Tuesday, March 31, 2020

An Open Letter to My Landlord #CancelRent

We will not be paying rent for April, and we thought we'd let you know why.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Randall,

Just to let you know, since we've never met, I'm one of your many residential tenants.  I imagine that between you and your corporation, the Randall Group, and then between that and its subsidiary, CTL Management, Inc., there are several degrees of disconnect, so you may or may not be aware that your corporate representatives have just sent me and presumably your thousands of other tenants up and down the west coast notifications of yet another annual increase in our monthly rent -- dated March 25th, 2020.

The letter, excerpted here, is a very slight variation of the same one we have received every year since I moved in to one of the many buildings you own, in Portland, Oregon, in 2007.  You, or the management company you own, has more than doubled our rent since that time.  You have never once provided any explanation in your annual letters for why the rent has to increase so much more than most people's wages, which have remained stagnant in this country for decades, as our life expectancy has as well.

The thing is, stagnant wages are only leading to a life expectancy that is not rising because expenses are not stagnant.  Expenses are always rising.  Chief among those expenses?  Rent charged by people like you, and corporations like yours.

It admittedly does really irk me that in 2011, you donated $10 million to a hospital here in Portland, so that they named the children's wing of the hospital after you.  Every time I pass that hospital, it upsets me, to think that the reason my three children have to live in the same small apartment I moved into when I only had one child, is because you keep raising our rent by such an unconscionable, unmanageable amount, every year.  How many children in this city with parents less fortunate than we are are now homeless because of your unfettered greed, because your wealth is more important than the lives of your tenants?  While you donate money to a hospital that cares for children.  The irony is what upsets me -- not the donation itself.  It's the narcissism involved with such BS philanthropy, the fake philanthropy of someone who wants their name on a sign, but doesn't care about the children who suffer in order to put that name on the sign.

Of course, I'm just making assumptions about your motives.  Maybe you really do care about regular people.  If so, you can start to show that by, for example, declaring a suspension of rent for the duration of the crisis, and then lowering the rent you charge post-crisis to something more compatible with the actual living situations of actual people -- not just your preferred people, imports from even more expensive cities who keep moving in to your apartments, and displacing people who grew up around here, or have lived here a long time.  This may just be the way capitalism works, and you're just another commercial and residential real estate company that is going along with the capitalist program, but the thing is, you and the lobbying group that you support actually lobbies in state capitals to make sure there is no regulation passed that interferes with your ever-increasing profits.  So you're not just part of a bad system -- you are the bad system.

People like you, and corporations that people like you own, need to be resisted, if there is any hope for this horrendously divided and literally very sick society.

I, like many of your current and especially former tenants here in Portland, am an artist.  I'm a touring songwriter.  I make a living largely from traveling around the world and performing.  Now, I can't even travel and perform in Oregon, let alone in Europe, where I spend much of my professional life.  Oh, and the reason I tour Europe so much in the first place, instead of more locally, and the reason I usually spend so many more months away from home than I used to, touring there in Europe, is largely because of you, and your rent increases.  But now, I can't tour.  But you not only want the rent as usual, as if there weren't a massive global catastrophe going on, as if the entire society weren't under some form of quarantine, but you have the audacity to actually raise it.

Landlords like you are a big part of this society's problem.  Not landlords like some of my friends, who are struggling to pay their mortgages, struggling to find a way to let their tenants slide on rent, but landlords specifically like you, who own so many buildings.  Even your corporate clients are announcing they're not going to pay their rent for April.  We lowly residential tenants would be idiots not to do the same, really.

Especially since so many of us actually can't.  I can, for now.  I just toured Australia, before the world closed its borders, so although the rest of my spring tour in North America and Europe was canceled, and although I'm drowning in credit card debt I was planning to pay off with that tour, I've got a little money, no thanks to you.  But it seems to us that there are better things to hold on to that money to do, especially while there is a statewide ban on evictions and power shutoffs.

