Saturday, June 27, 2020

Dispatches from Arm's Length, Part 7

In case you hadn't noticed, there's still a pandemic going on.

I had no doubt in my mind that most states opened too early. Scientific experts warned of a second wave, and it's already hit the deep south (incidentally, the first states to open) and states with shrinking COVID cases are easing into opening with wariness. Governors that put the economy over their constituents are eating their words. The Gallants to these Goofuses (Goofi?) treaded lightly from the get-go, fully knowing the federal government wouldn't be much help.

Before you call me out for posting "old news," I am sharing this article from early March to remind everyone that Trump administration's response to COVID-19 was embarrassingly weak even before the entire country shuttered. Trump's legacy is now forever tainted by a crisis he refused to respond to until it was too late. If you still don't believe there's a pandemic, you're a godforsaken fool, and the Venn diagram between you and President Trump's most ardent supporters is practically one circle.

I wanted this post to be strictly about the pandemic, but it played an indirect part in the upheaval of the Chicago comedy community. Last week, iO Chicago co-founder and owner Charna Halpern shut down the improv institution after 39 years, claiming it as a COVID casualty. Perhaps, but that was only one reason: Charna was put on blast for decades of mistreatment of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. A number of talented performers refused to do business with iO and not without reason.

In the aftermath of iO's demise, a private Facebook group was launched called Chicago Improv Rebuild. I was added in the first 24 hours of its creation, but I had to put the group on mute within a day or so. The intent was noble, and some good ideas were expressed and exchanged, but this forum was dragged down in quick procession by interpersonal drama. Racism, sexism, and transphobia permeate through our comedy community, but the dialogue is dominated by people who are in love with the sound of their own voice. One person in question (long story) made me feel uncomfortable on a couple of occasions, but played the victim and resorted to character assassination. There are now at least six admins/moderators, but it still doesn't feel like there are enough adults in the room. The narcissism is too unyielding.

How am I handling things otherwise? I'm going to safely assume that any ambitious plans for the remainder of 2020 are shot. I might take a day trip to northwest Indiana, maybe to central Illinois too, but any chance of more travel will have to wait awhile. I'm receiving state unemployment benefits, while still supplementing my income with Lyft. Substitute teaching at the start of the 2020-21 school year is looking unlikely. Hosting remote comedy shows has been a nice relief, but I'm still restless and bored.

More dispatches soon. It feels good to be writing on a semi-regular basis again. Happy Fourth.


Sunday, June 7, 2020

Two Weeks of Turmoil

Bruce Jay Friedman's 1962 novel "Stern" is a parable of man's weakness. In the book, a young Jewish businessman and suburban transplant known only as Stern is incapable of defending his wife after a neighbor makes an anti-Semetic remark. The incident circles around in his head, to the extent that he develops an ulcer and is literally immobilized by his own insecurity.

The fact that Friedman passed away last week is only somewhat pertinent here. Over the past two weeks, I have related to Stern in far too many ways. A lifetime of social awkwardness has made me second-guess and reconsider most of my interactions, itself a kind of paralysis. It has been a challenge to say something both insightful and unique about the brutal death of George Floyd. It's been a conundrum of sorts; the wrong turn of phrase will vilify you, but silence suggests being complicit. The most noble intentions can be undercut by a poorly worded statement. White privilege is my wife.

We have the seen the same vicious cycle too many times now: an unarmed black man is suspected by a police officer of committing a minor crime. There is no hard evidence, nothing tangible to suspect the man besides a hunch. The black man tries to explain his innocence, but his earnest defense is confused for belligerence. Things escalate, and in a matter of moments the man is dead. The aftermath is too similar: there is witness video, the African-American community is outraged, the police officers are vilified by the public, but they get a slap on the wrist if they're even punished at all. A few months later, in another part of the country, the same thing happens again.

With George Floyd, however, something snapped.

At long last, white people in the suburbs noticed. As protests were held in cities, suburbs, and small towns alike, a long-overdue dialogue about the treatment of people of color, both now and throughout U.S. history, was finally initiated. After downtown Naperville (a suburb near my hometown) was looted on June 1st, businesses in neighboring towns started boarding up their panel windows. Some towns like Naperville have always had an undercurrent of racism; this reckoning was probably overdue. The notion of safety and comfort, even in a "nice" suburb, has always been an illusion.

