Culture: Current Events Impacting Art

I’ve read of people watching movies that were made Before (this pandemic), who were uncomfortable with people standing close together. They’d said that crowd scenes and train stations and parties all seem so… weird, now that we are in our current situation. Dangerous. Cringe-inducing.

I’ve looked at advertisements for resorts that are updating their photos: instead of showing bars and pools with young models distributed around them, the spaces are empty. The sunshine-bathed lounge chairs are well spaced. The tables in the bars are at least ten feet apart. Spaciousness is suddenly the essence of luxury. The sanitation protocols of hotels are near the top of the list of amenities.

Designers are proposing conceptual projects to accommodate dining without sharing air, beach resorts with translucent walled spaces (and without mingling), and similar barrier-enforced-social-distancing scenarios…

The new reality is sinking in, and it is changing how we see things. It is changing advertising. It will soon change art.

I keep thinking of this interview with William Gibson:

William Gibson: ‘I was losing a sense of how weird the real world was’

In 2016, William Gibson was a third of the way through his new novel when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. “I woke up the day after that and I looked at the manuscript and the world in which the novel was set – a contemporary novel set in San Francisco – and I realised that that world no longer existed.

He had to start his novel over, because his near-future novel was no longer plausible – reality had shifted too strangely to sustain it. (The re-write turned out brilliantly – my review is one of the first posts on this blog.)

Meanwhile, I’m contemplating my own fiction, and am alarmed that some of my dystopian novellas are becoming plausible. My dystopias are pretty damned dystopian (I was hoping dystopic was a word). This is not a good thing.

I told someone that science fiction, even the grim sort, is innately optimistic. When they asked why, I told them that science fiction assumes humans have a future.

A human future is not guaranteed.

Book: Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A book that rightly earned great acclaim

Between The World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
published by One World (Penguin Random House)

The best book I’ve experienced so far this year is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. This memoir, written as a message to his young son, is both a sensitive, insightful autobiography and a thoughtful dissection of the constructs of race within the United States.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition of this work, read by the author. Coates is a very natural speaker/reader, and it was a pleasure to listen to him in this format. He is also an extremely gifted writer, and this book (especially in his voice) feels both brilliant and extremely personal. Like listening to a friend pour out his soul in a deeply meaningful and very penetrating way.

Coates shares his insights on his experience growing up in a tough neighborhood, on displays of fear, on how the racial dynamics of this country permeate parenting, daily life, physical presentation… On the extremely artificial construct of a “white” American identity, on the infrastructure that sustains a completely different reality for people who claim that identity… And on the crushing loss of police brutality, not only experienced by those who are arbitrarily murdered by the authorities on half-baked pretenses, but on the way those murders and the lack of justice that follows them scar entire communities.

This book manages to be thoroughly enjoyable while still touching on some of the most painful and tender topics in our current time. I gained some insights. I misted up. I felt shared joy over some of the author’s experiences. I appreciated the way Coates described his own personal growth in areas he hadn’t anticipated. The book feels remarkably contemporary at an up-to-this-second level, and I feel like my life is richer for having heard it from the author. I recommend it zealously.

Life: Lighter Side of Pandemic Commentary

I’m loving all of the declarations on Twitter that working from home has accustomed people, and ESPECIALLY women, to wear what is comfortable, leading to revelations that nothing worn to work is comfortable.

Narrow, pointy shoes? Oppressive undergarments? Shirts with stiff, starchy collars? No, no, and no!

It is beginning to sound like the ‘uncomfortable office clothing’ industry is going to take a big hit, even if a treatment for COVID-19 emerges soon!

Life: Pandemic Views of City Life

My posts need a little something at the top… Maybe this?

I’ve been chuckling with my friends over articles about San Francisco rents, and breathless articles about a 90%+ increase of units on the market over [some time period]. We are chuckling because some writers are seeing this as a sign that the City is emptying out, while we know that a 90%+ rise in a place where vacancies are usually around 2% isn’t worth writing home about. Low single digits, people! Nothing to see here! Move along!

