Christopher parked his Nissan Sentra in the company’s CFO spot—walked into the empty building, and took his place at the Information Desk of the vacant building.
He checked and routed yesterday’s mail, checked and routed yesterday’s email and voicemails, and checked his email and schedule–nothing was for him.
It was March of 2020, and he was grateful that the company didn’t lay him off or request that he work from home–he had a laptop, but his cheap apartment did not have Wi-Fi; anyway, it was nice to get away from his annoying roommate who yelled why he Zoomed.
Most days, he brought a sack lunch; then, after his sandwich, he would belt out show tunes to the dozens of empty ergonomic chairs in the call center.
By March of 2021, the routine was getting old, and he craved human connection.
In May, the company was working in the building at half capacity; Christopher lost his convenient parking spot to his boss, and he had to stop singing to the ergonomic chairs; some of its occupants may not like Broadway songs.
I thought I had longer to wait. I wasn’t in the tier to receive my COVID-19 vaccination. But my wife persisted because I suffer from complex partial seizures–that are completely surprised by meds (still knocking on wood for over 50 years) and, I guess, becomes I’m almost 65. While not morbidly obese, I am obese, and I don’t have Stage 4 Kidney Disease. I do struggle to keep my Creatinine levels down and a bunch of other things. (Hey, I’ve said too much already to my snoring readers.) Anyway, in a text message to my doctor, I requested that she bump me up the list. She did not reply. Instead, I received a “pick a day to get vaccinated” sign-up message. Perhaps it was a combination of my age, my multiple health issues, and that we were only days away from April 1 when just about everyone would be able to get vaccinated that I got bumped.
When I arrived at a Scottish Rite Masonic Center here in Sacramento, a woman at a long folding table politely questioned me on how I received clearance for getting vaccinated: “You don’t look like you’re 65.” “Why, thank you, ma’am. Believe it or not, I’m 63.” “Get out of town! You don’t look a day past 57.” “Why, thank you. You know I still get carded here and there,” batting my eyes. And you are not morbidly obese!” “You know, they say obese is the new morbidly obese.”
Joking aside, she asked me why I was getting a shot this early, but after she looked at the order, she just pointed to the entrance to the shot factory.
COVID-19 has given Big Pharma a respite from all the negative press. In early 2020 the news was all about how fast pharmaceutical companies could get us here. Considering before Project Warm Speed have us multiple vaccines within one year, the vaccine for Mumps held the record for most rapid development to implementation, and that was four years. Imagine if we had to wait until early 2024! It looks like I’m getting Pfizer’s.
I expected the wait to belong, but it moved fast.
Marc, a travel nurse, administered my shot. How come it always looks like I’m half asleep?
Done. Now to get in line and sign up for my next shot. Hmm, the young woman in front of me reminds me of my wife when we were dating back in the 1980s.
After the shot, you need to hang out for 15 minutes if you have an allergic reaction. I didn’t, and my wife, my son, and I went out for brunch.
Not very many pix, I know. I took more, but all the photos were as uninspiring as the one above.
I also was pretty lazy about asking questions of the nurse who gave me the shot. Also, she did it half the time Marc did it, and I didn’t feel the prick. If it wasn’t for a sore are for the next two days, I would have sworn she didn’t give me a shot at all.
The common symptoms from the second shot are typically signs that the vaccine has triggered a response by the immune system: i.e., you feel sick. Out of my mother, father- and mother-in-law, my mother-in-law’s caregiver, and my wife, only my father-in-law and I skated through the second shot; everyone else felt sick after the second jab. Only a sore arm that kept me out of the following night’s yoga class was the only adverse effect.
Return to Normalcy
Just kidding, you know it is far from normal, but things are looking up. Starting on April 1, in California, vaccinations were opened up for everyone 16 and older. While walking through a tent encampment on his way to a studio where he would lead a class, my yoga teacher was pulled into line. He received his J&J “One & Done” vaccine even when he confessed to the health care workers he was not part of the homeless. (My Buddhist yoga teacher kind of looks like he could blend in with the tent city inhabitance.) They believed him but had enough shots to go around.
A day after the sourness subsided, I was at the pharmacy picking up some non-COVID-related meds and thought I would visit one of my all-time favorite hamburger joints. I covered Scott’s Burger Shack when this site was almost entirely about reviewing hamburgers. When most restaurants were either out of business, closed, or doing take-out and delivery only in the thick of the pandemic.
I still had some burgers, but far fewer and far between. On this day, I thought I would at least pretend we were back to normal. I still ordered my Fatboy with bacon and cheese, fries, and a Coke with my mask on and practicing social distancing.
I sat on one of Scott’s three emblematic blue park benches. Now, the center bench was taped off–another sign of these COVID times. As I ate the burger, I recalled from previous visits what you get when you “dine-in” at Scott’s: the mariachi music coming from El Novillero Mexican restaurant across the street, the harmony of open-pipe hotrods backfiring on the street just feet away, the blue picnic bench, which always felt like I was sitting on fresh paint. It was all still there, except the blue bench was no longer sticky. I guess enough fat asses have peeled off the last coat. Your welcome!
This post is the source for a Six Sentence Stories creative writing challenge. The following, however, is all the painful truth.
