Sunday nibble #29: There and back again

Since a lot of us around the world are still stuck inside for the most part, I thought I’d invite you to go on a little virtual journey with me, courtesy of YouTube creator morn1415, whom I’ve followed for a long time. He creates amazing videos on scientific subjects — generally dealing with astrophysics and cosmology.

He shot to internet fame almost immediately for his first video post over a decade ago, called Star Size Comparison, and it’s worth a watch. But this is nothing compared to his work on display in the two videos below, because the scale from top to bottom is so much more enormous.

In the star size video, the scale doesn’t go beyond more than maybe ten orders of magnitude, if that. In the video shared here, he covers 61 orders of magnitude, from the Planck scale of 10^-35 meters all the way up to 20^26 meters, the size of the visible universe.

It’s an amazing work, and best to keep in mind that each new cube showing scale has sides ten times longer than the previous, faces a hundred times bigger, and one thousand times the volume.

In the original, we take a leisurely trip to the top and then come flying back down. Put it in the highest res you can, and buckle in for an amazing journey.

If you’d prefer to savor the journey in two different trips, morn 1415 has also created two versions that are slowed to half speed, one which starts at one meter and travels downward, and the other that starts at one meter and journeys up.

No matter how you take the trip, it’s a great visualization of the scale of things and our place among them. If you like these, you won’t be disappointed if you subscribe to his channel.

Note: I am not affiliated with the morn1415 website in any way, other than being a long-time fan and subscriber.

Sunday nibble #28: Stir fry, stir crazy

As we move into August, this will be the fifth month of the year in which we are under varying degrees of lockdown or quarantine, something that should have ended last month but which didn’t because far too many Americans lack anything resembling self-control or discipline.

Oh well.

For those of us in California, it all began abruptly on a Friday afternoon at the end of March. March 20, to be precise, although for those of us in the arts, we’d seen the writing on the wall, and live performance and theater took the pre-emptive action of shutting down a week before that.

So my theater job and performance career went into permanent hiatus the Sunday before, and then my day job put us on indefinite furlough for who knew how long.

Somehow, I managed to be fortunate in that I was less than a year away from the end of a previously active unemployment claim, so I went online, re-upped, and there was absolutely no gap in benefits. Sure, the payment from the state was ridiculously small, but the $600 a week from the Federal government really helped, not to mention that $1,200 stimulus check, but you know what?

First off, that stimulus allowed me to get some very necessary repairs done on my car that I couldn’t have afforded otherwise, meaning that I plowed it right back into the local economy and gave other people jobs.

Meanwhile, that Federal unemployment allowed me to keep paying rent, meaning that my landlords kept making money, so they could keep pouring money back into state government in the form of property taxes.

And what does it say when a $600 a week payment from the Federal government (aka $2,600 a month) is more than a lot of people make already?

Hint: Time to either raise the minimum wage to something actually livable, create a guaranteed basic income, or… no, those are the options, really.

You know what I did do with no day job and all that money? I started creating my ass off. What else could I do? I was locked up at home, my dog died less than six weeks into it (and I couldn’t have afforded that without that Federal money) leaving me even lonelier, I started doing improv via Zoom, along with play readings the same way.

And so it went for three months. Oh yeah… somewhere along all that, I finally succumbed to what seems to have been the Great Male Fashion Trend of 2020: Shave your goddamn head.

Yep. Though I’d never done it before, and though there was a good gap between when I’d ordered the clippers and finally used them, there was finally a day in July, after over five months of no haircuts, when I finally just said “Fuck it,” took off the guard, let the thing loose and, ta-da… I was bald for the first time in my life since I plopped out of my Mama’s hoo-hah.

Surprisingly, I didn’t half mind it. I was a bit disturbed to realize that I did not have a 666 birthmark somewhere on my head, although I did have a big mole on t upper back right side of my skull.

But, even more surprisingly, just over two weeks after my head was as bare as a baby’s ass (or as mine) the hair had substantially grown back which, really, was encouraging.

All of which kind of skips the original intent of this Sunday nibble, which was this: On March 20, 2020, everything in L.A. shut down. Zoom kept performance alive, at least among my Improv Theater and my Improv Group… but otherwise, everything went apocalyptic.

