By Terry Fleming • March 20, 2020
It was a scene both heartbreaking and inspiring—the sight of my daughter on her computer on a group chat with her 4th grade English teacher and several of her classmates. Everyone's laptop camera was on, and of the kids I saw eager faces, mischievous faces, confused faces, tops of heads, and the occasional parent poking their face in to interpret an instruction or speak until they realized their microphone was muted. This was the new normal after the outbreak of the Corona virus. We live in the Seattle area, the American Ground Zero of the pandemic, and my daughter's school was now officially closed, and far as we knew, would be so till the end of March.
The first two days were pure chaos. We were using Microsoft Teams and permissions weren't configured properly, documents weren't downloading or uploading, the folder structure was haphazard and non-intuitive, and connections were constantly being lost, but we struggled through. All the while, the teachers were troopers, trying to cut through the chaos in the most productive way possible. All the kids were talking at once and it was tough to be heard above the din:
"What do you have in your mouth?!"—"That's gross!"—"Look at my doggie!"—"I have a kitten!"—"She's cute! What's her name?"—"I found a dinosaur!"—"What?!"—"A dinosaur emoji!"—Teacher: "Eddie, please stop posting dinosaur emojis in the chat space." —"Where's the math homework?"—"It says I don't have permission!"—Teacher: "What was that, Stacy?"—"It says I don't have permission for that!" —"Hello? Hello? Yes, this is Stacy's mother. When we attempt to download the math homework, we get a message—it appears you don't have permission for that."—Teacher: "Ok, thank you. I'll investigate that."—"I had a fish!"—Teacher: "I'm sorry, David, what was that?"—"I had a fish, but my dad flushed him down the toilet."—"Why would he do that?"—Teacher: "Stacy, please..."—"He died."—Teacher: "David, that's not appropriate."—"But he did! My dad called it a burial at sea."
Teacher (flustered): If everyone could please put their microphones on mute, I'll answer questions one by one..."
By the third day, the new reality was beginning to set in, and with it, frustration and sadness among the kids. Why is this happening? Why can't they go to school, see their friends, play? By the fourth day the Governor of Washington state Jay Inslee declared that all public and private schools be closed for the next six weeks. That was it. This is going to be our life for the foreseeable future, and possibly for the rest of the school year. As best we can, we stick to our routine. When outside, we maintain social distancing and hope for some luck. Indoors, we take our fun where we can. I cleared the furniture in our basement so my daughter could roller-skate down there to blow off steam, and as for me, it should come as no surprise that I prefer curling up with a good book (yes, I'm working for the right company). And if you're like me, you might benefit from some recommendations to help take your mind off the current situation. I hope the following titles provide you with a worthy escape. I found them expertly distracting...
Edie: American Girl by George Plimpton and Jean Stein
The tale of the it-most of It-Girls, The Factory Girl herself, Edie Sedgwick. An heiress, a superstar, a muse to Andy Warhol, Edie cut a glamorous figure in the days of Warhol's factory, starring in Andy's scandalous films and vexing the likes of Bob Dylan. She was to eventually crash and burn, like so many young talents of the Sixties, but she's remembered to this day as an icon of style. Beautiful, fashionable, devious, and doomed, her story is both a reflection of the times she lived in and ruthlessly unique. Ciao, baby!
Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder by John Waters
Filmmaker John Waters might never call himself a national treasure, so I'll do it for him! In an age when Cancel Culture has become a cynical tool for trolls on both sides of the political aisle, it's refreshing to find someone who kowtows to no group and embraces his eccentricity. The essays in this book rejoice in the unmentionable, indefensible, and just plain weird, while encouraging all to reject the safe and commonplace.
The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub
The oft-overlooked epic from the grisly minds of horror maestros Stephen King and Peter Straub! Long before Stranger Things came along, this eighties novel explored a twelve-year-old boy's journey across a different kind of Upside-Down—a monstrous America of another realm seething with abominations.
Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix
And for every Talisman that came out back in the day, there were dozens of truly ridiculous novels vying for shelf space and trying to cash in on the horror craze. The paperbacks featured in this compendium of schlock horror from the seventies and eighties includes giant man-eating frogs (Croak by Robin Evans), actual heavy-metal monsters (Kill Riff by David J. Schow), and hordes of genetically-engineered rat-rabbits (The Folly by David Anne, the same author who brought us the questionable epic Rabid-Day of the Mad Dogs). Who could resist such moronic mayhem?
Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog
The blurb on the back of this book reads: "A vision has seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter has given up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong." Written by fiercely eclectic filmmaker (and ardent Baby Yoda lover) Werner Herzog, what more reason could you need to read it?
Go Team Venture: The Art and Making of The Venture Bros by Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer
Forget for a moment that yours truly had a recurring role in the classic Adult Swim cartoon The Venture Bros. (Colonel Bud Manstrong, anyone?), this giant book (more bang for the buck!) about the making of Venture is filled with beautiful art, crazed asides and hilarious anecdotes from the creators behind it all, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer.
I Like You Just the Way I Am: Stories about Me and Some Other People by Jenny Mollen
Jenny Mollen is an unapologetic oddball. In this book of comic essays, she reveals her penchant for stalking her husband's ex-girlfriends, trolling her therapist, purchasing a, um, working girl for her husband, suffering her self-obsessed parents, and inexplicably enduring a regrettably long-term relationship with a foreign exchange student whose fingernails were so long she convinced herself he was a vampire. I don't think I have to say more, because this kind of thing sells itself.
Anything by John Lahr
If you're a fan of showbiz and haven't read any John Lahr, then now is your time to play a long overdue game of catch-up. With books like Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, Joy Ride: Show People and Their Shows, Prick up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, and Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr (John Lahr's father), nobody captures the dreams and dalliances, despair and desires of showfolk like John Lahr.