Baking for the Pandemic: A Communal Refuge for Art
ANTHONY REALE

This morning, I woke up and drove twenty-five and a half miles away from where I live. I was, as I have tended to be this year, alone and listening to a queue full of podcasts. The NEOWISE comet, discovered only in March this year, was passing close to the Earth (enough to see its icy body sublimating into a beautiful tail) and I traveled to see it in a darker part of Los Angeles at this ungodly hour of the morning.

Sitting on top of a slightly beaten Mazda, I stared at the heavenly body, wondering if its 6,766-year orbit would start to feel lonely for the compounded dust and ice. I am — however unfortunately — obsessed with Poetic Thinking (with a capital P) like this. It’s my nature to feel slightly lonely despite normally being surrounded by people I love. This is especially challenging now, as I’m sure it is for so many. The loneliness we’re feeling (as long as you’ve remained locked down, I should stipulate) is not permanent, but four months’ marching by has taken on a tortoise-like pace: we’re trapped inside a loop of days that incessantly bring the torture of more news. 

In the face of headlines, quack remedies, and political opportunists bombarding me at every turn, I sought (and found) community in any way possible. But like much of our day-to-day lives, it came and went, held in perfect focus one minute, perfectly present then suddenly gone, like a comet’s icy tail.

NEOWISE – The Comet & The Story of The Spacecraft Which Discovered It | Source: Scott Manley/YouTube

When we began our lockdown (How’s the virus going? Did it really disappear with the summer heat like someone thought it would?) I immediately and unconsciously moved to isolate myself from my friends and family. This is a classic move, drawn from the deep reservoirs of the repertoire of self-destructive behaviors that I excel in corralling myself with. I was still working at that time (doing the essential work of placing mail on empty desks) and I didn’t want any contact with anyone. Plenty of people still reached out, but I let the messages sing their little songs and build up, testing the virility of the mental dam I shored up against outside contact.

The loneliness we’re feeling […] is not permanent, but four months’ marching by has taken on a tortoise-like pace: we’re trapped inside a loop of days that incessantly bring the torture of more news.

Thankfully, the class of 2020 graduated, and the friends I have from that cohort scheduled a recurring happy hour for every Thursday from now until this mess subsides — and unless statues of Confederate traitors happen to have a vaccine hidden in their pedestals, we’re going to be video calling until 2023. I digress, but I don’t want to. They taught me to reach out and ask to see people, instead of mistakenly relying on hope to schedule plans I am happy they did; their immediate moves to make space for a consistent interval for social interaction 2.0 planted the seed for the expansion of artistic space. I thrive in times where I can recognize the people around me to be workshoppers who will provide constructive criticism when presented with new writings. Before we flattened the curve (now a defunct act seeing as we did nothing to prepare for reopening) I met twice a month with a group of friends based here in Los Angeles who wanted to work on improvising and performing. We were trying to keep our minds sharp, stay quippy, and keep in contact as a group of performers who enjoyed working together. Now lacking the ability to congregate, we needed a solution to allow us to thrive.

Baking Together

As every social event creakily attempted the imperfect process of going online so the now-cantankerous denizens of the United States of Covidica could still experience a version of the events they enjoyed before the Great Bungling of 2020, I, too, found myself scheduling more happy hours. This regular group of performers, usually in front of me physically, now must be spread before me, their faces like a deck of cards I won’t be able to hold in my hands for some time now. Unable to meet at a friend’s theater in a forgotten corner of Hollywood, we opted to see each other, locked in these two-dimensional boxes for the time being. We acted like most folks did in the beginning — meeting to check the social interaction box, laughing haphazardly as our digital happy hours replaced hugs and drinks shared before live performances.


I feel lucky that I am not left to my own devices during 2020. Thankfully, my literal devices allow me to gather — my own horrible, distorted visage watching me — virtually with my loved ones. I know from experience that being left alone with myself is a coin flip: I can’t be sure if I will be happy as the proverbial clam who is thinking of filter-feeding some excellent plankton or I considering how existence’s prison continually beats me with the lead pipe of consciousness. I hate thinking.


I’m writing this leg of the essay from my phone, a black obelisk that renders me manic, ecstatic, overwhelmed, and inert. My relationship to this trove of information that weighs almost half of a half of a pound. The constant stream of news and notifications, so wondrous in its pretense of making me more informed, warped into a nightmare as each buzz or pop would tell me how much we didn’t know about the virus. How many people were taking ill, how much the economy was valued over human life, and how we, surging to reopen and BE NORMAL, would find that normalcy leads to where we are now. The very same thing that let me talk to people across the county, the country, and the world now trapped me in an isolation without any real vaccine — as it did many others, I’m sure.

There is no greater privilege than being allowed to forget for any period of time.