Then, around the beginning of July, my day-job boss began to try to figure out how to get things going again. Now, technically, we were actually an essential business, but he didn’t want to endanger anyone.

So… he enlisted me and another staffer to write the COVID safety guidelines, which we did, and then  he figured out that most of us could work remotely.

I now have a small desk next to my personal desk with a laptop and VOIP phone on it, and I didn’t actually have hard-wired internet here until I had to for work. Truth to tell, I’m already really appreciating the speed of the connection over what I had before (don’t ask).

But it wasn’t until earlier in July that I slowly started to work my back to working full time because, honestly, the mental and physical toll of this whole thing has been draining. But… I am managing the 12 foot commute from my bedroom in the mornings, grateful for the 3 foot commute home in the evenings, and still a little boggled at the concept that I have a clone of my office phone sitting on my desk at home.

This is probably going to be life for a while now, actually — those of us who can sheltered in place, and taking care of every last bit of tech in order to contact the outside world and, you know, the more I think about it, the more I think that it’s a great thing.

And, on top of that, I’m the more grateful for a boss who realized that this would be our future status quo back in March, so that now I have gotten (without any outside contact whatsoever) a laptop, a cable internet connection, and an office phone via VOIP, and since the beginning of July I’ve been slowly working back to working full time.

Did I mention that it has the shortest commutes ever?

This just may work for my industry, actually, and that’s probably a good thing. Or a great thing. But, most of all, it reminds me of one thing: Like other landmark years in human history, 2020 is going to be set down as a huge dividing line, before and which after things were not the same.

Is it strange sitting in my own living room and taking business calls and all that? Oh, hell yeah. But is it also super convenient, and does it make me inclined to work really weird hours just because I can? That, too.

Hey, remove the commute, it saves me a lot of time and money. And remove the need for so much space for office workers, it saves employers money too, in terms of renting office space, paying utilities and taxes on it, and so on.

So… here’s an idea for the future, one that our elected officials might want to keep an eye on.

If a lot of businesses can be converted to working remotely and a lot of those offices shrink their spaces accordingly, then here’s what we can do:

Regarding the now abandoned office space, convert it into low-income housing or, in the case of large commercial structures like office buildings or malls, convert it directly into free transitional housing for the homeless.

For those businesses that reduce expenses via renting less property, paying for fewer utilities, or so on, establish a state agency which will help them determine how much they’ve saved through the changes, how much per capita that represents for each of their employees, and how they can re-invest 90% of it back into their staff directly while keeping 10% of the benefits themselves, tax free.

I think there was also a provision in here where all elected officials, from city level on up to federal, were all required to be paid minimum wage, but since that would be raised to at least $45 an hour immediately, that might help everyone.

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.

Sunday Nibble #25: A Tale of Two Biopics

Lockdown and Amazon Prime have actually gotten me back to watching films, and to recent flicks resonate so strongly with each other that it’s amazing. One is Elton John’s biopic Rocketman. The other is Shia LaBeouf’s biopic Honey Boy, and both of them are just amazing deep dives into self-revelation from two men who lost a lot to addiction but then dug out of it.

The big difference between them, though, is that Elton is a generally beloved person and always has been, while Shia has somehow been heaped with hate, and I don’t get the latter bit.

When he did his #iamsorry performance art piece in L.A., I really tried to make it through the crowds to get in there, but didn’t. The idea was that each guest would be led individually into a room where Shia sat at a wooden table with a paper bag that read, “I am not famous anymore” over his head. There were a bunch of things on the table relating to various of his movies.

The idea that anyone who came in could do whatever they wanted to him with what was before him and, apparently, at least one shitty patron raped him.

Anyway, had I made it in, I would have pulled that bag off his head and told him, “Dude, you’re not a shit person. You’re an artist. Sometimes it’s tough. And I know that you intend to not speak during this, but that’s okay. You’re an actor. You have value.”

But here’s the really big difference between both men: Elton chose to become a performer. He wanted to take music lessons, and become a rock star, and he dragged his family into it. Meanwhile, Shia just wanted to be a kid, but his alcoholic trainwreck of a father instead used his kid to try to live out his Hollywood dreams, and it took a major toll.

