Notes From the Pandemic, Day 36

In my first Notes From the Pandemic post, I stated that my life hasn’t changed a whole lot since all the various social distancing recommendations, quarantines, stay-at-home orders, and non-essential business closures first started. Yet, it is actually rather difficult to go about the daily routines without always being aware that the surrounding and some of the daily routines are radically different.

Case in point: Brandon being at home with me. He has now been here for over three weeks straight. This is the longest stretch of time we’ve been under the same roof since his mother and I finally moved into new places after our separation. I’m enjoying the having him around — even if as a teenager most of his time is spent in his room playing games, doing his distance learning, and socializing online with friends. The only slight drawback is that his room is right next to my home office. Frequently, he will open his door and start excitedly talking about whatever it is he wants to share. I am working on getting him to wait until I can properly disengage from work, but it’s likely this effort will take a while.

On the plus side, Sally is home all the time as well. It’s rather nice to be walk away from the office, go up the stairs, and then spend a few minutes with her. Happily, this happens at least a few times a day.

The other most notable change in routine is my actual work schedule. During the school year, I make use of the flex time scheduling benefit in order to be able to visit Brandon one during the middle of the week. This results in two 9½-hour days, a five-hour day, and two eight-hour days. His staying here means a traditional work week — not to mention significantly less time in the car. No more weekly 80-mile round-trips or the two trips each weekend to exchange him with his mom. Actually, there’s almost no time driving at all. The gym is closed, and we’re trying to minimize our visits to the grocery store — which is just a little over a mile away — as much as possible. As someone else on Facebook put it, we’re getting three weeks (or more) to the gallon.

Having all that time back, as well as a more regular schedule, is greatly appreciated. However, there’s lots of driving that I miss. Driving to O’Faolain’s to simply unwind and have some fries with a couple pints of cider… Driving to favorite shops to simply browse… Occasionally driving to the town center at lunchtime just to grab something different to eat… Making a one-day road trip with Sally to visit the nearby places we love… These were not regular parts of the daily or weekly routine, but even though the inability to do so is not always in my thoughts, it seems to unpleasantly linger like an barely perceptible smog.

A few other thoughts before closing this out:

  • The Washington Post is reporting that a number of meat processing plants are shutting down due to COVID-19 outbreaks. There will certainly be shortages of various meat products coming. It looks like a lot of people will start needing to be vegetarians, whether they want to or not. On a related note, it may be a good time to stock up on some of my favorite meat substitute products — especially Impossible Burger.
  • Although I need a car less than at any time since living in New York City over 20 years ago, it still needs to be properly maintained. It needs to go into for an inspection, oil change, and a small array of maintenance repairs. Normally, picking a day to drop the car off for such things requires careful planning to make sure we can survive with just one vehicle until it’s ready. Not anymore. Pretty certain that having just one car for a couple days won’t create any hardships at all this time around.
  • As of 6:29 AM EDT today, The Washington Post reports there are 33,286 confirmed deaths in this country due to COVID-19. This saddens me greatly. At the same time, it’s infuriating that we have a President who did nothing to prepare our country for this when he had the chance back January and February. If there really is a hell in the afterlife, there should be a special, uniquely tailored punishment both for him and all the sycophants who enabled this travesty of governance. The Orange Shitgoblin has blood on his hands.

Notes From the Pandemic, Day 34

Some odds and ends from the past 34 days. Some of it has already been posted to Facebook, but that platform is nearly Orwellian when it comes to being able to search for and reread old posts, so the plan is to work harder to make sure anything of note gets properly placed here.