As I continued working as an essential mailroom worker for a major produce company, I shut my notifications off. No more would my phone update me unprompted; if I wanted to feel the grip of fear, I’d have to go looking for it. I commonly joke about how blissful I’d be if I paid less attention, and I can confirm that letting the black rectangle rein in the banners let me be blissfully unaware, up until the point that I clicked on the manicured, uppercase T that began to stand for the diametric opposition and even oppression of joy. Compartmentalizing the world was immensely curative — to a point, as with covering one’s feet with a blanket only keeps the bogeyman away until a toe reemerges.

Messy Dough

Sure, I can stave the bogeyman off for now, but then he returns to remind you that there’s no plan.

I have tried to consider our current situation from every side, but I have finally come to terms with the fact that there’s no plan to get out of the clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic. The concept of ‘returning to the normal’ is over; we’re in the new normal now. Remember when we could touch people without thinking about the potential ramifications of a hug? Or when this virus was supposed to disappear when the weather got hot? Or when we were never going to hit 100,000 deaths? I don’t mean to sound glib, because I’m not trying to be pithy in the slightest. I’ve never been more upset. People are dying en masse from something we could have kept under control, but we fucked up. We let someone be in charge who could give a shit about human life.

There isn’t a way to learn how to cope with everything we have to cope with. We’re constantly plugged in; we know what’s happening with sex traffickers, viruses, trade, economic freefall, an overdue uprising, and no plan. We are aware of everything now, just as nature never intended. I do not suggest a return to ignorance, but I am grasping at the idea that the world has finally found its breaking point. All I can help to do is wonder how we’ll explain ourselves in the future.

Finger with Flour

My habit of isolating myself when things take on a more difficult tenor has not survived these four months. Believe me, I tried: to isolate, to follow my impulsive, destructive tendency. While I was still working — the “essential” work of placing mail on the empty desks in the empty offices of a produce company — I followed a vicious spiral: wake up sweaty after sleeping poorly; check the news about the cases and deaths; walk to work and marvel at the fact that I didn’t experience any near-death experiences in the surprisingly empty Los Angeles streets; and work an entire day in an empty office, finding places to sit alone because there weren’t enough tasks to work for the whole day (on several occasions, I did walk into my boss’s office to find him asleep at his desk). The world was horrible, supposedly solid ground shifting under everyone’s feet all at once. Every day was this. I recall telling my friends and family that I was thankful to keep my job, but I could feel my anxiety calcify as I approached my workplace every day.

In the face of headlines, quack remedies, and political opportunists bombarding me at every turn, I sought (and found) community in any way possible.

In what felt like a way to solve this, I found a friend that I could spend some time with every day; someone who worked on the seventh floor left a small potted plant behind when they began working from home. My task became taking care of that small plant. I would spend about twenty minutes each day standing in a stranger’s cubicle, where I would water, sing to, and talk to the plant. After about two weeks, the plant sprouted! I couldn’t have been happier. I kept up my routine until an unexpected tragedy struck: who worked in that cubicle must’ve remembered they left someone behind in the rush to lock down and returned to rescue the small sprouts I relied on for company.

The devastation of something you spend time loving and caring for being taken away is demoralizing at the least. I know what you might be thinking, “Anthony, you’re talking about a plant here, let’s be realistic,” to which I respond: please let me have this small thing. If I know anything about humanity, it’s that we have the ability to impress meaning onto things within a way that borderlines compulsivity.

I was laid off three weeks after this disappearance.

Plant

I don’t remember how exactly it came up, but I knew that our group of theatre folk needed a way to express the compounding creativity, now forced to live within our brains instead of collaboratively expressed. Out of a potentially self-serving need, I blurted out that we should try something new together one day during a happy hour, my square lighting up as it processed that I was speaking. The group was quiet as I explained the bake-off, a concept I had learned about from a friend participating in one. The basic process, reminiscent of a recipe-to-table affair, included writing a performance text including five basic textual ingredients in an expedient timeframe.

I was excited to have my friends and collaborators agree to my vague plan: the bake-off, a chance to try something new, to be creative, to engage each other on subjects beyond the present malaise. After we left our virtual bar, I set to work: there were guidelines to be written, ingredients to be conjured from my brain, and dates to be scheduled! The assembling of a recipe card requires some thought, but that type of work is entertaining to say the least: imagine getting to put together a list of any five objects that are required to be in a set of performance texts. Nothing is off-limits (at least, things within my concept of human decency). After a night, I had my first recipe card: a baby blanket, spicy mustard, vengeance, a 1989 Toyota Tercel, and driftwood used in an unexpected manner were the first ingredients.

Kneading Dough

A group of eight people received my bake-off recipe card. I don’t know statistics to be honest, but the amount of ways you can use that list of ingredients seems endless. To digress into just the uses of spicy mustard momentarily, I saw it used as a description of afternoon sunlight, nail polish, a snack, a painful prank when mixed with yellow eyeshadow, and others. The genres of the texts varied from small-town coming-of-age narrative to a lawsuit battled tooth-and-nail in the infamous court for drag queens. When we all met this first time, I was allowed a brief moment of respite, time to think about nothing. There is no greater privilege than being allowed to forget for any period of time.


