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 coronavirus-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.

‘Forrest Mims’ Science Experiments’: Good projects for the new or experienced amateur scientist

You don’t need science degrees and big grants to perform useful, meaningful research, says one of America’s foremost amateur scientists, Forrest W. Mims III.

In his well-written new book, Forrest Mims’ Science Experiments: DIY Projects from the Pages of Make:, Mims notes that amateur scientists are continuing to do “what they’ve done for centuries. They’ve discovered significant dinosaur fossils, found new species of plants, and identified many new comets and asteroids. Their discoveries have been published in scientific journals and books. Likewise, thousands of websites detail an enormous variety of amateur science tips, projects, activities, and discoveries.”

He adds: “Today’s amateur scientists have access to sophisticated components, instruments, computers, and software that could not even be imagined back in 1962 when I built my first computer, a primitive analog device….”

His new book shows how to use simple, homemade or purchased devices to study and gather data on a wide array of subjects: heat islands, sunlight, twilight, ultraviolet light, infrared light, airborne particles, vibrations from earth tremors, and more. He even shows how to convert tree ring patterns into musical notes.

Generally, the do-it-yourself hardware and projects he describes are inexpensive and do not require fancy tools. Some are as simple as making a basic pinhole camera and using a small piece of blueprint paper to capture an image, and others require a few inexpensive electronic components or devices. For example, in one chapter, he writes: “For  as little as $20, you can begin tracking the atmosphere’s most important greenhouse gas, water vapor. And you can do so at any time, day or night, so long as the sky directly above you is cloud-free.”

Sometimes, you need a personal computer, too, plus some software and a digital camera. Depending on which experiments you choose to pursue, you may need other items, as well, such as a hobby knife, glue gun, clamps, sandpaper and more.

Mims’ book also contains interesting stories from his own career in electronics, inventing and doing amateur science. And he includes a brief but entertaining look at Thomas Jefferson’s life and accomplishments as an “amateur scientist…who made improvements in the design of clocks, instruments, and the polygraph copying machines that duplicated his letters as he wrote them.”

Si Dunn

Forrest Mims’ Science Experiments

DIY Projects from the Pages of Make:

Forrest M. Mims III

Maker Media, Inc., paperback  (Kindle ebook also available)

 

 

 

 

Our Beautiful, Fragile World – Excellent photographs by an environmental artist – #bookreview

Peter Essick's new book will inspire photographers to work harder and help readers to better understand the fragility of our planet.
Peter Essick’s new book will inspire photographers to work harder, and it will help readers better understand the fragility of our planet.

Our Beautiful, Fragile World

The Nature and Environmental Photographs of Peter Essick
Peter Essick
(Rocky Nookhardcover, Kindle)

Most of us are content to take a photograph and just settle for what we get under the current circumstances.

That’s not how Peter Essick works.

Essick has spent more than 25 years traveling to remote corners of the world, but also to many spots in North America, as a photographer on assignment for National Geographic.

“Many of my successful photographs,” he writes in his noteworthy new book, “are the result of discovering a scene and then going back several times to get the best picture possible.”

Our Beautiful, Fragile World presents a collection of Essick’s excellent nature and environmental photographs. And almost all of the photos are accompanied by a one-page essay explaining where and how an image was taken, what circumstances surrounded the shot, what environmental issues or crises are represented, and what Essick wants readers to take away from the story behind the photograph.

His book likewise contains a technical information section where specific details of each shot are described, including camera (Nikon or Canon), lens, film (typically Fujichrome 100) or digital camera settings, and how he had to work to get the photograph (i.e., use an underwater housing, or shoot from a light plane, or “look for a place where the sunlight was bounding off the sandstone and reflecting golden light on the opposite wall.”

There also is a fine foreword by Jean-Michael Cousteau, son of the famed, late ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. “I feel much hope for the future,” he writes, “when I see the talented work of artists like Peter Essick and understand the message he conveys through his stunning environmental images.”

Our Beautiful, Fragile World will inspire almost any photographer to try to take better nature pictures. And it starkly highlights how we continue to run roughshod over the delicate elements and natural forces that keep us alive on this threatened planet.

Si Dunn

Bruce Barnbaum’s ‘Tone Poems’ – Beautiful photographs, with music – #bookreview

Bruce Barnbaum is a superb black-and-white photographer, and Rocky Nook, Inc., recently has brought forth new editions of two of his beautifully crafted image collections.

Styled as part of a four-volume series, these two coffee-table books should appeal to almost anyone who loves good visual images and good music and appreciates opportunities to enjoy them together.

The two books, originally published by Photographic Arts Editions, are:

Tone Poems – Book 1, Opuses 1, 2 & 3
Bruce Barnbaum
(Rocky Nook, hardback)

Tone Poems – Book 2, Opuses 4, 5 & 6
Bruce Barnbaum
(Rocky Nook, hardback)

“It was the land, specifically the magnificent landscape of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, that initially drew me into photography,” Barnbaum writes, in a Tone Poems chapter titled “Opus 3, Lyricism of the Land.” Almost 40 years later, he is “still drawn to that landscape, but filled with ideas about photography—and about the land—that I never dreamed of having back in my younger days.” Barnbaum also is drawn to the landscapes of many other parts of the world and is keenly aware of their frailties, as well as the increasing threats that human activity and commercial development pose to their natural beauty.

Why two photography books that also have commentary about the compositions and CDs of music intended to be played as accompaniment to the stunning images?

“Sometimes, even the combination of words and pictures are insufficient to adequately convey my feelings,” Barnbaum notes. “Music, added to the mix, helps convey it much more strongly.”

The CDs included with these books feature selections of classical music played by noted pianist Judith Cohen, artistic director of the Governor’s Chamber Music Series in the state of Washington.

“The music and the images are meant to celebrate the life, the light and the poetic lyricism of the land,” Barnbaum emphasizes.

The two books succeed in reaching these lofty goals.

— Si Dunn