  • We have been exceedingly fortunate thus far. As mentioned in the previous Notes from the Pandemic post, I’ve been working from home for over 10 years, so my job and, more importantly, my income remains unchanged. For the time being, thanks to working for the county government, Sally has been staying home on full paid leave since this all started. So, we’re not worrying about any of our bills. In fact, once the government stimulus check clears in our bank account, our plan is to move the money to our savings account and let it be an emergency cushion should her job status change.
  • Just before the stay-at-home orders started, I was already overdue for a haircut. This was in part due to contemplating a change of look: growing the hair out longer and combing it straight back. However, the decision wasn’t made until the governor issued his order that only essential businesses were to remain open. As a result, I’m well on my way to looking like a pudgy, middle-aged version of Ash from Star Trek: Discovery. Should probably post a new picture online sometime soon.
  • Four days into all this, my favorite local restaurant, O’Faolain’s, temporarily closed. I assume that because it’s more of a traditional pub, it really wasn’t well-situated to stay open for take out and delivery only. How long can businesses like that can survive a business environment such as this? It seems almost certain that when this is over, many of our places to shop and eat will be gone forever. The mere thought is rather depressing.
  • As a stress eater, keeping the caloric intake somewhere near healthy levels over the past five weeks has been a struggle. However, the good news is that I’m doing a decent job of getting out for walks or using the treadmill on a regular basis. Even if the gym wasn’t closed by the order regarding essential businesses, going there wouldn’t be an option anyway. No matter how hard the staff would attempt to keep everything clean, it’s still essentially a germ incubator. Note to self: contact the membership support desk to see what they are doing about monthly fees during this period.
  • Seeing as I’m going to need to simultaneously live through the worst pandemic in over 100 years and a second Great Depression, there isn’t a proper adjective to describe how thankful I am to have Sally as my wife.

Still have plenty more to write down. Will try to get more of it typed out soon.

Notes From the Pandemic, Day 31

For Sally and me, our world literally started to change exactly one month ago today. At around 5:00 AM in the morning, she got a text from the Loudoun County Public School system stating that schools were closing immediately. Unlike other school systems – such as Brandon’s, the Montgomery County Public School system – there was no notice a day or two in advance of the shutdown. Usually, when schools close for days at a time, it’s somehow weather related, and we parents can anticipate and prepare in advance. Although the news about the spread of COVID-19 was already becoming a little alarming, the suddenness felt like something of an overreaction.

In retrospect, it absolutely wasn’t. If anything, more schools across the country should have been making similar decisions with the same kind of speed.

For the most part, my life hasn’t changed appreciably. I’ve been working from home for over 10 years, most of my socialization has been online for much longer than that, and I’m an extreme introvert with a number of hobbies I can easily lose myself in for days. The biggest, most notable change is that Brandon has been with me for all but one week since the morning of March 14, and that he will be for the foreseeable future. As Cheryl, his mother, is a nurse, we all decided that he was better off staying with me until the time comes in which the chances of her bringing the virus home are much lower.

There’s much more I can write about, and I have every intention of doing so over the coming days and weeks. Given my track record of actually following through with other writing projects over the past decade, take that intention with the appropriate large grains of salt.

According to The Washington Post, as of 7:09 PM EDT this evening, at least 21,994 people in the United States have died since Feb. 29, when a 58-year-old man near Seattle became the first announced U.S. death.

I’m in a really foul mood at this moment.

Wanting to Party Like It Was 1999

“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered? Where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this, the peak of your civilization.” — Agent Smith, The Matrix

The Matrix was released in 1999. Coincidentally, that was around the time I became fond of saying that particular time and place was perfect for me. Living close to a large city with plenty of bookstores, used CD shops, restaurants and many other beloved places to frequent, for the first time my job provided the necessary income and stability to lead the kind of life I wanted. The world seemed wonderfully suited to cater to my interests, needs, and desires.

Alas, the world changes, but that was expected. Some changes would be for the better, and the others… Well, I just thought that disconcerting changes would be of the predictable variety that typically make challenge people as they age. Predominantly, the kinds of technological and cultural progressions that just move too fast for us as we start advancing well into middle age and beyond. In some ways, that is exactly what happened. For example, societal changes in how we consume books, movies, and music just feel wrong, but they are not entirely unexpected. However, there are ominous, mostly unanticipated things inducing feelings of dread — to the point of causing anxiety — about the future.

Where to even begin? Global climate change, the political decline and slide of the American republic into minority rule and totalitarianism, the incessantly-growing power of global metanational conglomerates, the increasingly daunting plastic pollution problem, the largest upward redistribution of wealth in American history… it’s all just one giant backslide, and at the moment there seems to be very little hope that any of this is going to appreciably change for the better in the near future. Hell, I totally get why climate anxiety is rapidly on the rise — I might even be experiencing a touch of it myself.