Everything is moving very fast, as you know.  We'll see what new laws get passed, and how much government aid there is for people like me.  I'm sure there will be lots of government aid for corporations like yours.  Plus, you don't need any more money.  You're very rich.  It's time for you to change your ways.  Blame the pandemic, or blame me, or blame society, I don't care.  But two of the people who are to blame for my family's relative poverty, and for the fact that most of my friends have moved out of Portland since I first moved here -- for the fact that any musician even slightly less successful than me can't afford to live in this city -- are you guys, Mr. and Mrs. Randall.

But we regular people don't expect people like you to change without a fight.  However, let this be entirely clear:  if there is to be a class war in America, it is people like you who started it.  We are only responding to your mindless greed and the broken system which people like you broke and make sure stays broken.  No more.

David Rovics, your tenant

P.S.  I have paid the rent on time every month since April, 2007.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Forms of Isolation

As we hunker down wherever we are, we are collectively having radically differing experiences of isolation.
Humanity, on any given day, is experiencing reality in very different ways. As a writer writing about the world around me and about things that have happened in the past, I spend a lot of time imagining what it's like to be someone else. There are key moments in my own life that caused this innate tendency to become more obsessive later. Chief among those moments are those times when I lost close friends to an early death, and when close friends went off to prison, for carrying out politically-motivated actions of the sort that I only sing about. Almost every day since I first lost a friend to an early death, almost three decades ago now, I have felt privileged to be alive. And every day since I first had friends who one way or another ended up being sentenced to decades of confinement in a small box, I have very consciously cherished each morning I wake up once again in the free world.

As much as I, like other writers of whatever sort, spend much of my time trying to get into the heads of other people, or trying to imagine what it was like to live through a certain historical period, or to be a certain person at a certain time or place, I find the prospect of trying to do that now much more overwhelming than usual. Because as vastly different as life was for different people in different situations around the world last month, this month it's a whole other story.

Without even thinking about trying to do anything about the situation, just imagining it is so challenging. Picture being a passionate lover of life, nature and humanity who finds yourself living in a box with a lock on it that you don't have any control over, 23 hours a day, with one hour a day to spend on a small patch of monocropped grass, surrounded by a tall fence with barbed wire on top of it. Now imagine being in that same situation, while waiting for a pandemic to infect most of the population of the prison, knowing that there's also a severe shortage of ventilators and other necessary equipment to keep patients alive and medical practitioners safe.

At least in that situation, you'll be fed something three times a day, even if it's barely palatable. For so many people in India right now, not allowed to leave the crowded one-room shacks so many people live in with their extended families, people are going hungry. So many people who don't eat enough on a normal day, earning money for food from day to day, who have no capacity to prepare for an eventuality like a lockdown -- and no ability to conduct themselves according to the strictures of social isolation, which only works if you have somewhere to isolate yourself, and you're not sharing a compost toilet with a hundred other people, or just squatting in the street, as so many still do, from New Delhi to Los Angeles.

As the quarantine continues for so much of the world, including in almost all of the countries I've ever traveled to or where I know anyone, most people in my social circles would fall into the category of people who live within an industrialized country with some kind of functioning state, who have been to one degree or another financially impacted by the locking down of their societies, but who, with some assistance from those functioning states and other resources, will probably pull through OK when the pandemic is over, at least if they don't die of COVID-19, or from the lack of ventilators or face masks. To the surprise of many, there's even bipartisan consensus within the US government that gig economy workers like myself should qualify for unemployment compensation, something I've never qualified for in my life. They're even going to send us all checks, separate from that prospect. Universal Basic Income, suddenly instituted in the least likely of countries, for a month or two, anyway. It's not nearly enough, but it seems they're intent on keeping us from starving, or rebelling. They've even banned evictions for a few months in some states, such as Oregon.

All else aside, though, even if you're not fearing imminent eviction, even if you have money for stockpiling groceries, even if you live somewhere with hot running water, electricity, and all the sorts of things in life that so many of us tend to take for granted to one degree or another, the social isolation measures that most of society seem to have undertaken -- certainly here in the Southeast collection of neighborhoods of Portland, Oregon -- are very difficult for a lot of people, as well as radically different for different people.

