Take a look at the remarkable chart below, which shows death rates from COVID-19 for six different groups of United States counties. What distinguishes the groups of counties is the partisan voting rate, and what is remarkable is how much higher death rates are in Republican leaning counties than they are in Democratic leaning counties, after the first big wave, which hit primarily coastal megacities.
It’s not hard to draw the conclusion that this reflects the politicization of the pandemic, and how, in Republican-leaning parts of the country, there are lower vaccination rates and lower levels of compliance with mitigation rules such as wearing face masks and avoiding indoor gatherings. I’ve complained before about how insane this is, but here I want to give a little more thought as to why people might be motivated so differently in their behavior that they experience such disparate outcomes.
Here, I want to comment on how data like the above relates to two different ways of looking at the world. One is to see it from the standpoint of the individual, and their unique perspective. And the other is to see it from the standpoint of the collective of all people, which is what graphs like the above are doing. Graphs like the above are created by aggregating data – each week, a certain number of people die from COVID-19. Each individual death is a tragedy, and some deaths are unavoidable no matter how much we as a society try to mitigate against the spread of the virus. But looking at the aggregate data makes it plain how mitigation efforts do reduce overall suffering and death. That’s why we ask, as a society, for everyone to participate collectively in this effort.
The problem is, large numbers of people don’t want to see the world from this collective perspective. Their preference is to focus on the individual, and the rights of the individual. It’s like they see the dots on the graph, but not the curve. But one dot alone doesn’t give you any information, when you are trying to determine good policy. The curve, the collection of dots, is what lets you make an informed choice. The dots themselves just give you individual stories, what we call “anecdotal evidence,” which could be used to justify any policy. For example, as the graph above clearly indicates, some people in the counties with the lowest death rates do die from COVID-19. No place has a 0% rate. You’ll always be able to point to a case of a breakthrough infection in someone who was vaxxed and boosted and still got sick and died. But that one case alone is not enough to justify giving up on vaccination. To decide what overall policy is the most sensible based on one case and not the entirety of cases is foolish.
The same applies in other areas, like gun control. Simply put, firearms are a hazard and making them easier to access and carry around increases the risk to everyone of injury or death from firearms. It’s why we have this idea of sensible gun laws to regulate the use of firearms, making everyone safer, just as we regulate so much else in life. But a sizeable minority is obsessed with the individual right to bear arms, stymying lawmakers’ efforts to enact such legislation. This minority probably thinks that their arsenals will make a difference in upcoming political struggles. But however violently future political conflicts are resolved, what easy access to firearms will mostly do is increase the rates of suicide and homicide by firearm. I’m not even talking about mass shootings, I mean just ordinary incidents involving firearms.
Gun rights advocates will argue that it is unfair to deny them their individual rights just because of the negative consequences of other people’s choices. They are looking at the dots – you can’t take what’s mine based on someone else’s actions. For gun control advocates, the argument is that restricting gun rights will benefit the public in the aggregate. They are looking at the curve – overall suffering and death will go down if you change the rules. This is the same logic that goes into determining rules for the mitigating against the spread of the coronavirus. Restricting some rights, like the right to congregate indoors in large groups, will benefit public health, in the context of a highly transmissible and potentially fatal virus in circulation.
The zealous prioritizing of individual rights over collective good is what leads to memes like the one on the right, found on Twitter. It’s what leads to freedom derisively being called “freedumb,” when taken to the point of needlessly endangering lives. But those who won’t comply with mandates for the collective good aren’t really dumb, they are just prioritizing their rights as individuals over what is best for society as a whole. To them, compliance with authority smacks of submission to tyranny. They even have narratives based on historical occurrences to justify their resistance, even though the context is completely different now.
Maybe it would help for people to think in terms of both individual rights and individual responsibilities. Then you can keep your personal autonomy, but also recognize that your personal choices have consequences. Then you can see how you as a dot fits into the bigger picture of everyone else as a curve. Look again at the graph. It’s clear that for any one given individual, your chances of dying from COVID-19 are small. Not even half a percent of the country has. But if you are careless about transmitting the virus, you will help to kill some people. And that’s on you.
Last weekend I went with the whole family to see a moving one-man show called “A Shadow that Broke the Light,” performed by Charlie DelMarcelle, and co-created by him and his brother Adam. It’s about their brother Joey, who died of an overdose, but really it’s about the overdose epidemic in our country that is impacting so many lives and families. We saw it at West Chester University, where the creators are workshopping it now, as it is undergoing some changes (more on that below).
The show was first produced by Simpatico Theatre at the end of 2019, as a performance installation that ran continuously for 24 hours at Troy Foundry Theatre in upstate New York. I didn’t get a chance to see it then, though my partner Aileen did, driving the 4+ hours to get there. She was excited to go because she has known Charlie for a long time, and worked with him before. He is a brilliant actor, as I got to see last weekend.
After Covid times came, the piece wasn’t performed again until just recently. And, because of Covid times, it had to change, so Charlie is actually workshopping it right now, at the University where he works. I don’t want to say too much about why it has had to change, but just consider how overdose deaths have increased since the pandemic began.
