Life in a Time of Pandemic: Road Trip Edition (Day 1, Part 1)


Telling people you are planning to drive from one end of the country to the other in the midst of a pandemic gives rise to some questions. Do you think it’s safer to drive than fly? The answer is “maybe.” We have to make more stops, but we won’t have the hours of sharing air with strangers in a confined space. Also, we’ve brought our car to Florida and need to get it back to LA, along with all of our stuff, so it’s attractive to feel like driving is the safer option. Do you think an AirBnB would be cleaner than a hotel? Not really. I feel like the cleanliness of individually-owned properties is less predictable than a hotel that is part of a chain. In New Mexico, where we’ll spend our second night, the occupancy for hotels is capped at 25%, so it will be almost empty, and I figure I can wipe down surfaces and touch points in a single room with less error than in a house.

On the flip side, we’ve also made the decision to spend the first night with my uncle, who lives deep in the country heart of Texas. Because my uncle is not one for phones, emails, or plane trips, and because he is still recovering from a badly broken leg several months back, my family worries for him, and would like me visit. Paul is not a fan of this; he worries because he doesn’t want to be responsible for making him sick. I don’t either, but, I reason, we’ve been sequestered for several weeks, my uncle’s house is fairly large so we can spread out, and as an essential worker, he has been going to work, so he’s being exposed to some outside people already. Of course, the flip side of that is that we are also being exposed to him. Either way, though, we’ll need to do two week quarantine when we get back to Los Angeles. When I tell Paul my family is in favor of us going. He asks “are they okay if we go and then one of us gets sick and dies?” This is a fair question, so I call my mother and uncle and ask: They all say to go for it, and think it is weird that I should ask. Apparently, if something tragic happens, my husband may blame me, but my family will not.

April 24, Friday –Pre move plans always include going to bed early and getting up mega-early the day of the move… and never really work that way. Still, we are loaded and on the road by sometime between 8:30 and 9am. In addition to the bag of snacks we had on our way east, I’ve put together another bag, containing rubbing alcohol, a roll paper towels, a roll of toilet paper, and a container of Clorox wipes A small container of hand sanitizer sits in the center console, along with the cloth masks my mother has sent.

It should take about eleven hours to get to my uncle’s house. We have one “fun” item on the the itinerary, which is stopping at a Buc-ee’s filling station and purchasing brisket sandwiches for lunch after we cross into Alabama.

Our last planned stop in Gainesville is the Starbucks for Paul, but as we near it, we see the the drive-through line — the only line since there’s no in-store service — extends down the street. We keep driving, planning to find a sugary caffeine drink on down the road.

Two hours later, it’s time for our first bathroom break. Since restaurants are closed, the choices are gas stations and state rest areas and I think rest areas are the way to go. The bathrooms are spacious and, with few people traveling for leisure and mostly-male truckers, I’m guessing not crowded. When we arrive, I enact for the first time the routine I have planned: using a Clorox wipe to open every door handle, latch the stall door, and, after perching the wipe on the top of the door while I use the facilities, using it again to exit the stall, push on the faucet handles and activate the dryers. I wipe each touch point I pass as as a little act of service to whomever uses it next.
 
In Tallahassee, where we went to grad-school back in the day, our pre-pandemic plans had been to see friends, reach out to professors, revisit old haunts. Our new plan is to drive straight through. But outside of town we decide we can each text one friend, and offer to drive by and wave. Twenty minutes later we have a short ten-year reunion with our friend Susie, with us parked at the end of her driveway and she standing eight or ten feet away.  She tells us about her kids, the birds in the backyard, working from home and painting designs on furniture.

Social distance reunion

She is in the middle of her workday, and we are still ten hours from our destination, so after fifteen minutes we are on our way. We make another spontaneous detour to see the graduate student housing where we lived for three years, only to discover the university has razed most of the buildings, including the one where we lived.

