Worst of Times, Best of Times

Staying Sane & Entertained While Forced to Hide from the Coronavirus

Charles Dickens likely did not have a deadly global pandemic in mind when he wrote the “best of times, worst of times” opening for his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. He was contrasting life in profitable, peaceful London with grim life in revolution-torn Paris at the end of the 18th century.

With most Americans now being told to stay away from their jobs and remain sheltered for weeks in their homes or apartments, people are coming face-to-face with a harsh reality: How do we keep ourselves sane and entertained while contained within four walls almost around the clock?

What follows are short reports from five people in different parts of the United States. They describe how they have responded thus far to being confined to quarters. They have not complained of feeling like people under house arrest or like space passengers practicing for a long, mundane cruise to Mars.

For some, at least, the pandemic response has been a time for reflection and reinvention, as well as frequently seeking and needing entertainment.

“Shadow Horse” – Photo by Si Dunn, sidunn@sagecreekproductions.com

Erin J., a Boston college student, is still recovering from coronoavirus-like symptoms. She has been staying in a small living space for several weeks since her university closed and put its classes online.

“Well, I wasn’t tested for it, but I can say that the first week I slept for 16 hours a day and didn’t care much for entertainment. I’d put on anything to have noise. The second week was a little better, but I still slept most of the day and night but had midterm exams to prepare for. Took me four days to write a paragraph. I started consuming more media as a means to stay distracted and try to figure out what was going on. I found movies that were like comfort food and almost played them on loop. By about the end of the second week I started feeling human [again] and was more interested in doing schoolwork, and became more aware that I was stuck inside.

“I’ve stayed entertained by trying to find comfort in media that reminds me of the world I knew.”

***

Terry P., a writer and entertainer in Long Island, N.Y., has chosen a positive and pragmatic approach to coping with the current economic and health disaster:

“Planted a bunch of seeds and ordered a compost bin, planning a vegetable garden. Also taking piano lessons and writing a book for self-employed entertainers about how to kick start their businesses when this all ends. And watching Netflix, of course.”

***

Linda B. is a PRN (pro re nata – “as the situation demands”) worker in Austin, Texas, who currently is not doing much work, but filling time with many other activities.

“Slowly reading a serious book, What the Eyes Don’t See, about the Flint water crisis, by the pediatrician and activist who didn’t stop until the story was told and changes made. Making bread for my neighbors. Cooking new recipes. Using FaceTime, learning Zoom and What’sApp to see and talk to people I love. Staying up-to-date on happenings for my work which doesn’t need an ‘as needed’ PRN employee right now. Walking with another neighbor or [doing] something for exercise most days. Learning what it feels like to see the world “non-24″ by going to bed when I feel like it and staying there 7-8 hours no matter what hour that is. Today, 6 am – 3 pm. Recording the local news in case I’m doing something more fulfilling at the time; then watching without ads. Doing the same with movies and documentaries so that when I choose to watch TV, I can see interesting things or delete it. Learning after three weeks that I can live without touch for today. I may crack tomorrow, but for today, I’m at peace working on the ‘Mindboggler 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of the Carpathian Mountains’ I picked up on a whim at Half Price Books months ago.”

***

Musician and retired teacher Pamela F. lives in a small-ish town north of Austin, Texas, and avoids boredom by staying active on several fronts:

“Walking twice a day. Sometimes walking with the seven-year-old son of my next-door, single-parent neighbor. Trying to learn Zoom. Writing music. Using FaceTime and Facebook Messenger to see friends and relatives. Eating, and then eating some more. Small projects like cleaning out a drawer or a closet. Napping. Continuing my physical therapy regimen. Playing piano and accordion. Keeping up with friends on Facebook. Reading. Quiet time.”

***

Joe S., a Dallas-area journalist, is taking a more focused approach to using his sheltering-at-home time:

“Reading The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.”

That’s a 547-page work of history subtitled “A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.” Sounds appropriate and inspiring for coping with current times.

