wanting to walk outside before the heat, I have given up my morning writing, and my writing has gone out the window…. I have often noted that whatever I do first thing in the morning is the only think I can guarantee will get done, because the day can go off the rails at any time.

This morning, for example, this journal entry is likely the only thing I’ll write today — especially, since I’ve now done something which will end my fragile writerly flow, which is look at my newsfeed:

A Wall Street Journal article notes that yesterday marked the record for number of US deaths from Covid19  in a 24 hour period. It was 4591– up from the prior record of 2569.  There were 31,451 reported new cases, bring the total to 671,000 reported Coronavirus cases, and 33,000 deaths in the US.  Confirmed cases worldwide is more that 2.15 million and the number of deaths top 144,000. 

Other news highlights:
5.2 million Americans sought unemployment benefits last week — the month total is 22 million.
Aid programs for small companies and individuals have reached their funding caps.
Shares of Gilead Science rose 15.1% after reports that one of their experimental drugs was performing well in trials with Covid 19 patients. 
The shipments of masks and test kits from China are being delayed because of quality control issues.
Some governors in contiguous states in the west and the midwest have formed coalitions to use collective bargaining power to get supplies

After some flurry about who would be in charge, President Trump has said that the governors of states will to set the timelines for their “re-opening.” 
The White House has issued some guidelines — saying that the states should phase in reopening once they’ve seen a downward trend of cases over a two-week period and outlining what those phases might look like:

Phase 1: Reopen movie theaters, restaurants, sports venues, places of worship, gyms and other venues with strict social distancing guidelines in place. Vulnerable people should still stay at home — and no visits to nursing homes and hospitals. Some people would return to work, though telework is still encouraged.
Phase 2: Non-essential travel could resume, and bars could open with some restrictions. Schools and youth activities could reopen.
Phase 3: No restrictions on workplaces, vulnerable people could resume social interactions, but seek to follow social distancing. Visits to hospitals and nursing homes could resume.

Life in the Time of Pandemic (March 13-20, 2020)

By Friday, March 13, all students had been advised to leave campus until March 31st — if possible. The end date feels arbitrary, will they all fly home and return two weeks later? I guess the truth is that nobody knows. The faculty receives a query from our department chair asking us to report if our classes were on track to move online by Monday. The university seems to mobilize faster than I would have guessed. They’re negotiating with the software companies to expand licenses directly to students. The dozen emails I send to university tech support got quick responses.

From California, friends are sharing pictures of bare shelves at the stores where toilet paper and household cleansers would be stocked. One sends a picture of a truck with toilet paper being guarded by police, but at our Family Dollar, there are still paper goods — though fewer cleansers — no more Clorox wipes. Though we’ve been encouraged not to have large gatherings, no one has yet said anything about small gatherings. We’re reading the first articles about social distancing, and navigating what this means. Our yoga studio is still open, sending us messages to say they’ve decreased the number of students per class, and are ramping up their cleaning and sanitizing. If we don’t use equipment, we figure, we’ll only be touching our own mats. Our county still has no documented cases of community spread, so on Saturday we go to class.

We also have plans, in place for over a month, to have dinner with another couple and their son. The fact that we don’t know them well makes it seem ruder to cancel. I check to see if they still want us, and our hostess seems not to have even considered otherwise. Their house is beautiful and large; it’s not hard to keep some distance for most of the pleasant evening. When it ends, our hostess hugs me, which feels strange after a week of bumping elbows. “Oh, we’re still hugging!” I blurt in surprise.

“Yes, of course,” she answered.

The need to make things smooth overtakes our group. Paul hugs our hostess two, and I hug her husband. No one is scared. Everything’s all right.

The following day (Sunday, March 15), I’ve made a “study date” with another teacher, to figure out how to make online quizzes for our students. “Should we go?” Paul and I deliberate, and decided we will. I bring my Clorox wipes, which are already something of a joke between us.

I’d assumed their family would be doing some form of distancing, but when we arrive, their youngest is having a play date with two other little girls.  They run around the house as normal.. The older son, newly driving, came and went, picking up food for us. “Wash your hands!” his mom reminds him as he begins to unpack the food.

Coming home Paul and I feel we have felt for the boundaries of our comfort level, and found those boundaries. We agree we’ve made the last of our home visits, and that for us, social distancing, like online classes, will begin in earnest the next day, Monday the 16th.

