Sunday read: It’s the pictures that got small

The Oscar nominations will be announced Monday morning, and I mean no offense to the prospective nominees when I say they seem … small.

I saw a handful of them — “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mank,” “Da 5 Bloods” — and I plan to catch up with “Sound of Metal,” “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and “One Night in Miami,” among others, in due course. But, like probably all of you reading this (that is, both of you), I saw them on my television, in my living room — not in a theater on a big screen among dozens or hundreds of people. And an HDTV, even a home-theater-sized one (which mine isn’t), is no substitute for the moviegoing experience. I mean, I also watch “Saturday Night Live” reruns and the wonderful “Ted Lasso” on a TV.

So, even though many of those Oscar hopefuls probably look great on the big screen, virtually nobody saw them on the big screen. We saw them on streaming services.

As a result, they seem diminished. They’ve become just another TV show, something to flick past as you’re channel-surfing, or to freeze-frame when you go to the bathroom. (I can hear Christopher Nolan sobbing.)

The films of 2020, at least in the way they were presented, are another victim of Covid.

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Will you ever think about me when I’m gone?

One afternoon in February 1987, back when I still had hopes of being a rock star, I sat down on my bed and tried to write a song. Much to my surprise, it came easily — the only time that’s ever happened to me. I was done, lyrics and all, in less than 30 minutes.

The song was called “Will You Ever Think About Me (When I’m Gone).” Here’s the recording I made a few days later (thanks, Dave), sluggish start, flubs and all:

At the time, I thought I was writing a standard kiss-off song: You weren’t the person I thought you were, so goodbye. But in retrospect, I wonder if the title was channeling one of my deepest fears. Would I be remembered after I die?

It’s not just me, I’m well aware. (“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying” — Woody Allen.) Still, the older I get, the more I wonder what of me will live on. My wife and I don’t have any children. I think of myself as an introvert, so my social circle is small. Yes, the Internet is forever, but besides my CNN bylines and this blog, there really isn’t much else. (I’m not counting the material owned by Mark Zuckerberg, that putz.)

So I couldn’t help but be dropped back into the existential abyss after reading Anakana Schofield’s column in Sunday’s New York Times, “Where Do the Dead Go in Our Imaginations?”

Schofield lost a friend to suicide several years ago, someone who was incredibly generous, someone who thought of Anakana with small gifts and large actions. “I was alive for her even though I was absent. In that moment she chose to remember me. How can I return this gesture now, when she is no longer here?”

So Schofield volunteers. She tries to be there for others. She feels her friend’s spirit. And she hopes this is enough.

“This is where the dead go in our imaginations: They continue to live with us in the moments when we are sad and terrified,” she writes. “They cheer for us. … They coax us through.”

Twenty-one years ago, I lost a good friend. G and I had worked together at a TV station when I returned to Atlanta in 1991, and he helped me get on my feet when I needed some free-lance opportunities. He was a hard-core Braves fan — I’ll never forget the phone call he made late in the 1991 pennant race after the Bravos inexplicably came back from a 6-0 deficit to beat the Reds 7-6 on a ninth-inning Dave Justice homer — and he was remarkably open about his doubts and flaws. One of the latter was drinking, and though he had made attempts to quit, he blamed himself after his child was born with disabilities and used alcohol to take away the pain. One day his body had enough. He was 33.

I miss G. I think about him at odd times (like now). I don’t even have a photo of him, just an image in my mind: linebacker physique, big grin, contagious laugh. I miss him as I miss high school friends gone too soon, as I miss certain colleagues, as I miss my father. Maybe I idealize them; I’m sure I do. But in these lonely pandemic times, when the dead are with us more than is comfortable, I’ll take all the idealization I can muster.

It’s funny. I dislike the idea of holding grudges. That’s a different kind of remembrance — keeping a tight hold of the slights and quarrels that once wounded. All they do is make sure that wound never fully heals. But mourning is another kind of memory. It’s one that says I keep you in my heart, and I hope I’m doing right by you — the best of you — as I continue on this planet after you’re gone. It’s not really about living in the past. It’s about creating the future.

In a time when we have lost so much, it’s the least I can do.