And, extreme bonus points here: Elton doesn’t show up in his own biopic until the very end, and only as himself. Meanwhile, Shia takes the much riskier route of diving headfirst into playing the absolute source of his own addictions and troubles. That is, in Honey Boy, Shia plays his own father, and he does not pull a single punch or knock off a blemish.

Sure, he humanizes him and gives a sincere and compelling performance. At the same time, every single second he’s on screen as his own father, we just want to punch his fucking face and save his son, Otis, aka Honey Boy, from his own insincerity and arrogance, and OMG does Shia get this in spades.

This is the kind of hard-edged, honest bio that only someone who has been through rehab can create, and it’s basically stated half-way through the movie. Paraphrasing, it’s only when you hit your lowest that you can share what will save others from the same.

In the film, Otis got it. Dad? I’m  not so sure. And neither is Shia. But, by the end of Honey Boy… adult Shia offers both absolution and condemnation — not just for his dad, but for himself, and you can’t get anymore more goddamn honest than that in a biopic. Ever.

Sunday Nibble #22: Summer camping — sort of

Recently, Amazon Prime recommended something called The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, which aired on ABC in 1976, and it is… beyond surreal.

Basically, it was a make-good on a contract with ABC after two star-vehicles created for him failed. These were The Paul Lynde Show and Temperatures Rising, although in the case of the latter Lynde was brought in to replace the original lead, James Whitmore, of a failing series — never a good sign — and it was rechristened The New Temperatures Rising Show.

It’s no secret now — hell, it wasn’t even really a secret then except to Middle American audiences — that Lynde was as gay as Christmas on Fire Island. He hardly did anything to hide it, and even when he was supposed to be playing straight, married men he would camp it the hell up.

Somehow, he endeared himself to audiences, though, particularly as the put-upon father in the film version of Bye-Bye Birdie, and especially as the extremely flamboyant Uncle Arthur in the TV series Bewitched.

He sealed the deal when he became center square on The Hollywood Squares beginning in 1968 — and all of his best answers were so campy and over-the-top that someone had to be absolutely blind to not figure out how gay he really was.

Although, who knows? Maybe it was the idea that he was the wacky bachelor uncle who was too funny to have sex, so he was “safe.” Although if you look at a lot of his answers on Hollywood Squares, it’s hard to really believe that.

I mean, come on. He’s not even trying to hide it — and these are just six minutes out of hours of stuff.

By the way, the audience’s reaction and Paul’s response to the last question, at about 5:34, says it all. At least in some circles, they knew, and he didn’t even try to hide it.

This brings us to his Halloween Special, which is a bizarre combination of over-the-top camp combined with Lynde, playing himself, continually being cast in scenarios where he’s basically competing for female attention.

By the way, one of the principal writers on the special was Bruce Vilanch. If you don’t know who he is, the short version is that he is one of the funniest writers in Hollywood who has put humorous words into the mouths of everyone, since forever.

He punched up the jokes for the Oscars for years, and was the subject of the 1999 documentary Get Bruce! He also used to be the head writer for… The Hollywood Squares, and he was also loudly and proudly gay, although behind the scenes.

So we wind up with this bizarre mish-mash in which Paul Lynde is whisked away by his maid (Margaret Hamilton) to visit her sister (Billie Hayes). This is when he discovers that they are both witches, which is somewhat meta because the two of them played, respectively, The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz and Witchiepoo in the 1960s TV series H.R. Pufnstuf. They resurrect those characters here, and at least one of them is a gay camp icon.

The rest of the special involves the witches granting Lynde wishes, and in the first two he wishes to be a trucker and then a Sheikh — the first to seduce a diner waitress (Roz Kelly) and the second to seduce proper British Lady Cecily Westinghouse (Florence Henderson). He gives the witches the last wish, and they decide to go to a disco.

Along the way, the band KISS shows up and performs a few numbers.

If ABC wonders why they couldn’t get shows with Lynde to take off, this is a prime example. He was a fixture on Hollywood Squares for years. His Halloween special was never even re-run until the days of streaming.

If you have the slightest clue about Lynde’s private life, every single instance of him trying to seduce a woman here comes across as either cringingly inauthentic or, less charitably, as acts of hidden misogyny — we’re going to play the “girls are icky” game, but from a macho position.

Hm. Camp gay man portraying toxic masculinity? How very 1970s of them.

