Annus Horribilis: The Toll of 2020

For me, 2020 began in the fall of 2019. Our sweet, crazy kitty, Malibu, with whom we shared companionable company for seven years, disappeared. Not a clear sign of things to come, of course, but it seemed to prime the well of sorrow. Just after Christmas 2019, my old boss, an accomplished skier, skied into a tree and died. From that somber preamble, 2020 unfolded its horrors.

By February, the tentacles of the virus were snaking deep within our shores. In late February, my best friend’s wife Lisa died of pancreatic cancer. Besides being a highly accomplished person, she was a big soul, modest and caring. In June, my mother died. She lived a long life, but the loss was and is a hammer: she was the person who most influenced me to be a writer; she had the rare talent of seeing the good in people and spread her warmth through her life.

More prominent deaths sprinkled throughout the year, some fallen to Covid, some to other ills: Justice Ginsburg, Chadwick Boseman, Alex Trebek, John Prine—the list is long, deep and painful. Just as painful, but out of the spotlight, the thousands—hundreds of thousands—of virus-related deaths in our country and so many more around the world, not helped a whit by the amoral policies of a viciously undemocratic narcissist in the White House.

In October, one of my sister’s close friends, and a friend of mine as well, died. The wife of one of my old pals is dying right now. He was afraid she wouldn’t make Christmas, but their boys were able to come and be there with her, and they were together. For most everyone I know, not being able to be together, because of the cutting scythe of this virus, has made this a year of numbness, and feeling as though an hour were a week, and six months a few days. I’m lucky that my sweetheart Alice has been here with me to share the sorrow and whatever joy we can find.

And, my father—a good man, a good father—died 10 years ago today, so every new year begins with that grey resonance.

My writing was broken this past year too, but I did finish a memoir (out to agents/publishers now) and did publish a batch of articles, as well as sloughed off other writing-related efforts. Because I can slant toward gloom, for some phases of this year I lost hope, but it returned.

I have some vows and plans for the coming year, but in front of those, I simply want to be kind to others and to myself, all of which is hard sometimes.

My best to you and yours in 2021.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Big Blue Bliss, A Timeless Hawaiian Moment

A moment of clarity and witness at and in the wonder of the natural world. Published by An Idea on Medium, December 2020.

Writing Habits: 9 No-Burnout Practices During a Recession

Ahh, 2020, a vintage year … of anxiety and wretchedness. Writers were not spared. But there are some methods to take some of the pain away, and even brighten your day. Try some! Published in December 2020 on the excellent Make a Living Writing site.

Mark Twain and My Neighbor Swap Books in Heaven

The odd and even tender connections between a dead neighbor, a first-edition Mark Twain short story and a Zen meditation class 40 years ago. Published by An Idea on Medium, November 2020.

Other People’s Posts

33 Things I Stole From People Smarter Than Me

20 Things Most People Learn Too Late In Life

20 Realistic Micro-Habits To Live Better Every Day

How to Stop Constantly Stressing About the Future—And What to Do Instead

When All Your Article Pitches Are Wearing Masks

Photo by Edward Jenner from Pexels

This was the worst of times, this was the worst of times. For article pitches, things seem out of time. With apologies to Dickens, and apologies to you for using a cheap line—wow! I’ll try to use words to discuss the state of the union, or of the globe, or of the universe, but it’s feeling more like the state of disunion. The coronavirus and its cruelties hit with such a wallop, and now the anti-racist protests rocking the streets have shunted that exceedingly dire and still virulent virus—who would think that anything could?—to the side. And then there is our alleged president. My god.

Despite the stock market’s carbonation—up and down—resembling the days when I put Fizzies candies in an RC Cola and stepped back to see the liquid hit the ceiling, lots of people are out of work, lots of businesses will close, lots of folks will be underwater for some time. To my immediate, workaday interests, the publishing industry isn’t face-masked against these viral contractions either. In the last three months, I’ve sent nearly 40 article pitches, many to publications I’ve worked with before, though the bulk were to those I haven’t.