Charlie’s performance was strong. He engagingly told stories about his brother, but also about other people whom Adam has interviewed about their own experiences with loved ones dying from overdoses. Charlie really shows his acting chops when portraying other characters. There was a good deal of humor to leaven the serious, grief-stricken and sometimes angry tone of other parts of the narrative. When reminiscing about loved ones, even though they might have come to tragic ends, it’s heartening to remember the funny moments.
The short piece felt like it ended too soon, but there then followed a period where the audience was invited to share their own stories. I talked about my cousin Sammy, who died of an overdose in 2001. Then there was outpouring of stories from audience members. It seems that half the attendees must have come up to talk. It was amazing and painful to see just how many people have been impacted by drug addiction. Many tears were shed in a very emotional and revealing hour, and Charlie himself expressed amazement at the audience response.
The plan is to create a touring production of the show, but for now you can see it at West Chester University through Oct 29, 2021. There is no admission fee. If you can’t make it, maybe because you don’t live in the area, Simpatico Theatre has posted a few videos of Charlie telling some stories about his brother Joey (see links below). Though it would be better to see it live if you can.
This is a post about going to see SIX on Broadway, a very popular musical which has just begun performances post-COVID. Tickets are in high demand and very expensive and it was only by good fortune that my partner and I were able to go.
Since the show opened in previews on September 17, I had been entering the Broadway Direct lottery to get tickets. I don’t know all the details of this program, just that tickets are offered for a very low price to certain extremely popular shows that might be priced out of the range of many theater goers. But it’s a lottery; you sign up for the next day’s show and some small number of winners are offered tickets at a steep discount. I had entered the lottery for Hamilton every day for a very long time, before we finally went to see the show in Chicago a couple years ago. Every day I would sign up in the morning, and in the evening would get an email wishing me better luck next time. I started doing the same for SIX, expecting the same fruitless results.
Imagine my excitement when an email came informing me that I was on the waiting list. If I was chosen (presumably because another winner had missed or passed up their chance to buy the tickets) I would get another email, after which I would have 60 minutes to purchase the tickets. I waited expectantly and not an hour later a second email came. I had won the tickets! It was two tickets (the most you could sign up for) and they were $30 each. I quickly paid for them, and bragged about it on social media.
Next I had to reshuffle my work schedule, since it was such short notice. I honestly never thought I would win and that this would ever come up. I had won the tickets for the Thursday, September 23rd performance at 8 PM, but I had obligations at work that would normally have kept me late. There was no way to keep these obligations and make it to the show. But I was able to get other team members to take them on for me, so I could work a half day and we could leave as soon in the afternoon as possible.
The next day Aileen and I left at about 3:00PM, driving to New York City. Parking had already been arranged. It was raining heavily, which slowed us down. It took us over three hours to get there, and by the time we parked and made it to the theater we were soaking wet, despite having thoughtfully brought umbrellas with us. We had hoped to eat some dinner first, but it was already after 7 and there just wasn’t anywhere appealing to even grab a quick bite. We decided to get in line and eat out of the concession stand in the theater.
We were concerned, of course, about COVID-19. This concern had kept us from attending other events, and generally limited our going out to do anything lately. But I guess the lure of getting such a huge discount on tickets, and of seeing a show that is the current hype, was too much. Plus they had COVID-19 protocols in place – you had to be vaccinated, had to have proof of such, and were required to wear a face mask in the theater.
In line, everyone was indeed wearing a face mask. Not much of an intersection between the anti-masker crowd and the Broadway theater audience crowd, perhaps. There was a friendly young man who had a badge on identifying him as a COVID safety officer, who examined our ids and our proofs of vaccination. I had the original card they had given me at the drug store when I got vaccinated, and Aileen had a photocopy of hers. We were given the all clear. We had to wonder, though, if anyone might have showed fake evidence. It wouldn’t be too hard to rig up a fake card, especially if a photocopy or a picture on your smartphone were acceptable.
Once in the theater, we discovered that our tickets were in the front row. This was another fun twist. It also made us a little more comfortable from a COVID perspective, because we had room in front of us. The extra room also helped with the drying off bit. I got us some very expensive pretzels and candy from the concession stand and we sat and waited for the show to begin.
SIX is an hour and a half long show that is basically a rock concert ostensibly performed by the six wives of King Henry VIII. The idea is that they’ve come back from the dead to entertain the crowd with their stories. So since they’ve come back from the dead, they aren’t required to be historically accurate. Their costumes are kind of half way between renaissance dress and glam rock or pop from modern times. It’s an all-female cast, including the musicians, who are also on stage. It’s also cast color-blind, in that the wives are not cast with ethnic accuracy to the original wives: they are black, white, brown and one is Asian. Each wife sings a solo about her own story, and these songs are bookended by ensemble numbers that set up the show and wrap it up with a message of female empowerment.
The Broadway 2021 production is energetic and a lot of fun. The singing is expert, the lyrics catchy and clever (with a lot of historical facts mixed with anachronistic references to the present), and the boots, according to my partner, are “freaking sweet.” Sitting in the front row helped draw me into the celebrity worship aspect, as I sat (and later stood as requested), staring raptly at the performers. I even got a flirtatious glance from Katherine Howard during her number (I think).
