Theatre Thursday: Remembering my real second language

This is a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know!

As this time of lockdown and uncertainty goes on, what does become clear is that large, live events are probably not coming back soon. Live theatre, movies, concerts, and sports may take the rest of this year off, if not longer. Likewise, the fate of amusement parks of all kinds seems uncertain, or at least will be drastically changed.

Right now, we do have certain areas that have insisted on becoming field experiments, and by the time you read this, it may become clear whether the people who ran out to bars without masks last week did the right thing or made a stupid sacrifice.

Concerts may survive on live-streaming pay-per-view events for a while, and movie theaters may rediscover the drive-in, although those take a lot of real estate. Then again, indoor malls may now be officially dead, so look for their parking lots and large, blank walls to be easily converted.

Live sports are another matter because, by their very nature, they often involve full-body contact, and nobody is going to be going all-out on the field while wearing any kind of mask. Without quarantining every player, official, and support staff member, and testing each of them constantly, it’s just not feasible.

Even then, what about the live fans? It might be possible to limit attendance and assign seats so that social distancing is maintained, but that relies on trusting people to stay in the seats they’re put in, and as we all know, if someone is stuck in the outfield nosebleeds but sees plenty of empty space on the other side behind home plate, they’re going to try to get there.

One unexpected outcome is that eSports, like Overwatch League, may become the new sports simply because they absolutely can keep the players and fans apart while they all participate together.

See? The prophecy is true. After the apocalypse wipes out the jocks, the nerds will take over the world!

As for live theatre, it’s hanging on through a combination of streams of previously recorded, pre-shutdown performances, along with live Zoom shows. And, again, this is where the magic of theatre itself is a huge advantage because, throughout its history, it hasn’t relied on realistic special effects, or realism at all, to tell its stories.

Okay, so there have been times when theatre has gone in for the big-budget spectacle, but that goes back a lot further than modern Broadway. In ancient Rome, they were staging Naumachia, mock naval battles, but they were doing them as theatrical shows in flooded amphitheaters, including the Colosseum, and on a large scale.

And they’ve gone on throughout history, including Wild West Shows in the U.S. in the 19th century right up to the modern day, with things like amusement park spectacles, including Universals Waterworld and Terminator attractions, and Disney’s newly minted Star Wars Rise of the Resistance attraction,

But these big-budget spectacles are not necessary for theatre to work. All you need for theatre is one or more performers and the words.

Theatre is one of the earliest art-forms that each of us experiences, probably second only to music. And we experience it the first time, and every time, that someone reads to or tells us a story, no matter how simple or complicated.

Once upon a time…

That is theatre, and that’s why I know that it will survive eventually — but not right now, at least not in a familiar form.

And yes, this is a big blow to me on two fronts. First, I know that I won’t be doing improv or performing for a live audience for a long time. Second, I know that I won’t be seeing any of my plays performed onstage for a live audience for a long time.

This current plague quashed both of those options, shutting down my improv troupe and cancelling a play production that had been scheduled to open in April, then postponed to May, then postponed until… who knows?

But I’m not marching in the streets without a mask and armed to the teeth demanding that theatre reopen because I’m not selfish like that.

First, it’s because I still have a venue in which to tell stories and write and share, and you’re reading it right now, wherever in the world you are — and I see that I do have visitors from all over — in fact, from every continent except Antarctica, but including Australia, most of the Americas and Europe, some of Africa, and just about all of Asia. Greetings, everyone!

Second, I realized quite recently that this whole situation has inadvertently handed me the opportunity to get back into the first art-form that I officially trained in but never pursued as a profession for one reason: I loved it too much to turn it into the drudgery of a career, and always wanted to keep it for my own enjoyment.

Okay, sure, I did use it a few times from middle school through just after college in order to entertain others but, again, I was doing it for my own enjoyment.

That art-form is music, and I consider it my second language, because I started taking piano lessons at seven — and I was the one who cajoled my parents into letting me do so. The end result was that I was never really into playing other people’s stuff because, once all that music theory landed in my head and made sense, I started making my own.

That seems to be a common thing with my brain. Learn the way the modules work, start to stick them together to make them break the rules while still working. This is probably also the reason why I took to programming and coding early, and why I abuse Excel the way that I do.

Dirty little secret: Music is just math that sounds good. However, the great thing about it is that music also takes all of the pain out of math because it turns it into feelings. When I’m playing, improvising, and composing, my brain is absolutely not thinking in terms of what specific chord I’m playing, how it relates to the others, how it’s going to get from Point X to Y to make Z make sense, etc.

The thing about music and me is that its rules are buried so deeply into my subconscious that, well, like I said… I consider it to be my second language. And, when you’re fluent in any language, you don’t need to think. You just speak, whether it’s via your mouth and tongue, or via your heart and fingers.

So… live performance has been taken away from me by this virus for a while but that’s okay — because online research and ordering still exist, and stuff is on the way. So… I’m diving back into the most direct, emotional and, most importantly, non-word-dependent form of communication humans have ever invented.

Watch this space. Or… well, listen.

Momentous Monday: Questions that plague us

This is the first in a series of reposts while I take care of some medical issues. I don’t know how soon I’ll be back to posting regularly, but I will let you all know!

From March 2020, three days into first COVID-19 lockdown, before we knew the extent the plague would reach or how long the lockdowns and social distancing would last.

It can easily be argued that Europe conquered the Americas not through armed assault, but via unintended biological warfare. While Christopher Columbus and those who came after arrived in the New World with plants, animals, and diseases, it’s the latter category that had the most profound effect.

This transfer of things between the Old World and New has been dubbed The Columbian Exchange, Thanks to the European habit starting the next century of stealing Africans to enslave, diseases from that continent were also imported to the Americas.

Of course, in Europe and Africa, everyone had had time to be exposed to all of these things: measles, smallpox, mumps, typhus, whooping cough, malaria, and yellow fever. As a result, they either killed off a large number of children before six, or left survivors with natural immunity.

Influenza, aka flu, was the one exception that no one became immune to because that virus kept mutating and evolving as well.

Depending upon the area, the death rates of Native Americans were anywhere from 50 to 99 percent of the population. And they didn’t really send as many diseases back as they were “gifted with” by us, although Columbus’ men did bring syphilis home to Europe thanks to their habit of fucking sheep,

Of course, conquest through infection and violence is nothing new, as the 1997 book Germs, Guns, and Steel by Jared Diamond posits.

Nothing will freak out a human population faster than a deadly disease, especially one that just won’t go away, and the plague, aka The Black Death, regularly decimated Europe for three hundred years. It had a profound effect on art during its reign, which stretched all the way through the Renaissance and on into the Age of Reason.

But one of the positive side effects of that last visit of the plague to London in 1665 is that it lead to the Annus Mirabilis, or “year of wonders” for one Isaac Newton, a 23-year-old (when it started) mathematician, physicist, and astronomer.

Just like many students are experiencing right now, his university shut down in the summer of 1865 to protect everyone from the plague, and so Newton self-isolated in his home in Woolsthorpe for a year and a half, where he came up with his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.

He basically kick-started modern physics. His ideas on optics would lead directly to quantum physics, and his ideas on gravitation would inspire Einstein to come up with his general and special theories of relativity.

Meanwhile, calculus gave everyone the tool they would need to deal with all of the very complicated equations that would lead to and be born from the above mentioned subjects.

And if Isaac Newton hadn’t been forced to shelter in place and stay at home for eighteen months, this might have never happened, or only happened much later, and in that case, you might not even have the internet on which to read this article.

In case you didn’t realize it, communicating with satellites — which relay a lot of internet traffic — and using GPS to find you both rely on quantum physics because these systems are based on such precise timing that relativistic effects do come into play. Clocks on satellites in orbit run at a different rate than clocks down here, and we need to do the math to account for it.

Plus we never would have been able to stick those satellites into the right orbits at the right velocities in the first place without knowing how gravity works, and without the formulae to do all the necessary calculations.