***

Catherine B., an Austin, Texas, university librarian (her school has gone to online classes) also is focusing on a central task, but is taking breaks to pursue other, more entertaining activities:

“I have been reading manuals and a glossary for a new integrated library system, the thing behind the scene that runs the online catalog. In my free time, I am sewing quilt blocks. I got excited when I found the perfect elastic for making masks. [And] Tom and I watched ‘Downton Abbey,’ the series and the movie, on DVD. We started that in early March before the social distancing. I have also made 20-second videos of rain and birds singing.”

***

Many things can be done while stuck indoors, including taking online classes, watching yoga or tai chi how-to videos, reading books previously ignored on your bookshelves, starting a home-based business, baking bread, or taking up new or lapsed hobbies. The possibilities are vast, and the time to get started currently is abundant.

Thanks for reading this effort to make creative use of some of my own inside time. And please feel free to add comments. Something posted here may someday end up in somebody’s sociology book, history book, graduate thesis, movie, or novel about these treacherous times. Who knows?

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Si Dunn is an Austin, Texas, novelist, screenwriter, book reviewer, and journalist. His books include Dark Signals, Jump, and Erwin’s Law.

Promise Me, Dad #bookreview #2020Election

Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose

Joe Biden

Flatiron Books

If you are leaning toward Joe Biden and wondering if you will want to back him in the 2020 presidential election, Biden’s 2017 book, Promise Me, Dad, can give you some good insights into his character, values, and long record of service in American government.

Promise Me, Dad is Biden’s first-person story of family life: losing his oldest son, Beau, to cancer; serving as an active and engaged Vice President in the Obama Administration; and juggling several international crises, all while trying to decide if he would run for President, against Hillary Clinton, in 2016.

Wikipedia:Featured picture candidates/File:Joe Biden official ...
Former Vice President Joe Biden

“Nobody ever told me a life in politics and public service would be easy; like life, I never expected politics to be free of disappointment or heartache,” Biden writes. “But I have always believed it was worth the effort.”

When the deadline arrived for him to choose whether or not to run for President in 2016, he was dealing with Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, with ongoing U.S. investments into “the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador,” and with trying to help hold together and provide support to a coalition of Shia and Sunni fighters battling ISIL in Iraq.

At the same time, he says, he had “learned first hand, the hardest way possible, that facing down cancer is a frightening and costly ordeal in the best of circumstances, for the strongest of families.”

Beau Biden’s death had left Joe Biden deeply grieved. And, no matter how hard he tried, he could not bury his sorrow beneath the duties of state and the myriad necessities of political campaigning. Grief’s cycles would not be denied; they would have to be allowed to run their course. The presidency would have to wait.

As fall 2019 approaches, we are already in the midst of what is shaping up to be one of the most important, contentious, and acrimonious presidential elections in American history. As this sentence is written, Joe Biden is holding onto a double-digit lead in early Democratic polling. However, the field of candidates remains large at this point, and many unexpected things can happen between now and November, 2020.

Nonethess, Joe Biden may become the Democratic nominee for the 2020 ticket. And, like any other veteran politician, he will bring a wide array of experiences, qualifications, sensitivities, talents, supporters and funding sources to the race, along with baggage, detractors, and lingering questions.

A fair reading of Promise Me, Dad can provide more insights into Biden’s character, qualities, quirks, and question marks than you likely will encounter by using social media to try to figure out whom to support.

Si Dunn

The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes – #biography #bookreview

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman

The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

Dorothy U. Seyler

Prometheus Books – hardback, Kindle

 

Early in the 19th century, a young Englishman repeatedly risked death and overcame numerous dangers as he sailed along the Nile River and journeyed into deserts, discovering and documenting important details about ancient Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

William John Bankes and his various crews dug away tons of sand from ruins, giant statues, and other artifacts of ancient cultures. Photography was still several decades in the future, so Bankes used the best available technologies of his time, including drawings and paintings, to create images of ruins, shrines, temple floor plans, and hieroglyphs found on walls and in pyramids. He sometimes dangled dangerously from ropes, as well, as he worked in high places to document details he could not decipher, yet knew were important.  On occasion, he even hired teams of artists to travel with him so he could record as many images as possible.