In addition to all the ways in which the current state of affairs is depressing as hell, it’s nearly just depressing that this battle needs to be fought. We shouldn’t have to. As a species, we are capable of such innovation, insight, beauty, and creativity. Yet, we are also amazingly short-sighted, tribal, selfish, and capable of frightening degrees of both self-deception and deceit. Throw in the rampant misogyny, racism, and religious intolerance that seems to be getting worse, and it adds up to something far more damning than what Agent Kay said in Men in Black: “People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals, and you know it.” 

There’s a good reason why I often add “misanthropic” when describing myself as a secular humanist.

I don’t want border on churlish. I want to be optimistic and believe that this world will start becoming a better place again. But, it’s daunting… and exhausting. I will continue to speak out, vote, and attempt to change what I can. I have to, knowing that Brandon will be inhabiting this world for many years after no longer will. Sadly, as it is, 2020 is nothing like any kind of future I would have imagined back in 1999. 

Even more disconcerting: at the moment, 2020 is proving Agent Smith right.

Just Write

I simply don’t write the way I used to. Facebook still sees lots of regular posting, but I’m not engaging in the kind of writing that I find rewarding. The stuff shared on Facebook conforms to the format it demands and rewards: short, easily digested bursts. It’s not the kind of writing I frequently did until… Well, around the time I started transitioning to Facebook from LiveJournal.

It’s easy to make excuses, and there are certainly plenty to choose from. However, the most enticing ones are undermined by the fact it’s been nearly 10 years since I regularly composed the kind of lengthier posts that feel awkward on Facebook. I’m not going to make them. No, I just need to start writing again, much like I just need to properly exercise and carefully choose how I eat. Disconcertingly, years of Facebook posting has considerably atrophied that mental muscle.

Alas, that’s easier said than done. A lack of time and the far too little mental fortitude are the biggest enemies right now. I know I can do something about the former, but that means making some drastic changes — ones where the benefit of writing more may not properly offset the loss of mentally disengaging frequently needed these days to maintain some sanity in a world that increasingly appears to be careening wildly and ever more quickly towards self-immolation.

However, it may also be that making writing a real priority might provide more benefit than launching a mindless game on my phone and completely blocking the outside world. Actively giving thoughts concrete form could provide a sense of stability and structure that’s missing in everyday life.

There’s only one way to find out.

I’m not going to make any promises or grand goals in regards to this. Similar declarations in the past went nowhere — as most recently evidence by last year’s quickly aborted “Song a Week” project. Hell, nearly everything in this post is a repeat of thoughts and sentiments shared in previous declarations to change and write more.

Just write, dammit.

That’s all there is to it.

Mini Movie Review: ‘Blinded by the Light’

One of many reasons I’ve always felt like an alien living amongst human beings: my love for Bruce Springsteen’s music. Yes, he is one of the most popular rock stars on the planet today, but it always seemed to me that most of my generation didn’t care much for him after the Born in the USA period ended. Because of this, it was awesome watching a movie about a teenager in the late ’80s embracing Springsteen’s music even though it marked him as incredibly uncool — a sentiment I understood intimately. It needs to be noted though that, Javed, the lead character in Blinded by the Light, loved Springsteen even more than I ever did — I didn’t pay close attention to Springsteen’s lyrics the way he did until I was in my mid 20s. Nonetheless, identifying with the son of Pakistani immigrants to the UK in the same way he identified with a Baby Boomer rock and roller from New Jersey certainly felt like movie magic.

The Increasingly Inaccurately Named “Song a Week,” #4

“Just take those old records off the shelf
I’ll sit and listen to ’em by myself
Today’s music ain’t got the same soul
I like that old time rock ‘n’ roll”

— Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, “Old Time Rock & Roll”

“Don’t leave me this way, no
I can’t survive, I can’t stay alive without your love
Baby, don’t leave me this way”

— Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”

There’s an old hoary chestnut about how you become more conservative as you age. The kernel of truth behind that adage doesn’t necessarily apply to political views; in fact, one can become more liberal with age even if they started out solidly liberal. The truly proper way to interpret the belief is to acknowledge that our preferences, tastes, and inclinations calcify with age — our desire to try new things withers and we become more risk adverse. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t find new ways to enjoy the things that have always given us pleasure.

