Goodbye June

Aaaannd another month’s gone by.  Somehow you’d think time would pass more slowly in lockdown, but if anything it almost seems to have sped up.  The only difference is now it’s harder to keep track of what the day and date is, not that it was ever one of my stronger skills.

There have been a few changes, anyway.  The country turned upside down with protests over police violence and Richmond is down a few statues with more likely on the way out.  Like most folks, I’m on board with the peaceful protests, but not with the violence and vandalism that’s too often gone with it.  Much of the latter seems to be the work of individuals or groups that have nothing to do with Black Lives Matter or any other legitimate movement; they’re just hooligans and anarchists who’ve latched onto an excuse to wage destruction under the smoke screen of the protests.  As far as Richmond’s Confederate-era statues are concerned, I believe they were on the way out, anyway, and I won’t miss them.  But removing them this way only prevents any opportunity at closure or resolution in the community, slow as that process was moving.  I don’t know how long it would have taken to get us to the point where they could have been removed with something close to community consensus, but done this way, it’ll just be another point of contention for those folks who valued them; they’ll always be something that was “taken away,” something else to resent and hold a grudge about for another generation.  La plus ça change.

Last week, I went back to campus to set up for a special event, and had halfway intended to drive past the statues or their former sites to see things for myself, but by the time I was done setting up, I was just ready to go home.  Double-masked as I was, in 90 degree heat, it was all I could do to stay vertical after pushing a cart for four blocks. Campus was eerily empty, the office deserted.  I saw a few people walking around, about half of them with masks, but even those with masks mostly kept them hanging loosely around their necks and only raised them to their face if they felt they were getting too close to someone.  Of course touching a mask all the time is almost as bad as not wearing it at all.  In general, Virginia’s done a lousy job of complying with, first, the stay at home orders and now, wearing masks.  Our numbers aren’t (supposedly) as bad as some other states, but as there are apparently no rules or consistent standards for how to compile numbers, not much interest in giving tests even to people with symptoms, and all sorts of hanky-panky going on with counting, it’s anyone’s guess exactly what shape we’re in.

Tomorrow, VCU begins reopening in phases, with employees returning in gradually increasing numbers until the start of the Fall semester.  The semester itself will start a few days early, barrel along with no fall break and end at Thanksgiving.  My team and I will continue on with telework unless we have to come in for video productions, which hopefully we can limit to one-man jobs, and take turns.

Out of an abundance of caution, and to test how feasible it would be if we had to do a real quarantine, I stayed in the garage for four days after my VCU visit.  I set up the inflatable mattress for a bed, borrowed Jason’s zero-gravity chair to relax in and hooked up the laptop to work (the garage is right under the wireless router, anyway).  I have to say it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant experience.  Laura cooked me hot meals and left them on the porch for “contact-less pickup” and I got out of household chores.  We bought a shower tent and I set it up in the backyard and used it a couple times.  It worked pretty well, and should be useful on camping trips.  After spending over 3 months in lockdown with the same 4 people — even if they are my favorite 4 people — it was nice to have some alone time, although going from limited socializing to none at all was a bit daunting.  I feel for those folks who live entirely alone in these times.

Anyway, we’ll see what July brings.  It’s not very appealing to imagine spending the rest of 2020 on a short leash, but at the moment it’s still hard to imagine traveling any real distance in the next few months, or doing anything once we got there.  It’s equally hard to imagine going to a movie theater, or a restaurant, or church.  Maybe things will start looking up and we’ll change our minds, but it’s not looking promising at the moment.  Too many people seem to be equating “eased restrictions” with “okay to go back to normal,” and the numbers are already showing the folly of that.

Well, this has to count as one my more depressing entries in a while, but I want to get in at least one post per month.  I’ll make the next break shorter and try to post something more upbeat next tme.

 

 

Another Month, Another Post

Figured maybe I should check in again as it’s been over a month. You’d think with all this “down time” I’d have more time to write blog posts, but if anything I’m as busy as ever, maybe more so. Working from home means not having clear boundaries of when you’re “on” and “off”, so I find myself doing job-related tasks at all hours, and answering e-mails well into the night, when before I’d have put them off until I got to the office.

The good news is that, so far, I still have a job. VCU is dancing around the idea of furloughs, but at this point nothing’s decided yet. This is good as a lot of other universities are having a much harder time of it. Still plenty of time for things to get worse, though, so I won’t jinx it, but as I told Grace the other day, we have it better than a lot of folks. We’re in a house, not an apartment, so we’re able to maintain a safe distance from other folks. We have the five of us, so no one’s miserably lonely. We all get along with each other, so there’s none of the violence or other ugliness we’re hearing about in some households. And for now at least we’re set on food. with plenty of experience at making our own meals, unlike a lot of friends who before this were eating out several times a week and “cooking” frozen dinners if anything.