A little over a year ago, before COVID-19 shut down my gym, I bought a folding mat. I needed a mat that could fit in my cramped locker. The idea was genius: a mat that folded up into a fraction of its full dimensions–both width as well as length. I wouldn’t have to carry my rolled-up mat to my yoga classes.
This whole portability thing needs a little explaining because yoga mats are by design portable. So, what is the problem with bringing my mat to class, you might ask. Usually, I ride to work on my bicycle. If I don’t ride my bike, I either ride my scooter or on very rare occasions I take a city bus–I don’t drive a car. From my work, I ride to my gym, where I attend evening yoga classes. Carrying my mat is a hassle. It’s also a nuisance storing the mat in my cubicle at work only to lug the mat to my class then haul it back home in the evening after class.
Since I started yoga back in 2014, I always used the mats the gym provides. As a neophyte to yoga, the mats the gym supplied didn’t bother me, but over time, I noticed how worn the mats were and saw how my fellow, more experienced students brought their mats. Those mats always looked much better and cleaner. (I also noticed how most yoga students were also younger and in better shape so I guess there was some symmetry going on there.) I put up with the worn, gross mats until one day I found a solution to my problem: a yoga mat that folds up.
So when I saw that Gaiam made a folding “travel” mat, I was all in. Gaiam even proudly displayed that the mat was two millimeters thick, I mean in large font: 2mm. (The only thing missing was an exclamation point.) As if they were saying, “Beat that, Manduka!” Now, mind you, fellow yogis and yoginis, I’m an idiot when it comes to the metric system, so I ignored the telltale sign of the pain to come. I mean, how thick is “2mm” if it can fold up?
So imagine how surprised my 62-year-old knees felt when I executed my first kneeling pose, and my knees felt like they were balancing on golf balls. It was at this moment I understood just how thin two millimeters of PVC is. I felt like I could have settled for a roll of my wife’s culinary parchment paper, and my knees wouldn’t have felt the difference. The parchment paper roll would have stored even easier–leaving room for a big tub of BENGAY cream. The pain in my knees immediately negated the Zen I felt just 15 minutes earlier when I verified my brand new mat did indeed fit in my tiny locker when it was folded up.
I had practiced on Marquee Sade’s yoga mat a few times before the gym closed, but I had forgotten the number it did on my knees. When the gym opened for a brief time, management had moved blocks, straps, and the old worn mats out to the make-shift yoga studio. With the gear and extra mats available, I could make my cruel mat tolerable by placing an old cushy mat under and across the center of my mat, so my knees got the additional support, and my feet did not—which is how I preferred it. Of course, I could double up the 2mm mat whenever executing kneeling postures, but that set me behind the teacher’s tempo.
With the club reopened and the yoga classes still in the basketball quart, the gear was nowhere to be found, including the old gross, but cushy mats. Me and my knees were on our own. During the year that I was sheltering in place, I rarely practiced yoga despite having thousands of hours of free and reasonably priced yoga classes online. I had forgotten entirely about the foldup mat in the months I was away from the gym and yoga classes. I had forgotten the pain, I had forgotten how to execute some asanas, but I hadn’t forgotten how to eat and my daily walks included a pit stop at Barrio’s, a bakery. So, I gained weight and lost a lot of the flexibility I gained when I was practicing yoga three days a week.
When I made my less-than-triumphant return to the reopened gym, the yoga classes were, once again, being held in the basketball quart to ensure social distancing, but it was not the same experience for me. Now, at least fifteen pounds heavier than I usually am, I am out of practice, and the extra weight makes the asanas (yoga postures) even harder to achieve and hold. Also, long gone was Heather, the closest thing I ever had to a yoga guru. Robert teaches the two classes I now attend. Robert is considered one of Sacramento’s best teachers. And while his teachings are sound, it is not the same. This fat older man wants his old teacher back! It doesn’t help me that Robert does not teach a gentler version of Hatha Yoga but has to offer me modifications and does so often and to my frustration and embarrassment.
I miss Heather. But don’t mistake those tears on my 2mm Gaiam travel yoga mat for longing. I’m crying for my poor tortured knees!
Looking through the Pennysaver, Jack found the shop where he used to have his shoes repaired before COVID-19 turned his city into a ghost town had reopened.
Besides shoe repairs, Ben, the owner, was back to shining shoes! Wouldn’t it be nice to step up on the shoeshine stand and have Ben shine his oxfords?
Jack usually shined his shoes. These days, working from home, slippers were the office footwear, but today, he would dress for work and visit Ben. The shop’s reopening was a sign of brighter times ahead, and Jack wasn’t going to ignore this auspicious moment.
What a horrible year! While I’d like to be optimistic about 2021, I don’t
see things getting any better soon. Before the first week of the new year was
behind us, we had our nation’s capitol attacked by terrorists egged on by the sitting
president. The failing rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines and the grim fact that America
keeps getting sicker from the pandemic does not bod well for 2021. But enough
of that rot! Like 2019’s list, most of these books in this post were not published last year. Only four came out in 2020 (and two in 2019). One thing about 2020: sheltering in place gave me more time to read. It also led to me exploring subjects I rarely dip my toes
in: erotica and pandemics/epidemics.
