It’s that time of year again! Time for me to write my personal year in review. Obviously, I’ve had an ongoing series on here called “Journal of a Pandemic Year” which stretches back to March. I think there are twenty-four or twenty-five entries in that series, some of which will make its way here. 2020 has been one for the books, that’s for sure. And soon, the year will be history and we can move onto 2021. In last year’s post, I mentioned my first novel came out in 2019 and on New Year’s Eve, the audiobook version hit the shelves, so that year definitely ended on a major upswing. How quickly everything came crashing back to earth.
In January, I spent the first week of classes in the hospital due to a complication with the disease that I suffer from. In fact, when I went to the ER near my house, they had to transfer me to the Medical Center in Houston to a larger teaching hospital so that I could get better care, as the disease is somewhat rare as a whole and virtually unheard of in a male patient. They treated me pretty well at the hospital and the bed was the most comfortable hospital bed I’ve ever been in, and I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals! Still, missing the first week of classes at the start of a semester (for the second time in two years) makes it hard to find your footing. Once I was back in the classroom, I never quite managed to hit my stride. It felt like I was swimming upstream.
I started paying attention to reports about the virus right around the end of January. I figured it was a matter of time before it found its way to this country. The week before we left for Spring Break, the first case popped up in the county where my campus is. I was really looking forward to the break as I needed a chance to recharge my batteries and reevaluate what I was doing and where I was going. Ironically enough, the last thing I lectured about was the Spanish Influenza pandemic. About midway through the break, things started to accelerate. The NBA postponed the season. I had been excited about Spring Training starting, but the MLB decided to postpone things as well. And then we got the notice that the college would be switching online for the balance of the semester.
The move to the online format wasn’t as traumatic for me as it might have been for others because I’ve taught at least a couple of online classes every semester going back to the fall of 2013. It took a little bit of work to switch the face to face classes over to the new format, but it wasn’t too terrible. The more time consuming part was recording lectures. I spent countless hours doing this until I checked the states and realized the students weren’t watching them. But then April arrived.
I won’t belabor the point here, because if you’ve followed the blog for while, you already know the story. I’ll try to be brief. Basically, our roof got damaged in a storm which necessitated a new roof and an entirely new electrical system. (We also went ahead and had the house painted while we were at it). Since they had to open up some walls to do the electrical work, we also had to do a small kitchen renovation too. All told, it came to around 35K. Trust me, you do not want a basketball sized hole in your roof. Ever. The house is 88 years old and so she needed a bit of a facelift. We are happy with the results.
Since I had finished the first draft of Molly’s Song back on Thanksgiving of 2019, I had spent time doing my own edits. I sent her off to my editor Kristen in March. My plan was to tackle the content edits before the semester was over and send the book back for a copyedit in June. But I’m sure you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. Likewise, in June I also planned on starting to write my third novel; the massive novel set in the Russian Revolution that I have dreamed of writing for years. I had it all plotted out and outlined, but the repairs interfered. Since I missed the window of time that I had wanted to start, along with everything else going on in the world, I never quite got my mind right to write. (ha ha)
My son turned 18 at the end of May and graduated from high school a few days later in early June. (He also graduated with an AA degree from the community college two weeks before that). They had an in-person graduation since at that time, case counts were still relatively low. That would change, of course. Oddly enough, I don’t really remember much from the summer which is kind of funny since it wasn’t that long ago. I wasn’t teaching, at least not for the first part, and I wasn’t doing any writing. Maybe that’s why it was so unremarkable. I did teach the second half of the summer virtually, of course.
Given the rapid rise in case in July and early August, my wife and I made the difficult decision to live apart once school started back for her. The district where she works was falling all over themselves trying to rush to be the first district in the state to open for the new school year. Given that we knew she would be exposed, it was inevitable, and the fact that with my health, I am all but certain to not have a positive outcome should I contract the virus, it was for the best. We stayed apart for the first six weeks of the school year before we decided that it just wasn’t worth it. Whatever happens, it happens to both of us. (Other districts have shut down when they had a few positive cases…my wife’s district had 45 new positive cases in the two weeks after Thanksgiving alone and they have said repeatedly they will not switch to virtual instruction for any reason).
As if 2020 wasn’t bad enough, we had to dodge a few hurricanes in late August/early September. The worst of it was to our east, but it’s one of those things. Every time one is looming out there and on track for your area, you have to prepare for it to make landfall right on top of you. The one time you don’t is the one time it will. It can be stressful, but for those like myself who have spent a lifetime on the Gulf Coast, you kind of get used to it over time. The one positive thing is that at least if we had taken a direct hit, we’d have had a new roof to protect us. Then again, I’d prefer that its strength not get tested. Since we’ve shelled out all the money on repairs/renovations, we have decided to add storm shutters before next hurricane season starts.
I don’t touch alcohol and the last vice I really had was smoking. I gave that up in August. I mean, what better time than the middle of a pandemic? I do still enjoy a fine maduro cigar on occasion, but only rare occasions. After twenty-years in the arms of Nick O’Tine, I had not realized how much time I spent on the porch with my smokes. I needed something to do to fill the void. Once upon a time, I loved singing, so I purchased myself a karaoke machine! It serves a very useful purpose on two fronts. Not only could it distract me until the cravings passed, but it also served as an excellent way to start rehabbing my lungs. Slowly but surely, my voice is coming back.
I’ve dealt with some medical issues later in the year, including a cancer scare. As a retired fireman, I walk around with cancer hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles. In late August, I started having some deep pains in my lungs. I already have fibrosis in both of them due to occupational exposure. I went to the doctor and he packed me off to have a CT scan. Long story short, the autoimmune disease that I developed after I got hurt and retired has caused me to develop a few benign lung nodules. They aren’t serious and are not life threatening. I’ve had a couple of Rona scares too. I’ve talked about them in my other posts and so I’m not going to dive into it here. I’ll just say that I tested negative in both cases, though the second still left me pretty sick of a week. And then we had the spinal injection from hell…
I sent Molly’s Song off for copyediting in mid-September. I got it back in early October. I spent a week or so putting the finishing touches on it and then it went out on submission. I think I was up to 50 rejections before I got an offer for publication, which I accepted. The book should be out in 2021. It’s the first in a projected series, so there will be at least two more to follow. So stay tuned to my website for updates as to the release date, etc. Going from initial idea to offer of publication was long, tough slog through hours alone in front of my computer battling self-doubt and frustration. It was worth it to see it all pay off in the end. Molly is a wonderful character who took over the book on her own. I have to say that I’ve developed a bit of a crush on her. And since she was inspired by an old photograph, I know what she looks like.
It was a subdued Christmas this year. We traditionally do gifts on Christmas Eve. Honestly, there was much that my wife and I needed or wanted this year, so we didn’t exchange any. The family event that we usually hold that night was cancelled due to The Rona. My mother and I are both in the high risk category, so that was for the best. However, on Christmas Day, my parents did stop by for a little bit. We stayed outside and wore masks and socially distanced ourselves. My typical Christmas Day tradition (post retirement from the FD) is to watch the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It’s the best of all of them, in my opinion, and you can watch it on YouTube here.
I’ve learned a couple of new skills during quarantine. I have learned photoshop and also how to colorize black and white photos. My photoshop skills mean that I can add myself to photos with my Maska. Or I can add her to photos of me. I’ll post a couple of examples above. As far as colorizing photos is concerned, I was able to give my little girl, Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Anastasia Colleen Hutchison, a special Christmas present. I touched up and colorized a photo of the Grand Duchess Anastasia she is named after and had it printed out and framed to give her as a Christmas present. Above, you see a photo of her posing with her picture. I hung it over the spot where she sleeps at night (and during the day).
It took about four days to recover from the spinal injections from hell, though my pain only went down to pre-procedure levels, not pre-flare up levels. However, I managed a good week or so. The day after Christmas, things went south again. My entire spine locked up from ears to ass and I had to spend a large part of the day in bed on ice packs. Though I am always in pain of varying degrees every second of the day, I can still function okay. The problem is that my usual day to day pain level was a four. Over the past year, it has crept up to a 6. And where in the past, I had flare ups that lasted three or four days happen every four months or so and kicked my pain level up to an 8, it always soon went back down to a 4. What scares me is that over the past year, not only has my day to day pain level gone up to a 6, but I’m getting one flare up lasting 7-10 days every month. Honestly, it makes me dread going back to work in person in August. I don’t know how I’m going to manage a two hour round trip commute. It’s not like I’ll have much of choice though, so I’ll learn to cope. I’ve always known that my injuries will continue to cause my spine to deteriorate over time, but this last year has really seen it accelerate. The frustrating thing is that there is nothing that can be done. There’s no surgery that can fix it because, in the words of my surgeon, “it looks like World War 2 was fought in your lumbar spine and World War 1 in your cervical spine.” Medications can take the edge of a little, but doctors are prevented by the government from prescribing heavier meds now due to all the restrictions. So people like me are left to suffer in silence. It does seem as though suffering is essential to the human experience.
My annual New Year’s Eve tradition is to watch the Twilight Zone marathon on the ScyFy Channel. This means my day started at 0500 when I awoke to catch the first episode which, incidentally, was the pilot episode for the entire series. I’ve seen all the episodes a dozen times each, if not more, but I always get something new out of them with every re-watch. It truly is a television masterpiece and many of the themes are just as relevant today as they were when the episodes aired. Later on tonight, well after the sun goes down, I brave the cold front that has dropped our temperature 35 degrees in a matter of hours and have a cigar with a glass of calvados to usher bid farewell to 2020 (good riddance) and usher in 2021.
In later December 1944, the popular New Year’s Eve toast in Berlin was, “1944 had twelve months. Maybe 1945 won’t bring us quite so many” and rather than wishing people a Happy New Year, residents of Berlin simply said, “Survive.” After 2020, I think we can all relate to those sentiments. All month long I have been thinking of the song “Long December” by Counting Crows, particularly the line that says, “It’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.” Let’s hope that is true!
I’m going to do something a little different this year. Given the fact that I’ve been more or less housebound for nine months, I’m going to give you a list of some of the TV shows I watched and novels that I read. It’s not all inclusive, of course, but being a writer and all, I thought you might like to see what I’ve enjoyed watching/reading.
TV Shows watched (*=rewatch):
Poldark: Demelza is an absolute goddess!
Тихий Дон* (2015): My favorite television drama. (Adapted from my favorite novel).
Love in Chains: An epic Russian/Ukrainian historical drama. Free on Amazon Prime w/subtitles.
Anastasia (the Broadway musical)
True Detective Season 1*
Admiral: a ten part Russian drama about Admiral Kolchak (free w/Prime and subtitled)
Hell on Wheels
The Sopranos: Seasons 1 & 2
Peaky Blinders: Seasons 1 & 2
The Stand: (the new version that came out in Dec.)
Lights Out* (A cool drama season about a down and out boxer who runs a gym. On Amazon)
The Last Czars (I wish I hadn’t. It is very inaccurate).
House of Cards: The original British version
Ancestral Lands: An epic newish Russian series. Free on Prime w/subtitles
Romanovs: An Imperial Family: About the last 18 months in the lives of the Romanovs. I have it on DVD, but it is also available free on YouTube w/ English subtitles.
The Road to Calvary: (Excellent recent Russian TV drama. Was on Netflix but is no longer)
Cold Case (entire series)
Some of the Books I Read (Fiction):
*= books I read for the second (or more) time and += read them in the original Russian
Journal of a Pandemic Year
Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Quiet Flows the Don*+
The Revolution of Marina M.
Chimes of a Lost Cathedral
The Butcher’s Daughter
An Instrument of War
Make Me No Grave
Ribbons of Scarlet
Million Dollar Baby*
Crime and Punishment*+
War and Peace*+
The Berlin Boxing Club
The King of Warsaw
The Last Daughter
(Note that these lists are not all inclusive. I watched a lot more than this and I also read a ton of non-fiction books not listed above, mostly about Russian History/Literature).
You’ll notice on both lists that I revisited shows and books that I have seen/read before. That is because in times of trouble, like 2020 has been, I take comfort in familiar things. For example, I’ve seen the 2015 14 part adaptation of Quiet Flows the Don probably a dozen times. Part of that because Aksinia Astakhova, one of the characters, is my literary crush, and the actress that plays her in this series is out of this world! (And a great actress too!) Taking comfort in familiar things is why I also rock out to 90s music all the time. It reminds me of when my life was simpler, and perhaps most importantly, how I felt pre-injuries.
In case you are wondering why so much Russian stuff appears on both lists, I could easily, and truthfully, say that Russian History is my “thing.” It is a bit deeper than that, though. From childhood (during the latter part of the Cold War), I was fascinated with Russian history, which is kind of odd being that we were fed a steady diet of anti-Russian propaganda in school. Many years later when, as an adult, I started to learn the language, my tutor (who was Russian) was amazed that I picked it up as quickly as I did. She said she had never seen someone whose native tongue was English acquire a working knowledge of Russian so quickly, and without an obvious American accent when speaking. Keep in mind, I do not have a natural gift for languages. I struggle with English on a daily basis and I grew up speaking it. She once told me, “You have the blood of an Irishman, but you have the soul of a Russian.” I took that to be a great compliment, which is how it was intended. Sometimes I wonder if our interests in life don’t come from something buried deep in our psyche or our soul from a part of us that we cannot readily access. But even if that is true, I’m not from Russia and have no Russian ancestry, and this goes back to my childhood when I would have been hard pressed to find the country on a map.
And there you have it, friends, my 2020 year in review.
Here’s wishing all of you, my dear readers, a 2021 filled with much joy and happiness.