The other thing that really stood out for me, though, was how absolutely fucking boring and corporate KISS were. Now, I was never even familiar with their music, having been lucky enough to have avoided exposure to it in its heyday, but I had heard things from older cousins about how Satanic and evil and scary they were, or whatever.

I do remember some brouhaha when they ditched the costumes and make-up in the 1980s, but in watching them in this special now, my main impression was that they didn’t look scary or evil or anything like that. They just looked ridiculous.

This was what happened when somebody threw some 50 year-old brand manager a stack of records by Ozzy Osbourne and David Bowie and Alice Cooper, along with concert footage of the same, and said, “Come up with a band like this.”

I know it wasn’t intentional, but while the aim was for ultra-macho and dangerous, what they really managed to create was four young straight guys trying to do drag, but chickening out before the wigs went on.

Maybe that was totally appropriate for this special because, in a way, KISS actually represented exactly what Lynde had been forced into doing by strapping down his sexuality and pretending to play a straight man. The only difference was that he sort of managed to walk out with his dignity somewhat intact because he never actually gave up his personality along the way.

If anything, this special is a nice time-capsule reminder of how much mainstream pop culture in the 1970s sucked royal donkey balls. Oh, that’s probably the case now, as well. We’re just a lot better at design, costumes, hair, and make-up.

You can view the whole special in good quality if you have Amazon Prime, or watch it here, if you must.

Sunday nibble #20: Estos tiempos raros en un mundo desconocido

Like most sites that generate daily content, I’m always working a bit ahead and pre-scheduling posts, and I don’t think that should be any big secret. Short of hosting a live podcast, there shouldn’t be any pretense that the content happened spontaneously.

Even a lot of what you see on broadcast news isn’t live, outside of the in-studio reporters introducing the pieces. Here’s a surprise: You know those “Live from…” stand-ups that reporters do? Unless they’re interacting directly with the on-air crew and answering questions, those aren’t quite live, either.

And, of course, there are occasional reruns, something that broadcast TV does regularly — although streaming has made it another on-demand feature. But this didn’t start with TV. It goes back at least to newspaper columnists having their “best-of” columns re-run when they went on vacation, and re-issues of books and albums are the same thing.

It also depends on whether there’s a particular theme or format, which I gave myself at the beginning of this year, although I’ve certainly stretched my own rules a few times. I’ve also allowed myself a couple of spots where I can go freeform, like Sundays.

But as I write this piece, we’re ending the seventh day of protests around the country over the murder of George Floyd. And yes, unlike the news outlets that won’t call something what it is, I’m not going to say “the death of George Floyd.”

I mean, I was upset about the deaths of both of my grandmothers, but they were old. I was also upset about the death of my dog a month ago as I write this, but she was also very old.

Death is something that just happens, and tends to come when time and health dictate it. Accidental death is a sudden incident, probably random and unforeseeable, that quickly leads to time and health dictating it, like a car skidding on black ice and crashing through a crowded bus kiosk.

Murder is a death that is imposed from outside with intent, and there is nothing random or unforeseeable about it.

George Floyd was murdered, the entire world is protesting it, and things don’t seem to be getting better here yet. Perspective: in 1992, the Rodney King riots and concomitant martial law, curfew, and shut-down lasted about a week.

Paradoxically, these protests are both more peaceful and more violent than 1992. It all depends on where you are and how your local police respond. They are also more organized, and it is quite obvious this time that the organized, peaceful protesters are also trying to stop the opportunistic looters from stealing and destroying property.

Pile all of this on top of an ongoing lockdown that, at least in L.A., had just started its eleventh week last Friday and pending retail re-openings may have been completely derailed, especially once we see whether and what effects the protests had in making the coronavirus spread faster.

I couldn’t have predicted this a week before it started, and from this point of view I certainly can’t predict what the world will be like when you read this on June 7th, or whenever you get to it. All I can say is that we are truly going through trying times, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before — and yet probably far milder than what anyone who has ever lived through an actual warzone has had to experience.

Outside where I am, it’s quiet. There was some looting and a fire a few miles northwest of here earlier today, on streets I’m very familiar with, and Hollywood (as usual) was another hotspot. The county has been on overnight curfews that started at 6 p.m., although at the last minute they cranked Monday’s back to start at 5 p.m.