For many people, quarantining themselves means being alone. It's temporary and more or less self-imposed, but it is a form of solitary confinement. People are naturally spending inordinate amounts of time online, or otherwise engaged with distracting themselves through screen-related activities, which may often involve some form of interaction with other real people through the internet. As anyone knows who has been in this kind of isolation for one reason or another for an extended period, or even for a couple days, all the plans you might have had to accomplish great things during your extended time alone are often subsumed by the depression that sets in from the lack of the kind of social interaction that feels real, and fulfilling, like touching other people -- what the Japanese call "skinship." I personally have long realized that after four hours of solitude for activities like writing or reading, I want human contact for at least a little while before the next round of solitude, or I might not even be able to do anything constructive with it. I need to be recharged by human contact. That currently feels like a very distant memory, as in recent weeks solitude is probably what I miss the most.

Through the din of my new reality, I hear the distant voices of these truly isolated people out there, and it makes me also want to spend hours a day exploring the potential of the internet, to have meaningful interaction with the quarantined masses, maybe host a livestreamed open mic using Streamyard, the way I used to host open mics in cafes with physical people. But for me and my family, that kind of isolation is not how it is. Isolation from society, yes -- but being alone in a room or an apartment, no.

The experience of society shutting down like it has has reminded me of a certain Star Trek episode, when the doctor finds herself alone on the ship, after everybody else on the ship disappears, one by one. Of all my family members, I think it's probably hardest for my wife, Reiko. I have an active social life when I'm on tour, and my spring tour plans all appear to have been canceled, so I'm spending much more time at home than I normally would in a typical spring. But I'm also fairly accustomed to a certain form of social isolation. During the seven or so months of a typical year that I'm home, I rarely have substantial interaction with people other than my wife and kids, except in emails or on social media or the very occasional phone call. Though I do generally have blocks of time free for reading, writing, and playing music -- what I generally refer to as "working" for the purposes of household operations -- this time actually exists because of the social engagement of everybody else in the family. Even the baby.

But that's all gone, or on hold. It began in weird fits and starts. At first it seemed it would only really be relevant for pop stars and politicians. "No gatherings of more than a thousand people" was being thrown around as a virus-limiting concept. OK, so I won't be singing for any protests, then, but the tour can go on. Then it was no gatherings of more than fifty, suddenly. Most of my gigs are still safe, theoretically, but would anyone come to them, me and so many other touring musicians wondered simultaneously. Then it was twenty -- tour canceled. Then they closed the schools. Then they closed everything else, and told us all to stay home.

As the world began closing, and society began physically distancing, and mostly just disappearing from sight -- people here evidently believe in community and solidarity and are taking this thing extremely seriously -- Reiko's instinct was, as always, a community-driven one. It's not rational, perhaps, under the circumstances, but it's very human -- and so touching for me to experience, from my vantage point. Society is closing -- then what are people doing? I could hear her silently wondering.

The parks are closed, we can't go to the playgrounds. The play equipment might have the virus on it, so it's better to do things like run on the sidewalk or the grass, staying away from other people while you do it, if the adults and the kids need exercise. The schools are closed, but people were gathering, socially distanced, on the high school sports field nearby. Now this is what people are doing, so we'll join in, I could almost hear Reiko thinking -- ever the community-builder, raised in community as she was, with the neighborhood Nishigaoka Community Center just down the road from the house she was raised in in Japan, where she and the other children from the neighborhood went most every morning of every summer to exercise together, and greet each day.

Intellectually, I of course didn't need to explain the concept of social isolation to her. She's highly intelligent, and reads the news, too. She could see that her community instincts, or the aspect of them that desires a sense of community, were not in keeping with what was being asked of us, and of so many people around the world -- to isolate. Reiko would suggest we take the kids to the sports field, and I then propose that perhaps it's best if we just go play on the field near our apartment complex, where there are currently no people. My heart burns a little each time I see the pain of the recognition on her face that this is probably the more community-spirited thing to do, that would keep us more isolated.

When she heard through another local parent of small children that the local elementary school was giving away food for kids, although we had no need for such handouts, Reiko was curious what they were giving away, and who was going to be there. I was, too, but not enough to bother actually going to find out. But she was going, so I went with her, and witnessed the sad, empty scene, with a handful of spaced-apart people giving out big bags of processed food. The giving out of food was going to end from that day, too, they told us. They gave us extra bags for us to share with our neighbors, they had too many bags, and too few people taking them.