The ends of the earth

Image from HouseofTeresa.com.

I’ve got a couple Sunday reads lined up, but I don’t feel like writing about them. I’d rather write about something more immediate: the end of the world.

What? The world’s not ending?

I don’t know if I agree. Did you think the apocalypse would come from a nuclear conflagration or an asteroid strike, something that would wipe out all life (except the roaches and ants, of course) instantaneously? Or even a pandemic resembling the one we have, except more dramatic, like Stephen King’s Captain Trips?

No, I think this is the way the world ends – not with a bang, but a whimper.

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Sunday read: A scientist hero

Image from Cosmos Magazine.

I grew up in the 1970s, which means that my bloodstream and organs are probably full of contaminants that will take decades, if not centuries, to break down — long after they may have contributed to my death. I’m sure I’ve eaten my share of plastic, inhaled plenty of tar and nicotine, and probably consumed some radioactive heavy metals.

I’ve certainly been exposed to greater-than-healthy doses of lead (which is to say, more than zero), because until 1975, it was in pretty much every gallon of gasoline we pumped in America. That means it was also in every ounce of exhaust that our internal combustion engines produced.

But at least we’ve moved in the right direction — away from leaded gasoline. And, in part, we have Clair Patterson to thank.

Patterson, “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of,” is the subject of my Sunday read.

Patterson, who was trained as a chemist but practiced geology and physics, was an eccentric. His discovery that his laboratory was infested with lead prompted him to go to extreme lengths to clean it (as well as hypothesize where the lead came from), at a time before “clean rooms” existed. And that wasn’t all.

On smoggy Pasadena days, he’d amble across the quad wearing two different colored socks and a gas mask. He went distance running when distance running was a hobby for weirdos. He didn’t look or act like a professor. He wore t-shirts, khakis, and desert boots. He refused tenure. Later in his career, he soundproofed his Caltech office and installed two doors, two layers of walls, and two ceilings. As his colleague Thomas Church noted, Patterson was like his rock samples: He did not enjoy being “contaminated” by outside influences.

This made him easy to caricature for the corporate interests — oil and auto companies — that wanted to keep their leaded fuel in the pipeline. After all, it eliminated knocking!

And no-knock leaded gasoline was a small price to pay for all that lead in the environment. After all, miniscule amounts of lead couldn’t cause that much damage. Could it? The leading lead researcher certainly didn’t think so, and nobody was looking over his shoulder.

Kehoe also made mistakes that might have been caught had his work been subject to independent scrutiny. In one study, Kehoe measured the blood of factory workers who regularly handled tetraethyl lead and those who did not. Blood-lead levels were high in both groups. Rather than conclude that both groups were poisoned by the lead in the factory’s air, Kehoe concluded that lead was a natural part of the bloodstream, like iron. This mistake would grow into an unshakeable industry talking point.

That probably sounds familiar.

Mental Floss’ Lucas Reilly shows how indefatigable Patterson was. The scientist went to Greenland to take samples, then Antarctica. He took days to test each one. What they showed was undeniable: lead contamination had risen sharply in just a few decades. And then he went to a mountain in Yosemite and made his conclusions even stronger.

Oh, we’d polluted with lead before — just ask the ancient Romans — but this was of a scale that was frightening, not to mention unnecessary. After all, we weren’t making utensils, just stopping our cars from making noise.

You should read it all. Sometimes, even against entrenched corporate interests, science (and safety) will out.

Read “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of” here.

Snow day

I live in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, right in the path of the nor’easter that plowed up the Eastern Seaboard yesterday. We got somewhere between 8 and 12 inches, the third-heaviest December snowfall the Lehigh Valley has ever seen. That’s pretty horrendous, though actually light compared to some of the earlier forecasts, including one from the Weather Service that warned we could get 1 to 2 FEET.

(And it’s not Binghamton, New York, which got 40 inches. That’s more than THREE feet, if you don’t want to take time to do the math.)

The school system I work for near Philadelphia called a snow day today. Makes sense, even though Philly and near environs got 4-6 inches, because the far reaches of nearby counties got much more. I wouldn’t be going anywhere, anyway. The alley my garage backs up to hasn’t been plowed.

As a kid, snow days mean freedom, but they’re weird when you’re an adult. I barely remember them when I was of an age to enjoy them, since we moved to New Orleans when I was 7, and New Orleans doesn’t have snow days. (Hurricanes and floods, yes.) We may have had a couple when I was in college in Atlanta, and certainly there were a few after I moved back to Atlanta in 1991, but by then I was more concerned with how I was going to drive from A to B in the white stuff if I had to.

Each time, I was fortunate. Even during the 2014 storm — the worst, one that left some of my CNN co-workers stranded for several hours on the highways — I got home in about 90 minutes, a hairy hour longer than my usual commute. And then, well, you stayed put, logged in remotely, and worked.

Today I don’t have to log in remotely, so the day is loose. But given the rest of the 2020 world — Covid, job loss, politics — I feel unsettled. Covid has already trapped us in our houses, so today feels less like a respite than more of the same: more to stew on and chew on, no relief from everyday strains. I tried to do some work on my desktop, but it failed to boot up properly, so even though I’ve backed up most of its hard drive, I’m wondering what I’m forgetting or missing. Sounds like a metaphor. Everything sounds like a metaphor.

And then there are some of the students from the evening GED class I teach. Last night, as the snow came down, a couple of them mentioned that they wouldn’t be getting a snow day. One, I gathered, was listening to my lecture on his phone as he cleared streets; another had to be at work at 6 a.m. to spell a co-worker completing a 12-hour shift. These are the people who truly keep the world turning, as we’ve learned over and over again during Covid. (And, I worry, we keep forgetting, too.) I already had a great deal of admiration for them: Imagine how hard it is to make time to take a thrice-weekly class to prep for your high school diploma while juggling work, children, language issues, and lives. But they’re also the essential workers who allow so many others to work from home.

When all this is over — snow, Covid, the endless doom of 2020 — I hope we all remember.

Sunday read: Dream a little dream

Image by Alex Blajan/Unsplash, via Science Alert.

A few days ago, I thought I’d come down with Covid.

Because that’s the default now, isn’t it? Any other winter, you feel weary and sniffly, you think “cold” or “flu.” But now you think, “my mask wasn’t on tight enough when I went to the DMV” or “a stray sneeze must have been hanging around the room with those kids,” and you’re checking your temperature and your SpO2 every hour and waiting for the Grim Reaper to make his appearance.

For me, it started Wednesday afternoon. Let my quote from my social media post:

So yesterday afternoon I’m feeling a little nauseous. Could be the slightly stale cake; could be the caffeine from three cups of tea on a cold, snow-dusted day. I conduct my 2-hour GED class on Zoom starting at 6. My throat gets rough quickly and by 7:30 I just want class to end. Later, I take my temperature and check my pulse and SpO2 (because now we all have those finger devices, right?). They’re OK, but I still feel, to use the medical term, “icky.” I go to bed around 10.

I sleep heavily, as if I’m glued to the mattress, with lots of dreams. When I wake up in time for work, I still feel fatigued. Any other year, I’d go to work — again, no fever, good stats, just tired. But I call in, because not only do I not want to be sick midway down the turnpike, I definitely don’t want to risk spread (IF I have it).

(Just to update: I was feeling fine by Thursday afternoon. I still feel fine. For now. Given the overfilled hospitals and general tumult in the U.S. and A., I take nothing for granted.)

In retrospect, the most striking part of the experience — besides my panic — was the dreams. I dream often, and try to write down as many as I can remember. But this night was like a quadruple feature of vivid stories: me on the bimah at a synagogue, lying on a large, leather-upholstered platform where a Torah had just been read (with a shard of wood as a yad); me being driven to an assembly by one of my special-needs students in the morning, telling him he’s early, dozing off, and not awakening until 5:30 in the afternoon with my parents talking in the next room of a house.

I have no idea what they mean. I had talked about Judaism and Hanukkah with my students earlier that day, so perhaps religion was on my mind, but there are also bits that have nothing to do with any of that.

Someday, five or 10 years from now, I’ll read all the dreams in the file I keep and see if they tell any story at all. In the meantime, I urge you to read about something called dream hacking in a Mashable article, “Dream Hacking at the Edge of Sleep,” by Chris Taylor. It’s my Sunday read.

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Vote

Image from the Indianapolis Star.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

15th Amendment, U.S. Constitution

Vote.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

19th Amendment, U.S. Constitution

Vote.

The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

26th Amendment, U.S. Constitution

Vote.

What I miss

Image of a Troxler effect from BigThink.com.

This year has felt like several years crammed into one, and almost none of them have been good.

Was it really only eight months ago that life was “normal,” in that — the White House Reality Show notwithstanding — it seemed like a continuation of most of what we’ve experienced during previous decades, and not some remnant of the Middle Ages during a plague outbreak?

Eventually — I keep telling myself — we will return to some degree of the Before. I do hope (with many, many doubts given the behavior of too many people and governments) that we have learned something: about the importance of teachers, hospital personnel, and the invisible working class who keep our societies functional; about the necessity of personal contact; about how easily things can fall apart.

But O, how I miss so many things.

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Sunday read: Three pieces from a writer you’ve probably never heard of

So many stories. So much talent.

Such a great loss.

Jim Dwyer died Thursday. He was just 64.

Now, you’ve probably never heard of Jim Dwyer. If you’re a thorough reader of The New York Times, you know he wrote the “About New York” column for the Paper of Record, but it’s the kind of column that most national readers of the Times probably skip. In the days when newspapers ruled the world, he may have been syndicated, like his Gotham brethren Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, or Chicago’s Mike Royko, but the Times tended to focus its syndicated love on its op-ed columnists, so New York-centric writers like Dwyer were left to the locals.

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P.T.S.-COVID

Image from Il Sorpasso.

I keep thinking about this essay:

Research on prisoners, hermits, soldiers, astronauts, polar explorers and others who have spent extended periods in isolation indicates social skills are like muscles that atrophy from lack of use. People separated from society — by circumstance or by choice — report feeling more socially anxious, impulsive, awkward and intolerant when they return to normal life.

Psychologists and neuroscientists say something similar is happening to all of us now, thanks to the pandemic. We are subtly but inexorably losing our facility and agility in social situations — whether we are aware of it or not. The signs are everywhere: people oversharing on Zoom, overreacting to or misconstruing one another’s behavior, longing for but then not really enjoying contact with others.

I know I feel it. Like many of you, I have spent the last six months in near isolation. My wife was with me at home for most of that time — thank God — but even when she was here, we stayed tight in our little bubble, leaving the house only for grocery shopping and the occasional errand. When I could strike up a conversation with a (masked) stranger in a supermarket line, it felt like a victory.

Contrast that to a normal day, pre-Covid, something I took for granted as “life.” Even aside from going to work — where there were colleagues to talk and joke with — places seemed active. I may have been alone, but I could join in the flow. People ate in groups, kibbitzed in lines, mixed with other human beings without fear of accidentally picking up a dread disease — a disease, it doesn’t have to be said, that automatically isolates you, whether at home or in a hospital.

Worse, it’s a disease that forces you to die separated from loved ones. It’s a disease that goes against everything we need to be — strive to be — as people. It destroys community in the purest sense of the word.

I tell myself that most of what we consider normal goes on. This isn’t Europe in 1942.

Still: I feel anxious. Solitude is different from solitary.

Even the most introverted among us … are wired to crave company. It’s an evolutionary imperative because there’s historically been safety in numbers. Loners had a tough time slaying woolly mammoths and fending off enemy attacks.

So when we are cut off from others, our brains interpret it as a mortal threat. Feeling lonely or isolated is as much a biological signal as hunger or thirst. And just like not eating when you’re starved or not drinking when you’re dehydrated, failing to interact with others when you are lonely leads to negative cognitive, emotional and physiological effects.

I know this ugly era will end (or at least be somewhat controlled by a vaccine, much as many diseases are), but man, this is a long damned tunnel. (And though Europeans and Canadians have also had trying times, what we’re going through in the United States has an added layer of fear and frustration that should have been unnecessary.)

All I know is, if you want to reach out, feel free to drop me a line. Trust me: I’ll welcome the connection.