Still different than 1992, when the initial curfews were 24/7, so there’s that. But we are indeed living through strange times in an unknown world.

Be safe, be well.

Sunday Nibble #18: We’re all in this lifeboat together, so row!

The following list showed up on one of my social media sites a couple of days ago, and the thing that most struck me about it was how many of the following I have been experiencing. Okay, actually, it was two things. That, and the fact that the friend who posted it had been experiencing about the same number.

So I shared it to my friends, and lo and behold, everyone who replied admitted to experiencing at least six of the following, it not more.

8 warning signs you’re mentally and emotionally exhausted

  1. You’re easily irritated.
  2. You feel completely unmotivated, even to do things you normally enjoy.
  3. You’re experiencing anxiety or panic attacks.
  4. You’re having trouble sleeping. Either it takes you hours to fall asleep or your sleep is broken all through the night.
  5. You have almost no patience and you find yourself being short with colleagues and family.
  6. You’re experiencing indigestion. You have a low-grade stomach-ache all the time or feel like there’s butterflies in your stomach.
  7. You start crying unexpectedly.
  8. You feel detached from reality. You go through your days without really emotionally responding or connecting to anything. You feel empty.

The only ones not affecting me are 3, 5, and 7 — although it seems like experiencing 8 would make 7 and 3 much less likely anyway. I was really surprised, though, at how many people are also experiencing number 6.

I’ve actually been losing weight during the quarantine, and that’s probably because I have next to no appetite. A lot of days, I’ll have maybe a can of tuna. Over the last few, I’ve had a major craving for cottage cheese, and have eaten no more than half a cup a day.

Although I’ve got plenty of meat in my freezer, I suddenly went off it a week or two ago. Again, no desire for it.

But while this list and the responses may make it seem like all of us are having a bad time of it, there is one big silver lining to it.

For all of our differences as individuals, when it comes to being humans, we are all mostly the same.

I could reel off lists of how I and each of my friends who responded are very different from each other in a bunch of ways. We may have common interests, but different tastes. I know that several of them love horror movies, which is a genre I can’t stand. Likewise, I love science fiction, and some of my friends hate it.

I definitely know foodies, who think that things like peach slices on a cheeseburger or prosciutto wrapped watermelon in mole are perfectly acceptable things to eat, while I consider something as mundane as pineapple on pizza to be culinary blasphemy.

I try not to know people who voted for a certain current occupant of the Oval Office, but since I tend to hang around the world of creative, artsy types, this hasn’t been that difficult.

I have friends who are very talented painters but who couldn’t string two coherent sentences together; friends who can dance rings around Baryshnikov but couldn’t balance a checkbook to save their lives; friends with incredible and amazing emotional insight who can counsel anybody through anything, but who barely know how to work a computer; friends who can sew and craft and repurpose when I can barely Scotch tape an envelope shut…

In other words, I know a bunch of people with different tastes, skills, and personalities. So do you. On top of all of the above, you know introverts, extroverts, and ambiverts — and even those designations can change.

I mean, try to get an introverted nerd to have a casual conversation with someone they might find attractive, possible disaster city. Engage them with a fellow nerd or nerds over their favorite fandom, you can’t get them to shut up.

And that example extends, again, over all interests. Put a theatre person with a sports fan? No meaningful conversation. Switch the players around, boom. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Now pick any of those two people at random, stick ‘em in a room, and point out that they have had a similar life-impacting experience. Maybe a parent, SO, sibling, or pet recently died. Maybe they both lost their jobs. Maybe they’re experiencing incredible financial insecurity. Or perhaps they were both diagnosed with the same possibly fatal disease.

Result? Instant emotional contact and equality. The jock and the nerd react the same way. The artist and the accountant react the same way. It’s even possible that the liberal and conservative react the same way.

And so we’re back at that opening list. Because here’s what I learned and I want to share. People are kind of like… well, people. On the outside, we are all different and distinguishable by our looks, voices, personalities, tastes, desires, bodies, and… accessories. But take away that outer layer, and voilà — we aren’t so different at all.

It’s like one of those peel-away anatomy books. Once the skin is gone, were just muscle and sinew that all works pretty much the same way, and it’s like that all the way down to the bone. Same organs, same circulatory and nervous systems, and… same psychology.