There’s a modern example of a terrible pandemic ultimately leading to a greater good, though, and it’s this. America and a lot of the western world would not have same-sex marriages or such great advances in LGBTQ+ rights without the AIDS crisis that emerged in 1981.

AIDS and the thing that causes it, HIV, are actually a perfect match for the terms you’ve been hearing lately. “Novel coronavirus” is the thing that causes it, or HIV. But neither one becomes a serious problem until a person develops the condition because of it, either COVID-19 or AIDS.

But getting back to how the AIDS crisis advanced gay rights, it began because the federal government ignored the problem for too long and people died. Hm. Sound familiar? And, as I mentioned above, nothing will make people flip their shit like a life-threatening disease, especially one that seems to be an incurable pandemic.

And so the gay community got down to business and organized, and groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation took to the streets and got loud and proud. In 1987 in San Francisco (one of the places hardest hit by AIDS), the NAMES Project began creation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, commemorating all of the people who died of the disease.

And a funny thing happened going into the 90s. All of a sudden, gay characters started to be represented in a positive light in mainstream media. And then gay performers started to come out — Scott Thompson of The Kids in the Hall fame being one of the early notable examples, long before Ellen did.

Around the time Thompson came out, of course, a famous straight person, Magic Johnson, announced in 1991 that he was HIV positive, and that’s when people who were not part of the LGBTQ+ community freaked the fuck out.

Note, though, that Magic is still alive today. Why? Because when he made his announcement, straight people got all up on that shit and figured out ways to reduce viral loads and extend lifespans and turn AIDS into a not death sentence, like it used to be almost 30 years ago.

And almost 40 years after the crisis started, we seem to have finally created a generation of young people (whatever we’re calling the ones born from about 1995 to now) who are not homo- or transphobic, really aren’t into labels, and don’t try to define their sexualities or genders in binary terms in the first place.

On the one hand, it’s terrible that it took the deaths of millions of people to finally get to this point. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, this current pandemic will inspire a similar kind of activism that might just lead to all kinds of positives we cannot even predict right now, but by 2040 or 2050 will be blatantly obvious.

Stay safe, stay at home, wash your hands a lot, and figure out your own “Woolsthorpe Thing.” Who knows. In 2320, your name could be enshrined in all of human culture for so many things.

Theatre Thursday: It takes character

While every writer is probably a bit different, here’s where I get my characters from.

A question I get a lot as a writer is, “Where do your characters come from, anyway?” The answer varies, depending on what format I’m working in.

For stage plays, I usually, but not always, base them on real events, so I have at least those historical figures to start with, and can find plenty of material on their temperament, etc. Of course, every good historical fiction requires its fictional characters, and these I will generally discover in figuring out how to tell the story of the main character.

For example, I have a play about the famous mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, who was assassinated by a Christian mob in 415 C.E. In that play, I have four historical characters: Hypatia; Isidorus, her husband; Nestorius, a former student (and rumored lover); and Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria.

Since the play deals with themes of rationality vs. religion, history vs. myth, and loyalty vs. belief, the made-up characters I created were a current student of Hypatia’s as an echo of Nestorius, and her two servants, young women who represent another opposing faction in the discussion, one Jewish and the other Christian.

As for how I developed those characters, when I write my plays I prefer to do them in workshops with a regular group of readers, so I start with a direction and voice for the character, write the first draft before I start reading it in short chunks, and then let the interpretation of the actor I’ve cast help guide rounding out and refining that character.

The play of mine that was about to go up when the first COVID lockdown killed it, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is not based on historical figures and really isn’t based on real people, but the germ of the play did come from my real life Basically, my father, as he was getting up in years — and after having been a widower for longer than he’d been married — met a young woman in a grocery store who seemed to take an interest in him.

And when I say young, basically she was in her late 20s and he was well past Medicare time. Can you say, “Taking advantage of?” My wicked half-sister and I teamed up to push her out of Dad’s life, but in the process I learned about the very common scam where young women con artists (always working with their families) will look for older men shopping alone in grocery stores, usually during the day, then arrange to bump into them and show lots of attention.

The ultimate goal is to hook up, move in, marry up, and then inherit everything out from under the actual family. I totally get why a man my dad’s age would fall for it, though. At least to a point.

Anyway, only the idea of a young woman seducing an older man with the ultimate goal of cheating his kids out of his house made it into the play. I put a lot of twists and turns into it, also made it my tribute to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and then turned it into a door-slammer of a French farce.

As my director likes to remind me, “Do you know what the most expensive part of a set is? A functional door. I counted. You know how many doors you wrote into this? Eight! You wrote eight damn doors!”

(Okay, he wasn’t really pissed, he was taking it as more of a directing challenge, but it was yet another educational moment for me as a playwright.)

At least every single one of the eight gets good use. And, like my other plays, I developed each of the characters based upon the actor(s) who regularly read them in the weekly developmental sessions.

Screenplays are a little trickier if only because they are a lot harder to develop in “read it out loud” workshops, and that’s because, unlike plays, the action parts take a lot of precedence, and there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone read paragraphs of action split up by sparse dialogue.

Sometimes, I’ll do a developmental reading version of a screenplay, which means that I’ll make a copy of the file, and then cut down all of those actions to their bare essentials, putting the emphasis on the dialogue, but it’s a lot of extra work that can actually completely change the feeling of the entire thing.

On the other hand, editing down action to get all the points across in minimal space is never a bad thing, and can actually make the script tighter overall.

But because I don’t develop screenplays with a real cast regularly reading them, I resort to different techniques, which are also the ones I use for short stories and prose.

These basically involve a combination of modelling and mental improvisation. By modelling, I’m not talking about strutting down a runway. Rather, I’m talking about finding some real-world example or person to base some aspect of the character on, and then going from there.

It really depends on emphasis. Do I need a really strong visual for this character, or is it more personality and behavior? Or is it a little bit of both? I do find though that for works with a lot of characters that it’s most helpful to base parts of them on people I know IRL or images I find online, but these are only the most superficial parts.

I like to create a visual reference, which is simply a document with each of the characters’ names and a picture of what I think they look like. That’s because I’m a very visually oriented person. Your mileage may vary, but the idea would be the same. Find whatever evokes your creativity and cements a personality in your head, and then come up with exemplars for that.

The names you give your characters can also help as well, and I am never above going for the symbolic, although I will try to hide those in really, really obscure ways. The novel I’ve been excerpting in the Saturday Morning Post, by the way, has 38 named and significant characters.

Some of the minor ones were shorthanded to remind me of which friends I’d tossed into the mix. Meanwhile, the major ones are Easter eggs to be found — crack the code, predict the story. But, interestingly enough, while the minor characters might be real people dropped in as cameos, the major ones never are.

Why? Because I’m not writing about people I know. I’m writing stuff inspired by bits and pieces of the human condition. So I might borrow one friend’s face just to give me a visual or emotional anchor, but then graft on another friend’s personality, toss in a few traits of my own, leaven with some funny real-life story I heard somewhere, blend judiciously, and then turn to the improv.

See, long before I started doing improv as a performer, apparently I was doing it as a writer. I just didn’t know it. My technique since forever has always been this: Plan nothing ahead, just start with the idea, toss a couple of characters into the scene, and let them do their thing. You give them the particulars of location and relationship. They do the rest.

But, just like with improv as performed, there has to be a character before there can be anything else, which is why all of these little writerly inspirations and visualizations. I guess for me personally, the mantra is “If I can see it, I can be it.”

Well, at least on the page. The funny thing I’ve discovered in doing improv, as opposed to improvising characters in my head, is that as a performer I am actually very physical and visceral. I can find a character very quickly if I change my voice or take on a posture.

Visualizing won’t do it for me on stage. But if I start to speak in a particular cadence or tone or accent, or stand a certain way, it’s like I’m suddenly possessed and the character takes over.

When it comes to writing, the secret is attitude, as in the character’s point of view. The real focus, though, is on what the character wants. That was the number one thing that my playwriting Jedi master Jerry Fey imposed upon me.