Once he returned to Great Britain after a few years of travels, he entered politics as his father had desired. He was elected twice to the House of Commons, and he maintained a friendship–and possibly more–with the poet Lord Byron, whom he had known since school days.

But Bankes soon found himself again facing death, this time at the hands of the English justice system. Homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment and execution in early 19th-century England, and Bankes was arrested twice on “unnatural behavior” charges that could have gotten him hanged. In his first trial, he was acquitted, thanks in part to testimony in his favor by the Duke of Wellington. Bankes’s second arrest, however, left him little choice but to flee England and go to France and then Italy, where he would pass away in 1855 at age 68.

Despite his great Egyptian discoveries, Bankes essentially died an outlaw from English justice. Yet, through an odd quirk in English law in force at the time, he had been able to return to England occasionally, as long as he was there only on a Sunday. Both from Italian exile and on quick trips back to his family home, Kingston Lacy, Bankes managed to add one more fascinating chapter to his life. He had become an expert on Italian art, and he began helping rework and remodel his English home in the style of an Italian villa, complete with many paintings and some works of sculpture. The home eventually was given to the National Trust in 1982 and, after “[s]ignificant conservation efforts,” was opened to the public.

Whether you know much about ancient Egypt or not, The Obelisk and the Englishman is a fascinating book about a fascinating explorer. It details his exploration methods and the lasting significance of the numerous discoveries and illustrations he made in the Nile region. And it takes readers inside his troubled life as he tried to find personal happiness within the very narrow confines of 19th-century British society.

“William lives on through his archeological work in both Egypt and Syria,” Dorothy U. Seyler writes in this well-researched, well-written biography of Bankes. “Of special value to Egyptologists are his drawings and notes on temples south of Aswan, since many of these temples were lost under the sand or the Nile waters. His discovery of the Abydos King List and his copies of the hieroglyphs contributed to the decoding of Egypt’s sacred language.”

Si Dunn

Tinsley Harrison, M.D., Teacher of Medicine: An inspiring biography of a dedicated physician – #bookreview

Tinsley Harrison, M.D.: Teacher of Medicine

James A. Pittman Jr., M.D.

(NewSouth Books – hardback, Kindle)

Dr. Tinsley Randolph Harrison is an important figure in 20th-century American medicine, and both his legacy and his influence live on in 21st-century health care.

Before his death in 1978, Dr. Harrison taught medicine for 54 years and was fond of telling medical students and other doctors: “Learning is more a matter of the heart than the brain.”

Dr. Harrison also was a medical researcher, and he wrote and edited the first five editions of Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, which, by some estimates, has been the best-selling medical book of all time. During his long career, Dr. Harrison served as dean at three medical schools: Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., Southwestern Medical College in Dallas, Tex., and the University of Alabama School of Medicine.

This well-written and inspiring biography not only traces Dr. Harrison’s young life and his rise to prominence as a seventh-generation physician. It also presents sometimes shocking looks at the state and practice of medicine in the Deep South during the racially segregated 1950s and 1960s, as well as some of the significant improvements that have occurred in recent decades.

Tinsley Harrison, M.D.: Teacher of Medicine can be enjoyed by physicians, medical researchers, medical administrators and medical students, as well as by fans of biographies in general. The book gives good insights into how some successful people choose their careers and how they work their way to success and prominence in their field.

Si Dunn

Sophie’s Diary: A Mathematical Novel – Imagining French mathematician Sophie Germain as a young teen – #bookreview

Sophie’s Diary: A Mathematical Novel
Dora Musielak
(Math Association of America, hardback)

The Mathematical Association of America recently has published the second edition of this intriguing “mathematical novel.” Its story is built around a fictional diary and a real-life French mathematician, Marie-Sophie Germain.

The well-written tale imagines Ms. Germain writing down her thoughts and experiences while coming of age and learning mathematics amid the social turmoil that is roiling 18th-century Paris.

Marie-Sophie Germain is remembered primarily for her number theory work that offered several “novel approaches” to solving Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Si Dunn

Eight recent books of fiction, nonfiction & poetry – #bookreview

Here are eight recent books to consider, whether you prefer fiction, nonfiction or poetry.  