So, out of the forty books I read/listened to this year, the following were my favorites. Let me know what you think.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry, 2004
Why not? It seemed like everyone else read it last year. If you haven’t, check it out. Barry painstakingly sets up the medical/scientific world before the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. As the reader would expect, there isn’t a drop of humor or fun in this book. Reading it during what most experts called the “first wave” of the COVID-19 pandemic made for a sobering experience–the initial outbreak of the Spanish Flu was relatively tame compared to the second wave. The name of the Flu is a misnomer. The Flu had been around for a few months–mainly in military installations where there was overpopulation thanks to World War I propaganda. The first known outbreak occurred in an over-populated military base in Kansas. Most Western nations enforced a media blackout except for Spain, where the news of the sickness first made headlines in Madrid in late-May 1918.
For me, the book becomes less interesting in the last part, where Barry focused in on the scientists and their lives and challenges–it is way too technical for someone who dodged Algebra in college and spent his days in his high school science class ogling his pretty lab partner. Aside from that caveat, it is a fascinating and timely read.
Winner Takes All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas, 2018
I read this book when Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer were still in the running as Democratic Presidential hopefuls. (Howard Schultz, thankfully, had unceremoniously bailed out.) It was fortunate that I discovered this gem while listening to Bloomberg and Steyer tell America that they are the remedy to America’s woes. Most US citizens can see right through their crap–they are the problem, not the solution. Giridharadas’ brilliant book lays this all out beautifully.
The idea goes something like this: the Kochs, Bezos, Buffets, Bloombergs, and Zuckerbergs of America make billions of dollars off the backs of regular tax-paying people. They undervalue and–whenever possible–underpay their workers. They avoid taxes by moving corporate addresses to places like Ireland and the Netherlands and moving operations to places like China and Vietnam. All of this offshoring is at the American workers and taxpayers’ expense. Then, after these oligarchs have made all this money, these multimillionaire tax dodgers create foundations to give back in the form of hospital wings, art galleries, theaters, and university libraries. The new hospital wings, etc., are win-wins: the foundation makes it easy on the billionaire’s pocketbook, and Pops gets to use a shiny new dialysis machine to visit three times per week.
The more YouTube videos I see of this author, the more intense my man crush is for Giridharadas. (Now, if I could only consign that impossible last name to my failing memory!) But I’m doing a poor job explaining the idea behind this great book. Check out the author explaining it below. Winner Take All was my favorite read (in both nonfiction and fiction) of 2020.
The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism by Thomas Frank, 2020
Another winner from the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas and Listen Liberal. I like Frank because he–like me–is a Democrat frustrated that his party has sold out to corporate interests. Frank speaks for me when I can’t find the words for my disappointment, criticism, and rage over my party’s corporate takeover. (He’s also a lot more knowledgeable on the subject, which helps!) The awkward title is an homage, of sorts, to Carl Sandburg’s populist poem The People, Yes, which Frank often references in his book.
The author gives the reader a brief history of authentic populism and the short-lived People’s Party (1892 to 1909). It was a party made up mostly of farmers, but it also had many industrial workers. One of the fascinating things about the party is that it was multi-racial less than forty years after the Civil War.
Humankind: A Hopeful Historyby Rutger Bregman, 2019
For over 300 years, Western society has lived by a Hobbesian way of thinking of human nature. While philosophers have challenged these ideas (most notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke), John Hobbes’s theories are still with us today. Rutger Bregman takes up Rousseau’s mantle in this fine book. He supports his ideas with real-life examples of hope and reveals flaws in instances that would have reinforced the Hobbesian view.
Ever since I saw Bregman’s fifteen-minute Ted Talk and read his excellent book Utopia for Realists, I have been a fan. I was not disappointed with his latest effort. In Humankind, Bregman sets out to prove that we are hardwired for kindness instead of violence and geared toward cooperation rather than competition. The Dutch historian provides a new perspective on the past 200,000 years of human history. He refutes the Hobbesian view of the nature of the life of humans as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Instead, Bregman supports the idea of man’s nature as kind, generous, and cooperative.
He criticizes others like Nobel Prize laureate William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies. Through the author’s own words, Golding was an abusive, alcoholic person who had a miserable childhood and was critical of the 1960s and reflected on World War II and the Holocaust and his tragic childhood. Bregman also provides real-life evidence that children marooned on an island would work together to create a benevolent society rather than the one in Golding’s Best Seller. He also debunks Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment, and he revisits the tragic 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York would later be called the “bystander effect.” The book’s centerpiece is the inspiring story of twin brothers (one a general in the right-wing Afrikaner People’s Front) and the other (who worked for the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa) together and worked with Nelson Mandela to create peace in South Africa. An inspiring read during a time when President Trump was failing to address the deadly pandemic.
The Americans by Robert Frank, 1958
I’ve flipped through The Americans many times in various libraries since my college years, but not until now have I studied it. I wanted to review the book again thanks to an article in The Daily, a weekday podcast I religiously listen to by the New York Times. The podcast re-released a 2015 article by Nicholas Dawidoff called The Man Who Saw America. I also finally read the Forward, which is written by Jack Kerouac.
