Day 259

COVID is disrupting or outright eliminating many of my usual exercising activities, which makes the coming of winter and reduction in outside activity even more ominous.

I haven’t been to my fencing club in several months. Classes and private lessons are still being offered, but with the requirement to wear a cloth mask under our regular metal face coverings. I’ve heard of studies that have demonstrated masks don’t significantly inhibit oxygen intake while exercising, but I’ve never felt comfortable wearing a second mask while fencing. I feel like I’m suffocating… I believe and respect those who say it doesn’t bother them, but the experience is completely unsettling to me. People need to wear masks, even when fencing. I totally get it. And while it pains me to step away from the sport until the pandemic is under control, I don’t see an alternative.

My wife attends Pilates classes regularly, and at the start of 2019 got me interested in the activity. I enjoyed the strength and flexibility training, and attended a class with my wife one morning a week. After a two-month COVID shutdown in the spring, our Pilates studio reopened with smaller class sizes. Masks weren’t required by all instructors; we chose those who made them mandatory. I didn’t encounter the breathing problem I had with fencing, both because the physical effort wasn’t as great and there wasn’t this large metal shield over the mask. I looked forward to the Wednesday morning class… and then the Pilates studio closed, for good, at the beginning of November. Another small business casualty. There are other studios within driving distance, and while my wife has been making the trip, I haven’t wanted to start over again. Not yet, anyway.

There was still the community gym, also operating at reduced capacity and with stricter masking requirements. After a few weeks of experimenting with different times, I found late mornings to be the least crowded. According to the center’s web site, the building is still open. Yet with last week’s directive to stay at home whenever possible, it doesn’t seem right to be going there.

There are opportunities at home. For several years I’ve been using a recumbent stationary bike in the living room (“you have to put it where you live” — best sales advice I ever received), and have been using it more as outside options began disappearing. I also have a fencing workout area set up in the basement, which I’ll resume using once my enthusiasm for the sport returns. We also ordered a Pilates machine (they’re called reformers for some odd reason) last month that should finally arrive this week; demand for home exercise equipment has far exceeded supply. It’ll take up a good deal of space in the sunroom, but that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make.

There’s been talk that many remote workers won’t want to return to the office once the pandemic restrictions are eliminated. I don’t expect the same will hold for exercising. There’s an energy I get when I’m surrounded by people focused on exerting their bodies, and I hope to feel that energy again sometime soon.

World War Z

Max Brooks’ 2006 novel was the third and final work I read for a recent reading workshop on “contagious fiction.” This lacked the philosophical insight of The Plague or the literary artistry of Station Eleven, but for all its emphasis on gore and action, it still has moments of insight.

The devastating plague in this work turns its victims into flesh-eating zombies, and the uninfected fight a desperate global war for survival. From a strictly literary perspective, zombies make difficult antagonists. They are easy to fear, but difficult to hate since they have no personality. And the fear they generate is purely imaginary; the reader can fear a killer virus or a nuclear conflict depicted in fiction because those are potential events, but being afraid of zombies is like being afraid of dragons.

Fortunately this book features some villainous humans, characters we can truly despise because they are so real. Breck Scott is a con man who makes a fortune pitching an ineffective “cure” for the zombie virus, one that sounded very much like the hydroxychloroquine craze over the COVID summer. Grover Carlson is a White House official who freely admits the government withheld the truth about the zombie threat, similar to how the United States government now admits it lied to its citizens about COVID back in February.

In other words, while “World War Z” might not compare well aesthetically to the two other works I read in my workshop, it did a much better job of foreshadowing the actual events we’ve experienced this year. There’s something to be said for that.

Clarkesworld Magazine

At the beginning of the year, I set a goal of writing a review of a literary journal or genre magazine each week. It’s been a fun and worthwhile project, but reaching the end in a few weeks is gonna be a relief. Founded in 2006, Clarkesworld Magazine publishes a monthly issues in print, electronic, and audio formats. What they say about themselves: Clarkesworld is a monthly science fiction and fantasy magazine first published in October 2006. Each issue contains interviews, thought-provoking articles, two reprints, and at least four or five works of original fiction. Our fiction is also available in ebook editions/subscriptions, audio podcasts, print issues, and in our annual print/ebook anthologies. Clarkesworld has been recognized with a World Fantasy Award, three Hugo Awards, and a British Fantasy Award. Our fiction has been nominated for or won the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, BSFA, Sturgeon, Locus, Shirley Jackson, Ditmar, Aurora, Aurealis, WSFA Small Press and Stoker Awards.” Issue reviewed: Issue 170 (November 2020) Genre: Science fiction One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Lost in Darkness and Distance,” by Clara Madrigano. Mia is invited to a remote Caribbean island by her rich and eccentric uncle, where she meets a clone of her cousin Charlie, who’d died at a young age. To me, science fiction is at its best when it explores the consequences of extraordinary technology on ordinary people, and this story is a beautiful exploration of the necessity of grief. Clapperboard Rating: Three Klacks. Science fiction can be overly cerebral at times, and a few stories seemed more interested in ideas rather than character. Profanometer: Sonovabitch. A mixed bag once again, with some stories using profanity as a way of showing a character’s rugged character (a lazy approach in my opinion), and others throwing in a single f-bomb to mark the story as adult reading material.

