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And counting 11 min read

And counting

On Super Bowl Sunday, read about the NFL's COVID-19 role models, the lasting effect of the disease on athletes, exotic big game hunting in Texas, & lots of popular culture, from short stories to films

By Cary Littlejohn

My niece turned one year old this week, which made me painfully aware of the fact that I hadn’t seen her in 51 weeks. She was one of the last normal things to happen to me before the pandemic changed so much about daily life. It was her birthday, and the ease with which it allowed me to orient myself in time, that made me count up my time and identify the mile markers along the way.

It’s been 56 weeks since scientists first noticed a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China. It’s been 51 weeks since I saw my newborn niece. It’s been 43 weeks since I lost the very best thing in my life, a relationship I valued more than anything else. It’s been 42 weeks since I last saw her. It’s been 42 weeks since I had to grapple with the end of that relationship with a seven-hour drive from Missouri back to my parents’ house in Tennessee because I had nowhere else to go.  It’s been 36 weeks since I got my first real response to job applications I’d been sending out since late 2020, and the same amount of time since I first flew to Wyoming.  It’s been 34 weeks since I came to Wyoming to stay, so that means it’s been 34 weeks since I’ve seen my parents. It’s been 33 weeks since I became a professional journalist, the realization of a dream that started 161 weeks ago when I arrived in Columbia, Missouri to pursue a master’s degree in journalism.  It’s been 13 weeks since we elected a new president and the country’s first female vice president. It’s been 12 weeks since I last saw my brother, whom I hadn’t seen for more than a year before that. It’s been nine weeks since I turned 33 years old. It’s been five weeks since we put 2020 behind us, at least in terms of the checks we write and calendars we use. It’s been just four weeks since a Trump-supporting mob stormed the U.S. Capitol hopped on lies from the President of the United States about stole elections. It’s been two weeks since Joe Biden took office.  And it’s been three days since I missed my niece’s first birthday.

Expressed this way, in numerical form, it’s easy to see just how tough this past year has been. And I don’t even have it bad, y’all. I’ve been luckier than many, in terms of my health and the health of those I love most and almost any other factor you could measure.

In that time, at least 2.3 million people have died from COVID-19 around the world, though the number is most assuredly higher than that. More than 460,000 of those deaths were in the U.S., the most of any country in the world. At least 20 million jobs were lost during that time.

This is a grim sort of accounting, of time lost, of lives lost, of ways of life lost. They say that numbers don’t lie, but perhaps it’s OK if you find yourself wishing that just this once maybe the numbers had gotten it wrong. You won’t be alone, and you can count on that.

Ten worth your time

  1. It’s Super Bowl Sunday, which means many minds are turned to football for one last hoorah for a while. It feels comfortingly familiar, the ritual of watching the year’s biggest game at home, but it will also be eerily of the moment, with far fewer fans in attendance because, oh that’s right, the pesky little pandemic we’re still suffering through. In a year, a football season, defined by COVID-19, this New York Times look at the Seattle Seahawks and how they managed to avoid a single COVID-19 case on the team is remarkable. And a reminder that actions and attitudes matter, and sadly, much of our current predicament could have been avoided if we’d simply acted differently.

  2. HBO Real Sports has a brand new podcast, and its first episode looks into the lingering effects of COVID-19 on not just relatively healthy people but athletes. The exceptionally healthy. Yet many of them, after what most would consider mild bouts with the disease, are wrecked still months later, unable to perform anywhere near their former levels. It reminds us of how much we still don’t know about this disease, and it’s a stark reminder of the need for caution. Sure, you’re 65-year-old mother/father/aunt/uncle/grandmother/grandfather tested positive for COVID-19 and now seem no worse the wear. But what about those in their 20s who end up in extended hospital stays? Or, like in this episode, a college track star who now gets around in a wheelchair because her fatigue is so great? It doesn’t always make sense. There are very few answers. And vaccinations are still staggeringly low at this point. Wear a mask, keep your distance, and be careful out there.

