Posts by Edward Champion

Edward Champion is the Managing Editor of Reluctant Habits.

We Need A Guaranteed Income for All Americans During the Pandemic

Nearly every working-class American is one or two paychecks from being out on the streets. And the shuttering of bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues in Los Angeles and New York City — all necessary, but all committed with cruel and thoughtless consideration for the American worker — is going to take a significant and life-altering hit on the vast majority of Americans who aren’t cushioned by savings or a 401k plan that they can cash out to survive during this unprecedented time. According to data, 69% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. And 45% of those Americans have no savings at all. It is unconscionable and morally unacceptable to leave these Americans without a financial safeguard. Yes, evictions are frozen in New York City. But there isn’t a rent freeze. And when the housing courts reopen, the restaurant workers — who are undoubtedly struggling to find last-minute funds to make rent in the next two weeks — will be left vulnerable to greedy landlords who have been looking for an opportunity to evict their tenants, do a retrofit, raise the rent, and make more money.

Moreover, with businesses circling the wagons right now just to survive, anyone unemployed right now is also left in the lurch. The emergency Coronavirus bill now being worked out by Congress allows for sick leave, but leaves about 59 million Americans uncovered. If you work for a business with more than 500 employees — say a restaurant franchise like McDonald’s — or the government, you’re not going to qualify for paid leave. Some companies, such as Target and Walmart, have stated that they would allow for two weeks of sick leave should any employee contract COVID-19. But this still doesn’t account for the likelihood that, as quarantine measures continue and more venues and establishments close down, the employees who work for these places will not have an alternative income.

The only mechanism that would alleviate this unfair burden upon the unemployed, the working poor, and the middle class would be a guaranteed income granted to all Americans during the next two months. This must be accompanied by a rent freeze, a freeze on credit card interest and late fees, and numerous other pieces of financial legislation to rectify a situation that we could not foresee happening.

This isn’t about radicalism. It’s about democratic humanism. It’s about an empathy for all that should never be a partisan issue.

Because this isn’t just about workers meeting their basic needs. For the estimated 30 million Americans who are presently uninsured — and for the working class population using a healthplan with a high deductible — are going to face significant costs just to get checked out for the Coronavirus — such as the teacher hit with a $10,000 emergency room bill who got checked out after she returned from Italy. (The irony is that the teacher merely visited the ER and didn’t get tested.)

It’s one thing for Governor Andrew Cuomo to end the seven day waiting period on unemployment. But these benefits must be issued at an amount that is realistic to survive on. Is it fair for the bartenders and waiters now out of work to have to use their two weeks of paid sick leave to survive what may be two months of quarantine? It is not. It is, in fact, deeply inhumane.

Unless our legislators relish the destruction of working-class lives — and there is good reason to believe that Republicans and Democrats alike simply do not care — we must issue a guaranteed income at the federal level during the next two months that kicks in immediately. Creating such a financial cushion for everyone will alleviate stress and encourage people to self-quarantine. For how many of these workers are now looking for alternative income streams that are likely unsafe for them and unsafe for the population?

The Way We Live Now

@grayareapod

I just bought 19 cans of soup. Getting ready for the ##apocalypse. ##Coronavirus ##soup ##stockpile ##pandemic ##quarantine ##food

♬ (Don’t Fear) The Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult

This morning, I bought nineteen cans of soup just to be on the safe side. Tomorrow, I will purchase a great deal more, along with numerous rolls of toilet paper, which is now in high demand. Regular people are now snapping at each other in once civilized venues. Personally, I’d rather come out of this with a modest sense of dignity. But that requires a great deal of prep. I’m seeing supermarket shelves in my neighborhood turn into barren cavities of emptiness. As for the soup, I’m watching the grocery circulars like a hawk for good deals. I’ve never purchased this much soup at one time in my life. But strange times require strange measures. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching far too many apocalyptic movies, it’s this: you can’t trust a government to provide for the people. Especially when you have a sociopathic nincompoop out of his depth running things from the top. Weeks will pass. And while the rest of you may be contemplating cannibalism or eating a dead mouse for lunch, I’ll be living it large with Creamy Chicken Noodle. I make it a personal habit to not eat human flesh. And I’m certainly not going to let any damned virus disrupt my culinary sensibilities.

That my life — and yours — could become so easily uprooted is a testament to just how swiftly the Coronavirus has altered the nature of regular life. Sure, you can still ride the subway. But who wants to be on a crowded car? Last night, I decided to grab a beer at a watering hole and wait it out rather than risk some unwanted tango with respiratory particulates. I had touched a subway pole while standing. And this seemed especially foolhardy. So I hit the bar’s bathroom and washed my hands while reciting thirty lines from Hamlet.

Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson contracted the Coronavirus, with their shirtless son Chet insisting, “They’re not tripping.” And that offensive news pretty much kickstarted events as we now live them. Sports organizations have suspended seasons. Broadway has gone dark. Even Disneyland is now closed. Depending on where you live, there are bans on social gatherings with more than 250 or 500 people. The stock market had its worst Dow Jones drop in history. Personally I lost $500. And I’m usually a somewhat savvy investor.

All this went down just in the last 24 hours. If you’re not sitting on a 401k that you can cash out or some savings that will crest you along in the next few months, your life is pretty much fucked if you don’t have a traditional nine-to-five job. And that’s the conversation nobody wants to have right now. You can’t really meet people. but you can have hilarious phone conversations. You can’t perform or be out in public. You can’t date. If you’re a business that relies on social interaction to survive, then your quotidian way of getting by has been heinously compromised. This is, in short, a disaster.

On the other hand, maybe we needed this. We operate in a world in which life flits by at a pace that people could not imagine a century ago. And maybe a pause from this regular onslaught might cause us to reflect on what the presently ignoble corporate covenant with the American worker truly is. Why do we share so much? Why must we be constantly on call to show how essential we are? Looking at this from the other end of the telescope, we do know that the stock market was eventually going to take a snooze with the bears. And when it recovers in about six months, it won’t be nearly as bad as it could have been, had it collapsed in “more natural” conditions. More importantly, the Coronavirus will undoubtedly expose just how Third World America is in relation to healthcare. The terrible Faustian bargain of working for the Man just so you and your family can get a shitty deductible. Well, that’s pure evil. By every objective standard. Here in America, we’re going to see a terrible uptick in Coronavirus cases in the next few weeks. We’re going to see people die. Just as they did in Italy, which is four weeks ahead of us and better equipped for this pandemic than we are. But Americans will die nonetheless. And this is something that never needed to happen. And it would not have happened, had we been committed to universal healthcare and gentle honesty.

The way we live now needs to be one of increasing isolation if we want to stand any chance of stopping this — a slam dunk for introverts, but a tough sell for the rest of us. We have been living on borrowed time for a few decades. And it took a crazy virus to reveal the terrible truth of how we don’t look out for each other. That it should take a pandemic hitting at the human race out of the blue to reveal our skewered priorities says much, I think, about how much harder we need to give a damn about other people and enact policies that will allow them to thrive. For thrive we must. Against the Coronavirus. Against all the forces that vitiate our possibilities. Against anything that gets in the way of people living their best possible lives.

We’re All Going to Die: A Special Guest Column

[Reluctant Habits recently reached out to Horace Flipperbottom, a former Department of the Interior official and author of the memoir, Twelve Years in a Bunker: How I Had Fun While Living as a Recluse, to get some thoughts about what to expect about the Coronavirus strain now sweeping the world.]

Some may view the Department of the Interior as the government’s answer to an unwanted cable channel that is part of a promising television bundle. Sure, you’re never going to watch our shows or even know the type of television we produce. But you can’t deny the fact that we are here. Anyway, I served for sixteen years in the Department of the Interior. Sure, nobody noticed me when I rolled in late to work and, on Fridays, my coworkers never asked what type of wild weekend plans were ahead of me. But I did serve as a government official nonetheless. And this has to count for something! So when The Atlantic came calling, asking me to express some thoughts alongside my DHS colleague Juliette Kayyem, I was more than happy to tell them to stick their invite where the sun don’t shine and take up Mr. Champion’s more enticing offer to speak my mind here. (Mr. Champion, knowing of my great passion for mini golf, was kind enough to offer me a $25 Scandia Fun Center voucher for my thoughts, even though I cannot use it during these tough antisocial times.) Sure, they laughed at me not long after the Y2K virus hit and I holed up for a dozen years in a bunker with thousands of cans. But, dammit, I’m alive! And because I am alive, this makes me very well qualified to speak about what to expect with the disease known as COVID-19. Because staying alive when you know there’s a minor chance that a lot of people could die sooner rather than later is, as my job recruiter has informed me, a skill that you want to highlight on your resume.