Day 252

The year-end holiday season begins this week as COVID-19 cases spike almost everywhere in the United States. Health officials are encouraging people to stay home unless essential travel is required. Holiday parties and large family meals are beloved traditions, but gatherings larger than 10 people are being actively discouraged in our state. Last Thursday, a statewide curfew from 10 PM to 5 AM was implemented, lasting at least through mid-December.

And those difficult decisions I wrote about a few weeks ago finally had to be made.

Our older son came home from his internship program last night. There was no avoiding it, as his time was up and he had to go somewhere; should we have told him to fend for himself until there’s a vaccine? Fortunately he has a basement bedroom with a bathroom in our home, making it fairly easy for us to isolate him for two weeks. When he comes up for meals, everyone will wear masks and we’ll keep properly distanced from him. He’ll still eat dinner with my wife and I, but we’ll be at opposite ends of the table. This is going to be a very awkward time, not being able to hug him for half a month, but this is the world we live in now.

We convinced our younger son to not come home for Thanksgiving. The risk to him and us would be small, given he’d be driving and have less interpersonal contact and has recovered from his case of COVID in the spring. However, his plan was to return after a few days to his apartment just outside his college campus, and then come back here a couple of weeks later for nearly a month and a half. That amount of back-and-forth travelling hardly seemed in the spirit of current health orders.

Thanksgiving in three days could be difficult, with our younger son not at home, my wife’s parents isolated in Hawaii (not a bad place to be stranded, but the ache for family is still painful), and our older son at the far end of the table. We’ll get by, but those vaccines in development better come when expected, and they’d better be as effective as the studies promise.

Station Eleven

Three years ago I downloaded an audiobook of a novel I’d heard good things about from people I respected. I enjoyed listening to it so much that I looked forward to car trips. I even volunteered to run errands until I’d reached the end. I posted a review at the time, and recently read the novel for a reading workshop on dystopian fiction.

What struck me in particular on this reading was the broad timeframe of the novel. It begins in current day as a killer virus breaks out, then jumps ten years in the future after 99% of humanity has been eliminated. This is followed by a scene taking place decades before the flu outbreak. Successive chapters jump between time periods in a way most writing instructors would advise against. Yet I never felt lost, never had to ask myself “When am I now?” In this second review, I’d like to explore why this structure was so effective.

The key to success lies in the first twenty percent of the novel. A few short chapters show the pandemic’s origin and introduces the novel’s main protagonists. After jumping forward a decade the novel remains there for an extended period, revealing more about a key protagonist while also introducing the story’s villain. The novel then goes back into the past, each time using the perspective of an established protagonist to guide the reader. The flashbacks are informative, also necessary, as they help explain why the protagonists do what they’ve done in the apocalyptic future.

As an aspiring fiction writer, I’m curious to know why certain writing strategies work more than others. I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting Emily St. John Mandel’s novel a few more times in the coming years because it is both highly entertaining and so well-crafted.

 

Image Journal

The latest in my weekly reviews of literary journals and genre magazines. Image Journal publishes four times a year in both print and online formats. What they say about themselves: Image was founded in 1989 to demonstrate the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engage with the religious traditions of western culture. Now one of the leading literary journals published in English, it is read all over the world—and forms the nexus of a warm and active community. We believe that the great art that has emerged from these faith traditions is dramatic, not didactic—incarnational, not abstract. And so our focus has been on works of imagination that embody a spiritual struggle, like Jacob wrestling with the angel. In our pages the larger questions of existence intersect with what the poet Albert Goldbarth calls the “greasy doorknobs and salty tearducts” of our everyday lives.” Issue reviewed: Issue 106 Genre: Literary realism with religious themes One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Good Faith,” by Jessica Treadway.  Em is a studious high school senior who is both envious and protective of her more popular younger sister Daphne. When Daphne faces a personal crisis, both girls find out the limit of their parents’ love for them. The story addresses a sensitive issue in an understanding and original manner. Clapperboard Rating: Three Klacks. The stories start off a bit slow, but eventually develop significant dramatic tension. Profanometer: Gee Willikers. I didn’t read a single word you wouldn’t hear on the Disney Channel.

Day 245

Not even mid-week mini-vacations are safe from COVID.