Music is a wonderful example. Every generation thinks the music their children enjoy is awful. In the ‘50s, parents hated the emerging rock & roll their teens listened to. Then, when their kids were teenagers, they didn’t care for rap and the other forms of music emerging during the ‘80s. Now those former teenagers, such as myself, are themselves three decades years older and find it difficult to appreciate the artistic merit in the autotuned, overly-produced sounds of what passes for most current pop music. Yet, each generation of parents who still loves listening to music continues to seeks out new material to enjoy.

For this particular dad, the search predominantly takes two forms. Outside of the new (to me) artists I’ve encountered on various NPR programs, it’s easiest to simply follow already beloved artists and listen to their output, no matter how entrenched they may be with their sound and style. Unfortunately, no matter how hard musicians try, the overwhelming majority of them have well-delineated range they simply work best within. They all typically mine this zone for everything it’s worth. The ones that don’t simply stay within their comfort zone then typically work out from the margins while simultaneously reworking/reinterpreting old themes and even rearranging old favorites. Springsteen fans, for example, can tell you all about the many songs he has reimagined using new arrangements. Those artists that attempt anything radically different, more often than not, frequently encounter indifference from the long-time fans that can become, in worst case scenarios like Metallica, utterly hostility. A few truly good artists successfully manage to expand their repertoire, but they are rare

The other option: explore the back catalog. Admittedly, this wasn’t easy before today’s era of streaming music. Because the current rock/pop paradigm literally began in the ‘50s, a teenager from that time already knew a good amount of what already existed when faced with changes in the direction of pop/rock of their children. However, for this ‘80s teenager, and those that came later, there was three decades or more of music that hadn’t appeared on the current cultural radar for some time — at least not on the radio stations that predominantly focused on new music, regardless of musical genre. Yes, the cultural stepping stones, such as The Beatles and songs such as “Hotel California” become timeless standards. However, there remains plenty of good, older music that younger listeners need to actively seek out. 

Personal case in point: Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. Despite spending a significant portion of my childhood and early adult years living in the greater Philadelphia area, their hometown, until recently this band was a great unknown. Knowing that Teddy Pendergrass was a R&B singer of note did not equate to awareness that he was the lead singer of The Blue Notes during the early ‘70s, the period in which they had many of their greatest hits. Even worse: the Blue Notes song I knew best was a cover version of their original.

Nothing against Thelma Houston’s disco cover “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” It’s a solid dance version of the song. However, the full impact of the lyrics get lost in the translation: in comparison, Houston barely implies the emotional urgency and anguish Pendergrass evokes. Hell, it feels like Houston will stay alive without her lover by dancing night away. Pendergrass, on the other hand, sounds he absolutely won’t survive being left that way; he sounds distraught — especially during his various exclamations and pleads during the fade out.

It seems odd that Houston’s cover, and not the original, is the one enshrined in the cultural metaconsciousnes. Yes, it was a bigger hit, but once you’ve heard Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ original recording, it feels somewhat milquetoast — though nowhere near as much as 52EACCAA-FE75-42CC-81FA-10EDCC3DD5F9the original recording of “Try a Little Tenderness” sounds when compared to Otis Redding’s definitive reinterpretation. Though I’ll happily listen to her Houston’s dance version in the right circumstances, I’ll be thinking about Pendergrass’s whenever I do so.

Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes
”Don’t Leave Me This Way”
Wake Up Everybody

Hall of Songs: 2019 Inductee

Song a Week, #3

“While Mr. Kim, by virtue of his youth and naiveté, has fallen prey to the inexplicable need for human contact, let me step in and assure you that my research will go on uninterrupted, and that social relationships will continue to baffle and repulse me.”

— Dr. Sheldon Cooper, “The Jerusalem Duality,” The Big Bang Theory

“If I had a mind to,
I wouldn’t want to be like you.
And, if I had time to,
I wouldn’t want to talk to you.”