The book is a collection of photographs taken during the 1950s as the Swiss photographer traveled around America, capturing the diversity of what made this country. The project didn’t start as a critique of America, but once Frank began looking at the effects of urbanization and Jim Crow, Frank’s lens couldn’t lie. It also didn’t help to spend an evening in jail simply because he had photographic equipment on him, and he had the accent of a “commie.”
Ultimately, The Americans is an unsettling work that peels the veneer from idyllic Americana to reveal the country’s problematic contradictions. No wonder the book was unappreciated when first released in the US. No one had ever taken pictures like that before. It was an honest depiction of America–warts and all. Frank told Dawidoff, “I photographed people who were held back, who never could step over a certain line,” and “my sympathies were with people who struggled. There was also my mistrust of people who made the rules.” The author captured these images years before Selma, Vietnam, and Stonewall.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found out by reading the Times’ piece that Bruce Springsteen is a huge fan of the book, using it for songwriting inspiration. “The photographs are still shocking,” Springsteen told Dawidoff. “Making it created an entire American identity–that single book. To me, it’s Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited–the visual equivalent of that record. It’s an 83-picture book that has 27,000 pictures in it. That’s why Highway 61 Revisited is powerful. It’s nine songs with 12,000 songs in them.”
People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent by Joseph E. Stiglitz, 2019
In the past, I have steered clear of reading books by intellectuals like Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz. Still, I braved reading this book thanks to the title and positive book reviews from writers I trusted. Stiglitz is a former economist for the World Bank and recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the John Bates Clark Medal. Despite his serious creds, he has written and relatively easy book for someone like me to read and understand.
I read People, Power, and Profits when the COVID-19 pandemic was picking up steam. It became depressingly appropriate as I continued reading it as unemployment skyrocketed and the economy tanked. The absence of a robust social safety net can be seen by anyone not living in a gated community, but during a time when unemployment jumps to 12 percent and the people most affected are the ones who weren’t doing all that well before the novel coronavirus hit. I got overwhelmed by Stiglitz’s research at times, but People, Power, and Profits are worth soldiering through the dense parts for all the other inspirational segments.
Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sportsby Dave Zirin, 2007
If you believe in social justice and enjoy sports, you’ll love Dave Zirin’s writing, the sports editor for The Nation Magazine, and the host of the podcast Edge of Sports. Like his previous book, What’s My Name, Fool?, Welcome to the Terrordome is about politics, racism, and justice in college, Olympic, and professional sports. The book covers subjects like Major League Baseball’s colonial view of players from the Caribbean in general and the Dominican Republic, specifically. His piece on the great Roberto Clemente is excellent. Zirin wrote a story of the memorial at San Jose State University honoring Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ expression of Black Power in the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. His rebuttal to performance-enhancing drugs is very interesting and changed my opinions of Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Lance Armstrong, and others. For the uninitiated, like me: The book’s title comes from a song by the hip-hop group Public Enemy. The group’s leader, Chuck D, wrote the Foreword to this book.
Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City by Heather Ann Thompson, 2001
The author of the brilliant and bloody Blood in the Water, about the 1971 Attica prison uprising, has written a detailed account of post-World War II Detroit: white flight, police brutality, civic unrest, and shop floor rebellion, labor decline, the African American struggles for full equality and equal justice under the law, and the frustration with entrenched discrimination and the lack of meaningful remedies to achieve equal justice even after President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society liberal policies were implemented. Thompson’s book is the retelling of events and individuals, including James Johnson, Jr. (pictured on the cover of the edition I read). In 1971, he murdered two foremen and another worker at a Chrysler plant after years of racial discrimination in Detroit’s auto industry.
Henry & June: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1931-1932 by Anaïs Nin, 1986
Reading erotic literature was a product of shelter in place, a heatwave, and just being old. I read Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, the first three books of Red Phoenix’s Dominant/submissive series Brie’s Submission, and re-read The Story of O (which I originally read back in the 1980s). Of the remaining few titles in my erotic to-read list were my favorite: two short books by Anaïs Nin: Delta of Venus (see below) this memoir and a couple of other titles I just may read in 2021.
Henry & June is about the year-long love affair Nin had with the American author Henry Miller and a dalliance she had with his wife, June. The stories of Miller’s sexual conquests are legendary. Here, Nin makes him out as a sexual animal with a voracious appetite. There is no judgment in Nin’s prose–she loved and desired him. It has been years since I read Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, so I might be wrong when I say I am surprised how loving and passionate Miller treated Nin. Perhaps it’s only in his writing that he becomes crude. Maybe I will take a chance and read Tropic of Capricorn this year. Regardless, Henry & June is a beautifully written, intimate account of one woman’s sexual awakening and the pain that comes with it.
The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science and the Human Brain by David Shenk, 2006
I re-discovered this book while going through my stacks, looking for the few remaining books on chess I might have. I had just finished the brilliant Netflix limited series The Queen’s Gambit and wanted to get back into the game. I was glad I didn’t donate this one when I quit chess the last time and started thinning my collection. There are other more thorough books on the game, but David Shenk’s is a concise little gem.
The book’s title comes from a specific friendly game between two masters Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky, on June 21, 1851, in London, during a break of the first international tournament. Shenk interweaves the chess game with significant chess evolution from India’s origins, its development in Arabia, and its rebirth in the West to the modern game we play today. A must-read for all chess players, even a patzer like me.