  3. The HBO Real Sports podcast is, at its core, about what have been termed “COVID-19 long haulers.” Long haulers are those who suffer symptoms for months and months after the initial diagnosis. Ed Yong, The Atlantic’s indispensable science writer who put out more must-read pieces about COVID-19, wrote about long haulers back in August, and it seems like a great time to re-up that article here. Long-Haulers Are Redefining COVID-19 - The Atlantic

  4. These long hauler stories are downers; there’s no getting around it. In a different type of bummer of a story, Texas Monthly’s latest cover story is definitely a bummer. It’s a look into exotic big game hunting ranches (and rich person playgrounds) and presents both sides of what very much seems like “canned hunting” opportunities (though the proprietors of such ranches would dispute that). It’s sobering to hear the enterprise, nothing new in the world of big game hunting, discussed so frankly, so commercially:

    Hunting at Ox is not cheap. Roaming the ranch are game animals from every continent but Antarctica—about ninety species, including white-tailed bucks artificially bred for supersized antlers and an orange-hued antelope from Africa called the bongo, with spiraling horns and pencil-thin white stripes, which often weighs in at six hundred pounds and goes for $35,000 a kill. Emus are a relative bargain at $1,000, while nilgais (another monster antelope, this one from India) and impalas cost $5,500 each. Zebras: $5,500. Addaxes: $6,500. Kudu: $17,500. White-tailed bucks are $2,500 to $20,000, based on the size of the antlers. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys killing kangaroos, that’ll set you back $7,000 a pop.

  5. In keeping with the theme of bummers, this piece from Slate, entitled “I was laid off from my newspaper job at 62. I know this is probably it for my career” really hit home for me. The author was like me, in the sense that she returned to journalism school later in life. The difference was that she made her decision to become a student while in her 30s more than 20 years ago, when the media industry, though still not robust as it once was, had not diminished quite to the degree that it has now. Even back then, the writing was on the wall in many ways. She wrote:

     I was so excited to start journalism school I wasn’t even put off by naysayers. A male faculty member once told me that while I’d be a great addition to the program, because of “my age” and the fact journalism was “dying,” I’d be better off using it as a launch pad for a career in public relations.

    I can’t describe how NOT the case that was for me when I went back to journalism school at 30. I don’t believe it was because professors there were high on their own supply; they were as realistic as anybody else with eyeballs and a shred of common sense. But they never discouraged me or pushed me in an opposite direction. And the quality of their character and the depth of our friendships that have only grown since I graduated does not allow me to believe they were simply looking out for themselves. They were not cynically thinking, “Welp, we did our part; we educated him. The rest is out of our hands.” They were supportive and hopeful for the future of journalism, and not only that, but my role in that world, even though I’d be a cub reporter in my mid-30s by the time I found a first job. I’m thankful for that support, that confidence, that optimism and idealism.

    But my heart breaks to read this story, the same as it does when I sit and talk with coal miners here in Wyoming who are fearful about their livelihoods dying away under a new president and a turn toward renewable energies. The rationale is the same: When you have no interest in retiring, when you still need to work, the prospect of an industry falling out from under you in your 50s or 60s does not leave people with many options, and that is as sad to read about for us as it is scary for them.

  6. One of the great things about time at a university is the richness of experiences that it provides to students, who, sadly, take them for granted or are too invested in their personal lives to even know what’s going on around campus. In a random bit of good luck, I was fortunate enough to meet and participate in a small group conversation with George Saunders, one of America’s preeminent short story and fiction authors. He was in Columbia for the Unbound Book Festival and was speaking with a group of students for a professor’s class. I wasn’t a part of the class, but I was close with the professor, and he invited me along. Later, I saw Saunders speak before a large crowd as part of the festival, read from his first novel Lincoln and the Bardo, and even write a short piece for Vox Magazine cheekily suggesting questions the audience should ask of him. I was excited to see a list of short stories that Saunders thinks are classics, the ones that should be taught in classes and studied, and I think you might enjoy some of his recommendations, too. Read the American short stories George Saunders thinks will stand the test of time from Literary Hub.

  7. How Do You Fictionalize the Experience of Social Media? That was the question posed by a recent post on the Ploughshares Blog, and it’s an interesting look at a new book called Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler. It’s interesting because of what it predicts about literature going forward, as more and more of our lives become defined by social media, which aside from being bad for us in general is difficult to capture in a meaningful way in fiction.

  8. This New York Times Magazine piece is one of my favorites I’ve read in a while. The author, Jay Caspian Kang, writes as much about himself as his subject, star of the film Minari (and The Walking Dead) Steven Yeun. Some people might hate that approach, and it certainly would never fly at the newspaper for which I work, but that’s what I love about magazine journalism. You’d be hard-pressed to convince me that Kang’s first-person perspective and insight doesn’t make this piece richer and more alive, more necessary. He’s grappling with his identity as an Asian-American writer whose very assignment to interview Yeun comes from the fact that they’re both Asian. Kang provides a meta-textual look at his piece, deconstructing it as he’s writing it by revealing the thought processes going into the reporting, namely an uneasiness about his role and an uneasiness of foisting that upon another. The piece is revealing about Kang, about Yeun, about the film, and even the film’s writer and director.

