Momentous Monday: Interesting times

There is an alleged Chinese curse that did not come from China at all and which may not have even been meant to be a curse when first mentioned by Joseph Chamberlain. The phrase goes like this: “May you live in interesting times.”

The implication, of course, is that interesting times are dangerous ones.

Right now, in the spring of 2020 C.E., the entire planet is living in interesting times, and I have a feeling that all of human history is going through a process of change that will be marked and noted by historians from here on out.

Congratulations, fellow humans. We are indeed living through a profound moment that will leave a different world behind, and those of us who survive it will be able to tell future generations, “Yeah. I was there. We never saw it coming, but it changed everything.”

At the moment, the day to day changes may seem weird and trivial — or not — but consider this. When was your last normal trip to the grocery store? When was the last time you found everything on your list? Why is there still no goddamn TP?

Or eggs and skim milk — those are the weird shortages, actually, because America just makes so goddamn much of both. Oh, sure, we’re lousy with over-priced “organic” bullshit eggs, as well as 2% and Whole milk, but if you’re into non-fat, you’re out of luck.

And get away from me with recommending any kind of “milk” that didn’t come out of a mammal, because that’s not milk. Coconut, almond, soy, whatever? Yep. Not milk. You’re drinking nut juice.

How does that sound?

Gas prices have dropped but that’s okay, because no one is driving anywhere. Those of us who can work from home are maintaining. Those of us who can’t… well, it’s a whole new world.

Certain people seem to think we can end the American lockdown by Easter, which is April 12. Cooler heads say, “Hell no.” This may go on through May or June, and seeing as how the U.S. suddenly became the most infected country in the world on March 26th, the idea of “It’s all over by Easter” is irresponsible as hell.

And remember that this is a pandemic, as in “It doesn’t just affect your town or county or state or country.” This is worldwide. And, as I mentioned above, this one is going to go into the history books along with some of the greatest hits of Events that Changed Everything.

For example:

476 CE: Fall of the Western Roman Empire. The long-term result of this little collapse was the creation of what would become modern Europe. Freed from the yoke of one oppressive empire, various local tribes — which had been allowed to maintain their culture in exchange for providing fealty, soldiers, and taxes to the mothership in Rome — were suddenly free to discover their own identities.

1206 CE: Genghis Kahn begins his conquest of Asia, and almost takes Europe as well. He wiped entire countries and civilizations off of the map, and changed the course of history in Europe forever.

1492 CE: Columbus is allowed to begin the exploitation of the New World, which will lead to an eventual super power that will basically become the new Roman Empire. In effect, this is the continuation of what the Fall of Rome started in Europe

1776 – 1815 CE: A motherlode, from the American Revolution through the French Revolution and the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. The monarchical system is basically ripped out of power forever. It starts when those pesky colonists (in the land conquered by the Europeans who existed because Rome fell) rebelled against their mother country and won. France followed by rebelling at home and winning, only to wind up launching the next would-be dictator because they let the “party purity” assholes take control of their revolution. That would-be dictator (Napoleon) was defeated by the British, who had lost the American Revolution. Monarchy in Europe was mostly told to fuck off from this point forward.

1917 – 1918 CE: Double whammy of the Russian Revolution and The Great War. The former would lead to the first successful, long-term revolutionary state (France didn’t make that cut for reasons noted above), while the “Great War” would lead to a sequel, WW II, which would lead to all kinds of things, including the Cold War between the aforementioned Super Power and the USSR

1990 CE: The collapse of the USSR, apparently (but not really) ending the Cold War and pushing the U.S. into the number one spot.

2020 CE – ???: Worldwide pandemic and lack of leadership possibly ends in the collapse of the U.S., leaving China as the world’s last super power; and the independent Republic of California as a major player in the world economy, although we could also see the creation of the country of Pacifica, made up of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Arizona.

Or… we could somehow manage to get our shit together and survive this whole thing, but I’m not crossing my fingers at this point. We still have to figure out how to have a national election through all of this and, no matter what anyone might think, if the election doesn’t happen, the President doesn’t stay in power.

Rather, his time in office expires on January 20, 2021, along with the Vice President, and the Speaker of the House. Rules of secession would turn the presidency over to the President Pro-Tem of the Senate.

If we still have a government by that point, of course. Enjoy your sheltering in place, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Theatre Thursday: Theatre is the original VR

Something I’ve said for a long time is that live theatre is the original virtual reality, and the only shows you can see in 3D without special glasses.

Also, unlike their recorded and edited cousins — audio, film, video, and streaming — each live theatrical performance is a unique moment in time that will only be experienced by one audience ever, and will be experienced by each audience member (and each performer) in a completely different way.