Henry VIII is arguably one of the most famous monarchs in history. The play references his fame a lot, and the subsequent fame of his wives and their personal reputations. The wives spend the bulk of the play arguing with one another over who was most maligned by the portly Prince. SIX also questions whether it was Henry who made his wives famous, or the other way around. Although the play (at just around 80 minutes with no intermission) seems short for a Broadway outing, the snarking of the queens feels like it goes on a bit too long. But once it gets to the meat of WHY the queens are famous, it finishes well. These women are, after all, the original “Real Housewives of Hampton Court,” and just as much celebrities as their shared spouse.
Even though the musical is short, it has lingered with us long after those 80 minutes. Since last week, we’ve been really interested in the six wives and their impact on history – which is epic, really, when you think about what happened to England because of their relationships with Henry. The Tudors were arguably one of the most impactful families of that, or any time. So we decided to watch The Tudors Showtime series again, and I started reading a book Aileen has about the six wives.
Well, I can assure you from reading the book that the Showtime series is no more accurate than this Broadway production. But that’s not the point, right? These shows are fictionalized recreations of well known historical figures and events that use facts and invention equally, as convenient. These aren’t really the six wives of Henry VIII, these are celebrity rock star versions. The program for SIX even mentions the specific pop stars after whom each queen is modeled. We’re supposed to treat them like divas.
Is it weird or wrong to worship celebrities? If it’s an all-consuming part of one’s life, I would say that’s not healthy – but for the short duration of an 80 minute diva rock roast, it feels like silly fun to pretend. Theater is a mutual relationship between performer and audience. Each needs the other to generate the emotional tension and catharsis that is the heart of theater and SIX relies on it.
The celebrity worship aspect is also, I suppose, part of why the ticket prices for this show are so high. Young women everywhere are reveling in these empowering tunes right now. That and the simple fact that it’s the current hot thing. If you try to book front row seats for an upcoming performance right now, you’ll find they are going for $500. I can’t imagine paying that much; it’s not that good. I’m not sure that any show is worth $500 to me, frankly. But it was certainly worth the price we paid, even a bit more, and that’s with all the hassle of getting there in the pouring rain. I would love to see it again, but from the back where I could get a better appreciation of the choreography and blocking and those “freaking sweet” heels.
(Full disclosure – Aileen helped me a lot with this one, because she is a theater reviewer. Soon she will be uploading her own blog posts here, so look for that!)
This is the story of my recent visits to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) in an effort to acquire a valid driver’s license that meets Homeland Security’s Real ID security standards.
It all started when I moved to Pennsylvania and got my PA driver’s license, back in 2018. This license was set to expire in September of 2021, which of course is now, and had the address of my apartment in West Chester. Then there was a pandemic, and I moved to Morgantown. Being a good citizen, I let PennDOT know. When it came time to renew my license, they sent me a “camera card” with my new address. I was supposed to take the camera card to a PennDOT location to get a new photo taken and have my new license printed up. I put the camera card in my wallet, with my license, so that I had proof of my correct address with me when I was driving.
I delayed getting this done for a few weeks, but time was running out. My camera card was only valid until the end of September. I decided to get my new photo and license this Monday, during my lunch break. I had two locations to choose between, and I decided to go to the one that I figured would be less crowded. That morning after I awoke, I took a shower and put on a nice shirt. I did a load of laundry, then went to work (meaning upstairs in the home office). As it got close to noon, I logged off and got ready to go. I was so excited!
I had this vague idea that I would see if I could get a Real ID while I was at it, and I knew that required me to bring my birth certificate and my SSN card, both of which I had. My SSN card is really old and worn out; it’s from when I was a child. I got them together, and my checkbook in case I needed it to pay because they didn’t take cards, but where was my wallet? I realized that I had left it in my pants when I did the laundry! It had gone completely through the wash, and my camera card was in there!
I extracted the still damp camera card and stuck it between two paper towels. It still seemed legible to me, despite the ink being smeared. Maybe I would be OK. I took all the plastic out of the wallet, including my expired license, and with this pile of documents I headed out to Pottstown.
My maps software helpfully guided me to the PennDOT location, which was right in the middle of town. It was a small building. A sign on the door implored, “please wear a face mask,” which of course I was doing since the pandemic is not over. Inside the building there were two rooms I could enter; and since the one on the right had the camera setup, that seemed like the obvious choice. Maybe a dozen or so people were already there, most of whom were ignoring the mask sign. There was a dispenser to grab a ticket with a number on it, so I took my number and sat on a chair against the wall.
It appeared I was in the right place, and shortly my number was called. There was just a young guy behind a desk who took my ticket, and a woman who was behind a nearby counter doing most of the work (both employees were masked). I showed the young guy my laundered camera card and explained the situation. He made a little of fun of me for washing my wallet, then gave the card to the woman, along with my driver’s license. She tried to scan the card, but it wouldn’t read. She told me that she wouldn’t be able to help me. I would need a new camera card, but they had no way to get me that here, though I might be able to go across the hall and get one, or go to a “full service” PennDOT location.
