One of my earliest comedy memories was watching one of the first SNL debate sketches during the run-up to the 1976 Presidential election. Dan Ackroyd is Jimmy Carter, and of course Chevy Chase is Gerald Ford. Jane Curtain asks an economic question of the incumbent. The first sentence contains the words “Humphrey/Hawkins Act,” then numbers, numbers, numbers —and how all these numbers relate to each other. She might as well ask when two trains leaving Chicago and Pittsburgh and accelerating a constant rate of 2mph per mile would slam into each other. As she’s asking the question, the camera pushes slowly into Chevy Chase’s increasingly bewildered face. At the end of the question comes the reply, a line that sandblasted itself on my sense of humor ever since:
It was my understanding there would be no math.
I think of that bit a lot during this pandemic. Everything is numbers now. Never in my life have I lived thru an “unprecedented” event that involved so much math. Yes, there were numbers involved with the oil shocks of the 70’s, the LA Riots in 1992, and Hurricane Sandy. But the numbers weren’t the big thing.
The only event I remember that involved numbers to such an extent was Y2K, and that was basically just two numbers —strangely also a 1 and a 9. Beyond the numbers, Y2K also promised ‘splosions. And a specific end time, down to the second. And Y2K had answers: My fiancee Lynda said, “If I let you spend two hundred dollars on batteries and shit, will you shut up?”
Every morsel of information about the course of the pandemic comes attached with numbers that can only be understood by doing a thing with other numbers, which can only be understood by doing a thing with yet other numbers. I glaze over so quickly. A chorus of “Numbers, numbers, numbers!” sung to the tune of “You don’t win friends with salad!” echoes thru empty neural halls.
I am not a stupid person by any stretch. In fact, I was on the Math Team in high school, and my score on the math portion of the GRE was 780.
I got a C- Stats. In my entire academic career, I have never received a lower final grade than in Dr. Ron Ron Lucchese Lucchese’s Intro to Statistics my sophomore year at Wittenberg. I thought I understood the subject matter. Dr. Lucchese Luchesse had a habit of repeating one word in practically every sentence. It was more than a verbal tic. It was a verbal tic fashioned into a teaching aid. He repeated the most important word in each sentence; if you heard it repeated, it was on the test: “72 shows up the most, so 72 is the mode. Mode.” “Here we see that the distribution is skewed. We call that Poisson. Poisson.” “The midterm will be worth twenty percent of your grade. Twenty.”
I got a 52 on the midterm. Using the gift of Dr. Lucchese Lucchese’s repetition and a scholarly brain that treated tests as fun little trivia exercises meant to be finished first before anyone else, I was able to able to ace the fill-in-the-blanks parts of the tests. Still, I got a 52 on the midterm. C- for the class, and that was after I pleaded. Pleaded.
I just could not get my head around the questions that took pages and pages of blue book to answer. Stats aren’t discrete systems like geometry proofs or calculating a tip or two trains leaving Chicago at one o’clock headed in opposite directions. A stats question, especially one that you’ve been given an entire blue book to answer, spirals insanely out of control if you make just one error. Plug in a wrong value, forget to square something that should be squared, and you end up somewhere in the eight-billionth percentile.
There can’t be an eight billionth percentile, right? You took Latin. “cent” means one hundred. How do you get eight billion? Shit, I won’t be first. He’s handing it in? Him? He’s high, and an idiot!. Maybe eight billionth percentile means you’re just really really good. Or you’re a virus, and there’s a whole bunch more of you than the day before.
“Three minutes left. Three.”
Yes, eight billion must make sense. It’s just a brain teaser. Yes, brain teaser. Lucchese Lucchese’s fucking with the class, and everyone else gets the joke. Gets the joke. I should really breathe. What is breathing?
If statistics in a closed setting can induce such panic, imagine what statistics in the wild can do. Especially when you don’t really know how to do statistics properly. Yet, practically every day my Facebook feed contains folks posting their own back of the envelope statistical calculations based on the few numbers they’re getting from official sources. “I crunched the numbers from the Governor’s press conference this afternoon. Thirty-seven percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state are in ICU’s!” If 37% of people admitted ended up in the ICU, I honestly don’t think I’d be finding out about it from a Facebook post from a frightened person in sweatpants.
I know numbers offer people some blanket of certitude, and it is very comforting to believe you’re the one who has discovered the truth about coronavirus.
Yeah, there can be an eight billionth percentile, look at that curve. A curve like that means that whatever is going on is clearly in the eight billionth percentile. It’s not flat at all. Flatten it. Flatten it. If keeps going at this rate, in nineteen days over seventeen quadrillion people will have the virus!
Statistics gets crazy easy and crazy fast.
