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.

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 thirteen 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.

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.

Momentous Monday: Us and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

It’s no exaggeration to say that 2020 has been rough on everyone. It started with Australia on fire and the death of Kobe Bryant, and then just went pear-shaped from there.

We hadn’t even made it to the start of spring when everything went on hold. For me, “normal” started to leave my world in early March, when my improv company shut down — cutting me off from one job as well as a weekly chance to perform that I truly enjoyed.

It came to a full stop on March 20, when Los Angeles shut down a day after San Francisco did. In a lot of ways, I was fortunate because I’d had an unemployment claim from earlier in 2019 that was still active, so didn’t have the problems signing up for it that other people apparently did.

Although I didn’t get the full amount of unemployment because I hadn’t worked enough in the target periods they looked at, that extra $600 per week from the Federal government helped (thanks, Congressional Democrats!)

So, I stayed at home mostly, with weekly masked trips to the grocery store, and it was amazing to see how quickly the two places I regularly went to — RiteAid and Ralphs — adapted. At the same time, though, a lot of Americans acted like selfish little children.

Some states were slow to react if at all, the Federal government totally dropped the ball, and while places like New Zealand got a handle on it (it helps to be an island nation), the U.S., not so much, so that as of now over 200,000 people have died.

Every month seemed to bring something new. In April, we had rumors of “Murder Hornets,” which didn’t really pan out, but then May brought us the death of George Floyd. This on top of so many other murders of Black Americans at the hands of the police set off a wave of fury and protests, which had the side-effect of finally making White American racists reveal themselves.

The end of May brought us people who just couldn’t resist celebrating Memorial Day without masks or social distancing, boosting the plague numbers even more.

It wasn’t pretty. And natural disasters didn’t help. Puerto Rico was pounded by multiple earthquakes of greater than magnitude 5 at the beginning of the year when they still haven’t recovered from hurricane Maria in 2017.

June brought us a couple of gun-toting lawyers threatening protestors marching past their house, and July had more protests, violent counter-protests, and the like.

In August, wildfires started in the west and the Administration started fucking with the USPS. By September, the entire west coast was on fire, while the gulf coast and other points in the south were being slammed by one hurricane or tropical storm after another.

And, of course, 2020 also brought personal disasters to a lot of us. Back on May 1, I lost my beloved dog Sheeba, who was almost 16. She didn’t even start to show symptoms until Monday night, and was gone by Friday afternoon.

A lot of people I know have suffered similar losses. Maybe it’s just a matter of selective attention because I went through it, maybe not, but a lot of my friends seemed to lose dogs or cats this year. And many other lost people, friends and family, to diseases not necessarily COVID-related. There were a notable number of cancer deaths, too.

And then there are those friends of mine who suddenly have to deal with parents of a certain age and declining mental condition who are going to require either placement in a senior care center or some other professional care, and the need for the young to stay away from the elderly in the wake of this pandemic just complicates issues enormously — especially when the kids live in an entirely different city than their parent or parents.

But all of these things, every single damn one of them, pales in comparison to the biggest disaster that has befallen the U.S. yet this year, and has put us into unknown territory that we are going to have to navigate through very carefully.

I’m talking, of course, about the death last Friday of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She was the last bulwark protecting the Supreme Court from falling into fascist, reactionary hands for a generation, and the greatest hope of progressives was that she’d live until the inauguration, then announce her retirement as soon as Joe Biden was sworn in.

I won’t even get into the utter hypocrisy of Mitch McConnell saying he’ll ram through whomever Trump nominates when he refused the same courtesy to Barack Obama because “it was too close to the election” (eight months beforehand)  when this one comes up less than seven weeks before.

So… call your senators, especially if yours has an R after their name. Remind them of the 2016 “McConnell Doctrine,” and demand that they follow it. Let the Voters Decide!

And then damn well vote in November, and vote like the future of this country depends on it, because it does. Do we fully become Nazi Germany circa 1939, or pull back from the brink and return to sanity?

That choice is in your hands… for now. But if we fuck it up in November, we may lose that power forever, and this experiment in Democracy ends.

Sunday Nibble #26: The year that probably wasn’t

Tomorrow, it will be four months (if you count by days) since word came down in the city of Los Angeles and then the state of California that we were going into lockdown. That’s 122 days, or just over 17 weeks.