The bubble fully enclosed, this was the last time we attempted any kind of semi-social activity, beyond trips to the supermarket, where you can see the abundant quantities of fresh vegetables, the complete lack of toilet paper, and the intensely stressed, harried faces of the underpaid, overexposed workers there, who are now supposed to be feeling lucky that they're employed, according to some among their customers.

Reiko does engage in various sorts of solitary endeavors -- reading books, writing different sorts of things -- but much of her life involves society, pretty directly. For me, being a parent involves a certain amount of social interaction with other kids and other parents, at school and elsewhere. For Reiko, there is the vast added dimension that the school our toddler goes to is also a center of life for the local Japanese-speaking community, which Reiko is actively involved with in many ways. Then there's tennis, which Reiko normally plays almost daily, usually with other people, usually in community centers owned by Parks & Rec. Then there are two weekly Japanese-language play groups that also involve Reiko, our toddler, and our baby. Our teenager, Leila, if she weren't in school, would usually climbing the walls of the rock gym.

I never fully realized how much time I used to spend alone in this apartment, when I was home from touring. Now, to have any time alone to write or to think, I get up at 5:30 in the morning. The rest of the day will be fully occupied with keeping a toddler and a baby happy and well cared for, physically and emotionally. In our small apartment, there is no rec room in which to set up a TV studio, like at Joe Biden's place. And if there were one, how would you keep the toddler from coming in? Lock him out?

The reason, I assume, why all the websites have warnings on them that everything is taking longer than usual, is not just that more people are on the web than ever before, but also because working from home while your kids are not at school and you have no one to take care of them just doesn't work. In our case, the combination of a three-year-old and a one-year-old, a toddler and a baby, is basically just plain dangerous. If you don't have a well-planned structure for a day of isolation with a toddler and a baby, you're going to have a very unhappy family. Toddlers with babies are just like canaries and coal mines -- if there's tension in the air, that toddler is going to knock that baby to the ground again, you can be sure. You prevent that scenario not by strapping the toddler down to a chair and drugging him, but by making his life fulfilling and interesting and interactive. If he has no other children to interact with, guess what? It's all on you, and there is no division of labor in a two-bedroom apartment with three children -- it's all for one and one for all, and if you want any time alone, your options are very early in the morning, or very late at night.

As hard as it might be to try to imagine what it's like for adults in different situations to experience the quarantine scene, it's really hard to imagine what my toddler is going through. Suddenly there is no school, no playmates. Suddenly, other kids and parents never come to visit anymore, and he never visits them. Suddenly, when we go outside, there's almost no one else around. We do live in a pretty sleepy residential neighborhood, but usually there are other people within view when you go outside, especially when it's not raining. And when on the rare occasion we do see people he knows, who would normally give him a high-five or a hug -- both of which he usually enjoys, depending on the person -- now they stand awkwardly distant, self-consciously trying not to accidentally spit as they talk. Just as he's opening up to the world and becoming very social in the way that three-year-olds often do, everything shifts like this.

I may continue to fantasize about being one of the lonely ones, for a while longer. And I'll certainly keep imagine what it's like for different people in different circumstances at this incredibly trying time for so many around the world. But as far as daily life goes for the foreseeable future, I'll be here, fully inundated in a quarantined form of parenthood that I never imagined existing, until now. And I'll be looking forward to the re-emergence of society, with all its flaws, because I miss it like I never knew I could.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Unprecedented Precedents

What do Donald Trump, 1848, Covid-19 and Winston Churchill have in common?

So much is changing so fast, by the time I publish this piece, it will likely sound very yesterday very soon.  But particularly now, there seem to be some salient points worth making, and a few recent moments worth recounting.

Over the past several weeks -- which up until Sunday morning included a visit to Australia, which I cut short in order to return to the US -- I have been following a wide spectrum of news from many different countries, largely while driving the very long distance from Brisbane to Sydney and back.