Everything that has transpired since May 25th has reinforced the ugly notion that Donald Trump wouldn't have been elected without the support of bigots and reactionaries. A substantial portion of conservative America, fed lies and exaggerations for over 20 years by the Fox News gaslight machine, found the walrus for their carpenter in Trump. Alas, Fox News was really the carpenter, and his ardent followers were the oysters.

When I think of specific people on Facebook that post right-wing memes, I noticed a pattern that transcended mere political beliefs. Just looking at high school acquaintances alone, I saw they fell into four categories: I remembered these particular kids as bullies, "slow on the uptake," assholes, crazy, or some combination of the four. At the risk of throwing around offensive labels, I can't think of a single Trump supporter that I remember being kind, quiet, or even-keeled. These people don't want a dialogue, they want to get a rise out of you while projecting their shortsighted beliefs. Why I'm still Facebook friends with any of them might be baffling, but I suppose I'm more patient than others. Plus, the unfollow button has been rather helpful.

Anxiety and politic cannot be conflated here. If you're not angry and sickened by what happened to George Floyd, you're on the wrong side. In the nearly two weeks since his death, I've seen a handful of people on social media admit they can't comprehend what's going on, beyond near-nightly reports of violence. The best thing I can tell them is this: if you want to understand why people are angry, listen to the people that are angry.

Black lives matter.


Monday, June 1, 2020

Through a Freshman's Eyes, War on Terror Edition

Better late than never, I give you my annual mindset list. In a way, the lives of this year's high school seniors so far have been bookended by tragedy. They were born in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and are now matriculating during an out of control pandemic. Their entire lives, all 18 years or so, have been surrounded by some level of uncertainty, and above all I'm sorry your final semester of high school didn't go according to plan.

If you are a graduating senior...

...September 11th has always been a national holiday.
...we have always been at war with Afghanistan.
...Iraq, Iran, and North Korea have always been referred to as the "Axis of Evil."
...Enron has always been insolvent.
...Andrea Yates has always been in prison.
...eBay has always owned Paypal.
...Google has always had an image search option. have never seen, used, or heard of a beeper.
...Halle Berry's name has always been preceeded by "Academy Award Winner."
...Jimmy Carter is better known as a Nobel Peace Prize winner than as a politician.
...people have always complained that there are too many reality shows on TV.
...Fox News Channel has always been the #1 cable news network.
...all cable news channels have always had a news scroll on the bottom of the screen.
...Adult Swim has always aired after dark on Cartoon Network.
...the only time you've seen Will Ferrell on SNL was on some old DVD.
...there has never been an NBA team in Vancouver, British Columbia.
...the New England Patriots have always been a Super Bowl contender.
...the Houston Texans have always been in the NFL, and there have always been eight four-team divisions.
...George Harrison, Nigel Hawthorne, Dorothy McGuire, Issac Stern, Ken Kesey, Foster Brooks, Troy Donahue, Lance Loud, Dick Schaap, Avery Schreiber, Dave Thomas from Wendy's, Michael Bilandic, Peggy Lee, Night Train Lane, Daniel Pearl, Waylon Jennings, Princess Margaret, The Queen Mother, Lawrence Tierney, Chuck Jones, Spike Milligan, Robert Urich, Billy Wilder, Milton Berle, Dudley Moore, Justice Byron White, Left Eye Lopes, Seattle Slew, Dave Berg, Stephen Jay Gould, Sam Snead, John Gotti, Jack Buck, Darryl Kile, Ann Landers, John Entwistle, Pete Grey, Ted Williams, Rod Steiger, Alan Lomax, Leo McKern, Chaim Potok, Chick Hearn, Hoyt Wilhelm, Rosemary Clooney, and Lionel Hampton have always been dead.

For reference here's last year's list.

Next Week: back to topical commentary. I fully acknowledge that a lot has happened, and I'm still processing my thoughts.