2021: The Rebound Year

“When the pandemic is over…”

Again and again, this phrase came up. I spoke it. I thought it. All through 2020, I fantasized about the things I would do when COVID-19 was under control. Not that I was hopeful. The lockdown lasted for months. “Vaccine” was an unspeakable word. My first furlough was followed by a second. The waiting was long, and longer still because we didn’t know how long the isolation would last. Even now, I wear masks on a regular basis.

On January 1, 2021, I stared into a void. My temporary teaching position would end in a matter of days. My freelance gigs were all frozen. For the first time in 20 years, I had no prospects whatsoever.

I do count my myriad blessings. I know very few people who contracted coronavirus. My household was largely unscathed, largely thanks to good neighbors and social safety nets. My wife was relentlessly supportive; we found much to enjoy about my “house-husband” status. And I will always marvel at our global tenacity, the war our human species waged against an ubiquitous enemy that no one could even see.

2021 was a case study in “making something from nothing,” and I have taken nothing for granted. I charged into this year as intentionally as a writer can. I have always prided myself on never wasting time; in the singular lifetime I assume we’re allotted, what time is there to waste? And as I look back on these past 12 months, I am astonished what has unfolded. People have reached out from the most unexpected corners. The world has gradually re-blossomed, and so have the opportunities I’ve so desperately sought.

Here is a look back on this remarkable, rebound year.

Quarantine Pastime: Making Short Films

In one creative burst, I started producing short films in lockdown. Then, at the urging of my buddy Bill Holman, I started sending them to film festivals, because why not, right?

I conceived of Mannequin years ago, but I never actually filmed it until December 2020. I had basically storyboarded every frame in my mind, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend $15 on an actual mannequin. At last, I found two free hours in my home office. I filmed every shot, including the stop-animation sequences. And I was mighty proud of the final picture.

Mannequin was a hit on social media, and my Facebook feed was full of positive feedback. After some hesitation, I sent Mannequin to several festivals around the world–which sparked an obsessive submission process over the next few months.

In total, Mannequin won three awards for Best Short, in Europe and India.

Emboldened, I made a second short, Cut! Like its predecessor, Cut! found inspiration in Pixar shorts: It’s a cute, wordless story about inanimate objects coming to life. It also harkened back to my adolescent years as a competitive epee fencer.

Cut! screened at four film festivals, in Providence, Los Angeles, New York, and Toronto.

A labor of love, The Invisible Thread started as an unproduced stage play in 2001. (So, yes, 20 years ago, soon after I graduated college). The original title was Life in a Box, and the story evolved considerably in the intervening decades. I filmed the short at home, while my wife was at work, and I conscripted friends to call or record themselves (in order to maintain social distancing). There are a few shots I wish I could do over, but in general, The Invisible Thread is exactly what I hoped it would be.

Thread has screened in Providence, Los Angeles, Ireland, Spain, and the United Kingdom, and it won Best Short Film at the Tagore International Film Festival.

Accolades from the Rhode Island Press Association

I worked for Providence Media for three years before I went on furlough. We parted on very good terms, of course; the pandemic had made childcare impossible, and I couldn’t sustain my journalistic endeavors while also caring for a rambunctious six-year-old. Luckily, I still write for the company’s many magazines on a freelance basis, including an arts column for Providence Monthly, so in a way, it’s like I never left.

Still, I was floored to receive good news from the Rhode Island Press Association: I had apparently won five awards for my 2020 coverage. These included:

  1. Profile/Personality Story
  2. Short News Story
  3. In-Depth News Story
  4. Investigative/Analytical Story
  5. Food/Dining Story

I’m not sure how I “placed,” but in September RIPA will host a banquet, and I’ll find out whether I’m first, second, or third in each category. Lots of people (admirably) shrug at awards, insisting that the joy of their craft is reward enough. I am not so humble; after years of writing in solitude, I get giddy about this kind of endorsement.

New Day Job: Videographer

In an unexpected twist, I landed a job at The Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, where I am their lead (and first, and only) videographer. This role has been a euphoric turn of events–wonderful colleagues, lots of creative leeway, and an arsenal of professional equipment at my disposal.

My very first project was to start a baking series, showcasing pastries and desserts from the Jewish diaspora:

I’ve supplemented this with short documentaries for the Jewish Rhode Island newspaper:

I can’t overstate how much I’ve enjoyed this job, how challenged and fulfilled I now feel. I have loved my writing career, and I continue to write vigorously for a range of clients (including Jewish Rhode Island, the Alliance’s monthly newspaper), but I love the technical challenges of multimedia, and the limitless possibilities that lie ahead. Plus there’s the pleasure of embedding myself in Rhode Island’s Jewish community, from whom I have already learned so much and plan to learn so much more.