So I went across the hall. It was another small room, with two employees behind a counter, neither one masked, but at least they had plexiglass set up. Each one was busy with a customer. Both of these customers had some super complicated thing to do involving tag or title transfer, and I stood there waiting for a good while. It was hot and stuffy, because the AC wasn’t working, which I overheard one of the employees mention. Behind me, a line started to form. I was the only one with a face mask, and feeling uncomfortable.
At one point the same employee who had commented on the AC not working called out to the people in line, to tell them that if they were here to get a photo taken, they were in the wrong room. She wanted to make sure they knew to go across the hall. I took advantage of the opportunity to engage her, even though her customer was still at her counter. I told her I was here to get a new camera card. She said that would be possible, but I wouldn’t get it right away. It would be mailed to me.
That was of no use to me, so I left. I drove back home, feeling cranky. Trying to keep a sense of humor, I joked to my housemates that our supposed advanced civilization doesn’t even have the capability to scan a camera card just because you decided to send it through one cycle in the washing machine. You couldn’t even do one cycle in the washing machine without the whole system breaking down! My BFF gently reminded me that it was my own fault and I should own the responsibility.
I went online and looked at what my options might be. I found the DL-80 form to get a new camera card, but it had to be notarized. So I couldn’t even conveniently request the card from home and just sit on the problem for another week or so; I would have to go out again. I resolved to go to the alternate location in Reading, which I believed was probably a “full service” PennDOT. I would leave first thing in the morning. It opened at 8:30 AM. I let work know I was going to be offline in the AM the next day.
So on Tuesday I woke up early, showered, and put on the same shirt. I had a cup of coffee and a protein bar, and headed out as soon as I could. I got to the PennDOT location at 8:45 AM. There as a huge line of people in front of the building, at least thirty or more. But I was resolved. I approached the building, and discerned that there were multiple lines. A man in a guard’s uniform was there, and when I went up to him he asked me what I was there for. I tentatively replied that I wanted to get a Real ID, and he directed me to the proper line.
Luckily, it wasn’t too hot out yet. Also, most, though not all, of the people in line were wearing face masks. The crowd’s mood was generally positive, and slowly but surely the lines advanced into the building. It seemed they were letting in one person from each line on a rotating basis. In about 45 minutes I was in the building, in a consolidated line at the entrance. It was a very large room, with rows and rows of seats with people in them on one side, and a row of counters on the other. Two different gentlemen were processing the newcomers at the entrance.
Suddenly I saw the same young guy who had first taken my number the previous day, walking right by me. He was working at this location today. I called to him that I recognized him from Pottstown, and excitedly told him that I was having a DMV adventure this week. He gave me a quick sideways glance and slight smile, then hurried off.
One of the two gentlemen in front summoned me up to his counter with a hand wave. He asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted to get Real ID, and also that I had a camera card that had gone through the washing machine. He made a little fun of me for washing my camera card, then told me I would be able to get a new one here, and listed what I needed to get Real ID. Birth certificate; I had that. Social security card, had to be the real thing, not a photocopy; I had that. Two proofs of address. Oh oh. I hadn’t brought that.
Not to fear, he assured me. The camera card had my address, so that was one. And if I had a vehicle registration or proof of insurance card, those could work, too. Those were in the car, I told him, and he had me run out to get them, then come immediately back to him. I ran out, clutching my precious bundle of documents, added the registration and proof of insurance to the pile, then returned. He was seeing another customer, but as soon as he was done, beckoned to me again.
The vehicle registration had my current address, so I was in luck, although the insurance card was old and did not. He gave me a ticket with a number and had me go sit down in the rows of chairs. I picked a corner, as far away from other people as possible. Waiting here, though, wasn’t as bad as it had been at the other location the previous day. Here, the air conditioning was working. The building was much more spacious, and almost everyone was wearing a face mask.
My number was called over the PA system, along with the number of the counter I was to go to. A woman there took all my documents and listened to my story and my request. She made gentle fun of the fact that I had washed my wallet. She also told me that, unfortunately, I would not be able to use my camera card as one of the two proofs of my address to get a Real ID compliant license, since it was associated with my old driver’s license which had my old address on it. I pointed out that the camera card itself had the new address on it, but she insisted that was not how it worked. If my driver’s license was current, with my current address, I would be able to use it. But not as things stood.
So wait, I continued, attempting an argument. I had everything I needed to renew my license, right? The answer was yes. And once I had a new license, with my current address, I would be able to get the Real ID, right? The answer was yes. So why not just let me get the Real ID with what I had, since it was the same information? That wasn’t how it worked. It was the federal government, you see. Very strict. But I could get my renewed driver’s license and come through again for the Real ID? Absolutely. She told me to do that, and just come directly to her after getting my license.
The path before me was now clear. The woman behind the counter printed me up a new camera card, which cost me 5 bucks. I returned to my seat to wait for my number to be called again, and when it was I was directed to one of the counters where the photos were taken. A woman there directed me to sit in a chair facing a camera. I set my pile of documents, now in disarray, down on the counter and then did as instructed. I did my best to smile cheerfully at the camera. Calm blue ocean. She snapped my picture, then had me come up to the counter to go through a brief questionnaire on a touch screen. It was hard for me to read, and I kept having to shift my glasses to see it properly. One of the annoying things about growing old.