If you need a real world example as to why back of the envelope statistics can be dangerous, look no further than the Cheetoh Dotard. Dotard. He daily proclaims that his vestigial ability to do scribble long division with a blunt Sharpie makes him an expert in epidemiology. He’s gambling lives based on that tenuous assumption. People die when you think you’re better than the experts.
Even if folks aren’t calculating their own corona curves, they’re posting graphs and charts from dubious sources. The main criteria for posting a charts and graphs from dubious sources appears to be a feeling that it “seems right.” These are rarely from organizations that existed in February. Friends who only two weeks ago posted that they were sick of people slapping up graphs they found on Reddit, now post decorative Edward Tufte knock-offs from entities like like CovidTracking or maskssavelives.org. At least I’ve heard of Reddit.
Then they want you to share this information. I will say it once: I refuse to be a conduit of COVID-19 info on Facebook. No one should be getting their pandemic news from Facebook. Moreover, I’m probably more likely to pass on info based not on how accurate it is, but on whether I’ve made out with the person sharing it.
I have no idea if the colorful charts or calculations I see on Facebook are accurate. Remember, I got a C- in Stats. I didn’t get that C- because I was dumb or because I didn’t understand the material. I got a C- because I went through most of the course using the wrong chart in the back of the textbook. When I went to Dr. Lucchese Lucchese near the end of the course to explain to him the mistake I was making, he shook his head and said with a chuckle, “You’re kind of an idiot. Idiot. Aren’t you?”
It’s true. I was an idiot that term. I had just transferred into Wittenberg following a suicide attempt at Cornell. My brain was still processing that trauma, not to mention trying to hide that it had ever happened. You expect me to be cognizant of correct charts? I was just trying to stay alive.
And, y’know what? We’re all trying to stay alive now. Our minds are occupied, and yet people are taking on maths they don’t quite understand. What gets to me is the anguish. I know the folks posting these things aren’t foolish. I would never have been friends with them if they were. But, I can feel the stress. My chest tightens each time I log on. Going online now is akin to going to the Kroger’s during this. After about a minute, sensing the stress of others gets to me. It’s like a bad filler episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Troi clutches her head a lot, looks constipated, and has to retire to her quarters.
Stress plus math never did me any good.
A few weeks ago, I met a bonafide woodland octopus in the Hocking Hills, just around a bend in the trail, in Clear Creek MetroPark.
And, in a welcome change, this octopus I met was a nice guy.
It’s not far-fetched that I met an affable cephalopod in Clear Creek MetroPark. I once saw this exercise in basic cable CGI on the Discovery Channel that speculated upon evolution in the distant future. Long after we’re gone and all our flesh and accomplishments are tomorrow’s fossil fuels, intelligence will re-emerge when a band of tree-dwelling octopi hurl tiny wooden spears at a giant land nautilus with murder in its eyes. They will be adorable.
Much more adorable than people.
People have been problematic of late.
But I really clicked with this octopus. At one point during our conversation, I acknowledged his upcoming mastery of simple tool-making (—and then… the world!). I gestured a broad swoop to woods around us and proclaimed, “Someday all this will be yours!”
Without missing a beat, he responded: “What? The curtains?” Even though his English accent could use some work, we cracked ourselves up. It’s great when you meet someone, and you don’t have to slow-walk them thru your go-to pop culture references, especially something as basic as Monty Python & The Holy Grail.
It’s simple contact like this that I miss.
I was walking alone in the woods because simple contact has been nearly impossible for the past year or so. No one expects to get sexually assaulted. I’m a fifty-year old guy of ample girth —and it happened on a Tuesday, in my kitchen. I had recently relocated to Columbus, and the perpetrator was the first person I had connected with here. Continue reading
It’s the little things that for the briefest glimmers make you feel like you matter. All it takes is a second or two of forethought on the part of a stranger, and the world is not implacably aligned against you, or worse yet, completely indifferent… That is, until you die in the least dignified manner possible because you just know that’s going to happen because that little touch made you normal for a second. That is just the universe’s calculus.
The place I stayed in Louisville last week had a few of those touches: there were not TOO many rules; a white noise machine canceled out traffic noise; the “art” on the walls was actual art and didn’t consist of shiplapped words like “family,” “laugh,” or “wine;” among the hardback books with the jackets removed to make them more Instagrammable was a copy of David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable, the title of which is pretty cheeky for an Airbnb. They knew me.
But there was one touch in that charming cottage convenient to Bardstown Road that made me feel human at the moment I was sure I was shuffling off this mortal coil in the least dignified manner. My pants were down around my ankles. I was in the middle of the worst food poisoning I’ve had this century. But when I looked up…
They put incandescent bulbs above the bathroom mirror!