Gigs at the Wilbury Theatre Group

I’ve been out of the live theatre loop for several years, so I was ecstatic to receive an invitation from my friend Brien Lang–to create a short animated video for the Wilbury Theatre Group. The virtual fundraiser was set up as a kind of variety show, and the theme was “It’s (Not Quite) the End of the World.” I basically had carte blanche to riff on this theme, so I made a high school drama featuring dinosaurs.

I ventured into new territory with this one, blending stop-motion with animation effects. The Wilbury and I had such good chemistry that they invited me to produce another for the Providence Fringe Festival, this one based on the Persian story of Zahhak. This short served as an introduction to the live performance and featured the “limited animation” style of 1970s Hanna-Barbara cartoons.

Hopefully, these will be the first of many collaborations with the Wilbury.

The RIHS Archive Remix Film Festival

While producing a story about Becca Bender, film archivist at the Rhode Island Historical Society, I stumbled into a rare opportunity: The Archive Remix Festival. The idea was to take digitized footage, which has been gathering dust in the RIHS library for decades, and use it to produce an original, experimental film. The films were projected outdoors on the big-screen, and in locations across the state. Getting to lie in the grass and watch so many cool shorts was a highlight of the summer.

Mine was called “Hope,” which combined the poetry of Emily Dickinson with the one-word motto sewn into Rhode Island’s flag.

Cycling South Coast

When the High Holy Days arrived, I found myself with a good deal of vacation time. So I packed up my new Dahon folding bike, took the train to Boston, met up with friends for a few days, rode around the city, and then took the ferry to Provincetown. From there, I biked the length of Cape Code and South Coast, arriving (140 miles later) at my home in Rhode Island.

One of my goals of this trip was to complete a circuit: In 2020, I biked in the opposite direction from New Haven, CT, to my front stoop. Connecting the two routes, I have pedaled across nearly all of the Southern New England coast.

Block Island Film Festival

This film festival stood out, partly because Block Island is part of Rhode Island, and not some distant city; and partly because the festival screened a documentary that is close to my heart: The Painter.

This short doc chronicles the artistic career of Jason Hamel, who is paralyzed from the neck down and clutches a brush in his teeth to paint. I met Jason because I was writing a story about him for SO Rhode Island magazine; his experience was so striking, I asked to make a film about his life. To date, this is one of the great honors of my life.

The festival was virtual this year, as a wise precaution against spreading COVID, but the experience was warm and wonderful, and I was humbled to receive a Lighthouse Award for Best Director.

Art!

I’ve been sketching since my earliest days, but it was parenthood that revived my artistic pursuits in earnest. Drawing with pencil or charcoal was an easy way to pass the time, when my son was watching movies or needed some quiet time. It’s something we can do together, including tandem drawing, YouTube tutorials, and the ever-amusing “Exquisite Corpse.”

I’ve now been a semi-serious art student for the past three years, which snowballed during COVID and has resulted in experiments I never dared to attempt in youth. I have no idea what I’ll “do” with all these pieces, if anything, but it’s been quite the joyful pastime.

Momentum Magazine

This year, as my obsession with cycling kicked into high gear, I stumbled into a book called On Bicycling. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through this anthology of essays and polemics, and then I learned where the book had come from: Momentum Magazine, an online periodical about cycling culture based in Canada. The tone and subject matter were exactly what I had always sought, and I started to pummel the editorial staff with queries.

I am currently writing for Momentum on a semi-regular basis, including gear reviews, and absolutely loving it.

RISCA Scriptwriting Fellowship

Just when I thought the year couldn’t get any more redemptive, I received an acceptance letter from the Rhode Island Council on the Arts: I had been named one of two Screenwriting/Playwriting Fellows for 2022. This comes with a generous grant and the expectation that I will write more scripts in the coming year.

The fellowship itself is a tremendous honor, and I am breathless to even speak of it. But what really struck me were the panel’s comments. Applicants don’t send a bio, budget, or statement of purpose, just a sample of their creative work in a given medium. (Painters send pictures of paintings, composers send sound files, etc.) I sent RISCA a TV pilot, which is close to my heart but has rarely been seen by anyone.

Here is what they wrote:

There is no better way for a writer to finish the year than to receive such soul-lifting praise. From where I’m standing, 2022 is looking like a very exciting year, indeed.

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