Remember Going Out for New Year’s Eve?

This year I am staying home for New Year’s Eve.  Not that I would otherwise have gone out.  Going out for New Year’s Eve has always been for me a fun but long and arduous duty, with many minutes standing in cold air, far from food, beverage, or restroom.  But this year I have an excuse.  I can tell people that I really would have liked to run out into the cold, dark air and ring in 2021 with pomp and parade, and that because of the pandemic such hopes were dashed. And they will believe me.

When you stay home for New Year’s Eve, the hardest thing to do, I am finding, is to stay up until midnight.  When I was a child, staying up until midnight was more than a rite of passage – it was a way of conquering nature itself, of saying, “I will greet the new day when I will!”  And then I went through a time where staying up until midnight was nothing, because midnight was still evening.  

And now…now staying up until midnight is like holding a full can of paint at arm’s length.

To pass the time I shall take stock of the year’s doings, of what I have, and of what I’ve left undone. As for what I have, I count a total of five masks – two of them with strings knotted beyond salvation; two more that fell on the floor in a public place; and one that has acquired the odor of many lunches.  I was supposed to have ordered new masks, but the mails have slowed to such a crawl that the post office publishes guidance on making things by hand.

What will I remember most about 2020?  I think the better question is what will I forget?  Never before has a year left its mark like this one.  This was the year that I wiped down frozen pancakes with isopropyl alcohol.  This was the year that I followed arrows pasted on the supermarket floor.  

The most forgettable part of the year to me is the part before mid-March.  Those hazy months of January and February are now like a dream of some forgotten childhood, where life was innocent and free, and I frolicked about the garden of good feelings, and ate sweet fruit straight off the vine.    

The year 2020 was destined to be a year of masks and social distance, of new protocols and the end of many things that we took for granted.  As if the year of perfect vision would like corrective lenses let us see things that we had not seen before, would like an LG flatscreen display our blemishes in Ultra High Def, would like the Sword of Omens give us sight beyond sight.        

And as I pretend to wish that I was out on the town, in the crowds, breathing in their exhalations, I look towards 2021 with a mixture of gratitude, hope, and a firm resolve to stay awake for at least a few more minutes of 2020.

Remember When Planes Flew Somewhere?

Hurry!  Book your flight to nowhere! Yes, airlines, struggling financially from the pandemic’s restriction on travel, have figured out that if the problem with the flying was that the planes went somewhere, then the solution would be to offer flights that landed in the same place of departure. These flights to nowhere sold out in minutes.

Other business are following. For example, lots of people have been longing for the feeling of sitting in a subway car, a crowded subway car at rush hour.  Since the pandemic thrives most in a crowded environment, riding in a crowded subway car is no longer advised.  So for those who miss the crush of human flesh, and the hot breath from the mouths of strangers, all while riding many feet under the earth, a new company has a solution. 

lego figure in lego plane

Taking over an abandoned coal mine, this start up offers groups of no more than four at a time a short ride on a “subway to nowhere.” The employees fill the subway car with mannequins and then smear the mannequins’ faces with various foods so that the mannequins smell like real people. The mannequins are dressed in work clothes and overcoats, and the four human riders are shoved into the car.  Then the car travels thirty feet along the underground track – lights flickering on and off of course – and then stops in a real life simulation of a subway stopping for “track problems” that are announced over a grainy loudspeaker.  Business has been so good, they say, that the company has just opened a new attraction – the crowded elevator – using similar technology.   

Another activity that has been completely eliminated is shaking hands.  So a small start-up has started offering opportunities to come in and shakes hands with people in an entirely Covid-safe environment.  You arrive in a completely sanitized and ventilated chamber where you put on a spacesuit and then go into the “hand shaking” chamber where you put your be-suited arm through an arm hole where you shake a real human hand (likewise be-suited in space gear) for as long and as frequently as your pre-paid slot allows.  

And finally, for those who miss the feeling of being among thousands of people at a live event, like a rock concert or Disney on Ice, there is a company that now offers the opportunity to feel like you are at a crowded event.  The company rented out a motel, that, having had a lighter summer than usual, was available for the leasing. You come to their center and they have you go through a turnstile and then you are guided through a “self security” check where you are directed by loudspeaker to pat yourself down for weapons and glass bottles.  Then you pass through a small snack stand where you pay $15 for a hot dog and $18 for a soda sourced from the purest stream in the Himalayas.

