Published March 9, 2020

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Greetings in the name of Thor, Freya, and Odin. Greetings in the name of Chipotle and Popeye’s. Greetings, greetings. We don’t have a Chipotle in Joshua Tree. Or even in Yucca Valley or 29 Palms. It’s the only drawback to living out here. The fact that the nearest Chipotle is in Palm Springs. That’s a long drive. Too long for a burrito, anyway. Around here, we call it “going down the hill,” when we go to Palm Springs or anywhere lower than a thousand feet. And I avoid going down the hill as much as I can.

Up here, there are a bunch of hawks that fly around the house, and we live in a windy area, so sometimes they’ll catch the wind just so and float in one spot. They can stay there floating, not moving, for a long time. It’s spooky to see. Just a hawk floating there in the sky above you. It’s unnatural. Or I suppose it’s perfectly natural. If I could float, I’d float, and I’ll bet if you could float, you’d float. Unless you’re afraid of heights. But maybe you could work out how to float a few feet off the ground. Look into it.

“Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while, a great wind carries me across the sky.”

Anyway, you’re listening to THIS IS NOT A TEST, and I am Michael Phillips. A.K.A. COVID-19, or as my friends call me, Coronavirus. Just kidding, I don’t have any friends. And I don’t care about Coronavirus, or SARS or Mad Cow or Legionnaire’s Disease or Dropsy or Consumption. We’re so bored that we talk about viruses like they were Publishers Clearinghouse sweepstakes or something. Something important like that. I suppose if you get SARS or Coronavirus, it’s a big deal. You probably care about it quite a bit if you’re held captive on your cruise ship five miles outside some port somewhere for a month.

Why do people go on cruise ships? Voluntarily? I don’t get that. You stop at a port or a few ports or whatever for six hours, then you get back on the ship. It’s like checking into a hotel somewhere and being locked in it for a week. They let you out every few days for six hours to go to the Target store or a souvenir shop or something. I don’t get it. What if you get onto the ship and all the other sailors – is that what you call yourselves? Sailors? – what if all the other, I don’t know, passengers are assholes? You’re stuck with them. So it’s not like checking into a hotel, I take that back, it’s like being sent to jail.

Well, the important question of why anyone would get onto a cruise ship aside, yesterday I looked up how many people have died from Coronavirus, and here in America, that number is 19. 19. Meanwhile, here in California, that many people die every two days in car crashes. Five people are murdered every day. Just in California. But Coronavirus, that’s an emergency.

I saw pictures on Instagram of store shelves stripped clean of hand sanitizer, bottled water, and toilet paper. Hand sanitizer, I guess I can see if you’re a politician or deliver pizzas or something. I can kind of see it. But bottled water and toilet paper? Is the world’s toilet paper supply in danger?

I worked at a print shop up in Pacific Palisades in the early 90s, and something was going on down in Los Angeles. Not the big 1992 riots, but something was brewing or bubbling up. Bad things were happening or were predicted to happen. I wish I could remember what it was. Anyway, Pacific Palisades is far from the city part of Los Angeles. Like a world away. Up in the hills overlooking the ocean. Full of people who were Hollywood rich in the 70s. Not really a hotbed of unrest and disruption. But someone came into the print shop and told me they were just at the grocery store and the ladies in furs and pearls were running through the aisles screaming and banging their carts into each other to get the last of the bottled water. In Pacific Palisades.

What is it about bottled water and toilet paper and crazy people? Why do people consumed with irrational fear crave bottled water and hoard toilet paper? Mysterious. Someone should produce a professional podcast about it. With voice actors and dark, foreboding music, and a $100,000 budget. Get one of the Ira Glass imitators to narrate it. Or better yet, get the podcasters from Portlandia. You ever see that? Look it up. It’s funny because it’s true.