I’ve been urging people, in as calm a tone as I can muster, to listen to the experts, advising people about the benefits of never talking to another soul for twelve years. Advice like mine is meant to be empowering, but now I fear it may also be misleading. Because avoiding people just isn’t going to cut it. You need to view anyone other than yourself as a potential COVID-19 carrier. Other human beings are your enemy. If America believes that life is going to continue as normal, they may be wrong. They could also be right. But when you look at any probability figure, the important thing to remember in this grand game is that your only guarantee of living during a pandemic is to exist with the odds stacked in your favor. And if that means living a joyless life without people and firmly committed to paranoia, so be it. The facts are these: You could catch the Coronavirus from anyone. You should probably be sitting on a gigantic stockpile of toilet paper and alcoholic hand sanitizer, even if you have to rob a Costco warehouse and take out a few people during the heist. You should learn how to fire guns in the event that someone catches onto the fact that you have more toilet paper and hand sanitizer than anybody else. It’s a simple Darwinian formula. Survival of the fittest. Those who know how to keep a fresh roll of soft Charmin near the bunker toilet for twelve years are going to come out of this just fine. Plus, you’ll be able to touch your face without feeling self-conscious.

Disruptions are almost certain to multiply in the weeks to come. You will have more reason to reconsider some stranger on the subway scratching his ass as a diabolical threat to your health. They’re canceling conferences and gatherings not out of panic, but because, even if we didn’t have the Coronavirus to contend with, the human race was long overdue to test out a protracted period of not socializing with each other, perhaps bonding over endearing videos uploaded to YouTube featuring cats attempting to live out their luxurious lives while wearing face masks.

Aggressive steps are essential to protecting the public from a virus that could be deadly or that could be a temporary footnote in our culture, perhaps momentarily popular like Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” or La Roux’s “Bulletproof.” Yes, people will still perform these one hit wonders at karaoke years later and wonder what all the fuss was all about. But for those of us in know, we will be able to say to the COVID-19 virus, “You may have been temporary and inexplicably popular, thanks in part to the willingness of media to cover you in ways that caused these songs to infect the minds of most people who were surfing the Internet while bored at work. But we took you seriously when you endured! And we will never forget you!”

I live in suburban Massachusetts. When I emerged from the bunker, I built a frighteningly enormous home with aggressive air purifiers, one protected by towering walls filigreed with painful barbed wire. I vote by absentee ballot and my vote is often Republican. I don’t leave my home. I don’t take any chances. I stopped taking chances when I realized that leaving my fortified compound involved minute but nevertheless undeniable risk. I am insulated by vast wealth. My neighbors are white and male and libertarian. Many of them have gone through divorces, but they still live lonely yet meaningful lives. My neighbors and I communicate by telegraph. We’re doing what we can to keep Morse code alive. My neighbors and I will never again set foot in the real world. We’ve been waiting for something like the Coronavirus to happen for a long time. Some may say that being part of a rich and sheltered elite is a bad place to be as you’re speculating about what may happen to the American people. But the way I see it, you have two choices. You can leave the house and risk the possibility that you can die. Or you can die on your own antiseptic terms.

The fact remains that we’re all going to die. It’s just a question of whether or not we want to risk the low probability of dropping dead in the real world or kicking the bucket on our own terms. As I write this, twenty-two people have died in the United States from COVID-19. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration informs us that 102 people die from auto accidents each day. A death is a death is a death — as I believe the poet Gertrude Stein once wrote. I will never drive a car. I will never leave my home. I will live by taking no risks. Please join me in my noble quest.

The Super Tuesday Hangover

I’m going to be avoiding political news for the rest of the week. I’m doing this for my own sanity. I have an audio drama to finish editing and freelancing jobs to carry on with and lovely actors to record some insert scenes with. And frankly, like many of you who were disappointed in last night’s results, I need to devote my time and energy to summon hope and positivism and joy after the sorrow and sleeplessness caused by Super Tuesday. (I finally did get some sleep. But it wasn’t easy. And I know I wasn’t alone. I was texting with three friends at 4 AM, all of us up, all of us worried, all of us advocating for different candidates, all of us seeing the shocking reality ahead of us. What serious political wonk looking at the long game implications wasn’t up at an ungodly hour contemplating the horrific consequences of four more years of Cheeto?)

The Democratic Establishment, a cowardly entity that prioritized a formula that didn’t work in 2016 and that went all in on a doddering Wonder Bread spokesman who cannot get names, dates, or places right and who is less inspiring than Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and George McGovern combined, decided that Joe Biden would be the man to defeat Trump and coordinated accordingly in Dallas on Monday night. Even the best polls inform us that Biden can barely muster little more than 50% against the worst President that this nation has ever had the misfortune to endure.

I will vote for Biden if he is the frontrunner. But he won’t get a dime from me. I won’t campaign for him. I have no enthusiasm for this man whatsoever. I may as well be voting for a potted plant that can occasionally form coherent sentences while it is being watered. Honestly, someone needs to find Corn Pop and get his side of the story. I’m guessing Biden wasn’t nearly as tough as he thought he was.