  9. A line from Kang’s article flashed through my mind as I thought about another piece of pop culture recently released on Netflix: Malcolm and Marie. In Kang’s article, he writes:

    I know, for example, that being a “race writer” comes with assumptions about the true literary value of your work, which then makes you want to write about anything else, which then raises those recurring questions about who is steering the ship. All that is exhausting and counterproductive. Better to just be Amy Tan and accept the country and your role in it for what they are. Today I write almost entirely about race and identity, although not exactly by choice. My job — even what you’re reading now — is part of my career of explaining Asian-Americans to white people. It’s fine. But even if it weren’t, what am I going to do about it?

    This feels very reminiscent of the beginning of the film Malcolm and Marie, in which Malcolm (John David Washington) is an up-and-coming filmmaker who’s just premiered his first real feature. It was a success, and he’s decrying the expected rave reviews that will inevitably try to make it a Black/political movie, which he thinks is reductive. He rants about this while Marie (Zendaya) makes him a late-night bowl of mac and cheese despite being quietly angry at him for failing to thank her at the premiere. She’s his partner but also his muse, as much of her life story, namely being barely 20 years old and a drug addict, supplied the backbone of Malcolm’s film.

    It’s a film that never leaves the house, and it’s an uncomfortable (though at times humorous) argument that simmers and then boils and simmers again. It’s a fight that’s ostensibly about one thing, but the one thing actually encapsulates so much more. It’s a fight that just can’t resolve itself because the root of the issue is never being fully addressed. It’s relatable in that way. It’s vicious, from Malcolm at times and from Marie at others. It’s sympathetic, to Malcolm at times and Marie at others.

    Washington and Zendaya are magnetic, captivating, Movie Stars in the truest sense of the term. I liked the film a great deal more than Justin Chang did, the film critic from the L.A. Times, who has some fun with the review in no small part because the fictitious critic against whom Malcolm rails most of the film is from the L.A. Times.

  10. Because of the pandemic, I got to do something this week that still remains on my bucket list but at least now it’s on there with an asterisk beside it. I got to see a film “at” the Sundance Film Festival. Now, of course, I really didn’t, but on a day off, I came late to the party and bought a single ticket to watch a screening through the virtual setup the festival had built to accommodate the pandemic’s new reality. It worked flawlessly, and the only thing I regret is that I didn’t take off more time to dedicate to watching more films by purchasing a pass.

    The film was Cusp, a coming of age story, told in vérité style, of three young Texas high school girls. The film was a first for the two directors (Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt; they won the Emerging Filmmaker award at Sundance), and it’s beautifully shot, even when the reality of the world it’s capturing isn’t likely anyone’s definition of beautiful. I enjoyed the film, but I must concede that it was difficult to watch. It was hard not to give in to paternalistic feelings that made assumptions based on my modest, middle-class upbringing. It felt like I was passing judgment on a socioeconomic class different than mine, a mode of parental involvement different than mine, a search for meaning that manifested differently than mine at that age. These girls, no older than 16 years old, were often drinking or smoking weed, all supplied to them by older friends, almost exclusively male, and then the most poignant and revelatory moments of the film come as the girls are describing numerous non-consensual sexual encounters as simply a fact of life. There was no explicit connection drawn between these realities, but I couldn’t help but fearing each party scene was going to lead to some encounter like they casually discussed elsewhere. I found myself wanting to will them away from those situations, away from those relationships and friendships as if I knew better for them. That didn’t leave a “good” feeling inside me as I was watching or afterwards, but that’s not a condemnation of the film. If anything, it reminded me of what social creatures we are as humans. These girls talked with a pretty sober understanding of what’s going on around them, yet they don’t look at it as something from which to run. (Sure, there are the stereotypical “I’m never coming back here” sentiments, but they sound no different from teenagers all over the place sitting in bedrooms, dreaming of greener pastures.) To assume they would (or necessarily should) run from their particular milieu is the viewpoint I was trying (and often failing) to divorce from my viewing of the film. It made me think, it forced me to grapple, and it educated me to a very real existence that was (still is) different from my own. I don’t think we can or should ask much more of a film. ‘Cusp’: Film Review | Sundance 2021 | Hollywood Reporter

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