You are then directed into the “concert hall” which is really just a chamber of cardboard cutouts of people and then mirrors upon mirrors to create the impression of thousands of bodies stretching out in all directions.  The lights are turned off, and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling makes the light dance all over so that the customer experiences an authentic laser show.  

The performance itself is placed on a small screen.  To simulate the feeling of being seated far away from the stage, the screen is very small.  For an extra charge you can zoom in to feel like you are closer, and staff pushes the cardboard cutouts closer to you so that you feel it getting more crowded.

Of course, with the recent uptick in virus cases, even the in-person fake concert business was compelled to go completely online. I can say from personal experience that although the virtual fake concert is nothing like being at a real in-person fake concert, in these times you simply must learn to adjust your expectations.  

Wow – today is exactly 10 years since I started this blog with a post about Beavis and Butthead. I remember the day like it was yesterday. Very glad to still be doing it. Thank you so much everyone for reading. I hope it’s been worth it! – MK

Remember Your First Zoom Meeting?

When the coronavirus pandemic hit and everything was closed, and everyone sent home and ordered to stay away from each other, I thought to myself, “Well, at least I won’t have to sit through meetings for a while.”  I was wrong.  The video conferencing service that goes by the name of Zoom was there to make sure that even a pandemic would not stop our sacred ritual of wasting each other’s time with meetings.  

What is innovative about Zoom is that you waste time not only with the meeting itself, but in joining the meeting as well.  I learned this on my very first Zoom conference when I spent a half-hour trying to find the link to the meeting, sifting through daily news digests (“Batman Spotted Not Wearing a Mask”) and take-out coupons (“Fight COVID-19 with our baby back ribs!”).

I was sitting in my living room, and as I was just about to join the meeting, I noticed that behind me the kids toys were strewn all about the room.  Having the Shimmer and Shine Palace bedecked with Peppa Pig figurines and piles of Disney princess gowns and magic markers without caps behind me would not look very professional, so I spent several minutes selecting a more suitable background.  

After trying out several different backgrounds to find the one that best showed off my unique mixture of professionalism and panache, I selected a photo of the outer Solar System, and with a few clicks I was snuggled in between Jupiter and Saturn.  Only then did I feel comfortable joining the meeting.  All of my co-workers appeared on my laptop screen like talking heads on a cable news program.  A little rectangle labeled with my name appeared too, but I was not in it.   “We can’t see you, Mark,” someone said.  I employed my usual method of dealing with computer issues and clicked lots of buttons at random while crossing my fingers, and finally my own talking head appeared…without my groovy space background. 

Something must have malfunctioned, and instead of the two ruling planets, my background was the living room with the kids’ toys all about: the Shimmer and Shine Magical Light-Up Genie Palace, bedecked with a melting-pot of Calico Critters and figurines from Peppa Pig and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and sparkling Disney princess gowns all over the floor, as if there had been a fire sale at JCPenney, and magic markers without caps, and a tower of Legos that was in violation of several building codes, and about seven thousand puzzle pieces blanketing the coffee table and couch, no two pieces interlocked properly.  Even in their small rectangles I could see my co-workers stifling laughs.  

I started to explain that this was obviously some kind of malware designed to make good hard-working people such as myself look like they have let their kids leave their toys all over the house.  “We can see you, Mark,” someone said with a stifled laugh, “but we can’t hear you.”  There was more laughing, not so stifled. I played with the settings some more, and discovered that I needed to set up a microphone. 

Why didn’t anyone tell me I needed a microphone?  Where was I going to get a microphone?  I searched on Amazon and found one – an Amazon Prime “bestseller” with a 4.8 rating and free returns – but the expected delivery date was in November and this meeting was scheduled to last no more than an hour.

I started to write out my words on paper so that I could hold them up to the camera, kind of like a silent film.  I grabbed the closest writing implement — a glitter-infused red magic marker with a heart-shaped tip — but, alas, it was out of ink.  As was the blue, green, orange, and purple.  Markers, markers everywhere, and not a drop of ink!  