So the lesson of so many of us suffering so many of the same signs of mental and emotional exhaustion should not be discouragement. Rather, it should be a sign of hope.

Why? Because if we are all going through the same damn thing while we think we are so different, it means that we aren’t all that different at all, and so can grab the oars and row ourselves out of this shitshow together.

If you don’t know my pain and I don’t know yours, then we are islands apart forever. But… if we both know the same pain and come together, then we are partners in the journey out.

And so, in despair, we find hope.

For all of our differences as individuals, when it comes to being humans, we are all mostly the same. Embrace that, and embrace each other from a distance. We will make it through together.

Sunday Nibble #16: Truth and fiction

Here’s an appropriate version of the telephone game. You’ve no doubt heard one of these quotes. Your job is to identify which was actually said by the person so named:

  1. “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” — Jonathan Swift
  2. “(A) Lie would travel from Maine to Georgia while Truth was getting on his boots.” — Fisher Ames
  3. “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”— Mark Twain
  4. “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.” — Winston Churchill

The quote may or may not sound familiar, but who seems like the most likely source? I’ll get to that later, but the important point is that no matter which one of the quotes above is the actual one, each one of them does say something important.

Lies will spread like wildfire, and that’s especially true nowadays with the internet, social media, and the instantly shareable image macro, “news” post, or meme. We can see this every day when the latest outrage share or “shocking” news story goes viral (pardon the expression) before the debunking begins, but by then it is often too late.

It’s a problem that affects all political beliefs and I’ve seen both sides do it, which is why there are a few very important things you have to remember to ask yourself before you share that story.

  1. Does this offend my political sensibilities and confirm all the worst things I think about (insert hated foe here)? Then you may be getting played. Do a search, especially with sites like Snopes or Politifact, and especially if the claim seems too over the top. Hint: flip it so it’s your preferred person doing it, and see how plausible it sounds.
  2. For alleged news stories, always check the sources to make sure they are reputable outlets, and not places like shitpostnewslol.com or joeschmoemedia.me. A lot of satire sites will identify themselves as such, but you have to click the links and go to their “about” link, where it will clearly say, “Hey, we made this up.” And if you don’t know that the Onion and Borowitz report are mostly satire, you shouldn’t be online. Finally, while Forbes itself is reputable (if biased), if an article is under the URL forbes.com/sites/, then it could have been contributed by anyone, and shouldn’t be trusted.
  3. Avoid weasel words or stories without clearly identified parties. “Experts say” or “scientists believe” mean nothing. The same is true in a lot of “this injustice will outrage you” stories that happen to omit things like the location, at least the names of a local official or citizen interviewed. “Family kicked out of local diner for praying over breakfast” is a nice outrageous headline, but what does the story say? If all you get is “a local family of six is considering legal action” and “unidentified diner,” and not a lot more, don’t trust the story.
  4. You can ignore random opinion polls, because they can be made to say anything, depending on how the questions are worded and answer options are given, and the results can be spun as well. For example, the question, “Politicians accused of eating babies should: a) Be given a fair trial, per their rights; b) Executed on the spot because accusations are truth.” This can easily turn into the shock headline, “60% of Americans Support Politicians Eating Babies!” Again, ignore.
  5. Most science stories promising either miracle cures or killer asteroids are bunk, especially the latter. If you see a headline that says something like, “Mayo Clinic Breakthrough: Toe Jam Stops Cancer!” then you should look for the original study and ignore the story, because the reality was probably more like “toe jam kills 4% of foot cancer cells in vitro, peer review pending.” Translation: “Toe jam don’t kill cancer, and a petri dish isn’t a human body anyway.”
  6. Remember, most of all, that the authors of stories aren’t the ones who write the headlines, and the headlines are written to make you click. So do yourself the biggest favor of all, and don’t just read the headline. Read the entire story, and then research it further if it seems fishy.

Because… well, here are the quotes from above and the actual sources for them. Did you pick the right one?

  1. “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” — actually Jonathan Swift, 1710
  2. “(A) Lie would travel from Maine to Georgia while Truth was getting on his boots,” — attributed to Fisher Ames by William Tudor, North American Review, 1821
  3. “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”— attributed to Mark Twain by Burris Jenkins, in the Denver Post, 1921
  4. “‘A lie gets halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.’” — attributed to Winston Churchill by Ernest W. Lefever as quoted by Francis X. Clines in the New York Times, 1981

Hint: although a lot of people think it was Mark Twain, it wasn’t. The closest to an actual and verifiable first-person citation we can come is… Jonathan Swift, whose quote isn’t at all like the others in wording, but which is identical in sentiment.

