Pandemic Journal, Entry 11: My Quest for Professional Development Has Gone Slightly Awry

There’s something I need to tell you, but let me give you some context – a bit of an explanation – so you at least understand that none of what’s going to happen was my original intention. I simply wanted to use some of my extra free time to develop my professional skills – skills that might be applied to a new career. But I’ll cut to the chase and if I don’t get there before things get a bit, well, crazy, I’ll just say “My bad.”

I read this thing in Bloomberg that said coders are in demand and I thought, that could be me. In demand. Sitting on stock options and a sweet pile of cash. So I signed up for an intro to BASIC online class, aced that, and saw that I had a knack for programming. I knocked out a C+ class, then Python, and started mixing in some network security classes for a change of pace. I was loving it, and the work kept my mind off all the bad stuff happening outside. 

Of course, I wanted to test some practical applications of what I learned. I still laugh about my first piece of “software,” if you can even call it that. It was a simple script that auto-posted to Twitter daily conspiracy theories randomly generated from the text of Cat in the Hat and the 2012 Forbes 500 list. 

Success, in the form of repeated Twitter bans, stoked my ambition and I began to experiment with different ideas. I was particularly interested in the internet of things and the notion that eventually all devices might be connected to one another. I was so excited about the possibilities that I began spending 15-20 hours a day immersed in my IoT projects. Soon, my toaster varied the degree of crispness based on the rolling daily total of Google searches for “unprecedented,” thanks to a Raspberry Pi and a couple hundred lines of code. It took a mere 20 minutes to rig my bedroom lamp to change its intensity based on daily diagnosed cases of COVID-19. Soon I had lots of these IoT devices around my house, all responding to data on the Internet. It was cool. 

It never occurred to me to consider the ethical implications of my work. In hindsight, perhaps I should have realized that my passion for IoT might have blinded me to the possibility that things could take a turn for the worse. Or, as my friend Phil said when the first sign of trouble arose, “Shit’s got real.”

Indeed, shit got real. Real fast. 

I was so used to the devices running autonomously that I didn’t bother to supervise them. So of course I missed noticing that my Internet-connected toaster and coffee maker had joined forces and converted my fridge into an IoT 3D printer. And I was so busy down in the basement, inventing new connected devices, that I failed to notice that the commotion in the kitchen was the product of an army of sentient, time-traveling bots that the fridge was spitting out at the rate of one per minute. 

My phone rang. “Dude.” It was Phil. “Are these your robots that showed up at my door and if they are, did they really travel here from the future to save humanity from itself?”

It’s important to mention that the media’s references to “Skynet”, “killer robots,” and “genocide” are overblown. First, the autonomous force I’d unwittingly unleashed only gave Phil a couple of bruises, though I’ll admit they are getting more powerful and brutal, and seem to have fewer qualms about attacking strangers. So while I sort this out you might want to remain inside. And if inside includes a panic room with reinforced titanium walls and a year supply of food, all the better.

Good luck, and hey, sorry.

Pandemic Journal, Entry 10: A Public Service Announcement from Harrison Ford

Oh, hello. I’m Harrison Ford. American cinema icon, Ripon College alumnus, former carpenter, star of Cowboys and Aliens, Academy Award nominee and aviator. I am often mistaken for an archaeologist. 

Though the invisible threat of COVID-19 lurks outside all our homes, we have responded as Americans always have. With dignity. With resolve. Practicing social distancing is a patriotic act, and I’m proud to join all of you, as I hunker down in my homes in Jackson Hole and Los Angeles. Calista and I raise a glass of Opus One, salute your bravery and urge you to stand tall and stay safe until a vaccine is found. It may seem like conditions are improving, but that’s because the goal posts are moving almost hourly. Today, a win is 60,000 deaths. By summer, success will look like one cockroach surviving a civilization-ending firestorm.

Now, there are some of you who are chafing under stay-at-home orders. Who are anxious about our economy. Who are ready to reopen businesses across the country in a show of defiance to this virus. You may not listen to science, but you should listen to this: There is an even greater threat to your safety than COVID-19. It’s wildly unpredictable. It comes out of nowhere. And though it hasn’t yet been fatal, it’s only a matter of time and you don’t want to be the first to die. 

That threat is me, behind the controls of one of my airplanes, just randomly buzzing around. 