I began the trip with a bit of a fatalistic attitude about the whole Clovid-19 development.  By the beginning of March, when I left for Australia, many things were already abundantly clear.  The virus was spreading in the community in various parts of the US, including in the Portland metro area, where I live.  The tests that had been distributed by the CDC didn't work, while tests that did work were ignored, for entirely political reasons.  Trump was saying everything was going to be fine.  It seemed obvious the US government was in no state to tackle the situation effectively, and therefore whether I stuck with my plan to visit Australia for two weeks didn't matter one way or the other.  I'd either get the virus or I wouldn't, along with everybody else, I figured, and whatever measures my government was going to take were clearly going to be inadequate.

At the beginning of March, most people were staying home from the airports, canceling trips and big events.  The fact that there was about a twenty-second wait in the security line at PDX was a news story, and two TV reporters were at the Portland airport, covering it.  As I was waiting for my first flight, to LAX, to board, the headlines were that there was a Clovid-19 case in one of the international terminals there.  I landed at LAX, made my connection at an international terminal there, and flew to Brisbane.  I was asked, along with everybody else on the flight, whether I had been to China or Korea in the past two weeks.  No one mentioned the outbreak that had just occurred at the airport we had all just come from, either in LA or in Brisbane.

By the time I ended my trip early and flew back to LAX last Sunday, a ban on travel from Europe had been added to the ban on travel from China to the US, and moves were afoot to start getting more serious about social distancing and other efforts to flatten the curve of the contagion.  There was lots of talk about how you mostly get the virus from touching surfaces, and about the importance of washing your hands and using hand sanitizer.  But coming in to LAX last weekend, there was no hand sanitizer to be seen, although everyone going through immigration had to touch the same touch screens, one after another.  During the Ebola crisis in parts of Africa it became very standard to have hand sanitizer available outside every storefront, at the entrance of every bus, and lots of other places.  But none at LAX, weeks into the crisis.  The news was full of stories about O'Hare and other airports where more obvious incompetence on the part of the authorities was being demonstrated.

And of course as all of this incompetence was on display, financial journalists were striving to find the right word to describe the state of the global stock markets, frequently resorting to terms like "unprecedented," "nosedive," and "apocalyptic."  The Trump administration responded by lowering interest rates.  Most people, including me, have no idea how that was supposed to help anything.  Then his son-in-law jumped into the fray, and there were allegations of the most absurd forms of political corruption, with efforts to capitalize on a global disaster by buying the patent to the vaccine, when it is created.

All of this spiraling madness went on day after day, until Tuesday, March 17th, when the US, UK and other G20 governments made major, reassuring announcements about massive spending programs to keep all of the suddenly unemployed service sector, gig economy and other workers housed, fed, and ventilated, if need be.  Things that would have been virtually impossible to imagine only weeks ago -- sending every US taxpayer a $1,000 check -- while totally haphazard by European standards, was a far more sensible move than many people would have thought possible, particularly for an administration as kleptocratic and nepotistic as this one.  Plans for limiting the spread and responding to outbreaks are also are starting to look serious -- whether serious enough is another question.  With millions homeless, millions in overcrowded prisons, and millions more in overcrowded eldercare facilities and hospitals, even if the virus-related health care is offered for free to everyone who needs it, there is an inherent weakness to an infrastructure like that.  The cities of the United States were already public health disasters, long before Clovid-19 arrived.

There is much talk of 2008, 1987 and other stock market crashes.  There are many stories circulating about the different impacts of the 1918 flu epidemic that killed millions around the globe -- virtually sparing cities like Copenhagen, but killing every adult in many Alaskan villages, with the effect on the rest of the world's population being generally somewhere in between.  These are obviously relevant historical references, of course.

But there are a couple others that come to mind.  As many students of history have observed, it is often not the individuals or political parties at a given time and place that are actually responsible for making history.  They may get the credit for it on Wikipedia, but if you dig deeper into history, you'll find it wasn't them that really made things happen.  Those in power generally want their subjects to think that the rulers act out of the goodness of their hearts as benevolent actors, but what is usually going on in reality, on the occasions when despots make moves to support the common welfare, is they are responding to external events and trying to mitigate damage, in order to keep the heads on top of their shoulders of their fellow billionaires.