Midnight Movie
By Tobe Hooper, with Alan Goldsher
(Three Rivers, paperback, list price $14.00 ; Kindle edition $0.99) 

Fans of Tobe Hooper’s horror movies, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, likely will relish this experimental first novel. It is written in a fake documentary style that also blends in some fictional blog postings, fake tweets, fake news articles and fake testimonies.

In the book’s bizarre plot, a movie that Tobe Hooper made as a teenager and lost is somehow rediscovered and shown in Austin, Texas. That event unleashes a killer virus on the world that only the filmmaker himself can stop — if he can just figure out how. (This book is not recommended for readers who faint easily at the sight of blood, zombies…and over-the-top literary excess.)

Rawhide Ranger, Ira Aten: Enforcing Law on the Texas Frontier
By Bob Alexander
(University of North Texas Press, list price $32.95)

After lawmen gunned down the notorious outlaw Sam Bass at Round Rock, Texas, a young man who lived nearby, Austin Ira Aten, decided to change his career aspirations, from cowboy to Texas Ranger.

Aten joined the Rangers in 1883, soon after he turned 20. He then became, over time, “a courageously competent lawman…favorably known statewide…a high-profile Ranger,” according to the author of this well-researched biography.

While performing his Ranger duties, Ira Aten also became “directly linked to several episodes of Texas’ colorful past that scholars and grassroots historians have penned thousands—maybe millions—of words about.” And Aten’s well-regarded law-enforcement career continued long after his Ranger years, Alexander’s excellent book shows. 

Ciento: 100 100-word Love Poems
By Lorna Dee Cervantes
(Wings Press, paperback, list price $16.00) 

This handsome, enjoyable volume from San Antonio, Texas-based Wings Press keeps its subtitle’s promise. A widely published poet has accepted a difficult challenge and penned a hundred 100-word poems focused on love.

The poems deal with love at direct levels. So you’ll find no easy hearts and flowers here. The images include “steamy matinees”, “sensuous leanings” and “exquisite private views,” to mention just a few. 

Battle Surface!: Lawson P. “Red” Ramage and the War Patrols of the USS Parche
By Stephen L. Moore
(Naval Institute Press, hardback, list price $34.95 ; Kindle edition, list price $34.95)

Stephen L. Moore has written several books on submarine warfare. Battle Surface! blends superb research with a writing style that rivals good fiction. Moore recounts the true story of a U.S. Navy commander who defiantly charged his submarine into the midst of a huge Japanese convoy and stayed on the surface, dodging enemy fire and sinking several ships with torpedoes.

One superior decried the action as “dangerous, foolhardy, and of too much risk.” Others higher up, however, thought differently, Moore notes. They awarded Cmdr. “Red” Ramage the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

Elmer Kelton: Essays and Memories
Edited by Judy Alter and James Ward Lee
(TCU Press, paperback, list price $19.95)

 “Walrus hunter.” That was one of the civilian jobs the U.S. Army recommended to Elmer Kelton when he was discharged as a “rifleman, infantry” following World War II. Kelton became a journalist, instead, and a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction books before his death in 2009.

This engaging, warm collection of essays and remembrances celebrates Kelton’s life, his personality, his love for the American West and his “straightforward and clean” writing style. In the words of one of his friends, Felton Cochran: “I tell people Elmer Kelton didn’t write ‘westerns’—he wrote western literature.”

Rudder: From Leader to Legend
By Thomas M. Hatfield
(Texas A&M Press, hardback, list price $30.00 ; Kindle edition, list price $30.00)

Earl Rudder could have kept working in a small-town Texas drugstore after high school. He exhibited little ambition and had no money for college. But this excellent biography shows how a chance encounter soon led him to college athletics, coaching and the Army Reserve, and then to D-day heroics, Texas state politics and, finally, the presidency of Texas A&M University’s statewide system.

This excellent biography shows how Gen. Rudder guided A&M through major upheavals that included desegregation, admitting women, and making the Corps of Cadets voluntary.