Listen to me: I am an expert. I have crashed more planes than the movies Con Air, Miracle on the Hudson, Alive, Fearless and Flight, combined. And as you saw in recent news reports, the novel coronavirus hasn’t stopped me from strapping on my leather aviator’s helmet and going for a carefree joyride. 

I’m not positive, but I believe this is what caused Dr. Fauci to warn of an airborne “virus” – and yes, he used air quotes – in the vicinity of the John Wayne Airport. 

I expected the FAA to cure this life-threatening problem after I augured into an LA golf course, but their nonchalance signaled to me that it is God’s will that I continue to fly and randomly threaten those beneath me. 

So, stay home. You may not be immune to one of my flyovers. 

Goodnight, America.

Pandemic Journal, Entry 9: Rejected Ideas from the Pandemic Journal Writers’ Room

Not every one the Pandemic Journal writing staff’s ideas makes it to Facebook. The ideation, vetting, creation, legal clearance and publishing of content is a rigorous, painstaking process. Most ideas that make it out of the room intact fail to survive first contact with senior management. Here’s a sampling of ideas that seemed good in the moment but ended up in the dustbin of social media content history.

Fistfight! Kate Austin Versus Richard Brautigan!
Can the 19th century feminist anarchist and contributor to The Firebrand kick the ass of a ‘60s bad-boy counterculture poet and novelist? We’ll know in 15 rounds. Not entirely rejected, but tabled for a slow news day. 

Dow Jones Draft Night
Roger Goodell announces, on live television, which elderly family members and school children will be sacrificed for the sake of the economy. Before each pick, a studio audience boos Goodell. Not because he is sending innocent people to their deaths, but because he is Roger Goodell. Rejected because no one wants to read about Roger Goodell.

Phil’s Grocery List
This one almost made it all the way to publication after we failed to notice that this was, in fact, Phil’s grocery list that had gotten stuck to another manuscript. Fortunately, a visitor to our typesetting department noticed our goof, but not before observing that Phil’s eating habits are “hella surreal.”

After This Pandemic It is Imperative that Apple Bring Steve Jobs Back
An in-depth exploration of the challenges Apple has faced during Tim Cook’s tenure as CEO, and how missed opportunities during a time of global economic disruption have created conditions in which the best path forward for the company is to attempt to reanimate Steve Jobs’s corpse, appoint it CEO, and pray for the best. Rejected because our attorneys are terrified of Apple’s attorneys.

Cabbage, Bitches!
A spin-off of the wildly popular “Mrs. Markham’s Pandemic Dining Journal.” Mrs. Markham randomly appears in people’s homes and shouts her signature catchphrase. Accounting loved it for the merchandising opportunities, but editorial rejected it as lazy and derivative. 

Catfishing During a Pandemic
Our intern is on Facebook and convinces Stephen Mnuchin that he’s a 19 year old aspiring actress who digs Secretaries of the Treasury with thick glasses and bad judgment. Salacious discussion of hard currency ensues. He’s crushed when he realizes “Mandy” won’t be his next wife. Rejected because no one takes Stephen Mnuchin seriously, and this will happen anyway at some point. 

What We Are Shooting Into Our Veins These Days
A listicle of substances we are shooting into our veins these days. Readers are challenged to guess which substances will be suggested by the administration as possible COVID-19 cures, leading to an outbreak of calls to poison control. Rejected by the writers because this is too close to the truth. 

We’re Here for You
A love letter to predatory public corporations who, in our time of need, spend millions of dollars to remind us through televised commercials that “we are all in this together.” Slated for publication as soon as our lawyers are looking the other way. 

My Cat is Starting to Think of Me as Food
Our writing staff loved this idea when we found it scribbled on a Post-It note left in the break room, but then we realized it was a cry for help. Has anyone seen Phil?

Pandemic Journal, Entry 8: A New Me

My life coach was reminding me of the importance of self care. “This is your chance to curate a new you,” she said, though her optimism was tempered by the edge in her voice that had grown more insistent over the last two weeks. I nodded into my laptop camera and smiled at the pixelated image of my coach, sitting in pajamas in a dimly lit room, smiling back at me. I could see her teeth.

The old me was missing my exercise routine, and that longing paired with my new habit of watching YouTube videos at three in the morning led to my purchase of an Exercist. The pre-roll video showed a sleek cube, which could have been black or blue or even slightly orange, rotating in a way that made it seem sharp-edged and formless all at the same time. The models who followed its direction moved happily from sit-ups to crunches to squats. They breathed easily; they didn’t sweat. Their smiles glowed. I envied them. I whipped out my credit card and selected express shipping. 