That horrible black rectangle that I am paying a quite generous monthly sum for (what kind of financial hobbling did I sign myself for?) did become a life raft despite its main task of dunking me in the ocean of anxiety. Daily video calls with my friends began characterizing my phone use; instead of feeling the urge to check the caseloads, I found myself across from people still at my alma mater, locked down in the same small, eastern Washington town that I recently left under different, joyous circumstances. I strengthened friendships with people who I didn’t know so well in college, surprising myself with how easily words came to me and conversations stretched and spanned entire afternoons. To distort a quote by Spears: my loneliness was not killing me (and I found a way to bargain with this algorithm-ruled device).


The success of these bake-offs has been beyond anything I ever could have imagined. I hope I have expressed how much my friends have helped me figure out which way was right-side up. They thank me during our calls, but I truly can’t thank them enough. We’ve worked ourselves into the shape of a community during these times, and I have learned so much about what it takes to be happy during life. I don’t want to cross into the realm of the cliche or corny, but serving the community is what matters most. When the community is thriving, we all do better. All boats rise in the tide — contradicting that is inane. I learned this all over again in this work with my small community. We all needed a place to try the ideas that were rattling inside our skulls, and the fact that people were excited about this idea that I happened to bring to the table was stellar.

We were trying to keep our minds sharp, stay quippy, and keep in contact as a group of performers who enjoyed working together. Now lacking the ability to congregate, we needed a solution to allow us to thrive.

Whether it’s as an artist or as a person, expressing yourself right now is critical. Historical events don’t commonly overlap the way they do right now, but here we are: defying what people thought was possible. Most things are bad: the pandemic that we could control but are choosing not to, record unemployment, unmarked cars — how do you know a fed is a fed when he won’t mark himself accordingly? — are kidnapping protestors off the street, a national government that truly seems indifferent to the fact that now over 150,000 Americans have succumbed to the virus (and don’t tell me that complications are the root cause; the virus exacerbates underlying conditions). A thousand people died nearly every day last week. Some things are beautiful, like the movement for Black lives maintaining momentum in the face of adversity. Recently, a nonprofit in the Pacific Northwest passed the mark of 2.4 million pounds of food delivered to food banks in that region. Two vaccines are in the final stages of human testing. I’m not trying to celebrate victory yet, as there’s plenty of work to do, but humanity finds a way to overcome. The fact that people still find time to do overwhelming good in the face of earth-shattering nightmares proves that apathy, ignorance, and codified oppression is not the natural state of the universe.

Plenty of the performance texts from the bake-offs have dealt with the way our world is, whether directly or indirectly. My first text dealt with children, exploring the way that they play. Young people tend to be dismissed as immature or lacking knowledge, but I believe that they are much more emotionally intelligent that we give them credit for. Children, just like adults, are internalizing our current events, but I think that imagination and play allows for them to process in different ways than adults do. I imagined a world where there were grave stakes within the games — specifically an execution for a lack of loyalty to a usurping barbarian — and considered how children will internalize and digest what they see around them. Despite my need to draw current events inward, I noted that my collaborators have been writing around these things in different ways. We generally speak about what’s happening, but they spend more time trying out new ideas that are less directly related to what’s in the headlines. I don’t know how they do it, but the fact that I am able to notice this trend in my little community is wonderful to me. Artists will do their art, and all we can do is watch. And be changed.

Dough Baking in Oven

Every time a bake-off is over, I walk from the garage and up the ramp that leads back into my house. I have to assign the notes that we all send to each other after — yet another thing that gives me something to do. One might think that hanging up after these calls would reopen tender wounds, but I find that I’m okay, despite closing the connection. I know that the next one is only a few weeks away and that we will have another jovial meeting of our odd and wonderful minds. As I ascend the ramp, I usually look left towards the neighbors’ house, casting my eyes downward in a contradictory moment of shyness if they happen to be in their backyard.

My parents’ neighbors are a collection of young-ish surfers, who have an exceptional vantage into our backyard. I like to think about what they saw once per month: a rumpled twenty-three-year-old marching out the back door to the garage with a laptop, a beer, and a huge smile plastered on his face. I’m sure the surfers heard the collection of voices pouring from the garage, but they never brought it up to me, thankfully. They must have laughed to themselves as they heard me growl in an older man’s voice or over-the-top lispy drawl of a violently (and probably caricatured) Southern person.

I don’t commonly find myself not caring about what other people think of me, but these bake-offs unlock the same thing that I get from being in character onstage. I’m not present anymore, and the character is behind the wheel. This state feels primordial, the magma of a crafted personality. I know this won’t last forever, but I know this will tide me over for now. It feels good to be back.


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