Don’t help the lies fly. Help the truth get on its boots and run.

Sunday Nibble #14: Maprilay 57th

As our lockdown drags on, the days and weeks bleed into each other in an ultimately mind-numbing routine of solitude. Yes, there are those occasional virtual breaks to meet with friends, and if those aren’t anchors to sanity, I don’t know what is.

I may also finally wind up being equipped to work from home since, surprise, my day job is considered an essential business, it’s just that when this all started, only the licensed agents were already set up with the necessary security on their home computers — HIPAA regulations, you see.

That may restore some semblance of normalcy. Or not. It’s honestly been hard enough to focus on anything, and a big part of that of course is due to the whole uncertainty of “Where is the money going to come from?”

Oh, there’s unemployment, but it’s not enough. There are promises, as yet unkept by the Federal government, of supplementing everyone’s unemployment by $600 a week, which would go a long way. There are also those stimulus checks, which are taking their sweet time.

And while my state and city have banned tenant evictions for non-payment of rent, with the ability to pay back skipped amounts over 12 months, landlords have still been trying to evict people. Although that in itself would be a good trick, because the courts are mostly closed and the sheriffs aren’t evicting.

My one daily routine that gets me outside briefly a few times a day is walking the dog. I live in a gated garden complex, so I never have to leave the grounds, and my dog is very old, so she doesn’t like to walk all that far. But even in our short forays, I have started to notice the changes in nature around us, and they are interesting, to say the least.

The most obvious one is how clean the air is, how white the clouds look, and how much more rain we’ve had the last month or so. It’s also been a lot colder than it’s been this time of year for ages, and I have to think that the combination of limited vehicle, aircraft, and watercraft traffic has something to do with it.

And that wouldn’t be at all incorrect. While it varies by area, weekday weather and weekend weather can be very different, and Southern California has always seemed to be one of those places fond of weekend storms. Since we’ve essentially been on a long weekend for just over a month now, it’s not a big surprise.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that there are suddenly a lot more bees buzzing around one particular bush near my back door. And I know you’re probably thinking, “Hey, it’s spring. That’s when bees come around, right?”

Well, yes, but… since my dog has always loved to nose around this bush, when there are bees in it I’m very aware, because she also likes to snap at tiny flying things, and I really don’t want her getting stung in the mouth. This bush is right near a doggy poop-bag station, so it’s been a common stop on our walk for years, even when those walks were a lot longer.

This is the first time, really, I can remember it swarming so much. This is also interesting because about a month and a half before everything went down, a neighbor reported that there were a bunch of dead and dying bees on the sidewalk just to the north of the complex, which is on the opposite corner from where I am.

The second thing I noticed was the sudden apparent disappearance of the two most common forms of wild life around — crows and squirrels. The crows in particular would make themselves very obvious, especially around sunset, when a large and cawing flock would circle the tall trees on the north end, eventually settling in for a little murder before nightfall.

I haven’t heard or seen them in such numbers for a long time. I did see two very quiet crows wheel by today, but they flew off.

It’s been the same with the squirrels. A couple of the magnolias seem so have their resident tree dogs, who delight in stealing oranges off of those trees, and then hauling them up to eat. Even when the squirrels are not around, the tell-tale gnawed fruit always is — and, again, I haven’t seen that in a while.

What I have seen, though, that’s new: a bunch of tiny brown finches flittering around in the branches, chatting with each other. It’s a sound I hadn’t heard before, but now it’s abundant, and it’s not like a normal bird chirp. It’s more like they click at each other.

It’s like the entire miniature ecosystem around here has shifted, and I’m sure there have been a lot of other changes as well that I haven’t seen because I’ve pretty much been limited to an area with a 0,6 mile radius, which is half the distance from where I get my dog food to where I get my groceries. I’m somewhere in the middle.

At the moment, we’ve got at least another three weeks to go, but that’s subject to change, and it’s entirely possible that large gatherings will be banned on into 2021. That may even apply to everything from small theatre on up, and that’s where the real uncertainty comes in.