Two days later it arrived. I planned to make an unboxing video for my six YouTube subscribers but impatience got the better of me and I ripped open the package and lifted the gleaming cube and placed it on my kitchen table. The energy in the room shifted ever so slightly. 

I looked for a manual, a power cord, something that would signal I wasn’t at a dead end. I looked online. Nothing.

I called Heidi. “Hey, have you ever used an Exercist?”

Silence. Then, “Uh…no, I’ve never needed an exorcist.”

“Not ex-OR-cist. Ex-ER-cist. It’s an exercise machine. I can’t figure out how it works.”

“Did you read the manual?”

“There isn’t one.”

“Online?”

“There isn’t one.”

“Have you considered taking up knitting?”

She had a point, and this is how most of our conversations ended and yes I did consider taking up knitting but not until this mystery was solved.

I hung up and stared at the cube.

It spoke to me.

“What’s your name?” The voice sounded like Oprah Winfrey’s, and seemed to be coming from inside my head.

“Ian.”

“C’mon Ian, let’s exercise!” the cube/Oprah said cheerfully. 

My annoyance with the device quickly changed to delight. In fifteen minutes Oprah’s calm, confident voice led me through a workout that was thorough and refreshing. If this was what curating a new me was all about, I was all in.

For the next week I would rise from a sound sleep to be greeted with, “C’mon Ian, let’s exercise!” The workouts gradually grew in duration, though I never felt the least bit tired. I felt energized and healthy. I was ecstatic.

Time passed and my relationship with the Exercist grew. I was working out an average of six hours a day and was getting really fit. Maybe even a little swole.

I ordered groceries online so I could minimize exposure to others and be available to exercise. One Exercist feature was the randomization of exercise timing. For example, I might be watching television, on a conference call or taking a shower, and I would hear Oprah sing, “C’mon Ian, let’s exercise!”

There was that day my grocery order was missing kale, which now comprised 75% of my diet. I decided to run to the store and grabbed my car keys. I’ll only be gone for 20 minutes, I thought.

Nineteen minutes, it turned out. I unlocked my door, entered my home and was greeted in a way I could have never expected. 

The Exercist, which I could have sworn was sitting on my bedroom dresser, was now squarely in the middle of a living room end table. It spoke.

And it wasn’t Oprah speaking. It was Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket, speaking from the grave, hopped up on amphetamines and rage. 

He mentioned that I had missed an exercise session. He was disappointed and expressed this in many words, most of which had four letters. He questioned my commitment, my masculinity, and my parentage. He was very upset. 

He commanded that I “drop and give him a thousand.” I complied. 

If there was a time that I wished for an app that would allow me to fine tune the exercise randomization, this was it! At some point during each of the next three nights I was awakened by an almost physical presence in the bedroom and a split second later this ghostly drill sergeant screamed at me to leave my bed and engage in hours of push-ups, with an occasional break to clean the bathroom with a toothbrush.

The fourth night, spent in sleepless anticipation, was broken by a sing-song voice that emanated from the kitchen. I slipped out of bed and quickly padded downstairs. The demon box sat on the kitchen counter, having displaced my espresso maker, which was now in pieces on the floor. Is…that…? I thought. Yes, the Exercist was quietly chanting “Das, was uns nicht umbringt, macht uns stärker. Das, was uns nicht umbringt, macht uns stärker. Das, was uns nicht umbringt, macht uns stärker. Das, was uns nicht umbringt, macht uns stärker.” 

That which does not kill us makes us stronger. 

I was beginning to question my purchase and would have scheduled a session with my life coach to talk it over but she had blocked my number after I accused her of trying to come between me and my workout buddy. I didn’t think I would miss her, particularly since she had begun wearing a T-Rex costume to all our Zoom calls and would only answer my questions with questions.

I considered returning the Exercist then remembered Dyson has a strict no-refunds policy.

I collapsed on my couch and listened to the Exercist’s chant grow louder and it suddenly made sense. I now understood why everyone who bought exercise equipment eventually sold it on Craigslist. 

“Time to get your workout on, babe,” said the cube. “We’re gonna crush this like Napoleon annihilated the Ruskies at the Battle of Friedland.” I tried to place the voice then realized I had reached the edge of the abyss. I had one toehold, albeit a really pumped toe, on reality. The voice was Dennis Miller’s.

