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 (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.

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.

Thanks, Part 2

2019 has been a year. Such a year that I haven’t even thought much about how it’s the end of a decade — another thing to process at another time.

Parents of dear friends have been ill this year. Parents of dear friends have died. Spouses of friends were ill this year. Spouses of friends have died. A beloved teacher died this year. My mother had hips replaced, my father-in-law lost much of his sight, My mother-in-law’s unflagging energy has begun to flag.

Predictions about the environment became more dire this year, people became more clear about what divides them and less interested in bridging those divides.

My career aspirations took beatings surrounded by the kind of circumstances  that make me question not just if I’ll ever be able to achieve them, but if they are really worth achieving.

What I find myself thinking about, as much as lack of money or milestones (perhaps I am processing the decade after all) is how, at an age by which I’d expected to be “reaching back” to assist others, I instead find myself continuing to wait for my own air-mask to drop from the airplane ceiling as we fly through increasing turbulence.

It is hard to know what kind of movie I’m in — Is it a movie where the hero experiences a crisis of faith, but stays steadfast to the goal and it makes her success ultimately sweeter? Or is it a movie where the hero realizes her goals have been false, and finally notices the more authentic life that has been there all along, just waiting — in girl-next-door-like fashion —  to be loved?

Why did I name this post Thanks, Part 2? Truthfully, I started writing it the other day, and now I can’t remember! But rather than change the title, I’ll rise to the occasion: 2019 has been a year — the kind of year where when people ask, all you think to say is “I survived.” And, if you are me, you might say that with a dry tone deprecating tone.

But, actually — that’s huge. The gift of survival. To arrive at the end a year in one piece; to have another year to try to figure it all out (or not)?

I’ll take it.

Thanks.