Sure, we have to vote for him in November if it comes to that. We have little choice. But Joe Biden is not a man for the people. He is not a unity candidate. He is meaner than Bernie and more of a bully. Biden’s needless attacks and insults on voters — such as berating the two vets who bravely confronted his pro-war record in Oakland, calling an Iowa voter “a damn liar,” and telling another voter questioning his policy that he was fat — are not the stuff of a President who must consider the viewpoints of others and remain coolheaded and respectful when facing justified criticism. Frankly, Biden’s conduct here is far more Trumpian than any comparisons that have been applied to Bernie.

And poor Elizabeth Warren. She couldn’t even carry her own state. She refused to see the writing on the wall and stayed in the race too long. And now Warren and Sanders supporters are at each other’s throats on social media. Fractiousness and divisiveness. The stuff we don’t need right now. The best thing that Warren can do — if she truly believes in progressive policy — is to drop out of the race and persuade her followers to vote for Bernie. That’s the only way we’ll get a progressive President at this point. But it’s not likely. It looks like we’re all going to be holding the bag for a gaffe machine.

November will be the equivalent of attending a mandatory corporate meeting and falling asleep and getting reprimanded for not paying attention to the floundering and boring old man, devoid of innovation and originality and true awareness, spearheading the PowerPoint shitshow that expresses little more than vanilla platitudes and the status quo and a remarkably uninspiring litany of mainstream awfulness. I will vote — like many, without a shred of passion or conviction, holding my nose the entire way, much like someone disposing of a rat caught in a glue trap, feeling the sense that I am not changing a damn thing and knowing that Biden is as inspiring as accidentally walking into a giant heap of moldy white bread during a morning stroll — and I will probably go home right after my vote and drink many shots of whiskey, contemplating how the DNC cowered and caved when they could have created hope and dreams and inspiration and built upon Bernie’s coalition and given more than a few fucks about universal healthcare and a world in which people didn’t have to go bankrupt to stay healthy. Amy, Beto, Pete — all easily purchased pawns. When Trump wins again in November, they will have to live with this. I’m sure they’ll sleep quite well. After all, they had to be promised something. The worst thing about all this is that all of America will fall victims to authoritarianism and abject cruelty and a nation in which income inequality and exploiting the poor and the middle class is ever more the status quo. Good hard-working American people who clearly don’t deserve to be sacrificed to the corporate gods worshipped by neoliberal centrist cowards — this will be the new normal. And it will take at least a decade to recover from this madness. That’s the best case scenario.

Yes, it’s vital to accept realism. But we cannot lose hope despite these nightmarish truths. It fills me with sadness to see a remarkable progressive movement manipulated and short-changed so expertly by an Establishment instilling fear in swing voters who were, only days before yesterday, completely in the tank for Bernie. Perhaps we were fools in believing that progressive momentum would continue unabated. Still, it was the best kind of foolishness: the one that involved taking care of others, standing for something bigger than ourselves, believing that people were worthy of human rights and dignity, feeling empathy and passion and conviction, and placing pure energy in a beautiful dream that the Democrats could once again return to their roots and alter the national landscape and improve wellbeing much as they had with the New Deal and the Great Society. Still, it’s equally important to not have your hopes and spirits and idealism and ambitions paralyzed by the truth. And who wants to listen to hopelessness? I certainly don’t want to be guided by it.

We will rise again. We will fight again. Bernie is still a long shot. But do we want to tell our grandchildren that we didn’t go the distance? It may take years, but we have no other choice. For now, let us regroup and be gentle and be true and be bold and crack jokes so that we can find the faith again. That is what gets people eventually on the right side. That is the true path to unity.

My Evening with James Lipton

I had just moved to New York City and I was then a punkish and somewhat obnoxious independent podcaster who did ridiculously comprehensive and quirky interviews with authors. I had, like many other film and book geeks, been a devout watcher of Inside the Actors Studio. You didn’t know whether or not Lipton was serious or playing an absurdist role — especially with the Proust questionnaire. But you did have the sense that you were seeing someone who was orchestrating a somewhat important conversation, even if the dignified atmosphere didn’t always feel entirely earned.

Anyway, I learned that James Lipton had a book called Inside Inside and, purely because I had nothing to lose and my approach has always been to ask other people to be involved with my silly projects and see if they want to have fun (a surprising number of people are game), I sent an interview request to the publisher.

Amazingly, Lipton’s people said that he would be very keen to talk with me and that I’d get one hour with him.

I couldn’t believe it. I called some of my old buddies in California.

“Dude, James Lipton himself is going to be on The Bat Segundo Show!”

“No way!”