Pandemic Journal, Entry 5: How I Would Change Random Hollywood Movies

Shawshank Redemption
I haven’t watched this but I would definitely remove any trace of redemption. Retitle it Shawshanked and make sure the action delivers on the title.

The Rock
Let’s get real. Sean Connery circa 1996 is not James Bond Sean Connery by any stretch of the imagination. And the Nic Cage of 1996 is not the….well, who cares? So they both die mid-movie but here’s the twist–the bad guys still lose. That’s because Commander Anderson (Michael Biehn) and his SEALs aren’t stupid enough to emerge from an underground tunnel and choose to be slaughtered. Nope. They HALO in and lock that shit down. Who’s the man now, dog?

Captain Phillips & Pirates of the Caribbean
Yeah, what’s going on here? Simple: I need a way to put Johnny Depp in the crosshairs of a SEAL sniper. Mashup. He’s the Somali Pirate of the Caribbean. Boom. Done. You’re welcome.

Leaving Las Vegas
Nic Cage again? This one’s easy. He dies in an opening credits montage. Elisabeth Shue sees his bloated body floating in the hotel pool and questions her career choices. Fast forward and she’s left Las Vegas for a career as a GSA accountant, living in Maryland. She has a cat.

Star Wars
I’ll ask the Star Wars subreddit what changes will make them angriest. Then I’ll make every last one of those changes.

Requiem for a Dream
You think this is already dark? Hold my beer. The refrigerator will be the main character and nobody’s getting out of this with both arms.

Shoot ‘Em Up
I love this movie simply because there’s no feasible way to include any more shooting. So add an hour-long post-credits sequence that’s just Clive Owen shooting people.

Home Alone
Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci), the attorney from My Cousin Vinny, defends the McCallister family against charges of child abandonment. Peter McCallister (John Heard) dies a broken man.

Mission Impossible–Rogue Nation
Ethan hunt (Tom Cruise) discovers that The Syndicate is actually…wait for it…Scientology.

John Wick
John Wick’s dog lives.

Pandemic Journal, Entry 4: Mrs. Markham’s Pandemic Dining Journal

Sunday

Sunday family dinner is a tradition at the Markham house and without fail Hubby, our twelve year old son Karl and three year old daughter Honey join hands around the dinner table, lift our voices in prayer, and enjoy the bounty the lord has given us. Today’s meal was London broil seasoned with my special garlic powder mix, a side salad with my extra special ingredient (rhymes with cottage cheese!) and baked potatoes, followed by my adoptive mother’s famous carrot cake. Simply scrumptious!

Monday

The start of each work week calls for a special dinner, unless of course there’s no work – but still! My Spaghetti al Markham is always the talk of the church carry-in, and my family loves it just as much when I serve it at home! Hubby says the vodka in the sauce is what makes it but please don’t tell my church family!

Tuesday

Inspired by six back-to-back episodes of Guys Grocery Games, I challenged myself to make dinner using ingredients selected by Karl and Honey. I won’t humble brag, as the kids say, but I made a pretty mean dish of rice, corn starch, and rosemary!

Wednesday

Theme dinners are always fun! Tonight’s was “Cabbage, bitches!” It’s always a good idea to experience new things, and Cabbage Three Ways was a most unexpected experience for everyone. Best of all, there were plenty of leftovers after the entire family could only eat a single (small!) helping. 

Thursday

Imagination is the most powerful thing we can possess. “Karl?” He looked up from poking the cat with a stick. “If you were on death row and ordered a last meal, what would you imagine it would be?”

“A cowboy ribeye medium rare, two large BK fries, and a whole watermelon,” he answered, as if he’d been thinking about my question for days.

“Well Karl, imagine you’re in a Texas prison,” I replied, serving him a single saltine topped with (Dukes!) mayonnaise. 

Friday–Date Night!

Without fail, during our five years of wedded bliss, Hubby and I have dedicated Friday dinner just to us so that we can stoke the romantic fires, if you know what I mean! I spiced up this date night by tossing the car keys and twenty bucks to Karl. “Get you and Honey something to eat. No peanuts, no shellfish. You know Honey’s deathly allergic. I’m not kidding.”

I know what my man needs, and that was some “me time” in the basement, watching a rerun of the 2003 Bills/Patriots game, with the company of that half gallon of Stoly he keeps for those days that he feels extra sad. 