We had a grace period until noon the next day for all non-essential services to shut down. Now, technically, since I work in the field of health insurance, we are considered essential in a pandemic. However, at the same time, since we all work out of the boss’s house, it would be really unfair to have our germy asses marching in and out all day. Not to mention that several of our employees are higher risk.

So… the high-risk staff started to work at home, as did some of the other staff. I came in on that last day to take some files from the office to one of the homeworkers, and then… onto unemployment to wait it out at home.

I managed to luck out because I had an unemployment claim from earlier that was still active as of March, so there was nothing new to open. Apparently, that was not the case with a lot of people, who wound up waiting weeks or even months before their money started coming through.

Now, I didn’t qualify for the full amount, but the bonus $600 a week from the federal government sure helped, as did that stimulus check — and you can bet that a lot of it went right back into the economy for stupid things like rent and food.

The stimulus actually covered the new tires and battery that I’d desperately needed but had put off and, sadly, helped to cover the end-of-life costs for my dog Sheeba in May. Funny thing, too, and something that fiscal conservatives don’t seem to understand: Give poor people money, and they will throw it right back into the economy and create jobs and boost profits.

Give rich people money, they will shove it into some bank account, probably offshore, where the only people who will benefit are other people with way too much money who shuffle it back and forth where the only product is more money — for them — but not more jobs for anyone else.

Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses, and I did start to notice all of the strange physical and psychological effects. Although I couldn’t see any of my friends in person anymore, at least I could contact them on social media, and the more we all talked, the more we realized that we were all being abnormal in the same ways.

Loss of appetite. Lack of energy. Inability to fall asleep. Inability to focus. General anxiety or depression or panic, or any two or all three. The most disturbing dreams, many of which involved being in zombie films or caught in crowds without masks.

But we persevered, and we coped. We made it past the Great TP Shortage of 2020, and eventually all settled on our preferred form of mask (I’m a fan of the head-gaiter/paper surgical combo myself), got really good at dodging people and maintaining six feet, and wound up ordering more shit online in the course of four months than most of us had in the previous four years.

Personally, I took the opportunity to get back into music because — stimulus again — after the dog and the car, I was able to get a really cheap yet really good MIDI keyboard (and still have money left over) and start to compose and play. (I already had stuff like the digital multi-track recorder and composing/scoring software from a past life.)

Also, by the time July rolled around and it was pushing six months since a haircut, I just bit the bullet and took the clippers to my head, so that the nine-inch long mop was reduced to stubble. Basically, I pretty much shaved it, or at least went a phase or two shorter than a crew cut. The biggest surprise was that I actually didn’t mind the look.

I’m not the only male in my general group of friends to have done this, by the way. It just took me longer to take the plunge. But I should be good until at least December now.

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.”

Luckily, this was right after I’d finally gotten stuff set up so that I can now work from home — HIPAA compliant secure-connected laptop and phone line to the main office, although it took a lot of rearranging of… everything to make it work.

And it looks like we’re all going to still be sheltered in place for as long as this takes, but that’s kind of okay. In a lot of ways, technological advances of the last twenty or thirty years have prepared us for this.

I had a great conversation about it with the boss the last time I swung by the office, which was earlier last week to pick up the remote phone as we discussed the future, and how everything was going to be different after this year.

For one thing, we both agreed that companies are going to realize that they actually can let their employees work remotely, that stuff still gets done, people are probably happier with a better life-work balance, and the companies can also save a fortune as well.

Why? Well, a few reasons — it probably cuts down the likelihood of sexual harassment issues enormously if people aren’t working face-to-face and if most interactions are in group video meetings where everyone is a witness.

But the biggie, we realized, is this one: companies will need a lot less space to function in. Instead of needing tens of thousands of square feet of office to house all the various departments and necessary support functions, like restrooms and breakrooms and meeting spaces, even a major company may only need, at most, something the size of the average nail salon or storefront fast food joint — a place for the receptionist to mostly handle incoming and outgoing physical packages and mail, and a backroom for the server and network facilities.

Everything else? Stick it online. The big loser, though, will be commercial real estate, but that has several upsides.