— Alan Parsons Project, “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You”

I spent a significant portion of my teens and early twenties devouring copious amounts of Isaac Asimov’s fiction. Thankfully, his decades of prolific output meant it was an enjoyable Herculean task. However, the short stories and novels that focused on his Three Laws of Robotics, and the way those laws interacted and clashed with each another, proved to be more than a source of great entertainment. In addition to being logic puzzles, they provided great insight into humanity and how we as species interact with each other.

In particular, stories structured upon The Three Laws can be seen as an analogous examination of American rights and liberties. Much like those rules governing robotic interaction, various individual rights come into conflict with those of other individuals and with society as a whole. That’s one of the primary drivers for our laws and legal system: peacefully resolving and codifying the solutions to conflicts that inevitably result from differing sets of rights and liberties. Unfortunately, people often vehemently assert their personal rights, staking an absolutist stance for them and implying that everyone else’s rights, as well as society’s as a whole, are irrelevant.

Near religious fervor for certain rights demonstrates how easily such rigidity tramples upon the rights of others. First Amendment absolutists turn a blind eye to the fact that proponents of extreme hate speech take advantage of that freedom in ways that purposefully and deliberately undermine civil public discourse. Second Amendment absolutists refuse to acknowledge that obnoxiously embracing open carry laws creates fear amongst law-abiding citizens who understandably view anyone openly carrying a gun as a lethal threat. Fourth Amendment absolutists think that police brutally take liberties with the leeway our court system has provided them in regards to warrantless searches, thus trampling over legal protections supposedly guaranteed to Americans in other parts of the Constitution.

Actually, they have a point. We need more Fourth Amendment absolutists.

The refusal to acknowledge or even care that mindlessly asserting one’s own rights delegitimizes the rights of others is a symptom of the fact that our species is selfish, shortsighted, tribal, and disconcerting adept at dehumanizing others. Yes, we are capable of creating breathtaking beauty and overcoming our worst base instincts. However, it’s far too easy to wax rhapsodically about the long arc of history bending towards justice. Despite 6,000 years of work on improving civilization, far too many of those negative traits continue to plague us, as shown by the inauguration of Trump and the subsequent behavior of both his administration and supporters. Emboldened religious rights extremists currently claim the right to legally treat others, specifically the LGBTQ community, as subhuman. Similarly, events in Charlottesville in 2017 made it blindingly obvious that racism never really went away. It simply changed its clothes, devised new dog whistles, created new secret handshakes, and hid in the dark alleys until it felt safe to come out again.

This kind of thinking and behavior bewilders me. All those hours spent reading stories about The Three Laws, as well as countless works by other authors, greatly shaped an empathetic, humanist worldview. It instilled an innate sense of understanding that there needs to balance — nothing is absolute. As Asimov showed in many of those stories, erroneous interpretation of and emphasis in regards to the interpretation of those laws can cause great harm. In fact, over three decades after he formulated them, Asimov realized the need for a Zeroeth Law, one that stated that all the other laws relied first and foremost upon what was best for humanity. In other words, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.

As much those stories helped to nurture a sense of empathy, the odd thing is that it also helped me realize how much I feel like an outsider amongst my own kind. One of my favorite self-descriptors is “misanthropic secular humanist.” I acknowledge the long arc of history and am awed by what humanity is like when at its best. However, the tribalism, selfish, short-sightedness continues to appall and repulse. It almost seems like those who embrace those traits are robotically eschewing empathy and care for the common good.

I don’t want to be anything like them. 

Yet, Asimov wrote plenty about making robots more human. Not surprising given that pop culture is filled with the robots who yearn to be human — Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation being a notable example. But, does this necessarily follow? The Alan Parsons Project’s second album, I Robot, loosely based on Asimov’s first collection of robot stories, I, Robot, suggests otherwise. “I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You,” the album’s second track, displays the disdain I Robotthat one robot feels towards human beings. Any rational being wouldn’t want to be around those who are antagonist and/or hurtfully indifferent towards others, much less become them. I don’t blame it one bit.