What would happen if half the population of the world died in an epidemic or pandemic or pan flute massacre? Really though, what if half of us died? It seems like a lot of people, doesn’t it. What are there, seven and a half billion of us now? So what if Legionnaire’s Disease took half of us out and there were “only” three and three quarter billion people in the world? There were only three billion people when I was born. If half of us died tomorrow, there would still be too many of us left. I don’t think the survivors would be any better off than they are today. Mainly because I have to assume that it would be mostly people of means who would survive, and the top would still be the top, and the bottom would still be the bottom.

Speaking of the top being the top and the bottom being the bottom, “Super Tuesday” happened the other day. The presidential primary vote. Here in California, we call it “Super-Duper Tuesday,” because it’s still new to us and we’re childish that way. We used to vote last; now we’re super. I forgot to check in with what happened after Tuesday. Was it good news for Nixon? It may as well have been. The other day I was talking to someone older than I am if you can imagine such a thing, and she is someone who, as she pointed out, “marched with Bernie Sanders back in the 60s,” which I didn’t know was a thing, but okay. And she said what everyone says, which is, we’re more divided as a country than we ever have been.

She was older than I was in the 60s, but I was alive and aware in the 60s, even if I was only seven years old during the summer of love. But I mentioned that what’s happening now is nothing new, that we’ve always been divided, and I mentioned the 60s, but she swatted that aside and said: “It’s much worse now than in the 60s.”

Boy, I don’t know about that. I knew what was going on in the 60s and early 70s, and if you think the country is more divided now than it was then, you should really find a time machine and go back and check it out. And didn’t we have a, a what do they call it, a civil war not long ago? Our civil war ended less than a hundred years before I was born, so I consider that recent.

So I don’t know. I think as a country we’re plenty familiar with division, and to say it’s worse now than it’s ever been is just talk. There’s more news now than there’s ever been, I think that’s the problem. Or more of what calls itself news. People can sit around and read about Trump or Putin or Hillary’s pizza whorehouse all day long and get themselves worked up and obsess over things that it doesn’t do them any good to obsess over. I think it’s that constant exposure to all of the crap that floods every hole in our heads that’s made people believe things are worse than they’ve ever been. Doesn’t every generation think things are worse than they’ve ever been?

Something has changed, though. I’m not sure it’s worse than it was in the past, but I do sometimes wonder when we stopped caring about each other. Just in a general sense. Like in a my neighbor’s-roof-collapsed-and-I’m-going-over-to-help-him-fix-it kind of way. Rather than the fuck-you-if-your-roof-collapsed-it’s-probably-becasue-you’re-lazy-and-voted-for-a-woman kind of vibe that seems to permeate everything these days. The way we don’t care about anyone we don’t know or can’t see. It feels like that used to be different.

Maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know. There is a business philosophy about the size of companies. Something about companies becoming unmanageable or unknowable when they get up over 150 people. Something about the limits of how many people we can actually really know or remember or something. So maybe when our communities were more spread out, we cared more because our circles were smaller. But I don’t really believe that either.

But yeah, when did helping people go out of style? When did making sure everyone can go talk to a doctor become some kind of vile, repugnant, unamerican concept? When did making sure no one starved on the streets of our cities become a “communist” idea? When did the rich convince everyone else that what’s good for the rich is good for everyone? And more importantly, why hasn’t generations of evidence to the contrary made non-rich people question the idea?

That’s a lot of questions, isn’t it? Well, I never said I was the answer man. Or the gas man or the hootchie cootchie man. And really, I don’t wonder about those things. I think I know how they happened. They didn’t just happen. People made them happen. People convinced other people that what was in their best interest was really bad for them and their precious country. They did that, and they did it on purpose, and this is the world they’ve created. But they don’t care because they can just lift up their mansions and move them to higher ground when the water rises.

But I’ll be damned if there wasn’t a time when we did care whether each other dropped dead in the streets or suffered or were even uncomfortable. I swear I remember such days, somewhere back in the hazy recollection of my recollection machine.

I keep my recollection machine next to my time machine out in the garage. Carol keeps saying, “We could park our cars in there if you’d get rid of that junk,” but I’ve had it up on eBay and Craigslist for months, and no one is interested.

