Phantom Birthdays

To this day, my mom keeps a calendar crammed with details of every anniversary, birthday, vacation, doctor visit, and celebration to be observed, all kept up with the upmost accuracy.

Many years ago, however, she participated in a practice that only spread widely with the creation of Facebook. She continued to list birthdays even after the people celebrating them had died. This in itself wasn’t a problem, except that she kept adding to their years. Someone who had died at 83 would find themselves miraculously turning another year older the following year, despite being dead the entire time.

One day, my dad noticed that the dead were aging and stopped it with much humor and incredulity. Facebook doesn’t have the benefit of my dad, so unless one of the living has access to the account and takes it down, these phantom birthdays will continue, and like with my mom, you can see how old someone would have been had they not died years ago.

The first person I discovered this phenomenon with was Roger Ebert. His wife Chaz chose to keep both his Twitter and Facebook accounts active, and so every year on what would’ve been his birthday, she celebrates his life.

At least in his case, most people know he’s dead. With people who aren’t famous, it’s easy to wish someone a happy birthday without looking at their page, and so not see the large post announcing that person’s passing — particularly if they weren’t that active on Facebook.

When my friend Shigemi passed away, I didn’t find out until a year later, and so became the person who tried to tell her other Facebook friends that she was no longer alive. It was a shock when she died, as she wasn’t that old. More recently, another person I knew died, and while one hopes the number of tributes that line her page will alert anyone wishing to post birthday messages that she is no longer around to receive them, that’s only if you go to the page itself. She also sold her artwork through her own website. One wonders if people, even now, are attempting to place orders that will never be fufilled.

So that got me thinking about COVID. How many people have passed away who still have active Facebook accounts? How many birthday wishes are celebrating phantom birthdays? Unless the living have access to the accounts, there’s no way to close them. Depending on the permanence of Facebook, these accounts could survive long enough for their grandchildren to come across — a chilling reminder of a year like few others in history.

Nowadays, my mom only celebrates the living on her calendars. And I don’t have to worry about her becoming a phantom birthday on Facebook.

She doesn’t have an account.

One Year Ago Today…

One year ago today, I lost my job to the COVID-19 pandemic. I woke up that Friday the 13th to an email that the theaters were closing and all cinema staff were being let go. Over the ensuing weekend I witnessed how strong and giving our film community and my friends could be.Y’know that scene at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, where the townspeople only have to hear “George is in trouble,” to come running to help? It was like that.

I cannot possibly detail, in one blog post (or a hundred), what life has been like since then. Mostly I’ve been staying at home, only venturing out for food or other essentials, occasionally meeting with one or two people at a time (when it was allowed), and quarantining completely when it wasn’t. With the new variants appearing over the winter, I even limited my trips to the stores and got my food and other essentials online.

For mental health purposes, I’m lucky that I live with my girlfriend and our cat. Even so, it has suffered. Since the weather has gotten better, I’ve tried to go outside at least once a day, and on especially nice days, I’ve gone for 20-minute walks. Luckily, I don’t have major issues with depression or anxiety, and since Cheetos Jesus is no longer in the White House, my minor to moderate issues have gotten better, particularly since early January, where –due to world events and the weather — my anxiety was at its zenith.

I’ve also had to grapple with the false narrative that more free time = more productivity. If the US had a working safety net, then I would’ve had a more productive year, but worrying about if your money is going to run out and when a vaccine will be ready doesn’t help with concentration. Now, things look more stable, but I’m still not working, movie theaters are still closed, and I haven’t seen the majority of my friends in person for over a year. Even with Zoom calls and FaceTime chats, I miss meeting people in person, or going out to a show and sitting amongst strangers. At least I know I’m not gonna catch COVID if I walk the streets of my neighborhood (especially if I’m masked), but I’m still not riding the bus.

Just as the nation and the world has grappled with truths revealed during these COVID times, so have I. Before we know it, the world will be whole again. It cannot be the same world we left, unless we want present-day injustices and suffering to last several more generations. And I cannot be the same person I was, but must become the person I wish to be.

On March 22, Washington State will go to Phase 3 for the first time since the pandemic started. And with everyone eligible for the vaccine by May 1, combined with a ramp-up in vaccine production, the future is looking brighter than it did a year ago, when the lights went dark in the theaters.

The Old Year in Review

I cannot remember another year as awful as 2020. True, I’ve experienced moments that rivaled the worst of 2020 (like when my grandmother and dog died within a month of each other), but collectively, 2020 sucked.

I’ve been out of work since March 13, when movie theaters closed in Seattle. While I’ve gone to the store (occasionally) or visited others after mutually quarantining (rarely), I’ve spent most of my time in my apartment, which isn’t great for mental health, but is somewhat helped by living with my girlfriend, possessing a cell phone, and owning a cat.

Having all this free time meant I could finally work uninterrupted hours on my writing projects and voice acting career, but “could” is different than “would.” I should’ve remembered the last time I was stuck at home. I’d just graduated from college and lived with my parents, since I had nothing else lined up. I tried to write magazine submissions and my first novel with no social life, which went about as well as you think it would — though time and circumstances were different (9/11 happened several months later, and smart phones weren’t a thing).

As this pandemic continues, I’ve gradually been learning to put my mental health first and to stop feeling guilty for not filling my days with endless productivity. Of the two types of work I’m focusing on, voiceover is the more physically demanding, writing the more mentally challenging.

But, to be successful at each, I have to ignore any monetary rewards attached to them, not because I don’t want to earn money putting my talents to work, but because focusing on the monetary aspect tends to strangle the creative aspect. Doing creative work for money causes me to fall into a depression, particularly during gloomy Seattle winters. Writing for any reason other than that I love writing, or doing voice acting for any reason other than that I love voice acting, ends up being counterproductive.

Speaking of doing things for money, I don’t miss work. What I miss is hanging out with my coworkers and being able to go to live events and movies. If universal basic income became a reality, artists, house spouses, and part-time workers would finally be able to put time and energy into their passions, rather than having that time and energy drained in working jobs for the “privilege” of living paycheck-to-paycheck. We’d finally get paid for the work we do, not how much money we generate. And for those people whose jobs’ only purpose is to make money, perhaps we could put that money to better use by taking it out of their pockets and putting it back into their communities.

Imagine a world where no one has to worry about not making enough money to eat. To own property. To buy clothes. To have healthcare. To pay the bills. Civilizations were formed because it was easier to band together for protection than to go at it alone. Isn’t it time they fulfill this promise and protect us from want?

Here’s hoping that when the world opens up again, we’ll be ready to demand a more perfect one.