The reason the stock market was free-falling into the abyss up until very recently is because many wealthy investors understand a basic fact:  that the continued existence of their wealth is dependent on the rest of society consenting to be governed by the government; and that if this consent is withdrawn, their system can suddenly collapse, since it only exists in our collective imaginations in the first place.  They never talk about it in public, but they know that if tens of millions of people are suddenly unemployed and unable to pay their rents or mortgages, there will be pandemonium of a sort far worse than that which the worst flu epidemic is likely to deliver.  In combination, it could be an atmosphere with revolutionary possibility.

It is in moments like this when the fundamental dysfunctionality of late-stage capitalism is laid bare.  We live in a society where most people have inadequate health care in the best of times, and where most people are in no financial position to pay the rent next month after being laid off this month.  In such a sudden economic crisis as this, even the capitalists know something has to give.  This bailout package is the first big effort on the part of the federal authorities to preserve their capitalist system, by applying some classic Keynesian, FDR-style economics.  Which FDR did for the same reason, as he made clear himself.

But it is more Churchill that this moment evokes than FDR, though they were instituting similar policies, at the same time in history.  Unlike Roosevelt, Churchill was no progressive, prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.  He was more known for advocating the use of poison gas against coal miners who wanted to unionize.  But when society had to be mobilized for the global crisis at the time, World War 2, things changed.  Winston Churchill would have been one of the last politicians to institute a government-run program of food rationing, making sure that even the poorest war refugees in the country were able to eat throughout the war.  But it was under the food rationing policies in the UK during the war that the children of Britain ate better, overall, than they have at any time since, under a more "free market" framework.  It was necessary, if not necessarily desired by the heartless capitalists that ran the country at the time, to make sure everyone had enough food, temporarily, to keep the peace -- and to win the war.

Similarly, in 1846-48, when another catastrophe hit that wasn't quite global, but did cover all of Europe -- another disease, this time one acquired by monocropping plants, a potato blight -- it caused hunger throughout the land.  The price of any kind of food went up so much that all the factories closed, because the vast majority of European societies were spending most of their earnings on food, and nothing else.  In the extremely potato-dependent and brutally colonized island of Ireland, there was widespread famine.  Millions died.

All this, of course, caused things to spiral out of control.  There was no $850 billion bailout package back then, so there were massive riots and revolts all over Europe, and tens of thousands died in them.  The equivalent of the big bailout came after most of Europe's monarchies were violently overthrown -- after they crawled back to power, tails between their legs, bringing houses of parliament with them, as a gesture of reconciliation with the armies of torch-wielding peasants who had so unpleasantly disrupted their royal lives, in many cases by ending them.  There was even a little bit of land reform in some countries.

Gradually, as a direct result of those rebellions and others that followed, major concessions would be granted by governments that didn't want to be overthrown.  None of those monarchs were planning on sharing their wealth or power with anyone else, until they were forced to, by the situation.  That's why all the monarchs of Europe had the same idea at the same time.  This sort of thing doesn't tend to happen by coincidence.  It was radical action taken by otherwise completely disinterested cabals of otherwise out-of-touch rich people, brought about by an external crisis.

It is in times of crisis that we see this kind of bipartisanship -- in this case both in the US, and in many other countries simultaneously.  Not because the people in power have changed, but because they recognize the ramifications of the situation, and they want to keep their power.  Only days ago, there were advocates of the hard-pressed restaurant workers and rideshare drivers and touring musicians who are suddenly facing long-term unemployment, talking about organizing a national rent strike, with a degree of seriousness that would have been a fantasy only a few weeks ago.  Today, many of those folks might be just waiting to see if that $1,000 check is coming in the next two weeks.  I am, too, though it's high time for a nationwide rent strike either way.

Those are the thoughts that come to mind when I try to make sense of the current moment, today.  Tomorrow, who knows.

Linda Wiener's Echo

When people die, they leave behind many different kinds of echoes. There were a lot of people back in the 1960's like Ken Kesey who, for...