Every character has a need. That need is the most important thing in the world to them, whether it’s making coffee this morning or winning the race for Prime Minister. Giving each character a strong need and never letting them deviate from wanting it creates stakes, and this creates drama (or comedy) and compels your audience.

That much is true in all creative writing in whatever format, and definitely in improv. If a character doesn’t need something, we don’t care.

And, by the way, in comedy, the stakes are actually much higher than in drama. Why? Because in drama, the stakes are realistic: Detective Margaret Davis wants to solve this case even though the DA is against her. Doctor Johnson has to cure her patient of an unknown disease. Gerald wants to save his marriage from his wife’s drinking problem, but her family is no help.

In comedy, the stakes are even higher because they are ridiculously trivial: Sheila would kill to win the baking contest, but so would her opponent; Arnold goes to great lengths to cover things up after he lies about his height and age to a prospective Tinder date, but his best friend gets wind of both and is interested in her as well; in order to not get fired for excessive tardiness, Stefan goes to extreme measures to gaslight his boss and bribe his coworkers, but one of them won’t be bribed…

One of the masters of turning the trivial into high comedy is Rowan Atkinson, especially in his persona of Mr.Bean. He can turn something as simple as moving a tea cup into the most elaborate of farces simply because the character is thwarted in his attempts — and the more he tries and fails, the more vitally important completing that simple action becomes.

So the TL;DR of the piece is this: Writers and improvisers create their characters out of whole cloth, with no real basis in reality, but we will sprinkle a combination of people we know and like, people we know and don’t like, people who are famous, pictures we find online, and humans we see wandering around, toss it into the food processor in our heads, and come out with a people salad that isn’t one bit you, although it might be a bunch of bits of you and other people we both know.

So I guess the real answer to the question, “Where do you get your characters from?” Is: I just pull them out of my ass.

Hey — since that’s literally true of a few of them over the years, I’d call it a fair answer.

Image by Skeeze  from Pixabay.

Epiphany 2022

Things I’ve learned about people during 2021 that will come in handy in 2022.

Today, January 6, 2022, is the feast of Epiphany in the Western Christian calendar, but in the Orthodox Eastern calendar, it’s actually Christmas Eve. And if you’ve ever wondered where The Twelve Days of Christmas came from, this is it.

January 6 is twelve days after the preceding December 25, or Christmas. So the 12 days idea makes sense as either a countdown from (western) Christmas to Epiphany or from the Nativity and the Magi giving gifts to (eastern) Christmas.

Or something like that. It’s all kind of confused. The salient point here, though, is that “Epiphany,” in its non-religious sense, means “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.”

The last two years, from March 2020 through December 2021, were full of epiphanies large and small, especially as a lot of us wound up in isolation, only really communicating through social media and video conferences.

Here are some of the epiphanies I had — some personal, some general.

  1. I could get used to this, really.

At the very beginning, it meant that I got to stay home with my dog, not deal with the daily commute, and focus on my own stuff. Of course, it got more difficult after my dog died on May 1st, leaving me totally alone.

I managed to survive on unemployment until August, when I went back to my former job working remotely from home — which meant that I had to install actual high-speed internet and WiFi, but this tuned out to be a good thing. And yes, like a lot of people, I found out that I had been making more on unemployment than with my very underpaid day job.

In late September, we had to go back to the office to work in person — operations there are still kind of trapped in the 80s, with way too much on paper and hardly anything digitized. Beginning in December, right after the rush at the office ended, I picked up a freelance and totally remote gig on the side, which quickly turned into an offer of full-time remote work.

I gave notice at the old job in mid-February, started the new job on March 1st at the salary I had asked for — and, note, it was a hell of a lot more than I had been making — and so it’s been work at home ever sense.

Except for those couple of moments when it looked like it was safe to come out, I’ve mostly stayed at home except to go to the grocery store, always masked outside of the house, and I got my first two vaccine shots in April and May. I haven’t managed to get the booster yet, more because it’s not as available than anything else.

But I’m in no rush to leave this cocoon at all. Honestly, except for a dog, everything I need is here. I’ve also long been debating leaving L.A., simplifying, and moving into a smaller but cheaper place outside of the city. I really only need a good internet connection, a nice view, and, ideally, a small house with a backyard (for dog) and pool (for me.)

  1. The people who get it really, really get it

Oddly enough, most of my friends are creative types — actors, writers, directors, dancers, singers, artists, and so on. And, without fail, 99% of them got it from the beginning. They were the first to mask up, wash their hands constantly, social distance, and advise others to do so.

And it wasn’t easy. I spent a few months out of work from a muggle job but at least was able to keep on writing on my own. Others, not so much. As theatre and live events shut down, they were all put out of work. But did they bitch about it and start blaming the government, from local to state to federal?

Nope. They understood the seriousness of the situation and did what they had to do. In fact, during the down time, one amazing friend, Jon Lawrence Rivera, learned how to make Filipino food, like his mother used to do. What he soon learned, though, was that Filipino cooking took place on a huge extended family size scale, so there was always way too much leftover.

He put out a simple message to his friends online: “I have extra food. Who wants some?”

It soon ballooned as he found himself providing food to out-of-work artists who desperately needed it while also being the beneficiary of those who could afford to bringing him the ingredients, tools, and take-out containers he needed to cook. Thus was born Flip Kitchen.

And Jon was far from the only person to turn their idle time into charitable acts. I had friends with crafting or sewing skills turn to cranking out masks by the dozens in the early days when they were scarce, as well as making plastic flip-down face shields.

Also, as soon as they figured out how, people in the community began to get together again virtually, doing play-readings, semi-staged performances and the like, as well as just holding company meetings on a regular basis for moral support.

I had at least four readings of my own work during this time, including Part 1 and Part 2 of my epic play Strange Fruit, as well as a monologue in The Voices of Afghanistan project based on authentic narratives from people who were forced to flee that country and cast entirely with actors who were either native Afghans (and recent escapees) or Afghan-Americans.

The surprise bonus to all of this was that my audience was suddenly a lot bigger than one theater in Los Angeles. The whole thing really felt like what it must have felt like near the beginning of the Great Depression, when FDR used his Works Progress Administration (WPA) to foster artists and keep them creating. Except that, this time, we’re mostly doing it for ourselves — because Republicans won’t let the government do it for us. Speaking of which…

  1. The people who don’t get it are really, really clueless

It’s probably no surprise that this group of people tend to be muggles — i.e. the non-creative types, and thanks to the insurance agent day job I had, I got plenty of chances to interact with them. They were mostly West Valley business types — realtors, bankers, lawyers, plumbers, contractors, and whatever assorted whatnot.

What this generally meant, 99.95% of the time, was that none of them really had a creative bone in their bodies. A friend of mine who crosses into that group via his work with his wife as a marketing guru regularly inadvertently confirms this.

Now, my friend and his wife are creative geniuses as well, and not at all muggles. But one of the things he regularly does is to post a question on Facebook, which can range from “Fill in the blank” to “If… would you” to questions about best movie, musical group, etc., to caption contests.

And, inevitably, a few consistent things happen among the muggles but not the creatives. Although the “Fill in the blanks” are supposed to be one answer per person, there are a couple of guys who jump in at the top and will rattle off three to five answers — usually the most obvious options — and I think they’re both lawyers.

Another rule is this one: “Don’t repeat a previous answer.” How many people do you think check? Yep. Not a lot, apparently.

But the ones that really separate the creative from the muggles are the caption contests. The answers to these will range from the random to the non-sequitur to someone just commenting on the photo rather than trying to caption it.

Basically, these people seem to be the ones who do not know how to (or even attempt to) read the instructions first.

This is the benign version of the people who don’t get COVID or the necessary precautions. They are the assholes who wear their masks below their noses in enclosed public spaces, don’t get vaccinated, stand too close in line at the store, rush out immediately to the nearest public event just because they can, and so on.

