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.
Part Two of series that’ll be as long as I need it to be:
“Being vulnerable in the face of sexual assault (when you’re pretty sure it was your vulnerability that got you assaulted)”
Now that I’ve moved past the etymological implications and diversions of the word “vulnerable,” I need to get busy being vulnerable. Seems like the best way to be vulnerable would be to interact with people.
Of course, it was a “people” that assaulted me. There will have to be some work to do before I can go back to feeling my standard annoyance in crowds rather than dread.
Fear has a way of flattening. Going to a bar or a party is like one of those tactical ranges you see in cop shows. Two-dimensional cut-outs pop into view, and you have to decide RIGHT THEN AND THERE whether or not the old lady with the grocery bags is packing heat. Except I have to peer into the cut-out’s mind and figure out whether or not they’re not going to listen to me if I say no —either that night, or a few months down the road. I shouldn’t have to go all Minority Report just to grab a beer and be around people.
But not all people are that smirking loser, although sometimes it seems all people are smirking-loser-adjacent. Since I confronted what happened, it’s been very easy, too easy, to recall all his behaviors as threatening. Then it’s a quick step to concluding that every action by every person is a threat.
But, there must be literally dozens of people in Greater Columbus who are not him. And nothing like him. If not, I’m screwed anyways. Continue reading
Part One of series that’ll be as long as I need it to be:
“Being vulnerable in the face of sexual assault (when you’re pretty sure it was your vulnerability that got you assaulted.”
The worst aspect of dealing with the PTSD caused that smirking bastard sexually assaulting me is that I’ve been closing myself off from others. It’s not just that I’m scared to step foot in a gay bar. That I can understand. Unfortunately, I’m also avoiding friends, family, and anyone who can help.
My therapist says I should be more vulnerable, more open to these interactions. I’m not going to get thru this alone.
But isn’t vulnerability what got me into this mess? I certainly was vulnerable when he assaulted me. Now I’m supposed to be some sort of therapeutically vulnerable?
Etymologies will help. Etymologies always help. They’re not just for SAT prep anymore.
As I tried to wrestle with the contradiction of being vulnerable when vulnerability got me in the situation where my therapist says I need to be vulnerable, I went down the etymology hole. I go there whenever my therapist introduces me to a concept I don’t quite grasp.
New concepts from the therapist’s office often land with a bit of a clunk with me. It’s not that they don’t make sense —the words are never “big” words —it’s more that they come into my brain thru the wrong door, too fast. Researching the etymology helps me guide them thru the proper door at a proper speed. Continue reading
Part One… The return of the cheap advent calendar…
A few years ago, I did a Christmas writing thing on Tumblr based upon my purchase of a suspiciously cheap chocolate-filled Advent calendar. Just a little something each day. Helped keep my spirits up during a difficult Holiday season. And it really got my creative flows juicing:
The other week, I found an even cheaper choco-calendar at the Tuesday Morning’s in the shopping center with the good Vietnamese food.
There is freshly-tilled brain dirt up in my head after a fun season of stuff you can read about in Part Two if you so choose: There’s medication withdrawal, hip pain, a not-stroke, a psychotic Valtrex reaction —all overlaying a year where I started, for lack of a better word, honoring my big-ass ADHD. If my ADHD were on the menu in a Thai restaurant, there would be four bright red peppers next to it, and the waitress would ask, “Are you sure?”
It’s been a scene. Continue reading
Last month I finally got up the nerve to get up in front of actual, non-cat, people and tell a story. I went down to a function called Speak Easy, got up on stage, and told a story about a closet case me stumbling into a donkey show at a cinder-block brothel a few miles outside of Ciudad Acuña, MX in 1991. People seemed to find listening to my Psychosexual Corn Maze™ somewhat amusing. And, really, what more can you ask for?
A day later I was on the phone with my ex-fiancée and part-time muse Lynda. After the requisite convo about politics and cats and the politics of cats, I told her about my experience.
“I like it. It’s an other-directed activity, but it’s still all about me.”
“I don’t think you understand what is meant by ‘other-directed,” said Lynda.