Some editors have answered with a “sorry, it’s just not happening now,” and some have answered with a “our freelance budget is locked down now.” Most haven’t answered at all, though what I read online tells me some answers: many major publications—Buzzfeed, Atlantic, Vox, too many to list—are cutting staff and wages. The bell tolls for all, writers and readers. I don’t have the sense that conditions will improve in the near future.

Not a one of my queries landed an assignment; I might not be a genius pitcher of articles, but I generally do much better than that. I did get a couple of assignments from editors I’ve worked with over the years, and have had a long memoir to edit for a client, but business as usual has been anything but.

Keep the Pitches Groomed Even If No One’s Coming Over

What to do? Look more closely at sites that have regularly updated listings for writing work of all kinds, like Pitchwhiz. Though I’ve been working on article writing more in the last year, go back and check out content writing opportunities. Look at the Twitter feeds of more editors and publications—it’s remarkable how many solicitations for pitches come from Twitter (though try to dodge the toxins on the platform if you can).

I’ll continue to look at book editing potentials—I just finished a developmental and copyedit of a long memoir on the assisted-living industry by an insider. The author is a witty, humane, skilled writer who was a pleasure to work with, bringing me back to enjoy work I’d started to lose my taste for. And I’ll continue work on my own memoir, about my high-school shoplifting years. I’m not certain if I’m as witty, humane or skilled, but it’s worth a shot.

One matter is that I don’t want to write about the virus. So many publications are doing so, and there probably are interesting angles and human-interest stories there, but I’d like to find something else to write about. I wrote about it once, in a whiskey context, and that might be enough for me. I was told by one editor of a general interest publication that they were basically only taking virus-related pitches, but that wasn’t enough to motivate me.

However, I have pitched articles where the virus situation is peripheral to the main story, such as distilleries making and giving away hand sanitizer, but where there’s a deeper story there to expand on as well. And I don’t want to be another white male fumbling around writing about how I’m not racist. The bell tolls for me there as well.

I keep a running list of article pitches, old and new, and I’ll look to refine recent ones, and look to refresh the story angles of the older ones. And I’m going to work on my attitude—I’m still a lucky guy to be able to work from home, and often on writing projects I enjoy.

My mom isn’t doing well, and I’m going to try and see her soon and savor the time that she has left. I’m working on savoring the little things and expressing gratitude in general. It’s not going to cure a pandemic and change institutional racism, but it’s a way forward.

Here’s to making the most of your writing life, no matter if it’s fiction or non, genre-neutral, genre-fluid, published or not, keyboard or quill pen.

Links

Here are a few links to my most recently published articles, followed by a couple of pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

The Shakespeare Society of America struggles to preserve its historic collection

My piece on a deep, eclectic collection of Shakespeareana (including some fabulously illustrated ancient books) in a tiny CA town. Published in the Summer, 2020 edition of Fine Books and Collections magazine.

Make Main Street SHINE: Add 101 Airstreams

Want to boost middle-America commercial and social prospects? Put 101 gleaming Airstream trailers on Main Street. Published in the Spring 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

California’s literary landscapes unfold in 9 — no, 12! — great books

I went through my library for capsule reviews on some selections where California is the setting (and sometimes a character). Published in May 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’ revisited (with a detour for COVID-19)

My piece about a writer on his quashed quest to recreate Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”. Gone viral in the worst of ways. Published in May 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Via Negativa: Adding to Your Life By Subtracting
“Not only can eliminating bad habits be a highly effective way to improve your life, it’s also often a lot easier than creating a new, positive habit. Positive habits take a lot of motivation and willpower to cultivate. But not doing something is much simpler.”

How Your Brain Creates Your Sense of Self
“Studies of people randomly pinged on their cell phone during the day indicate that the average person has a wandering mind about half the time. The more a person’s mind wanders, the more it tends to tilt negatively, toward anxiety, resentment, regret, and self-criticism.”