In a way, I feel sorry for actors who do recorded and edited media, because they really don’t know which performance it’s ultimately going to be. They might do 23 takes of a scene in front of a green screen, have no idea that the director will ultimately settle on number 17, although maybe with a little tweak and morph so that the last beat or two of take 13 actually takes over.

And if it’s a two shot with another actor, the final shot you see on screen may actually use performances from two different takes, seamlessly woven together. It’s the film version of Photoshopping a group picture from multiple shots to make sure everyone’s eyes are open.

And that’s before all of the effects and whatnot are added, and maybe the actor was in a mocap suit anyway, because they’re really only providing the physical movement and overall kinesthetic emotion and facial movement to a performance that will turn into a twelve foot tall purple alien with big yellow eyes.

Meanwhile, a stage actor could play that same character with clever costuming, props and choreography — a couple of cast members lift them for height, a little light change and lots of fabric create the big purple body, and a pair of grapefruit with big black circles on them held Pale Man style become the eyes.

Not to say that one is better than the other. They’re just different. But the game kind of changes when all of the venues are shuttered because of a plague. No more movie theatres at the moment. No more live shows.

All we’re left with is streaming, and the question: Is this the end of both the cinema and live theatre?

Well, don’t bet on it. In 1606, theaters in London were shut down because of the plague, and this was in the middle of runs of three big hits that are still famous now: King Lear, Macbeth and Volpone.

This year, Broadway lost shows like Moulin Rouge: The Musical, Six, Company, Mrs. Doubtfire, Caroline, or Change and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, among many others. Some may be rescheduled. Others may never happen. And it’s the same in London, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle… everywhere.

In L.A., Center Theatre Group had to close The Book of Mormon revival tour early, for example.

This hasn’t stopped many of those performers from performing, and a number of Broadway stars have taken to singing to their fans from home via social media. In a way, this actually makes live theater even more intimate, because every single viewer has their own personal front row center seat — and they get to see the same show that everyone else does.

Can you imagine? Going to see the original staging of Evita on Broadway, and Patti Lupone sings every number right to you? Okay, except without all of that stagecraft, because she’s singing it to you solo and a capella from her living room. Still… rather intimate and impressive either way.

London certainly has a number of previously saved streaming performances to watch. And while it’s anecdotal because I can’t share the link here, two friends of mine managed to do live streaming improv, cell phone to cell phone, with the performance between the two phones put up via another friend’s third phone.

It was a very impressive and clever use of technology. And Zoom isn’t just for meetings. I’ve seen colleagues in theatre now use it for company meetings, as well as group practices.

Is it still theatre in this form, though? Yes. I happen to think that all performing arts are ultimately theatre, whether they happen on a stage or a screen. In 2012, I performed in a number of pieces around the city that took place in public spaces as part of Playwrights Arena’s Flash Theatre L.A.

We performed everywhere from a pet store parking lot to a cemetery in South Los Angeles; in a nearly dark public courtyard with only the uplights illuminating the walls to shine on us when we needed them, in Union Station downtown, and so on.

The cemetery performance and Union Station were two of my favorites — the first because we created a long and elaborate, intricately choreographer Danse Macabre in which I started out as a disgruntled grave digger, then snuck behind a tombstone to change into the guise of a skull-faced pope.

We also had La Llorna and a lot of Día de los Muertos style face-painting in a collision of Medieval Europe and modern Latin America, taking place in a cemetery with a large proportion of black residents, since for a long time in the city’s history it was one of the few places open to them.

What I loved about Union Station was how the show started and ended. We quietly came in and took our places as if we were people waiting for a train, but then slowly stepped out and joined the performance, which involved a twelve-foot tall puppet.

When it was over, after we read out a bunch of real-time tweets we had solicited beforehand, each of us then strode off into the crowd to make our exit by becoming “normal” people again.

We were never on an actual stage for those shows, but it was still theatre. It’s still theatre no matter how big the CGI effects are.

But it’s not only the film and TV people who can forget this. The theatre people can too, in the opposite direction, and sometimes ignore the concept that media and tech can work onstage — or that theatre can happen onscreen in real time — as well.

Back in about 2012, I saw a wonderful production of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, which is basically his fictional biopic and guilty confessional about the death of Marilyn Monroe. Oh… he’s not confessing to killing her directly. He’s feeling guilty over not doing enough to save her life, seeing as how he was married to her at the time.

That’s right — the blonde bombshell dumped the jock (Joe DiMaggio) and married the smart nebbish. Nerds of the world, take heart! That would be like Scarlett Johansson dumping Ryan Reynolds for John Green.

Oh, wait. She did dump Ryan. Just not for John.

Anyway, as originally staged, when characters aren’t onstage, they sit in high backed chairs upstage. Occasionally, one of them will have a flashback monologue, which they deliver by standing in place.