Sunday night the democratic debate features Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders hooking elbows instead of shaking hands, and standing at podiums placed six feet apart. The news that night announces that both Los Angeles and New York are tamping down on bars and restaurants, limiting them to food delivery only. In California Gavin Newsom asks everyone over the age of 65 to sequester themselves. One journalist notes that the democratic debate, between two candidates in their late 70s, would be in defiance of that request if the debate were to take place in California.

On Monday, the stock market drops by 8% and trading is temporarily halted for the second or third time–I’ve lost track. l realize that while we have food, paper products, and cleansers, in our temporary rental we have none of the over-the-counter medications that accrue over years, so I walk again to the Family Dollar and purchase a motley collection of cold medications and acetaminophen.

On Tuesday the 17th, UF announces that, instead of possibly resuming March 31st, classes will remain online for the remainder of the semester, and into the summer. There will be no commencement ceremonies in the spring. 

“I guess if everything is online, nothing’s really keeping us here,” says Paul.
“Should we just go early?” I respond.

We discuss the pros and cons. It could save us a month of paying rent in two places, which is appealing. At the same time, the situation in California looks crazier than Gainesville. There are also complicated logistics – how and when to make a forty-hour drive across internet-less terrain when we’re teaching a combined fifteen hours a week online, plus grading and correspondence? With the car packed to the gills, where should we sleep? Our presence might endanger the friends along our route, and hotels, if open, seem undesirable.

We table the discussion as I’m still organizing my first Zoom class for that afternoon, as well as an online pitch and an online midterm using an online proctoring service for Wednesday. On Wednesday, as I scramble up various technological learning curves, the news cycles around me: the stock market tanks again, the president proposes a billion dollar economic stimulus package of which $250 million directly to taxpayers, the rest to corporations, and West Virginia reports it first case of Covid 19, meaning the virus is now in all 50 states. There are now 5800 recorded cases and 107 deaths nationwide. New York is considering instituting a “shelter in place” edict. When our temporary landlord emails to let us know that our place was now available through April, we tell him we’ll stay through April 24, the day after our classes end.

On Thursday, Italy is front and center in the news. Their death toll has passed 3000. In California, Governor Newsom orders people not to go out. A friend of Paul’s to combat his own anxiety, invites people to read War and Peace with him — aiming for 50 pages a day. I order it for my Kindle.

On Friday we embark on what feels, in this new world, like an exciting outing: A trip to the GNC to buy zinc lozenges, to a sporting goods store to buy small hand weights (since our gym and yoga studio are both now closed) and to the grocery store. In the strip mall that houses the GNC there’s a line outside the Trader Joe’s – it’s our first sighting of a store admitting only a limited number of shoppers at one time.

The GNC is sold out of zinc, so we make a call and visit the location that still has two boxes – the one in the indoor mall. At the GNC we stand at a distance from the cashier, then exit through the mall, walking past dozens of closed and empty stores. We don’t stop to window shop at the few that are open, and are careful not to touch anything. At one of the small tables in the center of the mall, two women, leaned their arms on the table’s surface as they talked to each other– their faces a mere foot or two apart. They appear relaxed, feeling none of our trepidation.

A few more calls locates a sporting goods stores that is still open. We find a bottle of Purell at the entrance with a sign asking us to sanitize our hands on the way in. Inside, the middle of the store is empty. The clerk tells us most of the weights and home gym equipment have been sold.

At our final stop, Publix, a friendly worker wipes down and sanitizes the carts as they’re returned. Inside, someone is mopping the floor. There’s music playing. Feel It Still by Portugal. The Man — Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks now… For a moment I suddenly felt buoyant. It feels good to be out, to be pushing a cart and skipping with the music in the wide, clean aisle between freezer cases full of options.

And then the feeling and our trip is over. We’re home, with no other excursions to look forward to. One of my students has written to say that where she is, with her family in Miami, there are more cases than in Gainesville. With family member who are immunocompromised, much of the shopping falls to her, and if would help if she were able to predict her classwork. This hits me deeply, knowing that there have been some unannounced assignments in her class. I spend the rest of Friday and most Saturday – which is today – editing and publishing assignments for the rest of the semester. It doesn’t feel heroic, but I guess that my part in this, as a teacher, is to offer what stability and support I can… to do my job. And I want to. As someone familiar with being underemployed, I keenly feel my good fortune at having a job I can still do during this time.

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.

Pitch It To Me

In my last post, I was saying that two of the classes I’m teaching this term two are very similar to classes I took in screenwriting school. One — the topic of my last post, I enjoyed.

The OTHER was pitching class. 

The room was small and bright. The number of students was less than 12. We sat around a table. It was a class that required performance, real time responses, and a certain kind of salesmanship that — to the untrained eye — seems not to be salesmanship at all.