The line for the Starbucks in Tallahassee is even longer that the one in Gainesville, so we continue to the highway.

Before leaving, I asked the Facebook what music we should listen to on our trip, and got a handful of responses that includes Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on A Gravel Road, Weezer’s Blue Album, and Step Inside this House by Lyle Lovett, so we’ve downloaded these, along with an album I’ve been hearing about all week, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. These all seem a little less “basic” than the music we listened to coming the other direction– Paul’s choices of Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and the Hamilton soundtrack.

We play the Lucinda Williams, and I’m getting into it — I’ve always had an affinity for raspy female recording artists — but four songs in, Paul says “I don’t think I can do it.” He hits the control on the steering wheel that I’ve never gotten the hang of, and next thing I know, we’re listening to “Memories” by Maroon 5, which, I have to admit, is catchy. I’ve always had an affection for the earworm masterpiece that is Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and that affection transfers to this pop song that borrows heavily from it.

After a little while, Paul starts Weezer album, which I think I remember liking. Now, though, high-hat cymbal feels constant and grating and tinny — but I don’t say anything. It’s good to listen to an entire album and experience it as a whole, I tell myself.

At 2:15pm, Kelly Clarkson plays as we discuss the new Heidi Klum-Tim Gunn show Making the Cut, trying to break down precisely what it means to have a taste problem, what it means to feel more expensive, and how each of these might translate to both the entertainment industry and life. “I think maybe we’d be better off,” says Paul, “if I felt more expensive to people.”

By this time we are already passing billboards for the Buc-ee’s, even though we’re still 100 miles out. For those who don’t know, Buc-ee’s is a Texas-based gas-station chain. A Buc–ee’s generally has at least a couple dozen gas pumps (one location has 100), and a convenience stores the size of a small Costco. Each store has a deli, a fudgery, a meat carvery, a desert case, and lots of branded tchotchkes. Fans wax poetic about the signature chopped brisket sandwich which, in case you don’t get the chance — tastes like a heightened McRib’s with pickles on it.

As we cross into Alabama, we can see some congestion going the other direction, at a checkpoint going from Alabama into Florida. There’s no checkpoint in our direction. For us, the only slow-down is the line of cars entering the Buc-ee’s.

If you squint, you can read the Sweet Home Alabama sign.

I’m a bit ashamed of how much social environment affects my perspective. I’ve found myself wearing the mask outside when there’s no one within a hundred feet. Based on my reading and common sense, I know this is unnecessary, but everyone else is doing it, so I do, too. In Alabama, outside the Buc-ee’s, the opposite is true. People are hanging out by their vehicles, and those entering aren’t wearing masks. For a moment, this seems reasonable. The store is as big as a theme park– we’ll be able to social distance easily, right?

A Buc-ee’s picture I stole from the internet.

But as soon as we walk through the sliding glass doors we realize this is not right. The lines at the two checkout stands are spaced in six foot increments, but because of this the lines extend down main aisle of the store — the same aisle that every customer needs to traverse to get to the contents of the store. While customers have space from the person in front of them in line, they are also within two feet of every customer entering the store .. like us.

Paul and I look at each other and in unison don our masks.

All around us, people without masks dart away from each other, like bumper cars, or like people with no umbrellas trying to dodge the rain. “If we come home with the virus,” I joke to Paul, as we grab our foil wrapped sandwiches from the bustling carvery, “it’s probably because we had to gett sandwiches at Buc-ee’s.” It wasn’t that funny of a joke.

We eat our sandwiches in the car. We’ve reached what I’ll come the “depressing part of the day.” Which is that time you are thinking you should be almost done driving, but according to the GPS you have five or six more hours to go…


Words to Drive By — Monster Leaves Dog

EPISODE 3: “Monster Leaves Dog”
(After the Storms, Part 3)

As a long-married couple prepares to part ways, the husband tries to convince his wife to change her mind.