Once that was done, I grabbed my document pile, seated myself near the photo section, and waited some more. My name was called, and I was given my license, which I had to verify and then sign for. I immediately went to the other counter where the first woman was, and hovered until she beckoned me forward. She processed me again, scanning all of the documents that proved to the federal government that I was who I said I was. She gave me yet another camera card, and charged me 60 bucks this time. She also gave me a new number for getting my photo taken.
Back to a seat to wait. I had been at the building for over two hours now. I looked around, wondering if I would recognize any faces of customers who had been there when I originally showed up. I saw one. This wait ended up being the longest, or maybe it just felt that way, since I was so close to the finish line. After half an hour, I was getting nervous. Maybe my new number wouldn’t work, because the woman at the counter hadn’t entered it correctly into the system. I was getting close to getting up to ask her if there was an issue, when a number very close to mine got called.
That gave me hope. There was light at the end of the tunnel. A little while later, my number was indeed called. I rushed up to the photo counter. It was the same one I had gone to originally. I couldn’t tell if the woman there recognized me from before. She just processed me like I was any other customer. Smile for the camera. Fill out the questionnaire, eyes squinting to read the questions. This time, that was the last step. My Real ID compliant driver’s license would come in the mail, and would be good for eight years.
The saga was complete. It had come to a fairy tale ending. Not only was I Real according to the federal government, I was going to have a driver’s license (if not eyesight) that was good until 2029! And I had a valid one in my wallet at the very moment. As a bonus, I had my amusing tale of hidebound bureaucracy and its cumbersome processes, which I told several times to my housemates and friends, and have now shared with you, dear reader. In all truth, PennDOT did a wonderful job, and bless them for keeping up with their work in this time of corona.
‘The war has changed’ blares a Washington Post headline, referring to an internal CDC document reassessing messaging about the coronavirus in light of the new delta variant. What’s changed is that the prevalence of a mutated strain of the virus, which can spread even among the vaccinated, means it might make sense for masks to come back on and for people to start practicing social distancing again. But how well can the CDC influence people’s behavior, with the deep levels of mistrust in our society, and the fact that the CDC’s messaging has shifted around over the course of the pandemic? Never mind that the message changing actually makes sense, given that the science also changes, because we are dealing with a novel coronavirus.
Now look what’s happened to the prospect of herd immunity. As this cartoon by Kevin Kallaugher implies, there was just too much vaccine resistance to get to the levels that could have prevented the spread of this variant. And with the mad rush to “return to normal,” it’s probably too late.
So we don’t just have a war against a disease. We have a war against impatience. A war against ignorance. I’ve already blogged about what a shame it is that the pandemic became politicized. That was probably unavoidable, given that everything gets politicized these days. But political affiliation isn’t the only thing dividing the vaccinated from the unvaccinated. Race, income, and education level are also factors. The implosion of trust in our society has been very costly.
If GOP leaders would just get on board with a vaccination program, it would go a long way towards increasing vaccination rates and getting us to the other side of the war. Instead, we have to wait for the Republican con job to exhaust itself. Eventually the marks will all clue in, even if they have to sneak their vaccinations in behind their friends’ backs. You know, to save face. It’s truly pathetic.
I hope that we are in the winding down phase of this Crisis, and that the war will soon be won. From my vantage point, not leaving home much, it’s hard to tell if we’re in the darkest hour, or in the denouement. I think I’ll just be staying under lockdown and keeping my mask on for a bit, ’cause this ain’t over yet.
A year ago we were deep in the pandemic, and my best friend and partner, who works in the theater industry, was not able to work. All of the summer work that she had lined up in 2020 evaporated with the lockdown. She could have just stayed at home for all I cared, but she is too driven and needed to do something, so she ended up taking up a job as a census enumerator. This stressed me out a bit, as she spent the late summer and early fall wandering the area, visiting the homes of recalcitrant people. I mean, people who don’t do their census aren’t going to want to be bothered about the census, right? I thought she was very brave for taking on this job. After that gig ended, she worked for a high school as a Covid safety officer, which entailed patrolling the halls and making sure the kids were following protocols (they weren’t). That job ended with the school year.
Now it’s summer, and with the pandemic “over” – or at least “winding down” – she has gone back to work in her field. I’m glad for that, because she is clearly much happier. She just finished running a production workshop for teens, producing the musical Chicago: High School Edition. If you don’t know what this means: a production workshop is an educational program, like a summer camp, where each student pays a fee to participate. Chicago is a famous musical by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb which satirizes celebrity crime culture in the 1920s. “High School Edition” just means that the script is shortened and cleaned up a bit, so it is appropriate for younger people.
The fees the students pay cover costs like rent to the space, and the licensing fee to the rights holders. This latter cost is substantial – as in three figures – and depends on the number of performances. In this case, there were four live performances (as opposed to streaming online performances, which was a popular way to do it during the pandemic). Rehearsals started while there were still significant restrictions on group gatherings, so they were online at first. In fact, the auditions were all done by having the students submit videos. Note that every kid who auditioned was going to get cast (that’s kind of the point of an educational workshop), but auditions are still used to cast the specific roles.