Look, I get it. You’re a busy Airbnb host. You have a lot book jackets to remove and fake epiphytes to arrange. You can’t be wasting your time swapping out 60 watt Soft-Whites. I can’t imagine what it must be like to get a message in the middle of night because some bachelorette party down from Cincy for the weekend can’t use that one light in the corner of the living room. You don’t respond right away, so they start rewiring your eclectic bungalow for 220. Who needs that? Just throw in a bunch of compact fluorescents, and be done with it.
Staying at my Grandma’s place in Wisconsin began to get problematic as I started my teens. The light in the only bathroom consisted of a pair of fluorescent tubes, one on either side of the mirror. They would flicker to life, and you would flicker to death. It was like a monster transformation montage in a cheap horror flick from 1952. Every single blackhead and whitehead, greenhead and yellowhead pulsated under those cool-white, unforgiving lumens. I was as ugly as all those Young Life a-holes at my school told me I was. I lived under the assumption that “Faggot Face” referred to some inherent deformity so troubling to others that it could only be spat out while punching my head from behind to emphasize the “Face.” The punch really drove the point home, and it was hilarious for them.
But I could get thru the abuse somewhat because, when I returned to my home with it’s proper incandescent bathroom lighting, in the master bath, I could look in the mirror and see a kid who wasn’t half bad. Yeah, I’m slightly asymmetrical, my eyes aren’t a real color, and my lips are weird. Not THAT weird; it’s more of the angle my mouth opens to make smiles —too much horizontal, not enough vertical. But at least my complexion wasn’t a shitshow. I had the the occasional zit to pop —about one real humdinger every six weeks. Those were kinda fun, a satisfying Before/After.
There really was never any reason to call me Crater/Mayonnaise Face. Anyways, Faggot Face had alliteration. Everyone likes alliteration.
However, that fluorescent glow left me feeling exposed, bus ride home exposed. I wasn’t alone; my cousin Susan and I used to complain about it every time I was up in Wisconsin. The only thing that made the bathroom mirror bearable was to flick it on and off really fast so they would get stuck in that limbo where they don’t go on all the way: It cuts the brightness in half, and you can stare at pulsating gas tubes until you don’t care about your ugly, ugly face anymore. I was reminded every visit that doing so wasn’t good for the lights.
Thankfully, since I gained control of my own illumination strategy, I have been blessed with a pretty good complexion. I credit it to sunscreen, hydration, not smoking, and, in the immortal words of the gender-f*ck performer Dina Martina when asked about her youthful look, “Slow, steady weight gain!” She said that to a crowd of bears in Provincetown. It killed.
Beards are very forgiving.
Everything was going great, at least in terms of being able to pop into most bathrooms and convince yourself you don’t look that bad, are not THAT bad a person. I mean, you wouldn’t expect uplift from the bathroom at a gas station or an Arby’s. I understand the need for fluorescent tubes in an institutional setting, but for the longest time I could be assured of good lighting in pretty much any bathroom in which I was the sole occupant. Even my bathroom in the mental hospital where I spent the better part of 1999 had incandescent bulbs above the mirror. And a previous occupant had used a diamond ring or something in an attempt to X out their reflection, which is hardcore self-erasure. A flattering warm light can overcome even that.
But then the planet began to spiral into the sun, getting hotter and hotter. Sacrifices would have to be made. Won’t somebody think of the children?!? It was decided that we should all replace our incandescents with little spirals of plastic, glass, shame, and mercury.
Almost overnight, self-affirmation disappeared from decent restaurants, shops, even hotels. The harsh coiled light eventually came to guest bathrooms in the private homes of boring people who always have the heat on too high. When I’m bored, stuck, and hot, I need affirmation every six minutes.
Affirmation has now been replaced with an accusatory klieg. Look at how absolutely wrong you are! You can’t hide!
I was hoping this few days down in Louisville would help me reacclimatize to being around people, especially in a queer capacity. For months and months, especially since I began to actively confront it, the trauma from getting sexually assaulted has rendered most social spaces extremely frightening.
Could I duck into the bathroom to chill and collect? No, all I see in that fluorescent harshness is a non-entity who’s only good for providing basic friction to idiots. The flickering, little microbursts of darkness and glare won’t let my brain calm down. It was best just not to go out. But maybe a few days in a fun town with my friend Damian, with no chance of that creep showing up, could help me feel human. I could go back to doing things I did before the assault —like just hang with a friend with no expectations. I got in just before dinner on a Tuesday. We had some Canes chicken fingers. Damian’s one of those people who never eats at chains; he would rather bob for questionably-sourced falafel balls in a bodega fryer than step foot in a chain. I love nothing better than seeing him walking his food on a tray. It was real nice of him to do that for me. After dinner, we won trivia at Chill Bar. Nothing makes me feel more human than regurgitating factiods at a rapid clip. For the first time in months, I didn’t feel ugly and useless.