Working the Land: The Stories of Ranch and Farm Women in the Modern American West
By Sandra K. Schackel
(University Press of Kansas, hardback, list price $24.95)

Women do not just “keep house” on a ranch or farm in the modern American West. This well-written book shows that they have long been doing virtually anything they can to help keep their rural lifestyles viable and afloat in tough economic times.

Sandra K. Schackel interviewed more than 40 women in New Mexico, Texas and other states and found them actively wrangling animals, running machinery, creating summer camps and bed-and-breakfasts on their land, and even holding jobs in town to help support their spreads and their families.

The Road to Roma
By Dave Kuhne
(Ink Brush, paperback, list price $15.95)

This book’s seven well-written short stories are mostly set in Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin, Texas, and they reflect the writer’s strong sense of place and character. The stories previously have been published in a variety of literary journals, and their focus is on the deeper, sometimes transformative moments that occur in ordinary people’s lives.

 Si Dunn‘s latest book is a novel, Erwin’s Law. His other published works include Jump, a novella, and a book of poetry, plus several short stories, all available on Kindle.

Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving – #bookreview #writing #screenwriting

Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving
By Dan Fante
(Harper Perennial, $14.99, paperback; $9.99, Kindle)

Italian-American novelist and screenwriter John Fante wanted his son Dan to become a plumber or electrician, not a writer or worse, an actor.

He had strong and bitter reasons behind that desire, as Dan Fante movingly notes in this dark and painful, yet ultimately uplifting and triumphant family memoir.

One of John Fante’s novels, Ask the Dust, had been published in 1939 with great expectations and is still respected as a classic look at life in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Yet it was not a commercial success at the time, largely because the publisher, Stackpole Sons, could not afford to publicize it.

Weirdly, the publisher had “made the dumb and costly blunder of publishing Hitler’s Mein Kampf without the author’s permission,” Dan Fante writes. “The promo money that should have gone to publicize Ask the Dust was spent in New York City courtrooms fighting a protracted lawsuit with the Führer.”

So, to support his family, John Fante returned to writing Hollywood screenplays, including, nearly three decades later, Walk on the Wild Side, and “considered himself a failure as an artist.” His other outlets included too much drinking, too much golf and too much gambling, often in the company of novelist and short story writer William Saroyan, “a loose cannon,” particularly around dice games, Dan Fante notes.

Also: “Pop’s nasty mouth and rages were taking a toll on his life,” to the point that he sometimes punched out movie producers for whom he had been writing or rewriting scripts.

In his brief attempt at college, young Dan Fante had discovered that he was “a fairly decent actor.” But: “…John Fante had utter contempt for the profession, as he did for agents and TV writers and film directors and almost all movie people.” He’d tell his son: “You’re no genius, kid….Get yourself an honest career. Work with your hands.”

Much of the rest of this memoir focuses on Dan Fante’s strained relationship with his father and other family members and on Dan’s attempts to find himself after leaving home and hitchhiking to New York City, hoping to study theater.

Once there, he descends, instead, into a dark, urban hell relentlessly driven and wrecked – over and over again –by alcoholism, drugs, an often uncontrolled sex drive and numerous moments where he goes right up to the edge of committing suicide.

Dan Fante recounts how he tried many different schemes to survive, and some of them, such as working in the limousine business, briefly made him rich and brought him into the company of famous and powerful clients —  but only when he was able to sober up and stay focused.

Ultimately, he hits bottom too many times and finally can’t get up again. In the meantime, he loses his father and older brother to alcoholism, as well.

But he does, at least, reconcile with his father shortly before John Fante’s death: “We had become a loving father and son after a rocky thirty-year start. John Fante’s gift to me was his ambition, his brilliance, and his pure writer’s heart.”

At age 47, Dan Fante finally went home again in utter defeat, lugging three garbage bags “filled with all that I owned up the front walkway of my mom’s house.”

What happens next is a tough but inspiring true story of how a writer finally was able to find his voice, his focus, his legacy and his stability in life. It is a story rich with lessons and messages for almost anyone currently struggling to succeed as a novelist, screenwriter, writer of nonfiction or practitioner of virtually any other creative endeavor.

Si Dunn