A Long December: My 2020 Year in Review

Dear Readers,

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.

Attending the Independent Audiobook Awards, virtually, of course

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.

Pandemic haircut

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.

The new look

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.

Elizabeth and I in the pre-Rona days

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).

Hurricane preparations aren’t complete until the pirate flag goes up

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…

My new friend, a feral cat that I named Alexander Nevsky

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.

One of my photoedits
And here’s another

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).

Anastasia with her Christmas Present
One of my colorizations of Grand Dutchess Anastasia
And here’s one of my Mashka

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.

And here’s one more colorization, just because.

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!

Though I do love my office at the college, it’s hard to beat the view from my pandemic office.

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.

The lovely Demelza as portrayed by Eleanor Tomlinson

  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

Deadwood*

The Sopranos: Seasons 1 & 2

Peaky Blinders: Seasons 1 & 2

Ripper Street*

Copper*

Designated Survivor

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

Moll Flanders

Vanity Fair

Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Quiet Flows the Don*+

Doctor Zhivago*+

The Revolution of Marina M.

Chimes of a Lost Cathedral

Anna Karenina*+

The Stand

Lonesome Dove*

Shoeless Joe

Russka

The Butcher’s Daughter

December Girl

Palmetto

An Instrument of War

Make Me No Grave

Our War

Russian Treasures

Ribbons of Scarlet

Paris

Million Dollar Baby*

Beau Geste

Caribbean

Crime and Punishment*+

War and Peace*+

Fat City*

The Professional

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.

The lovely Aksinia Astakhova as portrayed by Polina Chernyshova

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.  

L.H.

What’s In A Dream?

Dear Readers,

Let’s talk about dreams. No, not the kind I have about Maria Nikolaevna, my history crush. I mean the dreams we have in life. Growing up as a kid in Port Arthur, Texas, I dreamed of a couple of things. First of all, I wanted to be a firefighter. Second, I wanted to write a book. Okay, to be completely honest, I also dreamed of playing the NFL. The Golden Triangle area (made of up Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange) is the football capital of the world with more NFL players per capita than anywhere else on the planet. So that’s a common enough dream there. Some, like Jamaal Charles do make it. Others, like me, do not. Though my pursuit of said dream stopped when I was ten, but I digress.

I’ve been truly fortunate in life. My two real dreams came true. I became a firefighter and lived the dream for many years. After I retired and became a professor, I also had time to pursue the second dream. My book came out in the spring of 2019. As I stand here and type this, I can say that my two biggest dreams in life became a reality. This does not mean that I have or had it easy. I didn’t. But my dreams came true and I thank all things holy for that on a regular basis. Ever since my book came out, though, I’ve been slowly focusing on a new dream. One that, in my most sincere hopes and prayers, will come true one day.

So what is it?

Reader mine, the city that I grew up in is a rough place. It’s got a high poverty rate. Around 1/3rd of the children in the city live in poverty. There’s a high crime rate. A large number of vacant, boarded up buildings in the old downtown area. Drugs. Gangs. You name it. But you know what else it has? Some truly amazing, wonderful people. The best you’ll find anywhere. It’s got great music. Great food. And an enduring spirit, as evidenced by the fact that the city is still there despite getting slammed by hurricanes regularly. I am PROUD to call Port Arthur my hometown, and I love the city and its people with all my heart. And this, Dear Reader, is where my new dream comes into play.

Yes, I published my first book last year (and was proud to donate a copy to the Port Arthur Public Library), but you’ll notice I haven’t posted any pictures of me jetting off to Tahiti on vacation. Sales have been modest, but I wrote the book for love, not money. I’ve finished book two (it’s in the editing process now) and I’m working on book three. In order for this dream of mine to come true, one or both of these books must land me a big publishing deal. I want that not for me. I’ve been broke my whole life and wouldn’t otherwise know what to do with the money. I want to do it so that I can put the money into my dream.

My dream, Reader Mine, is to open a boxing gym in the old downtown part of Port Arthur. With all the vacant buildings, I’m sure there’ll be something suitable. This won’t be any old boxing gym though. It will be free of charge to the children of Port Arthur. And it would be more than just a gym. At the end of the school day, I would have vans or buses pick up children from the elementary schools and bring them to the gym. When they arrived, they would get a healthy snack first, and then I would have tutors to help with them with their homework. After that, and only after that, would they be allowed to work out. In the evening, the buses would then deliver them to their homes.

This would serve several purposes. First of all, it would give kids something healthy to belong too at an age when they are susceptible to the influence of street gangs. Second, many of the children in Port Arthur live in single parent homes and when they get home from school, they are often alone for several hours. The gym would give them adult supervision and also provide some good role models, as there are some old fighters that live in the city that I would recruit to run the gym for me. Finally, it gives them a positive outlet for their energy. We would not be training kids to box in the Golden Gloves or turn pro. This would simply be a boxing gym where they could work out, so things like CTE wouldn’t be a problem. The healthy snack is important too, unless PAISD has improved the gruel they served us for lunch back in the 80s.

I would set up a non-profit to actually handle the gym and all associated components. And I would fund it myself until we got enough interest from businesses and community leaders willing to invest in it. Every dime brought in would go right back into the gym. I would not take so much as a cent for my personal coffers. (Though the gym manager, trainers, tutors, and drivers would be paid a salary). I really think that if I once I have enough to get it off the ground, it will be a long term benefit to the city.

I’ve always been the kind to put the service of my community at large above my own personal needs. That’s why I became a firefighter. And that’s why I became a community college professor. In the faces of my students in the classroom, I see my own face. When I see the faces of the children of Port Arthur, I see my own face, because I was one of them once too. I’m lucky, very lucky, to have chosen a path in life that has led me to some amazing places. And I think it is incumbent upon those whom life has blessed to share that with others if they can.

It might be years. It might be a decade or more. But I will make this happen one day. Of that, you can be sure.

Until next time, Dear Readers, take care of yourselves, and each other.

L.H.