Before I headed back to the very conveniently located Airbnb, I asked around about late night munchies. The trivia host suggested a place called The Back Door. Damian practically barked, “Back Door sucks!” I should have listened, but I was drunk with power after watching him eat the Canes. I was also drunk.
I got a few boneless wings and a quesadilla (with a plastic ramekin of guac). Nothing major. I ate about half of it in front of the TV and went to bed. Put the rest in the fridge. During the night my intestinal track was replaced with a very gassy crazed weasel. I spent the next twenty-four hours trying to drive it out the nearest available exit —high, low, both. When I wasn’t writhing around on the oh-we’ll-just-use-it-in-the-Airbnb mattress, I was in the bathroom.
Whenever I came up for air, I would splash my face, swish some water around in my mouth, and then check the mirror. The first time I looked I braced myself. Every room in the Airbnb had very harsh compact fluorescents. One of the first things I did when I checked in was toss t-shirts over the lampshades to cut down on the glare. I was sure the bathroom was no different. I would see every broken blood vessel, every bad decision, everything that made me wrong in full contrast.
But when I looked, I didn’t recoil. Yes, I still looked like crap, but I was warm, soft crap. And I could look at my crap face with “soft” eyes, drift away, and relax. The flickeringflickeringflickering wasn’t resetting my brain ten thousand times every second. I could be somewhere else than that Airbnb bathroom.
As a bonus, the bulbs were on a dimmer switch. One of the first useful things I was told after I came out was to get dimmer switches. Dimmers only work on proper incandescents. Those other bulbs stutter as they move between levels. How is that romantic? If anything’s going to be stuttering between levels during romance, it’s going to be me.
Between the dimmer switch and the flecked antique glass in the mirror, I could imagine that I was no longer suffering food poisoning. I could now be ill from some vague 19th century malady. Instead of looking forward to weeks of friends tittering from hearing that I got sick from “eating at The Back Door, now I could look forward to a fainting couch and some nice laudanum.
I’m not broken, just weird. Incandescents let you be weird.
Ever since the assault, I’ve been searching for justice. Rather, I’ve been searching for JUSTICE, some grand gesture on the part of the universe that tells me that I have value as something more than convenient friction for some loser to relieve his brokenness upon. Certainly I would be treated to an entire room turning on their heals to point at him, shaking their heads, then casting him out to wail and gnash his teeth. But he’s really well-liked in “the community” so…………. But I can’t be the one cast out. I need to stay around. I am not worthless. Maybe the best way to get justice —or at least justice-adjacent —is to pay attention to the small little fragments of niceness that drift down like the aftermath of sorority pillow fight. These are the hearty , but not too hearty, hugs; the passive-aggressive yet friendly acquiescences to eat fast food; the just letting you sit quietly for moment; the letting me change lanes while I was driving in my car; the incandescent bulbs in the bathroom.
The best thing about these is that people can do them for you, and they don’t even have to know you’re broken. These small justices are for you because you’re a person.
Nothing like a little justice to make you think you look good.
This past weekend I had a major breakthrough in the burgeoning field of PTSD management: I went out on Saturday night like a normal person.
I saw the loser who sexually assaulted me in the flesh in the same room for the first time since I confronted him.
It went well.
I have a lot to say and write about that interaction. There was both vodka and learnings. Stay tuned.
I’ve been going back over the thousands and thousands of words I’ve written but haven’t posted because much of it consists of fragmented jeremiads, poor formatting, and using “fucking” as a placeholder. One of the aspects of Saturday I’m focusing on is my developing sense of justice and its proper scale.
Back in the last week of July, I wrote several pages exploring the relationship between sexual trauma and justice. It never went anywhere because it just devolved into way too many words about the Categorical Imperative. I TA’d Contemporary Moral Issues for two years; I can do Kant. But in those pages from late July, I found this snippet:
Maybe he’s walking down the sidewalk, and a grate opens up underneath him. He plummets down a metal chute — with exposed rivets —at an angle about twice that of the giant slide at the State Fair. Steep enough to frighten and disorient, but not too steep where he’ll land with a pain-ending THUD at the bottom. I think I need the pain to continue.
It’s a perfectly fine paragraph. Could be tweaked in a few places, but I think it captures the capricious nature of justice, and the imagining the loser getting slide burn seems right. I hit save and haven’t looked at it since July.
However, considering how my late AUGUST went….
I try to comfort myself that, despite a constant worry about the wages of my sin and how I’m bound for Hell, it actually was the Morlocks who were summoning me. Maybe they needed recommendations for good Eloi in town. But, the Morlocks know all the good Eloi places; that’s there whole thing.
Instead… Continue reading