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: It takes character

As 2020 has become “The Year 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.

I’m still 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 he 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.

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.

Sunday Nibble #13: Taking pause

I don’t know what designation historians will come up with for the year 2020 — or even if it will be limited to just one year — but it will definitely be one of those great cultural markers that represents a hard stop, an irrefutable before and after point in human history.

It’s also going to have that significance in every single country and culture on the planet, and I can’t even think of a precedent in all of human history. There are certainly hard stops that had far-ranging though limited effects, like the fall of the Roman Empire, the end of the Aztec Empire, and the Reconquista, to mention three that mostly affected the western world.

Larger regions were affected by things like the Napoleonic Wars, and both the Great War and its unimaginatively named sequel World War II — but there were places that largely escaped the direct influence of those events. Asia, Australia, and most of Africa were untouched by Napoleon.

The World Wars may not have directly threatened every country on every continent, but may have indirectly changed things for them. It certainly changed world politics forever by leaving us with the Cold War and its aftermath.

This current plague is different in that no country on the planet has escaped it, and no person in the world is unaffected, period.

It’s as if the entire planet has become London in 1666, when the entire city was shut down by plague. The bad news there is that the thing that effectively ended it was the Great Fire of London, which destroyed densely populated and impoverished areas, driving out the rats that carried the fleas that were the ultimate cause of the disease. The true human death toll isn’t known.

Contemporary writers claimed that few people perished, but the fire burned so hot that entire communities could have been cremated without leaving any evidence behind.

It does feel, though, like we’re going to see another Great Fire in a metaphorical sense, as old institutions and ways collapse, never to exist again. If the lockdowns and lack of governmental help last long enough, then we may see widespread revolutions. At the very least, there may be general strikes that will starve the ruling classes of their income.

There is hope in the darkness, though, and I see it whenever I take the dog on a very limited walk and look up at the sky to see how clean it is. We’ve also had a lot more rain here than we’ve had for a while, and it’s unseasonal. It feels like the planet has decided to take a shower and clean up while we’re all inside.

I have friends who are at home sewing masks and others who are making videos or hosting shows on Zoom to keep people entertained. Still others are making sure that friends get things they need if they don’t have them, all while social distancing.

My improv group has been meeting regularly on Mondays via Zoom for some mutual self-care and to perform, and the main ComedySportz L.A. improv company itself has been having online shows that have been selling out every Saturday night.

I’ve seen very little in the way of stupid directly and for the most part people are maintaining social distance and wearing masks. The few moments of stupid I’ve seen haven’t been recent, and were in the grocery store, when a large group of people, generally youngish, and clearly probably not all living, together would come in to hit the liquor aisle and then all stand really close to each other.

Currently, the only stupid I’ve seen are the very few people who’ve gone to the grocery store without a mask or, extra special stupid, they’ve had a mask, but it’s pulled down so that it doesn’t cover their nose.

Sigh.

I do think that there’s a special place in hell, though, for a few Instagram “influencers” I’ve noticed who are still going out into the world to shoot their “OMG this is so fucking important” bullshit. I won’t mention names of the offenders, but one in particular was stupid enough to post time-stamped video of a bunch of unmasked people working in what I assume is some sort communal office space, or a group of people riding in the same van very close together.

Oh yeah, in that one, the person shooting also shows the speedometer, and ass-boy is doing 125 mph down the highway — while one of the group is standing in the back of the van.

I will mention one influencer who’s doing the right thing: Juanpa Zurita, who is stuck in isolation with his entire family somewhere in Mexico. They’ve been spending their time making masks and face guards for health care workers, not going outside, as well as pranking each other, and otherwise just being entertaining.

So, I don’t know. Maybe future historians will call this period “The Year When the World Stayed at Home,” or “The Great Pause,” or “The Global Reset.”

Another name for it might be “The Darwin Awards Ultimate World Championship.”

I am doing my best to not win any awards in that competition, and I hope that you are, too. Tomorrow was originally supposed to be the end of the lockdown here in L.A., but it was extended to May 15 over a week ago. I’m not holding out any hope that that date won’t be extended, either.

But whatever it takes to pull the planet through this, let’s just team up and do it.

Momentous Monday: Questions that plague us

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.