First off, it means that all of those buildings and land are going to need to be repurposed, and if local governments play it right, it means this: A sudden abundance of new and affordable buildings and land for cheap housing, possibly with no need for wholesale teardown and new construction, but also plenty of jobs for construction crews to come in and do conversions.

Anyway… every acre of land could provide 36 housing units of 1,200 square feet each — which is pretty generous for an apartment, but remember that when you’re dealing with converting an office building, you multiply each acre by number of stories.

A small repurposed ten-story building could provide a hell of a lot of housing, even if the bottom floor is taken up by those aforementioned reduced-footprint businesses. And an acre is a lot less than a city block, which many office buildings span easily, in both directions.

Of course, another probable victim of all of this will probably be malls — both of the indoor and strip variety, which just adds a whole lot more land that can be repurposed to housing.

There were more things we figured would never recover, but that should be enough for now.

In any case, in the future, I think that 2020 is going to go down as something like “The year that never happened,” or “When everything changed.”

This probably is not going to be a bad thing at all, really. We just need to stick it through to the end. It looks like the sane states will be keeping their heads in until November, but that’s exactly the point when we need to emerge in force to make sure that we never face a disaster like this again.

Theatre Thursday: Remembering my real second language

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.

Theatre Thursday: Difficult withdrawal

Fortunately, our lockdown still allows me the creative outlet of writing, and it’s made it easy to keep up with my ambition to post here every day. But otherwise, I’m stuck in the house with the dog, other than the weekly trip for groceries, and the very occasional side errand.

Did you know that health insurers seem to have an aversion to taking payment via any method but mailed check? It probably has to do with HIPPA, but it’s damn annoying. It means I have to find an open post office that also actually has an open slot to put the mail in. And no, I couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve spotted a corner mailbox anywhere around here.

Oh, and stamps. Still, at least it’s a stealth mission I only have to do once a month, and I can avoid people while doing it if I work it right. The same is true of the ATM. There’s a little-trafficked outdoor one down the block from me, and when I have run into people there, everyone has done an amazing job at maintaining distance and only using one machine at a time.

These withdrawals, though, have nothing to do with the title of the piece. The hard part is not being able to go onto a stage and perform in front of an audience right now.

As of this writing, it has been about seven-and-a-half weeks, or fifty-two days, since I’ve done improv in front of a live audience, and it is… difficult.

Yes, we’ve continued to do shows via Zoom, but that’s just not the same. It becomes more of an exercise in staying connected with the team, which is very necessary and helpful, but it’s not performing in the same sense.

At our last meeting, someone joked about adding a laugh track to the session, and I was tempted to pull out the sound effects machine and do it — although it wouldn’t really be the same.

There’s nothing like the thrill of experiencing an audience’s live and immediate reaction, whether you’re doing comedy or drama. For example, one of the most exciting experiences I have as an improviser is when we’re doing a rhyming game like Da Doo Ron Ron, where the first two players come up with a single rhyme each, and then the third has to come up with three on the same word.

It’s an elimination game, but here’s the fun part. When you’re down to three players left, the same person is going to get the triple rhyme every time, and I’ve gotten such a reputation at being good at the game that, more often than not, this is the point when the ref puts me in that number three spot.

And there have been times when I’ve made it through three or four rounds — maybe even five — without messing up, and in that case, every time around, I can hear the audience’s anticipation and excitement just crank up, especially when I pull it off. Then, when somebody with only one rhyme whiffs it, I can actually feel the appreciation that I made it through.

Of course, there are other ways to get a reaction from an audience, and one of my favorites came from the time I played a depressed, unicycle-riding bear in an adaptation of a John Irving short story. What? Like you didn’t think of his name as soon as you say unicycle and bear?

There was one long scene where most of us were standing upstage while two other characters were doing their shtick in front of us, and I’d been given license to do business by the director, since that scene was not terribly essential to the plot.

The actress playing the grandmother character was wearing this fur stole with glass grapes on it, and so I decided that the bear thought they were real. At one point, I went over and tried to eat them, and she whacked me away with her clutch.