Once restrictions eased, some time in June, rehearsals moved to the theater space. At first, many kids weren’t yet fully vaccinated, so everyone wore masks while rehearsing, and temps were taken. By the end of rehearsals, almost all of the kids were vaccinated. I got to see a couple of the dress rehearsals during tech week! If you don’t know what “tech week” means, it’s the final rehearsal phase when the lighting and sound is integrated into the show. Here’s a photo from dress rehearsal, of the merry murderesses performing the Cell Block Tango:
The show went up in early July, on the weekend after Independence Day. Audience members were required to wear masks, though the performers did not, except for two who wore face shields. Those were the two cast members who were not vaccinated. Some audience members refused to come see the show because masks were required. This was actually the desired outcome, and it was probably for the best, since the Delta variant is now spreading like wildfire.
Here’s a short review I posted after the first show:
It’s too bad there are only four performances of this show, since the cast and crew have pulled together a tight and energetic production, showcasing the talents of multiple young performers, directors and designers, and you won’t want to miss it. A teen production of Chicago HS Edition, on the heels of the pandemic, was a gutsy choice for director/producer Aileen Lynch-McCulloch, but as is usual for her, she has pulled it off. She demonstrates her knack for finding the perfect cast, and for translating a script onto the stage in a tight time window and with a shoestring budget. Minimalist set and costume choices, on a stark stage with smooth lighting, succeed in conveying the characterizations and the storyline, giving the talent the opportunity to shine. The director’s faith in the ability of youth and commitment to helping them find their voice have once again resulted in an amazing production. Get a ticket if you can!
I wrote this blog post to extol the talents of my good friend, Aileen, and to raise awareness of the challenges facing the theater industry as we emerge from the pandemic. This production of Chicago was slipped right in between the beginning of vaccinations and the surge of the Delta variant; it may have been a fortuitous occasion that can’t be repeated in the near future. In her role as Artistic Director at The Center Theater, Aileen would like to plan more productions, as part of her program called The Arts Bubble, “a healing project created to help audiences return to the live performance spaces.” But obviously this depends on the state of the pandemic.
I’ve been following Aileen’s work for many years, and it really is amazing to behold. She can handle all aspects of a production – directing, producing, costuming, set design, tech, PR, you name it. When she is working on a project, her commitment is total, and she seems to have an endless reservoir of energy on which to draw. But luckily she has people to help her, so she doesn’t have to do it all herself. She only needs to do three or four people’s jobs instead of ten or twelve.
She has people to help her because over her career she has built up a network of supportive friends, as well as young people who want to come back and work with her time and time again. Many of the teens and young adults who worked with her on Chicago have known her since they were children, when they first acted in a show which she directed. For a long time she ran her own theater company, Vagabond Acting Troupe, and she has also worked as an educator in schools and at other theaters. And she hasn’t changed her fees for over 30 years, while others around her have taken her approach and then raised the cost. Many of her students have gone on to Broadway tours, Cruise Ship entertainment and some have even started their own companies.
I mean, just the fact that Aileen was able to get large audiences to see Chicago and all willingly wear face masks is impressive. And if you think that wearing a mask is just “pandemic theater,” then I submit to you this thought: not wearing a mask is “pandemic theater.” Because everything we do socially, how we dress and how we act, is meant as a signal to others; it’s all a performance. Life is theater, and theater is life. As Shakespeare put it, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
So please join me in congratulating my dear friend Aileen Lynch-McCulloch on another successful theater production. And please get vaccinated, because if we don’t get this pandemic under control, we may all have to climb back into our cocoons, and wait another year before live theater can emerge once more.
To Mask Or Not To Mask, A “Post”-Pandemic Question
I got the first inkling that America was “back to normal” when I went down to the Delaware beaches on Memorial Day weekend. As I drove south through the beach towns on Route 1, I noticed that people out on the streets were not wearing masks. “Everyone here must be vaccinated,” I thought. At my destination, a beach resort where my Dad and stepmother live, this sense was compounded when we went out. There were crowds of people, with no one wearing masks. Well, there would usually be an occasional couple or family that were masked, but it was a tiny percentage of the total number of people.
We spent one evening at a bar, and I must admit it felt very strange to be in a crowd where everyone was unmasked. Throughout the lockdown in 2020, I had been having dreams about being unmasked in public, and feeling a sense of dread or guilt. There was only just a hint of that feeling as we sat in that bar, and had some draft beers and pub food. Everyone was very friendly, with the exuberant energy of summer vacation in the air. But what else was in the air? I wasn’t comfortable doing any more pubbing on that trip.
I was visiting because I am finally fully vaccinated, as are my Dad and his wife. It was a “first post-vax hugs” family reunion moment. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of them on your social media feeds. I hadn’t seen them in person since 2019, so it was a wonderful visit. But I kept repeating the nervous little joke, “everyone in Delaware must be vaccinated, because…”
Back home in Pennsylvania, the masks are also coming off. Stores have stopped requiring them, even for their employees in some cases. I would guess that maybe half of customers in stores are still wearing masks, including me. I have a hunch that the elderly tend to go masked more than younger people do, and one can easily imagine why. I base this on casual observation, not data.
One thing I’ll say is that when I am masked in a store, even if I’m in the minority, I don’t feel uncomfortable about it. Meaning I don’t get any sense of being scorned by the non-mask wearers. I think everyone understands and respects people’s choices. It’s similar to the impression I got at the height of the pandemic, when everyone was complying with mask orders. It spoke to a willingness that the general public has to cooperate with public authorities, despite the fact that the pandemic became politicized. I mean, I read about anti-maskers melting down in public and even violence connected with people resisting mask mandates, but here on the ground, where I live, it is not something I have encountered personally.
We just got back from a Father’s Day trip to Knoebels Amusement Resort, an annual family tradition that was cancelled in 2020. It will be our only summer trip this year, since our other annual tradition, G-Fest, is also cancelled for 2021. Well, everyone at Knoebels must be vaccinated, too, based on the almost complete absence of face masks. Conspicuously, some families were masked, but it was less than 1% of people. Now, this is a venue where you are almost always outdoors, whether riding an attraction or eating a meal. We carried our masks with us but only wore them in a few instances of being in a confined space.
It was nice to return to normal, in one sense, but at the same time it felt like we were taking a chance, especially hearing about this new delta variant that is likely to become a scourge of the unvaccinated. And frankly, I’m pretty sure a large proportion of the visitors at Knoebels were unvaccinated, despite the fact that they were unmasked. I base this on the fact that the resort is popular with working class white people, and well, you’ll have to pardon my prejudice, but they tend to be on the MAGA side politically. The bumper stickers and T-shirts I saw while we were there only confirm this prejudice.
So 2020 is behind us now, and we are slowly changing back to the way things were before. But I have an ominous feeling that 2021 has more havoc in store for us.
When the pandemic started last year, I posted this dire warning about how the fun was all over. Financial markets and supply chains were in deep trouble; Generation X could kiss their 401Ks goodbye. I guess I really thought we were in for some serious hell. I mean, doesn’t everyone remember the toilet-paper shortages? Didn’t it seem like we were doomed?
I don’t mean to be glib. 2020 was a terrible year for many – either because loved ones died of Covid-19, or because of economic hardship. And on top of that, politics in the U.S. hit a new low. But for many of us – those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home, those of us who didn’t lose family members – the lockdown turned out to be a boon.
For one, we spent less money. I keep a pretty close watch on my budget, and I know from having done so for years that the three things which eat up the most income are housing, healthcare, and food. Well, it turns out that not eating out ever means spending a lot less money on food. I know this was bad for the restaurant industry, but I’m telling the 2020 story from my perspective here.
In addition, because we were suddenly never leaving the house, I ended up moving in with my BFF. So housing costs also went down for us. Add in the money saved by not travelling, and our savings grew. Frankly, it’s also really nice not to have to commute. It’s hard to imagine now that I used to spend two hours a day driving to and from work – whatever for? Staying at home means an easier pace of life, with no rushed schedule and more time for family.
The icing on the cake: because of the measures to avoid infection by the coronavirus, we didn’t get sick from anything else either. Normally we catch a few colds each year, what with the teenagers going to school and the girl doing her theater work. But not in 2020.
It all just seems like the next level in the steady progression of my fortunes over the years of the Crisis Era. Literally, from 2008 on things just keep looking up for me. I know I’m not the only one having this experience. It’s like for some Gen Xers, the pandemic lockdown was the perfect situation.
We’re even seeing this idea now of the YOLO economy: workers ready to quit their jobs and pursue their passion, now that they have savings and have had a taste of what it’s like to *not* drive to work every day. Should I resign from my FinTech job to become a full-time blogger?
Now I couldn’t do that without first consulting with my partner. And for her, 2020 was a different story. She’s basically a gig worker in the theater industry, so the pandemic was a disaster for her from a work perspective. All of the gigs she had worked hard to line up just evaporated. So I’d better stick with my job that pays well.
Another story we’re hearing is that retail businesses are struggling with a hiring crisis now. Essential workers are better off on unemployment benefits than going back to their low wage jobs. It makes you wonder why they are deemed “essential” but then not compensated very well. Perhaps an improvement of the conditions of the lowest paid workers in our economy will be a lasting effect of the pandemic. Pandemic relief (“stimulus payments”) is sort of like basic income, after all.
Now that restrictions are being eased, my partner has actually been able to find gigs again, and I can tell she is excited to get back to work in 2021. But are we really out of the woods in terms of the pandemic? One of my projects this year has actually been research on pandemics throughout history, and from what I’ve learned I’m not feeling too easy.
Just take a look at this list of the worst pandemics in history. One pattern you’ll see here is that the more recent large scale pandemics are caused by ineradicable viral pathogens. The older ones chronologically are typically bubonic plague or cholera, which are controllable now thanks to improved sanitation and antibiotic medicine, or smallpox, which has been eliminated through vaccination.