On the first day of class, our teacher entered and told us a riveting personal story. It was exciting, suspenseful, a little vulnerable and very relatable — the kind of story where you think, “yes, I feel that too, you are just like me!” But just as I was getting sucked in, the instructor dropped a bombshell: The whole story wasn’t true. It was an example of “a ramp,” meant to engage listeners, make them feel connected to you and to the larger story you are about to pitch. The instructor noted that the best ramps propel the listener so naturally into the pitch that the listener doesn’t even realize where the small talk ends and the pitch begins. Even though his ramp was a lie, our teacher said, it wasn’t considered a lie because everything, he said, from the moment you enter “the room,” is part of the pitch.

We were ten minutes into our first class session and I was feeling the first stabs of panic. “I can’t do this,” I thought. I’m a terrible liar. I can lie. It’s just that ten seconds after the lie, I have to tell you that I lied. I’m basically that character in KNIVES OUT who vomits every time she tells a lie except that instead of vomiting vomit — I vomit the truth. Even as a complete newbie, I intuited that my style of involuntary, often crazy-sounding truth-vomits were not going to help me create the kind of “conversational and compelling” experience the instructor was talking about.

During the course of the the semester, my anxiety and discomfort shifted from ramps to just about every aspect of pitching. I left most class sessions feeling like I had profoundly under-impressed in an environment that was all about ones ability to impress. At the same time, I knew that my discomfort was a symptom of growth, that I was learning a skill I needed, and that it was a skill that, with practice, I could eventually master.

Some of my fellow students that semester were amazing, professional level pitchers. I Although it was sometimes emotionally hard to have to follow their dazzling high-wire act with my own, seeing them pitch every week modeled for me what was possible.  And it’s possible that all my emotions during that class helped me better remember what I learned. Certainly it made an impression on me, and I’ve been grateful for that class every time I’ve had to pitch in the years since. I’ve had the experience of going into a room with a pitch and being told by an exec that he requested the meeting purely because someone had told him it was a “fun pitch.” It felt good — I might not be the person with a sold show, but at least I had a fun pitch!

A couple years ago, I placed in an Alumni pitching competition with a feature. Afterwards I chatted with the woman who had won in the TV category and she said, “Did you have pitch class with Trey Calloway?” Indeed I had. It was not my favorite class, but it was a valuable class, so when the folks at UF asked if I could teach a pitching class, I said “yes,” figuring if I can give my students half the experience that was given to me, I’ll have done something helpful.

Something New / Script Analysis

This spring I’ll be taking a cross country trip in order to teach three classes at University of Florida.

Two of the topics I’ll be teaching will be very similar to classes at USC that I feel were the most valuable to my writing career.  One of them I enjoyed greatly.  The other, I did not enjoy as much, but have always been grateful that I took it. I’m going to write a post about each.

The one I enjoyed was called “Screenplay Analysis.”

Flowers-vocabularyBefore my script analysis class, the construction of a movie felt to me like a large amorphous blob. The class showed me how, in fact, a movie is made up of segments and parts that perform various functions — that there are recurring techniques and devices that are recognizable. It was the difference between walking through a garden and seeing “a bunch of flowers” and walking through a garden and seeing tulips and roses and snapdragons and having a sense of why they are planted where they are — either for aesthetic purposes — color or height or when they will bloom — or because of what they need to grow — light or shade or more or less water or a certain kind of soil. And also — to belabor the metaphor — differentiating between kind of gardens and understanding the elements that might go into choosing what kind of garden to plant in the first place.*

Another aspect of script analysis that made it enjoyable was that it was a large class taught in a dark auditorium. The teacher lectured, and unless you raised your hand, you didn’t have to fear he was going to break the fourth wall and pull you on stage. In my pedagogy classes, this was considered pretty old school, but honestly, I enjoyed it. I could process and think and plan out my questions if I had them. It was a class about receiving, and a class about training ones brain to think in a certain way.

However, it was a divisive class among the students. While it was one of my favorites (so much so that I snuck into other sections of the class for the next couple semesters), it was other people’s least favorite class. They found it boring and confusing.

I imagine it will be the same with my students. An odd part of being  a teacher is how at any point you can be rocking one student’s world while at the same time you are simply inflicting torture on another student — by teaching the same material.

So I’m both looking forward to — and daunted by — the opportunity to teach this subject for the first time!  I’ll try to check back in and let you know how it goes!

*I feel I should make it clear that I know next to nothing about flowers or gardens.