At their worst, they will mock people who take precautions for “living in fear,” and blame everyone else for having to stay home and live on unemployment until things return to normal.

Except… they don’t return to normal while we have the deniers around, or the ones too stupid or arrogant to read the instructions first.

  1. Some people are perpetually needy

You probably have these folk in your social media, too, but their posts center around one theme: “My life sucks and it’s not my fault!” In some rare cases, this is actually true. Victims of domestic abuse, those with chronic illnesses or diseases, children abused or abandoned by their parents/caregivers, or refugees forced to flee their homelands all come to mind.

These people are allowed to complain and seek help on social media when and however they need to.

But then there the ones who are just ongoing victims of their own poor choices, like a couple with no marketable job skills who run off together at 18 and proceed to have one baby after another until they’re constantly asking everyone for help with everything. This isn’t the only cause of this sort of thing — I’ve seen childless couples who married late do it, although they tend to be constantly begging for stuff — does anyone have a sofa they no longer need and want to give away, does anyone have an extra TV, and so on.

Probably must infuriating are the parents that always seem to be posting about family trips and vacations, home improvement projects, or investments in things that really only seem like hobbies — and then, every other month, it’s GoFundMe time because their car’s transmission went out or their washing machine blew up, or part of the ceiling fell in.

These are also the people subject to vague-booking: “So that happened. Dammit.” “That was $750 I didn’t need /s” or “The landlord said it’s not their job to fix it.” These always come across as blatant please to get friends to enter with sympathy (“Oh no, honey, what happened?”) and then gradually draw out the story, but only in a manner that paints the OP in the most sympathetic light.

Now, these people have always been around, but they’ve just become a lot more obvious in the last year or two. Gee, wonder why? I can think of at least half a dozen that are constantly clogging up my feed with this shit, although I’ve taken mostly to ignoring them. Sometimes, when it gets really heinous, I’ll put them on mute for a month. But I’ve decided that there’s no need to engage anymore.

  1. Suddenly, everyone is an expert

This probably requires no explanation in the post-COVID world, as so many people go to YouTube University and are suddenly epidemiologists. But it goes beyond that one and can be particularly fun to shoot down when someone starts to opine in some area I’m very familiar with.

People have particularly naïve and wrong ideas about what it’s like behind the scenes on film and TV, for example, and can spout off with some bullshit explanation about why Actor A is an asshole because they did thing X on the set for movie Z to Actor B, of course taking whichever side the celebrity gossip mag pitched as the “hero” in the headline. And yes, the whole Rust shooting incident brought people out of the woodwork by the ton, all of them suddenly arms experts convinced that Alec Baldwin was absolutely guilty of murder.

Proving that none of them has any idea of how a film set is supposed to work in cases like this and, when it breaks down, why it’s not the actor’s fault. The actor isn’t supposed to have to worry about this shit because there’s a team of professionals taking care of it. Except when they aren’t.

So those were some of my epiphanies from 2021. What are yours? Tell us in the comments!

This piece not to be confused with Epiphany from January 2020.

Theatre Thursday: It takes character

As the 2020-21 season has become “The Years without Theatre,” it’s still important to remember that the show must — and will — go on. While neither I nor any of my friends are currently performing live, we’ve found ways to do it virtually, usually via Zoom.

For the last eighteen months, I’ve been doing improv every Monday night remotely with the ComedySportz L.A. Rec League. We just don’t have any audience besides ourselves. But despite not having live venues at the moment, it doesn’t mean we’re not creating.

A question I get a lot as a writer is, “Where do your characters come from, anyway?” The answer varies, depending on what format I’m working in.

For stage plays, I usually, but not always, base them on real events, so I have at least those historical figures to start with, and can find plenty of material on their temperament, etc. Of course, every good historical fiction requires its fictional characters, and these I will generally discover in figuring out how to tell the story of the main character.

For example, I have a play about the famous mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, who was assassinated by a Christian mob in 415 C.E. In that play, I have four historical characters: Hypatia; Isidorus, her husband; Nestorius, a former student (and rumored lover); and Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria.

Since the play deals with themes of rationality vs. religion, history vs. myth, and loyalty vs. belief, the made-up characters I created were a current student of Hypatia’s as an echo of Nestorius, and her two servants, young women who represent another opposing faction in the discussion, one Jewish and the other Christian.

As for how I developed those characters, when I write my plays I prefer to do them in workshops with a regular group of readers, so I start with a direction and voice for the character, write the first draft before I start reading it in short chunks, and then let the interpretation of the actor I’ve cast help guide rounding out and refining that character.

The play of mine that’s about to go up, Screamin’ Muskrat Love!, is not based on historical figures and really isn’t based on real people, but the germ of the play did come from my real life  Basically, as he was getting up in years — and after having been a widower for longer than he’d been married, my father met a young woman in a grocery store who seemed to take an interest in him.

And when I say young, basically she was in her late 20s and he was well past Medicare time. Can you say, “Taking advantage of?” My wicked half-sister and I teamed up to push her out of Dad’s life, but in the process I learned about the very common scam where young women con artists (always working with their families) will look for older men shopping alone in grocery stores, usually during the day, then arrange to bump into them and show lots of attention.

The ultimate goal is to hook up, move in, marry up, and then inherit everything out from under the actual family. I totally get why a man my dad’s age would fall for it, though. At least to a point.

Anyway, only the idea of a young woman seducing an older man with the ultimate goal of cheating his kids out of his house made it into the play. I put a lot of twists and turns into it, also made it my tribute to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and then turned it into a door-slammer of a French farce.

As my director likes to remind me, “Do you know what the most expensive part of a set is? A functional door. I counted. You know how many doors you wrote into this? Eight! You wrote eight damn doors!”

(Okay, he wasn’t really pissed, he was taking it as more of a directing challenge, but it was yet another educational moment for me as a playwright.)

At least every single one of the eight gets good use. And, like my other plays, I developed each of the characters based upon the actor(s) who regularly read them in the weekly developmental sessions.

Screenplays are a little trickier if only because they are a lot harder to develop in “read it out loud” workshops, and that’s because, unlike plays, the action parts take a lot of precedence, and there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone read paragraphs of action split up by sparse dialogue.

Sometimes, I’ll do a developmental reading version of a screenplay, which means that I’ll make a copy of the file, and then cut down all of those actions to their bare essentials, putting the emphasis on the dialogue, but it’s a lot of extra work that can actually completely change the feeling of the entire thing.

On the other hand, editing down action to get all the points across in minimal space is never a bad thing, and can actually make the script tighter overall.

But because I don’t develop screenplays with a real cast regularly reading them, I resort to different techniques, which are also the ones I use for short stories and prose.

These basically involve a combination of modelling and mental improvisation. By modelling, I’m not talking about strutting down a runway. Rather, I’m talking about finding some real-world example or person to base some aspect of the character on, and then going from there.

It really depends on emphasis. Do I need a really strong visual for this character, or is it more personality and behavior? Or is it a little bit of both? I do find though that for works with a lot of characters that it’s most helpful to base parts of them on people I know IRL or images I find online, but these are only the most superficial parts.

I like to create a visual reference, which is simply a document with each of the characters’ names and a picture of what I think they look like. That’s because I’m a very visually oriented person. Your mileage may vary, but the idea would be the same. Find whatever evokes your creativity and cements a personality in your head, and then come up with exemplars for that.

The names you give your characters can also help as well, and I am never above going for the symbolic, although I will try to hide those in really, really obscure ways. The novel I’ve been excerpting in the Saturday Morning Post, by the way, has 38 named and significant characters.

Some of the minor ones were shorthanded to remind me of which friends I’d tossed into the mix. Meanwhile, the major ones are Easter eggs to be found — crack the code, predict the story. But, interestingly enough, while the minor characters might be real people dropped in as cameos, the major ones never are.