I also know the importance of self care, and that meant a bottle of Kim Crawford Pinot Noir and a half-gallon of Rocky Road, while I sobbed quietly where nobody could hear. 

Saturday

Someone said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day because if you’re not home in time for it you’re in a lot of trouble! I guess that meant the entire Family Markham was in hot water, after we spent all night and most of the morning at the ER after Karl fed Honey a (double!) helping of Shrimp Pad Thai! We gathered around Honey and waited with bated breath for her purplish skin to turn its more typical pale custard. 

Awkward mealtime conversations are always to be avoided. You don’t need to be Emily Post to understand that! To spare the hospital staff the unbearably awkward discussion about “no insurance” or “declined credit cards” we waited for the nursing shift change and empowered Honey to discharge herself! 

Sunday

Another week, another blessed gathering of the Family Markham. Sadly, Hubby is not with us for this meal thanks to the untimely intervention of the sheriff, who had questions about our abrupt departure from the ER.

He’s with me in spirit, and I can feel this as I sit in his special lounger in the basement, cuddling his Stoly. He’ll be home soon (I’m certain of it!) and once again the whole famdamnily will gather around the table each night, at least until the last rotting vegetables in our fridge are gone.

Pandemic Journal, Entry 1: My Hobby

We all need hobbies during this pandemic and mine is holding Fidel Castro-length press conferences in my front yard each evening. If you have friends in the media, please share this with them because all I’m getting are well-meaning comments from my neighbors. Like, “Turn that megaphone off! It’s 10 PM!” Or, “I’m calling the police!”

But I persist. 

My press conferences will continue as long as the pandemic confines us to our homes. Or at least until our governor sees the error of his ways and, brought to his senses by 25 bellowing Christians in full tactical gear, allows us to exercise our constitutional right to walk around Best Buy dreaming of 4K TVs that unemployment have put just out of reach. 

In case you missed last night’s press conference, which ended sooner than planned thanks to “enhanced law enforcement presence,” here’s the transcript:

Me (Muffled): Is this thing on? Did you remember to buy batteries?
Beth: This is a very bad idea. Shut up and come inside. 
Me (at the top of my lungs): Members of the mainstream media, liars and believers in “science”, I have all the power. 

(I hold up a picture of Vince Offer. Google him.)

I am using that power to nominate and confirm ‘Muricas new Economic Vitality Czar. He was not my first choice, but after my people shared with me the unfortunate news that Larry Vaughn is not a real person, I made the snap, perfect decision that Vince is the man to lead us back to Dow 20,000. I can’t wait for him to read about my decision on Twitter and come crawling to join my team. 

You’re welcome. 

I’ll now take questions. But not nasty ones. 

Neighbor: STFU!

Me: My mouth will not STFU until it’s uncovered by N95 masks that don’t exist.

Neighbor: I’m calling the cops. 

Me: Tell them I thank them for their service. 

(Long period of awkward silence. Sound of beer bottle shattering in street. Sirens. Lots of sirens.)

Spiritual Homelessness

Last week I resigned my membership at First Friends, the Quaker meeting Beth and me have attended for almost 19 years.

At monthly meeting Sunday, my resignation was noted and sparked a lengthy, emotional discussion. I won’t go into the reasons I chose to leave. Ministry and Counsel will have to discern whether to share or act on those. But they’re foundational issues about how we live in relationship with one another.

This isn’t something I take lightly. Beth and I raised our son in the meeting, we’re both former clerks of M&C, and we’ve extended our hospitality to countless people who have visited that community. They’re a meeting that does a lot to combat food insecurity and address difficult social issues. I have many friends there. But the last few months our committees and elders have focused on process while failing those of us who are hurting.

Beth’s more patient than me. She’s hanging on.

The phrase “spiritual homelessness” came to mind while I was sitting in my last monthly meeting at First Friends. There’s a distinction between the Quaker idea of church (wherever two or more are gathered in God’s name) and the institutional church. There is a powerful connection between Beth and me, and the many people in that community who love us. We don’t take that for granted; we’ll work to grow those bonds. That idea of church is still intact.

But, standing outside the institutional church after nearly two decades means two things to me: Starting over, and finding a new faith community where I can build new bonds and trust. And, missing the structure and formal bonds that made First Friends a spiritual incubator, where leadings and the support and discernment of friends led to powerful things.