The twist on this the director pulled was having everyone backstage, but when their monologues came, live ghostly video of the actor backstage would be projected on the two side walls of the actual stage. (It was performed on a partial thrust stage.)

Miller was probably borrowing from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which was the first major play to be performed without an actual set — in the days when Broadway was all about realism — and with the entire cast seated onstage when not performing.

This production of After the Fall just took the original concept and modernized it.

But long before video and high tech, tech has always been a part of theatre, from Grand Guignol’s elaborate illusions used to create shock and horror, to the elaborate stage machinery of 18th century opera and earlier.

The opening of the film The Devils by Ken Russell does a pretty good recreation of 17th century French theatrical staging and mechanics:

The interesting question, really, is which media are going to survive this modern plague? If our entertainment venues are limited for long enough — at least, as long as they really need to be to help us survive this — then this just may be the end of the cinema as we know it.

Sorry, Marty, and David. To paraphrase Norma Desmond: “Films are big! It’s the screens that got small.”

People may become too accustomed to just watching at home, and thanks to all of their online hanging out with friends, they may finally remember what the important part is. So expect streaming parties, either as virtual hangouts or IRL, to become the new norm.

Also expect an end to the blockbuster spectacle once people have been reminded through all of the scaled-down-to-mobile shows and performances what theatre is really about: the interactions between characters that happen because of an inciting event.

Notice, by the way, that in any online discussion of the latest hit streaming show, people aren’t talking about the effects or the spectacle or any of that. They are talking about the characters, what they do, and why people like it or don’t like it.

As for theatre, it will survive because, after all, it has for thousands of years and through many difficulties. Plus, when it’s not some overblown Broadway show with a ridiculous budget and inflated ticket prices, it can be cheap to do, easy to stage, and affordable for everyone.

It just may be that “too big to fail” turns into “too big to stay.” Movies and TV turn into intimate events at home or maybe in small clubs. Meanwhile, all of that small theatre that’s always been there goes on. Only, this time, people will have a renewed appreciation of it.

Think about this for a moment. What genre do escape rooms fall into? Not film, and not TV. Nope. They are a type of immersive theatre in which the audience is also part of the cast.

Image (CC0 1.0)

Sunday Nibble #10: Plus ça change

It seems that any sudden societal upheaval in America follows the same basic pattern as the COVID-19 situation, as follows.

  1. Rumors of something bad coming, ignored.
  2. A little bit of the bad thing happens, the media starts to mention it.
  3. A couple more bad things happen, and suddenly the media turns it into a trend.
  4. Continue escalating hype until people freak.
  5. Store shelves stripped bare.
  6. The government fails to react.
  7. Shit gets real.
  8. The government finally sort of does… something?

Specifically, I’m thinking of the L.A. riots, which were nearly 30 years ago, but the same pattern seems to apply to the AIDS crisis (without the hoarding but with the freaking, I think) and it probably applies to the Watts Riots and the Spanish Flu and every other sudden crisis.

But I’m having a definite déjà vu over this one, even though I was a far younger and very naïve person (politically and otherwise) back on April 29, 1992. Okay, same day of the month as this post, a month early, totally unintended.

But that April day was when Los Angeles exploded in violence because the police officers who had beaten Rodney King for no reason were acquitted.

From what I remember, the story broke by the minute, and my dad freaked out about it as soon as he heard the verdict. Of course, he had lived here through the Watts Riots, so he had previous experience. I did not.

Time to stock up on everything, said he, and the stores were insane — much like they were a week before all of California shut down ten days ago.

Water and TP aisles empty, a lot of other essentials practically gone. Well, you know the drill. You all just lived through it.  At the time, though, the assholeishness of it didn’t occur to me because I was still working on installing that whole self-awareness subroutine, but, looking back… yeah. Even my dad had been a greedy asshole about it. Everyone had.

The shutdown due to the riots lasted all of about five days. And, on top of that, I realized that my dad really shouldn’t have been so worried. It was Woodland Hills, way out in the West Valley, aka “The place all the white people moved to in the 60s in order to avoid sending their kids to school with non-white people.”

Poetic justice: I went to school there with a lot of non-white people, and now a lot of the part of Woodland Hills I grew up in and where my parents lived is now heavily Hispanic. I love it. It was when this influx began that all the scared whypipo moved to the Simi Valley.” (My parents tried to join the exodus, but no one wanted to buy their house.)

As for Simi Valley, it’s the home of the Reagan Library, which tells you everything you need to know about it and its demographics. They wanted the place built there, even though the only real connection he had to the city was that he was once governor of the state.

Oh, yeah. One other thing Simi Valley: It was also the venue to which the trial of the cops who beat Rodney King was moved, apparently, with the ultimate defense goal of finding a jury favorable to… the cops. Why would that jury be favorable? Because so many police officers lived there.