The Alan Parsons Project
“I Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You”
I Robot

Hall of Songs: under consideration for 2019 inclusion

Song a Week, #2

“We are building a religion.
We are building it bigger.
We are widening the corridors,
and adding more lanes” 

— CAKE, “Comfort Eagle”

As this series unfolds, many threads/themes will undoubtedly become prominent. Some will sprout organically from previous song entries in unanticipated ways. Others, such as subjects, beliefs, ideas and themes that have molded or flat-out determined (not to be confused with fated) who I am and the life I lead, are, well… the word is “inevitable”. Of those, religion is the Grand Poobah of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes; or, the Cthulhu, if you will.

The subject of religion and faith could easily encompass a series all its own. Hell, for years I’ve toyed with various notions of writing a book titled The Gospel According to Matthew, the Agnostic. Opinion and feature pieces from the college newspaper, entries on the old LiveJournal page, thoughts of varying lengths composed and saved into Word documents, throwaway two-to-three sentence posts on Facebook… there is plenty of source material to draw from, with plenty more only thought but not properly put into words.

Yet, by no means do I fancy myself some kind of armchair theologian. I’ve probably read more than the average reader on this subject. However, the time, temperament, or interest to dive deeply into great thinkers’ works on this subject just isn’t there. It certainly didn’t help that Thomas Aquinas’s great defense of the existence of God seemed to rest too much on faith and not enough on actual logic or reason.

Despite a shallow grounding in such treatises, personal experience has provided plenty of opportunity to reflect on these matters. My dad provided an unusual childhood (by American standards) where most of my religious instruction flowed from the tenets of the somewhat obscure Japanese sect of Buddhism he practiced. The other side of the family nominally attempted to raise a Catholic (I can still recite The Lord’s Prayer from rote memory), but the ridiculously small number of church sermons attended didn’t even qualify for the “Chreaster” label.

Without getting into the details here — plenty of future opportunity certainly exists — a disillusionment with Buddhism set in during high school. Later, a college girlfriend inspired a two-year attempt to embrace a right-wing, evangelical form of born again Christianity. Despite best intentions and fervent efforts, a thorough lack of ecclesiastical Wite-Out (to borrow a phrase from Dennis Miller, back when he was funny) ultimately undermined and doomed every single attempt at a successful leap of faith.

All this resulted in my evolving into an “agnostic atheist who has made his peace with God.” Though agnostic, I have no problem with religion in the abstract. It provides many benefits. Unfortunately, lots of horrible behavior is often justified by religion. Gandhi’s apocryphal statement regarding Jesus and Christians can easily be applied to just about any other religious figure and the faithful who follow them. Believe whatever you want, but the second you try to codify your beliefs into law or use them as an excuse to treat others as second class citizens/human beings, then I have a serious problem with your religion/belief system.

Along those same lines, it’s unsettling to think that supposedly God-loving people need the threat of hell and the reward of heaven in an afterlife as motivations to do good in this one. Yeah, yeah, yeah… original sin. Not buying it. Without either of those concepts as motivation, I’ve somehow managed to avoid stealing, murdering, or treating LBGTQ individuals as detestable second-class citizens simply because they want buy flowers and cakes for their wedding ceremony.

All this is why the Flying Spaghetti Monster may possibly be the best religious idea ever. He’s a benevolent god who simply wants everyone to do the things that make them happy, while simultaneously being kind and civil to one another. Furthermore, His Noodliness doesn’t want to use threats and punishments to make humankind behave — we already know how to work this out for ourselves. Okay, that might be asking a lot for many, but it’s not rocket science.  

In fact, it’s simply another variation of The Golden Rule, which is really the primary premise upon which most of the world’s great religions are built. For good reason — it’s a wonderful premise that should be the core of everyone’s lives. However, there is no threat of punishment or promise of reward from the FSM. We’re just supposed to do the right thing, and if someone appears weird by doing something different we’re not accustomed to, but it’s harming no one else, then we just CAKEneed to be more accepting. 

Just widen the corridors and add more lanes. It really is that easy.

“Comfort Eagle”
Comfort Eagle

Hall of Songs: 2013 Inductee, Inner Circle