We could easily be facing a year without any public rituals of any kind, religious or secular. Well, ideally. Unfortunately, we have people who still think that just being in a church, synagogue, or other religious setting will protect themit won’t.

It leads to the strange paradox where any such gatherings might lead to a lot more deaths, which would lead to a lot of funerals, except that those funerals shouldn’t happen because they’ll just lead to a lot more funerals, and so on.

And yes, it will decimate if not devastate industries: funeral homes, wedding planners, caterers, florists, tailors and tux shops.

On the other hand, a lot of us under a certain age have been living a lot of our social lives online already for a while, so in a way we’re well-suited to the changes, and can probably deal with virtual… everything.

It’s not impossible. It’s just lonely. But, do stay home. Wear a mask or face covering when you do go out, and when you do on those very rare occasions, pay attention to nature. I do think it’s trying to tell us something.

Sunday Nibble #12: Selfie harm

Here in California, the first lockdown happened in the Bay Area — generally, San Francisco, Oakland, Silicon Valley, and surroundings.

If you don’t know the state, San Francisco is about 345 miles on a straight line northwest of Los Angeles, or a 30 minute flight, or either an 8 hour drive up the windy coast or 5 hours or so up the middle of the state on the I-5, depending upon how willing you are to hit 90 mph. most of the way.

For perspective, from the southern to northernmost points of England, geographically, it’s 424 miles on a straight line, although you’ve got to fly over Wales to do that. If we measure on a straight line that only passes through England, then it’s about the same distance.

I bring this up because one of the advantages California has is that we’re big. The state is also composed of the major urban areas that are separated by shitloads of empty or sort of connected, but by suburbs that long-distance freeway traffic doesn’t even touch.

That and, especially in Southern California, we live in our cars. San Francisco, not so much, but that’s why they locked down first and have been fairly successful at flattening the curve.

Today, L.A. and the entire state has been on lockdown for 23 days, and it seems to be working, although we’ve still got at least another 8 days to go, if not more. California’s program has been dubbed “Safer at Home,” and I can’t help but think that this is true after running across a Wikipedia list online of people who were injured or died while taking selfies.

The reasons for these accidents are attributable to animals, drowning, electrocution, falling, fire, firearm, transportation, and “other.” The top three causes of death were falls, drowning, and transportation. The greatest number of incidents were falls, but the greatest number of casualties were due to drowning.

The top five countries for selfie deaths, in order, were India (70), the United States (18), Russia (13), Pakistan (8), and Australia (5) — although China only having 2 on the list could either be accurate, or just more of their downplaying of tragedy. Who knows?

Trains on their own accounted for almost as many deaths as drowning since they can cover three categories — transportation, electrocution, and falls.

The greatest number of injuries in a single incident happened during a fire at a bakery in Chennai, India, when people refused to move away from the building while taking selfies. The incident saw 48 people injured due to burns.

Chennai was also the location of a train death, when a student celebrating his 17th birthday climbed on top of a train car and then touched a live wire, resulting in his electrocution. Oh. And this made him fall off of the car as well, so it was a trifecta.

Not to make light of these deaths, but a lot of them are pretty Darwin Award worthy. People trying to get selfies with animals, particularly elephants, seem to have a high fatality rate, accounting for 45% of all animal deaths.

As for falls, let’s just say that cliffs, bridges, balconies, and other high places are not the best locations for a shoot.

And, getting back to the Darwin Awards, one of the most spectacular and stupid selfie deaths took place in Russia when a young man pulled the pin out of a live hand grenade and posed with it. (Some accounts say it was two men, but most only refer to one victim.)

He was blown in half, but the camera and selfie he texted to a friend survived, which is how authorities knew what happened. This, among other incidents, led to Russia issuing a Safe Selfie guide. Meanwhile, Japan banned selfie sticks from train stations.

To come around full circle, where people are not self-isolating and practicing social distancing right now, they are being just as stupid and foolhardy as all of these people who died or severely injured themselves because they thought they could take a selfie in a dangerous place, lost focus for an instant, and then lost so much more.

Stay home. We’re not out of the woods yet. And, if you must go out, remember: Six feet apart, or someone winds up six feet under.