Nobody Knows Anything (So, Stay Safe, or at Least Well Hydrated)

It seems we’re all riding that horse named Chance (Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels)

There’s an old quote from screenwriter William Goldman discussing the film industry: “Nobody knows anything … Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

The quote has been used in many contexts, from weather forecasting to stock market predictions because, well, nobody knows anything. Not with bulletproof certainty. Fine time to trot that statement out now too, because with this effing virus plaguing the globe and with so many touted cures, predicted courses of spread and the outright lies from our government found out as diaphanous vapors, it’s hard to keep good counsel.

Thank the stars for heroic health care workers and for anyone saying “Let’s continue to be careful,” because—because we don’t know anything.

And instead of writing I’ve found myself looking at things like streaming virtual safaris, and famous old houses and buildings from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and strolling through the Musee d’Orsay, where scrolling through the paintings did soothe.

Even a live streetside cam outside the doors of Wrigley Park, where the viewing might echo the words of a Talking Heads song,

“Heaven
Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens…”

Writing, What Writing?

As for writing work, I’ve sent out a bunch of pitches and the only responses have been from publications telling me they are reducing staff and freelance budgets, and I’m ending emails to people I’ve never met telling them to “stay safe.” At least I’m getting some work done on my memoir of my spectacular high-school shoplifting career. More happens in that than in that Wrigley web cam.

People, stay safe. But if you find a way to dance around the Maypole today, do it. (And I just heard that my 97-year-old mom is in the hospital, test results pending. Hard days.)

Links

Here are a few pieces from the net that I thought helpful or provocative.

Build Self-Discipline By Forming These Habits
“It comes down to this: Do the right thing and have zero expectations of others. If some people don’t want to do that themselves, it’s not your problem. Keep on setting the right example.”

3 Strategies To Get Motivated
“The idea is simple. You want to reward yourself consistently for small accomplishments. When you’ve made progress on your career goals, buy yourself something nice. I don’t recommend materialistic rewards … When I talk about rewards, I limit myself to things that give me inner satisfaction. That’s what I mean by spiritual rewards. Often, those things don’t cost that much. For example, after completing a big project, I take a week off work and just read books, do chores around the house, meet friends, and relax.”

The Practice of Meticulous Attention
“Give the task, action, person or moment your undivided attention. Notice what this is like for you. See if you can deepen your attention even more. Let go of thoughts about the future and past, if possible, and turn toward what you’re facing even more.”

6 Strategies for Becoming a Better You from the COVID-19 Crisis
“One of the best “medicines” for dealing with a crisis is to take action, any action. It can be related to school, work, hobbies, home, or helping others. Instead of hanging around feeling sorry for yourself, take action on a plan to make yourself a better person, colleague, spouse, parent, friend, what have you.”

Freelancing Twists and Turns While Ducking the Coronavirus

Photo by Alex Fu from Pexels

Man, going viral has never seemed so lousy. I shouldn’t joke about it much, because it’s no joke, but it beats crying. Unless crying is called for. This is an unusual moment for long-time freelancers, because we are very used to working from home, thus presumed equipped to deal with (most) technology issues, and being productive when we could be eating bonbons. Or being productive while still eating bonbons.

Not being rabidly social myself, I’m not sharply hampered by the coronavirus lockdown; my sweetheart Alice and I still get out for some—socially distanced, of course—exercise, shop while veering away from other shoppers, as they do us, and since she is a freelancer too, both hang out lot at home.

My heart really goes out to those who are suddenly jobless, and particularly those with health issues. Or those struggling with kids at home and trying to be a productive remote worker on the fly, and trying to make their hair work for video. And to those people directly affected by the illness themselves—wow, this is as rough as it gets.

Viruses Throw Curveballs

Here are a few oddities, both positive and not, about being a freelance writer like me, one who often writes one-off articles for various publications, in a time of social disruption. Like I suggested above, I’ve got it easy compared to many people. But here are a few recent things that have happened related to my work that were unpredictable:

I had set up an article interview through Jameson Distillery’s PR people on a Prohibition-themed piece (Jameson almost closed for good then) for a spirits site article. At least I thought I’d set up an article interview. They’d wanted it to be through email, with their Marketing VP. So, I’d sent the emailed questions and then waited. And waited. Then waited some more.

My PR contact was professional and apologetic in a long email thread, but finally said that my interviewee was too busy, with all the recent coronavirus madness, to do it by deadline. Damn. But a week later, a bottle of Jameson and a bottle of a Jameson whiskey/cold coffee infusion arrived in the mail. I was sorry to not get the article in, but I was soothed by their offering.

Freelancer 1, Virus 1
Then, I’d sent a pitch on another subject to another spirits site I’d written for before. The publisher turned that down, but, virus-minded, asked me if I could find an infection specialist to discuss how many people had tragically died because of a mistaken belief that drinking large amounts of alcohol could stave off coronavirus infection or provide a cure.

I located a University of Nevada, Las Vegas epidemiologist through a ProfNet request (also asking that they be a whiskey drinker) and we did a Q&A on the subject. Whiskey drinkers are apparently whiskey readers too, because the article has 85K views and 1.6K shares.

You win on a virus article, you lose on a virus article: I finished a piece for Vox on the proliferation of profanity that you can see on all kinds—shirts, socks, books, desk calendars, pencils—of products now, which was assigned five weeks ago, turning it in last week. But right now, Vox is only publishing all-things virus, and my editor, who liked the piece, said it has to be shelved indefinitely.

They did give me a 50% kill fee, which is 25% higher than most publications, but still, it was a fun piece to write (including an interview with a marketing psychologist) and I’d love to see it out there. Virus-willing, maybe I will.

Freelancing has a lot of unpredictability built in already, but take an uncontrollable situation like a pandemic, and all bets are off.

Stay safe out there, and wash your hands. Really.

Links

Here are a few links to my most recently published articles, followed by a few pieces from the net that I thought helpful.

Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me
What better time to spill on death than a time of global terror? (Yes, I’m a riot at parties.) Some personal reflections on the cruelties of the passings of friends, and examples of how death works as a plot and revelation factor in literature. Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in March 2020.

Whiskey Is a Bad Chaser for Coronavirus
Some people have some mistaken—and tragically dangerous—ideas about using spirits to prevent or help with curing coronavirus. Nope. This interview with a whiskey-drinking epidemiologist sets that straight. Published in March 2020 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Redwood Hikes and a Whimsical General Store
A hike in the redwoods should be part of the prescription to cure whatever ails you (let’s ignore the coronavirus context part of that). But you have to follow that redeeming stroll with a visit to the odd and unusual San Gregorio General Store. Mom and Pop’s it ain’t. Part of my Trail Mix series (note: pre-virus shutdown of the parks). Published in March 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Getting Steamed Has Never Been So Cool
Oh sure, sure, you can have a fancy TV in your Airstream, or a sink that rules them all, but a steam room? That’s cool. Or hot. Published in the Winter 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Freelance Writing Funk? 3 Mindless Productivity Hacks from a Pro
How scribbling a few vivid words or phrases—“word seeds”— on a story or article idea can prompt your brain to work on expanding them, often to a rich level, while you dawdle. Published in February 2020 on the excellent Make a Living Writing site.

From the Net

Want to Be Successful? Stop Thinking About Failure
“You put your mind through every scenario where failure is possible to the point where it feels real. You’re simulating these experiences so frequently, it feels real, even though nothing has actually happened. After a while, your mind tricks you into believing you have all this “experience” around failure, when you’ve never actually experienced it — just thousands of simulations of it.”

Neuroscience Reveals 50-Year-Olds Can Have the Brains of 25-Year-Olds If They Do This 1 Thing
“However, the neuroscientists also found that the meditators had more gray matter in another brain region, this time linked to decision-making and working memory: the frontal cortex. In fact, while most people see their cortexes shrink as they age, 50-year-old meditators in the study had the same amount of gray matter as those half their age.”

Why Happiness IS Just a Choice
“Happiness is not something that happens to some people and not to others. You get to choose.”