And then LA. exploded into violence over a jury verdict delivered in a different county. But that explosion never got anywhere near Woodland Hills because, of course it didn’t.

Now, the eight steps at the top of this article seemed to have taken place all in one day in the case of the L.A. riots — maybe because it threatened rich white people?

Other times, events have moved in much slower motion. Reading the history on it, in the case of the AIDS crisis it took well over a decade to go from point 1 to point 8, and point 6 was intentionally extended, most likely causing the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

And in our modern age, we’ve gone through the cycle in a hyper-fast manner. Still slower than the L.A. riots — or maybe not, because all of the trial drama and build up for that  one took months.

But when it came to Corona Lockdown, we went from 1 to 8 in about three months at most, also stalling for far too long at 6, and we all reacted in the same damn exact way.

Let’s be greedy little bitches and grab everything we can.

And that is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I think that the key, though, is in step 7, as in when shit gets real, but for the 1%. First off, when they realize that they are not immune — and we’ve already had an A-list actor and spouse, several members of Congress, and various other celebrities test positive.

Second is when this realization is going to make them start spending their money on fixing shit, and they’re going to realize that they only caught it because the people they depend on do not have the same access to health care and income security that they do.

All the sheltering in place in the world does no good if their maid has to take public transportation because she can’t afford a car or insurance, and can’t take sick days off if nobody pays her for them.

If a billionaire can’t work for a month it makes no difference, because all of their passive and residual income from investments or rents and royalties keeps rolling in. Until, of course, the stock market tanks and their investments become a bit less valuable, and that’s another thing that makes them think about how helping others will help themselves.

Did I mention that the maid and all those other low-paid workers who interact closely with the billionaire probably don’t have the best health insurance or lowest deductible plan, if any?

And that Mr. or Ms. 1% doesn’t even really notice the help much so that they certainly don’t notice when the maid is coughing all over the counters while cleaning them, or that they themselves have a habit of leaning over their personal assistant from much closer than six feet while telling her what you need her to schedule, all because they’re trying to stare down her top.

They won’t even put two and two together when they suddenly feel feverish, because the only way they’re going to decide to get tested is if they come down with full-blown symptoms or if they hear that someone in their social circle has tested positive or reported symptoms.

Even then, and even if they test positive, they aren’t going to do a thing to help anyone outside of their circles until the big red flag is hoist.

That’s right. We won’t see really important action from the 1% until the grandest event of them all: Somebody in their class dies from this virus — and that is inevitable. Once that happens, you’re going to see mountains moved like never before to block the spread and find a cure.

Just look at how the straight community’s tune changed the second that Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive. Hey, there’s a reason Magic is still alive and a year older than Rock Hudson was when he AIDS killed him. You do the math.

Yep. Suddenly, death comes calling on their kind and the 1% goes socialist harder than your Bernie bro nephew who’s majoring in PoliSci at Berkeley.

“Pay the peons to stay home and the hell away from me! Give them all the health insurance they need for free so they don’t make my family sick. And let’s do something about all these homeless. No more evictions for now, everyone gets enough money to pay their rent. Ah, hell. Here’s property I bought and never developed, cover it in motor homes. Just keep the homeless the hell out of where I am, okay? And figure out how everybody who can works from home. Give ’em the equipment to do it.”

It’s Scrooge the morning after the four ghosts visit. Sad, but if they’re paying for your Christmas goose, just shut up and cash the checks, no matter how big an asshole your Scrooge was up until their sudden revelation.

Kind of ironic but fitting, really, that the deadly virus of “Trickle Down Economics” that Ronald Reagan foisted on America in the 80s — and which directly created the shitshow we’re living now — might actually start to trickle the hell down because of another deadly virus.

See, the big flaw with “trickle down economics” was the assumption that if you gave rich people more money, they would liberally toss it down on their subordinates, everyone would get raises, and it would be good times.

In reality? Not so much. The only trickle down the working class experienced was getting pissed on by the owners.

The fatal flaw of capitalism is that people — no matter their social status or personal wealth or lack thereof — tend to act, on an anonymous playing field, in their own best interests and no one else’s.

Yes, there are definitely altruistic human beings. Mr. Rogers’ “helpers” do exist, but they are few and far between.

In capitalism, which is a zero sum game, most of the players will only be altruistic when incentivized, and the incentive that works the best is to steer them toward an action that, while serving others instead of themselves, will ultimately cost them less in the long run.

Death is the great equalizer, after all. Not to mention that there is no one so rich that they wouldn’t trade their entire fortune in exchange for fending off death. If our modern robber barons can pull the same trick for only a quarter of their fortune, they will think it had been worth the price, and their selfishness might ultimately leave the world a better place.

We shall see.

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.

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.