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: The house is dark tonight

As of now, Los Angeles is six days into the lockdown, it has been eighteen days since I last worked box office for ComedySportz L.A., and seventeen days since I’ve done improv on stage, and I have to tell you that the last two have been the hardest part of the whole social distancing and isolation process.

Not that I’m complaining, because shutting down all of the theaters, bars, clubs, sporting events, and other large gatherings, as well as limiting restaurants to take-out only, are all good things. Yes, it does cost people jobs — I’m one of the affected myself, and dog knows I have a ton of friends who are servers or bartenders — but California has also stepped up in making unemployment and disability benefits much more readily available.

And maybe we’ll all get $1,000 from the Federal government, maybe not. The down the road side benefit of this human disaster is that it may just finally break our two-party system in the U.S. and wreak havoc with entrenched power structures elsewhere. And, remember, quite a lot of our so-called lawmakers also happen to belong to the most at-risk group: Senior citizens. So there’s that.

But what is really hurting right now is not the loss of the extra money I made working CSz box office (although if you want to hit that tip jar, feel free — blatant hint.)

Nope. The real loss is in not being able to see and hang out with my family regularly: the Main Company, College League, and Sunday Team; as well as doing improv with the Rec League every Monday night.

And with every week that passes when I don’t get to take to that stage, I feel a bit more separated from the outside world, a bit less creative, a bit less inspired.

I know that I shouldn’t, but honestly, improv in general and Rec League in particular has added so much to my life for the last two and a half years that having to do without it is tantamount to asking me to deal with having no lungs. And no heart.

185 coronaviruses walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry, we’re closed.”

The coronaviruses say, “As you should be.”

And no one laughs. It’s not a time for laughter, but it is a time for support. And while I can’t do improv in real life with this wonderful funny family of mine, I can at least reach out to them all and say, “Hey. How are you doing?” I can also reach out to my loyal readers here and ask the same question.

It’s been amazing, because several of my improviser pals have started doing podcasts or the like. I can’t name names or link here, but I’ve got at least one improv friend who has been doing virtual shows in which he somehow manages to broadcast phone-to-phone routines through what must be a third phone.

Another friend of mine has been reading various scripts, screenplays, or fan fiction live online while also getting twisted on various intoxicating substances, and it’s been hilarious. Then again, he’s hilarious, and although he’s fairly new to the company, he quickly became one of my favorite players.

Okay, so the upside is that I’m now free Friday through Monday evenings again. Yay?

Maybe. The downside? I still don’t know who, out of all my friends and loved ones, is going to die. And that includes me.

But when you have fiscal conservatives like Mitt Romney suddenly advocating for what is pretty much the Universal Basic Income idea supported by (but not created by) Andrew Yang, you can easily come to realize that what we are going through right now, in real time, is an enormous paradigm shift.

More vernacularly, that’s what’s known as a game-changer.

The current crisis has the clear potential to change the way society does things. It may accelerate the race that had already been happening to make all of our shopping virtual, as well delivering everything with autonomous vehicles or drones. In the brick and mortar places that do remain, you may be seeing a lot fewer actual cashiers and a lot more automated kiosks.

This is particularly true in fast food places. McDonald’s alone has been on a push to add kiosks to 1,000 stores per quarter since mid-2018. Compare that to Wendy’s, which the year before set a goal of putting the machines in only 1,000 stores total.

They’re even developing the technology to let AI make recommendations based on various factors, like the weather, or how busy the location is.

But as these jobs go away, ideas like Universal Basic Income and cranking up the minimum wage become much more important — especially because people in these minimum wage jobs are, in fact, not the mythical high schooler making extra cash. Quite a lot of them are adults, many of them with children and families to support.

We are also already seeing immediate and positive effects on the environment due to massive shutdowns of transportation and industry. Scientists had already shown how airline travel contributes to global warming because the shutdown of flights for three days after September 11 gave them a unique living lab to study it in.

And remember: That was pretty much a limit on foreign flights coming into the U.S. What’s happening now is on a very global scale. We’re suddenly dumping fewer pollutants into the atmosphere, using less fossil fuel, and generating lower levels of greenhouse gases — and it already has been for longer than three days, and is going to be for a lot longer than that.

One of the must sublime effects, though, has been in one of the hardest-hit countries. In Italy, the waters in the canals of Venice are running clear for the first time in anyone’s memory, although this didn’t bring the dolphins to them nor make the swans return to Burano. The dolphins were in the port at Sardinia and the swans are regulars.

While a lot of the specific environmental recoveries are true, a lot of them are not. Even NBC was taken in by the hoax that National Geographic debunked.

There’s something poetic in the irony that, as humans have been forced to shut themselves inside, animals do have opportunity to come back into the niches we displaced them from, even if only temporarily.

It’s not always a good thing, though. In Bangkok, the lack of tourists — an abundant source of free food — led to an all-out monkey war between two different tribes.

All of this is just a reminder that all of us — human, animal, and plant alike — live on and share the same planet, and what one does affects all of the others.

The ultimate example of that, of course, is a pandemic. It now seems likely it all began with patient zero, a 55 year-old man from Hubei in Wuhan province, who was the first confirmed case, back on November 17, 2019. But the most likely reservoir from which the virus jumped to humans was probably the pangolin — just more proof that it’s the cute ones you always have to beware of.

It may seem strange to start on the topic of theatre and veer hard into science via politics, but like everything else on the planet, it’s all interconnected. Art, politics, and science are opposite faces of an icosahedral die that never stops being thrown by the hand of fate.

Or by completely random forces. Or it’s a conspiracy. Or it’s all predictable if you have enough data.

Stay safe out there by staying in, wherever you are. See you on the other side but I hope to keep seeing you through it on a daily basis. I’m not going anywhere, dammit.

Image Source: Fairmont Theater, (CC BY-ND 2.0) 2009 Jon Dawson. Used unchanged.