The Vespa: Style and Passion by Valerio Boni, Stefano Cordara, 2020
The Vespa: Style and Passion is another big coffee table book on one of my favorite subjects. I’ve got two already taking up a lot of shelf space. The Vespa: Style and Passion is about the history of the Vespa. It features all the models rolled out of Piaggio from the 1946 98 to the 2018 electric Elettrica and Elettrica X, all of them beautifully photographed. Besides the gorgeous scooter pix, there are chapters on how Piaggio got started, how the Vespa came about, and marketing, rallies and racing, and Vespa in the film industry (most notably how Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn got around in Roman Holiday). The book is too big and clumsy to curl up with, but that’s part of the point–the size (9.95 x 1.15 x 11.95 inches!) allows the viewer to see the beauty with more detail of the Vespa.
Circe by Madeline Miller, 2018
I’ve had this book in my library for nearly two years and finally got around to reading it last year. I was not aware that the Greek goddess Circe is in Homer’s epic poem is the same character in this book, or if I did, I completely forgot about it. It was fortunate that I decided to read this beautifully written novel right after I finished Homer’s epic poem. Madeline Miller had won a half-dozen awards for this work and a good reason. Circe is at once thrilling, touching, and evocative.
The book spans hundreds of years, so the reader gets a short, subjective mythology lesson. Time slows down halfway through the novel when Odysseus lands on the island of Aeaea, where Circe’s father, Helios, has banished her for practicing witchcraft.
Miller’s beautiful prose makes Circe one of those books you don’t want to end. I think Odd Billy Todd, Sharp Objects, Normal People, and Circe were the four best novels I read in 2020, but Miller’s gem was by far the best written. Perhaps I might read her other award-winning novel, The Song of Achilles, soon.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, 2005
Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger, a young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden, disappeared. While the family believes she either accidentally drowned in the nearby river or ran away, her aged uncle is certain his niece was murdered but wants proof. He hires Mikael Blomkvist; an investigative journalist recently sued for libel. Blomkvist hires Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old, pierced and tattooed research expert and hacker. As they drill down into the Vanger family history, they discover iniquity after iniquity running through the Vanger family and in the highest echelons of Swedish industrialism.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo enough to read Larsson’s sequels The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007). The subsequent efforts did not hold me in rapt attention, as did the first one. Larsson planned a ten-novel series with the characters antihero Lisbeth Salander and the journalist Mikael Blomkvist but died before publishing any of them. The finished books were all published posthumously.
Odd Billy Todd by N. C. Reed, 2014
In the spirit of these pandemic times, I wanted to read a post-apocalyptic novel that didn’t feature zombies. Something that could happen if a virus like the current novel coronavirus or the Spanish Flu broke out, but was far deadlier than anything the modern world has experienced. Odd Billy Todd turned out to be the ticket. The author focuses on a small rural area–the farms and small towns in and around Cedar Bend, Tennessee, wiped out by a pandemic. Our protagonist is a young man in his 20s who is developmentally disabled. His parents died in the plague, along with most people in the area. Because of his father’s vigilance (bordering on paranoia), Billy is left with plenty of handguns, long guns, ammo, a library of survival books, and how-to manuals (complete with copious notes in the margins helping Billy understand the texts better). Living on a farm, he has chickens and cows to sustain him. Billy thrives and begins to reach out to other survivors offering his assistance and surplus. He becomes the unlikely Alpha of a new community borne from the ashes of a terrible plague the has wiped out 95 percent of the world’s population.
Billy helps his neighbors, and together, they try to help others. Soon, Billy and his neighbors have run-ins with packs of wild dogs, an African lion released from a zoo, and both rag-tag and highly-organized bands of raiders, stripping towns of supplies, killing men, raping women, and capturing children.
Billy’s growing community saves women and children and is discriminate in adding men who can benefit their community. The book has moments of violence and tenderness. At times, it reminded me of the TV series The Walking Dead, sans the zombies. This story would make an excellent limited TV series.
Normal People by Sally Rooney, 2018
Usually, I don’t particularly appreciate reading the source material of a beloved film or television series: I’ve already defined the characters in my head. Exceptions to this personal rule are the movies High Fidelity and The World According to Garp. In 2020 I added two more to this rule, The Queen’s Gambit (see below) and this novel.
The story is about Connell, a high school soccer star, and Marianne, a lonely outcast. Connell takes a liking to Marianne, and they begin a secret relationship, initially based exclusively on sex. It develops into a more prosperous, more complex relationship over the years as they graduate from high school and are both accepted to the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin.
Not to take anything away from Sally Rooney’s beautiful novel about class, first love, and friendship, but perhaps I loved this book so much because I was already drawn to the principal characters in the superlative TV series. Either way, this was a great read. I liked the ended of the book a little more than the TV series.
