Sunday Nibble #55: Not out of the woods yet

It’s been just over a year since the world turned upside down and we all went into lockdown. In a lot of ways, though difficult, it’s actually also been a real growth experience.

And even as the world is trying to reopen right now, I can’t help but think that this is the absolute wrong decision. Nowhere near enough people have been vaccinated yet, even though the Biden administration is doing an amazing job of it, and certain Red States are really whiffing it and just reopening willy-nilly and going maskless.

We’re already seeing infection rates resurge in places like Texas and Florida. Oops.

While I lost one job and my beloved activity of improv completely in 2020 because of the plague, I only lost the other job from March through early July, although the unemployment I got was ridiculous thanks to that $600 weekly Federal payment — most of which may now actually be tax exempt. Hooray!

In fact, I was making more unemployed than I had been employed.

Around the end of 2020, I picked up a sweet freelance writing gig that only lasted for three months because after that, they hired me as a full time employee — Lead Content Creator — and after having lost a former dream job at the end of 2017 and having scraped through three years of blowing through my savings, failing to start a freelance career, and winding up in an interesting but low-paying office job, everything turned around.

Having always worked in entertainment or entertainment adjacent, my life has been a constant series of ups and downs that work like this: When they let me create, they pay me out the wazoo, and life is good. When they only pay me to help the creatives, the pay is shit, and life is shaky.

This concept is probably typical of many businesses, but is also perhaps more extreme in entertainment. Non-creative? Yeah, here’s fifteen bucks an hour, technically, but it’s really fifteen times forty, even if you wind up working sixty hours or more. Sorry!

Creative? Great. So for this one project you do for us, whether it’s writing or directing a one-hour episode, we’re going to pay you about twice what those peons make in a year, but you’re only going to work on it for maybe six weeks max, if not less.

Oh… did we mention that you get residuals, meaning that we throw money at you every time it re-airs anywhere? And depending on the contract and venue, some of those residuals can be damn close to what you made on the original project.

Yeah, I managed that pinnacle exactly once, and I’m still getting residuals to this day from it, and they’re aren’t trivial.

But… back to that new job, as an artist, one thing is the most gratifying of all, and that’s to watch as your bank account grows by the month and you realize, “Oh, wow. I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay for this necessary thing,” and it is such a relief of all the burdens artists usually face.

Car broke? Oh, wait. Got that!

Dog is sick? Oh, hey, no problem.

Kid needs braces? Okay, here’s a check…

And why artists would face any of these problems ever is beyond me. In reality, we should pay our creators what they’re worth. Some wonderful people do. Too many don’t.

But, truth to tell, if you want the greatest art from your great artists, be patrons, free them the fear of wondering where their next meal or home is coming from, and bask in the joy of their creation.

But then extend this beyond artists, and to everyone. It’s not just about eliminating poverty. It’s about ending economic anxiety. Now, what’s that? Simple. It’s the worry that some unexpected expense is going to make it really difficult to pay the necessary expenses.

In other words, this applies to people who are not below the poverty line, but still are basically living paycheck to paycheck, so that at the end of any given month, after paying for rent, food, utilities, healthcare, and kids or pets if they have them, they barely break even.

If their car suddenly needs a major repair or the computer they rely on for work or school craps out, or their phone turns into a brick, they’re fucked, and it becomes a game of, “Okay, what don’t I pay for this month?”

Either that, or let me put it all on this high-interest credit card, and then just pay the minimum.

We only think that debtors’ prisons ceased to exist.

So what we really do need is a universal basic income which is keyed to the particular region it’s being paid in, and it’s enough to cover all of those basic expenses plus about ten percent as a buffer. The people getting it are free to work jobs and earn up to twice that basic on top of it, at which point it starts to taper off so that no one who works and makes more actually makes less, but once someone makes enough to not need it all, it’s gone.

A funny thing happens when you suddenly take away economic anxiety and give people the means to take care of their basic expenses along with the assets to cover more. They tend to go out and spend the money because they don’t have to worry anymore at all.

Contrast with giving tax cuts to the wealthy. All they do is stick it into some investment account, where the only person benefiting would… them. That’s the fallacy of “Trickle-Down Economics.” Nothing trickles.

What does work is “Bubble-Up Economics.” Give the money to the people who need it, and they will dump it into the economy big time. This, in turn, creates jobs, props up local businesses, and brings things roaring back.

This was certainly the case when I was getting the Super-Plus Unemployment last spring and summer, and was able to take care of a couple of really unexpected expenses without worrying, along with making a couple of investments in personal business tech. And from the beginning of the COVID lockdown to date, I have not missed a single rent payment, so there’s that.

I’ve managed to weather the storm and come out in a great position on the other side but, again, I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet. And I’ve gotten really used to the idea of working from home, rarely going out, and masking when I do. Considering that my job is now 100% remote, I might even finally consider moving somewhere that I’d actually be able to afford to buy a house.

Or… I hear that all you have to do to be able to immigrate to Panama is to put US$ 5,000 in a bank account, and the last few months have suddenly made that pocket change. Yeah, it might get really hot and wet over the next few decades due to climate change, but at least I speak the language.

Theatre Thursday: 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.