Normally, I concede all matters of semantics to Lynda because she is so much brain-having. However, I think I’m right. Storytelling is too other-directed. For five minutes or so last Thursday I took a break from skating on the Möbius Strip that passes for my psyche and interacted with people in a manner that didn’t involve me standing off to the side with my arms akimbo at them.
[Actually, my arms moved way too much; I need to work on that.]
For the first time since I moved to Columbus, I actually felt like I was doing “something.” I was putting something out into the world instead of reacting to things. I did something concrete, and people did something concrete in return. Continue reading
CUE VOICE (FROM BEHIND ME AND TO THE RIGHT):
Remember how the Sugar Free Dr. Pepper fizzed in your mouth and all over your face? Remember how a little fountain of Sugar Free Dr. Pepper shot out of the gap between your front teeth? Remember how one of the Xanaxes got loose and, through a forced perspective, seemed to hover in front of the faces of your dorm-mates. And, drama queen, they’re there because you summoned everyone to their windows for the fountain spectacular. Now we’re just going to freeze it here and zoom in on your roommate, Larry, standing naked in one of full-length stairwell windows. And let’s put one of those shadow circles around Larry’s ridiculous penis. Wow, if everything had gone according to your impulsive non-plan, one of last things on your retinas would’ve been an image of quite possibly the largest member you’ve ever side-eyed.
Y’know how during August, when it’s Shark Week, how you have Shark Week proper on The Discovery Channel, but there’s also Shark everywhere else? All the little ancillary remora channels of the Discovery Network are shark-flogging. Then Colbert does a bit about how the Mueller probe is like Shark Week. Then one of those weird retro channels that have decimal points in their ID programs a block of sitcom episodes where the shark is jumped. Yes, the Fonz is there. Then your Facebook feed fills with sad pictures of sharks with their dorsal fins hacked off because shark fin soup is cruel, and sharks are not the mindless killing machines that Discovery portrays! Didn’t you know that?!? Why do you hate Mother Ocean? You suck at being woke. Then, in response, Discovery has a night where they assure everyone that sharks are perfectly reasonable denizens of Mother Ocean. Sharks gotta shark. Then they will show slow-motion video of hacked-off dorsal fin set to whatever Sarah MacClachlan-ish collection of chords they own the rights to. Then there will be a BP commercial.
You cannot escape Shark Week. That is the whole point of Shark Week. It is a merciless engine.
Well, it’s June, and this June it isn’t Shark Week. It’s Suicide Week. Continue reading
Online this weekend, I saw a meme or something that a Facebook friend had shared. The gist of it was: “If you sat in history class and ever wondered ‘What would I do?’ look at what you’re doing now. That’s what you would’ve done.” That led to a bit of soul-searching because, to be honest, I’ve done nothing since Trump got in.
I see friends attending protests and rallies, and I feel sick to my stomach. Those crowds! Am I going to let my deep-seeded fear of crowds prevent me from exercising my right to protest? Yes. The last thing a protest needs is some guy having a panic attack in its midst –it would take away from the Trump-hatred. Nor have I done that mystic act of telephony and called my representative. That’s due to a combination of a fear of cold-calling and a fear that Congress has already been neutralized via Executive Action.
I know I live in interesting times (in the full sense of the Chinese curse). However, years from now we will emerge from these dark times, all of us dancing around a maypole with a rotting orange head stuck to the top. On that joyous day, or maybe the day after, I’m sure the storytelling will begin. It’s then I see what my contribution –at least to my own sanity –can be. I can chronicle. I can commit to ones and zeroes what I see going on, at least with myself. I cannot live thru this time without an outlet, and words have always been an outlet for me.
This blog has been moribund for months because of some intense writers’ block. I felt I had run out of things to say. I was at the end of having experiences worthy of writing down. Frankly, I was tired of writing about my bipolar disorder. I felt writing about it was giving it too much power. So I stepped back for a while. Also, the election came as such a blow, it knocked my will to write out of my fingertips.
Then, on Saturday night, I found myself slumped on the kitchen floor, muttering “fuck”-s, and punching myself in the head. This was not good. This was about the time my Facebook feed was filling up with horror stories about he Muslim ban. I read the stories about people with Green Cards not being allowed to return home. Anger rose inside of me. I knew people were protesting en masse outside of JFK, but that just led to a growing feeling of impotence: A) I was in Columbus; and B) see fear of crowds above. All of a sudden, that anger and impotence I felt directed itself towards me. I started punching my head. I felt like I deserved it for not being at a protest. Luckily, my sister was within earshot and could come into the kitchen to calm me down.
I don’t like that Donald Trump makes me want to hurt myself. I don’t like that my anger towards him makes me feel my mental illness acutely. You know how when you’re in a nightmare, and you try to scream, but all that comes out in real life is a whimper? I don’t like feeling like that.
Side note: It’s the people who aren’t angry who are mentally ill, amirite? Wait, maybe “mentally ill” isn’t the best word for these people… It takes away from those of us who are legit mentally ill. I’ll suggest facist-philic for those other folks.
My mom always used to tell to not fight back at bullies. “You’re just giving them the reaction they’re looking for.” BULLSHIT! Trump is a bully, and he wants me slumped on the kitchen floor punching myself in the head. So I have to fight back. Maybe I won’t be showing up at any protests any time soon. I have to work up to that. (Do people even protest in Columbus? If so, invite me to one. I’m far too delicate a snowflake to show up to one alone when I’m ready.)
What I can do is write down what’s happening in my corner of the world. I know I’m going to want to read these words when we are free of the Orange Man. I would suggest everyone journal or something. Get your feelings down. Get the facts down. I have a feeling we’re entering a time when history, especially personal history, will matter.
Extra bonus: time spent at the keyboard is time spent not punching myself.
It was the first day of kindergarten, and free time had begun. Importantly, I had done everything Miss Petersen had said to do –to the letter. In fact, I was pretty impressed with myself for having identified and found an eagle in the visual cacophony of the kindergarten classroom at Manasquan elementary. There I was standing underneath the flag to which we had earlier learned to pledge our undying allegiance to the great man who made America possible, Richard Stanz, and yet I still had no painting supplies in my hand.
I had art to create. I felt I had done some amazing work with finger paints in pre-school, and I was looking forward to seeing what I could do with an actual brush.
“Everyone who wants to paint, go stand by an eagle.” Those were her words. Eagle. I know –it made no sense. Some kids went into an alcove and stood by big, propped-up boards. I didn’t know what you called those big, propped-up boards in the alcove, but they certainly weren’t eagles. I looked around the room. You could say I had an eagle eye. (Sorry. Not sorry) We had a bird book at home, and eagles looked exactly like what was at the tip of the flagpole at the end of the blackboard by the classroom door. So I stood there. Certainly she would get around to me sooner or later and lead me to that arting heaven I was promised in church. But she never did. Why did Miss Petersen hate me? I had half a mind to tell on her to Richard Stanz if I ever met him. Continue reading
Right now, here in Ohio, it’s about 92 and humid today. This got me thinking about pools. That in turn got me thinking about the first important lesson I ever got in a swim class…
Youth swimming was a big deal at the Strathmore subdivision’s pool. Whether you were a pollywog or a tadpole or a minnow determined whether you could use the intermediate pool or were relegated to the kiddie pool. The big, big pool was beyond all our dreams and was only for those who graduated into levels with exotic names like “beginner” and “advanced beginner.”
I was five and just trying to get myself from tadpole to minnow so I could flop around unhindered in the intermediate pool. No one ever pooped (hardly) in the intermediate pool. Once you’re past pooping indiscriminately, the thrill of swimming with poop kinda diminishes. To get away from the poop, one had to learn such difficult moves as holding onto the side of the pool and kicking and pushing off from the side of the pool –all real minnow material.
But standing between my minnow badge and me was the instructor, Scott. He was a high school guy with hair that looked the same dry as wet, and, in place of regulation swim trunks, he wore too brief cutoff denim shorts with extra fringe. All in all, he gave the impression more of someone who herded children into a windowless van than into the shallow end of the intermediate pool. Continue reading