Why? Because I’m not writing about people I know. I’m writing stuff inspired by bits and pieces of the human condition. So I might borrow one friend’s face just to give me a visual or emotional anchor, but then graft on another friend’s personality, toss in a few traits of my own, leaven with some funny real-life story I heard somewhere, blend judiciously, and then turn to the improv.

See, long before I started doing improv as a performer, apparently I was doing it as a writer. I just didn’t know it. My technique since forever has always been this: Plan nothing ahead, just start with the idea, toss a couple of characters into the scene, and let them do their thing. You give them the particulars of location and relationship. They do the rest.

But, just like with improv as performed, there has to be a character before there can be anything else, which is why all of these little writerly inspirations and visualizations. I guess for me personally, the mantra is “If I can see it, I can be it.”

Well, at least on the page. The funny thing I’ve discovered in doing improv, as opposed to improvising characters in my head, is that as a performer I am actually very physical and visceral. I can find a character very quickly if I change my voice or take on a posture.

Visualizing won’t do it for me on stage. But if I start to speak in a particular cadence or tone or accent, or stand a certain way, it’s like I’m suddenly possessed and the character takes over.

When it comes to writing, the secret is attitude, as in the character’s point of view. The real focus, though, is on what the character wants. That was the number one thing that my playwriting Jedi master Jerry Fey imposed upon me.

Every character has a need. That need is the most important thing in the world to them, whether it’s making coffee this morning or winning the race for Prime Minister. Giving each character a strong need and never letting them deviate from wanting it creates stakes, and this creates drama (or comedy) and compels your audience.

That much is true in all creative writing in whatever format, and definitely in improv. If a character doesn’t need something, we don’t care.

And, by the way, in comedy, the stakes are actually much higher than in drama. Why? Because in drama, the stakes are realistic: Detective Margaret Davis wants to solve this case even though the DA is against her. Doctor Johnson has to cure her patient of an unknown disease. Gerald wants to save his marriage from his wife’s drinking problem, but her family is no help.

In comedy, the stakes are even higher because they are ridiculously trivial: Sheila would kill to win the baking contest, but so would her opponent; Arnold goes to great lengths to cover things up after he lies about his height and age to a prospective Tinder date, but his best friend gets wind of both and is interested in her as well; in order to not get fired for excessive tardiness, Arnold goes to extreme measures to gaslight his boss and bribe his coworkers, but one of them won’t be bribed…

One of the masters of turning the trivial into high comedy is Rowan Atkinson, especially in his persona of Mr.Bean. He can turn something as simple as moving a tea cup into the most elaborate of farces simply because the character is thwarted in his attempts — and the more he tries and fails, the more vitally important completing that simple action becomes.

So the TL;DR of the piece is this: Writers and improvisers create their characters out of whole cloth, with no real basis in reality, but we will sprinkle a combination of people we know and like, people we know and don’t like, people who are famous, pictures we find online, and humans we see wandering around, toss it into the food processor in our heads, and come out with a people salad that isn’t one bit you, although it might be a bunch of bits of you and other people we both know.

So I guess the real answer to the question, “Where do you get your characters from?” Is: I just pull them out of my ass.

Hey — since that’s literally true of a few of them over the years, I’d call it a fair answer.

Image by Skeeze  from Pixabay.

Talky Tuesday: Sick words, bro

It’s hard not to focus on all things COVID-19 lately for obvious reasons. The last year and a half have been an absolutely surreal experience, and now we have the delta variant to deal with. But, in keeping with today’s theme, I wanted to take a quick look at some words related to things like this pandemic, and explain where they came from.

Some of them are straightforward, and some took more circuitous routes. Let’s consider them in logical order.

Corona

Corona comes from the Latin word coronam, which means crown. If you’ve ever looked at the printing on a bottle of Corona beer, there’s a crown right there as the logo, and in Spanish corona is the word for crown as well. You may have heard the term “coronary artery,” They get this name because they encircle the heart, much the way a crown encircles a monarch’s head.

The corona is also a part of the Sun (well, any star). It’s the outer atmosphere of the star. Our Sun’s is usually invisible because of the glare of the star itself, but it becomes visible during a solar eclipse.

Coronaviruses as a class were given the name because the spikes on their surfaces resemble the spikes on a crown.

Virus

Virus comes from another Latin word, virus. In case you’re wondering why so many medical terms come from Latin, it’s because this was the language that physicians used for centuries in order to create terms that would be universal despite a doctor’s native language. Greek is also common due to the roots of western medicine going back to the likes of Hippocrates.

In Latin, the word can variously refer to things like poison, venom, slime, a sharp taste, or something’s pungency. The use of the word in the modern sense began in the 14th century, which was long before the invention of the microscope near the end of the 16th century. Even then, germ theory didn’t develop until the middle of the 19th century, and viruses themselves were not discovered until the 1890s.

So while the idea that “virus” was something that caused a disease may have gone back to the late Middle Ages, it was probably consider to be more like a toxic liquid in food or water, or perhaps an imbalance of the humors. Or just divine punishment, like pestilence.

Pandemic

This one is all Greek to you. It comes from two words: pan and demos. The former is the Greek prefix meaning “all.” You might recognize it from a word like “Pantheon,” with the second half coming from the Greek word theos, meaning gods. It can be a building dedicated to the gods of a particular religion, or just refer to that collection of gods in general. It can also be a building dedicated to national heroes, or a mausoleum in which they are entombed.

Another pan word is panacea, with the appendage, -akes, meaning a cure, and a panacea is supposed to cure everything — even a pandemic.

The second half of the word comes from demos, as noted, which is the Greek word referring to a village or a population, or group of people. It’s the root of the word democracy, rule by the people. However, it is not related in any way to the word demonstrate.

So a pandemic is something that comprises all of the population.

As an aside, my personal favorite pan word is Pandemonium, which was actually created on this model by John Milton for Paradise Lost. It refers to the capital of Hell — the place of all demons. I’m kind of disappointed that Dante didn’t think of it first. He only gave us the City of Dis in the sixth circle. And when it comes to religious fanfic, Dante’s is far superior. Well, qualification: his Inferno is, especially in the original Italian. Purgatorio and Paradiso are kind of boring. But still better love stories than Paradise Lost.

Pox

Despite popular misconception, this is not what Mercutio wished on the houses of Montague and Capulet before he dies in Act III of Romeo & Juliet. That would have been a plague. A pox was something different, more like a symptom, and this brings us to the first English word on the list. Pox is the plural of the old English word pocke, which referred to any kind of pustule, blister, or ulcer. The Black Plague was full of those.

Now you’re probably wondering: How does an English plural end in “X?” Simple. At one time, the plural form of words that ended in –k or –ck didn’t take an s. They changed to x. The most famous example of this is the New York borough of The Bronx. It was named for a Swedish settler, Jonas Bronck. Originally, the term was possessory: Bronck’s Land and Bronck’s River. The “x” spelling crept in, and “the” was retained although land and river were dropped to indicate that they were specific entities instead of just an abstract place name.

Pox don’t have a lot to do with corona virus, but one particular type of pox has everything to do with how we came up with the next item on our list.

Vaccine

In the 18th century, a particularly nasty viral disease was circulating: smallpox. (No, there’s not a large pox.) At best, it left its victims horribly scarred. At worst, it killed them. But there was an urban legend going around: milkmaids, who often caught the non-lethal and minor disease called cowpox (for obvious reasons), never contracted smallpox.

A physician named Edward Jenner decided to test this theory in the most ethical way possible. No, I’m kidding. He found an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, inoculated him with gunk from a milkmaid’s pustule and then, after a while, inoculated him with smallpox.

Luckily for Jenner, the kid didn’t get sick, and so the idea of a vaccination was born. The name itself comes from part of the Latin name for the smallpox virus, Variolae vaccinae. The second word, vaccinae, is an inflected form of the Latin word for cow.

And vaccination works, kids. It doesn’t cause autism, and it’s safe. Case in point: smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979. Although, keep in mind, it could always come back, and the culprit could be climate change.

