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?

-30-

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

‘Make: Drones’ – A hobbyist’s how-to guide – #bookreview

Yes, drones are controversial. And drones of any size or type make many people nervous. As someone who built and flew seemingly thousands of model airplanes in my youth, I have decidedly mixed emotions about drones. They can be used for many good things, for many evil things, as well as for actions within virtually any gray area of human endeavour.

Drones now are with us for the present and the future, and many young people and adults fly them for fun, the same way I flew a few radio-controlled model airplanes. Good advances in technology someday may result from the enjoyment a kid currently is getting from flying a tiny plastic drone.

Therefore, as a book reviewer, I will now mostly put aside my personal reservations and offer a few comments on the contents of Make: Drones, a new how-to hobbyist book from MakerMedia.

The book offers several hands-on, do-it-yourself (DIY) projects for crafting your own drones, using some existing frames.

By the way, you don’t worry much about aerodynamics when flying multirotor ‘copter drones. Your concerns are the spinning rotors, the control system that receives your radio signals and adjusts the drone’s movements, and the drone’s battery. Multiple rotors provide the lift, propulsion and steering. If the rotors quit turning for some reason, your drone instantly becomes a stone. And, if the battery overheats, your drone may become a flaming stone.

Make: Drones presents projects covering three classes of multirotor drones.

In the small drone category, author David McGriffy notes: “First we take some measurements and try to improve the performance of an existing small drone, the Hubsan X4C. Then we build a new small drone using a Hubsan frame and an open source flight controller. It’s called the X4Wii since it uses an X4 frame and MultiWii flight control code.”

In the medium-sized drone category, he explains: “Once again we start with the frame from an existing drone, the Syma X5. We use an Arduino Teensy 3.2 as the core of our new flight control system, adding modules for power, sensors, and radios. A custom circuit board ties it all together. Finally, so people can see this new custom controller, we put a clear lid on it and call this project the Visible Drone.”

And the large-drone project “is based on the S500 frame kit,” McGriffy states. “For flight control, this one uses the powerful Pixhawk Lite control and ArduCopter flight control software. Combined with a high-performance GPS unit, this system can fly completely autonomous missions–and it has the power to carry a useful payload while doing it. This one will make a great aerial photography platform.”

McGriffy’s book offers good, clear writing, plus a sufficient number of photographs, drawings, diagrams and code examples. Many different issues are covered, from choosing propellers that give the most thrust, to dealing with vibration, and picking good failsafe settings so your drone automatically will return to the takeoff point if you somehow lose control of it.

You also get good advice for dealing with assembly quirks and wiring issues involving some of the frames.

As for safety, McGriffy predicts: “I believe we will learn to build a class of drone that can be safely flown in and around people. People fly their drones close to people all the time now, regardless, so this will be good for everyone, pilots and bystanders alike.”

Until the creepiness factor goes away, however, I predict I will instinctively swat at any drone that flies anywhere near me.

 

Si Dunn

Make: Drones

Teach an Arduino to Fly

David McGriffy

Maker Media, paperback, Kindle