Politics and humanity are exhausting. But I suppose life is exhausting. I know I spend five days a week writing articles for idiots, and it’s wearing me down. I should probably explain what I mean by that. If you will allow me a geek digression for a minute. You won’t have to be a geek to know what I’m talking about, I promise.

Anyway, to explain the ‘idiot’ bit. I don’t write articles for idiots, the people who read the articles aren’t idiots. But I’m forced to use formats and techniques that are geared toward idiots. And those formats and techniques are geared toward idiots because they were conceived by idiots.

We often think that the rest of the world is just like us. So, like me, I walk around assuming everyone in the world is cool and sophisticated and heartbreakingly beautiful, just like I am. And idiots walk around thinking everyone in the world is an idiot. What I’m really talking about here is a thing, a weird microcosm of the Internet called search engine optimization. Or SEO as it is imaginatively called. The world of SEO is ruled by imbeciles and con men. That’s really about all you need to know about it. But of course, I’m going to tell you more.

See, Google is the key to making a website successful. If you care about success. I’ve never cared because “success” on the web is meaningless unless you’re selling something. But I find the real SEO stuff, the inside Google stuff to be fascinating. And the tinkerer in me is drawn to it. I was able to study SEO with a master, a guy named Bruce Clay when I worked at my last job. And that stuff, the real search engine optimization is a fun, giant hunk of black box technology to play with.

But then on the other hand we have empty-headed pandering douchebags who many people on the web worship for some reason. They made ten dollars doing Internet marketing or something and they all write in a style you may have come across where every sentence is its own paragraph. It’s unreadable. You have to scroll three times just to take in a single thought. And then you see that the thought was stupid anyway and you’ve wasted your time.

But they do that, make every sentence a paragraph, because the hive mind of SEO, the speculators and charlatans have a rule that says your paragraphs and sentences have to be short or no human beings will ever read what you’ve written. Your paragraphs and sentences have to be short, and your article has to be short – or very long, they haven’t seemed to decide which yet – and it has to be written in language that a toddler could understand.

This really happened to me about a month ago. I was writing some articles for a potential job. Usually, when you’re looking for a writing gig, they want to see what you can write. No problem, I knew the subject well, and I sent them a well-researched and, dare I say expertly written piece. They got back to me and were generally positive but said, “The only problem is you wrote it for 10th or 11th-grade audience. We need it to be for a fourth or fifth-grade audience.”

It wasn’t an article about video games or sneaking into R rated movies, it was a technical article about building forms for websites. A tutorial. For a technical product. For grown-ups. But they wanted – no, their inflexible rules required – a fourth-grade reading level.

You know, that in and of itself isn’t a problem. If you look at what things need, what a certain article needs and then say, okay, give me something for middle-school readers. That’s fine. And not for nothing, but one of the best skills I’ve honed over the years is communicating very technical things in a less technical way, but not a condescending or insult-to-your-intelligence kind of way. That’s a valuable and, I’ve found, an unusual skill. If you don’t believe me try to do it sometime. Actually, don’t try. You’d just embarrass us both.

But when you create rules and apply them to all writing and all audiences across the board, you end up with shit soup. You end up with lowest common denominator garbage that is insulting to anyone with any knowledge about the subject. Or any knowledge period. You end up with a help article that can’t help anyone, because it’s too stupid.

So if there are many disciples in that scene, a character named Yoast is the Jesus. If you use WordPress, you may have installed the Yoast SEO plugin. It applies a bunch of arbitrary SEO “rules” to your writing and rates its SEO-y-ness, I guess. I use it because it does a couple of useful technical things. But in my day to day writing for money, I have to use all of it, and I have to appease it and make it happy by writing things that are only appropriate for idiots.

Following rules like, oh, make most of your sentences under 20 words. You know how many words 20 words is? Not many. Not when you’re trying to explain technical things. And you have to have a certain number of internal links, that is, links back to your own site, and links to outside sites. And you have to use your keyword in your image tags and this section here, this is more than 300 words. Break it up with a heading. Imagine that, a section with more than 300 words. How on earth will anyone ever read it?!

