Faith In Quarantine

(Above: Pope Francis prays in an empty St Peter’s Square during lockdown)

The coronavirus pandemic is hitting us in the middle of one of the most important stretches of the calendar for religion. Today is Palm Sunday for Christians, coming up is Passover for Jews and then back to the Christians for Easter. Ramadan is on the horizon for Muslims (a month long observance possibly aided by life in quarantine). It is, of course, the Christians who are causing a ruckus in this country – an evangelical priest was arrested for continuing to hold megachurch services in the face of lockdown orders, Donald Trump has become fixated with getting people into church on Easter, and on Twitter I’ve seen more than one right wing extremist bemoan the fact that churches will be empty on Palm Sunday (ie one of the holidays when lax ass Christians who act holier than thou online actually make it to worship). 

There have been other stories, deeply disturbing ones, from across the globe. Russian congregants saying they cannot get sick in church. A woman interviewed saying the blood of Christ makes her immune to the virus. Video of televangelists SPITTING on the coronavirus and demanding its submission to the will of the Lord. In 14 US states religious services are exempted from lockdown restrictions. This, we are told, both by the faithful and those who mock them, is what faith looks like. But to me it looks nothing like faith. It looks like a middle finger directly aimed at God.

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We Are Not A Virus

It is a beautiful day in Los Angeles. Walking my dog this morning I was struck by the incredible clarity of the air, the deep blueness of the smogless sky, the smell of the trees and the singing of the birds. It was 9AM and there was no traffic, just the occasional jogger coming down the sidewalk, respectfully veering into the street to give me and my little buddy, Oliver Reed, the required six feet of social distancing. The mountains, so often occluded by haze, are clear in the distance, and I can see white snow dusting the peaks. 

Gone are the pollution and the rumble of cars, the airborne streams of cigarette and weed smoke, the booming sound systems passing by and giving today’s pop hits a disconcerting Doppler effect. The manic state of the world is not reflected in the streets. 

This isn’t a new observation. Almost immediately after over a billion of Earth’s inhabitants went into shelter in place mode people began noting that the air was clearing, that noise pollution was diminishing. Seismologists have noted that the background rumble of daily life picked up on their seismometers has died down, and most of what they hear is the noise of the planet itself.

With this observation has come a little meme, based on a bit from The Matrix. Agent Smith, disgusted by his time in the Matrix, has captured Morpheus and gives him a villain speech about how fundamentally worthless humanity is.

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Surrendering To Baking

I’ve been doing some baking here, in the middle of the disaster. 

The baking comes on the heels of me beginning to learn how to cook. My childhood was not a food-friendly one; my mother ate a lot of junk food (and was thin as a rail), didn’t cook very much, and what she did cook was low effort stuff. She was a single mom, so that was part of it, but I also think she wasn’t a good eater – she’d hole up in her bedroom with a two liter of Pepsi, packs of Viceroys and a bag of pretzels and that would do it for her. She probably never learned to eat properly either. 

On my Italian side there was a lot of food, all of it rich and starchy, and lots of sweets. None of it healthy, nothing green. My grandmother would make enough food to feed an army, and serve enough pastries and cookies to also give them diabetes. 

For most of my life I didn’t cook. I could boil water, and every now and again I made stabs at learning to cook, but it never stuck. Cooking is more than the act of cooking – it’s the process of buying food, having food, preparing food, cleaning up. I’m lazy, and I want it quickly. Give me delivery, or give me something I can throw in the microwave. There’s a new generation of Lean Cuisine frozen meals where you don’t even have to take the plastic wrapping off – this is the dream. Star Trek’s food replicators have always been the technology I want the most. 

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The Needs Of The Many In The Age Of Coronavirus

Spock: “It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…” 

Kirk: “The needs of the few…” 

Spock: “Or the one.” 

That’s the reasoning that Captain Spock has as he leaves the bridge of the Enterprise during the Battle of the Mutara Nebula, as the crippled ship struggles to escape before the Genesis Device, activated by Khan, threatens to wipe them all out. He heads down to engineering and enters a compartment flooded with deadly radiation in order to manually make the repairs necessary so the ship can warp away with death nipping at its nacelles. 

I was eight years old when Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out in June of 1982. I saw it in theaters and I wept when Spock died. I cried the whole way home in the car. I had been a Star Trek fan since before I could talk, zooming around the living room in my little wheeled scooter when the opening credits played on WPIX Channel 11. I have no memory of a time before me knowing about Star Trek, about Captain Kirk, Mister Spock. 

Spock’s reasoning has deeply impacted me. I’ve not led a blameless life, and I’ve failed at keeping my own ideals, but again and again my moral compass has eventually found its way to this true north – that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Even as Western culture, especially American culture, has taught me to look out for myself, even when I’ve fallen into that trap and thought “Fuck that guy, I gotta get mine,” I always come back – eventually, painfully – to this belief. 

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Thoughts On Learning Rush Limbaugh Has Cancer

“I hope it fucking hurts as he dies.”