But before I went for the grapes was when I got the big reaction. See, I’d figured out that if I put these little hard candies from Trader Joe’s in my mouth before the scene and just let them sit there, I’d build up a lot of saliva. So I’d eventually notice the grapes, then start to obsess on them, then kind of sniff at them, and when I sensed that I had the audience’s attention, I let my mouth open a little, tilt my chin down, and wham! Drool cascade to the stage.

This would elicit an amused but disgusted “Ew!”, at which point, I’d go for the grapes, grandma would do her biz, and the audience would eat it up.

Although I was also part of the human chorus in that show, the bear had exactly four words of dialogue, right before dying, but it always felt like I did so much more without saying a thing through the rest of the show.

That one was a magical experience.

Another role where I had about the same number of words (all in Spanish) but again got to play everything through energy and body language was as The Dreamer in Tennessee William’s extremely idiosyncratic and weird Camino Real, which I described at the time — I think accurately — as a ton of fun for the cast, not so much for the audience.

I was basically a leather-clad pseudo-Jesus in intense eye-make-up hauling around a blind Virgen de Guadalupe, fending off the forces of evil at the end, and intimidating the hell out of the audience with my eyes alone. Seriously — black eye shadow above, silver below, can turn your eyes into deadly weapons.

Bonus points: We didn’t limit our playing area to the stage for that one, so we were all up in the house. Like I said, a ton of fun for us, not so much for the audience.

But right now, I’d be grateful for any show to perform live for living people. Yes, it’s kind of ironic that my original trajectory was never supposed to be as a performer. Truth be told, I actually kind of sucked in my middle school drama class, which discouraged me until I basically got dared into it in college — see the above link.

At the moment, it looks like there will be at least two more weeks of this, if not more — and, honestly, I do expect more, at least in sane states like California.

At the moment, I’m reminded of some of my lines from that college play I got dared to audition for, and then cast in:

For ill or good, let the wheel turn.

For who knows the end of good or evil?

Until the grinders cease

And the door shall be shut in the street,

And all the daughters of music shall be brought low.

Stay home, stay safe, tip your server.

Image source: Ghost light at WildWood Arts Center, Little Rock, AR, by Jon Ellwood. Used unmodified under (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Talky Tuesday: Sick words, bro

It’s hard not to focus on all things coronavirus lately for obvious reasons. It’s been just over six weeks now since California locked down, which has been an absolutely surreal experience. 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.

Wednesday Wonders: The Earth is not happy with us today

Today, April 22, 2020, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Ironically, while we probably won’t be celebrating it in public this year, we’ve already sort of helped the planet out by staying home. There have been some positive effects on the environment,

In my hometown of Los Angeles, we’ve not only had the cleanest air we’ve had in decades, we also have just about the cleanest air of any major city. But considering how many cars we’ve taken off of the roads in the last month, that’s not a big surprise.

It should be self-evident from these changes, and others, that human activity does have a negative impact on the environment. It should also be clear that staying at home and social distancing does save lives.

A perfect example of that is the difference between California and New York. There are a lot more people in California, but a lot fewer cases of COVID-19 — around 33K in the former and 250K in the latter — and certainly a huge difference in the death toll. California has lost 1,200 people. New York State: 19,000. (Note: the death statistics are still wildly unreliable, however.)

Why the huge difference? It’s hard to say. Part of it may be that California is much more reliant on car culture, but that’s not true of all of the state. The Bay Area, for example, is just as dependent on public transit as New York.

Population density could also be a factor, with people in the five boroughs packed in like sardines, while those in most of California (again, outside of the Bay Area) are spread out all over the place.

It’s possible, but we really don’t know yet, that the virus came to New York from Europe, and so was a different strain, whereas cases in California may or may not have come from China, although they most certainly did not begin in the fall of 2019.

So what lessons should we take from this particularly unusual Earth Day? Maybe that we should have been paying more attention to our Mother all along. That we should have understood that important little bit that we are all connected on this planet, and borders, cultures, walls, and artificial divisions do not exist.

You know, the old saying: One planet, one people. Please!

In honor of Earth Day and the idea of cutting back, I’m keeping this one short and sweet. Stay home, take care of yourself, eschew greed, envy, and plastic, and share what you can with friends and neighbors as you can, but also don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.

Happy Earth Day 2020. May the planet be a better place, and may we still be on it, in 2021.