Sorry about that downer. But this is why we have to be so vigilant and serious about communicable diseases. Stay home, stay safe, and don’t forget the tip jar!

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) courtesy of Alpha Stock Images, used unchanged. Original author, Nick Youngson.

Momentous Monday: Where we are now

This time last year, California was just over four months into lockdown due to COVID-19, with only essential employees able to work and limitations on store hours and capacity. Bars, restaurants, clubs, theaters, and arenas were all shuttered.

Towards the beginning of July, that was all about to change and everything was going to loosen up. But then… well, I published these words exactly a year ago, on July 19, 2020:

“But then July rolled around and just a few days ago, the state of California and the city of Los Angeles announced, “Oops. Y’all screwed it up, so we’re pushing reset and starting over.”

Sound familiar? Well, if you’re in L.A. County or the Bay Area, at least, it probably does, because we’re now going back to at least being required to wear masks in public after a very brief foray of not requiring them for vaccinated people.

It looks like we might be right on time, too, because today, I saw social media posts from a handful of friends who were all fully vaccinated but who nonetheless have tested positive for COVID-19, most likely due to the delta variant — and for every friend who posted, at least two friends of theirs reported knowing one or more people in the same circumstances.

The delta variant is more contagious. People who’ve been fully vaccinated can also get it, although their odds of severe illness and hospitalization are still reduced. The situation this year comes right down to the same thing that caused it last year: Authorities bowed to pressure and ended mask mandates too soon.

In 2020, it was in time for the 4th of July holiday, and there was a spike in new cases right after that. This year, it was because it seemed like it was time to unmask because so many people were vaccinated, and the number of new cases had dropped below the thresholds set to trigger various levels of precautions.

The problem is that there are still far too many people who cannot or will not get vaccinated. Some have sound medical reasons — compromised immune systems, chemo patients, and the like. Some haven’t yet qualified because they’re too young.

But far too many people who should get vaccinated won’t get vaccinated because they have a poor understanding of science and medicine, what vaccines are and how they work, and how this one was developed.

A big complaint people have is that they don’t know what’s in the vaccine, but that’s just because they’re lazy. A simple web search for COVID vaccine ingredients will quickly lead to the answer, and the CDC website has the exact ingredients for the three vaccines being used in the U.S.

If chemical names scare you by their very nature, compare the contents of any of those vaccines to what naturally occurs in, e.g., a banana to see how different they really are. And remember: One banana is a lot bigger dose than one vaccine.

Another anti-vax argument I hear is that it was rushed in production and approval. And while the approval process was expedited because, pandemic, the development of the vaccine technique itself goes back decades.

This technique uses messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) in order to make our body’s cells produce certain proteins, and it was being proposed as a therapeutic method at least as early as 2000. The first clinical trials happened in 2008.

So no, this vaccine was not developed overnight. The technology was there. We just needed a target for it.

Something piggy-backed on this argument goes like this: The vaccine will alter your DNA forever! And, again, this is just wrong. An mRNA vaccine works like this. It enters the body and then enters cells near the injection site. Once inside the cell nuclei, they cause the cells to do what they do: Transcribe the mRNA into proteins.

In this case, the instructions given are to create the spikes on the outside of the COVID-19 virus that allow them to infiltrate our cells. But here’s the big difference in function. When a virus gets into your cell, it completely highjacks the nucleus, shreds the existing DNA, and turns the cell into a factory for making nothing but more virus until the cell explodes and dies and sends more virus out into the body to repeat the process.

An mRNA vaccine just uses an existing function to create a particular protein without disrupting cell function otherwise, and then those proteins go into the bloodstream. Once there, the body’s immune cells find them, recognize them as not belonging, and create antibodies to destroy them.

Unlike other vaccines, mRNA shots do not contain any of the actual DNA of the virus its being used against. Compare this to things like vaccines for small pox, measles, or polio, which do use the genetic material or weakened or killed versions of the actual virus.

If anything, an mRNA jab I actually safer, because at no point are you ever exposed to the complete virus itself.

The idea was that recreating the protein spikes that identify the virus would be enough to give someone immunity, and normally it should have. The problem is that the COVID-19 virus is principally mutating in those spikes. This actually makes sense, because as we vaccinate away certain strains, the ones that aren’t recognized will persist and become the new dominant variant.

That’s how evolution works, and we’re seeing it in real time.

Now, granted, just because a virus is mutating doesn’t mean that it’s becoming more virulent or fatal. There are probably COVID variants we don’t even know about because they never actually cause any disease or symptoms.

But here’s how the unvaccinated contribute to helping the more infectious strains evolve: If someone is vaccinated against any of the strains from Alpha to Gamma, then they’re probably not going to get infected and their body will not become a virus factory.

But if someone is not vaccinated, then their bloodstream is going to become a viral playground, and the more times something copies its DNA, the more chances you have for random mutations. Some will go nowhere, some will outright kill the virus itself — but some will stumble upon some trick that defeats the vaccines and also makes it easier for them to invade new human cells.

And that’s where COVID-19 delta and humanity seem to be.

We made some strides in 2020 despite official inaction and denial on the Federal level, with only more forward-thinking governors helping their states avoid the worst, but selfishness, impatience, and scientific ignorance held us back.

It seemed like we were pulling out of it by spring of this year, with vaccines finally being rolled out in mass numbers and people actually getting them, but then the vaccination rate tanked, and we are right now back at exactly where we were one year ago.

Of course, this is why plagues are never a single-year thing. The flu pandemic of 1918 actually lasted for about two years and two months, starting with a fairly virulent strain, and then a much deadlier second wave a little over a year later.

If COVID follows this pattern, then we’re going to be masked, socially distanced, and isolated until at least May of 2022, so get used to the idea, because we’re just starting to sail into that deadlier second wave.

And, personally, all of this comes in the context of my having gone to an engagement party a good distance away that took place mostly inside in a house and among mostly strangers, and it was the first time I felt comfortable taking my mask off under such circumstances since this all started.

I don’t know yet whether that was a big mistake or not because I’m not quite sure what the incubation period is. But the vaccines appear to not give 100% immunity to the delta variant, so my mask is staying on.

Anyone who thinks that a mask mandate equals tyranny is a complete idiot — and doubly so if they won’t get vaccinated.

I’ll have to remember to come back with a July 19, 2022 post to comment on this one and its predecessor.

Sunday Nibble #59: 408 days later

March 20, 2020. The theatre company where I’d done improv and worked a second job had shut down ten days earlier — “Temporarily, of course.” But this Friday afternoon, the day after the start of spring that year, was the day that the Mayor of Los Angeles made the announcement, only a couple of days after the Mayor of San Francisco had made the same announcement.

The city was shutting down, and all non-essential businesses were to close. Masks and social distancing were required, and frequent handwashing was advised. Everything became quiet, and strange, and tense.

Grocery stores were still open in those early days, although they all had long lines outside and very limited occupancy inside, and we all remember the abrupt disappearance of toilet paper, soap, laundry detergent, and meat from the shelves.

It wasn’t until later that we learned the TP thing was not due to hoarding but rather to a shift in supply and demand. With people going to workplaces every day, that’s where most of the TP got used. Suddenly, demand in those places cratered while demand in private homes shot up.

The problem was that office TP and household TP were produced in different facilities, to different standards, and with different supply chains. One wound up with a surplus, while the other wound up with a demand it couldn’t immediately meet.

But you’ve probably forgotten that when TP finally did start to become available in stores again, it was that one-ply, terribly thin, shit-quality (pun intended) stuff we all knew from our work crappers. A friend of mine describes that kind of bum wad as “Bible paper” in terms of thinness, and he’s absolutely right.

Of course, I happened to start the lockdown with a nearly-new four pack of the really good double-ply stuff, and since I don’t go through TP that fast, I wasn’t really worried about that. No, I had bigger things to worry about. Like… money.

