The New Normal

At the grocery store this morning, I was pleased to see the ratio of masked to unmasked individuals was about 10 to 1. It’s been running 50/50 the past few weeks, up from 1 in 10 a month ago. This is a fashion change I never imagined; I’m surprised at how normal it feels.

Of course there are soreheads – those without masks scowled at their fellow shoppers, deeply offended. They were the ones most likely to ignore the new one-way arrows in the aisles, and stand just a little past the 6-foot markers in the register lanes.

I had no interest in wearing a mask last month, because the reading I’d done said they didn’t offer much protection. In just 30 days that thinking has been modified – wearing a mask might not protect me, but it can protect others I encounter at close quarters. That’s what sold me, the community aspect.

A friend said, “I don’t have a cold and I’m not coughing, so I don’t really need to wear a mask.” Here’s the thing – nobody else knows how minimal your exhalations are. That’s what made me feel so good this morning: the idea that most of us were going a bit out of our way for one another.

As I write this, I see a news update that Trump is encouraging residents of Michigan and Minnesota to defy their governors’ social distancing orders. He also seems to be encouraging Virginians to take up arms, god help us all. (How are these posts not a violation of Twitter’s community standards?)

I don’t understand those who object to stay-at-home orders on the basis of personal liberty, or “constitutional” rights. Catching the virus may be a risk some are “willing to take,” but the logic of epidemiology also says they’re going to infect others, an outcome that should be rejected out of hand BY THEIR OWN CREED.

Adirondack Mountain hiking organizations have urged people to stay away from the high peaks, to ensure already-stretched rescue resources aren’t being used unnecessarily. I’m seeing fewer rescue reports than normal, but they’re still happening. Personal liberty never happens in a vacuum – it’s a gift we give to each other.

Cinemas are shuttered. Several first-run movies are being offered on streaming services for $20 or more, as if this were a gift on behalf of the studios. One director commented, “Although this isn’t how I intended my film to be seen, I’m happy people are still able to watch it…”

The whole “How it was meant to be seen” argument is at least 20 years out of date by now. I remember Siskel and Ebert complaining about VHS home video releases, back when a widescreen film was cropped to the square dimensions of a (relatively tiny) TV set. Back then I could go to Lowe’s Pittsford and watch a movie on a huge silver screen in glorious Dolby sound, run by a trained professional…Best of all, it was REAL FILM.

Today’s movie theaters are cheap imitations of what the experience used to be. They were going downhill during the 16 years I was a projectionist, from 1988-2004, mostly at a mall multiplex that cut every corner possible. At least a movie was still film then, even if the average 16 year-old minimum wage projectionist had no idea how to frame or focus the image, let alone adjust the soundtrack.

Movie theaters deserve to go out of business, for the most part. “How a movie was meant to be seen” has NOTHING to do with how most theaters operate. (I hear there are exceptions, but none where I live.) Does any filmmaker MEAN for me to see and hear cell phones constantly, throughout the auditorium? Do they MEAN for me to be distracted by the flickering lamphouse that hasn’t been adjusted in six months or more? Or smell the gross food someone snuck in?

My home TV set is large and rectangular, and I can access most of the world’s cinema with just a few clicks. My chair is comfortable. It might not be real film, but it’s much closer to how a movie was meant to be seen than what multiplex corporations are offering. 20 bucks to stream a new picture is a last gasp, greedy effort to cash in on a concept that hasn’t been operational for a very long time.

Back when I worked at the multiplex, the district manager had an office in the back of the projection booth. I’ll never forget one evening, the blowhard was complaining about how unfair it was that the cleaning staff could purchase the same healthcare he got. “They pay the same price, get the same benefits. How is that fair?” (I’ve worked for pettier men since, but not many.)

I thought of that just two weeks ago when I heard a friend’s family had started a GoFundMe page to help with hospital expenses related to coronavirus. My friend was on a ventilator, and I’d read enough about ventilators recently to know it wasn’t good.

I was angry. We keep hearing about how great healthcare is in this country, and how happy people are with their insurance. Bullshit. People who love their insurance haven’t used it lately. GoFundMe is essentially crowd-sourced secondary insurance, increasingly becoming the norm, and should not be remotely acceptable to anyone, let alone the people we’ve elected to run the country. Republican leaders met the night Obama was inaugurated and decided, AGAINST THE WILL OF THE ELECTORATE, that their job was to defeat anything he tried to accomplish. They’ve been largely successful, which is why I made a donation to a GoFundMe page that never should have been necessary.

Paul Osterman holds the distinction of being the top commenter on this web site, by a huge margin. What I appreciate about Paul’s comments is that he clearly read and understood what had been written, then contributed to the conversation. That’s the kind of person I tried to be on social media, before I decided I wasn’t up to the task.

Paul was a pianist on several shows I worked over the years, including a few I appeared in. He was a great professional, always putting the needs of the show first; he was great at deflating egos so they didn’t burst, and making singers the best they could be.

Paul died on April 12, Easter Sunday. Five days after John Prine, another great musician and humanist. My deepest urge right now is to close this piece with a hearty fuck you to selected national leaders and one Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient (I wish he’d catch a cold.) Reading back through Paul’s comments, trying to imagine his response to this one, I think I have to do better.

In 2001, Paul and I worked on a show at Spring Farm CARES, an animal sanctuary in Clinton, NY. It was a benefit revue, and we were trying to assemble a list of acts. Paul suggested I listen to a radio piece by Stan Freberg from 1957, concerning a performer singing the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein classic Old Man River while being interrupted by a network censor trying to smooth the song’s rough edges. I rewrote the script to make it ridiculous enough for the new millennium, played the performer opposite my friend Richard Enders (a local attorney), with Paul on piano. I still remember Paul laughing every night as we did the piece, one of my all-time favorites.

This recording was made for posterity in my living room, in 2015. Paul had long since moved south – he’s not on this version, and I don’t think he ever heard it. Still, it’s what I think of when I think about Paul now. I hope he enjoys it.

Elderly Person River, as performed at Spring Farm CARES in 2001 by Chris Bord, Richard Enders and Paul Osterman