That response to the news that Rush Limbaugh has ‘advanced lung cancer’ isn’t all that crazy. Rush has been instrumental in creating a horrifying and fascist atmosphere in the United States of America. Whether he led the charge or was just an opportunist who figured out how to make money stoking the flames doesn’t matter – you can draw a straight line from Limbaugh’s show to the increasingly dictatorial toddler in the White House. It’s foolish to blame individuals for the sweep of history but… we can kinda lay some of the blame for our current situation at Limbaugh’s feet. 

It’s human to have a reaction like that. We have enemies, rivals, adversaries, and we want them destroyed. It’s the animal in us, the pack beast that jockeyed for position. You think cancel culture is bad, you should see what chimps do to each other when one of them falls from grace. But the point of being human, I believe, is to transcend whenever possible those most animal urges, the things that evolution left sitting in our brains like time-delayed dirty bombs. The things that make us selfish and cruel, because being selfish and cruel might have at one time been useful in order to pass our genes on to the next generation. 

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THE GOOD PLACE Invents Buddhism

This contains spoilers for the latest episodes of The Good Place.

Everybody on The Good Place is dead. This is not the spoiler promised above – rather it’s the very premise of the show. Four people wake up in a waiting room where they are informed they’re dead and they’ve made it to The Good Place. But very quickly it becomes clear that none of them actually belong there, and over the course of the first season they try to avoid being found out and sent to The Bad Place. Then came the first season twist: they were already in The Bad Place. This had all been a part of their eternal punishment, a new spin on damnation.

The next season was an endless series of reboots, with The Bad Place trying to make them forget they were in The Bad Place, and after that they tried to escape. In the process they discovered that the afterlife works on a point system, but that the system is impossibly flawed. The complexity of moral life in the modern world – when you buy a turnip you’re possibly enriching a truly evil corporation that is ruining the lives of millions – has rendered the system moot. Nobody goes to the real Good Place anymore. Nobody at all. 

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Witnessing The Unclaimed Dead

We stood, a hundred or so of us, jammed under a complex of blue tents in a thunderous downpour. This was real rain, not just LA rain, a driving rain that had turned the grass of the cemetery grounds into a sucking puddle of mud. 

At the center of the crowd, flanked by an underpowered speaker, was a small gathering of religious figures, clustered around a freshly dug grave. Inside the grave were the cremains of 1,457 people who had died in LA County in 2016 and remained unclaimed. The county held on to their mortal remains for three and, when no one was found or came forward to accept the ashes, they were buried in this small green space. We were all gathered there to put these people – our neighbors – to rest. 

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What THE EXORCIST Taught Me About The Trump Administration

I don’t believe in Hell anymore.

Supposedly I didn’t believe in it for decades; I’ve been an atheist and an agnostic since I was a teenager, so you’d think there would be no room for Hell in that worldview. But when you’re raised Catholic – even as lightly Catholic as I was – Hell and Satan are overwhelming concepts that become the cornerstones of your cosmology. It wasn’t that I intellectually believed in Hell but rather that I had an emotional fear about what might happen after I die. 

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Somebody Stole My Tips

I work at a drive-thru coffee shop, a national chain. I would say it’s a living, but it isn’t, since I just make minimum wage, but that’s supplemented some by the tips (and honestly the benefits are the real reason to work there). I used to work at a cafe and the tips there were good, but the drive thru tips sort of stink. I’m not sure why – I think some of it is that the speed of drive thru makes the kinds of customer connections that lead to tips hard to create, and because people aren’t trained to tip at other drive thru establishments – but since I started working at drive thru my weekly tips have really nose dived. 

The way it works at my coffee shop is that everybody shares tips, and all the tips of the week are pooled and parceled out by hours; ie they count all the tips, divide that amount by the number of hours worked total, and that gives an hourly tip rate. Then you get that rate times your worked hours; ie, if the tips are worth $1 an hour and you worked 20 hours, you get 20 bucks. 

It’s not a lot, but it’s spending money. I saved up about six months worth of tips and used it to finance a trip to Las Vegas for the big Star Trek convention this summer, and it was a delight. Sometimes I use the tip money to buy food, or to get a record. It’s a small sum that feels extra and brightens the week.

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“Why, She Wouldn’t Even Harm A Fly”

This week I killed a cockroach and it made me cry.

First things first: I don’t know whether the fact there was a roach in my kitchen sink is a referendum on my housekeeping or just related to the fact that I live in an old apartment building on the first floor with windows facing out to the street, where I often see big-ass roaches on the sidewalk at night while walking my dog. Probably six of one, half a dozen of the other. 

Second, this wasn’t some regular little roach. This was like a three or four inch guy, a roach so big he was transcending insect and approaching being an animal. There’s a different relationship between killing a bug that is but a speck and killing a bug who looks like he could pick up one of my forks.

Third, a few years back I took Buddhist vows (the Five Precepts) that included the vow to refrain from harming living things. To be fair I regularly break this vow; while I have cut beef and pork from my diet, and while my growing lactose intolerance makes me opt for dairy substitutes more often, I still devour foul and fish. What’s more, my general lifestyle cannot be claimed cruelty-free because I do not pay attention to the origins of my clothes and stuff. 

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