There is a sense, though, that if enough tech people from distant US regions (which seems to be a lot of tech people) can work remotely and want to go back to their home states, there might actually be nearly affordable housing in SF again! IT COULD HAPPEN! I’m not saying it is happening, I’m just saying it COULD. Because: wouldn’t that be amazing?

I know, I’m desperate for a silver lining on a cloud that turned out to be part of a tornado.

The pandemic has been a nightmare for San Francisco, and when I’m not trying to figure out how to turn all of the empty street-level real estate into pop up shops and art galleries and small business incubators for local craftspeople, inventors, and artists (which I’m not in a position to implement, so don’t write to me, please), I’m looking for SOMETHING new and good. Our tourist and convention industry has been hit SO HARD. Aside from neighborhood restaurants, which are suffering from the transition to take out only, our neighborhood small businesses are largely still closed. So this tech companies working-remotely-forever thing has some potential.

I don’t really think that EVERYONE working remotely forever is good. I got a lot of exercise in my car-free commutes. I like to see my colleagues in person sometimes. I’m getting wistful email messages from breakfast/lunch only restaurants in the financial district saying goodbye forever. I can see the follow-on effects this is having on countless shops and small businesses that previously served office workers. I worked downtown for DECADES (yikes!), and the convenience of all of the services and shops was fantastic. My dentist, optometrist, multiple pharmacies, the place I donated blood, great coffee services, reliable book shops, and so much more were all just blocks from my building. I worked very long hours, and spent SO MUCH ON FOOD! And on drinks, back when I had friends who would go out with me after work, rather than only having colleagues who leave early to drive a zillion hours to a remote suburb with a large house they were rarely able to see by day…

But some of those tech companies are NOT integrated into the urban landscape like my company/I was. There are a few big ones that are more like isolated islands within the city. There were complaints that workers went in early, left late, and left no trace on the area around their building: they had food services and recreation within their offices, which really could have been anywhere, so…

…Meanwhile, in New York, I’m watching a slightly different drama play out on Twitter, where people say “good riddance” to people who moved to NYC for work/play and now are bailing on the city because it isn’t “fun” anymore with the covid precautions in place. (It’s pretty entertaining – the quality of the insults is high!)

The Guardian (UK) has a piece that makes the class elements clear, especially when people run off to their second or ‘vacation home,’ a concept that had to be explained to me long ago. (Living in California, I didn’t immediately understand why I would need to go AWAY from a place that other people come to on THEIR vacations. Also, I did not grow up knowing people that owned more than one home, so that part was especially baffling. (Your WHAT? Why do you have that? Did your first one break?)) The data isn’t complete, but it’s looking like rich folks are the ones who cleared out, because they had other places to go, AND could afford to.

Parrott’s research underlines the bitter inequalities buried within the job losses. While lower-income and predominantly black and Latino workers in face-to-face industries have suffered devastating levels of unemployment – 61% in entertainment, 56% in food services, 49% in hotels – the decline in lucrative Wall Street jobs has been just 3%.

New York’s not dead, but pandemic has laid bare deep-seated problems, 29 August 2020, by Ed Pilkington

YIKES. Looking at those numbers, it’s going to take more than some wacky incentive program for surviving business to get people back on their feet.

Note: the Guardian actually interviews black people, instead of interviewing other people about how black people are faring, which is REFRESHING.

SO: cities are going to shed some people who weren’t especially happy to be there anyway. How will that change how those of us who stay live and work? This is what preoccupies me while I hide inside from the wildfire smoke…

Twitter: USPS Support

There are many graphics in support of the US Postal Service. I especially like this one.


ProtectTheUSPS #ProtectThePostOffice #SaveThePostOffice #SaveTheUSPS

(Yes, she is wearing a mask, which is a nice touch. Yes, I’m a geek. Yes, you already knew that.)

News: Writing during a global pandemic

The numbers from Johns Hopkins ( ) as of 10:11 this morning,

If the US was doing well, the current coronavirus numbers would be shouted from rooftops; instead, they are dire, and are noted quietly, without fanfare, and set aside. Or denied by partisans or by people who can’t manage bad news.


I was reading an interview with William Gibson, one of my favorite fiction authors (possibly this one in the UK Guardian from January of this year), and was really struck by how he had to rewrite his novel then in progress, because the 2016 elections in the United States made the story he was telling unmoored from the reality that was unfolding.

The COVID-19 pandemic currently spreading around the world, and in particular spreading in an uncontrolled fashion throughout the US, is a similar, world-changing, culture-changing experience. This is evident to the point that people watching films that were made prior to the pandemic are uncomfortable with how close people are standing together, and how many things the characters touch, because we are looking at these interactions in the context of a new risk profile. These scenes of people in crowds, or in enclosed spaces with strangers, or speaking close to the faces of people they barely know, have a new meaning. They are no longer of our time – they feel out of place. So clearly from Before.

This is an unevenly distributed problem: in New Zealand, people are living reasonably normal lives; in the city in China where the virus was first recognized as a problem, life has moved on and people are attending outdoor pool-party concerts with no real fear. (This contrasts with people who are oblivious to the risks, and are spreading the infection actively in countries where infections are still rising, in part due to this obliviousness: their very obliviousness is creating dread – and danger – for others.)

Everything has context. I’m wrestling with the conceptual changes to my own right now, after 24 weeks of adjustment and precautions. There is a lot to process.


Depending on how long getting this under control takes, there are lots of adjustments that will need to be made: many people who will need to be tasked with providing support, current under-utilized (abandoned in favor of working from home) office space could be safely set up for students who need zippy internet and lots of space (especially for those whose parents are essential workers and need a place to be, but also because our schools aren’t set up for this, nor is everyone’s home set up for remote lessons; supervision and appropriately staggered arrival and departure times are required). We’ll need lots of workers to renovate ventilation systems, very large service centers for the unhoused (more dining rooms, more places to stay, more services generally)… There is so much to be done. There are SO MANY KINDS of emergencies that we prepare for, but the pandemic is messing up THOSE plans also (fire shelters don’t have capacity for crowds during a pandemic), and those plans also need to be revised.

None of which is my job, but somehow a lot of it is on my mind. I mean, this likely isn’t the only pandemic we’ll have. And, we can’t keep stumbling around like this, hoping it will pass while not changing things up. A lot of people are available who could be put to work if we have new plans. And… my optimism is breaking out of it’s tiny container again, but it’s still there…


Will this have an impact on my writing and vision of the future, to the extent there is a future with the climate crisis in full effect? Yes. I’m adjusting it now, as if my one dystopian novella wasn’t dystopian enough…

Culture: 423 Days of Duolingo

Duo is the encouraging Owl mascot of Duolingo

Growing up in San Francisco is an experience I wouldn’t trade!! You can hear half a dozen languages spoken in a trip across town, have classmates and neighbors from around the world, celebrate the new year at least five different times/ways, and taste so many delicious, different foods!

I grew up in the Mission District, and was a tall child from about age 11, so I spent countless years of my life as ‘the tall girl that can get something off the shelf for your abuela.’ (Note: I am still that woman. I also open jars for other gals. Sisterhood is powerful.) The abuelas would politely ask me for the thing I should reach for them, usually in Spanish, and so I developed a reasonable Spanglish vocabulary for things you can buy in a shop and anything/everything I would want in a Mission-style burrito. (Burrito vegetariano con frijoles pinto, aguacate, y salsa picante, por aqui, por favor!) (Note: it still bothers me that our local shops insist that lemon is limón, and lime is limón verde. IT IS NOT JUST A VERDE LIMÓN! Noooooooo!)

I had been frustrated by being unable to read some books my father had at home from his prior life, when he was in the military and stationed in Germany, so I studied German for four years in high school. (I kept a diary in German, and got a German pen pal whom I’m still in touch with decades later!) I loved Japanese design, and so I casually studied Japanese before taking a trip there in the early 1990s, and was able to read Hiragana and Katakana briefly. (Other English speakers were so impressed when I could translate for them! “Where are we?” “We’re in Sendai.” “You can read that sign?” “Not the big characters, but you can see just below the big characters, it is subtitled, and I can read that.” “BUT THAT IS ALSO IN JAPANESE!” “Yes, but it is easier Japanese…”) In the early “aughts,” I took my then-spouse to Paris, and I studied French for about a week before going, which got me through ticket purchasing and train station announcements successfully. Years later when I began to work in Europe, I needed to brush up on at least German, and perhaps French.

I turned to Duolingo.

Duolingo is an app (and website) that turns language study into a game. The lessons are short; there are cartoon characters that speak the language you are studying, and respond when you translate them correctly; there are exercises in multiple choice, magnetic-poetry-style listening and translating in both directions (native to study language and reversed), and speech tests. It’s fun, like a little game, and there’s a tiny social network element to it, where you are ranked against others (if competition is your thing). It’s free if you want, or you can pay for it to be able to go faster (and be forgiven for making more mistakes).

I’d read that the well-intentioned company founders couldn’t actually speak in the languages they claimed to be studying, not even in their press conferences touting the tool. If you’ve read those stories, you may be wondering whether you’ll get anything out of it.

I’ve used Duolingo to study German, French, Spanish, and a little Dutch. Studying languages I have formal training in (German) and those I don’t (all the others), I can say that it is a nice tool for building vocabulary and expanding on foundational knowledge, but just okay for learning structural basics from scratch. My German lessons went VERY smoothly, especially in the mostly multiple-choice format, but I really struggled with the French lessons, and needed to find other resources to explain what it was about verb conjugations and gender patterns that I JUST COULD NOT SEE.

I can say that the style of lessons (and even some of the stories) are the same across languages, though the conversational content can differ quite a bit. (The French lessons were originally much more about being rich, liking horses, and going shopping than the German ones, which favored taking trains and telling everyone you are German; the lessons have all been updated since I started, often multiple times.)

After 166 German lessons/levels, I can say that my German vocabulary has definitely improved; words that never came up in the travel-books, but which are very practical, were great to finally see. I can read them, and hope to remember them. After 146 French lessons, I can read far more than I could previously, but I can’t start a conversation, my grammar remains awkward, and my pronunciation still sounds like my tongue objects to something. 62 Spanish lessons allowed me to learn waaaay too much about a party the girl behind me was describing to her friends on the phone, but were not enough to speak to my neighbor’s wife to tell him that a parking space he wanted was available, and he should take it immediately.

So: it is good! It is fun! It is bite-sized! You’ll be glad you did it! Yet know it isn’t enough on its own. If you want some tables of rules, clear patterns presented for reference, or to write things down to better remember them, you’ll need to supplement Duolingo with other materials. (I like Living Language books + audio recording packages for that.) It is good for what it is, but an app can’t do it all, and that’s okay.

And ALL OF US could use some encouragement in daily life from a cute owl.

Culture: Flag and a Positive American Manifesto

My favorite thing from this Independence Day is this vibrant, positive declaration reclaiming the United States for all of us from Jameelah Nuriddin and Erin Hammond.

Imagine a ‘New America’: reclaiming the American flag – in pictures

With the explosion of global protests and activism demanding an end to racial inequality, Jameelah Nuriddin and Erin Hammond consider the complicated relationship between African Americans and the American flag in a series of photos. The eight images capture a giant 200-year-old flag, a young black woman with a giant afro, and various postures combining the pledge of allegiance and black power poses.

… Envision a world where all humans are free and equal – where we prize each other over material things
– we stand against tyranny and oppression, hatred and fear

–Jameelah Nuriddin and Erin Hammond.

News: Happy Virtual PRIDE!

We can all use the positivity of PRIDE! The intersectionality, support for BLM, and festivity is truly encouraging.

Today’s Virtual Global Pride 2020 poster

If you haven’t been watching the Global Pride 2020 live stream, you can find it by clicking on the photo above. (It is delightful!)