It’s just a long list of rules like those that it checks the writing for and gives you a sad red failure warning if you break too many of them. If you want the happy green light, which I have to have for every article I write for my job, you have to dumb things down considerably.

But the point of this rambling diatribe is that none of those writing rules make one bit of difference in search engine optimization. There’s one thing Google cares about, and that’s relevance. Is what you have there on your little page on the vast world wide web relevant to what the searcher is looking for? If it is, Google will do its best to guide the searcher to it. Whether it’s written for eight-year-olds or college professors who use words as a form of intimidation or in defense of unnaturally low self-esteem.

Google doesn’t care about the tone or level of the writing; they care about relevance. Yet somehow, the parade of SEO clowns have convinced everyone that they know what they’re talking about and that following their rules will rocket you to the top of the search results. It won’t. If your site isn’t relevant, it isn’t relevant, and Google is going to list you on page 500 of the results. Which is the same as not listing you at all. Actually, SEO experts will tell you that page two may as well not be listed, but they’re idiots, remember?

I’m sure the mysterious Yoast and all the self-proclaimed experts know some things about SEO that are correct. I mean, they have to. If you pull 100 things out of your ass, the odds are that one of them won’t stink. But they’ve done so much damage that it’s hard to give them credit for anything.

If people actually are becoming more stupid, and I don’t happen to subscribe to that common belief, but if they are, then it’s idiot “content” like those stooges generate that’s making them that way.

Content. That’s what they call it. It’s not “writing,” or “articles,” or “information,” or even “pieces,” it’s content. Content. Like the saltwater in a pickle jar. The contents.

Saying “content” when you’re talking about writing is one of those business idiot terms that people like to use to justify the money their parents spent on college. Like “thought leadership,” “deep dive,” “move the needle,” “brick and mortar,” “value add,” “loop in,” “drill down,” “pain point,” or “let’s take this offline.” Buzzwords and phrases that telegraph a lack of imagination and tendency to follow when the people using them believe they are telegraphing the opposite of that or some kind of exclusive knowledge.

Content. Those plastic monkeys in the plastic yellow barrel, content. The septic tank under the house I live in, content.

It makes me feel bad, writing the round pegs into the round holes. Painting by the numbers. Pandering to deplorables. Ha, just kidding.

How about that movie where “elites” hunt and kill “deplorables”? How about that? What a great idea for a movie. Never mind that it’s been done a hundred times. Like every other movie. What we really need are more T.V. shows about cops. And lawyers and doctors. We really need more of those. Right?

But writing things that are intentionally dumb gets old really fast. It makes doing something like this, something without any arbitrary rules, it makes this feel like escaping from prison or something. Or escaping from a cruise ship.

But we need money, don’t we. And it seems petty to complain about a job I usually do sitting in an easy chair in my underwear, looking out the window next to me every few minutes to watch the hawks floating above the boulders and cactus. Seems wrong to complain about that somehow. But I did, so sue me. Wait, don’t sue me. Or I don’t care, fuck it, sue me.

I was in the grocery store the other day, buying some cookies. Little shortbread cookies with a plop of some fruity gel on top. They probably don’t sound very good, the way I’ve described them, but they are. Very good. There were four or five boxes of the cookies there on the shelf. The cookies are one of those products that the store makes locally or some local factory that supplies the stores. Not a name brand thing.

Anyway, in most of the four or five boxes of cookies, the cookies were just randomly thrown in, which isn’t odd or surprising for a box of small cookies. But I usually go through the boxes anyway to find the one with the most recent sell-by date. I’m that annoying asshole. But hey, if you’re going to give me clues as to when something was made, I’m going to use those clues to get the freshest thing, right? If it’s wrong, sue me.

I really have to stop saying that.