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin, 2015
Black-Eyed Susans is the story of Tessa, the only surviving victim of a serial killer. The sixteen-year-old was left for dead in a ditch with a strangled college student and a scattering of unidentified bones and covered in Black-eyed Susan flowers. Now 34, with a daughter, Tessa has to face the consequences of the sketchy testimony she gave at her accused killer’s trial. And this being Texas—America’s capital for capital punishment, she does not have much time until the convicted killer will be executed. Still, Tessa remembers nothing about the attack, her assailant, or how Tessa came to be in the ditch. She now works with a group of Texas lawyers dedicated to turning over unjust verdicts that believe the man on death row for the Black-eyed Susans murders is innocent.
The lawyers and her psychiatrist don’t know that Tessa is hiding a secret. For years, she’s stumbled across Black-eyed Susans planted in unique places. Is the real killer still out there, taunting her? Black-Eyed Susans is an excellent suspense mystery novel that kept me listening to this audiobook during the morning, on my afternoon walks, and into the late evenings.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, 2018
Where the Crawdads Sing is a tale about Kya, a young girl abandoned by her mother and father, and growing up alone in North Carolina’s marshes. Kya dodging social workers, Census Bureau workers, and anyone else that threatened to pull her from the rundown shack in the marshland that she calls home. In her solitude, she becomes one with her marsh surroundings and finds beauty in what most locals consider ugly swamplands. There’s a murder and a love story. The story sucked me in and held me to the end, which has an exciting twist. Full disclosure, my wife, who reads a lot more fiction than I, read it and saw the ending coming a mile away. I still liked the book and am excited that Daisy Edgar-Jones from the Normal People limited series is slated to play Kya.
The Odyssey by Homer, trans. Emily Wilson; 8th Century BCE, trans. 2017
I attempted to read The Iliad and The Odyssey last year. That wasn’t the first time I tried to read The Iliad, but when I failed yet again to finish it, I decided to hang it up. Instead, I listened to CliffsNotes on the classic and watched Netflix’s Season 1 of Troy: Fall of a City and called it a day. That’s the best I could muster. I did, however, read The Odyssey. It must have been the fact that The Odyssey is an action epic poem: Odysseus struggling for ten years to make it home after the sack of Troy.
The Odyssey delivers. There’s sex: The goddess Calypso makes Odysseus her boy toy for a year on her island. Similarly, the warrior spends a year on the island where the nymph Circe was banished. (See my entry of Madeline Miller’s novel for a modern take on that affair.) And there’s our hero, who overcomes divine and natural forces, battling storms and near-death encounters with a cyclops, a cannibal, sirens, and a six-headed beast. Great stuff! I hope to read Virgil’s The Aeneid this year to keep with my at least one classic piece of literature a year.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, 1990
As a student of Journalism and History in college in the ’80s, I read a lot of nonfiction books on the Vietnam War: Bloods, Dear America, Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (chief source for the Ken Burns PBS series), and my favorite, Michael Herr’s Dispatches. And there were all those films on the subject. So, for years, I was tired of the subject matter. If it weren’t for the multiple bumps the thirty-year-old book received from a few disparate sources last year, I might not have read the book.
And that would have been a pity. The Things They Carried is an excellent work of historical fiction that contains semi-autobiographical elements. (O’Brien served in the Army and was in Vietnam 1969-70.) The Things They Carried reads like a memoir, and the book’s voice and the other characters are vibrant and clear that I forgot early on that I was reading a work of fiction.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, 2006
I’m so glad my friend Mathieu turned me on to Gillian Flynn. I read and thoroughly enjoyed Gone Girl (my favorite Flynn novel). I also liked Dark Places. Sharp Objects is about a troubled reporter given the assignment to return to her hometown, Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover the unsolved murder of a girl and another’s disappearance. She moves into her childhood home with her neurotic, hypochondriac mother, disengaged stepfather, and vicious teenage half-sister and begins her investigation. The deeper she digs, the darker the story becomes.
You (Book 1) by Caroline Kepnes, 2018
I am usually turned off by book series; whenever I see “Book 1,” that’s usually my queue to keep scrolling, but the Netflix series looks compelling, so I decided to check it out. I wasn’t disappointed. You is driven by the delusional internal dialogue of Joe Goldberg, an employee of a modest bookstore in the East Village who becomes obsessed with Beck, a pretty blonde who walks into the store one afternoon. The novel gets creepier as Joe finds ways to possess the unassuming young woman.
The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, 2003
Along with Sally Rooney’s Normal People, The Queen’s Gambit is another novel that made a brilliant TV series. By now, the title is nearly a household name among streaming TV viewers. But for those who do not have Netflix or who haven’t read Tevis’ excellent novel. The Queen’s Gambit is the story about a brilliant orphan named Beth Harmon who learns chess from the orphanage’s janitor, who spots genius in the introverted girl. Along with her prodigious skills, she develops a severe substance abuse problem. The drama pivots between her genius and her addition. It’s a remarkable novel by the writer who brought us some excellent books: The Hustler and The Color of Money.
Richard D. Wolff’s The Sickness is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself (2020) is a complication of transcripts from his podcasts and essays published mostly during the pandemic. Whether you are watching Wolff on YouTube, listening to his podcasts, or reading his published works, Wolff is one of the most clear-headed critics of capitalism. In The Sickness is the System, he shows us how our for-profit health care system was doomed to fail us during a pandemic, with our without Donald Trump’s bumbling.
Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1968) is the first book by Hunter S. Thompson that I have read since I graduated from college back in 1987 when I read his legendary Fear & Loathing in Los Vegas. In Hell’s Angels, Thompson follows the famous outlaw motorcycle club based in the Bay Area for two years. He participated in their exploits. The arrangement was tenuous, at best, and ultimately lead to the author being beaten up by some of the “one-percenters.” Thompson was an extraordinary writer with remarkable insight.
Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World by Michael Pollan, 2020. The famous food author tells us the history of caffeine–mostly by way of the two most popular delivery systems: coffee and tea. He explains how caffeine has changed the course of human history. The stimulant contributed to the winning and losing of the American Civil War (the US Army had plenty of coffee, the Confederacy didn’t). And caffeine greased the wheels of the Industrial Revolution. (With the advent of indoor lighting and the minute hand, labor moved indoors; swing and night shifts were created. The coffee (and tea in the British Empire) break was born to combat the body’s natural circadian rhythms.
Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus (1969) is a collection of fifteen short stories of passion, sensual self-discovery, seduction, and liberation in pre-World War II Paris. Despite living in a country that looks down on erotica as sinful, Nin writes about the subject with such beauty, innocence, and fun that this American reader can’t help but blush from time to time.
After a three-month-long order from Governor Gavin Newsom to close all gyms in California, the governor lifted the closure order on June 15. Though I only practiced yoga once at home during that time, I still felt wary about going to any place where there might be a lot of people breathing hard in a small room. During the second week of the reopening, I had to get back on the horse, even if I didn’t feel entirely comfortable doing so. My wife jumped right in and reported to me how things are at the club with the group exercise schedule pared back quite a bit. In the meantime, I found a video on the club’s Facebook page explaining how the gym is addressing reopening during this time of COVID-19.
So, on the second Thursday after the reopening, I attended one of the new yoga classes offered. There are new rules that give the gym a less than warm feel to it. Still, the staff is as friendly as ever, even if you can’t see their smiles under their PPE.
When I arrived, I immediately noticed social distancing sandwich boards and other cautionary signage, a closed-down snack bar, and a friendly masked face behind the front desk that was barricaded with end tables against it to ensure I kept my distance. The nice young woman did walk up close enough to take my temperature with an infrared thermometer, though. I tried to surrender my membership card per procedure, but the young woman pointed to the scanner at the corner of the desk. It was now the member’s job to scan in their card. The lobby was as vacant of people as my office, where most of us are now working from home. I currently work once a week to perform tasks I can’t do remotely.)
I approached the locker room wondering how the social distancing was going to work there. But if the lobby seemed sparsely populated, the men’s locker room was virtually empty, which is nice because I recall many times being uncomfortably packed into the locker areas and the showers. I’m still emotionally scarred over the time I was trying to open my locker with someone’s penis inches away from my face.
When I got my locker open after having to get the combination from the front desk, I noticed a giant hole in my mesh laundry bag with my boxer briefs halfway out of the bag. My gym shorts and shirt were gone. The standard procedure when this happens is to go to the laundry room and have someone from Housekeeping help me find my stuff in their dauntingly large bank baskets full of wayward sports garments, but my class was starting soon. I’m glad I keep two sets of gym clothes in my locker.
I dress down, put my mask back on, and head for the yoga studio all the while wondering if I will have to wear my mask during yoga. Breath is a big part of yoga, and, when I can remember, I practice Ujjayi breathing when I practice. That could lead to a very hot mask during practice. (If you want to know what Ujjayi breath, or and some aptly call it, “Darth Vader breathing,” check out one of my favorite teachers show you how it’s done.)
Entering the yoga studio, I find a bunch of Stages indoor bikes in the room. I check the group exercise bike studio and notice it now only has about half of the bikes, and they are all six feet apart. My yoga studio is now a stock room. (I would later find out another group exercise studio, as well as the once busy elliptical exercise room, had both suffered a similar fate.) Where will I be practicing yoga tonight? It turns all of the group exercise classes in these COVID-19 days are taking place in—the basketball court.
The Right Temperature. I’ve practiced in a studio that was too hot. Well, a couple of times, then management brought in this massive fan, the teacher turned off the music, and we practiced to what sounded like a being in a hanger with a running P-52. As for the court, the temperature was about right. PASS
The Right Lighting. Standing at the door to the gymnasium watching two guys. dribbling and shooting hoops, I was at once struck by how tranquil this environment wasn’t; the lighting way too bright., but it was perfect for shooting some hoops! FAIL
Aromatherapy. As for this element, I usually don’t care too much for how a place smells, just that it doesn’t, but if there were a bunch of sweating basketball players finishing league play it would have failed at this element miserably. I have only attended one class where a teacher, with an exotic scent, visited every student during Shavasana and rubbed the necks and shoulders of each student with eucalyptus oil. I could see how aroma could benefit a practice. I’ll give the room a PASS on the aromatherapy.