I needed to find a microphone.  They had gone ahead and started the meeting “while Mark sorts out his technical issues.” This was quite frustrating to me since I have always liked offering unhelpful advice on other people’s projects.  I needed to find a microphone!

And then I saw it, in a corner of the room.  The Disney Princess Bluetooth Portable MP3 Karaoke Machine Player.  A white plastic console decorated with a composite of female leads from several Disney animated features of recent vintage, and, best of all, a corded microphone.  I grabbed the microphone like a drowning man grabs a life preserver, and discovered to my glee that the microphone used a USB connection.

I plugged the microphone into my laptop and began to update everyone on the projects that I hadn’t really been working on during the lock down.  But my boss interrupted me.

“Mark, I don’t understand…are you singing…is that a song from Moana?”

I stopped and realized that I had indeed been singing a song from Moana.  Checking the microphone, I saw some fine print that read “Terms of Use: Only Disney songs may be sung on this device.” I shrugged my shoulders, finished the song, and decided that maybe meetings over Zoom weren’t such a waste of time after all.

Remember When You Didn’t Have to Sanitize Your Cheerios?

My wife and I had been planning the trip for weeks.  The night before the big day, we reviewed the procedure.  “While you are out, I’ll mark off the loading area on the floor with painter’s tape,” I said.  “This is where we put the groceries that have not been sanitized yet.”  

photo of isopropyl alcohol in a cereal bowl

“Okay,” my wife said.  “But are you sure this is all necessary?”

“Yes,” I said. “I read an article about it. The experts say you need a marked-off contamination zone. They also said you could put the tape on the counter if you prefer.”

“No, that’s all right,” she said.  “The floor is fine.” 

“Are you sure you don’t want me to go instead?” I asked, reviewing the list again.

“Um, sure, you can go, if you want.  But do you know where to find everything in the store?  Like, do you know where to find the broccoli?”

“Broccoli’s back on the list?”  I started flipping through the pages. “I thought it was deleted from an earlier draft.”  I looked up, but she had already gone to bed.

In the morning, just after my wife left for the supermarket, the kids came downstairs demanding frozen pancakes.  I informed them that we ran out four days ago.  They demanded cereal.  Alas, I replied, no milk.  Bananas?  Oatmeal?  Bread?  All out, I reported.  

While they breakfasted on Triscuits and hummus, I put down blue painter’s tape in the shape of a trapezoid by the door and unlocked the Lysol spray from its bicycle chain by the sink.  I then opened the fireproof safe, moved aside the birth certificates and passports, and took out the roll of paper towels.  

I don’t know how long I was waiting.  Time had started to take on an elastic quality.  When at last we heard the garage door opening, the kids ran to the door, screaming about frozen pancakes.  With a swift, practiced move I handed each child a fully-charged iPad, and thereby neutralized the primary threat to grocery sanitization.  

As my wife brought in the bags, I went to work.  I sprayed each plastic container of perishables with Lysol, covering the entire surface as the experts had directed.  “You know that’s all the Lysol we have,” my wife said, and while she got more bags from the car, I got down on the floor to sop up the precious drops that had fallen.

The next step was to open each box of cereal, and dump out the sealed plastic bag directly into a mixing bowl.  As I attempted this method, a corner of the cardboard flap graced the edge of the bag as it fell into the bowl.  Now both bag and bowl were contaminated.  I put the box down on the counter while I got the Lysol spray, when I remembered that the box was still contaminated, and now I would have to sanitize both the box and the counter.  Did we have enough Lysol for that?

But just then there were some eggs that needed taking.  I took the eggs and paused. Was I supposed to wipe down the carton?  Or wash each egg with soap?  I searched on YouTube for that video where the epidemiologist showed you how to sanitize groceries, but it was so hard to type with one hand, especially after I saw my wife holding out a produce bag with broccoli inside.

I grabbed the colander – I had memorized its location the night before – and held it under the bag as she dumped out the broccoli.  Just then, a news alert from my phone distracted me, and I let the colander drift a few inches to the side.  The broccoli landed on the floor, right inside the taped-off contamination zone.  I read the breaking news on my phone, while my wife questioned my commitment to vegetables.

“It’s all right,” I said.  “The experts now say that we don’t have to sanitize our groceries at all.”