My wife and I enjoy driving to the Finger Lakes area in upstate New York for the fall. The unique geological makeup of the region, the deep slender grooves carved and flooded by Ice Age glaciers, make it a prime wine growing area. The colors of the wooded hills are vibrant in autumn; the area has a rural yet not rustic feel. It’s a great place to escape for a few days this time of year.

Our trip this year seemed especially important, after half a year of lockdowns, social distancing, having to wear a damn mask everywhere, and general pandemic anxiety. Throw in violent protests across the nation and an ugly election… yeah, we needed a vacation.

Drive out Monday night with a hotel reservation. Tour the wineries the next day, return home Wednesday with a few cases in the trunk. Enjoy some long conversations in the car.

But five days before our reservation, the governor of New York re-instates travel restrictions. Any visitor to the state is now required to quarantine 14 days.

Time to cancel that reservation.

Many more people have been inconvenienced, hurt, even killed by this virus, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time brooding over not being able to buy a few bottles of wine. And I understand the reason for the travel restriction. We’ve been too lax with our safety; if people aren’t going to do the right thing, they need to be given no other option.

But then again, I’m not going to pretend it didn’t happen, or that I don’t care. I wanted to walk through the woods, drive through the late fall foliage. Be somewhere other than my home for a little while.

I’m not sure when we’ll be able to enjoy such small pleasures again.

Unstoppable

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

In years past, Julia’s family would bring the holidays to her and Carlton. Quarantine orders, lockdowns, and social distancing precluded such visits in 2020. Even carolers, routine in her neighborhood each December, had been prohibited.

But nothing was going to stop Julia from celebrating Christmas.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t put the lights around the front door,” Carlton suggested. “Why draw attention to an outside world that’s been shut down?”

“Oh I’ve a plan,” Julia replied. “Small LED screens over the windows, coordinated to show holiday images.”

“You really are determined to celebrate Christmas?” Carlton asked.

“I’m unstoppable.”

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.

The Magnolia Review

Very glad to be nearly done with my year-long commitment to write weekly reviews of literary journals and genre magazines. It’s been a worthwhile exercise, but all that reading gets to be burdensome. Founded in 2014 by creative writing undergraduates at Bowling Green University, The Magnolia Review publishes two issues a year. What they say about themselves: “The Magnolia Review publishes work that is memorable and the reader comes back to, similar to the flowering of the magnolia tree every spring. It is a treasure to be shared and experienced with several readings… Editing is usually squeezed in-between school and a full-time job. I sit with my laptop and open the emails and go through the submissions. I log them in my Excel tracker for the submission number and author/artist’s name. Once the submission has a number, I open it (and remove identifying information if the submitter didn’t remove the information.) Then I read. I record in my Excel file if the work is accepted or rejected. I email the writer/artist with an acceptance letter/contract of publication or a rejection letter” Issue reviewed: Volume 6, Issue 1 (Winter 2020) Genre: Literary realism One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Risk Management,” by John Sheirer. Bob is a bored office worker at an insurance company, but his job suddenly becomes a lot more interesting when he opens a file cabinet drawer and finds perhaps the last thing he expected to see. There’s all kinds of ironic stories about office work these days, but this one is entertainingly quirky. Clapperboard Rating: Two Klacks. Most stories favor exploring a theme or character in depth over page-turning action. Profanometer: Dammit. Once again, some stories were entirely free of four-letter words, while others used them gratuitously.

Day 238

On the same week our attention was focused on election results, the United States had its worst COVID-19 numbers.

When the major news networks called the election four days after the last ballot was submitted, those same networks showed celebrations in cities across America. There was little social distancing in the crowds, but at least everyone was wearing masks. Well, most everyone. Until they started drinking, and noticing all the cameras watching them.

For reasons having nothing to do with the pandemic, The Fraud had to go. It will take years to undo the damage he’s caused since 2016. And while having new leadership in the White House won’t lead to any quick fix, we can at least expect decisions on national health will be made based on science rather than politics, by doctors instead of sociopathic narcissists.

Yet I won’t be surprised to see our numbers increase two to three weeks from now, after last weekend’s revelry. Then it’ll be holiday season. Extended family gatherings for the first time in a year; shoppers flocking to stores, encouraged by desperate retailers; sharp increases in all forms of transportation.

By the time we have a new President sworn in, our country’s healthcare system is going to be on a respirator.

***

Encouraging news the last few days on developing a vaccine. Could have it by spring. But the initial supply will likely be limited to at-risk populations. Perhaps my in-laws can be in that first wave, and if all goes well they could fly back home for the first time in almost two years.

My wife and I have volunteered for a vaccine test study. The study has already received a flood of applications, so we might not be chosen to participate. It would feel nice to have made a positive contribution to this crisis.