I did get around to one half-forgotten “to-do” item, exhuming some of my old articles from the “Mr Kiss-Kiss Bang-Bang” James Bond fan site and giving them a new home here on the blog. Of course in the process I nearly broke the whole blog because I was so rusty at such things. Long story, but happy ending, so I’ll spare you.

I’m also coming along with the guitar, which is astonishing given how many failed attempts I’ve had at learning it in the last 25 years. Laura pointed me to a deal at Fender Play, where I got 3 months of free lessons, and it’s worked for me where several books and DVD courses couldn’t. I think what turned the tide was the freedom to pick up the instrument at all hours of the day, where before I was always either at work or committed to some weekend thing or other, and at night I didn’t want to make noise. Having time and access has been a big help. I’m still somewhere on the upper side of “absolute beginner” but at least I’ve learned some chords and the ability to change from one to the next (if awkwardly), plus a bit about musical notation and theory. So if nothing else I’ll come out of this isolation thing with a new skill. Yay.

The university’s hoping to start phasing the campus back into operation as we near August. It’s dependent on a lot of things, and not helped by Virginia’s dismal failure to get this situation under control. Less than 30% of Virginians stayed home as instructed, and most of them aren’t wearing masks when they do go out (and they tend to travel out of their home county, so it’s not like it’s a run to the grocery store). Not enough people are being tested, not even if they have symptoms and ask for it, so even though we know the infection rate’s going up, we really have no idea by how much. Now Virginia Beach has opened back up, so folks are flocking here from New York and other COVID hot spots. What could go wrong?

Anyway, we’re looking forward to a quiet Memorial Day weekend, with some yard projects on the schedule and whatever else appeals. And we’ll probably spend a few more hours at that great new American Pastime, making masks.

“Our asylums are full of people who think they’re Napoleon…”

For no particular reason, I started wondering today about all those portraits of historical figures standing around with their hands thrust into their vests or jackets.  It’s an affectation most often associated with Napoleon Bonaparte, but you see it everywhere in old paintings.

napoleon

So I looked it up and, at least according to Wikipedia, it has a name: “Hand in Waistcoat.”  Supposedly, the gesture goes back to ancient Greece, where Aeschines declared that speaking with one’s arm outside one’s toga was bad manners.  He consequently delivered his orations with his hand inside his toga, and it caught on.  The pose made its way into some classical statuary and when the 18th century rolled around, it became a sort of “shorthand” for artists trying to suggest that their subjects were statesmanlike and well-bred in the Classical tradition.  Or something.  After a while it got to be so ingrained that it even carried over into photography, which is what got me started thinking today; I saw a photo of Generals Sherman and McClellan striking the pose in a Civil War-era photograph.

generals_w_lincoln

I guess it’s all a matter of perception.  Personally, I think it looks kind of rude: what sort of personal business is that person taking care of with their hidden hand?  Do they have eczema or psoriasis? Why would you want to suggest that the statesman in your image has something to hide?  But then, different cultures and generations look at things in different ways. Take for example table manners:  here in the States, it’s generally considered rude to rest your arms on the table at dinner, but in other cultures it’s far worse to keep them out of sight in your lap.  Who knows what’s going on down there?

As a kid, I always assumed one of two things was going on in those “hands in waistcoat” portraits: (1) the guy in the picture had a deformed hand and was self-conscious about it or (2) the artist was no good at drawing hands, so he cheated.  Of course both perceptions were colored by the fact that I was a wannabe artist myself; many of the faces I drew ended up with an improvised mustache or beard when things started going south (if it was a man’s face, I might even get away with it).  For me, it was always about hiding mistakes.  But okay, thanks to the internet, now I know there was a legitimate reason for the hidden hand, and the subject probably actually stood that way for the artist.

Posterstalin

Then again, we are talking about Wikipedia, so who knows? As Michael Scott of “The Office” says, Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.” I decided maybe it would be best to keep digging for some kind of corroboration.

So I looked around and found numerous sites that “reveal” the “truth” behind the gesture.  According to these sources, the hidden hand signifies membership in the Freemasons, the ancient and mysterious fraternity that by virtue of (1) having some members who played important roles in world events (and shhh! many others that didn’t) and (2) keeping many of its ceremonies and traditions secret, must therefore of course be EvilOne site I found at least tried to keep its “exposé” more or less academic in nature, but it still turns on a shaky hypothesis: “Considering the great importance of this gesture in Masonic rituals and the fact that all of the elite were either part of Freemasonry or knew of it, it is simply impossible that the recurrence of this sign could be the result of a coincidence.”   Notice the inclusion of the phrase “…or knew of it.”  So just hearing about Freemasonry made you as “bad” as a member.  Imagine a similar line of logic in court:

Prosecutor: “Sir, have you ever beaten your wife?

Defendant: “No, I have not.”

Prosecutor: “Have you ever heard of men beating their wives?”

Defendant: “Yes, I have.”

Prosecutor: “Your honor, let the record show the defendant admits he is no stranger to wife-beating!”

The other sites that delved into the “secret” meaning of the “hidden hand” felt distinctly more on the fringe of the Web, veering deeply into “tinfoil hat” territory with claims that it not only signifies membership in the Freemasons (aka “The Illuminati”), but that said membership constitutes allegiance to Satan, which explains how those folks got powerful enough to have their portraits done in the first place.  These sites go further by including photos of even modern-day celebrities caught with “hidden hands” that prove their own Satanic connections: Tom Hanks is spotted cradling one hand under the opposite armpit, Obama is caught tucking a folded speech into the breast pocket of his coat and so on.  Basically anyone photographed putting away a pen, checkbook or pair of glasses, tucking their tie back in place or scratching an itch is a servant of Satan, assuming their politics don’t align with the webmaster’s.  I think I’ll forgo providing those links, but they aren’t hard to find if you feel like living in a Dan Brown novel, or Fox Mulder’s basement office.

At this point I’m sorry I even asked, since thinking too long about hidden hands apparently paves the road to madness.  Now we’re right up there in “Paul is Dead” territory in terms of Diversions for People with Too Much Time To Kill.  In fact rather appropriately, I came across a photo of McCartney himself with “hand in waistcoat,” this time on a website claiming the gesture is a signal between intelligence agents (“spooks”), which of course would include McCartney’s post-“death” double, right?

mccartney-hand

Anyway, I’m not sure I know a lot more now than when I started, at least about the true origins of the hand-in-waistcoat pose.  I have learned something about the internet, I guess, but it’s nothing new (or good).  In the end, I’m writing off the “hand in waistcoat” as just another goofy fad, which after all is one thing society is really good at.  If you think about it, the practice of smiling for the camera is just as random and nonsensical (and started only after photography had been around for a long time).  As idiotic traditions go, it’s certainly not as bad as “throwing up signs,” “planking,” clumsy DIY Photoshopping to reduce waistlines or “selfies” in general (let alone taking photos of your food!).

One can only imagine what future historians will make of “duck lips.”

monaduck

 

Wait, Facebook is Evil?

From the “Well, Duh…” department comes the shocking news that Facebook is in the business of selling information about their users to anyone and everyone willing to pay for it.  Somehow an awful lot of folks seem not to have realized that with Facebook, they’re not the customers, they’re the product.  Whatever.

I bailed on Facebook back in December of 2013 after enduring nearly two years of shouting wars between theists and atheists and Conservatives and Liberals, pleas for Farmville resources, invitations to Candy Crush tournaments, passive aggressive rants (“I hate it when people act one way to your face and another way behind your back”) and the resulting, pathetic pandering from sychopantic “friends” (“I hope you’re not mad at something *I* did!”), clever daily witticisms obviously borrowed from a quote generator, selfies designed to “prove” how much more wonderful and happy everyone’s life is than yours, brow-beating missives like “if you really love America/freedom/justice/God, you’ll copy this post to your wall, but sadly 90% of recipients won’t”, supposedly cute videos of cats and brats, friend requests from people I either didn’t know or had spent years trying to forget, and desperate pleas from individuals and business to “Like me, like me like me.”  In short, it wasn’t my thing.

This was mercifully well before the last presidential election, so at least I didn’t have to put up with all the “fake news,” but that didn’t stop me from hearing about it from friends and family still on board.  That’s a whole other level of evil, as far as I’m concerned; the insidious weaving of a false sense of “community” wherein all manner of patently false information can be passed off as trustworthy and reliable, because “the media” won’t tell you the truth, but of course your “friends” will.

But with Facebook, who needs real news?  With 1000 virtual “friends”, who needs any real ones?  With an on-line life that’s all smiling selfies, who needs a real life that can be boring, or frustrating, or sad?

I made it a point to vanish quietly off of Facebook, with no fanfare or goodbyes.  The first time anyone noticed was months later, when Laura’s sisters asked, “Where’s David’s page?  I want to send him a birthday greeting.”  Because who sends real cards or letters any more?  No wonder the last Hallmark card I saw cost $8 (!!!).  They probably sell about 10% of what they used to.

By bailing before the election, I also avoided the spectacle of users un-friending each other over their politics.  I know people who were unfriended not only because of who they supported, but in some cases because despite being for the “right” candidate themselves, they’d failed some test of purity by not cutting ties to all their friends on the other side.  Honestly, if I’d wanted to hang out with a lot of cliquish, thin-skinned narcissists, I’d have found a way to stay in high school.

Anyway, now the bloom is off the rose on this online paradise with the “revelation” that Facebook doesn’t give a hoot about  you or your friends except insofar as you can make them a buck.  Experts are divided over what that’ll mean for the company; is Facebook in trouble?  Are its days numbered?  Frankly, I doubt it.  Like cigarettes or liquor or opioids, you can hate what you’re addicted to, but you’re still addicted.  Facebook isn’t going anywhere, and when the furor dies down, folks will still be where they are today: living fake lives to impress fake friends and reading fake news, because it’s easier than facing reality.  After all, we live in a country where even the President would rather spend all hours of the day and night venting his spleen on social media than slogging through the boring, downer details of a job like…I don’t know…Leader of the Free World?

But that’s another app, right?  One I never even tried.  I leave Twitter to the Twits.

This Old Man Rant brought to you by the specter of an impending birthday.  Keep your frisbee off my lawn.

 

A Post About A Post

Recently, as I was walking across campus to my car, I found myself fascinated with a telephone pole I’d passed hundreds of times without giving a second glance.  It stayed in my thoughts on the drive home, so the next day on the walk to the office, I stopped to take a picture.

 

pole

 

What struck me was the thought that there’s a whole generation of students on campus who, if they stop to look at this pole at all, probably have no idea why it’s densely covered with rusty old staples.  Of course, back when I was a student here, in the primordial past of the early 80s, the pole was covered with handbills, broadsheets and assorted missives from about two feet off the ground up to the 7-foot mark, all of them fastened on with those staples.  You can see where some folks finally gave up on trying to drive in staples on top of staples on top of staples, and resorted to hammering their messages up with nails.  Located in a high traffic area between lecture halls, this was a popular pole.

I remember tons of papers plastered on poles at every corner of campus, ever changing and yet always pretty much the same.  “Come to the big party,” they said. “Don’t miss this awesome band.” “Buy my car — cheap!”, “Join our club.” “Vote for me.” “Roommate needed.”  “Have you seen my dog?” “Would you like a puppy?” “Used textbooks for sale.” And on and on.  I remember homemade ads with amateurish doodles and murky black and white photos, duplicated at corner print shops on paper that came in colors like “canary yellow”, then tucked under someone’s arm in a thick stack, with a fully loaded stapler in one hand to engage in the 20th century version of “self-publishing.”

One flyer you could always count on was the one that read, “Let me type your term paper. ”  Back then, typing was a relatively rare skill, one you could use to drum up a few extra bucks.  In my Freshman year, I had to take a typing test before I could sign up for Journalism classes; if I’d failed, I’d have had to pay for a Typing class.  Today, there’s no way anyone could show up at college without typing skills; kids are texting before they’re out of diapers.

At the bottom of the homemade “typing” ad would be a carefully scissored fringe of  “contact info” tags to tear off and take with you until you could get to someplace with a phone.  I mean, it’s not like your phone cord could stretch all the way out to the sidewalk, right?

This set me to thinking about all the things that were once so ubiquitous, but somehow at some point just faded away entirely, things I never paid much attention to until I noticed they were gone. Typewriters, for one.  Pay phones.  Rotary dials.  Fax machines. Fotomats. Is Kinkos still around?  So many things that filled a need no one has any more. Nowadays you can post your announcement to the Web instantly and reach more people than you would have with a thousand broadsheets stapled to a thousand poles.  Every club, band, school, neighborhood, hobby or perversion is represented on Facebook or Twitter or Craigslist.  You can offer up your old couch at 1PM and have it gone by 1:30.  Progress, right?  Why look back?

My problem is I’ve always been fascinated by ephemera, all that printed matter tied to a specific moment in time, briefly accessible or even ubiquitous, then consumed, discarded and forgotten: comic books, pulp magazines, newspapers, event posters, and the like.  These homemade handbills would be the ultimate example of that: briefly relevant (to someone, anyway) but soon just an outdated, fading, rain-sodden eyesore left fastened to a pole.  Now there’s just the staples left, but every one of those staples held a story, once.  Did someone decide to go that concert and end up meeting the love of their life? What happened to the previous roommate, anyway? Did that search for the lost dog end in relief or sorrow?  And what about the people who pounded in those staples; students before and after me?  What twists did their lives take after that moment at the pole? Did they graduate or drop out?  Are they alive or dead?

While I was standing there, pondering the mysteries of these phantoms and taking a picture of a cluttered-up telephone pole with my cell phone, my boss walked up behind me and said something that put it all into perspective.

“Shouldn’t you be at work?”