Peace & Quiet. I couldn’t meditate before the class: the cacophony of two arrhythmic bouncing balls and the THUUUNNNGs of the vibrating basketball rims ruined any chance of preparing for the practice. “That’s it,” said a fellow practitioner as she abruptly ended her pre-session warm-up. “I can’t take the basketballs!” and left, returning just when the class started. But, to be fair, when the class started, I did experience “peace and quiet.” I’ll give it a weak PASS
Neat & Clean. A “neat and clean” environment was debatable, It was clean, but the towels, sanitizing spray bottles, and stacked steps and raisers (used for other classes here) made it seem more like a basketball court/storage area during a viral outbreak)Another weak PASS
An Inspirational Place. The place did not fill me with “inspiration,” it’s a regulation NCAA/NBA 94’ x 50’ basketball court with about ten feet extra past the sidelines and baselines, not a yoga studio, which usually fills me with inspiration. FAIL
Enough Personal Space. While there was plenty of “personal space,” the 6-feet markers for the mats did not make the experience intimate. But “intimate” was not a criterion, so PASS.
Appropriate Music. Appropriate music is more critical than someone not into yoga might think. I’ve attended classes with teachers who believe somehow MC Yogi is suitable for a yoga session. (Yeah, I know the rapper is a yogi, and I enjoy his music, but that doesn’t make his music appropriate for practice. My first class back at the club had no music, which was better than the wrong music. The second class featured music and was low enough for me to hear the teacher in the cavernous space. PASS
Therefore, the new “yoga studio” gets a barely passing grade on the Do You Yoga’s test with a 75 percent. Not great, but we’re talking about exceptional times, and my health club is not exclusively a yoga studio. I’ll have to make do with what they can offer its members. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if dedicated yoga studios have either gone out of business or cut back on their services.
We rolled out our mats over the designated spots—no chance of accidentally touching a fellow practitioner during a supine trunk rotation. Moments when you inadvertently play handzies with the student next to you were now geographically out of the question. After we warmed up, we executed a seated spinal stretch to the left. That’s when I noticed there are ten other members spread out so far that one of them was near the opposing goal line. There was one of the club’s trainers taking in the class at the free-throw line (Center), another two at opposite sides of the three-point line (Guards), another near the far baseline across from me. (That would make us both Forwards, I guess.) And five more near the mid court line and back on the opposing goal line. When I stretch the opposite way, I saw the barrel of basketballs near the door where we came in, and at once, I thought, “We have enough bodies in this gym for a pickup game!” Meditation didn’t go out the window; I never even began to go down the mindfulness path. Looking back on it now, I could have used “Alley-oop” as a mantra.
My favorite teacher, Heather, who used to teach classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, was not present. Nor was she on the schedule. Heather bailed early–a week before the club closed three months ago. In her place, now was Robert. Many yoga students and teachers have told me that Robert is one of the best yoga teachers in Sacramento, and I have practiced with more than one teacher who calls him either mentor or teacher.
He had a class at this club before the shutdown, but I had only attended it a couple of times. Many yoga peeps have told me that anyone can walk into a yoga studio never having practiced and do a session of Power Yoga or advanced Vinyasa Yoga–you just go at your own pace. But I have tried practicing in advanced classes and found it too frustrating, having to take multiple breaks and feeling as if every eye is on me–the loser (though know no one is looking at me; “no judgments” is a common motto with most, if not all yoga teachers). Still, I find trying to practice yoga above my abilities quite the opposite of beneficial and not blissful or inspirational. Anyway, Robert’s pre-COVID-19 class was too advanced for me.
For anyone who reads this blog, they might remember Robert as the kind teacher who was leading the class where I cut a loud fart. I don’t know if he recognized me as the guy who fouled his practice. Still, he did make an effort to talk to me after the class just like he hung around the front door of the club, post poot, possibly to catch me and tell me I was doing a good job [Read: “Don’t worry, Grandpa Sphincter, that’s your Root Chakra, tooting its appreciation for your practice!]. That embarrassing moment was so long ago I only hope Robert forgot about it.
One of the many amenities found in a high-end club like this one is that the establishment provides mats, blocks, rollers, straps, and as many towels as you need (or don’t need, but feel so entitled to use anyway). But these days of the novel coronavirus, the club, like everywhere else, is practicing “contactless” service, so it expects members to bring their mats. Thankfully, the front desk keeps a few mats for dullards like me. I’ve always wanted a folding mat but had only frivolous reasons to invest in one. I finally broke down and bought one, and yes, it is quite portable, but the two milometer-thickness kills my knees!
On my way out, I spoke with Housekeeping to see if my missing gym shorts and shirt were in the laundry room. My items appear to be lost; casualties to the three-month closure and a worn-out laundry bag. They gave me a new bag, but I’ll need to bring more duds.
That’s my yoga practice in a basketball court story. As I post this, COVID-19 cases have spiked in California. Governor Newsom is shutting down bars and restaurants–again. I’m guessing gyms will soon follow. (Though here’s an NPR story about how to work out as long as your gym stays open.) Perhaps I need to start a home practice, though I have mentioned on this blog countless times how undisciplined I am about following through. Just think, Jocko, you could build your own yoga space! Use the “8 Ways Your Surroundings Can Make (or Break) Your Yoga Session.” and your copy of the glossy coffee-table book Yoga At Home: Inspiration for Creating Your Home Practice by Linda Sparrowe as guidelines. I could even rub my shoulders and neck with eucalyptus oil. If only I knew how to, I shut up my chronically barking dog I might achieve zen in the middle of a pandemic!