“That’s awesome!”

Sure, Lipton wasn’t the hugest name. He was some guy on the Bravo network. But he was known for being thoughtful — perhaps too thoughtful — towards the big names. He even had the decency to appreciate Will Ferrell’s impersonation of him on Saturday Night Live. And I suppose that free-wheeling, vaguely classy attitude was what made him someone who you couldn’t discount, even if you found him a little too serious at times. Inside the Actors Studio‘s atmosphere was generous with its time and it allowed you — to cite one of many examples — to see Robin Williams’s creative mind at work after taking a scarf from the audience and spending the next few minutes improvising with it. Lipton was often ridiculed for these efforts. But nobody, not even me, knew how much of a gent he was. But I’ll get to that in a bit.

I set up the interview in a restaurant. Lipton arrived, wearing vast swaths of makeup (he had just come off a television interview), and seemed a little uncomfortable with my microphone setup on the table. I started with some of my goofy questions. This was what I usually did to break the ice before I went into the serious stuff. But Lipton looked lost, caught in some internal sea of melancholy. I wondered if I had somehow said something to piss off James Lipton. This has been known to happen. I do have a tendency to shoot off my mouth, largely unknowingly. I ended up stopping the mic and asking, “Hey, man, are you okay?” He said he wasn’t feeling well and that he wanted to reschedule. He told me that I was a thoughtful young man and he offered deep apologies. I was baffled. Then he left the table and seemed to be deeply ashamed.

I sat there, bewildered, packing up my gear. There was little else I could do. Then I received a call from the publicist. The publicist told me — and the two of us both seemed to be worried about Lipton — that Lipton had received a brutal review of his book in a major newspaper that morning and that he felt embarrassed, leaving me like that. Could Lipton make it up to me? Could I meet Lipton that evening at his Upper East Side townhouse? I was stunned. Lipton really wanted to do the interview with me and do me a solid. “Yes,” I said calmly and professionally. I then quickly called my friends and said, “Holy shit! I’m meeting Lipton at his house! Should I dress up?”

I did dress up a little bit. And I arrived on time. I met Lipton’s wife, Kedekai, and I was firmly in Lipton Land. I was offered good scotch, which I politely declined. Kedekai came out with a large dish of snacks. And Lipton — still wearing television makeup — emerged and again offered profuse apologies for not being able to go through with the interview that afternoon. He showed me around his house. There was a room in which every wall was festooned with framed letters and photos of Lipton with his arm around big shot actors. “This collection is a little embarrassing,” said Lipton, who I suspected had said the same thing to everyone. But I actually thought his collection was somewhat endearing. Basically, Lipton was a huge geeky fan of actors. But for a man of Lipton’s generation, this was something you didn’t announce.

What impressed me more than this was how much of a gentleman Lipton had been. I was just some silly online guy who did interviews and here Lipton and his wife were treating me like royalty, lavishing me with such incredibly generous hospitality that I wondered if they had somehow mixed me up with someone else.

Lipton told me that I was someone who was different from the usual media people he talked with. Yes, I had read his 512 page memoir in full before talking with the man. I did this with every guest on my show. But this seemed to astonish Lipton. He clearly wasn’t used to this or anyone doing this kind of intense research. I got the sense that Lipton was a man who was secretly very shy and introverted and who really wanted to be taken seriously by people, but who usually wasn’t. I was apparently that rara avis interview where Lipton would be able to be Liptona at length.

We started rolling tape. You can listen to the interview here. And the two of us had a thoughtful, sometimes very funny, and gently revealing conversation of just how Lipton lived and operated in the way that he did. By simply allowing James Lipton to be himself, and being genuinely interested in him (as I was with all the people I interviewed), I was able to get an incredibly fascinating portrait of the man. Maybe Lipton needed the Lipton approach done with him. I don’t know. But when we finished the conversation, Lipton thanked me profusely and said that it was the best interview he had ever received. He asked for my mailing address. I gave it to him and, for many years, I received a Christmas card annually like clockwork.

I think what people failed to understand about Lipton is that he both liked to please people but he did this because he wanted to be known and loved and respected. But he wasn’t the kind of man who wanted to advertise this need. Because the Inside the Actors Studio persona was one of gravitas and seriousness. Lipton laughed very loud at my jokes in the comfort of his home and when the mic wasn’t on, but he grew very serious when he knew we were recording.

What I do know is that, for about two hours of my life, I was able to give Lipton some unconditional love and respect. Perhaps because I wasn’t a journalistic vulture. I was more of a guy who greatly enjoyed talking with people and accepting them on their own terms. But I had learned some of these moves by watching Inside the Actors Studio.