But some viruses cannot be wiped out by immunization, both because they can reside in non-human hosts (waiting to infect the next generation of non-immune human hosts), and because they can mutate (nullifying previously acquired immunity). These include the influenza virus and the SARS coronavirus. We’re stuck with them, barring some next level development in medical science.
A pandemic like the Covid-19 pandemic, the eighth deadliest in human history according to that list, should be a once-in-a-lifetime event. But you never know. So enjoy your time on Earth, because as they say, you only live once.
A Lesson from History: Be Responsible and Get Vaccinated
This year I’ve been involved in a project, doing research on pandemics. As part of that, I’ve been reading this interesting old book I dug up. I like reading old books because the dated perspective and language is illuminating. It is like seeing into the past in a way that you won’t get from reading a history book written in current times.
The book is called “Epidemics Resulting From Wars“, by Dr. Friedrich Prinzing, a German doctor and pioneer in the field of medical statistics. It was published in 1916, under the auspices of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stemming from a conference held in Berne, Switzerland, in August 1911. There is a sad irony in knowing that as this was being written, the Great Powers of Europe had already abandoned International Peace in favor of other ambitions.
In the introduction, the director of the Endowment’s Division of Economics and History has some hopeful comments about how, in the case of the Great War underway, advancements in medicine might mitigate the risk of disease that in the past always accompanied armed conflict. In that naïve and hopeful start-of-World-War-I way, he seems to believe that, thanks to modern science, at least that deadly facet of warfare can be eliminated. It is also a sad irony to read this knowing that an influenza pandemic, the second deadliest pandemic in human history, is just two years away from this book’s publication.
In this blog post, I wanted to highlight one part of the book. The eighth chapter is titled “The Franco-German War of 1870-1, and the Epidemic of Small-pox Caused by It.” In discussing this smallpox epidemic, time and again, the subject of vaccination comes up. As you probably know, the smallpox vaccine was the first vaccine developed, in the late 1700s. By the 1800s, German authorities were attempting to vaccinate their populations, but encountering resistance. Here are a couple of quotes from the book.
“In Württemberg, where vaccination had been compulsory since 1818, but had been frequently evaded in the ‘sixties in consequence of the agitation of the anti-vaccinationists, an epidemic of small-pox raged in the years 1863-7, causing, all told, 804 deaths.”
Dr. Friedrich Prinzing, “Epidemics Resulting from Wars,” p. 260
“The kingdom of Saxony experienced a very severe epidemic of small-pox in consequence of the Franco-German War. The wide dissemination of the disease is attributed by Wunderlich to the fact that vaccination, in consequence of the wild agitation of the anti-vaccinationists, was insufficiently practised; prior to the year 1874 vaccination was not compulsory in Saxony.”
Ibid., p. 269
I find it interesting that anti-vaxxers were around a century and a half ago. Their presence in society today is nothing new. And frankly, I can understand being wary of vaccination. I am actually wary myself. I don’t want someone injecting something into me if I can help it. But the point is that, under some conditions, you can’t avoid the need. The reason is there in the statistics – for example, as recorded in this book:
“A particularly good idea of the protection against small-pox afforded by vaccination is given in the Chemnitz statistics for the years 1870-1. Of 53,891 vaccinated persons 953 (1.8 per cent) contracted the disease in those two years and seven succumbed to it, all of whom were more than ten years of age ; of 5,712 unvaccinated persons, almost one-half contracted the disease (2,643 or 46.3 per cent, to be precise), and of these 243 (9.16 [per cent] of those taken sick) died.”
Ibid., p. 256
Simply put, a vaccinated population is less susceptible during a disease epidemic. Rates of infection and of mortality go down if vaccination is widespread.
So think about what that means for the current epidemic today. Maybe there is some risk to getting vaccinated. It could be inconvenient and uncomfortable since you might get sick for a day. We’ve even heard about potential problems with the J&J vaccine. And we’ve heard there’s a chance you could still catch COVID anyway.
But if a large portion of the population resists getting vaccinated, then there will be more sickness and more death. It’s unavoidable math. It’s the logic of a replicating virus.
Getting vaccinated isn’t really about protecting yourself. Vaccination is another measure to flatten the curve (flatten it way down), just like wearing masks and social distancing. You are asked to take a very small risk to prevent a great deal of suffering and death among other people in your society. That makes it a civic duty.
I still sometimes see people out and about and not masked. I call them “death spreaders” and give them a very wide berth. There was a death spreader at the Post Office over the Christmas holiday. It was in much too close quarters for anyone to be unmasked and it pissed me off. It’s sad that this is still a problem, with the pandemic raging and the numbers just getting worse and worse.
When I first observed this phenomenom I called these people Covidiots. Their presence was ominous and invoked the feeling of being in an apocalyptic movie. How can it be getting worse?
We all know the real problem. The pandemic has been politicized. One side of the political divide believes the pandemic is a lie, just as they believe the election is a lie. And now the Covidiots are out on the streets, armed and dangerous, attacking democracy itself.
It’s only going to get worse before it gets better. So get ready for the final chapter in the trilogy, coming soon to a country near you.