See, I’d lost both of my jobs in the same week, with no idea when they’d come back, They had barely kept me afloat as it was, and I’d been relying on the dwindling remains of my savings that I’d had to start dipping into back in 2018, as well as the largesse of friends who loaned me what I needed. (Damn, I hate having to rely on that.)

But then a couple of funny things happened. The first was, of course, the original stimulus check. Thanks to being able to deposit via my phone, I still have mine sitting in front of me, and that $1,200 did help, even it was delayed because some egomaniacal manbaby had to stall so he could slap his name all over them.

I actually found out while writing this that I’m getting another check, presumably the $1,400 version, very soon, and it really makes be feel guilty because, basically I’m now at a place where I don’t need it. Oh, I’m not rejecting it because I’m going to pour it right back into the economy getting two very necessary but delayed car repairs done that will only leave maybe enough to rent an AMC Theatre for a private screening with friends. But I figure, that way, the money really is helping to stimulate the economy. Percolate up and all that, right?

I think the date on the first stimulus check is May 1, 2020, which was the same day as the biggest disaster of that year for me, as I commemorated here yesterday. That was when my dog Sheeba died, making my isolation at the time complete.

Needed money, tragic death. Good thing, bad thing. They love to travel in pairs. But there was another fortunate accident, and at least I got to take advantage of that one almost immediately.

This revolved around unemployment, which I applied for on the same day the Mayor made his announcement. Now, I heard horror stories from a lot of people, who took forever to get approved. The thing was that I had only started my full-time job the August before and the theatre job was pretty much part time. So, when I went to apply, I still had an open claim.

This meant that I basically just jumped right back in. Sure, the weekly benefit was a lot lower but there was that sudden $600 a week from Federal unemployment. This meant that, for the four months I was collecting, from April through July, I was actually making more being out of work than I had been while in it.

Around July, I started back very part time at the old job, eventually transitioning into going back full time — and to the office mostly — in September. Of course, the “office” was the boss’s house, and at most there would usually be four people in it, all masked and in separate rooms. On those rare occasions when one of the employees who was working remotely did come in, they were also masked and in their own private room.

The boss still did set us up to all work remotely, which was a good and complicated trick considering that the field was health insurance, meaning that we couldn’t all just call in from our home PCs. Nope. We each had office laptops that were encrypted as hell with a bunch of layers of authentication and security to get in, and his IT contractors had kill-switch ability on all of them the second they might have been stolen, lost, or otherwise compromised.

Yeah, remote-bricking an entire computer. It was some serious James Bond level shit.

There was also a VOIP clone of my office desk phone at home, which was very weird. And so for the rest of 2020, I mostly worked in the office, usually only doing the from home thing on weekends, not moving over to more at-home until the end of our busy season in late December.

And, of course, the money anxiety came back. Luckily, thanks to the ridiculous unemployment benefits, I sort of had savings again, but was looking at expenses kicking the shit out of income by about, well, this time in 2021.

But then at the beginning of December, an old friend and coworker contacted me and explained that he was now Creative Director at a company, and did I want to write some freelance articles for them?

“Hell yes,” was my response, and it also happened to relate to the subject matter I’d spent the five years leading up to life’s big rug-pull in 2017 writing about, so it was perfect. So was the money! So from December to February, I wrote four articles a month and made a nice bonus.

But then a funny thing happened. My friend contacted me and said, “Hey. Want to work for us full time, on staff?”

“Does the Pope shit in the woods?” I thought. “Hell yes,” I said.

“Make us an offer, then,” he told me, and my brain exploded.

See, the norm I’m used to — and probably the one that most of my American readers who aren’t on an executive or “talk to my agent” level is this. The way a job offer works is, “Okay, here’s the position, here’s the rules, and we’re going to pay $X” — usually expressed as either per hour, or salary per year.

And we are trained to never say, “Oh, okay. But I’d need $X+ to take the job.” That’s the fastest way to lose it. And when I suddenly was put in the position of having to come up with my own price, I realized how many times I’d basically been totally fucked and undervalued in the past.

(Hint: most of you have. Resist in the future!)

Still, I didn’t want to be unrealistic and ask for too much, but I also didn’t want to ask for too little. What I did know was that by the time my last job imploded when the company went under, I was pretty happy with what I was making. I could pay all my expenses, save money every month, and handle both occasional emergencies and little luxuries.

So I did what I felt was most fair. I started with my final salary at the last job, calculated what it would have been after three years of raises at what I’d typically received each of the ten years overall I’d worked for the company, then adjusted for inflation.

Yeah, it was a bigger number than I’d ever earned in my life, even when I was working in TV, but it didn’t feel that outrageous, so I pitched it to my friend and said, “If this sounds ridiculous, please let me know.”

Apparently, it wasn’t. So as of March 1, 2021 —346 days after lockdown began, which is 49 weeks and 3 days — I left my fun but low-paying job in the Medicare field and moved back to my favorite, which is writing stuff.

And, in perhaps the most ironic twist of all, I’m working with a multi-national team so that everyone works remotely anyway.

You’re reading this on May 2, 2021 — day 408 since lockdown began, aka 58 weeks and 2 days. Or another way to put it is one year and 44 days. And so much has changed in that time it’s ridiculous.

I had my first vaccine shot on April 24, and will have my second Moderna jab on May 22. I went back onto company health insurance May 1 and won’t have to deal with Covered California and their stupid, wonky website again for a while. And I’m already making more than I spend, am saving money and, most of all, am preparing to bring a dog back into my life.

So… 2020 was a long dark tunnel that really capped off two pretty shaky, shitty years for me in the first place. But I managed (somehow) to slither through it alive, and it looks like 2021 is going to become another rebirth — hey, the Phoenix deal is my thing, and at this point, I seriously think I’m finally going to just break down and get my first (and only) tattoo, and yes, it’s going to be that damn bird.

Sunday Nibble #55: Not out of the woods yet

It’s been just over a year since the world turned upside down and we all went into lockdown. In a lot of ways, though difficult, it’s actually also been a real growth experience.

And even as the world is trying to reopen right now, I can’t help but think that this is the absolute wrong decision. Nowhere near enough people have been vaccinated yet, even though the Biden administration is doing an amazing job of it, and certain Red States are really whiffing it and just reopening willy-nilly and going maskless.

We’re already seeing infection rates resurge in places like Texas and Florida. Oops.

While I lost one job and my beloved activity of improv completely in 2020 because of the plague, I only lost the other job from March through early July, although the unemployment I got was ridiculous thanks to that $600 weekly Federal payment — most of which may now actually be tax exempt. Hooray!

In fact, I was making more unemployed than I had been employed.

Around the end of 2020, I picked up a sweet freelance writing gig that only lasted for three months because after that, they hired me as a full time employee — Lead Content Creator — and after having lost a former dream job at the end of 2017 and having scraped through three years of blowing through my savings, failing to start a freelance career, and winding up in an interesting but low-paying office job, everything turned around.

Having always worked in entertainment or entertainment adjacent, my life has been a constant series of ups and downs that work like this: When they let me create, they pay me out the wazoo, and life is good. When they only pay me to help the creatives, the pay is shit, and life is shaky.

This concept is probably typical of many businesses, but is also perhaps more extreme in entertainment. Non-creative? Yeah, here’s fifteen bucks an hour, technically, but it’s really fifteen times forty, even if you wind up working sixty hours or more. Sorry!

Creative? Great. So for this one project you do for us, whether it’s writing or directing a one-hour episode, we’re going to pay you about twice what those peons make in a year, but you’re only going to work on it for maybe six weeks max, if not less.

Oh… did we mention that you get residuals, meaning that we throw money at you every time it re-airs anywhere? And depending on the contract and venue, some of those residuals can be damn close to what you made on the original project.

Yeah, I managed that pinnacle exactly once, and I’m still getting residuals to this day from it, and they’re aren’t trivial.

But… back to that new job, as an artist, one thing is the most gratifying of all, and that’s to watch as your bank account grows by the month and you realize, “Oh, wow. I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay for this necessary thing,” and it is such a relief of all the burdens artists usually face.