This story is the third of three interrelated stories called After the Storms.
As with “Room” this story originated with a prompt:

Two characters part ways forever.

We were asked also to think about the questions: “Who and when and where?” “Do they know it’s forever?” “Do they have different feelings about it?” and “What causes the parting?”

I let years pass — literal years! — before I came back and finished this one. As the third story in the trilogy, it felt like writing a flashback episode of television. I enjoy flashback episodes, but they present their own set of challenges to the writer. Often a flashback episode needs to incorporate information the audience has already knows from regular episodes and that can change the source of dramatic tension in the story. If this story stands alone, the main question that unifies the narrative is “can Jerry change Beth’s mind and convince her to stay in the city?” But someone who reads it with the context of the previous stories already knows the answer. So for them the the question is not “what happened?” but “how and why did it happen?” Which tends to be a “weaker” dramatic tension…

… but hopefully still worthwhile! For me, the appeal of a flashback episode is traveling back in time and seeing characters I already know as they once were — before I knew them. In this case, seeing Jerry in “Room” and Beth in “Tribe” each reminiscing about the other made me want to see them together for a little while, and witness the moment that sent them on their separate trajectories.

Greg Gordon Smith composes and sound designs this and every episode. Ted Giffin did the show art.
And Barrington Smith-Seetachitt (that’s me!) wrote and read the story.

Also, you can SUBSCRIBE to this podcast on your favorite player:
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Hangin’ Out, Thinking About Partiality

(As promised at the end of my last post.)

Much of the story we pitched for ADMISSIONS is built around three families — all New Yorkers, but with different backgrounds and socio-economic resources — vying to get their children into Ivy League colleges — and making some questionable moral and legal decisions in their pursuits. 

Last year, I wrote a pilot for an entirely different series — one with a sci-fi premise where a tech guru creates an Elysium-type alternate reality and the richest people in the United States pay to transport themselves and their families into this other reality.

What do this two projects– one grounded, and one sci-fi — have in common? They are both about families, and both about family members who exercise partiality. 

Partiality — if it’s not familiar to you, as it wasn’t to me — is basically, liking one thing, person or group more than another.  In philosophy, there’s a whole ongoing conversation regarding whether it can be right to act partially and privilege people who are closer in our affections over those who are more distant.

In both my sci-fi scenario and in the real world scandal, individuals act to procure opportunities for their children.  But in so doing they are are taking the opportunity away from other, random people.

Most of us exercise some form of partiality. We feed our own children and take care of our own families first. We help our friends more than strangers. Generally it’s regarded as honorable to help our families, friends, teams, companies. We talk about loyalty like it’s a good thing — something to aspire to.

But, is it also honorable to give a job to your nephew instead of reviewing applications from other hopefuls?  Is it okay to  vote to fund the parks near your neighborhood and not  neighborhoods where other people’s kids live?  What if everyone in your group made the same choices?

It seems like classism, racism, tribalism could all descended from this type of partiality when it’s not just exercised by individuals, but groups of people.

When I think about partiality, it’s difficult not to selfishly think about how partiality  affects me. I want to be a working TV writer. In order to do that, I need to be hired by a showrunner. It’s no secret that showrunners– not just as individuals, but as a class — are partial to people they know and trust, or to referrals by people they know and trust. Since I am not neither of those things, my chances of catching my dream are diminished.

On the flip side, I’ve been hired many times — to be on film crews, to teach, to work admin — because someone knew me.  In every case, I’m guessing Human Resources could have sent a hundred applicants as good or better than I was, who probably wanted the job more than I did.  Yes, I’m a hard worker, but that’s not what got me those jobs. I got those jobs because: partiality. The people with the power to hire already knew me.

The temptation is always there to help out a friend, to make your kid happy. When is that okay, and where’s the line? If you’re a bouncer at a club, is it okay to let your friends in for free? If you work middle-management at a company, is it okay to highly refer a friend for a job? And if you have a gazillion dollars, is it okay to buy your kid a spot at a prestigious college, or buy your family a new life in an alternate reality?

 

Great Idea, Flawed Execution

I saw this online and ordered it from Target.  53162450Super-cute right?

But I didn’t look closely and I made some assumptions. Like I figured those straps probably had a hidden snap or button.

Or I figured that there might be a zipper on the side.

It didn’t occur to me that they would have would have sash on the front and…

53162450_Alt01Yup, that’s a back zipper.

Totally practical if you have a “jumper buddy” to go with you to the bathroom and help you with the zipper every time you have to go. Otherwise, not so much. The zipper is high -I can’t reach top in order to pull it down — or back up.

I get it — it’s easy to get so excited about an idea that you don’t entirely test it before you send it out into the world. Focus groups are tedious — so many busy-bodies wanting you to make changes. Maybe I’m just not the right demographic — there might be some more limber-bodied folks out there who can totally make this work.

I, however, had to return it.

Writing Tip: Record Your Notes Sessions

Getting notes on a script can feel either “good” or “bad.”

“Bad” is when you are hoping for accolades, for someone to tell you it’s really close, and instead you hear that things aren’t working for the reader, they don’t understand things you thought were clear, and they have thoughts — a lot of thoughts!  In the cartoon version of your life that’s happening inside your head it’s a literal truckload of notes dumped on top of you. It’s overwhelming and it’s heavy. Like this picture — but with NOTES instead of money!

A truck dumping a load of money
It’s like this, but with notes instead of money!

“Good” is when you  know there’s some problems with your script, but by some stroke of luck, you have some folks who like it anyway because they see its potential, and hopefully they are a little bit smarter than you–or smart in different ways–and they say things that they think which makes you think things that you say and then everyone is very excited about where this can go. And while you’re all talking you start to “see” it. It’s like the visual version of having a word on the tip of your tongue — it’s not there yet, but it’s totally within your grasp and probably as soon as you get off the phone it will no doubt arrived fully formed. This is fun!

After a notes call you hang up the phone,with a sense of accomplishment — either because you’ve withstood the deluge without crying, or because you’ve held your own in a great conversation! Either way you clearly deserve to decompress by staring vacantly into the fridge for a full minute and maybe taking a stick of wrapped cheese and then wandering the apartment vaguely looking for the water glass you set down before giving up and getting a new one.

Then it’s time to get to work! You return to your computer, pumped to make this next draft the Great American Script…  and realize that the whole conversation you just had is a blur.

You don’t panic. You close your eyes and think: A few moments from the conversation come back, but now you aren’t entirely sure if you and the other person were talking about the same thing.  You remember thinking thoughts that were so profound you knew you’d never forget them, but you’ve forgotten what they were.

Shit.

Check your notebook see that you’ve got a few half sentences written down, like
“she should tell him that…” or
“maybe an element of betrayal”.

Double shit.

But wait! Now you look in the upper left corner of your computer screen, see the little Quicktime audible file and remember that you recorded the whole thing. Probably, it’s STILL recording, because you forgot you were recording. So you turn it off. You NAME the file with the project and date.

Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 1.54.06 PM

This is great! You don’t have to admit to someone that you forgot everything they said! Plus, now you can transcribe the conversation, which at a 3-1 ratio could take three hours. Three hours of typing without having to solve any problems. Hallelujah.

And while you’re listening and typing, not only will you remember what you talked about,  but you’ll hear a bunch of stuff that you missed. Stuff people said while you were processing what somebody said before that. Tossed-off comments you thought were jokes, but now realize could be the key!

Re-listening to the notes will also help you process your emotions. However you felt during the call — good or bad — listening again will make you feel less so. If you felt good — hearing yourself talk will make you feel less brilliant, for sure. But if it was bad, you might find it wasn’t as bad as you thought. And putting it on paper will give you some distance, which — at least for me — is a better, more sustainable place from which to start a re-write.