So I’m pawing through the cookies, looking for the freshest box when I come across a lone box where the cookies inside were carefully arranged in stacks, and those stacks were arranged in a circle with a stack in the middle of the circle. It was beautiful and shocking—kind of like seeing someone in a tuxedo in the middle of a Coachella audience. I didn’t even look at the date on the box, I just put it in the cart. Because those cookies were put in that box by someone who cares about what they do. And those are the ones I want.

Imagine you have to put baked goods into plastic boxes all day, that’s your job. No one expects anything from you. Only that the weight is right and most of the baked goods are not crushed or broken. At least the ones on top aren’t. The expectations are low, but you actually give a shit about what you do, so you do a good job of it.

People who care like that, they’re everywhere. But they’re vastly outnumbered by people who don’t give a shit about what they do, so when you come across them or their work, it’s refreshing, and it makes you believe in people all over again. Yeah, cookies arranged in a circle can do that. For me they can, anyway.

Because I care about what I do too, whatever I’m doing, and that’s why the writing for idiots thing grates on me. But I write the best idiot articles I can write, so again, I shouldn’t complain. Too much.

Was I complaining? I don’t know. Everyone’s definition of complaining is different. Write me at post office box 639, Joshua Tree California, 92252, and let me know. We’ll choose one postcard from all entries and send a set of steak knives to the lucky winner. Don’t forget to tape a quarter to the postcard. For handling. Fifty cents for rush service.

When I was a kid in the 1920s, I used to send for things that were advertised on cereal boxes or in comic books. Seventy-five cents and four box tops, that kind of shit. It took months to get those things in the mail. It was torture waiting for them. Then they’d arrive and be shit, and you’d lose your faith in adults. At least until the next Captain Crunch cereal bowl offer showed up on the box in the cupboard.

Can you imagine selling something to someone now and saying, “Thanks, please allow four to six weeks for delivery.” It would be kind of funny to do that. I should list something on eBay and say, “please allow four to six weeks for delivery.” I’ll let you know how it goes.

And a public service announcement if I may. I usually answer my phone by saying, “Yes?” unless I see a name on there that I recognize. But you know there are some spammers who try to get you to say the word ‘yes’ so they can use that recording to claim that you agreed to letting them put a twenty thousand dollar charge on your credit card or empty your bank account or whatever they do. The other day Carol said to me, “You shouldn’t answer that way. You’re giving them the ‘yes’ before they even say anything.” And she’s right. So let that be a lesson to you. Always answer your phone by saying, “No!” Or, “I DO NOT AGREE!”

Where was I? Jesus, who knows. I’m not sure there was any point to any of this. Another hodgepodge, potpourri, jumble of thoughts. A mishmash. A mixed bag. A melange. Not even a kite story or anything. I feel like I’ve stolen your time. Well, if that’s the case, we’ve been robbed together. It takes longer to make this than it does to listen to it, so I suppose the joke’s on me.

I can see the comments now: “He’s saying half the population of the earth should die!” “He thinks deplorables should be hunted!” “He’s asking people to send money to a post office box!”

For the record, I’m not saying half the population of the earth should die. I’m just asking if it would really be a bad thing. Okay, it would be bad for half of us, but you know, in the grand scheme of things? Not that there is a grand scheme to anything, but you know what I mean. At least I think you do. If you’re still listening, you probably know what I mean. I don’t, but you do.

We’ll all be gone soon enough, humans. And if a handful of weird human mutants do survive somehow, they’ll be enslaved by their bacterial overlords, working 18 hours a day in mold mines. They’ll chant and write songs like “Working a mold mine,” or “You load 16 tons of #9 mold,” that kind of thing. It will be a hard life, but it will create a rich cultural heritage. Then that heritage will be covered up by radioactive mold deep in the plastic dust dunes.

It’s not such a bad end if you think about it. You could even say it’s a logical conclusion of what we’re doing. Because we don’t know what we’re doing, but that’s okay. Don’t go about in pity for yourself. A great wind will carry you across the sky. Fly away home to Zion, fly away home. Then fly back here next time for more fascinating insights into American politics, epidemiology, and world diplomacy. Indeed!