Car broke? Oh, wait. Got that!

Dog is sick? Oh, hey, no problem.

Kid needs braces? Okay, here’s a check…

And why artists would face any of these problems ever is beyond me. In reality, we should pay our creators what they’re worth. Some wonderful people do. Too many don’t.

But, truth to tell, if you want the greatest art from your great artists, be patrons, free them the fear of wondering where their next meal or home is coming from, and bask in the joy of their creation.

But then extend this beyond artists, and to everyone. It’s not just about eliminating poverty. It’s about ending economic anxiety. Now, what’s that? Simple. It’s the worry that some unexpected expense is going to make it really difficult to pay the necessary expenses.

In other words, this applies to people who are not below the poverty line, but still are basically living paycheck to paycheck, so that at the end of any given month, after paying for rent, food, utilities, healthcare, and kids or pets if they have them, they barely break even.

If their car suddenly needs a major repair or the computer they rely on for work or school craps out, or their phone turns into a brick, they’re fucked, and it becomes a game of, “Okay, what don’t I pay for this month?”

Either that, or let me put it all on this high-interest credit card, and then just pay the minimum.

We only think that debtors’ prisons ceased to exist.

So what we really do need is a universal basic income which is keyed to the particular region it’s being paid in, and it’s enough to cover all of those basic expenses plus about ten percent as a buffer. The people getting it are free to work jobs and earn up to twice that basic on top of it, at which point it starts to taper off so that no one who works and makes more actually makes less, but once someone makes enough to not need it all, it’s gone.

A funny thing happens when you suddenly take away economic anxiety and give people the means to take care of their basic expenses along with the assets to cover more. They tend to go out and spend the money because they don’t have to worry anymore at all.

Contrast with giving tax cuts to the wealthy. All they do is stick it into some investment account, where the only person benefiting would… them. That’s the fallacy of “Trickle-Down Economics.” Nothing trickles.

What does work is “Bubble-Up Economics.” Give the money to the people who need it, and they will dump it into the economy big time. This, in turn, creates jobs, props up local businesses, and brings things roaring back.

This was certainly the case when I was getting the Super-Plus Unemployment last spring and summer, and was able to take care of a couple of really unexpected expenses without worrying, along with making a couple of investments in personal business tech. And from the beginning of the COVID lockdown to date, I have not missed a single rent payment, so there’s that.

I’ve managed to weather the storm and come out in a great position on the other side but, again, I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet. And I’ve gotten really used to the idea of working from home, rarely going out, and masking when I do. Considering that my job is now 100% remote, I might even finally consider moving somewhere that I’d actually be able to afford to buy a house.

Or… I hear that all you have to do to be able to immigrate to Panama is to put US$ 5,000 in a bank account, and the last few months have suddenly made that pocket change. Yeah, it might get really hot and wet over the next few decades due to climate change, but at least I speak the language.

Momentous Monday: Questions that plague us

From March 2020, three days into first COVID-19 lockdown, before we knew the extent the plague would reach or how long the lockdowns and social distancing would last.

It can easily be argued that Europe conquered the Americas not through armed assault, but via unintended biological warfare. While Christopher Columbus and those who came after arrived in the New World with plants, animals, and diseases, it’s the latter category that had the most profound effect.

This transfer of things between the Old World and New has been dubbed The Columbian Exchange, Thanks to the European habit starting the next century of stealing Africans to enslave, diseases from that continent were also imported to the Americas.

Of course, in Europe and Africa, everyone had had time to be exposed to all of these things: measles, smallpox, mumps, typhus, whooping cough, malaria, and yellow fever. As a result, they either killed off a large number of children before six, or left survivors with natural immunity.

Influenza, aka flu, was the one exception that no one became immune to because that virus kept mutating and evolving as well.

Depending upon the area, the death rates of Native Americans were anywhere from 50 to 99 percent of the population. And they didn’t really send as many diseases back as they were “gifted with” by us, although Columbus’ men did bring syphilis home to Europe thanks to their habit of fucking sheep,

Of course, conquest through infection and violence is nothing new, as the 1997 book Germs, Guns, and Steel by Jared Diamond posits.

Nothing will freak out a human population faster than a deadly disease, especially one that just won’t go away, and the plague, aka The Black Death, regularly decimated Europe for three hundred years. It had a profound effect on art during its reign, which stretched all the way through the Renaissance and on into the Age of Reason.

But one of the positive side effects of that last visit of the plague to London in 1665 is that it lead to the Annus Mirabilis, or “year of wonders” for one Isaac Newton, a 23-year-old (when it started) mathematician, physicist, and astronomer.

Just like many students are experiencing right now, his university shut down in the summer of 1865 to protect everyone from the plague, and so Newton self-isolated in his home in Woolsthorpe for a year and a half, where he came up with his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.

He basically kick-started modern physics. His ideas on optics would lead directly to quantum physics, and his ideas on gravitation would inspire Einstein to come up with his general and special theories of relativity.

Meanwhile, calculus gave everyone the tool they would need to deal with all of the very complicated equations that would lead to and be born from the above mentioned subjects.

And if Isaac Newton hadn’t been forced to shelter in place and stay at home for eighteen months, this might have never happened, or only happened much later, and in that case, you might not even have the internet on which to read this article.

In case you didn’t realize it, communicating with satellites — which relay a lot of internet traffic — and using GPS to find you both rely on quantum physics because these systems are based on such precise timing that relativistic effects do come into play. Clocks on satellites in orbit run at a different rate than clocks down here, and we need to do the math to account for it.

Plus we never would have been able to stick those satellites into the right orbits at the right velocities in the first place without knowing how gravity works, and without the formulae to do all the necessary calculations.

There’s a modern example of a terrible pandemic ultimately leading to a greater good, though, and it’s this. America and a lot of the western world would not have same-sex marriages or such great advances in LGBTQ+ rights without the AIDS crisis that emerged in 1981.

AIDS and the thing that causes it, HIV, are actually a perfect match for the terms you’ve been hearing lately. “Novel coronavirus” is the thing that causes it, or HIV. But neither one becomes a serious problem until a person develops the condition because of it, either COVID-19 or AIDS.

But getting back to how the AIDS crisis advanced gay rights, it began because the federal government ignored the problem for too long and people died. Hm. Sound familiar? And, as I mentioned above, nothing will make people flip their shit like a life-threatening disease, especially one that seems to be an incurable pandemic.

And so the gay community got down to business and organized, and groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation took to the streets and got loud and proud. In 1987 in San Francisco (one of the places hardest hit by AIDS), the NAMES Project began creation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, commemorating all of the people who died of the disease.

And a funny thing happened going into the 90s. All of a sudden, gay characters started to be represented in a positive light in mainstream media. And then gay performers started to come out — Scott Thompson of The Kids in the Hall fame being one of the early notable examples, long before Ellen did.

Around the time Thompson came out, of course, a famous straight person, Magic Johnson, announced in 1991 that he was HIV positive, and that’s when people who were not part of the LGBTQ+ community freaked the fuck out.

Note, though, that Magic is still alive today. Why? Because when he made his announcement, straight people got all up on that shit and figured out ways to reduce viral loads and extend lifespans and turn AIDS into a not death sentence, like it used to be almost 30 years ago.

And almost 40 years after the crisis started, we seem to have finally created a generation of young people (whatever we’re calling the ones born from about 1995 to now) who are not homo- or transphobic, really aren’t into labels, and don’t try to define their sexualities or genders in binary terms in the first place.

On the one hand, it’s terrible that it took the deaths of millions of people to finally get to this point. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, this current pandemic will inspire a similar kind of activism that might just lead to all kinds of positives we cannot even predict right now, but by 2040 or 2050 will be blatantly obvious.

Stay safe, stay at home, wash your hands a lot, and figure out your own “Woolsthorpe Thing.” Who knows. In 2320, your name could be enshrined in all of human culture for so many things.

%d bloggers like this: