Notes from Inside
July 14, 2020
ISTANBUL, TURKEY—Shortly before ten o’clock on April 10th, Turkey’s interior minister announced a two-day lockdown that would come into force at midnight. It would be imposed in 31 provinces with the aim of curtailing the spread of COVID-19. In Istanbul, the country’s biggest city, the announcement was met with panic. Crowds of people scrambled for groceries, showing little regard for social distancing. Fistfights broke out in bakeries; customers quarreled in department stores. City officials estimated that the ensuing chaos in the streets would cause a spike in COVID-19 infections. Two hours before the curfew was lifted at midnight on April 12th, the interior minister announced his resignation, admitting that it was a mistake to have hastily called a curfew that startled the nation.
For Hasan Kara, the curfew declaration and ensuing panic were reminders of Turkey’s last successful military coup. Nearly forty years earlier, just after 4 a.m. on September 12, 1980, the Turkish General Kenan Evren announced, “A curfew will come into force from 5 a.m. to quickly ensure safety of life and property.” Twenty-five years old at the time, Kara ran a flower shop in Istanbul and was preparing for bed when the radio began playing military marches. “Those who say they didn’t panic are lying,” he told me recently, “because that night traumatized us all.” Kara’s front door was just ten meters from his flower shop, but after hearing the news he feared stepping outside, so he spent the next 48 hours locked down at home. “If you ventured out, soldiers would lay you on the pavement. They could enter homes without warrants and take anything, or anyone they wanted. Relying on informants, they’d collect activists like packages.”
When the curfew was lifted two days later, the military declared martial law that didn’t end in Istanbul until 1985. During those five years, the junta blacklisted 1,683,000 citizens, arrested 650,000, tried 230,000 in courts, denied passports to 388,000, forced 30,000 to flee abroad, revoked the citizenship of 14,000, killed 171 under torture and executed fifty by hanging.
As COVID-19 has spread pitilessly across the globe, national traumas have resurfaced. In London, it’s been first- or secondhand memories of air raids or backyard bunkers dug during the Blitz; in Paris, recollections of Resistance fighters hiding out in basements as Hitler’s Wehrmacht goose-stepped down the Champs-Élysées. These memories of heroism and collective hardship, of defending the national good against ruthless invaders, offer some relief from the atmosphere of panic and fear that has spread with the contagion. The fears of Istanbulites are different—deeper, and in some respects darker. They are rooted in the repressive powers of their own state; mindsets formed during the 1980 curfew continue to menace the nation forty years on. At the end of The Plague, Albert Camus writes: “The plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely … it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing … it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers.” Like Camus’s plague, the trauma of the political curfews remains with us. No wonder that, for a certain generation of Turks, the COVID-19 lockdowns can be seen as a screen for the country’s authoritarian politics. In Turkey, the coronavirus poses a double threat: along with the risk of contagion, there is also the danger that, in trying to control the epidemic, the country will fall victim to its own past.
For all the ways that the 1980 coup and ensuing martial law shaped an entire generation of Turks, the absence of research into personal recollections of that time is striking. In most cases, Turks dealt with the coup by willfully forgetting it. “No one wished to discuss it, even once the danger of arrest had receded,” writes the anthropologist Jenny White, who calls the reaction “mass amnesia.” The journalist Mehmet Ali Birand’s book 12 Eylül Saat: 04:00 remains the finest study of the coup, revealing, among other things, Jimmy Carter’s reaction to the takeover. While enjoying Fiddler on the Roof at the Kennedy Center, President Carter received a call from Edmund Muskie, stepped outside his box seat, thanked his secretary of state for the update on Turkey and tiptoed back inside. A flurry of similar anecdotes, captured from corridors of power, color Birand’s book, which laments the collapse of Turkey’s parliamentary democracy. But it, too, is marked by a willed forgetfulness: just forty of his study’s 320 pages consider the implications of September 12th within Turkey, and those render the coup entirely from the viewpoints of warring generals and politicians. Ordinary Turks, including millions of activists, are at best background silhouettes.
Istanbul, City of the Fearless by Christopher Houston, published in March by the University of California Press, breathes life into these figures. Houston, an anthropologist at Sydney’s Macquarie University, draws on dozens of interviews with activists to unearth many unsettling memories of the 1980 coup and curfew: citizens pushed into lines by shouting soldiers; doors smashed at night by SWAT teams; silent queues for bread formed at the crack of dawn; pigeons and cats taking over city squares. Istanbul’s roads on the morning of the coup, he writes, were “empty, glimmering and still.” Military vehicles had blocked main arteries. All flights were suspended. Cultural activities were banned. Schools and universities were closed. Most houses didn’t have phone lines, so the single news source was TRT, the junta’s mouthpiece.
By that point in 1980, curfews had already been part of Istanbul’s daily life. Two years earlier the government had declared martial law to tackle street violence; the generals, after arresting government MPs, took control of the curfews. Until their end in 1982, standing curfews morphed into a means of psychological warfare. The junta issued them systematically, following a military logic: from midnight to 5 a.m. (September 13, 1980 to March 31, 1981); from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. (April 1, 1981 to June 1, 1981); and from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. (June 2, 1981 to July 31, 1982).
Curfew, a 1984 novel by Adalet Ağaoğlu, a luminary of modern Turkish literature who died earlier today at the age of 91, is among a handful of fictional accounts of that years-long nocturnal confinement. Like Camus, who treated the plague as an allegory for Europe’s occupation by the Nazis, Ağaoğlu finds political symbolism in Turkey’s curfews. Set over three hours preceding a curfew on a humid evening in 1980, her novel interweaves stories of seven characters whose solitude and social and political disorientation are exacerbated by the curfews. We get descriptions of Istanbul’s “dark deserted streets,” and of the windows of closed pastry shops reflecting “the yellowy blue light reminiscent of the wartime blackout.” One heroine attempts to take her own life. But that freedom, too, has vanished: soldiers return her home at gunpoint. She later jumps off a train, the only public space Turks were allowed to inhabit during the lockdowns. One character observes how people don’t get in touch with each other anymore, having “quickly adapted to the curfew.” Sounds of gunfire punctuate another character’s stream of consciousness:
She looks at her wristwatch: It isn’t midnight yet. A long time until the start of curfew. But people retire early nowadays—Gaming tables behind every lighted window … What are we going to do? What will happen?—In the past, it was lovely. Even if we stayed out until three in the morning, I could go home by myself. It never occurred to me to feel afraid—And you can’t get toilet paper anywhere. Everyday, something disappears from the shops, only to come back again the next day at a higher price.
This is an excerpt of a longer essay published on our website. Click here to read the essay in full.
Night and Forgetting
July 12, 2020
JUNEAU, ALASKA—In early March, I read Nietzsche in spells between watching Outbreak and napping on the flights home to Rhode Island. The film, which appeared in 1995, has not aged well—Dustin Hoffman is matched against a deadly infection of exoticized African origins. My sleep was fitful. Waking had a leaden quality, as I remembered again what was happening in Italy. The United States, like dozens of other countries unable to imagine their susceptibility, seemed determined to follow. None of my reading in Alaska could tell me the exact shape of the next weeks, but they seemed portentous, a thunderhead on the horizon. Were we waiting for rain, hail, a tornado?
It was in this mental crouch, the contours of the pandemic just forming out of the shadows, that I read more of On the Uses and Disadvantages, not the bits about the benefits of history, but those about whom it is beneficial for.
The short answer is, not many of us. History, Nietzsche wrote, “bewilders” those “not strong enough to measure the past against themselves.” History is disadvantageous when knowing too much, thinking too much of the lives of others, prevents action. In short, the past is troublesome when it might cause an individual to feel a sense of responsibility or empathy for others. History is useful when in service of personal aggrandizement, inspiring acting “in service of the great and the impossible.” Thus it is he—always and only he—who is “without conscience” who makes history by knowing just enough of it to transcend its limits. “He forgets most things in order to do one thing; he is unjust towards what lies behind him and knows only one right, the right of what is to come into being now.” The use of history is in imagining the self into power, “blind to what has passed, deaf to warnings, a small living vortex in a dead sea of night and forgetting.”
In the forced air of my third airplane, Nietzschean bombast gummed together with Hoffman’s singlehanded defeat of a hemorrhagic virus. There was similarity to these improbably sundry bits of culture, the twentieth-century pop entertainment and late nineteenth-century philosophy: in both, change is made by sheer will. An adolescent fever dream of individual triumph. Maybe the obsessive doctor in his biohazard suit made history. Or maybe it was the strongman archetype, a figure who came to power unhindered by conscience so that anyone with conscience need not worry about ever having power. Either way, action is for the few; the rest of us need only watch and wait. A bedtime story to soothe the complacent.
Viruses do not listen to our tales. Shortly after I landed, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. For the rest of March, time seemed to cascade. What was clear, as March lurched into April, was that no Übermensch, be it the sort of infectious-disease specialist played by Hoffman or a heroic leader, would sweep in with a grand remedy. Watching one of President Trump’s endless, hollow press conferences—talk of a dead sea of night and forgetting!—I was struck by how Nietzschean he seemed, a man singularly unwilling or unable to think of consequences or justice. His actions were, to be sure, unburdened by prior events. But what was making history here was a pathogen, not a man.
I was still trying to research a book. In April, an endless month of dreary reporting, this felt particularly absurd. The hospital I could almost see from my home office had a military tent outside for COVID triage. Friends in Brooklyn sent photos of the refrigerated trucks, compensating for filled morgues, on their street. A thousand, then two thousand people a day were dying.
Without libraries or archives, I read what I could download, often dead explorers’ accounts. As a genre, they contain less adventure than you might expect, and more complaining about terrible weather and awful food. Unlike reading about the 1918 pandemic alongside COIVD news, the lives of Sir John Franklin and Hudson Stuck and half a dozen others seemed utterly separate from mine: always outdoors, regularly in contact with strangers, cut off from news for months at a time. Also, I have never been a man, or been alive in the nineteenth century, or, for lack of hunting skill, been so hungry I ate my boots. Nor would these things come to pass.
From my desk chair, these long-lost lives did not offer visions of what might be, but entry into experiences I could never have. It is a particular kind of imagination, the mental squinting and head-tilt necessary to try and see a vanished world, how people inhabited it and found in it interest and terror and beauty. Doing so required moving the self as much out of view as possible, trying to peer into the dark glass of two centuries without distorting too much back into the frame. Sometimes history feels like a storehouse for the imagination, an invitation to engage contingency and possibility. Other times, it is a practice in empathy.
By May, the capacity to imagine the lives of others, to see them as requiring our consideration and compassion, looked not just like a thing useful when reading about grumpy men long dead, but a thing that was making its own kind of history. In the United States, we lived without national clarity or singular leadership, let alone a Hoffman with a miracle cure. Nor did we have the informed imagination of leaders like those in Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, New Zealand. They knew from the past—much of it from the recent history of SARS—to take the virus seriously.
In the United States, where the president could not bear to imagine power beyond himself or the needs of others, we were left to try and save each other with fellow-feeling. And for some months, we did. Despite inconsistent messages about masks and who was at risk—Did young people die? Children? Only the elderly?—most people did their best not to send waves of harm into the world. The skills necessary for life were those of medical workers and grocery stockers, delivery drivers and mail carriers. For months the majority of us forwent the rhythms of school, leisure, worship and simple social joys not just to protect ourselves but to shelter people we never met and never will. The COVID-19 spring was a rapid example of empathy put to work.
Nietzsche thought history was useful because it gave a few terribly great people the knowledge to make it new. I wonder if it is not more a way to practice thinking beyond ourselves—and to understand that thinking beyond ourselves is also a world-historical force. The protagonists are the messy lot of us all. For any of us can act with care, and any of us can use history to imagine life beyond the window, hoping to see there more than our own reflection.
This is an excerpt of a longer essay published on our website. Click here to read the essay in full.
Church and Consequences
July 1, 2020
STAMFORD, CONNECTICUT—In early May, ten Oregon churches complained together to a judge. Their religious freedoms, they argued, were being violated by Governor Kate Brown’s social-distancing order, which banned gatherings of more than twenty-five people. One Salem attorney proclaimed that risking his life for church was worth it—after all, he was going to heaven. A few weeks later, on May 22nd, President Trump insisted that houses of worship reopen as “essential” enterprises, threatening governors who refused to comply with ambiguous executive power. On May 26th, two southern Oregon churches filed a federal lawsuit. People could gather in grocery stores, but not for a Sunday service. This was discrimination by a hostile state.
Meanwhile, in the small town of Island City, Lighthouse Pentecostal Church held services in April and May. Now, it’s become Oregon’s “hot spot”—of 356 church attendees tested for COVID-19, 236 (so far) are positive. According to reporting from the Oregonian, videos posted online by the church showed “hundreds of worshipers singing, dancing, and jumping.” Maskless congregants lay prayerful hands on each other. The church also recently held a wedding and a graduation ceremony.
How to understand Lighthouse’s recalcitrance? On the one hand, there’s no understanding it—except as foolishness or political pageantry, akin to a Bible clutched for a photo op. Most churches are particularly contagious: elderly congregants and spitfire choirs, pastors who yell-preach, pews, sticky children. Embraces, hand-clasps, kisses. It’s not as if a congregation can be assured protection. Faithful people fall ill: Job, his boils.
Plus worship has been happening, creatively, for months. Lighthouse must have known the alternatives. Livestreamed services, Zoom prayer groups and book clubs. Quiet Easters. Priests with spray bottles of holy water. Communion (for Protestants) comprised of any starches and juices at hand. Now, in some states, smaller groups, spaced in yards. The very gift of faith, after all, is its “all times and all places”-ness, its definitional transcendence. Prayer is flexible, fluid, perfectly fine with cloistered expressions.
For months, at my evangelical church, we’ve had all of Christianity’s heft: desperate sermons livestreamed on YouTube, fervent prayers for the sick, the Gospel of John, bags of canned vegetables dropped off in masks. Of course we’ve missed the fun parts. No hot dogs with lemonade. No egg hunts. No crowd smirking at pastoral jokes. But it’s been just fine, for my husband and I, to have faith like this, on the page and screen.
And yet: these solutions don’t really work for the people who need church most—the homeless man with no internet connection, the elderly woman with a spotty one. Services, of course, aren’t the sole way to remedy physical need. The solutions to isolation are obvious: meals delivered, drive-by greetings, phone calls, check-ins, real exertions. Careful risk-taking, but for cause: exposure not for Sunday spectacle, but as actual sacrifice. Still, there’s a more diffuse loneliness. When exactly to temper prudence with courage?
Back to Lighthouse Pentecostal: another explanation. Perhaps the worshipers in that church have a level of faith most can’t comprehend: surefire assurance, wild need for God. Perhaps they did assess the risks and decided, yes, of anything, worship was worth it. Bodies forming the Body of Christ. Perhaps their leaders gave them false hope; or perhaps they considered Lazarus, not Job. “Our fruit will show that what we did is the right thing,” said one of the church’s pastors, James Parker. “We shouldn’t hide from life’s circumstances.”
The church still posts near-daily videos on Facebook; one recent devotional covers 2 Timothy 4. Paul prepares to die; he’s fought the good fight, finished the race. “This world is not our home; heaven is our home,” a pastor explicates. “The main thing is making it to heaven.” The Lord’s Prayer is an inconvenient truth: on earth as it is in heaven. Prevent disease in this life: wear a mask! But the prayer also abdicates control: thy will be done. Even if.
What should a person of faith take risks for? Two weeks ago, my pastor sent an email inviting his flock to protest George Floyd’s death. We gasped under masks in thick humidity, marched past blazes of fuchsia azaleas. On the asphalt in front of the police station, more than two thousand people knelt and hushed. Two local pastors said prayers. I wondered what those churches raring to open would think of this kind of demonstration—religion in the public square, unbelievers on their gravel-stuck knees, signs in their hands, practicing penitence, thinking at least a little of God in the context of something that mattered to them. A success! And yet, from a public-health perspective, was it also too much of a risk? The event was outdoors; we wore masks, spaced ourselves. But critical observers might call this pageantry. Or worse, hypocrisy: a self-satisfied gathering that endangered the vulnerable.
Good pastors model prudence, not cowardice. Religious communities will need to assess when it’s time to start meeting, and how. With case numbers going down in Connecticut, our church has started to gather outdoors. We stick fold-out chairs in our pastor’s tall grass, listen to songbirds call between prayers. The kids climb trees. Not every church has access to space, and so some will hold many distanced services, or offer a livestream, or require masks, or limit shows of affection. Regardless, the gradual reunion will be sweet. I didn’t think I missed the bodies until their voices were quivering on hymns, until I could see their heads nodding to testimonies.
It’s not the desire to hold church that irks me. It’s the cries of freedom-of-religion violations, the church lawsuits, that feel ultimately disingenuous, and dangerous. This is a conflation of temporary trouble with actual persecution. It’s a real dilemma (we miss church!) that a very few loud pastors and one president have converted into a culture-war cudgel.
Why not see another kind of opportunity? If our leaders were crafty, they’d recognize that troubled souls are ripe for conversion: afraid of getting sick, afraid of the police, afraid of what will happen next. They should be preaching on God’s plague providence, making connections to locusts and droughts. They should sharpen their sermons—now more than ever—preaching their often countercultural truths: that dignity and justice, suffering and solidarity, are always of utmost concern. A nation confronted with pandemic and brutality, newly concerned with morals and trade-offs, and reckoning now with pernicious sin, just might start to think higher thoughts.
Outline of a Graduation
June 18, 2020
ATLANTA, GEORGIA—When I was a senior in high school, everyone in my grade was shepherded into a harshly lit auditorium to get “advice about college” from four alumni who had recently entered the workforce. “There were parts that were really hard,” one intoned ominously. “You just have to put yourself out there,” another one urged. (I recall that this particular platitude was repeated at least four or five times.) But without fail, every one of their narratives built up to a happy ending. “It was a journey that changed my life,” one of them beamed, like the protagonist in a soapy coming-of-age movie who overcomes difficult challenges just to emerge victorious at the end.
I knew that the idea of college as a transformative, once-in-a-lifetime experience was a cliché, but it was an alluring one—especially for somebody like me, who spent all of high school seething with hatred for everything around me. College, by contrast, was supposed to be an opportunity to feel like a winner for a change. So even though most everything that happened to me during my four years at the University of Chicago turned out, in reality, to be bewildering and incomprehensible, stories like the ones I heard in my high school auditorium assured me that all of that confusion would eventually culminate in some sort of personal triumph. The promise was that it would all make more sense in retrospect—that the broader arc of my development over the past four years would, at last, make itself visible.
Graduation, in particular, was supposed to be an opportunity to take stock and wrap things up with a bow. But this year, I and countless other graduating seniors were denied this closure when our final school terms, and then our graduations, were moved online. My own online graduation was, more than anything else, deeply boring. As my family gathered in the living room to watch the YouTube stream, I hooked my laptop up to the TV in a futile attempt to give the whole thing a statelier atmosphere. And as UChicago’s president droned on, yet again, about “free speech,” I found myself wondering whether I in fact dodged a bullet by not having to witness this in person. The diploma ceremony, which amounted to little more than a glorified PowerPoint, was no less uninspiring: they read my name, and then they moved on. “Well, that was anticlimactic,” my sister remarked.
Would my graduation have been any less anticlimactic if it weren’t online? Somehow, I doubt it. In what passes for an act of institutional beneficence by UChicago standards, the administration covered the cost of our graduation robes and shipped them to our homes. I think the idea was for us to wear them while we watched the stream, a prospect that I found too embarrassing to go through with. They’ve also promised to hold an in-person graduation for the Class of 2020 next year. (It remains to be seen whether they’ll cover our travel costs like they did our robes.)
These desperate attempts to salvage some sort of ceremony to mark the close of our college careers—even in the face of coronavirus—speak to the deeply ingrained desire for a capstone to tie things up with a flourish, to conceive of college as a discrete personal arc, kicked off at freshman orientation and concluded at graduation, set off from whatever came before and whatever will come after. The online graduation thwarted my desire for such finality; where there was supposed to be a clean break, there’s just an inelegant smear.
But maybe it was a mistake to buy into the idea of college as having a clear narrative arc in the first place. The novelist Rachel Cusk, in her Outline trilogy, illustrates the dangers of such attempts at narrativization. As a character in Outline remarks, “We are all addicted to … the story of improvement, to the extent that it has commandeered our deepest sense of reality.” But it’s hard to shake the suspicion that these narratives are less about celebrating triumph over adversity than they are a performative demonstration of superiority. Or, to be more precise, it starts to seem like these two things aren’t even separable at all. When we’re laboring in a relentless competition to make our lives into compelling stories, other people start to look like enemies rather than fellow travelers.
In Transit, Cusk’s narrator meets a young man who recounts a memory from his travels abroad. He relates the entrancing power of a scene that he witnessed on a beach in France: “This fragmented picture, of young lost people clinging to one another for safety, of the mute beautiful sea that refused to tell its secret, of the city sealed in its own frenzy, was not one that he recognised.” The scene was unsettling to him because it was at odds with the broader narrative arc of his regular life, in which “he often felt like a character in a book, a person who has survived ordeals to be rewarded with a happy ending.” But when that vindicatory arc begins to collapse, “as though something had broken deep down in the engine of his life,” the entire life he built around it comes to feel false and artificial too—like “a complete reversal of everything he had felt that night on the beach.”
Many of the things that happen in college are worth remembering not for the way they slot into a narrative, but for the way they resemble that scene on the beach and its “incoherence”—like the time the colors of the crimson sun rising over Lake Michigan, glimpsed from a fifteenth floor conference room after an all-nighter, struck me as the most vivid I’d ever seen. Encounters like these, in their immediacy and enigmatic beauty, demand to be taken on their own terms, rather than instrumentalized for narrative purposes. For now, without a chance to say goodbye to my friends and teachers in person, I’m trying to think about college in the same way. Not as a coherent narrative arc, but as a loosely related collection of bewildering events: a “fragmented picture of young lost people clinging to one another for safety.”
June 18, 2020
NEW YORK—In his early thirties, Paul Lisicky moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, for a writing residency. The year was 1991, and AIDS was about to reach its horrifying peak in the United States. Men like Lisicky, who is queer, were dying at an almost incomprehensible clip; in Provincetown, a gay haven at the tip of Cape Cod, the wreckage was particularly intense. Some 10 percent of the local population would die from complications related to AIDS. “Sometimes I say it back to myself aloud,” Lisicky writes in his new memoir, Later, “in hopes that it will sear me: ten percent.”
The glacial pace of publishing is such that any book now hitting the shelves was conceived and written years ago, far before the advent of COVID-19. And yet some new titles this season feel as if they were written yesterday, so directly do they speak to some aspect of our present crisis.
“If you’re lucky in your life,” writes Lisicky, “a place, or two, will be offered to you. That place won’t be where you were born or grew up. It will be at some distance, and it will never be yours—you’ll always be a visitor or a guest.” For Lisicky, Provincetown is just that place, instantly and unreservedly. Out on the beaches and boardwalks, he registers the supreme comfort that comes from being a member of the majority: “I stand up straighter, my shoulders fall backward as if they’ve been held up for too long by pulleys and strings. My walk changes, too, or so I imagine; my heels strike the pavement as if I’m possibly damaging my feet. This is what power feels like, but only when power is spread evenly, or when queerness isn’t othered but is central.”
Lisicky quickly adopts the predominant uniform of Provincetown, trading in his khakis and boat shoes for skinny jeans and Doc Martens. He luxuriates in his newfound sense of freedom, throwing dance parties and humorously growling at handsome men as he drives down Commercial Street. Most of all, he searches for a boyfriend—a process that results in a series of erotic encounters that force Lisicky to confront HIV and its attendant fears. To have sex with another man is to face the possibility of infection, of death; Lisicky writes beautifully on this hard reality. “Imagine it,” he says. “Look at a drop of your blood, your semen, your saliva, and think of it containing a thousand little grenades. Not just for you, but for the lover you came into contact with. How would your life change? Could you disappear into yourself, into your skin, ever again?” HIV isn’t just a matter of disease but of disassociation; the virus separates people from themselves and from each other, injecting suspicion and worry into an act that should point toward pleasure.
The virus likewise shapes daily life around town. “I can’t go to the post office or the A&P without running into someone with an appearance some call AIDSy,” writes Lisicky, indulging in what he calls “a little dark humor.” Funerals are so commonplace that they come to resemble weddings or graduations, only with “chips and ash inside that porcelain urn up front.” Lisicky buys a porn magazine so he can read the obituaries in the back. For all its fun and frivolity, Provincetown is a place defined by death. It’s “a retirement community. Say, Sun City, Arizona, but for young men in their twenties and thirties.” Middle age—to say nothing of old age—is a privilege too rare even to consider here.
Later is at its most eloquent when the extremes of Provincetown—its rollicking pleasures and deep sorrows—converge in a single moment, as when Lisicky attends a dance party where “an oversize replica of an AZT capsule hangs from the ceiling.” In this image we get joy and gloom, humor and grief, release and tragedy—all of it. Similarly, Lisicky and his friends enjoy house music that speaks to the community’s despair while also transcending it: “The Epidemic is present in every vocal line, even if devastating loss and chaos aren’t the explicit subjects of the song. You can just feel it; you wouldn’t be able to tame it out of those vocal leaps. It knows what true gravity is.”
Boasting little in the way of plot, Later is divided into dozens of one- or two-page fragments, each bearing its own title: ”Adam & Steve,” “Parade,” “Transmission.” The downside of this technique is that the book suffers from a lack of forward momentum, but the book’s meandering pace is connected to one of its central ideas: that times of crisis don’t always feel that way. “Humans get used to this,” Lisicky writes. “They don’t fold their arms with their heads hung low. They laugh, maybe they even laugh more than they did in better days. … Sometimes there’s rage, pus-filled rage, as livid as a blister, but not every second of the hour.”
Among the more moving personal matters addressed by Lisicky is his own HIV status. For much of Later he resists getting a test, preferring instead to linger in the no-man’s-land of being neither categorically negative nor positive. (Were he to discover the virus in his bloodstream, it’s not as if Lisicky could do much about it: effective antiretroviral therapies wouldn’t arrive until the mid-Nineties.) Lisicky is both hard on and generous toward himself as he investigates his own reluctance to get tested. Is he being cowardly? Is he being brave? Is he indulging in a potentially fatal form of procrastination? He writes straight into this miasma of confusion, guilt, and fear, teasing out in brilliantly evocative terms the many varieties of dread that inform his relationship to himself and the virus. He considers the far-reaching effects of AIDS, even on those who are HIV-negative, in passages that might now prompt COVID-related recognition. “What are the costs to the brain, the heart, the lungs, the skin?” he asks. “I’m not simply talking about disease as if it were lying in wait in me. I’m talking about holding the wave of dread back five times a day. Trying to silence the howl of illness.”
The coronavirus and HIV are, of course, in no way equivalent: They wreak havoc in wildly different ways, and press on different social weak spots and cultural biases. But one of Later’s deeper themes applies clearly to both: Sickness is about more than just the sick. Plagues ripple outward and inward, shaping us in pernicious and unexpected ways. It means something, when a virus makes it impossible to imagine a future for yourself. It means something when you live in a place where you can’t “speak a sentence without folding death inside its structure,” as Lisicky writes of Provincetown. Fear may not be a virus, but it is still a corrosive force, an absence of a sufficiently hopeful vision for the self. It is this theft of what Lisicky calls “futurity” that Later ultimately exists to mark—and to push back against. “I want to live a life that isn’t focused on my health,” he writes, “on prolonging my life, or on avoiding my death.
I want to have as much freedom, and opportunities for trying and failing, as you do. I want to have the privilege of being bored. I don’t want to endure the smells of a doctor’s office, or the repeated sticks of a syringe. I don’t want to get used to the sight of my blood, or a tongue depressor. I don’t want to wait by the phone for my latest test results, shuddering when they’re not what I want to hear. I don’t even want the adrenaline of good news, because that’s always followed by a physical letdown: fatigue, depression. I don’t want to lie awake at night, thinking of my doctor’s face, whether I’m still handsome enough for him to feel attracted to me, as absurd as that sounds. I want some control, even though I know that not dealing with the future is a fiction of control. Let the day ahead be a bowl on the table. I will fill it up with want, and let there be nothing beyond that to measure. Until the next day.
June 17, 2020
OXFORD, UNITED KINGDOM—To describe the city of Oxford as a weird little world of its own would be to make an understatement. History has shaped it, like time does stalactites, into a thing that is separate from its surroundings even if it’s made of the same stuff. (A misleading simile, of course: history’s shaping of elite institutions—and in this case the city involved—into insular spheres entails a series of deliberate human actions, not simply the natural course of events. But that is another story.) To make it through the gates of Oxford, contenders from all over the world make a pilgrimage to prove their worth. If they succeed, the feeling of achievement is so great that it cannot go unsung—indeed, it never stops being sung. That is what makes this town so eccentric. Every occasion is special—every dinner, every exam—because every member of the university is special. The result is the exceeding number of rituals that occupy public life here.
Though prone to hyperbole, the Spanish writer Javier Marías intimately captures this love for performance in his novel All Souls, based on his years teaching literature at Oxford. While written with the inside knowledge of a member of “the congregation” (Marías’s term), All Souls is also written by someone who has no patience for tradition. Thus the heart of the writer is split in two. One half is at pains to spare the people he esteems from his attack of dark humor; the other hastens to denounce a lifestyle that he perceives as an affront to normalcy, to level-headedness, to the moral disdain for pretension. “The English never look openly at anything,” he writes, taking a few dons for the whole country in a burst of melodrama, “or they look in such a veiled, indifferent way that one can never be sure that someone is actually looking at what they appear to be looking at, such is their ability to lend an opaque glaze to the most ordinary of glances.”
Most people here at Oxford are too smart to waste their time and too ambitious to invest it in any activity that is its only reward. Whence, then, does this interest in meaningful but pointless little acts come? The explanation, Marías writes, is that much of academia involves not doing but being, by which in fact he means being seen. Like a peacock’s feathers or a soldier’s stripes, the academic gown distinguishes the wearer from the layman on the street and from academics of other ranks on one’s own dinner table. But academic dress—to be referred to by its Latin name, sub fusc, part of a body of jargon that harks back to the Middle Ages—is only necessary, by no means sufficient, to be able to “swim in this water.”
We have reached the end of the summer term now, and evidently, these mechanics have been turned on their head. The news that Cambridge—known here as “The Other Place”—will not physically reopen for a full year makes it likely that they will remain so. Ivy still clads the ancient colleges; bikes left against the walls still crowd the pebbled lanes. The sun is out, the sky is clear. It would be a beautiful setting, if only there were more people here to see it. Dolphins, elephants and ducks won’t repopulate Oxford as they have done elsewhere. The endemic species here is the striving academic, and everyone is long gone home.
Alongside the complaints about Oxford’s formality, there has always been a case in its defense. In 2015, the Oxford University Student Union held a referendum to decide whether sub fusc should be kept obligatory in final exams. The response was overwhelmingly supportive: 76 percent voted to keep it. Academic life being much like a hermit’s, perhaps this desire for public ostentation is not just a desire to compensate for an excess of solitary time, but a way of placing oneself within a tradition, to keep company with the past and future generations of scholars.
To those of us who are strangers, however, being forced into a world where the public and the private are so conspicuously off balance has felt like being “transplanted into another element, water perhaps,” or worse still, like “having always been in the world (having spent all my life in the world) I suddenly found myself outside it.” The contrast with the city’s life today is stark. With no one to stand on them, the podiums of Oxford—both the literal podiums at the high tables, the Oxford Union, and the metaphorical ones in gardens where balls were held, in pubs where academics used to debate—are like lifeless bodies, like obsolete machines: things voided of their meaning.
What do we lose, exactly, when we are forced off those podiums—when we are forced, for a long time, out of public life? To construct and display a public image of oneself is to make oneself legible. The need for legibility stems from a need for recognition; one needs to be seen and heard not only by others; in order to make sense of our own identities, we also need to recognize ourselves. Cast in this light, the ostentatious practices that are epitomized for Marías by those damn gowns—which serve “the twin functions of concealment and aesthetics”—are the manifestation of just that need.
But these past months brought with them the realization that life is livable without Oxford’s cherished symbols. I wonder if it wasn’t this realization, at least in part, that pushed us to demand last week, once again, that an especially appalling symbol be taken down: the statue of the British colonialist and Oxford benefactor Cecil Rhodes. I wonder if it wasn’t the realization that public life is so fragile that made it distinctively clear that podiums have been occupied by the same few—even dead!—people for too long; that the human need to be recognized is not one best satisfied by simply wearing a gown or sitting at a high table; that in order to reclaim public life, we need to reclaim public space, to remake it in our own image.
This is an abridged excerpt of a longer essay published on The Point website titled “From Water into Air.” Click here to read the rest.
Breaking the Fast
May 26, 2020
TUNIS, TUNISIA—As we approach the end of Ramadan, I have now spent more time under lockdown in Tunis than not. I moved here in January after my partner got a job in the field, working remotely when it was an extravagant privilege rather than a quotidian one. The country closed its maritime borders and airspace in mid-March, followed shortly by a curfew and then total confinement when the first death hit the headlines. Infection rates spelling disaster for another country might have meant obliteration here: there were only five hundred ICU beds available in all of Tunisia. For the first month, the streets were silent.
Then, Ramadan started on April 23rd. As the holy month in the Muslim calendar and one built on rituals of community, the traditions of Ramadan necessitate the exact opposite of what we’d spent the last thirty days doing. Gathering in mosques for evening prayers, crowding at bakery counters to buy sweets, visiting family and friends in their homes for the pre-dawn (suhoor) and post-sunset (iftar) meals—let alone hugging and kissing them on both cheeks, sharing air and skin—none of this was permitted under our confinement orders.
Like all countries, though, Tunisia is not a monolith. The late former president Habib Bourguiba famously drank a glass of orange juice on national television during one Ramadan in the sixties in a show of secularism. Recent years have seen protests against the morality laws used to fine those eating, drinking or smoking in public. But I moved to Tunis expecting to find the month of Ramadan’s quiet days and thrumming nights a jarring inversion of my experience of the city. The absence of that nocturnal rhythm has turned out to be more disconcerting. Restaurants flipped their typical Ramadan operations—usually they do not open until after sundown—to obey the government restrictions, opening for takeaway during limited daytime windows. Post after post filled my Facebook feed of Ramadan delivery specials. Ramadan-themed boxes, with semolina flour for pastries and dates to break the fast, dot the online options with tiny crescent-moon icons.
The mosques are closed and the call to prayer is heeded only at home. The muezzin’s voice rings longer and louder over empty streets, while the rest of the rituals transitioned online: daily aid exchanges on Facebook, offers of zakat, the alms that constitute one of the five pillars of Islam, rippling through digital networks, virtual iftars. The local language exchange hosted a series of Ramadan-themed Zoom calls, announcing “tremendous success!” after each one and that they planned to “DO IT AGAIN.” One tradition, at least, is immune to the changes demanded by the virus: Ramadan television programs, which air throughout the month across the Arab world. We all collectively kneel at our screens.
But the enthusiasm for creative solutions to our restrictions has waned as the weeks wear on, even within the government itself. First the president pushed the curfew to 8 p.m., then again to 11. Clothing stores and malls were among the earliest to resume operations, in no small part because it is tradition to buy children new clothes this time of year. Bakeries flung their doors open, too. Once we stood in chalk circles outside a grocery store for two hours to buy bleach and rice and makroud, a sesame-dusted sweet made of semolina and date. Now we go to Madame Zarrouk’s down the street for the diamond-shaped delicacies. (Exhilarated and slightly dizzy from human interaction the first time, I ate one straight from the carton after pulling off my mask, forgetting to wash my hands.)
Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, began on Sunday. The mosques have begun to collect men socializing outside their still-closed doors. They lean into each other again, no space between them. The inversions of the beginning of the month have slowly righted themselves. I am both comforted and unnerved that the public-health guidelines and rules of Ramadan are collapsing into each other. Per capita testing is low, lower than it should be—lower than in the countries criticized for sending their people back outside. After some days of zero reported deaths, the numbers have begun to tick back up.
Visitors’ voices float from our neighbors’ windows daily to mix with the muezzin’s cry. Tunis seems to have tolerated its limits due to the promise of Eid. I count sesame seeds and days on my fingers, wondering what else might break with the fast.
Biden in the Black Lodge
May 26, 2020
BROOKLYN—After weeks of rain and unseasonable cold, the first Sunday in May promised spring in New York. Daily deaths in the city were down to twice their normal rate. It was 75 degrees, and the condensate venting from the refrigerated trucks outside Mt. Sinai hospital looked a little like a promise of summer. “People will come outside, and that’s great,” Cuomo said. “Go for a walk. But just respect the social distance and wear a mask.” We biked to Central Park, fiddling with our masks, remembering what it’s like to look around and be looked at. We met a friend and sat on the grass and talked. The park was full, but not crowded; the air felt clean and refreshing. I thought of the outing in the park in Billy Wilder’s sunny early film People on Sunday, a portrait of Weimar Berlin; it was a nice scene, an image of leisure in a livable city.
But I left with a bad feeling. It had been simply one more day, like the ones before it; the ones to come after would be like that, too. We have been urged to see quarantine as an opportunity, something akin to a vacation on both a personal and a political level. Break out of bad habits, “reboot” your routine, reevaluate what really matters. If everyone did this, then society itself might be renewed, made more human or ecological or future-proof. Some kind of renewal did happen, it seems, after the Great Depression and Second World War. But as the U.S. and Europe contemplate loosening emergency measures, one gets the sense that this return will be different. In the park I watched a woman orbit a blooming tulip, following her phone as she tried to bring it into focus. She wanted to capture something beautiful, but she wasn’t looking. Her mind was elsewhere, syncing with the cloud, and I knew how she felt. These signs of life, the springtime promises of growth cycling on forever, are not for us.
Call this feeling Lynchian. It is a mood, an atmosphere: everything looks fine, and yet something is wrong, off, uncanny. People and animals, houses and trees, strike us as so many pasteboard masks and mechanical dolls. It is hard to describe it, but it radiates out of the screen when you watch David Lynch. His films, and especially his television show Twin Peaks, seem fabricated whole cloth out of Americana clichés: all small-town diners, comfy clubhouses, white picket fences and endless highways; teenagers, motorcycles and cigarettes. The conversation is canned, and the sun always glints a little too bright off the surface of things.
Not too long ago, in the hipster 2000s, “Lynchian” became, something like “Kafka-esque,” a kind of cliché. It was broad and yet esoteric enough to signal ironic sophistication, and it took its place alongside vinyl records and PBR. But it is more than a cliché; the Lynchian aesthetic haunts these past twenty years. The very long 1990s were a perpetual morning in America, where growth kept growing, and the world kept melting into a worldwide American dream, an age of endless apple pie and Apple products, where all the bits that didn’t fit were hidden away until the end of history—an end that was, like government debt or a tech CEO’s death, forever postponed.
Lynch’s films are a part of that world, but they show it at a different angle, and it is this that constitutes their attraction. Behind the postmodern play of endless surfaces, there is almost always some traumatic, demonic force. In Twin Peaks, Lynch’s TV show from the early 1990s, there is the hypnotic Americana of the town’s daily life, and then there is the Black Lodge: an otherdimensional space where evil lives. There is no path that leads from one to the other, no chain of logic that connects the world of appearances with what churns below. There is prom queen Laura Palmer with her pink diary and her secret boyfriend, and then there is a demon named BOB who rapes and kills her in the woods. They are both simply there, unavoidable. You find yourself in the Black Lodge, and things go bad; you fall off into the darkness, like when a dream suddenly turns. In between, you wait: the atmosphere is electric, a static charge. You are held in the still instant between pleasure and death, and it is almost like a promise: there, it seems, you might stay. This in-between space was the world of Twin Peaks, and there was a pleasure to it, for a while. But now we have entered the Black Lodge.
If the Lynchian aesthetics of the hipster era have been a way of keeping a distance from the strangeness of history by turning our alienation into style, in the Black Lodge that distance has collapsed. This is not the long-awaited death of irony; it is an entrance to its ghostly core. Quarantine days have an eerie quiet; the dream-world beckons. Retreating inside, our representatives—politicians and celebrities alike—have lost their mythic proportions, but it turns out that relatability is far from reassuring. A new malice leaks out of the churn of TikTok routines; Instagram filters of the rich and famous have taken on a sickly hue. Imagine all the people: trapped in their mansions, beamed onto your phone, you no longer have to try. They’re just like us: weak, distracted, a little desperate.
The prospect of a presidential election at this moment seems a farce, and a nightmare: the game is up, but the rules are still in effect, severe as ever. Broadcasting from his rec room, Joe Biden is like a senescent version of Twin Peaks’s hero FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper: a shell of a man, malfunctioning from afar. He reaches us as if faxed from the Black Lodge, passing through a thick sludge of metaphysical static, slurring his slogans and bungling lessons to children, his benevolent smile trapped in amber, a yellowing Xerox of white male authority. Trump is there too: a deranged superego, wrecking the castle, telling his subjects to mainline bleach and tasking his team of experts to “[bring] the light inside the body … through the skin, or in some other way.”
In here, the worse things get, the higher the markets go. Smoking is healthy, work is sex and sex is porn. Your boss terminates you via group Zoom, a voice on an empty screen, chopped up and dopplered. Power—gone fully virtual at last—hits in waves, arriving from somewhere at once intimately close and unimaginably distant. The mood is conspiracy minus the theory, like the pointless and terrifying plot in Mulholland Drive where men in curtained rooms telephone each other, agreeing to “shut… everything… down.”
This is an excerpt from a recent column on American political life by James Duesterberg.
To read the rest, click here.
May 17, 2020
ORANGE COUNTY, VERMONT—Frederick Rolfe’s Hadrian the Seventh is the greatest work of wish fulfillment I know. Written in 1904, the novel’s central character, George Rose—a stand-in for the author—is a struggling writer and failed candidate for the priesthood, beset with debts and enemies. But unlike his author, who would starve to death in Venice a decade later, Rose achieves everything he wants. He is elected to the papacy; as the beloved Pope Hadrian VII, he vanquishes both personal foes and the oppressors of humanity. He reorganizes the political boundaries of the world, in part by reviving the Holy Roman Empire, and as a side lark he invents color photography.
Rolfe belongs to a set of turn-of-the-century bijoux writers—Oscar Wilde, Ronald Firbank, Saki—who, writing at a time when homosexuality was illegal and hazardous, achieved their greatest stylistic convolutions when describing the beauty of young men. I first read Hadrian in college, when I rarely admitted to myself how much I wished to touch the girls whose white shoulders bent over their books in the library carrels next to mine. I had grown up in an evangelical Christian community and, like the intensely Catholic Rolfe, I saw my queerness as a sin. Rolfe’s vision of the omnipotent, asexual Hadrian, coolly admiring handsome youths without being tempted, drew me in.
Rereading Hadrian in self-quarantine, finally happy in my queerness, I see that the details of Hadrian’s triumphant life are so clear because they are crystallized out of Rolfe’s failure and solitude. Rolfe spent nearly twenty years in self-imposed isolation before he wrote Hadrian, and his life is a warning of what happens when we spend too much lonely time building up our wishes.
Hadrian begins with the hero, Rose, acting like many of us during our current sheltering in place: “near collapse,” so unable to work that “the mere sight of his writing materials filled him with disgust.” A Catholic convert who uses a moonstone rosary and is wearing his great-great-grandfather’s silver spectacles, Rose eats, exercises and sleeps without leaving his tiny room. He receives an unexpected visit from a cardinal who asks him to explain why he never became, as he had wished, a priest. Rose explains that he was kicked out of two divinity schools after malicious enemies spread lies about him, after which he drew “a sharp line across my life,” cutting off everyone he thought had been a friend but who hadn’t supported him. He was left with almost no one.
The cardinal apologizes on behalf of the Church, invites Rose to receive holy orders and whisks the new Father Rose to Rome. The former pope had died, and Rose arrives just in time to crowd into what Rolfe insists on spelling the Xystine Chapel for the announcement of the new pope. The cardinal’s visit had been no coincidence—he had fetched Rose as the secret candidate elect.
The new Pope Hadrian changes into white robes, “tuck[s] His Handkerchief into His left sleeve” and immediately begins to reform the papacy. He starts with his living quarters, ordering the servants to cover their walls and ceilings with brown-packing paper. Hadrian keeps only the furnishings he needs, selling all the Vatican’s treasures (“the collection of lace alone fetched £785,000”) and giving the money to the poor. Hadrian’s orders are described in hallucinatory detail. My favorite line of the book is when Pope Hadrian “whispered explicit directions” to his majordomo about renovations to his private bathroom—even while he was trying to be discrete, Rolfe needed to let readers know that he had thought through everything.
But from the moment of his election, Hadrian is in pain. “Ouf! How it hurts!” he thinks as “the arrows of cardinalitial eyes impinged upon Him” while they kiss his foot during the ceremony of adoration. By the last third of the book, barely a year into his papacy, Hadrian finds life “an ever-present horror.” Rolfe had always dreamt of having everyone’s attention, but this dream was also his nightmare. He feared that the attention he longed for would reveal his secret, his (in the words used to describe another character in Hadrian) “acrid pungent permanent want, not-to-be-named.” Even when writing a novel whose plot fulfilled all his wishes, he could not imagine a world in which he could have sex with a man without shame. Fittingly, the novel’s most erotic imagery comes in a feverish, disconnected section where a character describes seeing anarchists pushing kidnapped aristocratic youth from a high window.
I grew up convinced that if I consummated my desire, death would be the result. I would die to God. Claiming my desire was a life-and-death struggle—and now, in quarantine, it has been taken away from me. Instead of doing what I want to do, I daydream about what I’m missing. But instead of relieving me of my desires, the daydreams only inflame them.
Rereading Hadrian helped me see why my quarantine daydreams are so unsatisfying. It’s not just that we can’t physically experience the pleasures we fantasize about; it’s also that the only way to imagine having everything you want is to imagine being utterly alone. As soon as you are close enough to someone to consider their desires as important as your own, you can’t get your way all of the time. Only in isolation can you to control the whole narrative of your life.
Rolfe died in 1913, penniless after having fallen from too many graces. He never found companionship; he was never closer to anyone than he allows us, his readers, to get to him through the distorting lens of his alter ego. In one of the novel’s most lyrical passages, Rolfe describes Hadrian’s “favourite dream of being invisible and stark-naked and fitted with great white feathery wings, flying with the movement of swimming among and above men, seeing and seeing and seeing, easily and enormously swooping.” At home, endlessly scrolling through the news, I feel like this too: in total control, but only by virtue of my total disconnection. I hope, soon, I can take off my imaginary wings and push among the crowd of competing desires once more.
May 17, 2020
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA—A week ago—two?—a jar of curry paste slipped from my fingers and exploded, glass and goo ricocheting across the floor, the cupboards, behind the toaster. My sobbing frustration as I cleaned it up was so disproportionate to the moment that I marveled at myself even as I seethed, less at my rage than its retro familiarity. These days, my San Diego neighborhood is an uncanny stand-in for the suburbia of my youth. A bad night of sleep, a broken jar, and suddenly it’s 1998 and I’m seventeen.
Here’s the defining memory of that sour year: it’s my afternoon with the car, an ancient Corolla I share with my sister. I never have anywhere to go, but I treasure the act of going. My sister and I are feuding. Her boyfriend arrives to pick her up, and—merciless, cunning—she takes both our sets of keys on her way out the door. Desperate with rage I run to her room and light upon a weapon: a bottle of Versace Red Jeans Eau de Toilette she’d bought with babysitting money. I empty the contents onto her bed. The smell is ghastly. I feel like I’m going to break apart.
I feel everything.
When I can hold the enormity of the pandemic in my brain, I experience what seem like the appropriate, adult emotions: grief, fear, anxiety. But these properly calibrated states quickly ebb, and when they do I’m just angry and impotent and stuck at home in what feels like a perpetual state of petulant, dissatisfied waiting. In other years I sometimes wondered—idly, vainly—what it would feel like to live through something cataclysmic. It turns out that it feels not unlike a fever dream of my tract-home adolescence: insistently normal, hermetic, boring, unbearable.
Even before March, this year had been uncanny. Last summer, after over a decade in New York City, my husband and I moved west to San Diego. I’d felt flashes of distant familiarity when we first arrived: on long freeway drives, where natural majesty peaked out from amid the sprawl, or on errand runs to big box stores, sojourning across vast parking lots. What I recognized was an affect, a certain stultification spiked with the sense of something more interesting just out of reach.
In high school, this sensation was inseparable from my belief that in order to live an important, authentic life, I had to be in a place that mattered, a real city rather than a nameless subdivision in a square state. Of course this is ridiculous, but when I did finally move to a real city, I discovered that plenty of people believed it, even if they never said it so bluntly. They believed it because cities themselves make you feel this way, like you’ve “set up house in the heart of the multitude,” as Baudelaire put it, and when you get sick of yourself you leave your home and sit in a park and people-watch, and you feel like your existence matters. You’re part of something.
It’s possible I’d still be regressing if we’d never moved, but there is something about the quiet of my SoCal neighborhood—each small, cute house nestled on its own little plot—that encourages my rebellion. There is nothing outside to reflect the crisis that in a strikingly literal way binds my life to those around me. I’ve read that a phalanx of military jets roared through our blue sky in honor of health care workers, but I didn’t hear them, and if I had I don’t think I would’ve felt much—certainly not the teary swell of emotion I experienced when I watched the video a friend sent from her Brooklyn stoop, her evening air ringing with a hundred little claps and whoops.
In my new home, remembering the old ones, I find myself wondering if I’ve squandered the cities I claim to love, making them distractions rather than collectives. What, after all, did I do with my days before quarantine? I left my house to work in cafés, to shop at stores, to dine in restaurants. I was often bored. I chafed against the routine of my days. In quiet moments, I often felt dissatisfied, with myself, with other people, with the state of things. The old feelings were always there, simmering.
I am categorically against using quarantine for self-improvement, but perhaps it’s good to finally let this latent vexation regrow and flourish. Maybe it’s salutary to just feel it, this icky, existential dislike of everything as it currently is, myself included. Maybe I dismiss too easily the longing of a teenager, neglect some wisdom that’s there. What I wanted then was to be an entirely different person in an entirely different world.
May 17, 2020
BROOKLYN—In the before times, I checked the “Missed Connections” page on Craigslist for New York City at least once a week. Before we spent the days desperate to fill up the seconds on the inside, I would waste hours scrolling through the postings.
I am not looking for anyone. I’ve never posted a Missed Connection nor do I expect myself to be the subject of one. I just like to read them. I think that Missed Connections is maybe my favorite collection of poetry. In the Craigslist “Community” section, the Missed Connections link lies just below “lost+found.” You click the link, which takes you to a page of more links: a reliable trove of declarations of longing in the form of word-count-limited headlines.
New York City was a missed connections factory. Millions of people swirled wordlessly around each other every day, packed together, but inclined to move through daily life in near isolation. The intention of the page was to provide a space for two people to reconnect after chance encounters, where contact information was not exchanged. Many posts, if not most, are actually blatant solicitations for sex, but many are more innocent. Maybe it is the dual entertainment of mockery and romanticism that brings me back. Some of these are objectively awful, some written in obvious parody. A generous reading suggests that the most earnest writers are seeking a missing connection of their own.
As I write this, in a time of internationally mandated quarantine, close to the peak of the spread of COVID-19 in New York City, the page continues to be updated daily. I had expected the volume to slow down. How do you miss a connection, when most people are isolated, contained to the bubbles of their own individual lives? Are these people even meeting up? Perhaps, though, the continuity testifies to the strength of what drives Missed Connections: the act of being read, of being heard.
While recent posts are drenched in the desperation of quarantine and formed in the cultural context of COVID-19, the page still feels familiar, comforting even. It remains the funny and sometimes heartbreaking reading material it became famous for—something to pass the time, to ponder the lengths we will go to communicate something, to make contact with other people. Missed Connections was always a human lost-and-found page.
Still, as I scroll through, I feel a new sense of mourning. The usual longing for connection is exacerbated by the collective deficiency of it. The page is a mirror of the city in isolation, with connections not just missed but missing. I catch myself hoping that, when we emerge from this, I’ll be on the subway and catch the eye of a beautiful stranger. Most likely, embarrassed, I’ll look away and back down at my phone, scrolling through to see if there are any good new posts.
May 12, 2020
CHICAGO—In the classic ethics thought experiment known as the “trolley problem,” a runaway trolley will run over five people unless it is switched to another track which would result in only one death.
The decisions to be made about when and how to reopen have been discussed as a kind of trolley problem: we have diverted from the track of “normal life” in order to save lives from the virus, but in the process have switched over to a track that destroys livelihoods, well-being, economic value and other goods we care about. The question is posed: When do the costs, the sacrifices made, outweigh the lives that will be lost through the lifting of restrictions? Although many have reacted in horror to the idea of sacrificing lives for “the economy” (one meme acidly suggested that those arguing for reopening just want to “save the trolley”), others point out that the costs of lockdown can also be measured in human lives. Paul Frijters of the London School of Economics has made “back of the envelope” calculations estimating that ten to fifty million lives will be lost in the long run because of the economic fallout of the lockdowns; he has also estimated the “well-being” costs—the quality of life (which I’ve learned that economists now quantify with the unfortunate metric of “WELLBYs”)—and come to the conclusion that we ought not to have locked down at all, that the cure was indeed worse than the disease.
But is this the right way to approach these decisions? The trolley problem presents itself as a numbers game; the obvious solution would seem to be: choose the path that costs the fewest lives. But empirically, people do not always react to the problem in this way. In a variant where saving the lives of the five on the track involves pushing a man into the path of the trolley, people resist, acting not based on what would seem to be the best outcome but rather on some felt prohibition or revulsion against killing, regardless of the consequences.
An ethics professor of mine once said that the problem with utilitarianism is that it has “too few concepts.” Her point was that moral decision-making often cannot be assimilated to a single variable but involves qualitatively different and sometimes conflicting demands—duty versus self-realization, justice versus mercy—and sometimes the conversion of a moral dilemma into a utilitarian problem produces grotesque outcomes.
It may be that the question of the proper response to the coronavirus is a problem of this kind: that the demands it generates—on the one hand, to minimize the threat to human life from the disease, and on the other to mitigate the damage and suffering from isolation, restriction of movement, unemployment, uncertainty and poverty—are not commensurate, that they are both absolute moral imperatives. A situation where such imperatives conflict is how the nineteenth-century philosopher G.W.F. Hegel conceived of tragedy. In Antigone, his paradigm of tragic art, there is an irreconcilable tension between Antigone’s duty to her family and to the gods and Creon’s duty to the state.
Frijters notes that our “overestimating” the threat of the disease has to do with our difficulty being objective, particularly when it comes to events with small probability but dire consequence. In his view, we are captivated by the horror of images of sickness and death, and therefore unable to be objective about the costs of the measures that we take to prevent that death. But even if his calculus is correct from a utilitarian perspective, he cannot calculate whether we ought (always) to bend our moral intuitions to a cost-benefit analysis.
When the pandemic first came to widespread awareness in the U.S., I had the sense that despite the anxiety and inconvenience and, for many, real and immediate hardship, there was one thing that people liked, consciously or not, about the situation: the sense of facing a common enemy. Our lives suddenly became narrativized—the story encompassing every single person on the globe facing a “clear and present danger.” The alternative to the language of trade-offs, to the method of cost-benefit analysis, would be to act according to the narrative that we want to be able to tell about ourselves: say, that we did everything we could to protect those at risk because we felt that we had to—because we did not want to be the ones in the story who pushed them in front of the train—even as we found whatever other ways we could to mitigate the other hardships caused by the lockdowns.
There is a challenge to acting according to this narrative, though: for our actions as individuals in the story we are telling ourselves to seem meaningful, the narrative has to be agreed upon collectively. In America, even in the early weeks of the pandemic when there was a sense of relative unity, there were skeptical and irate voices, questioning the seriousness of the threat and objecting to the severity of the response. Those voices became louder and more strident as the weeks wore on until, it seemed to me, the narrative broke completely into two as it had been before the pandemic: on one side it remained a matter of fighting the virus, on the other it became a matter of fighting against an oppressive and deceptive government response to the virus. (The strangest element of this being that the president seems to be on the anti-government side.)
So the war for control of the narrative continues. But in the absence of any shared understanding of our situation and its imperative—of who or what the enemy is and of what the American destiny is—we can act collectively neither according to some shared narrative nor even some dry but objective utilitarian calculus. We cannot in fact act collectively at all. Instead, things will be determined by power—by the competing interests and conflicting narratives of different groups. Some states will reopen—are reopening—quickly; others will extend their “stay at home” orders to try to get things further under control. Some people will blithely congregate, others will have to fear leaving their homes. There will be only piecemeal and drastically inadequate provisions made for the vast number whose lives and livelihoods have been jeopardized by the economic crisis.
If this is the case, as it would seem to be, then the narrative that we find ourselves inhabiting is indeed a tragic one—not a Hegelian tragedy in which we find ourselves faced with two conflicting duties, but one in which we cannot even see what kind of story we’re living in at all.
Love the Cave
May 12, 2020
NEW YORK, NEW YORK—Last week I received an e-mail from a dermatologist office I had visited once a few years ago. The e-mail notified me that they are reopening in May with limited hours. After weeks—or is it months?—of receiving notices of cancellations and closures, this is the first note I have received from the “post” future, and I found my reaction to this good news disturbing. A sadness, the kind you experience when someone dear is moving to a new city, and you wave goodbye knowing already that you will not write. This is a reaction to the quarantine that I have been slow to grapple with, embarrassed of. As someone who considers herself politically and socially engaged, it was hard to accept: the fact that I love the quarantine—and I secretly wish it never ends.
I first suspected that I loved the quarantine when I called my friend in Iran, an artist. This was in March. She is an Iranian woman who seems to like the hijab less because of piety than because she is entirely uninterested in the exterior world and prefers to stay hidden from it. When I called her, she was jumping up and down on her giant blue yoga ball in her apartment in Tehran. At first, I tried to follow social convention and speak about the virus, which I knew to have hit Iran pretty hard in March, but she said that she didn’t know much about the latest developments, as she had been jumping on the rubber ball nonstop for a few days. “You have to love the virus! Submit to the virus,” she said into the digital screen, her mouth enveloping the camera so close that I made out her teeth were unbrushed for days. Then she showed me her apartment, the walls, windows, curtains and cabinets of which she had entirely painted with her abstract drawings, so it became a kind of quarantine cave.
In the Republic, Socrates tells Glaucon about the cave where men are chained to look at shadows projected by magicians onto the back wall of the cave. The idea is that one must leave this dark, uterine space and expose oneself to the truth and good of the sun. But what is so good about the sun in our world of solipsism? Perhaps Socrates got it wrong, that it is the world outside that is the realm of appearances, not truth? Why leave, if you are already the magician of your own cave, making imprints on your own walls to gaze at? Into this cave my friend would occasionally welcome her various lovers, and then go back to bouncing on her big ball. It was then that I realized that I also… love… the quarantine.
What I love about the quarantine is the feeling of invisibility. Living in New York, I am always devoured by the gazes of others. On the street, on the subway, in line at Trader Joe’s, during the course of a day, millions of eyes gradually grind and smooth me out into a mere surface. An epidermis. The eyes of strangers penetrate me, pierce my skin and some linger inside of me like a tiny, but loud, mosquito in a closed-off room during a wet summer night. I am also an artist, and I have a complicated relationship with these spectators, as I live in New York partly in order to be seen and desired. I compete for these wandering gazes in my non-quarantine time.
I also relish in the peculiar sense of this bracketed time. For me as for many others, time dictated by the traditional workday—with its commute, coffee, happy hour and its evening Netflix scroll—stopped. Language—that typical flow of small talk organized by the appropriate time of the week—slipped off and disappeared somewhere else. I am mesmerized by the rhythms of quarantine temporality. They kind of wash over me. Some days feel like they need candlelight, some nights, a salt bath. I shit and eat whenever I want to. Spring was slow to come to New York, but this week all the trees outside my East Village window are in such bloom that I have dreams that I wake up with flowers growing inside my body. Usually a lily. In some dreams, the flower starts to grow out of my mouth, poking through my belly button. As my academic career has come to a near standstill, with the closure of blah blah blah and blah blah, I can spend the day watering this imaginary white plant.
With the prospect of reopening businesses upon us in New York, I too must prepare to be commercially viable and attractive, to invest in my glowing, dewy skin. Good thing about that dermatologist!
Saying I Love You
May 7, 2020
NEW YORK, NEW YORK—I don’t want to call my grandmother, but I do it anyway. She’s dying about fifteen miles due north from me, in her nursing home in Yonkers, just outside city limits. I’m in her apartment, her half-emptied apartment on the Lower East Side, quarantined with what remains of her art, her furniture, her lifetime accumulation of unused cooking implements. Before moving here, she sank half a million dollars into renovations, imagining that an apartment truly her own would redeem her final years. Or maybe, as my mother claims, she was swindled by a pair of real-estate agents who befriended a sad, lonely old woman. In any case, it is a cold, sterile place.
The phone rings—once, twice. I hope no one picks up. What am I to say? She’s dying, either of COVID-19 or something else, there’s no point in testing, she’s not going to any hospital. Normally I tell her lies, but it feels wrong, or perhaps merely ludicrous, to do so on her deathbed. Just hold on, you’ll feel better soon. She’s 96, can’t form sentences, isn’t responding to treatment. For the past year she has ended every visit begging me to stay, threatening to throw herself out a window. Do I hope she gets better? No, I suppose not. They say she’s not in pain.
Perhaps—I think hopefully—I’ll get her in the mood my mother did yesterday. The only sentence she could muster: asking for chocolate ice cream. There are worse last words.
A businesslike aide picks up the phone. “Yes?”
“Hi, it’s Andrew, Elaine’s grandson.”
“Hi,” she says, and waits.
I can’t just say, I love you. It doesn’t mean anything like that, sputtered out to an insensate body. It requires accoutrement. But then, she never asked for much of that. Though the units by which she measured affection were calls and visits, she never wanted to talk for more than thirty seconds. (I suddenly realize I’m already thinking of her in the past tense.)
“Can I talk to her?”
“Well,” says the aide skeptically. “She can’t talk.”
I pause, stymied.
“Okay. Can I talk… at her?”
On the other end of the line I hear the aide’s prompting. Elaine, Elaine. It’s your grandson, Andrew. Andrew, Elaine, your grandson. She returns to the phone.
“Okay, I’m going to hold it next to her.”
A Darth Vader sort of breathing fills the line.
“Grandma…? Can you hear me?” I feel ridiculous, like I’m talking to holding music.
“Yes, she can hear you,” puts in the aide from the background.
How does she know? I wonder. Even prior to this, my grandmother’s final descent into herself, it was unclear if she ever listened to us. Really listened, I mean, in a way where our words could inflect the progress of her inner life. This made dishonesty easy. It cost us little to advise her to make friends, to take classes, precisely because we knew she wouldn’t do it. Our words were inert, cheap. I said them partly because it was a script to follow and partly because it made my mother feel better.
“Grandma, I love you and I hope…”
I feel the aide waiting patiently in the background, her silence like an eyeroll. I love you meant something to my grandmother, I know. But did it mean the right thing? As long as I can remember, every visit ended with a series of desperately tight hugs, innumerable I love yous. My mother says that she’s always been like that—demanding proofs of love in place of the thing itself. I have the sudden urge to give her an I love you better than the one requested.
There are, I think as I hesitate, two kinds of I love you. The first is capacious, world-filling. The I love you of young lovers, of parent to child. And then there is the other kind, bare and desperate. This I love you is given to someone when you have no other way of helping them. You lob it blindly over the high castle walls, hoping they can do something with it.
“I love you, and we’re all thinking about you—Libby, Cara, John, Anton.” I say the names of our family, hoping one sparks something. “And that’s all I wanted to say, Grandma.”
“Okay. Bye,” says the aide, and promptly hangs up.
I’ve been nervously pacing, and as I allow myself to breathe once again I discover that I am in my grandmother’s room. The bed missing, the room is a jumble of cardboard boxes and misaligned furniture, strewn in a half-circle around an empty core. I look through her things for a while, searching, perhaps, for a more capacious love.
I will be here two days later when, informed that the end is imminent, I call her for the last time. At first, the interaction is so similar it verges on Beckettian farce. But after I love you I try something new. I tell her that I am in her apartment. I describe the objects around me: her husband’s watch, his cufflinks, the yellow chest, the engagement card, the Kodachrome negatives of the camping trip. Though I don’t know if these are happy memories, I feel that I have said something fuller than before. The aide says goodbye—softer this time, I think, but perhaps it’s just me—and I begin to sob, the tinny clamor of the 7 p.m. cheer rising in the background like rain after a thunderclap.
May 7, 2020
GREGORY, MICHIGAN—Five years ago, I retired from the priesthood and returned from New Hampshire to Michigan to be closer to my adult children. Since then we have seen each other regularly. We meet for dinner out or a movie. I host them for Robert Burns Night Dinner with cullen skink, haggis, neeps and tatties and a dozen different single malts. On St. Patrick’s Day, it’s Guinness, corned beef and cabbage. I scan the calendar for such days as excuses to bring us together. At least I did. Until now.
Now, I seldom leave home. When I do, it is only to have groceries delivered into the back of my car. This happens with no contact and as little conversation as possible. The cheerful, talkative employees of pre-virus deliveries have given way to a somber silence.
It’s increasingly difficult to find an unclaimed time for such reserved curbside service so my children and I order things for each other. I stop at their houses on my way home, carry groceries to their porches, pick up anything they have procured for me, then stand at a safe distance while we make small talk or, more often than not, complain about the stupidity of denial that seems to grip so many around us. Then, reluctantly, I get back into my car and drive the thirty minutes back to my home, where my wife and I silently wipe down the packages with disinfectant and wash any produce we have been fortunate enough to find in stock.
The isolation of life in the age of COVID-19 is unlike any other I have known. Absence is now a permanent fixture in my life. And not only in my life—in pretty much everyone else’s life too. I move through my day, constantly reminded of the final verse of Psalm 88: “My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion.” There is some comfort in knowing that I am not the only person ever to feel this way.
Christianity spends a lot of time talking about presence. Specifically, what we call the Real Presence: the notion that God is present to the world by means of the ordinary physical, tangible stuff of life. Bread. Wine. Water. Oil. Touch. Human Touch. We are taught that somehow, in ways that cannot be explained, Christ’s body and blood are really present and really given in the bread and the wine of the Mass. Roman Catholics call this the Doctrine of Transubstantiation. Anglicanism—my own peculiar (English) type of Catholic Christianity—also teaches Real Presence, preserving the mystery of Christ with us without resorting to things like Transubstantiation to explain it. The English Church’s theology is, instead, most fully discovered in the words of its prayers. In this case, I think that the poet and Anglican priest John Donne offered the best expression of what Real Presence is:
He was the Word, that spake it;
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it;
I do believe and take it.
I’ve always loved that poem. It explains nothing. And asserts everything.
The problem is that, no matter how much Christians talk about God’s presence, I know that I have always been much more attuned to God’s absence. Mine is the type of faith known as the Apophatic way: a form of spirituality that asserts that the only way to speak of God is by negation—by saying not what God is but rather what God is not. That way of speaking has become my métier as we face a pandemic that hundreds of thousands cannot possibly survive. “Where are you?” I ask as I go through my day. I’ve never been much bothered by God’s all-too-often apparent absence. But these days, I find myself asking questions. “Are you really there, God? I mean, really there? People are dying, God. Millions of people are sick. More than two hundred thousand have died. And I fear that’s just the beginning.” Like the children of Israel so long ago, I wander in this wilderness and I cry out, “Is the Lord among us, or not?”
Many years ago, a close friend of mine from high school, Mike, died in a car accident. When I went off to college and he joined the army, I didn’t expect to see him soon again. But then my dad called to tell me he had died. Attending his funeral, standing by his grave, I was forced to acknowledge his total absence, which, in a strange and inexplicable way, made me recognize his presence: that he had, at least for a short time, been an important part of my life. And, in a very real way, Mike is present still in my life—even today. I think of him and of that brief period when we were companions united in our pursuits, simultaneous allies and rivals, but friends nonetheless.
Simone Weil, the French philosopher and mystic, wrote: “Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.” I experience the absence of my loved ones, of my God. But without absence, can there ever really be presence? I’m not sure. Somehow, I think not. Every separation is a link. Absence creates a space where presence can be sought. And, just maybe, where presence can be discovered.
When We Get Through This
(A note on the fridge)
May 7, 2020
SOFIA, BULGARIA—Perhaps it’s too early, or perhaps it’s just the right time. Let’s put a note on the fridge for when we get through this, so we don’t forget…
When we get through this, let’s not forget to take with us all our love for the world that was denied to us. The love we have while we are shut away. (The denied world is the most desirable world.)
When we get through this, let’s not erase from our memory what we experience now.
Because it will be a watershed from the time before, which we have lost. It will remind us of what happens when anthropocentrism crosses the line into anthropo-egocentrism, when greed is industrialized. When we forget that we are not the masters but rather the children of this planet, renters, not even homeowners, but rather late-arriving guests at her home, millions of years after that home has already been built and the table set.
When we get through this, let’s remember that only months before the pandemic hit us, the Australian bush was burning… Let’s remember the kangaroo that hugged its rescuer, looking for consolation. That consoling, forgiving embrace between human and kangaroo (even if the meme, in the end, had little to do with the fires) should be the world’s new icon, the screensaver for the global monitor, it should be painted on the Sistine Chapel of the future. This, I thought to myself back then, is an omen. To make us realize that every living creature in this world—dolphin, kangaroo, snail, bee, ginkgo biloba, cherry tree and rosehip shrub—we are all “brethren in pain,” as Darwin wrote.
From now on “I am us” will be more important than “I am.”
When we get through this, the world of yesterday will exist only in books, movies and our dreams. Relying on these and our memories, we will have to reconstruct it. But we should restore only what is most meaningful, simple and important. Not everything. We should leave behind part of yesterday’s world, for it was not blameless. We will have to sift out what is essential. The simple things, such as feeling empathy, showing humility, not causing harm…
When we get through this, the only thing we should take with us is a small invisible suitcase for survival, containing only our most precious personal things, small enough that we don’t end up stuffing it full of nonessential junk. A small first-aid kit for after the end of the world, a world that we will make anew. Together with our children and our parents, together with that kangaroo and all the living creatures in the world.
When we get through this, our eyes will have forgotten how bright the light is outside and we will squint like those emerging from Plato’s cave. But unlike them, since we already possess knowledge, we will have to recognize that this is the real world and bring back that whole exhilarating sense of freedom, which we will have inevitably lost in the dusk of our rooms.
When we get through this, we will be poorer, but more humane. That will balance out the scales of our happiness.
When we get through this, first of all we will go to embrace our parents and loved ones whom we have been separated from. As if for the first time, as if for all those postponed times.
When we get through this, I will take my daughter to see the sea again, because I promised her.
(Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel)
Make Yourself at Home
May 3, 2020
WASHINGTON, D.C.—After being in Europe for the better part of three years, I rejoiced when I arrived in Washington, D.C. at the beginning of March. The city brought to mind nothing so much as Jerusalem, with its whitewashed dome soaring up into an opening in the skyline, visitors from every imaginable group in the nation descending on the capital to lay claim to their piece of what they believed was rightfully theirs. After a winter of near-total darkness in northern Germany, I experienced the bright blue sky as if for the first time. I attended a talk by an activist at a neighborhood cafe, reveling in the feeling of communal recognition. In the restaurant area, someone noticed that I was looking for the bathroom and asked me, unsolicited, if she could help. (That has never happened to me in Germany.)
COVID-19 was basically like the flu, said the owner of my Airbnb in the Shaw neighborhood, when I got there the second week of March—some people got it, some people didn’t, and he’d never been one of the ones who did, despite forgoing vaccines. I kept putting off decisions about flying back to Germany or driving to my father’s house and then, at some point, it was too late and I was staying. One night when I came back from a walk, my host was sitting on the couch watching a movie and eating Oreo ice cream, which he acknowledged self-consciously, and we chatted a bit about the strange circumstances we found ourselves in, quarantined with strangers. He assured me that, as Trump had said, hydroxychloroquine was going to be a “game changer.”
What were the odds? Four percent of the District of Columbia voted for Trump in 2016: that’s one in every 28,000 residents. The house was big enough that it contained three separate private units, each with a bedroom, bathroom and small sitting area. But the kitchen was shared, and I began to worry that if the owner was taking his cues from Trump about the virus, he might not be taking the necessary precautions, and that would put me at risk, too. I mostly stopped using the kitchen, started washing my hands after opening and shutting the refrigerator door, and spent most of my day in my unit. My host, I eventually found out, had the same concerns about me. “I really lucked out that you’re a good person,” he said one morning before heading out to his job; he was doing a renovation of someone else’s recently purchased home, by himself, so he could continue working. “Like, you’re not inviting all your friends over for parties or anything like that.” I assured him that I would not invite my friends over, nor would they come if I did.
I’ve been back to the U.S. frequently since I moved away three years ago, but these past two months have been by far the longest stretch. It has made me realize how much reading the newspapers from abroad is a poor means of knowing what it’s like at home right now—the American media, even the constant churn of the New York Times, provide a hyper-concentrated shot of the highlights of public life, without any of the background texture for dilution. Some of the voices that I’d found clarifying from abroad, explaining to me the meaning of this or that event, irritated me once I was home; relentlessly obvious and repetitive, they had maintained the same level of stupor for three years running. They were writing for the judgments of the future historians who would pronounce them clairvoyants or voices of morality, but in the present, the competition to outwit each other in their outrage was suffocating. Extreme polarization, portrayed from afar as America’s sad new reality, was in fact an addiction: problems that could be pried open from a number of angles were turned into a lazily conceived partisan match in a blood sport that everyone seemed to crave and need.
I had doctor friends in New York who told me that they were using hydroxychloroquine in a limited way to treat certain COVID-19 patients, whose conditions seemed subsequently to improve, though the causal relationship was unclear; yet the moment that a small, partial, unrepresentative study came out suggesting that the drug might also cause serious side effects in other patients, the media shouted its head off about how wrong Trump had been. He was indeed wrong, in his used-car-salesman attempt to hawk it to the American public. But who did they think they were convincing? There is an unspoken moral imperative that Trump should never be right about anything, and that I understand; but are we doomed, then, to exist at the level of intransigence that he himself sets?
All these months, as the news arrived, I’d experienced it alone, or among people (Germans) who didn’t really understand, or did so with amused detachment; they were not personally implicated in the spectacular unraveling of this social system, the meaning of which I couldn’t absorb without witnessing its more quotidian effects on those who were. I don’t dislike my Airbnb host, and we chat often, though I can’t say, knowing what I know, that I respect him; I’m fairly certain he feels the same about me. He knows that I’m a journalist, though he has never bothered to ask whom I work for. He joked that I was spending my days upstairs in my unit “spinning things.” I didn’t find it funny. But it forced me to try to justify, to myself above all, my own position within that system—where I come from, how I arrived at my own political beliefs, and whether that makes me a good journalist—more than the French or the Germans ever did.
May 3, 2020
WOODSTOCK, NEW YORK—In March, I left Indonesia, where I’ve lived on and off since 2016, and flew home to New York. I was working as a foreign correspondent, and I had held out as long as I could. The journey was drawn out and every step a reaction to new contingencies but, in brief, borders everywhere started closing and living “abroad” became untenable. I had a book coming out in April and, though it was obvious I wouldn’t be doing any live events, I still didn’t want to risk getting stranded indefinitely in Asia. If you remember those volatile weeks in March, possible realities were nested like matryoshka dolls; in airspace, I realized calmly and all at once that my job, as I knew, it, was over. I wouldn’t be going back to Indonesia or any other country, in May, or this summer, or even this calendar year.
I lived abroad from October 2016 to March 2020, ever since I bought a one-way ticket to Indonesia. I spent those years reporting in Southeast Asia and India, studying in London, and researching a book in Nigeria, the Balkans and Saudi Arabia. Why? Jim from Jules et Jim, one of the films I rewatched in quarantine, explained it perfectly:
“But what can I become?”
“That’s no career.”
“Not yet. Travel, write, translate. Learn to live anywhere, beginning now. There’s a future in it. The French have ignored the world for too long. A paper will always pay for your fun.”
When I watched the film a couple weeks before I moved abroad in 2016, en plein air in LA, the exchange voiced my unspoken premise and wish for life itself.
There was barely such a thing as a foreign bureau by the time I graduated college. But there was still this shadow tradition for journalists: to move somewhere, keep your ear to the ground, learn the language, live cheaply, start writing stories, first as a freelancer and then perhaps as something else. It was exactly like that for me. Along the way, I experienced many moments of reporting in the hushed key of revelation: sighting the spice islands after a long voyage in a cargo ship, coming face-to-face with the world’s oldest painting.
The shadow path availed by me and so many other journalists is evaporating. A shame, because it really was the best job ever. If we didn’t have security—and who did, after 2008—we had the promise of adventure, mystery, suspense, competition, a mandate to pay attention, a moral charge, a thrownness into the world, and the vanishing opportunity to get to the marrow of real life.
A week into quarantine I Zoomed two brilliant younger journalist friends on the same path toward foreign correspondence, who both had to cut their first forays short earlier this year, leaving Beirut and Cairo in states of moderate panic. “I’m not sure,” one of them said, “that this journalism thing is going to work out.” I tried to encourage her to stick it out because she is already an astonishingly sophisticated reporter, but I had no grounds on which to assert anything.
Foreign correspondence is doubtless an elite pursuit, because it takes for granted a strong passport like the one that I have by an accident of birth. But COVID-19 has shown how contingent are even those last few provisions that enable our hollowed-out profession. Tourist visas, for instance: When will they come back? When will flight routes recover? And the things that make breaking news: When will there be protests, election rallies, religious gatherings, pilgrimages and migrations again, and when, again, can we safely cover them?
Post-COVID reporting will obviously exist: it will involve a lot more phone and video interviews, more textual research. The pandemic will probably accelerate the positive trend towards hiring citizens instead of foreigners to report on their own countries, given the mounting challenges of international work and travel. But I’m unable to imagine possible evolutions of the activity that lies at the heart of field reporting: showing up, sitting around, waiting, sometimes for hours, or days, until someone talks. I miss that showing up most of all.
I’ve been enjoying my quarantine shift work, because at least it’s something to do. Many days now I’ve gone straight from Zoom cocktail hour in America into rounds of nighttime phone interviews in Indonesia and India until the birds start to sing. I’m mainly fulfilling preexisting commitments, not generating groundbreaking ideas. Sometimes I look forward to getting back into the field once it’s feasible, and sometimes I think: that was fun while it lasted.
Made by History
May 3, 2020
DENVER, COLORADO—As we all stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, I have briefly found myself in possession of two homes: one in Denver’s far western suburbs, which my family is leaving, and one near downtown, where my family is moving. We decided to buy our new place during the first week of March, at perhaps the last moment when it still seemed as if everything would proceed as normal. Soon the original reason for the move—the length of my partner M.’s commute—evaporated, at least temporarily, because she now works from home. All the ancillary reasons—friends, restaurants, concerts and culture, schools for the kids—are also on hold. But we are going forward with it anyway.
Moving provokes memories as we choose what to preserve and what to discard. A few weeks ago, as M. sat in bed working on a petition to convince the state supreme court to empty jails to enable distancing (summarily denied), I was in my office boxing up books. One box managed to fit only U.S. history, Wh-Wo: Richard White, Sean Wilentz, Gordon Wood. I remembered my initial encounter with Wood’s Creation of the American Republic, when I read the whole thing in a frenzied week at the end of my first quarter of graduate school. The next summer, I had a similar experience with David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, drinking it in long gulps at Snice in Park Slope while I stayed with M. during the dead late-summer weeks between the start of her semester and my quarter. Then, the next March, during spring break, I started The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand while sitting next to her on the beach at Montauk on an unseasonably warm day when I managed to sunburn the tops of my pale feet. Three books, three memories, touchstones of my development as a historian and a human.
My twin daughters are two and a half, near the age when permanent memories start to form, I think, and I wonder how their generation will be shaped by the pandemic. During the Depression, my grandfather was a poor student working his way through college, and he got cheap calories, I learned from my dad, by ordering coffee and then loading his cup with cream and sugar. Like him, my other grandparents were all adolescents or young adults during the Depression and war, old enough for those experiences to leave a lasting mark. But their youngest siblings, born in the late 1920s, were more playful and less dour, having gone through the Thirties as relatively carefree kids and then come of age in a period of sunny postwar opportunity. Maybe my daughters will be like them, too young to really remember, too young to develop any lasting habits of body or mind, like measuring their lives with coffee spoons.
Yet plenty of people will remember, and I also wonder how the coronavirus will alter the historical arc of the country as a whole. It is already clear it will change how we think about past epidemics, much as, in the midst of Vietnam, American historians began to pay more attention to British military problems during the Revolutionary War. But what about the historians of the future? When my daughters are my age and historians are starting to write accounts of the early 21st century, how will these months register? Will this mark a shift from one well-defined period to the next, a turning point within a larger era, or simply a blip, a historical oddity, the way many of us have seen the 1918 pandemic? I study events from more than a hundred years ago and tend to see changes coalescing slowly over generations if not centuries, so my answer will always be a variation of that old joke about Mao and the French Revolution: it’s too soon to tell.
But even I can’t help feeling as if 2008 marked the end of the long Age of Reagan and the start of a new period of populist reaction against rising inequality. During a similar period in the late nineteenth century, it took more than two decades and two major economic panics before a critical mass of people came together to reform American capitalism and democracy. We have already had one economic crisis since 2008 and now stand on the brink of a second. On my optimistic days, I like to think that the pandemic will make us ready for another era of reform.
The Price of Normality
April 30, 2020
STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN—I blink in the Swedish sunshine. It’s been days since I’ve gone out, despite the entreaties of friends who have been sending me pictures of themselves out in the verdant Swedish forest. The branches of the dogwood trees where they last went are heavy with blooms, but they are an hour away by train and I am trying to limit my excursions out.
Instead, my very kind flatmate coaxes me out to the local bar, assuring me that the bar was strict about distancing their tables as per government guidelines. As I sit in the bar with her, nursing a glass of white wine, I feel guilt-stricken, as if I were a sycophantic courtier cheering Nero as he fiddled away while Rome went up in flames. I look around at the other patrons as they smile and laugh easily. It’s a pleasant day, after all.
But the uneasiness won’t go away. I think of the few times I have gone out to report around Stockholm. There was the fearful old woman I interviewed from her window. There were the scientists, some cheerful and brisk, assuring me all would be well, and others wringing their hands at the mounting toll of Sweden’s laissez-faire approach to the virus.
My uneasiness deepens when I think of my latest interview, with Nuri Kino, a fellow journalist of Assyrian Syriac heritage. I had asked him if I could come to see him in his neighborhood, one dominated by immigrants. He told me he felt it was too dangerous, as the contagion there is so high. “Every time I open the balcony I hear the sound of ambulances.”
Last week, the country’s Public Health Agency reported that people in Sweden with foreign backgrounds are disproportionately affected by coronavirus: those with Somali backgrounds have been especially overrepresented in hospitals, though it is unclear why. Nuri has been living alone with his wheelchair-bound mother, Terez, since March 3rd.
Terez formerly had five home caregivers, all from immigrant backgrounds. Four are now sick at home with virus symptoms. Terez’s elderly sister has also contracted the virus, and her brother recently died of it. Nuri, previously the owner of a retirement home, had become concerned about his asthmatic mother as far back as February, when he began to notice a rise in the deaths of elders in his community.
He called the firm that was responsible for his mother’s care to see if their protocols had changed in light of the virus, and was guided to the municipality authority, who told him they were following guidelines set by the public-health authorities. He began to investigate, soon receiving a flood of frustrated testimonies about a lack of supplies and unclear instructions, both in elderly care facilities and amongst hemtjänst, or home carers.
Nuri put me in touch with a number of people who wanted to talk but only anonymously, fearful of losing their precarious jobs. One woman who works in a retirement home told me, almost sobbing, “We’re constantly running out of equipment and work fourteen-hour shifts even if we have symptoms, we are all worried.”
I’ve lost count of the messages I’ve received from people who want to vent their anger and dismay at government mismanagement and dwindling resources; others are no longer speaking to friends and family who champion the Swedish approach. “I feel like I live in a parallel universe and I don’t recognize the country I grew up in,” one Swedish medical student told me.
I am no stranger to disparate realities living cheek to cheek. As a young journalist working in Egypt, I recall people frequenting cafes and malls on the other side of Cairo as the revolution raged in Tahrir Square: normal life, or a very close approximation of it, has an almost miraculous way of taking its course even in the most tumultuous times. But this particular sort of normality in extremis has a jarring quality that is novel to me. Perhaps it’s the dogged insistence on the need to maintain normality at all costs, or perhaps it’s the nationalist pride some Swedes seem to be taking in the strategy. The kitschy songs, the cakes and food and t-shirts featuring the unassuming face of Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist: this also reminds me of Egypt and the aftermath of the 2013 coup, when suddenly military strongman President el-Sisi’s face featured on everything from chocolates to baby clothing.
I am unsure if the strategy is right or wrong. I want fervently for it to be right so I can feel free to join my friends in the forest, to report on anything other than the pandemic. But I also can’t easily go about my day knowing Nuri and others are suffering as a consequence of our plans—that our normality is coming at someone else’s expense.
April 30, 2020
BROOKLYN—On March 12th, Major League Baseball suspended its season. When politicians drop out of races, they “suspend” their campaigns. This euphemism allows them to keep soliciting donations and pay down their debts. Nobody expects to un-suspend their campaign and roar back to life. For baseball, the term was more precise. Play was halted in the middle of the warm-up period known as spring training, not long before the teams were scheduled to return from Arizona and Florida to their home cities for Opening Day. Six weeks later, the season remains suspended; i.e., hanging in mid-air.
Baseball fans, prone to romantic sentiment, treat Opening Day as a rite of spring. When it didn’t take place, we became depressed. The words alone evoke the pastoral: fresh-cut grass, afternoon games played without artificial light. In quarantine times, they sound especially enticing. Opening: what the country isn’t doing. Day: what I can’t go outside and enjoy.
Prevented from watching games, fans have developed a substitute pastime: tracking improbable schemes to play socially-distanced baseball. In early April, reports of the proposals began to surface in the (emaciated) sports pages. In the first, informally known as the “biosphere” plan, all thirty teams would sequester themselves in the Phoenix area, playing games in eleven to thirteen area parks while living together—but without their families—in five to eight “large hotels.” Nobody would leave the region. Instead of sitting in the cramped dugouts during games, the players would sit in the stands, six feet apart. There would be no fans, of course.
Later, news broke of a “Realignment Plan.” The Realignment Plan would do away with the league’s existing divisions; instead, competition would be limited to spring training complexes in Arizona and Florida, with the winner of each circuit meeting in some kind of World Series at the end of the season, maybe in a neutral stadium in Texas. Subsequent proposals have floated games in up to a half-dozen urban “hubs,” in hopes of serving TV audiences—now the only revenue-generating audiences—in three separate time zones. Just this week, there was word of an entirely new idea, a “World Cup”-style round-robin tournament, in case there is no time for a reasonably long regular season.
In a country where several thousand are dying every day from a mysterious illness, none of these proposals sounds particularly practical, and nobody knows how seriously they are being weighed. That’s okay. The point of reading about them isn’t to learn anything. The point is to fantasize about baseball again.
In late March, under normal circumstances, I would have gathered in a sports bar on West 79th with about twenty other people, mostly from New York and Chicago, to begin a new season of “fantasy baseball.” At the bar, poring over DIY spreadsheets, each of us “owners” drafts real-life Major Leaguers. The better my ballplayers perform, the better my “team.” The draft is the only in-person event of the year; the rest of the season is conducted online. After it ends, we eat Chinese food and take turns espousing the virtues of our rosters. As in real baseball, hope springs eternal: for at least those first few days after the draft, before our teams start to blow it, we each have equal license to fantasize about winning the championship.
The day baseball went on hiatus this year, some of the other owners refused to consider the possibility of a lost season. One guy posted on the league message board: “As of now, I am still coming in on March 28th.” Another guy: “If we aim for Easter Sunday (April 12) as a tentative backup anticipating a 2-3 week delay to the start of the season would that inconvenience anyone?” Convinced they were in denial, I replied, “I love the optimism about delay, on our parts and MLB’s, but the season is probably going to be cancelled.” I now see that this was a buzzkill message, and violated the hopeful spirit of coronavirus fantasy baseball. Suspending disbelief was exactly the point. I regret posting it.
Before baseball was suspended, someone I work with went to Yankees spring training in Tampa. During one of the games, she noticed a guy in a motorized wheelchair wearing a red satin jacket, a kind of cowboy hat, and sunglasses. Someone hit a foul ball in her direction. The guy, sitting in front of her, raised his hand in the air and called out, “I got it.” And then, the ball was in his hand. This ancient man, in a motorized wheelchair, had somehow caught a foul ball. Incredible. Except the actual ball landed somewhere else. Turns out the guy had brought a baseball with him, and simply produced it once the foul pop was heading his way. Over the course of the game, he did this about five more times.
I Leave It to You
April 30, 2020
OXFORD, UNITED KINGDOM—When I lived in Tokyo, during the summers, I used to take expeditions out to remote pockets of the city. My cramped third-floor loft apartment stood on the edge of the main line encircling the city center, jammed next to a trestle bridge that lifted the train tracks above ground. The trains passed so close to my apartment window that you could hear the tires rattling against the tracks on their way in. Like a rambunctious neighbor, the train was a recipe for insomnia. And so I tried to get out as often as I could.
On weekends, my day would start at around 8:30 with a quick breakfast, a coffee from the nearby Starbucks and a five-minute walk to the station with a book in hand. About twenty or thirty minutes into the train ride, I’d get off and roam around pachinko parlors, street festivals, secret bars, underground passages and sketchy back alleys. I’d also observe the usual scatterings of shops, cafes, love hotels and impossibly small residential homes. Sometimes when I got tired I’d park myself at a coffee shop and read my book until dusk, stealing glances at other patrons in the café and wondering what kinds of lives they led. Around dinnertime, I’d duck out of the shop and look around for a nearby diner to close out my journey. I managed never go to the same place twice.
My favorite were sushi restaurants—at least those with more than the usual tuna-salmon-yellowtail combo—which often have an option on the menu to let the chef choose your selection for you. In Japanese, it’s called an omakase, which literally means “I’ll leave it to you.” But the word means more than that. It evokes a kind of calculated surrender to another, a leap of faith towards the unknown, and a willingness to relinquish control of a situation. Just as I’d consciously leave my weekends open for the unexpected surprises of the city, so I’d deliberately leave my dinners in the hands of the chef. Both were an exercise in willful ignorance.
It is precisely this ability to will ignorance, to plan the unplanned, that I feel has been stripped away from us now. When we navigate public spaces, we’re always one step away from the unknown: you never know what or who you might encounter when you turn the block.
Now, the capacity for chance encounters is almost gone. Technology may have saved us from complete social deprivation, but it has yet to replicate a crucial dimension of social life: spontaneity. Today, I have a Zoom call with friends from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and a daily check-in with my family before bed at 11 p.m. My social life, meticulously planned, has come to resemble my social media feeds, where every video is curated based on things I’ve already shown a liking to. There’s almost no room for genuine discovery, and only minor, incremental modifications. We become prisoners of our own past selves.
I found it odd, during the first weeks of quarantine, when I began suffering from what seemed like an isolation-induced depression. My actual social interactions have increased since quarantine: I am isolating with good roommates and am in constant conversation with old friends. But it’s clear now that what I’ve been missing isn’t social connection. It’s rather the unscheduled aspect of social encounters. When all your interactions are scheduled in advance, it’s not only the social equivalent of discovering a delicious food you may not have otherwise tried that goes missing. I am also unable to offer the essentials of friendship: the moments that I’ve caught my friends and family at their most vulnerable, I was simply there for them, at the right place, at the right time.
I’d like to think that spontaneous encounters will once again be the rule, not the exception. But even as the threat of the virus subsides, the threat to the omakase life will remain. The virus has made plain that we cannot plan and schedule our way around the vicissitudes of the world, but our societies are wired to try: technology promises to exact more and more control over parts of the unknown, including our social lives.
That Plato’s main protagonist, Socrates, discusses almost all his philosophy through unplanned meet-ups is no accident. The ancients were aware of the value of strange encounters. Take, for example, the opening lines of the Republic: “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess (Bendis, the Thracian Artemis.); and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing.”
Here Plato, as with many of the dialogues, captures Socrates in his ritual habit of wandering into (literally) foreign places. The setting is deliberate. Piraeus is a busy port in the city of Athens full of foreigners and pagan festivals. By making Socrates go to Piraeus of all places, Plato places the philosopher out of his element. Later, he encounters the foreigner Cephalus, an interaction which kick-starts the entire philosophical discussion. For Socrates, knowledge and truth exist at the cusp of the foreign and the unknown. The path to the good life, in other words, cuts through unfamiliar public spaces.
The End of a World
April 26, 2020
MADISON, WISCONSIN—With the internet full of jokes about “apocalypse shopping” and health experts countering our dark humor with pleading assurance that we can avoid annihilation by staying inside and washing our hands, we might find ourselves soberly realizing that, while it may not be the end of the world, it is certainly the end of a world.
I began writing this on Good Friday, the day I finally felt able to write about what had happened two days before, when we learned that my healthy, brilliant, successful, 24-year old cousin had died a sudden and shocking death. While I don’t have much scientific knowledge from which to respond to the virus-generated question “is the world ending?” I can tell you that for at least a dozen members of my small and close-knit family, and for the families of about two hundred thousand pandemic victims around the world, the answer is yes.
I don’t write the above line in order to sound poetic, or to indicate that each loss brings inevitable despair. By “world” here I mean a unique mode of existence: when a new loved one enters my life, my world changes because I must change, my behaviors and ways of thinking must change in response. So, too, when loved ones leave. Grief, which until now I had only really experienced in relatively trivial forms—the loss of a pet, or a romantic relationship, or a hometown—is, at its core, a longing for the world as it was before. It is a longing for the world in which our deceased are still alive, the world where we can hear about their day and cook them dinner and touch their hair. It is said that the first stage of grief is denial, and I imagine that this is not because we shy away from pain—many of us are well acquainted with pain. I imagine we at first deny a loss for completely pragmatic reasons; we have just left one world and entered a new one, and in this new world we do not yet know how to move about.
I think this is why others cannot comfort us in times of great loss. Not that the presence of others is unimportant—having people to lament with is one of the great gifts of a human life. But others cannot make loss better. Something we learn with the death of a loved one is that the existence of our world hangs on the continued presence of each and every person we love. This is, I think, an important part of what it means to love someone: to hang your world on their presence. Attempts to bring comfort by relaying a positive or hopeful message can often backfire. I was raised in a devoutly religious family, where such (well-intended) responses to death were common—“He’s with Jesus now! You will see him again!” In a text I sent to my cousins—sisters of the deceased—I told them that they could feel free to mourn without attaching a hopeful flourish to their emotions. “Thanks,” they responded. “We hate that bullshit.” And indeed, visions of hope never appear more emptily platitudinous, more like bullshit, than when delivered at a time of deep loss. That loss, the end of a world, obscures any vision we may have had of an eschaton, even as it increases our longing for it.
An acquaintance of mine recently wrote that we should not treat Good Friday as a lead-up to Easter. Knowing the ending of the story prevents us from grasping the true depth of loss and despair, seeing the death only as a period of waiting before the healing, before the redemption. But it is exactly this future perspective that the disciples lacked in the story of the original Good Friday—a future perspective we also cannot access, when our world dies along with a loved one. Like my family, the story of Good Friday is the story of a group of a dozen or so people whose world ended with the loss of a dear loved one. Though they may have had a sort of abstract hope in Jesus’s eventual… something?, the gospel accounts are clear about the factual ignorance of the disciples, who struggled to envision a world beyond the one they knew—a world beyond the one that was ending.
This year’s especially somber Easter found us longing for a world that has ended. This may lead us to a better understanding of the desire for a heaven as the desire for the resurrection and redemption of the world as it was before. For our family, and countless other families around the world, the feeling of Good Friday did not entirely dissipate on Easter. It is okay to remain in our grief over the passing of the world as it was before, to take T. S. Eliot’s advice and “wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” It is okay to grieve our losses, to mourn with others in their loss, and to do all of this while taking joy in the warming earth and flowering trees. On the other side of grief is a world we know nothing about—a world we have no way of responding to, at least not now. So we may wait without hope, without despair, and without expectations, eyes open when we are able to open them, as the new world slowly forms around us.
April 25, 2020
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Crises make specialist language commonplace. During the Australian summer, ordinary people spoke of alert levels, of fires contained, or out of control, of ember attacks and crowning. While there are those for whom such language is essential, lifesaving, there are also those for whom it is primarily defensive. For people not on the frontline, due to luck or privilege, each new word is a foothold with which to navigate a reality under threat, as the pain and immiseration of others becomes increasingly difficult to ignore and the water laps at the feet of whoever it has not yet swallowed.
In November, when smoke descended upon Sydney, I learnt that air classified as “hazardous” indicated a measurement of over 200 on the Air Quality Index, meaning I should close my windows and avoid “strenuous” outdoor activity (the ultimate referent of a rigorously scientific index being as vague an indicator as “strenuous” is perhaps inevitable). I became familiar with the classifications of masks and the various dangers they protect (or fail to protect) against.
The pandemic has seen masks become invested with fresh meaning, and I’ve been remembering the similar lexicon expansion that took place twenty years ago when my father was diagnosed with leukemia, a disease that, today, has him newly categorized as high-risk. As a child, the medical jargon my parents suddenly commanded reassured me that a blueprint existed for my father’s ongoing survival. Now I live in New South Wales, my parents live in Queensland. I had no plans to visit but when the state border closed I was unsettled, faced with the fact that an expansive vocabulary does not prevent loss. I cried in the kitchen, my head on J’s shoulder.
Beginning quarantine, J and I would have been best described as housemates. A dynamic that had already undergone various complex iterations has now blurred into something beyond classification, following the patterns of a romantic relationship without being one. This is probably among the better outcomes of the dice roll that is being coerced by the engines of fate into forming a hygiene alliance in a situation where the only people you can touch are those you live with. As it stands, the vocabulary of our relation is governed by the conditions of our apartment rather than those of the world beyond it, the world where you’re asked to explain yourself.
Among the things we’re now doing that we didn’t before is regularly watching the TV news. When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison appears, we’ve taken to jokingly calling him Daddy, as if to come to terms with our sudden everyday dependence on the decisions of a man we did not choose and do not like. Before the bushfires (which, pre-pandemic, seemed era-defining), Morrison’s brand was that of a barbecue neighbor with a wardrobe last updated in 1994. His strongman credentials depended on his having inhumanely imprisoned refugees who came to Australia by boat, his principal appeal a vulgar and performative straightforwardness.
Now, appearing regularly behind a lectern, he attempts to compensate for his infamously inept bushfire response by surrounding himself with medical experts and, more or less, following their advice. If you squint, he offers some solace. He speaks directly to us. One day he’s scolding those flocking to Bondi, the next he’s praising those staying home. His folksy, paternal demeanor—insisting that we stop panic buying, that we don’t visit our families, that the national character of Australia is such that we will emerge from this catastrophe strengthened—is constantly fluctuating between fatherly disappointment and fatherly pride.
Morrison, like leaders the world over, has been most comfortable speaking the language of the market and of personal responsibility, but is now required to persuade his constituents that they are best served through massive social welfare and an unprecedented dependence on the government and each other. The resulting whiplash is emblematic of a sense I perceive to be general, that the new lexicons being forged—those of friendship, economics, politics, touch, work—are revealing the cracks in the old.
Wittgenstein writes that the phrase “‘I know’ seems to describe a state of affairs which guarantees what is known, guarantees it as a fact. One always forgets the expression ‘I thought I knew.’” I noted down this observation months ago for an essay that remains unwritten, thinking it interesting but not prophetic. Now I find it immediately useful, a way of grasping the uncanniness of how quotidian gestures that I knew quite recently only as dull pillars of the ordinary have had their meaning changed beneath them.
Statements that a month ago were merely phatic have been transformed into weighty intimations of solidarity, sometimes welcome, sometimes exhausting reminders of our desire for things to be different. Emails, for example, from those I barely know, are now frequently signed “stay safe.” I usually am; I’m in my apartment, working on the sofa, and J is over there, working at the kitchen table.
When we go outside, the world seems changed to match our indoor moods. It is restless and strange. Returning home from one of our daily walks to the park—where we count dogs and try to catch their names—J and I encountered a masked man standing in our path like a sculpture, unmoving despite us. We swerved onto the road, he stayed still.
As we entered our building’s courtyard he was somehow once again before us, his mask removed, hanging around his neck. Suddenly animated, he looked at us and said, “You can’t dodge me.” The right words unavailable, we apologized, laughed and ran indoors. Still we repeat this story to each other, trying to work it out, as if eventually the prime minister will overhear and give us some new guidance, allowing us to account for this latest absurdity. But the story’s appeal is its inexplicability, the indeterminate menace—an example of how all the things we know are fast becoming the things we thought we knew.
The Big Close
April 25, 2020
LONDON—The poo is having its lunch. It is having its lunch. The poo. Then it will be leaving its house because it is having its lunch. It will be leaving soon, but not quite yet. It is having pasta and baked beans which I made for it in its house. It is eating them and then it will say thank you and it will come out. Of its house.
A number of people have said that having a toddler to look after is, or must be, a welcome distraction. But neither our distraction nor his oblivion are ever complete. We can’t explain what’s going on and we can’t say nothing. The best way I’ve found to describe our new life is to call this period of time “the Big Close.” During the Big Close, the shops are closed. The airplanes, the playgrounds and the nurseries are closed.
There is distraction of a different sort. “The principle of sufficient reason” is the name philosophers give to the claim that, for everything that happens, there’s a reason which explains why. As Spinoza puts it: “Nothing exists of which it cannot be asked, what is the cause (or reason), why it exists.” We often don’t know the answer, but there simply has to be one: the truth is out there. To see the world in terms of possible answers to “Why?” questions is to take a basic step towards experiencing the world in a rational, adult, human way. There are always, as we say to our children, consequences. My son has not taken this developmental step. He does not ask why. He misuses its counterpart, “because,” as a kind of “and yes, indeed, to repeat”: the poo, for example, will be “leaving its house because it is having its lunch.” So we haven’t talked about why there is a Big Close, what a virus is or, because we know where this is going, how some people, unlike the puzzle pieces he loves to kick loose, cannot be fixed when they are broken. He is a distraction from the principle of sufficient reason, from the great chain of Why.
When the Big Close began, we first noticed the walls that came up. Then we noticed the boundaries that started to dissolve. Students call me at home to hear the toddler in the background, talking about the poo and its lunch. My departmental meetings became windows into other people’s apartments and houses. The sharp lines between our concepts broke down. Early on, we suggested “dinner” with friends, explaining carefully that we meant a simultaneous digital event. “See” you later, we said. Now the quotation marks have fallen away. Still, the strangest boundary to fall was one I did not recognize until now: the line between different conversation topics. The word “topic” comes from the Greek word for a place. We are all in the same place now, in breakout discussion groups for one giant COVID class. Another distraction, then: my son is living in the Big Close, but he hasn’t been enrolled to study it.
When you read some philosopher talking about the principle of sufficient reason, it’s a good bet they are about to talk about something to which it does not apply. God, for example: Do we have a right to know the reason for Him? Or a “free will,” by which human beings act, but for which no reason can be given. For Schopenhauer, what lay beyond the principle of sufficient reason—what didn’t deal in “why?”—was a mysterious reality that we could not possibly understand. He labeled it “the Will,” marking its constant, dissatisfied striving, and he said it was “blind,” because it didn’t know what it was doing or why. The Will was more real, and more important, than anything governed by why and because, those lords of rational adulthood. Really, then, the world was something fundamentally childish: a giant, bored, needy, destructive whim, kicking its puzzles with no feel for the consequences. You could ask it “why?” but that would be a sign of confusion.
This real world was not completely closed off, though. You could sometimes get a feel for it, awkwardly and obliquely, in the stories you told. My son isn’t studying the Big Close, but even while he distracts me from it, his stories reach for it, whylessly. The poo will say thank you, a salient phrase in a locked-down family. Everyone is doing more for everyone else to keep things going. The least you could do is say thank you. We are always trying to work out what to eat and who will cook it, what is hoarding, what is prudent. Pasta and beans sold out very quickly and we didn’t beat the rush. The lunch that the toddler has lavished upon the poo is a treat. Lunch, itself, is the only meal we take together, so it newly stands out from the crowd. Previously, any meal, any time, was “breakfast.” But, again, the poo gets special treatment, for we do not leave the house after lunch. We leave the house in the morning. One person works at home. The other two go for a long walk. It’s the riskiest, most anxiety-inducing thing we do. The wanderers return with tales of the runner who passed by too close, or the coughing beggar who approached at the lights. During the Big Close, everything is closed. So what are these people doing outside? Some of them are out walking, like us, but they are going home soon. Some of them are working, but then they, too, will soon go home. But because “home” currently means our own home, our house, we end up saying that they will go to their house. Things that are not here are in their house. So where else would the poo be, during the Big Close? It wants to leave, but not quite yet.
April 23, 2020
TORONTO—My daughter’s bat mitzvah ceremony is scheduled for the end of May. It was going to be a group ceremony with another eight kids. The quarantine obviously throws a wrench into that plan, and we recently had a virtual meeting with our rabbi and the other parents. The main options were: A) hope the world normalizes by late May; B) go virtual; C) postpone until fall and pray that an in-person ceremony is possible then. (A) is now off the table. The rabbi made a strong case for (B), talking about how it would be an opportunity for our children to show creativity and resiliency.
My wife and I agreed with the rabbi, and I have been trying to articulate to myself why. The case seems impeccable, and can be made in sound bites. Jews have managed to continue our traditions in myriad terrible circumstances, many much worse than the current one. It might be hard right now to imagine a multi-household virtual ceremony, but many things that were unimaginable a few weeks ago are becoming very imaginable, fast. Our children could teach their grandparents to use new technologies, and this act in itself would be what Jews call tikkun olam, healing the world. It all seems so reasonable.
Most of the other parents wanted to postpone until fall. The main reasons were understandable, even noble. Some were what I’d call ethical reasons. They are worried about grandparents who aren’t very tech savvy; they want the experience of community that comes from being together in the same room; they want their kids to hold the Torah; they want their kids to have an experience similar to what they had. These are genuinely ethical reasons; they are grounded in a concern for others and principles of duty, to children, parents, ancestors, community.
Another set of reasons were grounded in a sentiment that I’d call aesthetic. Many parents had an image of how their child’s bar/bat mitzvah was supposed to go. It was supposed to be this way. And they don’t want to lose that. The image of a bar/bat mitzvah unfolding on a screen was simply disgusting, ugly, jarring. Imagining technical difficulties, out-of-synch singing, frozen screens, a gallery of tiny faces—that was all nauseating to even picture. One parent described even thinking about it as a terrible loss. Though I am mindful that the losses have just started and they will be more severe, I could see where she was coming from. Call it aesthetic loss-aversion—the desire to avoid a novel experience, and the premonition of disgust at losing the profound pleasure in an experience you had come to anticipate.
I understand and sympathize with these reasons. In the terms of Søren Kierkegaard, the aesthetic and the ethical are two basic ways of living a meaningful life, and I was moved in seeing them arise spontaneously from people I barely knew. But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that even if we knew for sure that a September ceremony were in the cards, I’d prefer the virtual. The reason is that the bar/bat mitzvah is a religious event. Religion is the other great realm of meaning identified by Kierkegaard, and it transcends aesthetics and ethics.
That other parent mentioned loss, and I think she was onto something that Kierkegaard’s existentialist notion of religion sought to articulate. Loss is a fact of human existence. You can’t always get what you want. If we could, there’d be no religion. We’d be gods. That’s the existential fact of finitude, and religions are in part a response to that condition. They acknowledge our desire to escape it, but ultimately hold us in it. Jewish rituals give us ways to be there, and to find joy in it, without pretending pain, suffering, longing, separation, could ever be eclipsed. To come of age now, staring the reality of finitude in the face, creating new ways to live with it gracefully—what an opportunity for our children. It is an opportunity to get a glimmer of the religious life, breaking through into a secular existence that for the most part operates exclusively in terms of the interesting and the boring or the right and the wrong.
That’s why the desire to postpone out of ethical conviction or aesthetic loss aversion strikes me as strangely anti-religious. Religious experience, rare as it is, flares up when there is nothing to be done, when things are happening to us, when we are acutely aware of our dependence on powers beyond us, and we must use all our capacities to simply bear it, and respond. That’s grace, and it isn’t easy.
I say this cautiously, since I worry that I am making myself out to be some kind of religious hero. I am far from that. In fact, what I’m calling a religious sentiment might well be a masked aesthetic impulse. How unique and interesting would it be to have a digital bat mitzvah! You could really write a cool diary entry about that, and maybe get a lot of traffic on social media. I have no answer to that possible explanation of my motives; all I can say is that I hope to God it isn’t true.
April 23, 2020
LOS ANGELES—April 4th. I tiptoe into the living room to check on my husband. In his baby blue sweater and his body wrapped in a red yoga blanket covering his toes, he’s a six-foot bundle on the couch. My husband’s body is stillness. I stare at him. I want to catch a micro-movement, like when our twelve-year-old son and his two younger siblings were infants and I would lean over the bassinet to feel for breath.
Is he breathing? For a moment, a flash of a flash, I try to imagine an alternate universe where my husband dies on the couch on a Saturday afternoon, this Saturday afternoon, him swaddled in the red blanket while our three kids are plugged into their various gadgets for “electronics time”—a sacred interval they each strive to earn during the week. I am trying to imagine this alternate universe, this dreadful thing occurring in the middle of the mundane electronics-induced silence. I cannot imagine it even though I know this version of my life could be a blink away.
His shoulder moves up and down with breath. Alive!
Like the text messages I send to his urgent-care colleague each day, “Alive! Alive!” My husband’s colleague writes back, “Good.” I ask him how he’s doing and he tells me he has a little cough and will get tested if it persists. “YES,” I respond. “Get tested.” His wife was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and has started chemo.
My husband tested positive for COVID-19 six days ago. He was exposed at the urgent care where he works, possibly on the first day he participated in COVID-19 testing. He was wearing personal protective equipment. Luckily. And yet.
Yesterday morning, our daughter’s eighth birthday, he emerged around 10 a.m. He found me in our kitchen, post-pancake breakfast. He told me his nose was burning. I asked him if he wanted pancakes, and he said yes. Then I told him that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had proposed a national draft of doctors.
“Maybe when I’m better I should go to New York.”
“Maybe,” I replied. And then I said something about him also being needed in Los Angeles, where COVID-19 has yet to strike fully. We’re waiting: three hours behind Eastern Time and however many days behind NYC COVID-19 time.
My husband is a New Yorker born and bred. He came into this world during the Fourth of July blackout in the summer of 1977. My mother-in-law tells the story of being in a dark hospital while birthing a giant baby all by herself. When he was a kid, my husband would hide in the closet. Sometimes when we are together he is hiding in plain sight. There are things you learn about a person when you live with them for years.
Over the last six days a lot of people have called to ask about him. I don’t answer the phone, but it’s not out of neglect or malice. I’m cooking and cleaning and minding three kids, and whenever I can squeeze in work during daytime hours, I do.
Our middle child is almost ten and the measuring stick of our family’s harmony or disarray. Before stay-at-home orders from our local government, he was playing competitive soccer five or six times per week, plus intramural sports with his school teams: flag football, basketball and spring soccer, which has been canceled along with everything else. If he is restless, there is no peace for anyone. He is the child who most reminds me of my husband, though my husband always disagrees.
It’s supposed to rain for the next few days. We might host a ping-pong tournament on our dining table.
I was born during a severe winter storm in Santiago, Chile, so much rain the Mapocho River overflowed. This was during the dictatorship and there was a nightly curfew, so my mother was induced in the hopes that I would be born in time for visitors. I arrived around noon, and by the end of the day my father had smoked so many cigars and drunk so much whisky in the postpartum room with my mother and me and our friends and family that when he finally left the hospital, past curfew, he crashed the car into a bridge (the water was rising, rising!) and the police had to take him home when they found him. That’s how I remember the story anyway.
“I think I’m not dying,” my husband assured me this morning.
“I know that…” I say.
“You think I’m exaggerating,” he tells me, “but the last few days have been bad. Sometimes I can’t breathe. And until I’m on day ten…” He has spoken to me several times about the biphasic nature of COVID-19. People who don’t look so bad can suddenly take a turn for the worse, or worst.
I wonder if he remembers the routine we did last night while he was already in bed and I was getting ready to settle into my work. I started calling him “husband” and speaking to him in my best Irish accent. He played back like we were doing improv together, something we have never done before and will likely never do again. My husband is not a performer. The first time he took the practical portion of his board exam—the part where you go through simulated patient visits with actors playing patients—he failed. He could not get into the zone and suspend disbelief. But last night his Irish accent was in fine form.
April 20th. My husband never isolated himself from the family because by the time he tested positive for COVID-19 we felt we had been plenty exposed. Our house is tiny, and we hug and smooch and cook together. How could his germs not have been shared?
On the seventh night of our corona-watch, when our eldest said, “I don’t feel good,” I watched my husband’s face go from pink to red, full flush, and sensed the palpitations in his chest from across the table. An upset stomach, I assumed, but my husband’s stress stoked my doubt. The child then admitted the icky had started the morning before, but he had forgotten to mention, and then he vomited and begged to go straight to bed. He’s the one who had heart surgery when he was one week old and spent a month in the hospital before we could bring him home, our ongoing miracle. The next day the child got up, played rascally as ever with his siblings, and ate three abundant meals. On the eleventh night I felt unwell and slept fourteen hours. Allergies and exhaustion, I assumed. The next day my husband wanted to take my temperature every thirty minutes and I shooed him away. It’s now day 22. The kids and I are not eligible for testing, and my husband is still coughing. We’re grateful we’re all here.
April 2o, 2020
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—At some point in this crisis my partner reminded me of an article she had once read, about an academic who was asked to speak about the future of technology. When the man arrived at the venue, he was led not to the large audience and stage he had expected but instead to a room. There he was joined by five rich men, as in a fable. Eventually, the men got around to asking about the one thing they wanted to know: How would they control their security forces after the Event? By that embarrassing term they meant whatever changed our world forever. How would they survive? “For them,” the academic wrote, “the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.”
There are, I feel, two types of writing now. Writing about the virus, and writing that claims to be about other subjects but which is really about the virus. Another way to say this: there is at present only one type of writing. I find this is true of everything being written, but I find it, too—I don’t think I’m the first to say this—about everything that was written previously, whether novels, or scripts, or that article about five rich men.
I last experienced this totalizing effect in November. I was in Sydney, where the subject was not virus but fires, and until now it has been impossible to explain to people how dominant that topic was. I was staying in the middle of a city of several million people, was nowhere near the fires, but every day the light was dim, the sun was red, ash fell on us, our eyes stung. The mood was strange, but is now familiar to everyone: lightly grim at times, sorrowful or frightened at others. It was a premonition of the end of the world, we said to each other, or, when we believed it, to ourselves.
My partner and I left Sydney in December. We are always sad to leave Sydney, where we grew up; this time we felt relief. By February, my partner was directing a play in Switzerland. After weeks of rehearsals, five days before the opening, a meeting of the company was called. The man leading the meeting began to cry. Due to the virus, the theater was to shut immediately. And so we left Switzerland for London; then, a few days later, we left London for Sydney, worried about closing borders, aging parents and infection rates.
In other words, for the second time in a few months, we escaped. But we also learned, by escaping from Sydney and then, a short time later, escaping to Sydney—or, rather, trying to, because of course the virus is here as well—that escape is not one-sided. You can’t just escape from.
Only some of us have something to escape to. It has lately become common to observe that large houses are a sign of the differing impacts of the virus on different classes: some of us can quarantine more comfortably than others. This is true, but ignores a larger truth. Big houses, backyards, the ability to pay for delivery—the things that make it possible to pretend that what is happening outside your door is not happening—are not incidental accompaniments to wealth which happen to make this pandemic more bearable. They are the raison d’etre of wealth. Escape is not a bonus, it is the point. Just as a house designed by tigers would have tiger-sized doors, a society designed by the rich and powerful contains ways for them to exit, and places for them to exit into. One useful definition of wealth and power might be possession of the means of escape.
There is a lot of hope around, hope that we will build a better society after this, that we will come together in ways we have not been able to manage before. But my mind keeps taking me elsewhere, to the fact that this unequal society is the one that was built after one world war and then another; after the Spanish flu; after we saw genocide appear and reappear. And these are just the finite, temporal disasters. They are accompanied by the permanent: violence, sickness, deprivation, early death. This is the society that was built alongside and through collapse and crisis, not because we didn’t know what crisis looked like.
I have lately been rereading a speech given by the novelist Enrique Vila-Matas in 2015. It’s called “The Future.” Until a few days ago I had focused on its final lines, about Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of Chernobyl. You can see why I might think that topic relevant. But in recent days I have been drawn to a less grand section of the speech, in which Vila-Matas states, “Dead ends have been the central motor of my work.” Always, he writes himself into these dead ends, before remembering at the last second that “intelligence is the art of knowing how to find a small gap through which to escape the situation that traps us.”
One might stubbornly extract hope from these words, finding solace in the thought that we may all, rich and poor together, in this time of multiple catastrophes, be reaching a dead end, and will soon begin a collective search for the small gap through which we may escape, arms linked. But spend any time with this idea and it quickly begins to seem like an escape of its own, a way of pretending humans are not what they are.
Vila-Matas himself seems more realistic. He tells us that you can escape from a dead end, but in doing so he also reminds us that you only ever escape to another dead end, from which, again, you must escape. Does this make escape pointless? No, but it does make it endless.
All those pandemic novels that seem prophetic with their accounts of injustice, suffering and farce—well, we might have guessed that we were heading here, but we didn’t, because we thought that we were different. We always do. And when this is over, we’ll know those things again, and we will write our own novels. And when the next crisis hits, the people who come after us will turn to each other, and say: look at these novels, see how prophetic they were! And then they will have to make their own way out of one dead end, and into the next.
April 20, 2020
BAKU, AZERBAIJAN—The day it was announced that every time we wish to go outside we have to send a text to the police naming the reason, even just to buy bread, I got a new “COVID-19 timetable” from the school where I work. The timetable was broken down into categories based on three colors. Every day Math, Economics and Biology/Physics in red, implying those to be very important classes; two times per week English, French and Azerbaijani in blue (simply “important” classes); and the once-a-week classes in yellow: sports on Monday, and on Friday TOK—Theory of Knowledge, the lesson that I teach as an introduction to philosophy.
I tried not to let the colors break my heart. It was Thursday, a bright spring day; I was in lockdown in my apartment in the center of Baku. I closed the window that looks out on the Caspian Sea and shut the dark, heavy curtains to prevent the sounds from entering the room. But still the ambulance sirens and police patrol car megaphones could be heard. I sat on the sofa and started to free up the storage on my phone after I was forwarded a long chain of voicemails in which some Iranian women were describing the situation in Iran to their Azerbaijani relatives and friends, in the Iranian dialect of Azerbaijani and with a quavering voice advising them to use alcohol, especially while handling cash. In the last days of February Azerbaijan officially closed the border with Iran, when the first cases in Azerbaijan were announced. On March 2nd Azerbaijan closed all schools, universities and, a few days later, all public places. In April, the government instituted the strictest movement regulations in the region. According to these rules we must send an SMS to the police whenever we need to leave our homes: dialing 1 to seek medical care, 2 for going to the grocery store or bank, and 3 to attend funeral of a close relative. Although the police number responds automatically that you have two hours to go, there are police officers stationed on the main roads verifying that individuals got permission before leaving home, or if they’ve exceeded the granted limit of two hours. People eventually adjusted.
At home, my husband sent me a meme from his new office in our bedroom: a male teacher sitting on the sofa with a laptop, doing online classes in a suit jacket, without trousers on. My response was to send him another meme in return—a viral tweet by a local girl from a conservative family saying: “Now my dad also has to ask for permission to go out, not only I. Divine justice.”
In my online eleventh-grade Theory of Knowledge class, the first student who joined was Ali: he was in pajamas, parted his blue-highlighted black hair to the left side and said hello to me. He had two cats on his lap, the tails of which were occasionally crossing his webcamera. Next was Maryam: her messy hair and plushy toys on the shelves behind her were first things to catch my attention. Eight students out of twelve were there. The last one was Javad; he joined the class with the sounds of dishwashing and a baby crying in the background. Each home had unique sounds, and for a moment, I thought that I found a link between some always happy students and their positive home atmosphere, and the always gloomy, complaining students and their less supportive ones, for whom I remembered the saying, “schools are best places in some children’s lives.”
We started with a question and a thought experiment: Do you think that knowledge is the heroic achievement of lonely thinkers working in isolation, or that knowledge is a collective enterprise?
Imagine a strange new virus suddenly appeared and destroyed humans’ ability to communicate. We can think but no longer speak; we have no ability for writing, reading or even sign language. Imagine a new generation growing up like this. What would be the consequences of it? Would we be able to pass on our accumulated knowledge to the next generation? Would subjects like math, physics, economics, history, literature even be possible?
“Yes, it would be possible,” said Ali. “For example, America and the Soviet Union were isolated from each other, but they both invented satellites without communicating with each other. Isolated individuals also can improve subjects without each other.”
“Nice argument,” I replied. “But both the Soviet Union and America had a paradigm of knowledge, they both were guided by sets of beliefs and scientific principles based on the previous practices of humanity.”
“Like actually the car wasn’t just invented in the twentieth century,” Maya said, “because parts of the car were invented by previous generations, like the wheel was invented by ancient civilizations. Knowledge is like a volleyball, if someone stops moving the ball, the game is broken.”
I clicked on this and that student to see them in the main window, to find out who was more or less engaged than the others. For them home is a shelter. They are children, who think that if my mother and father are at home around me, everything is fine. For me, as their teacher, home feels less like a shelter than a time capsule these days. This time capsule takes me to my childhood—to the very last years of the Soviet Union: the long queues in markets, empty shelves, curfew, patrol cars driving around all day long announcing closed borders in the loud, authoritative voices of our politicians, the Iron Curtain, this fear in the air… On January 20, 1990 the Soviet army began a violent crackdown on the civilian population in Baku during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was a Saturday, and that Monday we continued at school. Education never stopped.
Quarantine days remind me of my youth, those long and painful transition years from Soviet-style socialism to capitalism, from one bad system to another bad system. Are we living through another transition now? An opportunity to rethink our lifestyles and the best way to organize our society?
After 45 minutes, when I announced the end of the lesson, one of the girls, Nasrin, sang the familiar notes of the school bell, to which we all laughed. I signed out and took my headphones off. When my daughter stormed the room, informing me her math class was about to start, I left the room. Now it is time for another teacher to do her job, I thought, perhaps that teacher too will gaze at my daughter in the frame and piece together the sounds and signs of her home.
April 20, 2020
EVANSTON, ILLINOIS—My apartment window looks out onto a public rose garden, where I have lately observed lone figures exercising among the bare bushes, sometimes veering off into the street to give wide berth when they encounter a jogger, or a pedestrian with a stroller. At a nearby park, my partner and I stumbled into a similarly diffuse choreography. People roved about, at once aimless and with purpose, vigilantly avoiding one another—as if in an absurdist video game where you rack up points by maintaining a bubble of isolation at least six feet in radius. It seemed to us remarkable that so many have simultaneously awakened to how their bodies take up space in relation to others’, when just weeks prior they might have barreled through the landscape, ritually oblivious. Invisible forces tethered all of us in the park to one another: one individual’s movements adjusted the course of another individual’s movements, subsequently altering another’s, and another’s, resulting in a cascade of shifts and accommodations that rippled through open space.
I once heard an etymological detail imparted by the writer Adrianne Kalfopoulou—that in Greek, the word for “private” shares the same root as the word “idiot.” By extension, Kalfopoulou suggested, the person who does not go out into the public is an idiot. Insulated from others who are unlike us, we are poorer in knowledge, in perspective, in spirit. It might seem now, in the middle of a global pandemic, that the one who does willfully go out into the public is an idiot; the idiot who will endanger the lives of those within proximity, and as the mechanics of contagion goes, the lives of exponentially many more. This is true, and is the broader truth of Kalfopoulou’s observation. It is idiotic—irresponsible, destructive and futile—to retreat into our private concerns, under the illusion that ostensibly private decisions—whether or not to go out for fresh air or attend places of worship, whether to visit the store or order groceries in—can truly be contained. A pandemic amplifies how private choices are ultimately public ones.
When I was a child growing up in Malaysia, there was a refrain I heard frequently when someone hogged the fast lane or sped recklessly on the freeway, a refrain often dispensed in a mixture of chagrin and wry humor: Eh, you think this is your grandfather’s road ah? It was a gentle admonition against an individual’s blindness to other people, a reminder that individual actions existed within a public frame. The refrain’s hyperbolic register also seemed to me to point to a certain incredulity over the presumption that something we all occupied and had in common, something which connected us to one another, could truly be owned, or claimed as private.
In the United States the dividing line between what is considered in the public interest or just one’s private concern is often contested. Health, for instance, may seem to be a private affair, related to one’s individual body. Yet, if the person who teaches your kids, or drives your rideshare, or bags your groceries, or picks your vegetables falls sick and cannot afford to stay at home, much less go to the doctor, the resulting repercussions very quickly transcend the singular. We know also that the conditions affecting individual health are as much predicated on systemic stressors—asymmetries in access to education, childcare, an unpolluted environment, and a living wage, to name a few. It seems puzzling then for access to health care in this country to be overwhelmingly contingent on private health insurance, as if another’s well-being—and the well-being of the social fabric within which we are embedded—has no bearing at all on our own.
For public good or public consequence to become a specter that tails our moves, our decisions and our consumption could seem a killjoy, maybe even a kind of tyranny. It could also be a humane way to live. “We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth,” writes Eula Biss in On Immunity—“Including, and especially, each other.” I recall the neighborhood shops that I would pass on my daily walk home the year I lived and worked in Hong Kong; someone would emerge every night from each shuttered shop to meticulously scrub down and flush the public sidewalks with full buckets of water. When I asked a colleague about this extraordinary act of devotion, she told me to imagine what it was like in 2003 for a city-state of 6.7 million and 6,300 people per square kilometer to hear, every day, of seemingly entire high-rises of people falling ill, of deaths from what was, for a time, a mysterious and deadly illness. It humbled us, she said, of SARS, it dispelled us of a belief in individual invincibility. It taught us, she continued, that old habits of thought had to change.
The World as It Is
April 20, 2020
ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NEW YORK—I’ve been thinking about Hannah Arendt’s reflection that “what is most difficult is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it.”
My mom turned 64 this past weekend. We spent the afternoon texting about whether or not she should go back to work as a cleaner at the hospital in two weeks. We don’t usually talk, but these are unusual times. She’s been on leave after a bout of pancreatitis which hit before the world ground to a halt, somehow, fortunately. She’s been working at the hospital for about ten years now, to make ends meet.
In 2009, after the economy collapsed she had to sell our family store. A neighborhood bodega, or package shop as we might call it on the East Coast, that sold, beer, wine, cigarettes, lotto, deli. People just called it the corner store, or the little green store. It felt like a community place. And in many ways, it felt like the realization of that elusive thing we call the American dream. My grandparents were children of German immigrants who grew up in a ghetto in Cincinnati. My father’s parents were immigrants who fled after the Potato Famine and worked on a chicken farm.
My mother bought the store in the early aughts after twenty years of waitressing. Before the Great Recession, it was actually turning a profit, and we had just expanded into a larger space. After hanging on for about a year, struggling to pay distributors, she sold it to an immigrant family from Iran who promised she could manage it and nothing would change. That lasted for about a year until a relative arrived and needed a job.
She’s torn now about whether to go back to work. If she doesn’t, she’ll have to buy health insurance on the private market, which is exorbitant. But the cost of possibly sacrificing her health insurance is contracting coronavirus and dying. I told her not to go back to work. She has preexisting health conditions, and she can find another minimum-wage job. But it’s not my decision.
I’m alone in the middle of the woods in upstate New York, two hours north of the epicenter. I wake up, have coffee, read, edit the biography I’ve been writing, eat, go for a walk, practice French, send emails, do work for the Hannah Arendt Center, teach my classes over Zoom, call loved ones, do yoga, drink wine. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I haven’t touched another person in three weeks. But those complaints feel frivolous when I think about my family and all the other families weighing impossible decisions and managing impossible situations. I feel like I’m trapped in a glass house on a hill watching a tidal wave crash on a village I can’t visit. All I can see are trees; all I can hear is the impossible hum of spring.
In times like this I’m reminded that the state of emergency in which we’ve been plunged these past few weeks is not the historical exception, but the rule. That helps. Families like mine might find a modicum of success during easy periods of history, only to have it taken away by political and economic forces beyond their power. It’s easy to get caught up in the rhetoric of hope, and the promise of progress, and forget how fragile these worlds we build really are: how hard they can be to love.
April 16, 2020
STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN—My best friend lives in Auburn, Alabama. On the phone back in mid-March, she described having woken up that morning feeling a sort of grief. She reminisced about a party in someone’s cramped apartment, kids frolicking, plates of finger food going around. People leaning into each other as they small-talked. “When will that be possible again?” she asked. There was a noticeable crack in her voice that made me conscious of the physical distance between us. Last time I gave her a hug was three years ago.
She and her husband were on day five of lockdown with their three kids. She did not know how long it would last, but feared that it would go on for months. “That’s terrible,” I said. “I can’t believe they’re doing this to everybody just like that, and with no timeline.” She gave me stats and facts and said, “You wait and see, soon it’ll be you too.”
Now we’re two weeks into April. Our kids, three and five, are still in preschool. We see friends outdoors on the blessed warm and sunny days, and on cold and windy ones. The past few weeks I’ve seen more of the beautiful woods around Stockholm than in my previous ten years here. A few days ago, I had a job meeting, face to face, in a coffee shop.
Right now, some things are banned: visiting homes for the elderly and gathering in crowds over fifty people. Universities and high schools have closed and transitioned into online teaching. But the rest of the measures come in the form of recommendations. People with symptoms and people over seventy are asked to avoid social contact. We are asked to not go to parties, weddings, funerals or christenings. We are asked to avoid travel. We are asked to keep a distance at all occasions, in public transport, in stores, gyms and restaurants. We are asked to work from home if we can. We are admonished to do many things differently and conscientiously, but there are only a few things we are strictly forbidden from doing.
In my conversation with my friend I felt conflicted, and in the weeks since, I’ve seen that very conflict played out in social media. (As I think someone posted on Facebook: if you think your emotional life has a unique structure, just go on Facebook.) Talking to my friend, what was odd was how naturally it came to me to think in terms of a we that was responding to this crisis. An “us Swedes” kind of we. As in, here in Sweden we are responding to this crisis together, guided by concerns recognizably ours. In contrast to my friend’s almost panicky reaction at that point, I felt safe and protected. And—here we come to the tricky part—a sense of pride arose in me.
Our state epidemiologist, who is now a national celebrity, holds a press conference every day, giving sensible answers to tough questions, and acknowledging when he has no answer to give. We gasp after the words of this dry and humble scientist-bureaucrat as if they let oxygen in to our lungs.
“You wait and see.” My friend’s ominous remark came from a place of ominous feeling. But I can’t shake it off. Neither can a good portion of the we that is supposedly responding with poise and reason together. We have a nagging sense that perhaps this strategy will turn out to be disastrous.
The world is paying attention to the so-called Swedish experiment. Reading the reporting, I almost get a sense that other countries are rooting for the Swedish strategy to fail. If this comparative openness works about as well as lockdowns in other countries, the rest of the world will have endured imprisonment for nothing. That’s how the drama looks anyway.
The state epidemiologist claims that our strategy is, in fact, not so dramatically different from that of other countries. The whole world is experimenting, he emphasizes. No one knows what effects measures such as school closings will have, long-term.
As a family our life is limited but with a considerable space for judgment calls. My three-year-old daughter had a runny nose for weeks, and when I took her outside to play I carried her all the way down three flights of stairs in our apartment building, giving her strict instructions not to touch anything. After a few days of that treatment, she looked up at me with a pitiful face: “Why am I corona all the time, mom?” I worry that my daughter’s eternally dripping nose might kill our next-door neighbor, who is in her nineties and still, bless her, goes out for a daily stroll. I fear ending up one of those who sank this glorious ship just when it had set off on its virgin journey.
The “we” that emerged when I talked to my friend is a fragile one. It is currently being boosted by uncouth boasting. Swedes show solidarity! Swedes trust the government! Our government trusts the bureaucrats! We trust science! And here comes the worst one I’ve seen so far: Swedes can think! A great confluence of circumstances is, in this time of fear, understood as revelatory of great national character. It is, frankly, scary. To find it working in me, to find myself clinging to this we even more than to the words of our high priest, the state epidemiologist, is confusing.
Why we are now caught up in what sometimes strikes me as a strange race against the rest of the world is not clear to anyone. I’m not saying there aren’t reasons. Our state epidemiologist has plenty of them, and his delivery is impeccable. But the workings, the cogs and wheels, of the state machinery are not exhausted by those reasons. I’m not sure who is doing what for what reasons, and whether there are sensible ones, even eminently sensible ones, that are being set aside and that will return to haunt us as the curve starts to look increasingly like a ski-jumping slope.
If it doesn’t, I will be relieved. But I will also, in spite of myself, probably be proud.
Making an Exception for Yourself
April 16, 2020
SWARTHMORE, PENNSYLVANIA—In his late work Statesman, Plato suggests that the rule of law can only ever be a second best. The reason is that law necessarily embodies a one-size-fits-all inflexibility:
The law could never accurately embrace what is best and most just for all at the same time, and so prescribe what is best. For the dissimilarities between human beings and their actions, and the fact that practically nothing in human affairs ever remains stable, prevent any sort of expertise whatsoever from making any simple decision in any sphere that covers all cases and will last for all time.
If it were possible, the best thing would be for laws to be tailored to our individual circumstances. Think about speed limits on the highway: if the goal is to keep everyone safe, then ideally people who weave across lanes without signaling would be subject to a lower limit than those who reliably keep their distance. Practically speaking, over-general laws are typically the best we can do, since they allow us to prevent corrupt and ignorant rulers acting on their own initiative. But if a genuinely wise ruler were to show up, he should be given leeway to respond to the situation at hand without worrying about existing laws. He would be like a pilot who “preserves his fellow sailors not by putting things down in writing but by offering his expertise as law.”
Many of us now find ourselves chafing at one-size-fits-all directives. The COVID-19 Social Study run by University College London has found that only two-thirds of British people are sticking to the rules fully. No doubt every case has its own explanation, but from a Platonic point of view the most interesting examples involve medical officials. The New Zealand health minister was demoted after taking his family to the beach; the Scottish chief medical officer resigned after visiting her second home; a doctor I know of in France was fined 135 euros for going on an hour-long run. It’s easy to dismiss these as cases of ordinary hypocrisy, but I don’t think we should. For once you recognize that rules are general and circumstances are specific, it starts to seem irrational not to act in light of what the rules are aiming at rather than what they actually say. It is perhaps especially natural for health officials themselves to take this perspective, since they more than anyone else can see the gap between optimal action and the letter of the law. In that sense the regulations really are for other people. As Plato puts it, to the wise the law necessarily “resembles some self-willed and ignorant person, who allows no one to do anything contrary to what he orders, nor to ask any questions about it, not even if, after all, something new turns out for someone that is better, contrary to the prescription he himself has laid down.”
Each time we roll through a stop sign we take something like the Platonic attitude. The classic criticism comes from Kant, who wrote that “I ought never to proceed except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” What he meant by a maxim was the principle embodied in a given action. Two people might perform the same physical act, such as throwing a stone at a neighbor’s window, yet at the same time perform very different actions, the one aiming to warn the neighbor of some danger and the other aiming to disrupt his sleep. What differentiate actions, for Kant, are the rational principles they embody: “In order to achieve a given end A in situations of type B, I should do acts of type C.” What Kant proposed was a meta-principle for evaluating those maxims of action: act only in such a way that you could consider it both possible and desirable for everyone to act on the same maxim as you. People who fail to clean up after their dogs, for example, are doing something wrong, since if everyone acted like them each cherry-tree grove would become a fly-infested sewer. It’s natural to respond by pointing out that not everyone will act like them. But Kant wasn’t talking about whether free-riding will work out okay. From a moral point of view the question is just whether you’re making an exception for yourself—if you are, then you’re acting immorally.
I’ve been thinking about Kant as I head into the office every day. I don’t believe I’m putting anyone in danger. It takes me eight minutes to get there, during which time I typically leave the sidewalk once or twice to avoid passersby. I haven’t seen anyone in my building for over a week, and I haven’t seen anyone on the third floor for over three weeks. I wash my hands every couple of hours regardless. The reason for using the office is to work without a toddler toddling on me. A couple of weeks ago I was stuck at home because the campus internet had gone down and not having a room of my own, the only way I could hold a directed reading was to shut myself in the bedroom. Teaching from my bed felt a little odd in this day and age but we were all just about surviving until the door handle started rattling like we were in some kind of cheap horror movie and before long what began as a muffled whimper had grown into a full-blown wail. Five minutes later and my students and I were playing peek-a-boo.
That’s the thing about Kant’s “first formula” for morality. A lot depends on how tightly you specify maxims of the form “in order to achieve a given end A in situations of type B, I should do acts of type C.” It might seem obvious that polluting the park is always going to be ruled out, but that’s not true. Kant’s formula builds in sensitivity to the situation at hand: “During flash floods, dog-owners should take shelter rather than picking up after their dogs” seems like a perfectly universalizable maxim. To return to my own case, it’s true that if everyone were to reason like me then more people would show up on campus, and that if more people were to show up then we would quickly hit the point where no one should. But that isn’t happening, and given what I know of my colleagues’ circumstances, I tell myself that it won’t.
That brings us back to Plato. Because the real question isn’t whether anyone could ever be justified in failing to comply with the current rules, but whether you can be confident that you’re justified in doing so on a given occasion. If you’re corrupt or ignorant then taking matters into your own hands will be a disaster; it’s only the right thing to do if you’re wise. And how wise are you? We all think we can trust our own judgment, but at the same time we can all think of people who we hope won’t trust theirs. As Hobbes put it, “Such is the nature of men, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves.”
April 16, 2020
AUSTIN, TEXAS—My wife and I gave in last night and got takeout pizza. The first few bites were sweet release from days of in-home food monotony. Then my nine-year-old began nagging us relentlessly about using one of our phones to do something, which ruined it. Still, we will get takeout again. The alternative is unbearable. My neighbor thinks we’re crazy to get takeout. I imagine he sees the pizza box shedding an almost visible effluvia of green sickness.
Of course, he goes to the market almost every day, which we think is crazy. I picture him pushing his cart through one big atmosphere of disease, accumulating viral load as he goes. Surely delivery and curbside pickup (what we do) are much cleaner, safer, smarter, more socially responsible. Then again, he gets stuff for us when he’s out—milk, bread, bourbon—so our sanctimony feels suspect.
We’re basing these decisions on half-informed, half-baked theories not just of how the virus spreads but of what’s happening behind the veil at various organizations and operations. I have a schematic in my mind of how many people touch the package from Amazon before it arrives at our house, how many layers deep into the packaging we need to Lysol to be safe, and how much wiping we need to do for each individual layer, depending on its composition and topology. There are many unknowns and also unknown unknowns. Do Lysol wipes work on cardboard? When dealing with produce delivered from the market, how much partial bleach solution do I need to slather around that part of the produce bag where it’s tied in a knot, with all those little folds and their virus-harboring crevices? Do I need to untie and wipe all the way up to the outer perimeter of the bag? If I’m too vigorous, can bleach particles pass through that very thin plastic onto the food? How many parts per million of bleach can my children ingest without permanent brain damage?
And so on. There are surely people out there who are wiping everything down thrice, staying nine feet away from everyone, washing their hands for at least two verses of “Piano Man.” But most of us, I’d venture, are making judgment calls, trying to find a responsible compromise between the optimal version of coronavirus etiquette and who we are as imperfect and desirous beings.
It’s an analog, in extremis, for the basic challenge facing people who would like their behavior patterns to be more optimal than what they are, which is to say almost all of us. We want to lose weight, read more, tweet less, yell less at our kids, trust our friends more.
My wife, in her work as a therapist, draws a distinction between the kinds of desires for growth or self-improvement that are real and worth striving toward and those that are in fact not genuine desires at all. In the case of both kinds of desires, real and illusory, one of my wife’s tasks with her clients is to move toward greater self-acceptance. The alternative is self-delusion and shame, which are almost always counterproductive. The person who holds on to the unrealistic or untethered idea of who he should be usually does more damage to himself and others than if he were honest about himself and more forgiving of that reality. Truth and self-acceptance aren’t a cure for our imperfections, but they help us live with them better and even in some cases grow stronger and slightly less imperfect.
So what then? Be honest about what we are capable of? Work toward getting better and forgive ourselves—and our neighbors—for our trespasses? I think so. And yet, right now, shame seems important too, even indispensable. It might be the best public health enforcement mechanism we have at our disposal. So do norms and guidelines that we will, most of us, violate regularly but perhaps remain in the loose vicinity of. Maybe the answer is a kind of virtuous hypocrisy. Preach to others what we will knowingly fail to wholly honor in our own lives, and be compassionate to ourselves and others for those failures. Shame generally, forgive specifically. Eat pizza if you must.
Forest for Trees
April 16, 2020
GALIANO ISLAND, BRITISH COLUMBIA—In what now feels like a stroke of stupefying good fortune, I lost my job this winter and switched islands, moving from Manhattan to Galiano. The two islands are almost identical in size and shape, but Galiano, a spur of rock jutting out of the Salish Sea, has less than 0.1 percent of Manhattan’s population and a lot more trees. The island’s forests are primarily Douglas fir, with a good number of western red cedar on damper ground and arbutus in drier open spots near the water. Trees of a given species vary more in shape and size than animal conspecifics do, and with time you become acquainted with their characters. The Douglas fir has deeply gnarled bark that gives it a rough-hewn solidity. The trunk of the western red cedar is surprisingly soft, almost springy to the touch. Arbutus trees are famous for their peeling bark, revealing lush yellows and oranges underneath.
I go days here without speaking a word to another human being—it turns out this is a great time to be an introvert. The little café, the bookstore and the recycling depot have closed, and bottles of hand sanitizer with large signs admonishing people to use them sit outside the few shops that remain open, but not a lot in my island life has changed. My experience of the pandemic comes almost entirely from the news and from friends in lockdown in cities around the world. A friend in Iran tells me her main problem, as her country is rocked by yet another crisis, is boredom. A mother of three in Brooklyn is now working from home at a job whose demands have only intensified as she struggles to keep her kids from going stir-crazy. My own parents in nearby Vancouver are approaching eighty and keeping to the house, having between them the one N95 respirator mask I managed to salvage from the island—an improbable bounty from sweeping some rat shit out of a shed earlier in the winter. The prevailing mood is one of tetchiness, mixed with looming dread.
In January I took a deliberate step back from my ordinary routines of work and life, but it’s unclear when, or whether, anything resembling those ordinary routines will be around to step back into. The COVID-19 emergency has warped habitual patterns for negotiating space and time. We’re a social species, and especially when things are bad our instinct is to band together, but now we’re being told that the way to help is to keep apart. I was used to forming plans months in advance, but now a week away is in “well, let’s see” territory. The basic coordinate grid we move about in has become foreign. Meanwhile, the news is full of line graphs that lurch upward at vertiginous angles.
Amid this turbulence in the human realm, it’s both reassuring and humbling to be surrounded by beings whose sense of space and time hasn’t shifted at all. Trees are emblems of patience: unable to run away from threats, they simply have to wait them out as best they can. The conifers of southwestern British Columbia grow tall and straight so that branches and canopy begin dozens of feet off the ground. That’s where the metabolic action happens, millions of spiny needles eating sunlight. They know nothing about the virus traveling around the world inside the twitchy and highly mobile apes down below.
Their indifference is comforting. The other day, dialing my West Coastness up to eleven, I hugged a tree. This one was a youngish Douglas fir, whose trunk was nearly narrow enough for me to get my arms around. I know it sounds weird, but up close the roughly textured bark beckoned to something deep in my primate memory that calls trees home. The experience was strangely soothing. Wrapping my arms around the tree, I felt like a toddler clinging to the leg of a parent that, up above, is calm and untroubled by the fears swarming my child’s mind.
Illness in a Plague Year
April 15, 2020
CHICAGO—A few days before Christmas 2019 my physical therapist, whom I had consulted about persistent nerve pain radiating up and down my left arm, from shoulder to fingers, began to doubt the initial diagnosis of a herniated disc and directed me to get an MRI of my neck. The MRI showed a tumor on one of my cervical vertebrae; we reluctantly canceled our plans to visit family in warmer climes and entered on a two-week battery of images and tests, punctuated by solemnly marked holidays. This gradual immersion into the modern, industrialized health care system peaked on January 2nd of this year, when discovery of further tumors in my colon and, most alarmingly, liver, convinced my oncologist (what a word to welcome into one’s life!) to admit me immediately to the hospital for emergency chemotherapy. My chemotherapy infusions have continued ever since at biweekly intervals, during which I’ve also enjoyed a hospitalization for a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs) and emergency radiation treatments on the tumor on my cervical spine, which was not responding to the chemotherapy.
One of the first things I did upon my hospitalization on January 2nd was to cancel all professional and personal commitments and postpone indefinitely the two conferences I was cohosting in the spring. I went on medical leave and was unable to attend any work-related events or meetings because of the frequent medical visits, the overwhelming fatigue and also, in part, because of my radically transformed physical appearance. (I lost over 25 pounds in the space of three days in early January and began to suffer a disfiguring rash over my face and upper body from one of the drugs in my chemotherapy cocktail.) After the embolism I found it difficult to walk farther than a few blocks. A bout of “thrush”—a yeast infection in the mouth and throat, familiar to HIV patients—left me without a voice for a month. Friends and colleagues displayed rare generosity, stopping by to visit, often with cancer-friendly meals, soups and herbal teas, as well as flowers, accompanying me on walks to local cafes, even when I couldn’t talk.
Starting a journal of my illness, I immediately registered three major losses. First was the loss of control over my own body. I have never been a regular visitor to my doctor, have avoided taking medicines whenever possible, and I hadn’t had a physical for years. Had I been a better medical subject, my illness would have been caught earlier, and everything would have been easier. As it was, I immediately ceded control to my “care team” and allowed them to pump me with whatever medicines—whatever poisons—they deemed fit, many of whose names I still can’t pronounce. Problems with one medicine were addressed with yet more medicine. Having been an indefatigable academic worker, I suddenly began to take regular naps during the day, unable to stay alert for more than a couple of hours at a time.
The second loss, then, was control over my time. This has been expressed at its most extreme during my blessedly few and brief hospital stays, when I was constantly interrupted by nurses, doctors, chaplains and other staff, and at the same time made to wait for hours for promised tests, images, consultations, and ultimately for discharge. To a lesser degree the same dynamic is upheld even at home, since with the onset of persistent nausea, it’s become impossible for us even to plan meals in advance. Unable to make firm commitments, liable to cancel at any moment, I have become self-avowedly fickle and unreliable, wholly subject to the whims of an unstable body.
Which brings me to the third loss: that of any sense of a defined future. Since January 2nd I have inhabited an indefinite temporality. I have had before me no specific deadlines or targets, beyond the current day. I haven’t been able to commit to conferences or other academic duties. I would go so far as to say that my entire system of values has undergone a major shift, with the old virtues of health and family fully displacing notions of professional achievement. Here my loss of control touches upon a new kind of freedom—the freedom to inhabit each day as it comes. “Onward and upward,” as one friend has put it, based on his experience with cancer in his own family. In part this is the freedom to live as a family, in blessed codependency.
In the meantime, my family and I followed developments concerning COVID-19 with increasing alarm. A conference in mid-February brought friends to town with gifts of flowers and meals. But by the time the next conference rolled into town at the beginning of March, we knew it would be the last one for a long time. Our plans for our daughter’s spring break went from Paris, to an East Coast road trip, to a local road trip, to naught. As the pandemic consciousness set in, a kind of preemptive state of illness (as one friend has put it), everyone suddenly found themselves in a position analogous to what we had been experiencing since the New Year: a sudden loss of control over their own bodies, their time and their future. We had merely been ahead of the curve. We had been self-isolating before it was cool.
Even as everyone around us has come to share in our new mode of living, the increasing alarm surrounding the virus is gradually invading our splendid isolation and is manifesting in two distinct ways. First, I am now among the immunocompromised and should be extra vigilant. With the risk of infection, should I even continue to go to the cancer clinic?
It is increasingly clear that this decision—like so many others—is out of my hands. We hear reports from afar about nonessential treatments being canceled in favor of COVID-19 patients; are my treatments essential? Who decides? We hear that medical trials of new treatments are being put on hiatus, probably including one I was hoping to join this summer. As I write I see reports with the specific warning that hospitals might elect not to expend precious resources like respirators on COVID-19 patients with preexisting advanced cancer. My cancer clinic is already introducing increasingly draconian safety measures, including a ban on all accompanying visitors; closure to existing patients might well be next.
Thus my body, having already declared total war on me, is now turning into a battlefield occupied by my two mortal enemies, the cancer and the coronavirus, one present but receding, the other potential but encroaching. As my blood numbers continue to improve, the pandemic statistics grow more and more alarming at all levels. If the good doctor Fauci was correct in anticipating between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths this year in the U.S. alone—perhaps we should settle on the apocalyptic figure of 144,000, the number of souls predestined for salvation in St. John’s Revelation—then I lose confidence that I can avoid being one of them.
Perhaps what I have learned best is what we are all learning now: the quality of being free in the present moment, vulnerable and unmoored, yet resolute. But the inconclusiveness of the moment—one that might drag on for another month, or another year, or more—precludes any such fixed pieties. It is a moment in which old precarities like poverty, institutional racism and the lack of universal health care have encountered an entirely new, more existential precarity. I wish cancer provided insight to be shared, but its private horror is simply being overlaid with a more public and universal condition.
Onward and upward!
Closeness Without Consequence
April 15, 2020
BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—Six years ago, as a senior in high school, I participated in a panel with other students at a conference about youth health. The attendees were primarily staff from nonprofits and public health professionals who worked with young people, and many were interested in better understanding our access to sex education. At the end of the session, one audience member asked, “Can you tell us what websites helped provide you with sex education, growing up?” I provided a prudent, if not particularly inspired, list: Planned Parenthood, Bedsider.org, Columbia University’s Go Ask Alice. My friend Jack, a cheeky grin lighting his face, said, “Naruto fanfiction.”
Laughter exploded. Funny because it’s true, I thought. Where earlier generations might have had to make do with pilfered copies of Playboy or hearsay from the older kids at school, we had a veritable wonderland. There were all the real sex ed websites, plus sites like fanfiction.net, with its barebones HTML straight out of the early aughts and a prolific collection of fiction rated M for “Mature,” or Tumblr, where (once upon a time) reblogged GIFs pulled straight from porn lived alongside posts from queer activists, sex workers and the growing left-wing sensibilities of myriad teenage girls. For many young people with internet access, part of the promise of online content platforms was the gift of a space where you could be sexual without being sexualized—or at least, where you could exercise more control. We logged into Omegle to write nonsense in anonymous chat rooms where strangers asked “A/S/L?” Sometimes we asked first. Sometimes we made things up: 45, male, Denver. Sometimes we just hit “disconnect.” It was easier than escaping the threat of danger in real life, where people could follow you home in the dark.
I’m reminiscing on adolescence online today, in thinking about how we build community without in-person gathering and physical touch, because this quarantine has made children of so many of us. Before disposable income made as many “third places,” like coffeeshops or social clubs, attractive or accessible, what did my friends and I do but lounge around at home, chatting aimlessly online, taking ridiculous quizzes, kept indoors by strict parents and curfews, the greatest outing being the Costco trip on Saturdays. We didn’t have many places to take our questions, angst and desire but our phone screens. In the first (ill-fated, one-sided) romance of my teenage life, there was lying close enough for our noses to touch on a mattress on the floor during a co-ed sleepover; but it was, equally, lived out in the blue light that bathed my face when I snuck barefoot into the living room to plug in a laptop that had run out of juice mid-chat. Later, I acquired a first boyfriend, whom I spent more time talking to on Facebook than in real life, probably. It was de rigueur to stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning. One night, he told me about a narrative computer game he was playing with beautiful illustrations he thought I’d like, and then, my laptop hot on my knees, we Skyped just so he could share his screen and walk me through the gameplay. I remember his voice in my ear as sunlight began to spill through the curtains. It was closeness without consequences.
Online, my friends and I could exercise authority no one would grant us in the physical world, racking up followers on the question-and-answer site Quora or making thousands of edits to Wikipedia. We could also be sillier, weirder and more exploratory. We made amateur films with collaborative scripts on Google Docs and webcams and YouTube. My best friend and I devised a “slash fic” (a term from the fanfiction world used to refer to a relationship between two men, even—maybe especially—if they’re not gay in the canon) about my then-boyfriend and his friend, who drove me to school every day, and we presented it with great aplomb. There were games and memes and joke posts on subreddits. The boundaries of online social groups felt more dynamic, too. In the high school cafeteria it wasn’t easy to simply grab people from different social groups and talk to them at the same time, but anyone could start a new group chat with a motley crew of people.
My experience wasn’t everyone’s. For one thing, not all young people have reliable internet access. And too many young people deal with sexual harassment and violence, on- and offline. There are stories like Steubenville’s: young men assaulting classmates and posting about it on social media. In these situations, online platforms provide a channel for the publicizing of a violation, but they are not themselves the cause.
A more likely cause of violence is objectification. Martha Nussbaum writes in “Objectification and Internet Misogyny,” a chapter in The Offensive Internet, of seven ways to objectify a person, one of which is “violability: the objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into.” There are ways to use online platforms to do these things. But some of the worst “violability” potential that comes with physical interactions isn’t there when you communicate on a screen, and there are also ways talking online could help build the kinds of relationships that are hopefully more resistant to objectification. Lying in bed at midnight with the minuscule chat heads of my friends beneath my fingertips, I rarely thought about their bodies. Maybe it’s presumptive to think they felt the same, but it seems difficult to reduce to appearance, at least in the moment, someone who you know primarily as the words they’re sending you. Even if they’re sending you words about sex and about appearance, you’re still bearing witness to a thought process: What are the fantasies we share? How can I express desire with language? To the extent that I was seducing anyone at fifteen, I’m thankful it took place in the medium of a chat window and not a rager at someone’s house.
This all is not to say that I don’t miss the physical intimacy and in-person gathering of pre-pandemic times. I do. But I would be remiss not to express gratitude for the self-actualization, education and intimacy within the bubble of my childhood bedroom that the internet allowed. As we all explore the transition to socializing, organizing and loving each other in online spaces, it may be worth taking inspiration from the ways we used the internet among friends as kids. How big can we dream, how silly can we get, and what will we say when we know nobody can touch us?
In Praise of “Social Distance”
April 13, 2020
TORONTO—In my last entry, I reflected on the question “How is society possible?” I noted that the current crisis is testing our social systems and then looked to some classical social thought on the topic of what social systems are for. But the presumption that society is a system with various functions is at best a partial view. Society is also interaction, people doing things with others.
If anything has been affected by quarantine, it is the way we interact—how much, with whom, by what means, at what distance. So now I want to ask, “How is society possible?” where that means “How is interaction possible?” The great theorist of interaction was Georg Simmel, who thought that for society to be possible, we need distance from ourselves, from one another, from our relationships. Space in this view deeply inflects social life. But this is the Quarantine Journal, so I’ll start with a story.
Walking around my neighborhood, I stopped at a park. It was locked and wrapped in yellow “do not cross” tape, with a sign on the gate. That sign is perhaps the most perfect expression of the Canadian spirit I have encountered in twelve years of living here. It informed me that parks are closed for public health reasons, politely but sternly reminded me to practice physical distancing by keeping two meters away from others and gave a vivid illustration of what that meant: about the length of a hockey stick.
I, however, have almost no intuitive idea how long a hockey stick is. I grew up in California playing basketball, football and tennis. How am I supposed to know how long a hockey stick is? Or how long a meter is, for that matter? I mean, I know in an inferential and intellectual way, but there’s knowing, and then there’s knowing. That sign was one jolting reminder that, despite having lived here for over a decade, raising my children here, becoming a citizen and being able to speak wholeheartedly about Canada in the first-person plural, I’m still to some degree an outsider within. I blend in well, and can get very near to others before they notice anything out of place—I have almost no external signs of otherness, and have even learned to say “washroom” without hesitating. But no matter how close one gets, there is always some distance, some strangeness.
The strangeness of the hockey stick example wasn’t the only odd thing about that sign. It used the phrase “physical distancing,” a locution which has quickly become the thinking-person’s choice for what used to be called—weeks ago, eons ago—“social distancing.” And I get it: “physical distance” is in some ways more technically accurate. Also, you can be social from afar, and we need social solidarity and togetherness now, not separation. Perfectly correct, just so.
But I like “social distance.” I just like saying it, and I’ve been thinking about why. “Social distancing,” heard with a certain accentuation of “social,” has a solidaristic ring. I am keeping my distance from you for the sake of society. If you get too close to me, you are being antisocial. Check your selfish closeness! There’s a certain pleasure I feel when, approaching somebody, we both veer off from each other. Our distance is our closeness, a mutual commitment to the greater good.
Sensitivity to this kind of ambiguity is the hallmark of Simmelian social theory. For example, Simmel observed that conflict is a form of interaction that not only divides, but binds. Think of who your enemies are—these are among the people with whom you are the most deeply connected. And social life without conflict would be dull, unrecognizably so.
“Pro-social social distance” is hopefully, at any rate, a fairly temporary phenomenon, but distance is social in other ways, which are ripe with Simmelian ambiguity. That’s why “physical distancing” has an air of wishful thinking, as if we could define away by terminological fiat the fact that our social lives are inextricably bound up with physical space. We are embodied creatures, after all. There really is no way to physically distance without socially distancing, and we have to live with that.
In general, the longer you share a physical space with someone, and the more enclosed that space is, the less indifferent to them you can be. There is no hiding, no backstage; your full personality is there, without remainder, and so is theirs. This is something a lot of us are learning the hard way. Physical closeness can dramatically intensify a relationship, but few can bear it without introducing some distance. “It is good for your neighbors to be friends, but dangerous for your friends to be your neighbors,” Simmel wrote. A mature relationship is full of unspoken boundaries that enable distance to be maintained under conditions of closeness. These are often psychological—a topic not to touch, a memory to leave forgotten—but they are also physical. The man cave has saved many a marriage.
The greater the physical distance, by contrast, the more a relationship is mediated. We are all doing a lot of mediated interacting these days. Interaction at a distance occurs through images, which are necessarily partial abstractions. I can be at that Zoom meeting while checking my email. I can set up the wall behind me to present the best image of myself, and you can’t step around it to see the towels I haven’t picked up for three days. This potential of distance to idealize can also intensify. “For some, the power of imagination at a distance unleashes the emotions to such a degree that the stimuli of physical proximity, however great, seem somehow limited and finite.” At the same time, to maintain closeness from afar requires a greater effort. We have to keep on reminding one another that we are fully there, and it is easy to forget.
Ultimately, the strangeness of the term “social distancing” is appropriate to the kind of experience it describes. Strangeness, Simmel observed, is also a function of distance: being simultaneously near and far. Strangers are close enough to understand us, far enough to serve as judges; close enough to tell them our secrets, far enough to safely reveal ourselves. Strangeness in this sense is a potential within all relationships. In even the closest there is some distance, something not yet revealed. If there were no space between us, there’d be nothing to uncover, no line to cross and defend, no edging closer to a secret or fending off an indiscretion.
We are all strangers, and that’s a good thing. It makes society possible.
Among Small Things
April 13, 2020
CHICAGO—March in Chicago was predictably blustery, with heavy skies and late-breaking snow crowding the few warm days out of memory. Normally, this would merely be fodder for midwestern small talk. But since there’s been nowhere to go except out for a walk and home, the city’s grey forecasts added insult to the increasingly grievous injuries tracked by our COVID curve. McCormick Place, the convention center which has always struck me as dystopian, is being retrofitted as a field hospital for three thousand.
Nevertheless, April arrived, and the radishes we put in the raised beds just before the quarantine began have come up. The daffodils opened; the rose needs a trim. It’s no country house, but the front yard I’ve always known to be a privilege feels like a delicious luxury now that staying at home is an act of civil service. I’ve never been happier to get my hands in the dirt.
At the end of Voltaire’s Candide, the titular hero’s innocence has not so much been lost as bludgeoned into submission after years spent wandering the world, seeing the worst horrors imaginable to an eighteenth-century Frenchman. Candide retreats to a small farm outside of Constantinople together with his miserable friends. Among them is his old philosophy teacher. Hidebound by his doctrine, the philosopher observes that they’re together, eating pistachios and candied citrons. He concludes that it’s all worked out for the best; in contemporary terms, the universe had a plan. Candide responds, “il faut cultivar notre jardin”—we must tend our garden. Laying satire aside, Voltaire posits that the wise will dedicate themselves to their private affairs rather than worry about (much less confront) the world and its evils.
Voltaire’s conclusion enjoyed plenty of currency prior to the pandemic. Now, as the crisis unfolds, tending your garden and fighting the good fight appear to be one and the same. Public and private concern run together in a way that confuses and frustrates us pistachio-eaters, but also comforts us. In a way, we’ve been training for this moment for years, reading listicles about hygge and thinking carefully about which of the items in our junk drawers spark joy. Along with Candide’s garden, Hannah Arendt may have had this quality of attention in mind when she praised the “infectious charm” and petit bonheur of the French way of life, the enchantments of which, she asserts, found their premier expression in early twentieth-century poetry.
Since the decay of their once great and glorious public realm, the French have become masters of the art of being happy among “small things,” within the space of their own four walls, between chest and bed, table and chair, dog and cat and flowerpot, extending to these things a care and tenderness, which, in a world where rapid industrialization constantly kills the things of yesterday to produce today’s object, may even appear to be the world’s last, purely humane corner.
Arendt’s work is a master class in shade, and in this passage, everything depends on the word appear: the cozy corners she describes were perfectly consistent with the Vichy regime.
Sequestered in Trump’s America with adequate broadband and time to kill, every day brings new resources to render the experience something other than privation: streaming Pilates and fine dining and LeVar Burton’s voice, and for the kids, live drawing lessons with Mo Willems. But aside from introducing podcasts to prevent mealtime fratricide, in my house we’ve been doing the same things we’ve always done while we’re at home: reading, writing, drawing; avoiding work, then doing it; trying to stay off the internet; making little messes and cleaning them up. These intimacies of private life have only been intensified, as have the rituals of close friendship. Conducted onscreen, they take on a strange and tender vibe; we perform our vulnerability to nature and bad government by appearing to one another in our jammies.
There is a real, qualitative difference, however, in the public sphere which has transcended the form of its classical models to become totally virtual, and so, wholly and utterly private. The flesh and blood of the presidential primaries has vaporized overnight—not even their simulacra remain. The situation is such that we couldn’t get out into the streets even if we wanted to, much less into the offices of our elected officials. As our duty to one another clashes with our duty as citizens, the necessary conditions of slowing the pandemic have the effect of further narrowing the regular channels of popular power.
On the morning of Illinois’ primary, I walked to my polling location to find that it had been moved. When I arrived at the new site, my designated poll-workers informed me that their ballots and booths had not been delivered. After multiple trips to various locations, facing the prospect of a long line to cast a provisional ballot, I gave up. The immunosuppressant drug I take, my restless, germy children, the imperatives of public health: all strike me as good enough reasons, and as insufficient too.
Traditionally, the publicity of the voting process has been its most basic protection. But tradition can be a poor guide in times of crisis, and there are other ways of holding a secure election—provided that adequate systems are put in place. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own failure to vote, about the Wisconsin primaries and the way weeks go by quickly even when the days feel long. Dwelling at this confluence sharpens a political anxiety whose edge I’ve long worked to dull for the sake of my family, as a form of self-care. Here and now, though, safe and secure among small things, it may be that I need to allow myself to feel this particular discomfort for what it is, to keep me from collapsing public concern into private security: It’s not just the physical health of the body politic that’s at risk.
April 12, 2020
BROOKLYN—Trump’s Easter prophecy, however misguided and damaging, evokes those earliest moments of the Christian tradition, when similar questions arose. After all, Easter is an annual reminder that we live, that we have been living, in a strange new time, in a time inscribed by the messianic event, but before the end of days. This is not true only for Christians—the year we currently live in, the strange number we write above every letter and every set of notes, is based upon a (mis)counting of years since the birth of Jesus. Anno Domini—the year of our Lord. Every year since that first year bears the same name. And every year since the messianic event, since the resurrection, which Easter celebrates, is evidence of a schism or rupture in the plodding march of time.
This is an excerpt of a longer essay published on our website. Click here to read the essay in full.
April 10, 2020
CHICAGO—“I’m having morbid thoughts,” my mother said half-cheerfully over the phone last week, before announcing that she and my dad had been looking back over the wills. Everything was figured out, pretty much, except who would take their dog—the hundred-pound, long-haired purebred beast they love roughly on par with us and their two grandkids.
It’s nothing unusual for my mom to think aloud about mortality: she spent 35 years as a geriatrician orchestrating end-of-life care for countless patients in nursing homes and hospitals, not to mention several family members, and she’s a cancer survivor herself. While my dad, a cardiologist, would get called in for life-saving emergency procedures, some of my first memories of my mom at work are of her dealing with the administrative particulars of death and dying—breathing tubes, bed pans and morphine, calls to medical proxies and next of kin. Back when I was in elementary school, I used to go into nursing facilities with her when she had to sign death certificates. They used to say that as kids we thought dad saved people, and mom killed them. Now that story feels off to me, like an overplayed home-video clip, but my mom’s irrepressible pragmatism in the face of imminent destruction, after all these years, is still one of the constants in my life.
I took down the numbers to the safe with their papers on the phone. I felt old, suddenly, because for once I was really listening to her. Before, whenever she’d try to steer the conversation toward subjects like estate planning, the names of lawyers and accountants, I’d become impatient and try to change the subject. But these days I sense the roles reversing, the monopolies on fretting breaking down. Now I’m the one lecturing them on taking care of themselves, asking them to wear face masks and go to the supermarket during senior hours, and I can feel my anxiety rising when I plot their ages on the mortality charts. I suspect I’m not alone in grappling, for what feels like the first time, with the fact of my parents’ vulnerability, that they could die sooner than I ever imagined, that it’s me who will have to sift through the files and boxes full of old receipts in the basement when they do.
When I think about it, though, maybe I’m not just afraid of them getting sick and frail. Quarantine, after all, has all the makings of an early-onset midlife crisis: it’s sedentary, domestic to the point of claustrophobia and shot through with reminders of death. Lately, since I don’t commute, am under no social pressure to change out of pajamas and will take any distraction or purposeful task I can get, I’ve been working from the moment I roll out of bed until ten or eleven at night. I’m lucky I have a job I can do from home, I say, but in truth it’s more that it’s hard for me to find the wherewithal to do anything else. My boyfriend returns to our apartment after a couple hours away, and tells me I haven’t moved from my spot on the couch.
If there was any hope that all this extra time together could be repurposed into some kind of thirst-for-life, apocalyptic honeymoon, that illusion has been shattered. At the beginning of the quarantine, he suggested that perhaps there might be a silver lining in seeing more of one another, in never having to get out of bed. No doubt it must suck to be single right now—at least that’s my impression from Twitter—but if it’s any solace to the unpartnered, nothing spells libidinal death quite like a stay-at-home order. Consider how the two of us have been spending our days: in close quarters, in pants with elastic waists, me on Slack, him playing Zelda. We reorganize our pantry for fun, do a jigsaw puzzle, take a constitutional in the park, then fall asleep watching TV. We have long discussions about what to buy at the grocery store; we talk about food; we make food, practically unthinkable quantities of lentils that we work through diligently over the course of several days. (I remember being stunned as a teenager by how much mileage my grandma and her boyfriend could get out of the topic of Costco rotisserie chicken—whole conversations would rise and fall on the juiciness of poultry. Now this could be us, but with homemade dal.) At night I dream about being a middle-aged woman, my back skin slackening and sagging, and wake up before a hand can touch me.
“Should I write a will?” I wondered, after hanging up the call with my mom. I glance around the small apartment my boyfriend and I share, amusing myself darkly by adding up our net worth in books, records, knickknacks and appliances—who will get the KitchenAid? I’m thirty; we don’t have much in the way of savings and zero dependents besides our tubby, anxiety-disordered cat. This mental exercise depresses me. I thought I was in the middle of the beginning of my life, but it turns out I’m squarely at the beginning of the middle of it. When I read Rabbit, Run a few weeks ago, right as things were getting bad, I was struck by how Harry Angstrom feels his life is already ending at 26—what most today would consider our prime, if not our preamble. Perhaps, I think to myself, he was onto something.
The First Year
April 10, 2020
WASHINGTON, D.C.—When my daughter was first born, six months ago, I had a hard time leaving her. I don’t even mean leaving the house—I mean leaving the room she was in. I spent so much time nursing her, rocking her, trying to soothe her inexplicable tears (her screams), sleeping in a bed three feet from her bassinet, that when she was finally asleep and I could sink into the couch for a moment of rest (or Netflix), I found that I would be suddenly pulled up short by her absence. In the moment that my attention to her had flagged, an inchoate fear seized me. Where was she? I worried not that something had happened to her, exactly, but that she had ceased to exist.
Having an infant might seem like an anxiety-multiplier in this anxious time. Early predictions that the virus doesn’t affect young children have proved misleading—an eight-week-old in D.C., where I live, was infected, and the first infant in the U.S. has died—and we now know that we’re all at risk. Infants have fragile, underdeveloped immune systems, and my daughter’s tendency, shared by all her peers, to put everything in her mouth does not mesh well with the need to keep one’s hands clean and not touch your face. Blessedly, our daughter is healthy—she has had only the most mild of colds. But her immune system’s lack of practice—that also makes her more vulnerable.
And yet, I find I am least anxious when I’m in her presence. Throughout the day, I ask my husband (who is working from home, at his computer, and often on Twitter, while I am on the floor, getting the baby in the stroller for our one fresh-air outing, feeding her mashed sweet potatoes) for updates from the world outside. What did Trump say today? Why did Fauci face-palm? What are the numbers in New York, where my (elderly, immunocompromised) parents live? What about in D.C.? But really it’s when my daughter sleeps that I take time to read the news. That’s when the anxiety descends.
Social distancing and self-quarantine are, on their face, a lot like the early days of parenthood. The days blur together; it’s hard to get out of the house. The coronavirus has thrust our family back three months in time, to when my daughter was newborn, my husband was home from work, and we hadn’t yet broken free from that pit of unadulterated domesticity. But what once elicited a feeling of tedium or resentment at the everlasting tasks now feels like a respite. (Mostly like a respite—a few more hours each week to work, as we had planned, would still be welcome.) The solipsism of meeting the acute demands of an infant has unexpectedly dispelled some of the anxiety of caring for such a vulnerable person in this scary time. Eat, wiggle around on a mat, sleep—the cycle repeats approximately every four hours and doesn’t give much time for other worries.
Sometimes I feel sorry for this little person who, like everyone else, will miss much of what this year otherwise would have brought her: visits with grandparents and cousins, play time with other children, music hour at the local library, her first dunk in a swimming pool. But it’s also comforting to be with someone who has no idea what’s going on in the world at large. At the same time as she seems so vulnerable, so reliant on us for everything, this also makes her resilient. She doesn’t know to be anxious or afraid; she only knows that her parents are here with her, as she needs them to be.
Indeed, for now, I am always here. There’s simply nowhere to go where her cries, her chortles, don’t reach me. I’ve always worried that parenthood—the responsibility for the needs and wishes of my child—would distract me from the urgent needs of our community, our world. Now, even though our choices—to stay indoors, to keep our germs away from others—are essential to the health of our community, we are more cut off than ever. It’s a joyful distraction, a relief from the lack of control I feel in the moment’s enormity. But whereas, before, I could anticipate returning to the pleasures of the rest of my life—work, friends, community, action—now the pleasure is self-contained, insular. At the end of our period of enforced togetherness, will the wider world seem as unreal to me as it does to her?
Family Group Texts
April 9, 2020
NEW YORK & DETROIT—I’m aware that as I explain to people why I am leaving New York City, seeking understanding before sympathy, our transgressions have become a little clearer. One month ago the airport felt at best like a disciplined barracks. It is now a den of iniquity, and those who are, like me, fool or selfish enough to move through it are rightfully called sinners. The nonsense of exponential change scrambles logic, makes me touch my face with a latex-free vinyl glove, and sends me “home home,” back to Michigan, a state whose governor the president respects even less than Andrew Cuomo. I remember what the writer Leon Forrest wrote about the “beginning time of all memory,” thinking now that wasn’t so long ago. As I wait in the security line, scrolling through the messages on my phone, I miss each previous day.
“D is no longer having chest or back pain. Still receiving oxygen to assist with breathing. All other vitals are good.” (Mom)
“Good morning family. Please keep D lifted in prayer. He has been in the hospital since Mon. He was rushed from urgent care to Henry Ford hospital initially due to some recent underlying health issues.
Initially diagnosed with pneumonia. He found out this morning that he tested positive for Covid 19.
My last contact with him was on Mar 20. We went grocery shopping. He didn’t touch the groceries but did handle the bags. […] Love you all!” (Mom)
“[Papa’s] Sugar is up but reality hits when you’re considered in the risk group. But he holds onto the lord’s word.
Sometimes he forgets things and says he lost his sharpness did to lack of sleep. I know he’s mentally tired.
We started wearing masks in the hospital and 3 refrigerators for dead bodies are kept. Boy does this make you think.” (Nana)
“Be extremely cautious.
Wear gloves everywhere.
Wear masks everywhere.
One of my high school classmates just passed today from Corona.
Take extra care of your mom and both of your sisters if they come into your life in such a way and protect yourself and them.
I love you” (Dad)
“Sophia broke in the new oven with her dinner creation…delicious!!” (Aunt T)
“My Aunt Doris who is 84 had a mild version of COVID-19 and she is doing well. But my Uncle Terry (mom’s brother) tested positive for it. He wasnt doing well a few days ago but bounced back. They have isolated him again and were just praying for him to beat it.” (Aunt J)
“Oh wow. Will pray for family.” (Mom)
“Ooh boy. Kinda figured [Detroit Police Department] chief james Craig was gonna eventually test positive” (Mom)
“Yep! And now probably anyone who was in his press conference room.” (Aunt T)
“You know it’s bad out here when your wife has to use your boxers as a face-mask.” (Uncle T)
“Happy 10 year anniversary J & H!” (Uncle T)
“2 days early…. Lol” (Mom)
“I might be early cus all the days are running together. I only know what day it is by when This Is Us comes on” (Uncle T)
“IN governor just announced ours for 2 weeks.” (Aunt H)
“Yeah…Ohio’s governor issued theirs yesterday.” (Aunt T)
“There was a Drs wife exposed to virus that’s showing symptoms and Dr is too. He’s being tested with wife. Meanwhile we have to monitor and wait. Pray for our department too. There’s about 5 people.” (Nana)
“The governor is speaking live now” (Aunt T)
“3 weeks shelter in place. Do you all have enough stuff?” (Aunt H)
“When u can’t go out to eat for your bday, you cook your own meal and top it off with your fav beverage.” (Mom)
“Hope y’all got your hair did. Lol. Gov shutting down the hair/nail salons and tattoo be tanning salons.” (Mom)
“Saw lady make face mask from bra I thought line it with charcoal to make it perfect to breath through do I’ll take it. Lol” (Nana)
“FBI warns against COVID-19SCAMS DON’T click on unknown links” (Granny)
“T & T – you might want to start stocking up on diapers and wipes. It was slim picking here. I took some of the last baby wipes at our local Meijer.” (Aunt H)
“Keeps us in your prayers, i just got laid off.” (Uncle T)
“Prayer in progress” (Nana)
“Prayer up t” (Uncle J)
“Yup. Do you know if you can keep the benefits for a period of time?” (Aunt H)
“I’m supposed to go to Vegas next month to see Bruno Mars concert. Round trip ticket is now $34. I’m still holding off for a lower price.” (Aunt H)
“Bruno better be playing on Mars cus Earth is infected” (Uncle T)
“Are you safe
Do you feel well
Are you worried
Are you comfortable” (Dad)
“L wanted more bible adventure since the church is shut down. I love this app the church gave everyone. RightNow Media. Has video bible lessons and lots of kids stuff.” (Aunt H)
“12 preliminary confirmations in MI… yesterday only 2 cases. All confirmations still adults and majority had history of international travel and a couple had domestic travel. Only one had no travel history.” (Aunt T)
“It’s official, both of my college classes have been moved to ‘distant learning’ or online blackboard classes.” (Cousin J)
“Per the governor, all MI schools are shut down for 3 weeks starting Monday.” (Aunt T)
“Hey grandson, hopefully you’re doing ok. […] Took trip to Indy 2 weeks ago they’re all doing good in their big house. Her company people home due to Corono-virus. for 14 days. You staying healthy? Grandma M will be 95 this month. Anyway everyone is well. I’m doing rehab on my fractured foot. Trying to get stiffness out and balance back. Miss you.” (Nana)
“She said YES” (Dad)
“Guess whose team made the basketball playoffs? Today’s game didn’t finish until 7pm. Sophia played aggressively today! They won 22 to 18 and Sophia made 10 points and fouled out the last 2 minutes of the game.” (Aunt T)
“Woohoo. When is playoffs?” (Mom)
“Go Sophia!!” (Aunt H)
“They have 1 more season game next Tuesday at Achieve, the school up the street from mom and dad. The playoff games are 3/16 and 3/17 and championship game is 3/19.” (Aunt T)
“Way to get the jump ball Sophia!! You got hops” (Uncle J)
“I totally forgot Sophia played basketball. Will have to check her out since this is the last year in middle school” (Aunt J)
Part of the Totality
April 9, 2020
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Apparently, sales of long, difficult novels have increased over the last few weeks; I myself bought Ducks, Newburyport. But I have no energy for extended reading. Instead, I’ve turned to other people’s letters. The collection I started with is particularly apropos. Here is some of the text.
But since everything is so uncertain nowadays—and long experience suggests that everything is more likely to stay the way it is than to change soon—I’ll write to you anyway. (May 5)
It’s hard for me not to be able to help you in any way—except by thinking of you. (April 30)
We fear (I’ve just been interrupted again by the siren, so I’m sitting outdoors enjoying the sun) for our lives, but at the same time we must think thoughts that are much more important to us than our lives. (May 29)
When nature comes into its own again [in spring] but the tensions in our own lives and the historical communities in which we live remain unresolved, we feel the split especially strongly. (April 11)
These long, warm evenings … make one long to be outdoors, and one could do crazy things if one weren’t so “sensible.” Could one perhaps have become too sensible already? After such a long time of deliberately beating back every desire one has, two serious consequences might follow: either one is burned out inside, or things all build up until one day there’s a terrible explosion. (May 30)
For the greater part of our lives, pain was a stranger to us. Avoiding pain, as far as possible, was one of our subconscious guiding principles. (May 18)
We grew up with our parents’ and grandparents’ experience that each person can and must plan, develop, and shape his own life, that there is a life work on which one must decide, and that he can and must pursue this with all his might. But from our own experience we have learned that we cannot even plan for the next day, that what we have built up is destroyed overnight. Our lives, unlike our parents’ lives, have become formless or even fragmentary. (May 18)
The most important question for the future is how we are going to find a basis for living together with other people. (June 2)
Are we moving toward an age of colossal organizations and collective institutions, or will the desire of innumerable people for small, manageable, personal relationships be satisfied? Does the one have to exclude the other? Isn’t it conceivable that is it precisely the vast scale of world organizations that allow more room for life at the personal level? (May 18)
Inwardly, one learns gradually to put life-threatening things in proportion. Actually, “put in proportion” sounds too negative, too formal or artificial or stoic. One should more correctly say that we just take in these daily threats as part of the totality of our lives. (May 29)
Lately I’ve often wondered why we lose our sensitivity to hardships, or say we do, after enduring them for a long while—how can that be explained? (April 22)
Continuity with one’s own past is actually a great gift. (April 22)
These are quotations from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in April 1943 for resistance activities in Nazi Germany, including attempts to smuggle Jewish people out of the state, and his probable knowledge of a plot to assassinate Hitler. The excerpts above date from 1944. Bonhoeffer was hanged in April 1945. Our situation is, of course, nowhere near so dire; I have found his letters very comforting, and very challenging.
The Concept of Work
April 6, 2020
NEW YORK, NEW YORK—“With this open time, you do not have to write the next bestselling novel. You do not have to get in the best shape of your life. You do not have to start that podcast. … What if we became curious with this free time, and had no agenda other than to experience being? What if you created art for the sake of creating?” So reads a recent viral Instagram post, whose author is protesting the imperative to use quarantine to enhance productivity. There is a lot of this kind of feel-good content about our ability to spend our time less “productively” in the time of coronavirus going around on the internet. “More work, maybe the single most constant feature of American adulthood, is not the answer,” reads a recent popular article in the New Republic. “This is a time to sustain. To find ease where we can in a world rapidly placing us into chaos.”
I get it; productivity has become an oppressive capitalist ideal, and we ought not to let it extend into our quarantined hours. Still, as I attempt to fill my hours with something other than boredom, these arguments seem to miss something important. Productivity may be oppressive, but working on something—anything that I can take ownership of—is one way of telling myself that my hours matter, that what I do to grow in this drastically reduced space matters. Surely the hateful American hustle is not the only notion available to us of a true “work ethic.”
Maybe the Instagram poet produces her wildly popular poems completely spontaneously, or unconsciously, without having to want to. Since nothing I make is conjured quite that way, I find that I cling to my hours in isolation with an almost authoritarian zeal. I turn everything into an unromantic item on a to-do list—“creating art for the sake of creating” included. My friend has written a letter to winter, his favorite season, as part of a series he is working on, for no particular reason. I decide to secretly join him, and write a letter to summer, my favorite season, for no particular reason. WRITE LETTER TO SUMMER, I add solemnly to my list.
It is not part of any series, and nobody cares whether I do it or not. It comes out as a poem, in which I recall drinking hard apple cider on strangers’ stoops two seasons ago, writing an essay about a young artist who made a career following unwitting strangers all through the streets of Paris, also for no particular reason; or else because “her hairdo astonished me.” When the artist tired of Paris, and of strangers, she packed a suitcase full of disguises and followed a man to Venice, discreetly photographing him as he photographed the city. The pictures from that summer are lying on that stoop where I drank hard cider and dreamed about the young artist; under normal circumstances I would have gone back to look for them there, or I would have gone on my own Venetian stroll through New York, remembering and excavating the pictures that I use to do my writing.
My way to the inner worlds of other people has always been by following them down streets and around corners as they drink and dream and photograph and overstep all boundaries. This is where my mental universe has developed, like a string of detailed memory palaces. It’s a fundamental shift to have to accept that it’s the streets that are unsafe and unfriendly now, and not the inside of my apartment; but if I’m unable to trail other people as they roam around outside, it seems that it could be just as pleasing and meaningful to keep them company at their desks or in their small kitchens where they fold their laundry, switch out the pine nuts for walnuts when they make Monday’s pasta on Thursday, practice their Spanish or study Sophocles, write lengthy letters that they may or may not send.
“The meaning of life always comes down to a method of life,” writes Mark Greif somewhat lamentingly in his early n+1 essay “The Concept of Experience.” In search of how to understand these strange, empty new hours, I return to this essay when the isolation begins to sink in. The constant worry that experiences be consciously collected—and that they “count”—creates inevitable, chronic dissatisfaction. One solution to this, he ventures, is to “radicalize” experience, “making it so total that its internal distinctions of use and waste, special and mundane, ultimately disappear.” Everything is an experience because nothing is an Experience; the aesthete sets an “endlessly renewed horizon.”
Perhaps the same might be said of work. In a life of social isolation, perhaps there need not be a conflict between the meaning of life and a method of life. There is no ultimate fitness-model state or breakthrough podcast or bestselling novel: there is only the treatment of every hour as a serious, meaningful unit of time, in which something of worth might happen. This discipline, too, is a kind of work; it’s unmonitored by Zoom calls and newly enthusiastic work-from-home managers, and so it is tempting to give it a more romantic name. But whatever we call it, during a period of indefinite lockdown, these hours cannot be allowed to slip away, cannot be written off, because there is no known moment when we can know that they might be recovered. There is no way to know when we might be able to start making up for lost time.
April 6, 2020
BROOKLYN—“Stop sending me news,” I text J, my ex. I’ve read most of it already, but that isn’t why I want him to stop. Yet I’ve been sending my family’s group text the same information, until one of my sisters tells me to stop. I think she’s too flippant, saying that she hopes it kills Trump and Bolsonaro, and while trying not to pick a fight, I also try to communicate something like “Anxiety is the appropriate feeling, if it causes you to act.”
I admit that sharing information isn’t entirely altruistic. Does it expel fear if someone says back to me, “That’s so fucking scary”? I think so. But being the recipient is sometimes like being assaulted, especially since—per the requirements of social distancing—the sharing happens through my phone, which felt, even pre-pandemic, menacing. I read whatever it is before I can help it. If J were in front of me, I could shush him when he opened his mouth.
But I read, read, read all day. What he sends, what other people send, what Twitter offers, what I find on my own. I haven’t learned so rabidly since I was five and started reading. Then as now, consumption seemed urgent and necessary. I read and scroll, read and scroll. I read things I already know and I read things I have already read. I read new, horrifying things until my chest is too tight to breathe normally, and then I wonder why I am not a stronger person. To consume information becomes—falsely?—a noble act, although—as friends and I acknowledge in messages dotted with the words “safe,” “healthy,” “sane,” “well”—it also strains the mind. Several years ago, I started having panic attacks at night. Every time I woke up unable to breathe, I told myself, “If you can just keep thinking, you won’t die.” This was true, thought depending as it does on life. It interests me that my reaction in crisis is to turn to my mind’s force.
A friend in Cyprus, S, calls me. It’s 3 a.m. for him. He’s been watching Perfect Sense, a film about an epidemic in which people lose their senses one after the other. The first symptom is uncontrollable crying. Usually he’s full of optimism verging on bravado, but now he’s afraid. “I never imagined this,” he repeats. He’s the kind of person who tries to take care of everyone.
In a way, his 23-year-old son and his son’s girlfriend seem more prepared than S, like they have accepted things will happen that they can’t imagine. I point out that they grew up in a divided country, amid seemingly endless geopolitical turmoil. S tells me the Greek Cypriot government has closed the crossings between the north and the south at least until April 20th, a “public health” measure that has nationalists and racists on both sides celebrating. There was a Greek Cypriot fascist march, then a counter-demonstration at which the police used pepper spray. S is fine, but his eyes are burning. His ex-wife, his son’s mother, is on the other side of the closed crossing. So is his cat. So is his café, now shut indefinitely.
What will happen? This seems the only kind of conversation available. An infinite passion—to deform Gina Berriault—of expectation. Now that we know how much we didn’t anticipate, we spend our quarantine time trying to do better. I tell S to go to sleep, that hopelessness and fear aren’t useful unless they help you act. A focus on usefulness is just another manifestation of the attachment to will, but it’s the only thing I can think to say. My imagination is also limited.
Online, I search renderings of the virus, singular infective form “virion.” Its even (and, yes, coronal) protrusions remind me of the ones on a favorite pair of gold hoops, so I move them to the back of my jewelry box. It’s a useless gesture that feels like enacting metaphor, though, which I am trying to avoid, as making metaphors of crisis seems a dangerous distraction from material threat. I put on the hoops to strip them of meaning. Uselessness, in a different direction.
To J, I say, “We have such useless bodies.” He says that in fact it’s the opposite, we’re amazing evolutionary wonders. We’re immune to almost everything. We’re an unprecedented genetic feat that will probably never be repeated. I feel better, then I feel worse, thinking about all that I don’t even know my body is repelling. Right now I’m feeling awe. I am looking at my fingers typing and thinking, How marvelous you are! Like I am a newborn baby, and my own mother, trying to take care.
April 6, 2020
CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—When I was a young boy just learning Greek, I was told that the very first simile in “Western literature” was in the description of the plague in Book I of the Iliad. To punish the Greeks for failing to honor his priest, the god Apollo, who is, among his other properties, also the “Mouse-God” (Smintheus), brings down an evil illness (nouson … kaken) on them. Homer’s Apollo is not a silent killer, because as he comes down from Olympus, the arrows make a clacking sound (eklangxan) on his back as he moves, and when he starts firing, first at dogs and mules, then at men, the noise (klangee) that his bow makes, its twanging, is terrible. The “first simile in Western literature” is wedged between these two bouts of clacking: “he went, like night” (ho d’eeie nukti eoikoos I.47), or perhaps more exactly, “he went, having made himself like (eoikoos) night.” Clearly this can’t mean “he went silently” (“he stole away like a thief in the night”), because we have just been told that when he moves his arrows make a clacking sound on his back. Perhaps then it just means “invisibly.” So you could hear him as he went through the camp shooting animals and humans, but you could not see him. One can see why it would be uncanny to be surrounded by the sound and smell (I.52: corpses burning) of death without seeing anything even in the bright light of day.
Still, something about Iliad I.47 has continued to bother me. In fact, “Apollo made himself like night” doesn’t read like a simile at all. If I say: Patroklos went into battle, having made himself (look) like Achilles, this is disguise, not a simile. If, on the other hand, I were to say: “Arios fell like a tree,” this does not mean that he was wearing some kind of arboral camouflage. A tree is an upright living thing that, when it falls, suddenly becomes horizontal; Arios was a man standing up, and suddenly he is horizontal. But the parallel “night goes invisibly, so Apollo goes invisibly” doesn’t work. First of all, night doesn’t “go” anywhere, visibly or not. It doesn’t move. The sun may go down in Greek, but “night” does not “fall.” Second, “night” isn’t invisible; we don’t see it or fail to see it. It isn’t that kind of thing. Rather, at night things that would in principle be visible by day are not. So Apollo makes himself “like night” by making his own appearance like the appearance he would have if it were nighttime, namely none at all. To do this might be easy (if you are a Greek god), but expressing it is not so straightforward, not even if one has at one’s disposal that marvelous construction, the Greek perfect participle, which indicates a continuing present state which is the result of completed action in the past: nukti eoikoos, “looking now like night because in the past he (successfully) completed the action of giving himself this appearance (that is, making himself look in the day as he would look at night).” Whatever the difficulties of analyzing it discursively, the passage is still a wonder of concise expressivity.
In the 1930s, in his well-known essay on the plague and theater (now in The Theater and Its Double), Artaud proposes a theater that would be the source and locus of a beneficent spiritual infection. In times of plague boundaries break down; perhaps this is one aspiration of all literature, and one of the effects of the exuberant flourishing of similes, personifications and metaphors. Of course, it would make no sense to try to see figurative language, despite its proliferation, as a kind of transmissible disease, because there is no other “healthy” state of language—one without the infection of figuration—with which to contrast it. The drastic measures we must now adopt to isolate ourselves in the face of the coronavirus show just how unnatural such a state of quarantine is. To be maintained, it requires great energy, coercive intervention and extreme artifice, like trying to keep literal and figurative usage completely distinct.
April 5, 2020
BOSTON—When we all entered lockdown three weeks ago, I was afraid that I would be lonely. Instead, I’m talking to the ones I love more than usual. My friend in Beirut no longer feels farther away than my friend who lives around the corner in Boston—though my friend in Boston likewise no longer feels closer. On Zoom, the places we’re calling from become continuous, as if I could knock a hole in my wall and find, on the other side, my parents’ kitchen, my dad staring broodingly into the fridge. On Saturday, I talked to my mother, and then to my brother, and then attended a virtual bachelorette party. I tried to pretend that each person was sitting across from me—that the den of disorderly bookshelves in my own thumbnail portrait opened onto the rooms I saw over their shoulders, whose lamplight came filtering out of my screen. I hung up with the feeling that everyone I know is sitting in the same room now, having the same terrified conversation.
It’s a nice illusion—nice to feel like we’re in it together, even if my real world has shrunk to one person, my husband, who sits with his laptop in the other room. It’s nice in the same way as reading those essays that reframe social distancing as solidarity. “We must begin to see the negative space as clearly as the positive, to know what we don’t do is also brilliant and full of love,” the poet Anne Boyer wrote on March 10th, the day that Massachusetts declared a state of emergency. If you squint, you could almost make sense of this quarantine as an effort to flatten, along with the curve, the distinctions we make between our bonds with others. Right now, I care for my neighbor in the same way I demonstrate love for my mother: in all instances, I stay away.
And in moments this month, I have loved strangers with an intensity that is new to me. On March 14th, the Saturday night after the end of life as we knew it, I went out with my dog and found the street silent: no lines for restaurants, no children on bicycles, no couples strolling with little cups of ice cream. It had taken the combined will of thousands of people to deliver such a sudden and complete emptiness. I felt so grateful, and so bereft.
But I’m wary of even this small silver lining. Not only because this crisis is also increasing existing divisions (every time I go out to buy food, I rely on those who can’t afford to stay home to continue risking themselves for my benefit), but because, in life before Zoom, the things I did to and for others used to do things to and for me, as well. When I went to a friend’s home to offer comfort, I left warmed by all the love in my life. When I managed, by the end of a class, to maneuver my students toward some realization, I left feeling smarter, grasping at new ideas. It might take more practice, more effort, to feel the equal and opposite force exerted by a more glancing interaction. But I feel less alone, less a coward, after joining a protest or going canvassing (even if I also feel inauthentic, aware that I spent the time wanting to leave).
After years of meaning to read Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, about the ways that communities come together during disasters, I picked it up to find myself almost envious of the people she writes about, who dig their neighbors out of the rubble after earthquakes and rescue them from rooftops during floods. Solnit quotes survivors who remember moments of crisis as times of incredible purpose and joy (“a peak experience,” in the words of one woman who lived through the Blitz). Disasters are to be mourned, never wished for, but Solnit is not ashamed to see them as opportunities. She writes about workers who helped each other out of broken windows after the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City and then came together to form a union, radicalized by their employers’ indifference to their suffering. Maybe the strikes of Amazon and Instacart workers—ongoing as I write this—will be today’s equivalent. But most of us are not learning to do more for our neighbors: we are learning to make do with how little we can offer even the people in our immediate circles.
Last week, I read an article about workers skipping Zoom meetings by looping video of their own attentive faces. Can doing something for others really feel this much like doing nothing? We’re all here in this virtual room, but I’m not sure that even my family would notice if I taped my lines and went to sleep.
On March 23rd, I texted a woman who’d posted her number on a neighborhood mutual aid network. I’d been sending strangers money for groceries on Venmo and PayPal, but I wanted to do something that took more than a minute—something my body could recognize as taking action. The woman was immunocompromised and trying not to go to the store, and I needed groceries anyway. She didn’t ask for much—broccoli, butter, bananas—but I tried three stores before I found all-purpose flour on a bottom shelf at a bodega. Hours earlier, the governor had ordered the closure of nonessential businesses. “I’m essential,” the guy behind the counter said, sounding jubilant. He was wearing latex gloves and sucking the pulp off sliced wedges of oranges: “Vitamin C, got to keep my strength up.” “I’m definitely inessential,” I told him. I meant it to sound like a joke, but it came out as a fact. Back home, I sanitized my doorknobs and scrubbed my skin raw in the shower. I haven’t been in any room but these since.
April 5, 2020
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND—On March 4th, before things hit the fan, I walked to France. I had just arrived in Switzerland for a two-month stay. Stretching my legs with a stroll into the neighboring fifteenth-century village, I had come across the old border checkpoint. Unmanned, graffitied, dilapidated, it was a gritty reminder of European peace. Once, it had demarcated occupied territory from neutral; now it reflected a liberty so plentiful it could be neglected.
Ten other fellows and I were on writing fellowships at the Fondation Brocher, a bioethics institute located in a nineteenth-century Swiss villa, sited on several grassy acres with Lake Geneva lapping at its toes. The secluded institute seemed a writer’s paradise.
The peace lasted one bucolic, productive week. Then the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. The next five days were a blur of anxiety, long waits on hold with airlines, news updates that upended newly revised plans, hurried packing and brief, emotional farewells. Our group had life and work experience from five continents and included a field doctor who had been in Liberia during the Ebola crisis; a philosopher who works on issues of trust in science; an anthropologist working on reproductive technologies in Russia and Ukraine; historians, policy experts, graduate students. In ones and twos, the group dispersed. Among those remaining, none could concentrate on their respective projects; instead, we focused on our collective one.
The institute halted its catering, so we took turns making dinner for each other: Chinese dumplings, quiche, pasta, salad. We stocked up liberally on wine—medicinal purposes—cooked together and talked long into the night. Amidst the chaos, we had ample time for reflection.
As a historian of science and medicine, I was struck by the many ways science alone was insufficient to resolve the crisis. Scientists at WHO and the CDC had rapidly developed tests for the virus, and where testing was deployed en masse, as in South Korea, it was the foundation of a swift and effective response. But elsewhere (the U.S. in particular), inefficiency, poor communication, rumor and bad faith ensured that testing would be at best a minor component of the response—a case study of the importance of trust in mobilizing science and technology for social good.
A vaccine against the coronavirus is, we’re told, at least twelve to eighteen months away. Immunization will likely be part of a long-term strategy against the disease, but it will not be an immediate solution. By mid-March, Italy was already making difficult decisions about apportioning ventilators. As some commentators deplored the inhumanity of denying care to the elderly and infirm, the field physician who had experience with Ebola explained that there would be patients who would die whether they received care or not; patients who would live whether they received care or not; and patients who would die without care but might live with it. Treating the latter group is the way to allocate scarce medical resources to best effect. She also explained, days before the media commentators, that a major hidden killer would be people dying of treatable, preventable causes, due to scarcity of hospital resources.
Rather than high-tech science, much of the response to COVID-19 relies on measures that are low-tech, pre-scientific; social measures many of which have been used for centuries, and which remain key precepts of public health. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Cover your mouth when you cough. Quarantine those who are sick and those who may have been exposed. Avoid crowds. Keep your distance. If possible, stay home.
Quarantine and hygiene were the backbone of Florence Nightingale’s heroic efforts during the Crimean War, and she refused to accept the germ theory of disease. You don’t need germ theory, let alone genomics, for these measures to work. The centuries-old doctrine of contagion, meaning a disease transmitted primarily by person-to-person contact, explains COVID-19 well enough to indicate all the major methods most of us are using to avoid contracting and spreading the disease. They would have been intelligible to someone during the Black Death of the fourteenth century.
This is not to say that science is unimportant. Indeed, this is a dangerous time for anyone to be anti-science. Rather, it is to say that the importance of science is contingent. The diagnostic test is only useful insofar as it is used. The vaccine, when it comes, will be effective at the population level only if most people receive it; otherwise herd immunity cannot operate.
It’s often said that science works whether you believe in it or not. But actually, whether we believe in it matters a great deal. The virus SARS-CoV-2 is indisputably a real object, a “natural category,” as philosophers say. But COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is socially constructed: how it spreads, who gets sick, how many die from it or because of it, all depend on what we believe as well as what we know.
On my last full day in Geneva, only two of us remained. It was a sunny afternoon and we took a walk into the village. We went to the creek, to the border that my companion had breezed past on her bicycle the day before. A concrete Jersey barrier had been dropped across the narrow road, blocking it to traffic. As we contemplated the scene, a French police car pulled up on the other side, faced us for a moment, then backed up and parked at the checkpoint, its occupants preparing against the next invasion.
April 5, 2020
GRONINGEN, NETHERLANDS—Something has changed, I can’t doubt it anymore. In the crumbling world I suddenly find myself in, philosophy—this weird blend of chess and boxing I usually care about so much—has begun to feel arbitrary and even slightly inappropriate. In a moving piece, the American philosopher Zena Hitz describes a similar loss of interest in academic work right after 9/11. It felt, she introspects, as though a curtain was lifted at the boundaries of her life: “I understood that my green pastures were surrounded by smoking wasteland. I felt moved to do something, to respond to the suffering that soaks the whole world like air or water.”
What both of us were experiencing, I suppose, is the life-of-the-mind variation on a universal human theme: in the face of suffering and death, human beings rapidly manage to work their way into radically different, often better evaluative schemes—as if our evaluative kaleidoscopes suddenly transform into microscopes or telescopes, instruments which finally allow us to get what really matters into focus.
That’s the rationale behind Stoic memento mori contemplations, that’s why Tibetan Buddhist monks meditate in graveyards, that’s why, as palliative nurses report, dying people deeply regret neglecting their loved ones and obsessing over work, that’s why, in Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates suddenly realizes that extreme detachment from all things impermanent is the best way of life, and that’s why Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is such a marvelous book. As the poignant case of Ivan Ilyich illustrates, when humans are confronted with their frailty, their whole life can—seemingly out of nowhere—suddenly manifest itself as “not right,” as if we have not been living our lives “as we should.”
Two weeks ago my government published a list of “vital professions”—janitors, garbagemen, nurses, doctors—which casually summed up the people whose jobs are so essential, so non-bullshit, that they have to keep working right now, unlike the rest of us who retreat in quarantine. By the lights of my very own government, then, I could easily deduce that my profession, what shaped my life, was not vital. It didn’t matter that much. If all things that are F are G, and x is not-G, then x is not-F. Here it finally was, black on white: a valid, seemingly sound argument for the uselessness of philosophy. Spending one’s life lost in thought while the world is burning was obviously an instance of failing to live one’s life “as one should.” My gnawing feelings of self-doubt were justified, I was right to feel despair.
Luckily, one of my earliest teachers, a modal logician turned Plato scholar, once taught me an important lesson. His students, he noticed, only began questioning the meaning of studying logic—“why on earth do we actually have to learn this?”—once they turned to advanced logics that are harder to grasp and more frustrating to learn. As long as logic is fun, he explained, its meaning is never disputed and students do not complain. Going from this, he argued that all existential questions are mere complaints instead of requests for information. They express feelings of doubt, frustration, inadequacy, aimlessness, boredom or despair, and this is why they should not be taken too seriously. After all, if requests for meaning are complaints in disguise, they cannot be answered. Or, put differently, such existential riddles cannot be solved—they can, at best, be dissolved.
As I realize now, he must have been onto an idea similar to Wittgenstein’s koan-like pronouncement that the answer to the question of the meaning of life lies in the disappearance of that very question. What Wittgenstein was trying to say, I guess, is that existential questions are like bad psychedelic trips or the painful feeling of lovesickness: although you can easily work your way into such psychological quicksand by too much mental chatter, you cannot bootstrap your way out of it through operations of your rational, logical mind. That’s why any attempt to pour the salutary waters of philosophical argument over people in search of meaning is doomed to fail: your well-meant arguments will run off them like water off a duck’s back. It’s also the grain of truth in analytic philosophers’ smug dismissal of existentialism as merely some kind of infantile, overly sentimental mood.
Most importantly, it explains why, for someone who is viscerally experiencing the sheer uselessness of philosophy, someone who just doesn’t feel it anymore, typical protreptic arguments will sound like ridiculous sophisms at best or inappropriate, sick jokes at worst. “Because the highest good is that for the sake of which other things are done, philosophy’s total, utter uselessness actually indicates that it has to be the highest good!” “Of course philosophy is meaningful: you can only deny the value of philosophy by doing philosophy yourself, so it can’t be useless!” “Although the value of what doctors do is merely reparative or curative and hence extrinsic—it rests on trouble and imperfection, so to speak—philosophy is solely rooted in itself and hence intrinsically, truly valuable!” Those doubting philosophy’s meaning will, obviously, remain unmoved by these arguments: like Plato’s Callicles, they’ll retort that philosophy has to be some kind of puerile spiel and “the undoing of mankind,” if this is what it is.
The trick, instead, is to focus my attention on something else. To keep calm and carry on, in the hope that at some point in time, perhaps in the near future, I will slowly start to notice—subtly, implicitly, tacitly—that these nagging questions have magically disappeared, leaving me to wonder what the hell I was so worried about. In Sartre’s Nausea, the protagonist aptly describes this feeling of snapping out of your existential doubt: “My odd feelings of the other week seem to me quite ridiculous today: I can no longer enter into them.” It’s then, and only then I fear, that protreptic arguments and crafty defenses of philosophizing will regain their irresistibly seductive lure. I can’t wait.
In the Petri Dish
April 2, 2020
MONROE, WASHINGTON—In prison, anything resembling fear must be rejected, because fear is weakness and weakness is unacceptable. So here at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State, talk about coronavirus has been mostly dismissive, and the sound of coughing has become a precursor to jokes, rather than panic. The cells are spaced a foot apart, and by far the smallest in the state, with bars rather than doors and hardly enough room for one person to move around, despite the fact that two are often crammed into them. We hear every sneeze, every yawn—sometimes I even hear a neighbor a few houses down scratching a pencil over a pad of paper.
But since it was revealed three weeks ago that a guard had tested positive for COVID-19, and two living units were put on a ten-day quarantine, what’s been rarely heard is coughing. This could be because even the clearing of a throat is unfailing followed by “Coronavirus!” and then laughter. But a walk along the tiers gives you the impression that laughing is the last thing any of us want to be doing. Just about every television is tuned to one of three world news stations, and concerned eyes watch as ice-skating rinks are cleared out and tents erected in hospital parking lots to store bodies because the morgues are too full.
This building is over a hundred years old, and reminiscent of a medieval castle, with a fifty-foot chipping concrete wall surrounding the entire compound. The heating system is outdated and obsolete, causing the six-by-nine-foot living units to become unbearably hot in the summer, and cold in the winter, and their two hundred residents to breathe the same air and share every virus that finds its way in, usually via Department of Corrections staff. For the purpose of this narrative, let us call the living units at Monroe Correctional Complex the petri dish.
I worked as a personal trainer prior to my incarceration, and at 34 years old I’m still in peak physical condition. I don’t shake hands when I know people are sick, and as I’m not keen on having my fitness regimen disturbed, I take every precaution to avoid becoming ill myself. Yet in the three-plus years that I’ve spent here at MCC, I’ve managed to contract every seasonal cold that’s gone around, and only avoided flu because I get the yearly vaccine. Some of my neighbors take the opposite approach, making a point to catch whatever’s currently being passed from hand to hand, so they can get it over with, as it’s inevitable they’ll catch it eventually anyway.
In response to the pandemic, the Department of Corrections has begun enforcing social-distancing regulations, which at first sight may resemble those being implemented in society, but on closer examination will more than likely speed up the almost inevitable outbreak in this facility. One such measure has been to limit the number of individuals allowed in the yard and the gym, which happen to be the two places where social distancing is easiest. MCC houses eight hundred prisoners, and with visitation canceled and every educational, religious or self-help program put on hold due to the virus, allowing only two hundred residents in the designated recreation areas at a time means five hundred sitting in the petri dish, laughing at coughs, watching the news and waiting to be added to the number on our television screens.
In the dining halls, we’re being ordered to sit one to a table, and to all face in the same direction, which in theory might not be a bad idea if it weren’t for the fact that in order to enforce these regulations, the guards stand around in groups so close to each other that they’re almost touching. With no visitors, teachers or volunteers allowed beyond the wall, COVID-19 has one likely way inside: by hitching a ride with one of them. It seems that if the goal were truly to halt any potential spread, social distancing would start with the most probable carriers.
But if the prison’s recent reputation for its medical practices is any indication of what’s to come as this pandemic continues to crescendo, then maybe laughter is the best medicine we can hope for. In 2019, MCC’s medical director was fired for misconduct after several patients died under her supervision, one from a respiratory illness for which he was refused treatment. It was discovered during the ensuing investigation that she hadn’t completed an approved residency, nor was she board-certified. To date, it’s nearly impossible to see a doctor, and even in extreme cases, a trip to the medical wing renders little more than a checkup with a nurse practitioner.
I live in one of the two units that was let off quarantine only days ago, and even as I sit at my desk within the petri dish and write this, I’m hearing that the inevitable may have just become a reality. The other two units are being locked down because an inmate is showing “severe symptoms.” Sadly, this person has likely been moved to a solitary location where he’ll be given the same treatment as prisoners who’ve been placed in segregation for behavioral issues. For the next ten to fourteen days, those residing in his and the neighboring units will be allowed out of their cells once daily for a shower and a thirty-minute phone call. The rest of their time will be spent in their personal hot boxes, laughing when somebody coughs, watching as the death toll continues to rise around the world, and wondering how long it will be before a tent is erected in our parking lot.
April 2, 2020
NEW DELHI, INDIA—My sister came to visit me in New Delhi, where I’ve been living and working for a magazine since July, in the beginning of March, arriving just under the rapidly-lowering viral wire. By the end of February there were intimations of what was to come: a few deaths from cases of COVID-19 at a nursing home in the Seattle suburbs, not far from where my parents live. As I showed my sister how things worked, and didn’t, in Delhi, we took the necessary precautions: we washed our hands regularly, tried not to touch our faces and decided not to go to Kerala, where a few cases of coronavirus had been purportedly well contained. At the last minute, we booked tickets for four days on a quiet beach in Goa.
We landed in Goa still in innocent times, though barely—our biggest concern was that it suddenly looked like Bernie Sanders was going to lose the Democratic primary. We were the last ones to arrive at the beach, but the old snowbirds from Europe still wandered around in crowds while groups of young women from the U.K. lounged after their annual yoga retreat. It was the end of tourist season anyway, but it was clear that people had started to stop traveling. Walking up and down the beach, palm trees covering rocky outcroppings and the ocean fading from bright to icy blue, we checked the news from Twitter. The numbers of cases in the U.S. and the U.K. began to explode: countries had begun to close their borders and shut down their cities. On the last night, when we called our parents, the thought that we might not see them again intruded.
But when, after a paranoid, hand-sanitized flight back to Delhi, we arrived back at my apartment, my roommate—a staff writer at the magazine I work for, who grew up in Rajasthan—seemed almost unfazed, as did his girlfriend, a criminal defense lawyer from Delhi. The numbers in India were low, and community transmission hadn’t been confirmed; the problem was still far away. My sister flew back to the U.K., and I withdrew into the apartment, a Twitter-addled émigré traveling back to the United States through my phone screen. My roommate and his girlfriend were still talking about other news—the surprise appointment of India’s disgraced ex-chief justice to the upper house of the parliament and the violent anti-Muslim pogroms that had erupted in the northeast of the city a few weeks earlier.
I’d spent the year trying to integrate into India as the country unraveled: first Kashmir locked down, then statelessness imposed on a group of Bengalis in Assam, then a discriminatory act passed that threatened to revoke citizenship from Muslims in the country, then the protests against the act and the police retaliation, then mob violence. But as my Instagram feed filled with pictures of empty cities and the inside of people’s apartments in the U.S., my attachments came flooding back. Suddenly the fractured concert of my internet was synchronizing into a fever pitch: the maps on nytimes.com bled red, predicting death.
Life in Delhi had hardly changed yet, but Americans in India had already begun a mass exodus home. Narendra Modi had banned all incoming international flights for the week, and travel out was about to get more difficult. But I wanted to stay. If I was going to withdraw, it felt right to do so here, where withdrawal felt less like a stranger to me. If the world was going to end around me, I didn’t want it to be my own world.
On Tuesday, March 24th, at 8 p.m., Modi announced that a full lockdown of the country was going to be put in place by midnight, with no flights, no trains, no buses, no taxis, sealed internal borders and 1.3 billion people asked to stay indoors. In the next days, videos showed that police were hitting those who disobeyed the quarantine orders with batons; one man in West Bengal died from the wounds. Images of “internal migrants” walking hundreds of miles by foot marked the lockdown as not only ineffective, but as a rapidly unfolding humanitarian disaster. In Goa, where I’d visited a few weeks before, the state government had taken things to an extreme, shutting down grocery stores and markets and leaving locals and stranded tourists to starve.
By contrast, my days didn’t seem so painful. I didn’t mind staying in the apartment; there was part of me that found it more relaxing than navigating Delhi. I did things: push-ups, readings, Hindi classes via Skype, long stretches of Tetris while watching lectures on Buddhism on YouTube. I worked more. I started to write short articles about coronavirus for the magazine’s website, picking up assignments from a public health journalist. Better to be locked here than in my childhood bedroom, I convinced myself. Here, at least I was a journalist: these things happened to journalists, or so I’d heard. My dad told me to keep a diary, like it was Sarajevo in ’93.
I was feeling invincible, or at least numb, on March 31st, as I walked my roommate out to the main road to pick up a few groceries from his girlfriend, who was stopping by to ferry him back to her place. But on our way out, our path was blocked by a truck carrying a large blue tanker. Men in hazmat suits surrounded the vehicle, carrying hoses. We walked around the crowd, and I walked back to the apartment, where I read online that, two weeks ago, a 4,000-person gathering at a mosque on the other side of my neighborhood had been a hub of coronavirus transmission. An international search was underway to track the attendees, and anti-Islamic sentiment was flaring. It was all the Indian half of my internet was talking about.
I closed my laptop. Outside my apartment’s window, the truck rolled by, and a man wielding a fat blue hose sprayed a mist of disinfectant onto the pavement and the sides of buildings. As I watched, I felt a familiar terror, envisioning the red circles of the New York Times map reaching out to meet me where I sat.
The Day After
April 2, 2020
STATE COLLEGE, PENNSYLVANIA—You have been living in close quarters with your family for weeks, wondering if your supplies of canned goods and fresh water will see you through. Your days are an enervating mix of boredom and intense anxiety. Your nights are sleepless, but then, it’s hard to tell day from night anyway.
It is 1962. The world has been shattered by an all-out nuclear exchange between the superpowers. You are in your backyard bunker, which you built with the help of the federal Community Fallout Shelter Program.
I grew up haunted by the prospect of nuclear apocalypse. It involved constant low-level dread and the occasional nightmare, something like the vision of Linda Hamilton clutching the chain-link fence of a playground as the blast wave of an atomic bomb sweeps over the landscape in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Born in 1961, I have no memory of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I nevertheless had the chance to flip the fuck out at eighteen (having just registered for the draft in order to retain my student financial aid) when newly-elected President Reagan announced, over the objections of Secretary of State Al Haig, that he would consider countering a hypothetical Soviet invasion of West Germany with a tactical nuclear strike. I spent much of the Eighties keeping track of the superpower chess match involving U.S. Pershing II missiles and Soviet SS-20s, particularly with regard to the dispute over whether the Pershing had a range that could reach Moscow. If it could, as the Soviets insisted, they would have all of six minutes to determine whether a launch had been correctly detected and to decide whether to respond—a scenario right out of Fail-Safe.
Reagan insisted that the Soviet Union was an evil empire, and that we would defend ourselves from it with a Strategic Defense Initiative nicknamed “Star Wars”; and there were those of us who thought that Reagan was not particularly knowledgeable about the nuclear arsenal at his disposal, and not sufficiently aware of what his rhetorical and tactical escalations might provoke. Our fears were not unfounded.
The Cuban Missile Crisis has since become a kind of shorthand for the era of mutually assured destruction. Whew, we think, there was that one time we came close to nuclear war, but thank goodness we dodged that bullet. By contrast, few people remember the Able Archer crisis in 1983, when an elaborate NATO simulation of World War III was interpreted by many Soviet military officials as being the real thing.
Able Archer unfolded in November 1983; as Cold War happenstance would have it, the TV movie The Day After aired later the same month, spinning out a scenario very much like that of Able Archer. Armageddon starts with Soviet maneuvers in East Germany, a blockade of West Berlin, and… tactical nuclear strikes to prevent the Soviet invasion of Western Europe from reaching France.
I refused to watch The Day After, missing out on what 100 million of my fellow Americans tuned into, because I didn’t want to know anything about the day after. I had just moved to Charlottesville, Virginia for graduate school, having spent my first 22 years in New York. In New York, I imagined, I would be vaporized by any Soviet nuclear strike aimed at population centers (as opposed to the “decapitation” strategy that would focus on military and political command centers). That was how I imagined dying, best-case scenario: quickly and (relatively) painlessly. Further from Ground Zero, people would die by having buildings fall on them, perhaps. Beyond that, there would be the hell of radiation poisoning and slow, excruciating death. That was what I thought Charlottesville would have in store for me, too far from Washington, D.C. or the naval base in Norfolk to be a strategic target. My worst nightmare in those years involved herding a bunch of children into the basement of a school as the war began, knowing that this would do precisely nothing to protect them or me from a horrible lingering death.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, some of our nuclear apocalypses have been rebooted as viral/biological disasters, like I Am Legend and Planet of the Apes; Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film 12 Monkeys was well ahead of the curve, reimagining the experimental short French film La Jetée as a viral apocalypse launched by a single person, a scientist who believes (not without reason) that in wiping out humanity he is saving the rest of the biosphere.
But 12 Monkeys is a minority report, insofar as the plague is planned. In most versions, viral apocalypses are nothing like nuclear apocalypses: you don’t need a superpower’s weapons arsenal at your disposal. You don’t need any agents at all, any intentions, any Able Archers or Ronald Reagans or Doctor Strangeloves or General Jack D. Rippers.
I don’t have any nostalgia for the good old days of nuclear terror. But to borrow Raymond Williams’s wonderfully elastic phrase, we knew what the “structure of feeling” of nuclear terror was like: the Cold War pervaded everything from 1945 to 1990, in a closed binary system that, despite the constant low-level dread and the occasional nightmare, seemed readily comprehensible. Don DeLillo’s Underworld is the ambivalent elegy for that era. Near the end of the novel, waste management executive Nick Shay is chatting with Viktor Maltsev, his Russian counterpart, at the infamous Kazakh test site. “Viktor,” he asks, surveying the wreckage of history, “does anyone remember why we were doing all this?”
“Yes, for contest,” Maltsev deadpans. “You won, we lost. You have to tell me how it feels. Big winner.”
Twenty-three years after the publication of Underworld, we’re no longer sure who really won the Cold War. But it was a story with a powerful narrative arc, and what great characters that story gave us: Khrushchev. Kennedy. Brezhnev. Nixon. Gromyko. Kissinger. Gorbachev and Reagan in Reykjavik. Colorful bit players like Fischer and Spassky (also in Reykjavik), epic upsets in hockey and basketball, and a cloak-and-dagger literature that will live beyond the fall of the Soviet Union to die another day.
Recalling that era now, I am not so sure what I thought I comprehended. In 1982 I saw the black-humor film The Atomic Café—and had the chance to rewatch it against last year at Film Forum in New York. When I was 21 and hoping just to be vaporized, that film shook me deeply; at 57, I thought I had the luxury of being bemused by my younger self. The film is full of amazing documentary material on “Duck and Cover,” in which schoolchildren hide under desks and picnicking families cover themselves with their gingham tablecloth to shelter from the nuclear blast. And now I wonder what was more terrifying about those years: the conviction that we would all die in a nuclear war, or the delusion that we could survive it?
Working from Home
April 1, 2020
CHICAGO—Libraries are designed for academic work, and that is exactly the problem with them. When you look up from your book or computer, you are confronted with examples of studiousness that contrast unfavorably with the unearned vacation you just took by gazing around the room. In a café, when you look up you see life. This is nice because you are surrounded by life. And it is nice because you feel superior to all those people who are wasting their time with Life while you are hard at work. Actively rejecting the social—for instance, by wearing headphones to shut out the conversations of those around you—is pleasant and empowering. A certain push-pull, love-hate tension charges the air, inviting thought.
I started working in cafés as a graduate student, and ended up spending so much time at one of them—The Musical Offering, on Bancroft in Berkeley—that my then-husband celebrated my Ph.D. by having a faux historical plaque made to honor the years I had worked there. He surreptitiously glued it to the wall outside the café. A year later, it was still there. Two years later, it was still there. It is gone now.
The Musical Offering had the meanest staff of any café in the area. For one thing, they kicked me out from 12 to 2 every day to accommodate higher-paying lunch patrons. (I could not afford their lunch menu; I usually brought lunch from home and ate it in a nearby park.) For another thing, they never, ever gave me free food or drinks.
At other cafés, the employees would eventually start seeing me as a friend. Or more. To this day I still cook using a genuine Starbucks apron that dates to that period. It was a gift from a barista, an artist who lived in a tiny two-room hut, just her bed and her paintings; we weren’t together long before she dumped me for a Frenchman. I rebounded with a math professor who frequented that same Starbucks: he was very shy, our relationship never crossed the threshold of Starbucks, we just flirted and did crossword puzzles together. I thought I might be making the barista jealous. I wasn’t. Then there was another barista at another café, an impossibly handsome guy who was an actual Gap model. He had been on a billboard. We never even broke up, I just stopped going to that café.
The Musical Offering, where I was viewed as the cappuccino-ordering pest who carried a spare laptop battery, was an oasis of erotic indifference; it was a constant, other cafés came and went as I would alternate between frenetically exercising and recoiling from loss of control over my own extroverted, gregarious, self-destructive charm.
From that point of view, it is hard to imagine a safer space than the one I currently work in. My small, crowded apartment is structured long like a train car, people are always streaming in and out of rooms; not only the six of us who live here, but also the other kids in our building. Our foyer has a mattress—it blocks the front door, which can only be opened partway—where the kids do a fair amount of trampolining. The trampoline room leads directly—no door—into the living room, aka my sixteen-year-old’s bedroom. This morning he related waking up into an argument with the boy downstairs—“about whether it is healthy to sleep in, meanwhile I was trying to sleep in.”
My bedroom is the only alternative to constant, bouncing intrusions. My eleven-year-old donated his desk, it just fits in the space between the bed and the dresser. Well it doesn’t really fit, given that it blocks the dresser, but I don’t use the dresser anyways. Nor do I wear any of the dresses that hang on a series of hooks glued to the walls. I keep them there, rather than in the closet, because usually their presence cheers me, but now they are mocking me, especially the monster dress that lies directly in my line of sight. The last time I wore it, paired with harlequin leggings, my husband gifted me with the observation that the second-best dressed woman in that café was checking out my outfit. Now, I just wear the same clothes over and over, in layers: pants under my nightgown, a sweater over it, that way I can keep my nightgown on all day, like a second skin. If I am cold, I put on more layers. I am always cold.
The radiator in our bedroom has never worked, but my husband and I like to sleep in extreme cold anyways: we keep the air conditioner in the window even in the winter, in fact we run it for more of the year than it is socially acceptable to confess. I’ve moved a small space heater into the room, but it overheats itself well before heating the room. I bathe more than I would have predicted I would, given the removal of social pressure—I don’t have much of a natural instinct for cleanliness—because the bath, run always at its hottest, warms me for hours afterwards.
I check the tip of my nose regularly, so that I can know how cold I am. I touch my face much more now, and I take real pleasure in it—I touch with my whole palm. I can feel the difference in my skin from when I was younger; it is more yielding, less springy, somewhere between my children’s skin and my grandmother’s. I Skype and Zoom from this room as well, though I hate seeing myself on the screen, and I hate seeing the mess around me. Books and clothes and boxes of tissues—I am always sniffly, I need to have one within reach at all times—piled together precariously, inefficiently. My messes bear the signature of my own carelessness and indifference.
My husband and I usually work together, but he doesn’t want to work in the cold bedroom. And I can’t work in the noisy kitchen. Anyways, often only one of us can work. We are spending less time together, though more time in the same building, and both of those are changes for the worse. More and more, it is my own ideas, bearing no trace of him, that I am alone with. They are thin, weak, not worth much.
My kids have more energy than I do, which might explain why homeschooling keeps flowing in the wrong direction. Our seven-year-old teaches me random facts he learned from the downstairs boy (“did you know your eyeball is round, like a real ball?”). The eleven-year-old, an amateur historian, has lectured to the family on the fall of the Roman empire; his living room Tang Soo Do classes are the only exercise I have gotten in weeks. And my sixteen-year-old son, who has spent most of this “break” in musical pursuits—composing, listening to different versions of pieces on YouTube, playing the piano that is on the other side of my bedroom wall—teaches me music theory. The lesson on keys starts out simple, but when he can see he is getting far beyond what I can understand he does not stop himself, he is happy and excited to be explaining something. I let him continue: I may not understand what he’s saying, but I understand why he needs to say it.
I have this powerful sense of yearning to do something, to write something, to teach something, to make something of myself. What stands in the way? Me. My flat, dull self; I trip over it everywhere I look. And yet it is also myself that I miss: that gregarious energy I have when I am trying to get someone to take an interest in me, to learn something, to love me. When I look up from my work, what I see is no one: no one to reach out to, no one to dress up for, no one to shock, or surprise, or impress.
On the Road
April 1, 2020
PEORIA, ILLINOIS—Like many parents, I fear the coronavirus just a smidgeon more than I do the prospect of spending a full week (or who knows how many weeks) at home with my toddler. It’s not all bad: I do love the kid, after all, and I genuinely enjoy spending time with him, sometimes. (Often!) My partner calls him “the best show that’s not on television,” which is an apt characterization of the hilarious and unpredictable strangeness of a typical two-and-a-half-year-old’s behavior. Cheerfully vrooming his cars along the arm of the couch at one moment, he’ll suddenly take off running and start doing laps around the coffee table, or careening his Zebra Walker full-speed into the refrigerator while screaming at the tops of his lungs at the next, only to pull up short, point at his stomach and announce, “That’s my belly!” He’s a weird dude.
His language skills have exploded lately, so that now there is some semblance of back-and-forth in our interactions. Previously, things were more one-sided: he would point to and name objects, or shriek demands for apple sauce and tamales, and there wasn’t much to do but agree. Now, though, he’s more open to compromise or alternative suggestions. He can understand that we will go for a walk after lunch, and that if he uses the potty, he will get a piece of chocolate. And instead of simply naming objects, he’ll now say things like “Mama! Be CAREFUL! That rock is VERY dirty! It’s a very dirty rock!!” This shift in communication makes him more like a companion than a charge, though maybe not the kind of amenable and easy-going person that one might wish to be cooped up in a small apartment with.
How does one prepare for such an ordeal? Many parents are seeking out educational resources, or planning to suspend limits on screen time. I find myself thinking of what I’ve learned from road trips.
If you are, or were, an adventurous sort of young adult, you have not only taken road trips, but, added thrill, have done so with someone (or several someones) whom you don’t know all that well. You’ve probably come to learn that some people are better road trip companions than others. Some people are picky about music, or are messy eaters of disgusting food, others complain constantly about how long they’ve been in the car. Some people are almost too ready to talk, others are painfully reticent. Because you can’t control what the other person will be like, you need to prepare yourself, and plan for contingencies. As it turns out, many of these preparatory steps translate quite well into an action plan for quarantining with your child.
1) Have a general route in mind, but be open to delays and detours. If your passenger comes back from the gas station bathroom with flyers for Gravity Hill, Pennsylvania, you should definitely take the extra hour and a half to drive over and watch a bottle of soda roll uphill. Similarly, if your toddler becomes inexplicably absorbed by transferring all the blocks from one bag to another, go with it! Find your Zen!
2) Get ready to have long conversations about very random topics. Sure, you can tell each other your life stories (and most people do enjoy talking about themselves), but offbeat questions are more likely to produce interesting results. This turns out to be even more true of toddlers: they are very, very good at random conversations. Random anything, really.
3) Make some fun playlists, but don’t be too invested in listening to every single one. Cultivate an open mind about the merits of musical genres you might otherwise deplore. You may find that you actually enjoy “Baby Shark,” in some deeply sadistic way.
4) Audiobooks or podcast episodes can be a fun way to bond, giving you something to listen to together and discuss. Your toddler might not enjoy The Moth or Criminal, but they might be into watching astronauts read stories while in space, or learning to draw with Mo Willems (the real reason the stimulus bill includes millions for the Kennedy Center). And you might be as well.
5) Pack snacks. Lots of snacks. Things that you won’t mind someone eating in your car, that won’t make a massive mess. Cheerios are admittedly not as thrilling to an adult palate as they apparently are to a toddler’s, but Goldfish crackers are surprisingly delicious. Why not take advantage of this special time to teach your child a useful skill, like shelling pistachios?
5) Long silences are okay sometimes. (Well, maybe not so much with a toddler—it’s more likely an indicator that they’re up to no good.)
Ultimately: you’re both stuck here, so try to enjoy the ride. You’ll get somewhere eventually.
March 30, 2020
LOS ANGELES—My family had a bad February. On February 16th, our car, a used Honda Fit we’d owned for less than three months, was hit while parked on the street in Los Angeles. While my wife and I were in a children’s hair salon getting our daughter’s bangs trimmed, a middle-aged woman had gotten dizzy while driving, lost control of the wheel and hit three parked cars, including ours. We got an estimate that the damage would take three weeks to repair and amount to almost $10,000. In the meantime, we rented a car.
Two weeks later, on the evening of February 29th, we were sitting at home when we heard another crash. We joked that it was our rental car getting hit, and it was. The situation was eerily similar: three parked cars hit, our rental among them, only this time the other driver abandoned her car at the scene. We rented yet another car.
No one was hurt in any of this, and, after a period of uncertainty, insurance covered everything. It was an unsettling and unlucky and annoying experience; it wasn’t a tragedy. It all feels petty now, in the midst of global crisis, which is why I mention it: it stands, in my mind, for all normal misfortunes, the things that go badly when things are pretty much going well.
At the same time we were dealing with all this, I was teaching an undergraduate course in literary theory. The week after our rental car got hit we covered Sigmund Freud’s 1919 paper on “The Uncanny” (“Das Unheimliche” in German). There, Freud dwells for some time on the uncanniness of “involuntary repetition,” and in particular of coincidences and inexplicable recurrences: “If we come across the number 62 several times in a single day,” for example, we will “feel this to be uncanny,” and “will be tempted to ascribe a secret meaning to this obstinate recurrence of a number; [we] will take it, perhaps, as an indication of the span of life allotted to [us].”
The reason such repetitions or coincidences are perceived as uncanny, Freud says, is that they call forth primitive, irrational explanations for such phenomena that we have repressed. “Our analysis of instances of the uncanny has led us back to the old, animistic conception of the universe,” he writes. “This was characterized by the idea that the world was peopled with the spirits of human beings; by the subject’s narcissistic overvaluation of his own mental processes; by the belief in the ‘omnipotence of thoughts’ and the technique of magic based on that belief.” In other words, the uncanny effect of coincidence comes not so much from the strangeness of the occurrences themselves but from the way their repetition calls forth this old, repressed, magical way of thinking. We know that the coincidences and recurrences are meaningless; but we nonetheless feel that they must mean something, and the tension between the knowledge and the feeling produces unease.
To illustrate Freud’s idea, I told my students the story of our car troubles. The first hit was clearly just bad luck. And the second hit was too, looked at from a rational point of view. But from a psychological point of view—this is Freud’s point—it’s difficult not to reach for a more satisfying explanation of the coincidence; this is particularly true in the case of bad coincidences, or misfortunes. My wife and I were wondering: Why us? We felt tried, tested, singled out. Had we angered the gods? Had an enemy cursed us? The fact that we didn’t really believe in these things didn’t keep us from thinking about them. My wife burned sage.
By the time I taught my Freud class it was March. We had our car back, but the coronavirus was already making it unlikely we’d need to drive it much in the near future. I started the class with an acknowledgment that we might need to go online for some period of time after spring break, an announcement that seemed to blindside most of my students. That was Monday, March 9th; on Wednesday, the day the World Health Organization officially classified the virus as a pandemic, the college decided to shift all classes online for the duration of the semester, with students needing to vacate the dorms by the 18th. Everyday life was quickly coming to feel uncanny in the usual sense: strange, unfamiliar, monstrous, threatening. Unseen beings were capable of killing us. We needed to remain quarantined in our homes, which now took on sinister aspects, becoming unheimlich.
But now that we’re a few weeks in to the crisis, it feels like the uncanny—in the sense my wife and I experienced it prior to the outbreak—is one of the many things that have been stripped from us by coronavirus. I suppose I’m nostalgic for February, for its anxieties as well as its freedoms. I miss the time when I, or anybody, could feel uniquely unlucky. The idea that one has been singled out for misfortune by a malevolent universe is both alarming and comforting, after all. Freud says it corresponds to “the subject’s narcissistic overvaluation of his own mental processes”: I believe that I have said or done or thought something that has brought misfortune upon me. Which puts me at the center of things, at least.
In contrast, we have COVID-19, monocausal agent of everyone’s unhappiness. That unhappiness is far from equal, of course: it amounts to anxious inconvenience in some, unbearable pain and grief in others. The pandemic has ramified inequalities of wealth, health, resources and moral luck. But however unequal this unhappiness is, it can all be directly traced to the same catalyst. There is one explanation. This makes it the opposite of the uncanny in Freud’s sense, which always needs at least two competing ones.
Misery is general all over the world right now. None of us is special. Everyone is suffering. The positive side of this, I suppose, is a new sense of solidarity: we’re all in this together. But as I’m waiting to accept the statistical truth of this moment—that my life and my family’s lives are infinitesimal points on a curve that society is desperately trying to flatten—I’m mourning the misfortunes that were ours alone.
March 30, 2020
CHICAGO—To be undocumented means, first, to be on the run. Then, on the lookout. Always. This is why, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the measures being implemented nationwide, such as “shelter-in-place,” are both familiar and contradictory to their basic needs, their quotidian reality, their condition as social pariahs. Or at least that is how most undocumented Mexicans, like me, have for decades experienced life in the United States.
What makes the current crisis familiar is the sense of foreboding, of knowing oneself disposable at any moment. What makes it contradictory is the impossibility of staying put. For most of us, staying home is as unnatural as it is illogical. A violation of our faith in universal principles. If nothing else, in a capitalistic society, we the undocumented are bodies in constant motion. How else could we understand our place in a world that first uproots us and then denies us a new permanent home? It is surreal, finding oneself in this suspended state of being, not fully here but no longer there.
This limbo we inhabit, have you heard of it?
As immigrants, experience tells us that to even entertain the idea of having a home, we must leave home. In a world ruled by COVID-19, staying home means having the luxury of working remotely, of existing, in part, as a digital being. In other words, eliminating corporeal presence. For those performing menial jobs, this complicates things quite a bit, as you surely understand. In fact, a directive like “shelter-in-place” makes it impossible for us to perform our jobs at all, the jobs that Americans don’t want and won’t do. Picking fruits and vegetables, for instance. Cooking them. Delivering them safely so that others can remain well-fed and protected.
Of course, during a pandemic no one is safe, and everyone is being impacted by COVID-19 one way or another. Here I am just highlighting the work of the undocumented, the labor that’s usually unseen and unappreciated.
At this crucial moment, a good share of the responsibilities having to do with America’s elemental sustenance fall upon undocumented bodies that are as essential as they are disposable. Such a strange thing—to depend on the deliverables of a group of people who only half-exist, to rely on the labor of a lawless mass in order to sustain that most basic of laws, survival. Perhaps, when this crisis has finally passed, the undocumented will be remembered in the annals of COVID-19 as a great irony—a people stripped of humanity who helped usher humanity into the future.
If COVID-19 has shown us something new, it’s because of how brutally unbiased it is in its effects. In this respect, the equalizing nature of the virus is infinitely superior to American democracy—a perverse political system that has created the conditions for 11 million individuals to exist in a state of legal, social and economic destitution at the same time that it labels us criminals. Of course, all of this occurs as the Social Security Administration collects $13 billion from the undocumented every year.
With the U.S. having reached the biggest number of reported COVID-19 cases in the world in recent days, what will happen to its undocumented population? What will happen to those who won’t benefit from the economic relief package recently approved? What will happen to those who can’t stay home, who are constantly exposed to contagion and who lack access to even the most basic health care? What will happen to those living not paycheck by paycheck but day by day?
In moments like this, only the law of self-preservation has any weight. This means that no directive, no military-like raid terrorizing city streets can keep us home. It means that we will continue on, as bodies in constant motion.
When Spring Comes
March 30, 2020
SOFIA, BULGARIA—For several days and nights, snow has been falling all over Sofia. Here, in the middle of the Balkans, this used to be fairly normal weather in March and even April—winter’s last stand before the crocuses sprouting en masse and the storks arriving in V formations from Africa. But with the ravages of climate change, the seasons have turned arrhythmic, sick, dysfunctional. The hot, dry summers we once enjoyed in Sofia are now cool and rainy (or just impossible to predict), whereas winter has come to feel like a belated fall or premature spring.
Yet something about snow does still surprise me whenever it arrives in Sofia: Buses and trolleys are almost all empty, the statues of nineteenth-century national heroes and the soldiers on the Soviet Army monument all wear the same style of fluffy hat. A colorful and complex profusion of details suddenly disappears under a monochrome blanket of white, erased in one single swoop. “It makes an even Face / Of Mountain, and of Plain – / Unbroken Forehead from the East / Unto the East again –,” wrote Emily Dickinson, nature’s sharpest observer. I could almost forget that right now Bulgaria is in a state of emergency and under partial lockdown. For a moment, Sofia feels like the city often looked like in my childhood, when winter was reliably with us for months.
Perhaps that’s what the virus is at its core: a kind of heavy snowstorm that has enveloped the entire planet. From New York to New Delhi, from San Francisco to Sofia, there are empty streets, vacant subway stations and airports, shuttered stores and restaurants. The same quiet has settled upon every community, every megalopolis and hamlet. If I go walking on the streets on Milan, it would be like walking on the streets of Wuhan. This is the triumph, and tragedy, of globalism.
Whatever I tell you about Sofia today will feel familiar to you; you probably know it already. As a journalist, the only thing I can do is to point out the obvious: in a fundamental way, my place is the same as your place. We’re listening to the same melody, holding hands in a danse macabre.
Medieval manuscripts, especially books of hours, often feature a popular cycle of scenes known as “the labors of the months,” each month represented by a different rural activity. Wintertime, usually February, shows people staying home, eating and drinking, warming their hands by the hearth and thawing away life’s troubles. Outside, the landscape is desolate, smothered by snow, and one can almost hear the wind whistling in the bare branches of the trees. It is a time to rest, to withdraw from the world, to gather strength for the hard work of the spring.
In our own eyes, these scenes may as well portray people living under coronavirus quarantine. All of us cooped up in our flats and houses and rented rooms have unwittingly gone back to the agricultural cycles of a previous era. But perhaps something more important has happened too: we have been jolted back into a different rhythm of time. Like our ancestors, we have no choice now but to stay inside, with the slow trickle of the minutes and the hours, while we wait for the weather outside to warm up. Used to constant movement, work and entertainment, we may be assailed by terrible boredom—perhaps the most acute awareness of time. But it would be much wiser to use this unplanned seasonal pause—one that we may never get to experience again—to ask ourselves some hard questions. Wintertime, let’s remember, was always a time for reflection too.
What is it we want from life? What do we truly need? What is the world we want to live in? Do we want to service a capitalist machine that never lets us rest, never allows us to stay idle for a second and spend time with our families at home, except when it accidentally breaks down? Does that machine—a machine that feeds on the exploitation of our labor, on mindless consumerism, on the destruction of the natural environment, on the suffering of humans and fellow animals alike—deserve to be repaired? Do we want our children to keep servicing that same machine? Is our past the future we really want for them?
What do we plan to do when spring comes back around?
March 29, 2020
SOMERVILLE, MASSACHUSETTS—At first I couldn’t read. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the crisis was as immediate as an intruder in the apartment I was not supposed to leave. It felt physical, lurking. I knew I was lucky to be housed and on health insurance, to say nothing of young and healthy, but I only felt grateful in theory. In practice, I felt scared, for myself and for everybody, and the fear lingered on in my body. I opened books and closed them again.
Every time this happened, and for the first week it happened often, I thought of the scene in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz where the titular character becomes unable to write or read:
The panic I felt on facing the start of any sentence that must be written, not knowing how I could begin it or indeed any other sentence, soon extended to what is in itself the simpler business of reading, until if I attempted to read a whole page I inevitably fell into a state of the greatest confusion. If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up, and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a back yard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge.
Our circumstances are not exactly like Austerlitz’s, but maybe this is what it will be like when we can leave our houses—I mean, really leave our houses—again. Already the things I pass on my walks (the shuttered restaurants, the empty buses) seem coated in a new layer of unrecognizability. But then, people have started leaving messages on the streets in chalk. “Stay safe ☺ Wash your hands ☺ For a good time, call your friends!” one said. I have seen several sketches of animals.
On Twitter, people said they couldn’t read either. Twitter was something I could read, if parsing Tweets counts as reading. Twitter was something I could stare at, anyway. I was still learning during this time that everything hinged on the first twenty minutes of the day. If I went for my phone it was all over. I would whirl off into the vortex of the Infinite Scroll, the forever-unspooling of bad news, people evicted, no rent moratoriums, the spread of COVID-19 among prison populations who had to barter for soap, Trump garbling speeches and disappearing doctors, someone acerbically proclaiming earnestness at times of crisis distasteful.
For the first week I went for my phone every morning. I felt like I lived in the small box of my Twitter avatar, although the picture isn’t even of me, and as I scrolled and scrolled, I thought of Kafka’s story “The Burrow,” which is about an animal (it could even be a pangolin) too afraid to leave its subterranean den. “Your house is protected and self-sufficient. You live in peace, warm, well nourished, master, sole master of all your manifold passages and rooms,” the creature relates. But even the creature does not really mean this: its burrow provides “a considerable degree of security, but by no means enough, for is one ever free from anxieties inside it?”
No. So I kept on scrolling, not daring to venture outside.
Often what people on Twitter actually said was that they didn’t want to be reading, at least about coronavirus, because they didn’t want people to be writing about it. The general consensus was that the experience was too fresh: things were still undigested, panic still stuck in the throat. And then there was the certainty that most literature about coronavirus would be bad, because it would be autofiction, and autofiction was already bad, but for some reason coronavirus autofiction promised to be worse. People on Twitter weren’t interested in how other people were living (wedding, not wedding, worrying about their parents dying, cooking beans again) against the backdrop of a pandemic. They just wanted to retweet calls for action (many of which I also retweeted).
But I also kept turning to Sebald and Kafka. Kafka wrote at the height of his choleric anxiety; Sebald wrote after World War II but in the midst of its aftermath. Waiting until a catastrophe ends is not always an option. There are crises that last indefinitely, and the crisis we are currently undergoing might kill you.
Of course, people are writing about coronavirus already, and I don’t just mean they are tweeting about it. They are writing articles and essays; they are writing emails to the people they are not allowed to touch. They are writing each other messages in chalk on the streets. And what surprises me, even when I struggle to finish a sentence, is not how trivial literature and philosophy have come to seem to me, but just how indispensable.
It doesn’t make sense to be fed up with muted autofiction if you can’t get behind caring sincerely in writing. This doesn’t mean you have to approve corniness, but it does mean you have to be willing to risk a genuine emotion every once in a while. A book is not a respirator; it is not a relief fund. It was never meant to be a replacement for political organizing or a concrete can of beans. I should hardly have to remind anyone that it is possible to care about the sensuous and the spiritual simultaneously. People make sense of the world and its crises by writing about them: that is what writing, at its best and most vital, is for. What did you think it was for?
Meet the Family
March 29, 2020
KENTUCKY/LONG ISLAND/LOS ANGELES—Uncle Wayney is three years older than me. He’s the youngest of six and his sister, my mother, is the oldest and most flamboyant. Mom had me at sixteen, so technically Uncle Wayney is more like my zany older brother. He is HIV-positive, lost an eye to shingles and has a dog named Boone. Wayney recently texted a picture of Boone chewing on a brick. He wrote, “mischievous.”
These days, our exchanges are different. When I call he picks up and says, “I’m still alive!”
He tells me his friends drive through the back alley and he waves from the back door. “I’ll see them Labor Day weekend and we’ll have a big party.”
Neither of us is sleeping very well. He in Kentucky, me in Los Angeles. “The numbers are going up every two days,” he tells me. We like the work Fauci, Cuomo and Beshear are doing but we are cussing mad at our president. When we talk on the phone, words like shit-ass and dumbass are thrown around. We feel better when we hang up. Wayney cannot get this virus. On that, we are both very clear. He is well quarantined but when he does have to go out, to the bank or market, he dresses in his homemade Hazmat suit: gloves, mask. He washes his clothes when he gets home.
He works for his best friend Ken in a landscaping business. Wayney spends days alone there while the boys go out in the field, but he likes the solitude. “Did I tell you somebody bought the eight acres across the road from Ken’s? They are going to build 24 houses on it. He’s heartsick. Everything’s changing.”
Wayney walks Boone in the park. He’s a big dog and needs exercise. It’s good for Wayney, too, but he tells me he has to be careful, there are kids everywhere and they all want to pet Boone. “The little germ carriers.”
He watches people from afar for entertainment. He saw one poor woman trying to reason with her four-year-old son.
“He kept crying, ‘I want to go to the park,’ and his mother kept saying, ‘Honey, you’re at the park.’”
He imitated the kid, wailing, “This isn’t the park. I want to go to the park.”
“Can you imagine being quarantined with that all day, every day?” I asked.
I heard him shudder through the line. “God, no.”
My mom can’t keep still. She lives alone in Louisville, Kentucky and has set up stations all over her home: the reading station, the yoga station, the painting station. She’s baked cookies for the neighborhood and a cake for a dying neighbor’s family—peanut-butter chocolate. Mom sees what’s happening in New York and wonders out loud if she ought to get a gun in case things get really bad. The stock market has her worried. Last week she announced on Facebook that she is now the unofficial, self-appointed personal greeter for the Kroger supermarket in her neighborhood. She said she didn’t realize how isolated she felt until she went walking in their parking lot. Seeing the older couples coming out with groceries made her sad even though she said they appeared comforted by one another. She stood outside the car and shouted to passersby, asking if they were doing okay and telling them how good it was to see them.
Wayney called the day after my mother posted her new self-employment status on Facebook. “Can you believe what your mother is doing? That crazy woman.”
My in-laws, Esther and Spera, live on Long Island. They are 84 and 89 years old. We talk daily. In the beginning Esther made jokes about the virus.
“I’m going to rub my coolie and it’ll go away.”
I said if her coolie has that kind of power we need to be bottling and selling it on Amazon. I heard through the Italian family grapevine, someone told someone who told me, that Esther and Spera were still going out to 7/11, so I called to yell at them. They are first-class yellers and taught me everything I know about the art. I’ve grown to enjoy it.
“What the hell are you doing going out to the stores?” I scream.
“I send him in and I wait in the car,” she screams back.
Her husband, my father-in-law, has a pacemaker, an artificial heart valve and no bladder (cancer), but he still goes out and fixes swimming pools every day during peak season. “Esther’s Pool Service” is going strong. She does the books, he does the labor. Spera likes to buy the boys who work with him a slice of pizza or a burger for lunch. She likes to talk on the phone to the customers. There’s talk this is the summer they are going to retire. But I’m not holding my breath. They say this every year.
“Go on a picnic,” I yell. “Go to the beach, or the marina, but stop going to the store.”
“I’m claustrophobic,” she shouts back. “This house is a tomb.”
Last week she and Spera went out to feed her son David’s dogs. David and his wife just adopted two rescues, their first as a couple.
“The dogs get lonely,” she told me. “David and Barbara worry about them.”
Esther was the one who called to tell us Barbara tested positive for the virus.
March 28, 2020
BROOKLYN—Try to picture the “before” and time slips away. On February 27th, when there were roughly 3,600 cases of COVID outside China, I booked a last-minute flight from New York to LA. During my six-hour layover in the Orlando airport I watched the stock market crash and Disneyworld tourists wander around in surgical masks; something was clearly wrong, but when I got to LA I continued on as normal, meeting friends, going to restaurants, touching my face. I could tell something was happening, but, when I look back now, it seems I had no idea what was coming.
At some point, it’s true, a bat flapped its wings, a pangolin sneezed and a shopper got sick at the Wuhan seafood market, but this is not the point; the point is rather that a billion decisions between then and now added up to a crisis that has exploded the capacity to manage it—and that we can never say when, precisely, that point was.
It is this scrambling of temporal sequences, this loss of linear time—even as we are confined in space—that is most disorienting about this crisis. What does a day look like in self-quarantine? You wake up and dive immediately into the flow of images, numbers, and rhetoric. “Social distancing” means being online. You snack all day, or you play at being a housewife or -husband, or you plot against your roommate; the routine feels endless and unreal. Millions have lost their jobs and millions more will soon; others are in limbo, paid leave that may turn out to have been either a vacation or a furlough. The stock market collapses and your retirement plan is laid to waste; or you never had one, and now you never will.
But for many, the crisis is not exactly a disruption: it means work as before, but worse. If you are in any of the 21st-century growth industries—delivering food, driving for Uber, packing for Amazon, attending to the sick—you are under more pressure, and in a new type of danger. Your day was already blurred into gray: always on call, with no sense of start and finish, on or off. Life as usual is a waiting zone, a single, endless, homogeneous moment.
Work like this—detached from the diurnal rhythm—used to be exceptional, reserved for those tasked with managing, and traversing, the limits of human life: doctors and soldiers; artists, mothers, priests. Now that everything is an emergency—from hedge-fund margin calls to last-mile Amazon logistics—and every little moment demands curation—as if by a priest—the exception has become the rule.
More and more often over the last few years I find myself sitting in front of my computer, having brought up a blank browser tab, trying to do something between remembering and anticipating. Was there a piece of information that some other piece of information had reminded me I wanted to check on? Or is there some new thing to find, some new chain whose links might lead to something unexpected? I sit there with my fingers hovering over the keyboard, Ouija-like, waiting to be moved by an impulse, or an algorithm. Now entire days seem to vanish into that waiting room. People compare the internet to a drug, but this is worse, or weirder: it’s like spending all day preparing your kit in case the desire for a fix were to hit you. It’s like wanting to kill time and being unable to find it.
If I look for the moment when days started to disappear like this, I cannot say it began with virus panic. Are the social effects of the pandemic a radical departure from the status quo, or a radical acceleration of it? The gig economy, like the internet, was supposed to liberate us both in work and in life by collapsing the distance between the two; when you live in the cloud, everything is “free time.” Over the last decade or so, the advance in mobile connectivity has pulled us into tighter and tighter orbit around a virtual realm promising pure freedom and pure productivity, where you can do anything from anywhere, ordering arepas while straightening your posture, trading oil futures and subletting your apartment.
This is a realm in which space doesn’t matter and time spreads out into an endless present—a video game played in a psychic basement, an endless quest for life power and gold coins. In such a world it might make sense to party on South Beach in the middle of the plague, or to demand, like Boeing, a government bailout equal to the amount of borrowed money that you paid yourself in share buybacks. Probably we will end up with a synthesis of the two: consumers will get bailed out so we can fly around forever, buying ever-newer iPhones, hoping we never crash. As Donald Trump keeps saying, “When this is all over, we’re gonna have a big party.”
This is an excerpt from the first in a series of columns by James Duesterberg about contemporary political life. Click here to read the piece in full.
The Pleasure of Disaster
March 26, 2020
CHICAGO—This is not a quarantine journal as much as it is a quarantine confession: I want to admit that I’ve had impure thoughts about the chaotic end to daily life that has been brought about by COVID-19. In fact, I have sometimes been delighted by it, and I am already dreading the idea that we will someday have to return to the habits and routines that we have been freed from. Or, worse, that we will soon form new habits and routines in a world that is, both literally and figuratively, more impoverished.
This isn’t because I don’t enjoy my habits and routines; I do. As a graduate student currently without teaching obligations, I am in the privileged position of having carte blanche on structuring my own time. It’s just that, given a choice, I prefer to inhabit the state of exception.
I should offer a disclaimer here before I come off as a complete psychopath: The thing I like about the current state of things is absolutely not the human consequences of the pandemic. I feel grief and sadness for all of the people suffering because their health and livelihoods have been impacted by this crisis, and, like most people, I am afraid of how far-reaching the ultimate toll will be. The part I like is, rather, the way the world feels—the energy of the crisis. I suspect that this might still be an unethical thing to take pleasure in, and I’m also not entirely sure why I find it pleasurable in the first place.
The pleasure of disaster is not a new vice for me. When I was little, I loved violent storms, and most of all when they caused power outages. I liked the way the familiar features of our house were completely transformed by a darkness that we couldn’t opt out of by flipping a light switch. Before phones and computers were ubiquitous, we would have to use flashlights and even candles, and these cast shadows that distorted all the ordinary household objects into new things that were both wonderful and monstrous. We might have to eat takeout on the living room floor or bundle up in sleeping bags as if we were camping.
Though I couldn’t have put it into words then, I think my excitement derived from seeing that the way we used our house was completely contingent. During a disaster, it becomes clear that the way things normally happen is fragile and subject to interruption. Quotidian places and things, it turns out, are only covered in a veneer of ordinariness that hides their vast, maybe even infinite, potential to be otherwise. Who could restrain their delight in the face of so much untapped possibility? The emotion it provokes is a close relation to the recalcitrantly untranslatable German Sehnsucht or, better, Portuguese saudade—a kind of erotic desire for the way the world is not.
The COVID-19 crisis has stripped away the veneer of ordinariness on an unprecedented scale. In the week or so since Chicago has adopted serious practices of isolation and distancing, the entire city has been transformed. The streets are empty and quiet. The people who do go out seem at loose ends and give each other a wide berth. Chicago has gone from being the banal backdrop of several million daily lives to being an enormous, nonfunctioning artifact—an entire city that isn’t currently in service.
The effect is transporting. When your surroundings stop making their usual claims on you, you also lose your everyday character. Walking through the deserted city at odd hours in this past week, I have felt featureless and powerful. Like a traveler touching down alone in a foreign country, I anticipate becoming someone new.
It’s tempting to try and domesticate this sudden awareness of worldly and personal potential into an optimistic political message, but I would be lying if I did so. For me, the pleasure of disaster has nothing to do with goodness. It is simply a craving or an appetite, a hunger for the extra versions of reality that have accidentally come into view in the course of the fight against the virus.
March 26, 2020
ORANGE COUNTY, VERMONT—On the ride up, X’s phone pinged with a news alert. “New York City schools are closed until April 20th,” he said.
“Oh, Hitler’s birthday!” trilled M, my former mother-in-law, from the back seat.
We were driving to M’s property in Vermont. “We” being M, me, my two small children, X (my ex-husband), W (the woman he left me for) and W’s tiny dog. X. bought a rooftop cargo carrier for his SUV, and we were wedged in with enough supplies to last three months.
“I’m accepting that this stand mixer won’t fit,” X had said to me as we packed. “Too bad, since it’s so much better than the stand mixer that’s already in Vermont.” He had ordered five fifty-pound bags of flour so he could learn to make bread during our forced sojourn, and kept trying to check their delivery status while driving.
M discovered that a container of artisanal pickles had leaked brine onto her coat when we made our one stop, at a park in Massachusetts. The employee manning the bathrooms told us the park would close indefinitely as of the next morning. It was already fairly deserted, except for a group of adults with balloons who seemed to be holding a birthday party for a dog.
I didn’t want the kids to touch the playground equipment, so I told them to climb on top of the picnic tables. My Order Muppet kindergartener wore a look of horror at this rule-breaking, while his Chaos Muppet little sister shrieked in glee.
Back on the road, I headed off a tantrum by offering someone a beloved snack that I had strategically previously concealed. This person was not a child. And then I performed my idiosyncratic form of bibliomancy by looking at the Oxford English Dictionary on my phone. Not to brag, but one of the sweetest perks of being a professor is my free access to the OED. I logged on to their website to see the word of the day: “House-lew, n. Obsolete. Shelter of a house.”
We are indeed seeking shelter in two small houses, fifty steps apart. X called me a week ago to propose that we do so together. The adults could work remotely and split the childcare. Since M is immunocompromised and I would commit infanticide if the City ordered me to stay inside with both kids, we lent our various apartments to people who needed them and took off.
“Good!” X said, looking at his email. “They’ve milled the wheat, although they can’t do the Japanese buckwheat until tomorrow.”
“Buckwheat?” asked M.
“For soba,” X explained. M sighed sarcastically.
I don’t have anything new to say about the world’s shared crisis, but I started taking notes on the strange edges of the situation I find myself in. It’s as if I’ve found myself in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Luis Buñuel’s film in which the rich characters are continually thwarted from attending a dinner party by surreal circumstances, like a raid on cocktail hour by armed gunmen, which the guests politely but unavailingly ignore. Only in my The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: Coronavirus Edition, I only want to ignore the existence of W, but am instead playing gin rummy with her in the evenings.
In my new world, there are many strange problems. For example: my hair. I got a pixie cut about a year ago, when I started dating women, after X shacked up with W. I was already overdue for a trim when I decided it was better not to risk it. By the time we arrived, my head looked like a haystack painted by an especially testy Van Gogh. I was pained at appearing so disheveled in front of W, but not yet pained enough to admit that she’s the only one up here I would trust to cut my hair for me.
I’m not the only one who cares about appearances. The morning after we arrived, M put on mascara and spent three quarters of an hour wandering around the house trying to take her first selfie. She needed a profile picture for the Google Meet conferences she would now run. I was on a work call and couldn’t help her, but kept hearing the camera shutter sound effect she’s never remembered to turn off on her phone followed by louder and louder groans of exasperation.
“These are all blurry!” I said when she scrolled through them to ask my opinion.
“That hides my wrinkles,” she replied.
Last night, we all had dinner together. This was difficult. Not because of the social dynamics but because of our dietary choices. I’m a vegetarian, W is gluten-intolerant and M has an allergy to what she calls X’s “gourmandise.”
“Maple sesame dijon?” M asked, looking at the condiments on the table. “Does no one like normal mustard anymore?”
W poked through the fridge. “Here’s something yellow,” she said, pulling out a container. “No, that’s ghee.”
After dinner, we played cards while the kids watched the trenchant criticism of the idle rich that is 101 Dalmatians. W dealt and motioned for me, sitting to her right, to go first.
“Are we going counterclockwise?” X asked. “Counter to the rules of all known card games?” The resulting argument included W repeating “You’re being compulsive!” and X telling W to go fuck herself while throwing double-fisted middle fingers. I sat silent, emotionally disconnected and enjoying the drama. It felt like an especially satisfying episode of 90 Day Fiancé.
The kids went to sleep after insisting W and I trade turns snuggling with them in their bunks. Back downstairs, I yawned. W yawned. X, a night owl, frowned. “I have to say, both of you fooled me as to how late you were willing to stay up.” W and I rolled our eyes at each other.
Perhaps I’ll ask her to trim my hair after all.
March 26, 2020
MADISON, WISCONSIN—Late last week I started calling people at random; just friends who came to mind. There were obvious reasons for this, especially with those whose age finds them in a precarious set of crosshairs. But at the same time, I don’t know why. A week later it’s hard to believe we were all so alarmed by the same thing: that major sporting events around the world had suddenly been canceled.
At the time, I was 24 hours away from attending my first NBA game in quite a while. Then the dominoes started to fall. Millions of fans were first being turned away. The events were called off. Incalculable financial losses would be assumed. Without the drastic measures taken by major sports governing bodies (not traditionally the kind to exercise moral authority) I would have carried on with my plans. It was my first chance to see the Bucks superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, in person. Until league officials suspended the season indefinitely. Then schools, museums, concert halls, gyms, restaurants, libraries and bookstores all closed. Suddenly, there was nothing to watch, nowhere to go and no end in sight.
On the verge of untold medical and economic devastation, the loss of sports and entertainment can feel so trivial. But as we swiftly come to terms with the confounding new normal, we’re also seeing how what can easily be dismissed as trivial is tightly woven into the fabric of what is essential.
Groping for something to say in the sports section of Sunday’s New York Times, John Branch mused how this might be an occasion for us to take a needed break from, and reassess, what he called our “unhealthy obsession” with sports. Completely deprived of the games, matches and tournaments, it makes sense to reflect on what we’re now missing. And if Branch is really unsettled by how the multibillion-dollar sports industry enfolds our games in commercialism, marketing and greed, I share his concern. But under the specter of worldwide social distancing, now might not be the best time for armchair-reassessment of something that provides peaceable moments of respite and shared recreation, signaling the changing of the seasons: three weeks of basketball drama that were supposed to happen in March and culminating in baseball’s opening day on March 26th, followed by a romantic weekend of golf in Georgia in April and the Champions League final in late May, and then the NBA playoffs and finals in early June, the European Cup in July and the Olympics in August. These are the events that animate our memories; the games we watch in the birthing center, with our kids when they are sick, the games we miss to attend weddings or funerals. Like holidays and birthdays they are the concrete shape that time takes, marking its cycles as well as its progress.
When my two eldest children came home from their last day of school, I wasn’t looking forward to breaking the news. It wasn’t just that pro sports were being suspended; the youth basketball and soccer games we look forward to every weekend were also canceled, and there was no telling when they’d reconvene. The gravity of canceling major sporting events wasn’t lost on me. But this further cancellation would make it all more real for them. It’s one thing to not be able to watch. It’s quite another to be told you can’t play.
Dreading the conversation, I waited for the sounds of their arrival. But the door didn’t swing open, and the usual voices did not climb the stairs to say hello. Instead, I heard the bouncing of a basketball on the carved-up asphalt driveway, the silence of the ball lifting in the air, clattering off the rim and through the net; then the accompanying banter and laughter. These are the hopeful and joyous sounds of sport that require no youth organizations, public arenas, cameras, TV audiences, corporate sponsors, sports bars or crowds. Because the pandemic will inadvertently disrupt almost every aspect of contemporary life, reassessing the role sports will play when this is all said and done is going to happen whether we like it or not. While we wait for the games to resume, we should look more carefully at those moments even a pandemic can’t touch.
Is Society Possible?
March 25, 2020
TORONTO—When society seems safe and secure, the question of its possibility fades into the background. It becomes a stale abstraction. Society no longer seems safe and secure. How, then, is society possible?
No matter how many times I have told students that this is one of the central questions of classical social theory, there is a sense in which this is the first time I have really taken the question seriously myself. For example, I now find myself able to ask, without blushing, what is society for? I might previously have dismissed this as a quaint and archaic bit of teleology. Society isn’t for anything! That would imply it could be better or worse at those things, making goodness a condition of the possibility of society. But now the tables are turned, and the idea that we could avoid the question of society’s goodness reeks of complacency. If society fails to perform certain functions, it seems to me, it becomes untenable.
What are those functions? Talcott Parsons was the great functionalist social theorist of the twentieth century and I keep coming back to his core ideas as I think about that question. Societies are open systems, composed of parts bound together into some more-or-less coherent whole. There is therefore an inside and an outside, and social functions arise from this fact.
One set of functions are those fulfilled by markets, technologies, armies or public-health agencies and the like: acquiring resources externally, from other societies or the physical world, responding to external threats, and allocating resources and risks internally. Without these activities society would be impossible, as it would be overwhelmed by the often-harsh environment that surrounds it. Parsons called this function adaptation. If a society can’t adapt to its surroundings it will not survive. How is society possible? It needs to be adaptable.
Adaptation is not automatic. In response to any given threat, there are innumerable possible courses of action or inaction. It is not just that the best means of achieving collective goals is unclear; it is generally not evident what the goals should even be. Right now, for example, how we prioritize public health against economic and social devastation is not obvious. This is the leadership function, filled by decision-makers in politics but also business, universities, religion and so on. Without leadership, society would be impossible—it would be rudderless. Parsons called this function goal-setting. If a society can’t set goals it cannot function. How is society possible? It needs to be able to define its direction.
Internally, a society has many parts, such as separate individuals, families, groups and organizations. Each has its own interests, goals, ambitions, agendas. They often conflict with one another and look out for themselves rather than the whole; they do not necessarily see themselves as intertwined or mutually dependent upon one another. Solidarity is not guaranteed. Achieving solidarity is the integrative function. It is filled by conflict-resolution systems such as the courts and the police as well as social infrastructure that builds connection and conviviality such as libraries, bars, restaurants, festivals and community organizations. These can all fail, and indeed society under quarantine is currently straining to meet this function as it contracts into the household. Parsons called this function integration. If a society cannot translate its many I’s into a we, it disintegrates. How is society possible? It needs to be integrated.
Integration is not automatic. To consider a distant other I have not met as “one of us” or “like me” rather than an alien does not come easily. It requires that we share some notion of our common value, under which we each have some intrinsic worth. Otherwise, the Hobbesian world of perpetual force and fraud is unavoidable. The impulse to hoard and the rush to get yours first by any means—this reaffirms that all resolutions to the Hobbesian problem of order are temporary and provisional. Settling that problem is the social function of values, and it is the business of our religious and cultural institutions to articulate them. Who are we and what matters to us? What do we owe to one another? Parsons called this the pattern maintenance function. If a society cannot articulate its basic values it loses its sense of why it is important to achieve any of its other functions. How is society possible? It needs to be valuable.
The Parsonian tradition of social theory gave us an answer to the question of what society is for, and hence what makes it good. It is good when it can adapt to circumstances, set goals, integrate its parts and elaborate its value. Dysfunction in any one respect spreads through the system, making it worse. In this vision, social theory too has its function. It is for articulating what makes societies good, examining how they fall short, and laying out a path to get better. Theory is critical theory.
Crises are crucial tests, and we are all anxiously observing how our systems perform. Since social theory is part of that system, it too is being tested. Sitting here under quarantine, as the chatter of committee meetings and the incessant demand to meet the next performance metric fades, I worry it might fail. It might not have anything to say when the everyday peels back and reveals the reality of its fundamental questions. I worry that I might not have anything to say.
With that worry in mind, my plan is to return to some of the classics of social theory and ask if they can illuminate our situation, being ready to receive a negative answer. I will start in my next entry with Georg Simmel, the great theorist of interaction. His basic answer to the question of how society is possible was that society is possible on the basis of… social distance.
Wanderer Above the Mist
March 25, 2020
JENA, GERMANY—Since February I have been living in Jena, a small city in eastern Germany that rests snugly in a river valley a few hundred kilometers southwest of Berlin. The Franks planted vineyards in the nearby hills in the late twelfth century, and the wealth created by the wine trade eventually convinced the locals to establish a university in 1558. Several centuries later, the university became a hothouse for German Romanticism and its potent mix of intellectual exaltation, political ferment and the refusal of limits. Napoleon’s troops routed the Prussians in Jena’s outlying hills and plundered their way through its streets. The Allies bombed the city at the end of World War II, and when the fighting stopped the Soviets hauled away much of the optical and machine works that had brought Jena wealth and fed its curiosity. Under communism, Napoleon’s field of glory became a training ground for tanks. Since 1989, Jena has been a crucial research and economic hub in eastern Germany. The tank grounds are now an open-air park.
A few weeks after arriving in the city I visited the Church of St. Michael, a Gothic cathedral in the old town that took two hundred years to build. Martin Luther first came to Jena in 1523 to reform the clergy. Six years later he preached from St. Michael’s stone pulpit, and a bronze memorial plate of him is mounted nearby on a wall. In the back of the church there is a different sort of memento, also mounted on a wall: a large, rectangular slab of limestone that was probably quarried in the nearby hills. The slab’s chiseled script is worn and illegible but above it is a carved figure in relief: a bulky hourglass with two feathery wings at rest on a skull. The skull’s mouth hangs open, “Death” the unspoken word. Construction of St. Michael’s began in 1380, so the cathedral had risen and its parishioners had lived in the aftermath of the Black Death.
A few weeks ago I saw another set of wings. I was in my office, in a building that sits atop a hill. The desk faces a large window, and in the near distance are the rocky, barren slopes of low-lying mountains. The town’s restaurants and bars had recently been told to close, and there was talk that Jena would soon follow the example of Berlin, Munich and other cities and order everyone to confine themselves to their homes. One afternoon I looked up from a book and a flash of color caught my eye—the red and gold canopy of a paraglider joyriding above the mountains. Internal borders have been reestablished in the European Union to slow the spread of the coronavirus, yet here was someone defying borders as well as gravity, absorbed in something other than a newsfeed. The paraglider caught an updraft, its path a graceful tracing of currents invisible and benign.
After watching the paraglider for a while, I thought of the cold stare of the winged skull in St. Michael’s, an omen of life’s end that leaves nothing else in mind. No “Death is the mother of beauty,” as Wallace Stevens wrote in “Sunday Morning” a little over a century ago, no appreciation of life’s ephemeral essentials or the elegant, necessary ways we imagine wrestling with mortality, like writing a poem with the line “Death is the mother of beauty, mystical.” I continued to watch the paraglider but could not see it land: it descended into the distance, past mountains and rooftops, and then out of view. With it went the idea of floating above it all—the tracing of an escape portal—a stark illusion of its own.
Places I Remember
March 25, 2020
BROOKLYN—My two-bedroom apartment has grown during the past week. It’s in Brooklyn, which means it’s cozy—but it’s still spacious enough so my wife, my nine-year old son and I can, if we all walk as far as possible in different directions, get away from each other. It has one long hallway separating the kitchen from the bedrooms, where my son used to spend whole afternoons snaking his wooden train tracks into an imaginary transcontinental railroad network. But I never realized before how many different places our apartment contains, how many journeys one can make through it in the course of a day. Like most people’s, ours is divided by functions; eating, sleeping, socializing, etc. Now we’ve added a couple more, so my son’s bedroom doubles as my Zoom college seminar room, and the kitchen table doubles as his third-grade classroom. But it’s not just that we have a greater number of work stations. I now find myself pausing to rest or think or look around in spots I’d never paid any attention to before, like the tiny recess caddy-corner to our bookshelf that looks out through a narrow window onto our building’s airshaft, or the shady floorspace between our houseplants next to our overactive radiator. And the less I depart from the perimeter that contains these points of interest, the farther apart they seem to get from each other, like there are suddenly long distances in our apartment that need to be traversed, like each corner is a separate location with its own climate.
In fact the number of places I visit each day is actually far greater than the number of distinct areas that make up our apartment’s floor plan. Any segment, however small, can potentially become, depending on the moment, an infinite number of different places. This is something I vaguely knew before: my Saturday morning living room, for instance, has always been totally unlike my Monday morning living room. There’s no concrete physical difference I can point to: the objects haven’t moved, and the light might be the same, but the change, though intangible, is no less substantial. It’s as if the air between things were a different color or the molecules that make it up were vibrating at a different speed.
All of which is to say that there are practically as many different places to visit in my apartment as there are moments in the day. If I were cataloguing them, the list wouldn’t just include cluttered morning office, or arithmetic workshop, or silent library reading room, but also mellow dusk contemplation corner, afternoon sunlit dust-mite lethargy square, bedroom-mirror morning dreadzone, slap-happy survivalist euphoria dance floor, mortality death-grip window seat, early-spring yearning perch, childhood-memory-activator toy closet, inescapable-tickle-couch battlefield, my son’s fury sphere, marital-strife triangle of darkness, famine-foreboding fridge nook, twenty-second thought-gatherer and disinfectant station, serendipitous family-togetherness laugh zone, pop-song enthrallment slow float, kitchen-frazzle brain scrambler, the tedium-of-life armchair, and so on.
This means my apartment hasn’t exactly become the prison I feared it would be. But its largeness is not always a virtue. Whether containing multitudes is desirable, after all, depends on what things make up those multitudes. I might think as night approaches, Wow, I can’t believe how many places we’ve been to today, how much we’ve experienced. But I might also think, as I reach one end of my apartment and turn to pace slowly back toward the other end: My god, I can’t believe we have to do this again tomorrow.
March 25, 2020
LE PRÉ-SAINT-GERVAIS, FRANCE—I have things to do besides clean; I’m working on some things, I’m working on a translation. I came up with the project because I was going to have to do a project for school (my master’s thesis), I love translating and so it would be no problem, but I knew there would have to be a “theoretical part,” which I had been dreading because I figured all the reading—“translation theory”—would be very lame and… cheesy? (I want to say bidon, which is a French word.) You know, about ties that bind, human community and so on—but it turns out actually to be super dark and thorny, even scary, about irreconcilable difference, unbridgeable distance, unknowable mystery. Lucky me.
At 8 p.m. on the second day of confinement, Wednesday the 18th, people in my building and, to judge by the sounds, a couple of buildings adjacent, came to their windows clapping, cheering, whistling, banging pots and pans and yelling “Bravo!” I joined in clapping, then texted P.—“is there a reason?”—and he got right back to me. “Yes thanking the health professionals.” (As they would do the following night, and as they keep doing.)
Walter Benjamin, for his melancholy, his exile, is a writer so well suited to the topic. In his important 1923 essay “The Task of the Translator”—a title I itch to render as “The Translator’s Task,” because that’s how I’d translate it—he posits (in Harry Zohn’s translation) that “Unlike a work of literature, translation does not find itself in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering…” With imagery like this the essay is still, in its way, loving, gentle; the impossibility of translation carries a potential for transcendence all its own, suggesting a “kinship” of intention shared by human languages. But even that suggestion is flawed, as Benjamin allows charmingly: “This, to be sure, is to admit that all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages.”
Antoine Berman writes that, as a sign of translation’s unworkability, it can be described only by metaphors. Benjamin’s “wooded ridge” is, I think, unusually eye-catching; many of the metaphors are common. One that appears—from what I was able to accomplish before the library closed—to have lost steam, passing into cliché, is the one about the difficulty each of us humans faces in articulating, or “translating,” our thoughts as language. A scheme of metaphors out of which these writers get, in my opinion, a little bit more juice is the economic, or mathematical. Berman himself observes, in La Traduction et la lettre, that the “value” of a poem is often thought of in terms of its “untranslatability.” Jacques Derrida, in a famous lecture on translation, remarks that for the translator, “untranslatability” is “a remainder of his operation.” That translation, mine, isn’t ideal. “Remainder” is such a specific word, specific to math, and reste under other circumstances would translate as “that which is left.” Or “leftovers.”
The place I’m staying, which is warm and dry—I’m lucky—is a single room, a studio I sublet. Before the sixth day of confinement, Sunday the 22nd, I had, using FaceTime, Skype and Facebook Messenger’s video feature, called up contacts, performing operation after operation as remainders, in their metaphysical heaps, accrued. I spoke “in person” to a supermarket clerk, and to a policeman reprimanding me for having jogged too far from where I live. (One kilometer, the state has specified, is the limit.) You’re not supposed to meet up, either, but on March 22nd, keeping careful distances, I went for a walk alongside E., who is staying in Les Lilas. Excellente nouvelle, she had written, on est à 1km7 de distance, roughly 1.06 miles, lune, moon, beautiful but meaning l’une, l’une de l’autre, one to the other: mathématiquement c’est légal.
I didn’t hear from P. for a couple of days, and then he sent selfies; he has shaved his head. H. got out as the lockdown was getting started; she has gone with her cousins to Normandy. Mondays I Skype with her and K., who recently moved from the Paris region to Bethlehem, where he grew up and where his first experience of home confinement ensued during the Second Intifada. He wrote about that on March 13th; here is the link.
Kids home from school in the residential complex where I live are playing in its courtyard, green with spring, resonant with their laughter. A bud in the window box is opening slowly and asymmetrically into a flower of traffic-cone orange with a couple dozen petals.
B. called. “I want to be in it!” he said.
“P. shaved his head,” I said. “That’s definitely going in. If you shave your head, you can be in it, too.”
These Are Not the End Times
March 23, 2020
NEW YORK, NY—Though mild, I have what I am fairly sure are the symptoms of coronavirus. Three weeks ago I was in extended and close contact with someone who has since tested positive. When I learned this, I spent some time trying to figure out how to get tested myself, but now the last thing I want to do is to go stand in a line in front of a Brooklyn hospital along with others who also have symptoms. My wife and I have not been outside our apartment since March 10th. We have opened the door just three times since then, to receive groceries that had been left for us by an unseen deliveryman, as per our instructions, on the other side. We read of others going on walks, but that seems like a selfish extravagance when you have a dry cough and a sore throat. This is the smallest apartment I’ve ever lived in. I am noticing features of it, and of the trees, the sky and the light outside our windows, that escaped my attention—shamefully, it now seems—over the first several months since we arrived here in August. I know when we finally get out I will be like the protagonist of Halldór Laxness’s stunning novel, World Light, who, after years of bedridden illness, weeps when he bids farewell to all the knots and grooves in the wood beams of his attic ceiling.
I am not at all certain that my university in Paris will be open for business when it comes time to reinstitute my salary in June, which I had voluntarily suspended in order to take a year-long fellowship in New York. I am not at all sure that a few months from now the world is going to be the sort of place where a citizen of one country can expect to resume his public function in another country’s education system. I am not at all sure universities are going to be the sort of place where one can, again, get together with others in a room and deign to speak with them of what is beautiful and true. Meanwhile, my mother is in cancer treatment in California, and I fear I may never see her again. Until a few days ago my sister, a glacial marine geoscientist, was stuck in unexpectedly thick ice, on an icebreaker too small to break it, in the ocean somewhere off the coast of Antarctica; now her international crew is floating again, uncertain how they will get back to the Northern Hemisphere in a world of quarantines, closed borders and canceled flights, but still just happy to be back on the open sea. My wife is here with me on a tourist visa that will soon expire. We do not know what things will be like in New York when that happens, or whether there might be an exemption for foreigners who overstay their visas only because they are unable to leave what might by then be a fully locked-down city. She has an elderly grandmother in Europe. Should she leave now to be with her, while she still can and while her papers are still valid? What would become of me, if she were to go?
These are some of the questions we find ourselves asking right now. They are not exceptional, among the billions of small tragedies this pandemic has churned up. But they are mine. I have often wondered what life would be like for the survivors of a nuclear war, and in these fleeting recollections of the old world—there used to be Starbucks and barber shops, there used to be a subway I’d get on to go to the library, there used to be embrassades—I feel like I am gaining a small glimpse of that.
I find that I am generally at peace, and that the balance between happiness and sadness on any given day is little different from what it always has been for me. I find that there is liberation in this suspension of more or less everything. In spite of it all, we are free now. Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now. We have little idea what the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this, but it is already perfectly clear that the “discourses” of our society, such as they had developed up to about March 8 or 9, 2020, in all their frivolity and distractiousness, have been decisively curtailed, like the CO2 emissions from the closed factories and the vacated highways.
Not to downplay the current tragedy—as I’ve already acknowledged, it is already affecting me personally in deep and real ways—but I take it that this interruption is a good thing.
The interruption is not total, of course. Normies seem particularly fond of toilet-paper joke memes for the moment, while the extremely online instinctively disdain them. Both the normies and the extremely online are, as they have been since 2016, far too reliant on the language of “apocalypse” and “end times.” These are not the end times; even a nuclear war would not be the end times for all the creatures on earth, among which there will always be at least some extremophiles to relish any new arrangement of the ecosystem. What this is, rather, is a critical shift in the way we think about the human, the natural and the overlap between these.
I have said that we can all just stop doing whatever we were doing before that may have come to ring false to us, and that that is liberating. In my own case, I was working on a book (one that developed, curiously, out of an essay of mine, entitled “It’s All Over,” posted here at The Point a little over a year ago) that was going to articulate how the internet is destroying the fabric of human community. But for the life of me I cannot, in the present circumstances, see the internet as anything other than the force that is holding that fabric together. I used to bemoan virtue signaling. I look at the newly assembled vanguard of the all-volunteer forces of “Wash Your Hands” Twitter, and though I can still discern that tone that used to get me so bent out of shape (“Listen up y’all, today I’m going to break down the virus’s lipid envelope for you”), now I just smile and think: “Good for them. Good for Dr. Brianna Ph.D., and all her loyal followers.”
So I’m going have to rethink that particular book project. But that follows from the much more general point that we are all going to have to rethink everything. One thing that is certain is that you are now free to put down whatever cool theorist your peers once convinced you you had to read. None of that discourse is any more germane to thinking about the present situation than, say, Robert Burton, or Galen, or St. Theresa of Ávila. Read whatever you want to read now, and don’t be distracted by those writers who are so set in their ways that they know no other strategy than to recover formulae devised back in the old world, and to retry them in the new one, like stubborn Norsemen struggling to graze cattle in Greenland, when the world they find themselves in demands they learn to hunt seals. Thus Slavoj Žižek is now blogging for RT, the Russian state propaganda network, about how the virus puts him in mind of Tarantino films, while Giorgio Agamben is pushing a species of Trumpian doubt-mongering by claiming that the “disproportionate reaction” to the pandemic is nothing more than an assertion of authoritarian biopolitics. Honestly, at this point whoever’s left of the vanguard of continental philosophy should probably just start hawking men’s vitamin supplements on late-nite TV.
These are not the end times, I mean, but nor are they business as usual, and we would do well to understand that not only is there room for a middle path between these, but indeed there is an absolute necessity that we begin our voyage down that path. To the squealing chiliasts and self-absorbed presentists, indulging themselves with phrases like “the end of the world,” I say: “Did it never dawn on you that all of human history has just been one partial apocalypse after another?” And to the business-as-usual mandarins I say: “Thank you for your service in the glorious battles of the past.”
This is an excerpt of a longer essay published on our website.
Click here to read the article in full.
March 23, 2020
CHICAGO—“The first thing that the wave of panic that has paralyzed the country obviously shows is that our society no longer believes in anything but bare life,” Giorgio Agamben recently observed. In our hysterical panic, exerting herculean efforts to avoid physical harm, we have made ourselves vulnerable to loss of a far higher order: sacrificing our work, friendships, extended families, religious rites (first among them funerals) and political commitments. In this way, we might preserve ourselves biologically, but we will have eliminated in the process anything that gives life meaning, that makes it worth living.
What is more, for Agamben, the exclusive focus on survival at any cost, on the preservation of “bare life” not only constitutes a spiritual defeat in its own right but turns us against one another, threatening the possibility of meaningful human relationships and thus any semblance of “society”: “Bare life—and the danger of losing it—is not something that unites people, but blinds and separates them.” Paranoia drives us to view other human beings “solely as possible spreaders of the plague,” to be avoided at all costs. Such a state, where we all dedicate ourselves to a battle against an enemy within us, lurking in every other person, is, “in reality, a civil war.” The consequences, Agamben predicts, will be grim and will outlast the epidemic. He concludes:
Just as wars have left as a legacy to peace a series of inauspicious technology, from barbed wire to nuclear power plants, so it is also very likely that one will seek to continue even after the health emergency experiments that governments did not manage to bring to reality before: closing universities and schools and doing lessons only online, putting a stop once and for all to meeting together and speaking for political or cultural reasons and exchanging only digital messages with each other, wherever possible substituting machines for every contact—every contagion—between human beings.
To be clear, Agamben is right that the costs we are paying are exceedingly high: the response to the epidemic exacts great sacrifices from us as individuals and from society as a whole. Moreover—and putting to one side the conspiratorial paranoia—there is a real risk that it will lower public resistance to political measures that threaten democratic self-governance: increased use of surveillance, the expansion of executive powers and restrictions on the freedom of movement and association.
Observing potential costs, however, is the easy part: what is much more difficult and much more perilous is getting clear on what it is exactly that we are sacrificing for. Agamben is right that a life dedicated solely to our own biological survival is a human life in name only, and that to voluntarily choose such a life is not merely a personal sacrifice but a form of society-wide moral self-harm. But is this really what we are doing?
There are of course those—the Florida spring breakers, the St. Paddy’s Day pub crawlers—who have shown the moral heroism Agamben is calling for here, refusing to bow to the recommendations of the authorities. But those of us who have, with heavy hearts, embraced the restrictions on our freedoms, are not merely aiming at our own biological survival. We have welcomed the various institutional limitations on our lives (in fact sometimes hoped our governments would introduce these sooner), and we have urged our friends and family (especially our stubborn parents!) to do the same, not to ward off “the danger of getting sick,” not for the sake of our bare life, and indeed not for the sake of the bare life of others, but out of an ethical imperative: to exercise the tremendous powers of society to protect the vulnerable, be they our loved ones or someone else’s.
We are doing all of this, in the first place, for our fellow people—our parents, our grandparents and all those who are, by dint of fate, fragile. Nothing could be further from our minds than the maintenance of their “bare life”: we care about these people because they are our kin, our friends and the members of our community.
My fiancé and I canceled our summer wedding last week. We did it so that our guests, including my partner’s high-risk father, might be able at some later date to safely attend the social celebration of our decision to tie our lives to one another’s. We are now taking precautions, cooped up in our apartment, “isolating,” so that we may be able to soon visit his father, later, without endangering his health, if we ever make it back to London. With any luck, we may all get to celebrate that wedding together one day after all. With any luck, our children will one day meet their grandfather. Agamben laments that we are sacrificing “social relationships, work, even friendships, affections, and religious and political convictions” to “the danger of getting sick.” But we are not making sacrifices for the sake of anyone’s mere survival. We sacrifice because sharing our joys and pains, efforts and leisure, with our loved ones—young and old, sick and healthy—is the very substance of these so-called “normal conditions of life.”
“What is a society,” Agamben asks, “that has no value other than survival?” Under certain circumstances, this is a good question; under these circumstances, it is a blind one. Is this the society Agamben believes he is living in? When this philosopher looks around him, does he truly see nothing but the fight for “bare life”? If so, Agamben’s “clarification” may be revealing in a way he hadn’t intended. We might think of it as a very lucid example of “bare theory”: the dressing up of outdated jargon as a form of courageous resistance to unreflecting moral dogma. Sometimes, it is advisable to hold off on deploying the heavy theoretical machinery until one has looked around. If we are after wisdom about how to live today, we should look elsewhere.
This is an excerpt of a longer essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Click here to read the article in full.
The Dinner Party
March 23, 2020
BELLPORT, NY—At the tail end of February, with coronavirus still in the bleary distance of other countries—or so I thought—my boyfriend Jeff and I traveled to Los Angeles. We were there to see friends, because an airline flash sale made LA affordable, and because we were free, and semi-yearly vacations were a bourgeois obligation.
Our host was a friend we would have liked to see more often, B.
I had known B. since Jeff and I began to date three years ago. Jeff had known B. since 1980, when they were both restaurant critics as well as out gay men—a practically unheard-of combination in those post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS years. B. had had heart problems since he was a child, yet he prided himself on an indefatigable adventurousness that had led him, some decades ago, to work as a park ranger in remote Alaska, living off of food dropped by parachutes and whatever books he managed to rustle up in the tiny boreal towns.
Now 78 years old, B. was feeling unwell when we arrived—short of breath while he walked, struggling to eat. Yet he was adamant on being a charming liaison around his city. He took us to a Northern Thai restaurant in a Little Armenia strip mall; to the Pattern and Decoration show at MOCA; to see the renovation that the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth had wreaked on a former flour mill. (Now complete with valet parking!) Unlike most men in the waning years of their eighth decade, B. never retired, and whenever Jeff and I were out exploring the city alone, he was hard at work at a career he began late in life, as the founder and director of the Museum of California Design. He had just had a show in Palm Springs, of children’s toys. The show was a great success, he informed us over the breakfast table; we talked for a long time about Barbie dolls.
B.’s favorite hobby was to throw dinner parties, and our visit was an opportunity. The last night of our stay, he gathered eight or so people to dine on his famous roast chicken. “I’m always too optimistic,” he told me while we set one side of the table, so that the chairs on the other side of the table did not impose themselves on the design of his dining room. “It gets me into trouble.” Because I volunteered, I had spent most of the afternoon trying to assemble a puzzle chair designed by David Kawecki, which B. wanted his guests to be able to sit in—having never put a piece of furniture together that was not manufactured by Ikea, I failed. The guests ambled in, LA dinner parties a pre-COVID ceremony with which they were all comfortable. There was B.’s old editor, a novelist friend, a former roommate who ran a fellowship program for artists. There was also A., a once-upon-a-time punk musician turned journalist and epidemiologist, with whom I immediately enjoyed talking. A. had written a controversial book about AIDS, and how having fewer sexual partners was the only way to #stopthespread of that epidemic.
Emboldened by the era of PrEP and by my own pre-COVID promiscuity—does it matter that I’m 28? I think so—I disputed his hypothesis when it came up at dinner. A. took the opportunity to raise a topic that has since dominated the thoughts of everyone in attendance, and increasingly everyone in the world: coronavirus will have dire effects on our society from which we will never recover.
He began to lecture about the pandemic and why the U.S. is unprepared to handle its repercussions. B.’s dinner party was not only the last A. would attend, he said that it would be the last time he left the house to socialize. The date was February 29th; for days, he had already been stockpiling disinfectants and food.
No one had the expertise or the arrogance to disagree with A. We just wanted him to shut up. After all, we had only been together for an hour or so, and by the time he was done speaking, we had been together for three hours. In California time, it was late and people had to go home. He had bombed the party, taken it over, and prevented anyone else from sharing the soapbox with him. To say the least, he had been impolite, and definitely not charming.
Jeff and I said goodbye to B. and boarded a plane the next day, wondering whether the fear we felt was merely an unreasonable reaction to a soured evening, and not a reasonable one to a world in distress. We’ve discussed since whether this experience prepared us for the austerity measures to come better than our friends back in New York, where we live. Perhaps it did.
What the discussion did not prepare us for was B.’s death. We had no idea how sick he actually was, and luckily for B.—who passed away on March 7th after his heart stopped while he slept—he did not know that his health hiccup would be terminal, either. Yet when I think of our final days together, I won’t think of my first inklings of coronavirus in America. I’ll remember us at a Lucio Fontana show downtown, in the last of the “spatial environments” the artist made before his death in the Lombardy region of Italy—where 3,095 people have died of COVID-19 as of March 21. While Jeff waited outside, B. and I donned protective slippers, joking about how we had to protect the pristine floors of the installation from our infectious humanity. We wandered around its faux mirrors and disorienting walls, exclaiming every time we expected to see a reflection of ourselves and saw another person instead. I’ll remember him, with me, this way, in public: we were like two children, happy to have found a bit of adventure, lost in the funhouse of our lives at the close of the free world.
March 22, 2020
BROOKLYN—In 2012, when I was living in New Orleans during the days before Hurricane Isaac hit the city, my landlady told me that she’d gotten her axe out when she heard about the storm. She’d inherited the weapon from her father’s Creole family in Barataria, a shrimping community in the watery reaches of south Louisiana; lore was that an elderly relative (her grandfather?) had once used it to hack through the ceiling to reach the roof as floodwaters rose in the era before storm warnings. She was ready to do the same.
In recent days, as the coronavirus has spread, with protective measures becoming more stringent in my current home of New York City, I’ve found myself thinking about Ann Plique and her axe. In a larger sense, I have been thinking about how different scales of memory inform the emotional and spiritual resilience that we bring to death and disaster. Many members of my generation who have come of age in the developed world are unique in having little memory or experience of living through an epidemic. Millennials are too young to remember AIDS and, in the United States, SARS and Ebola slid past our eyes as headlines. I and my parents were vaccinated against diseases that used to carry off generations of children. No one with a vivid memory of the 1918 flu epidemic is alive today.
Yet if you swim away from the familiar shoals of living memory, other depths of experience emerge. This, or parts of this, have happened before. In 1732, one observer wrote of a measles and smallpox outbreak that killed six-percent of the New York’s population, “Many children dye … and the Country People are afraid to come to Town which makes Markets Thin, Provisions dear, and deadens all Trade, and it goes very hard with the Poor.” In 1822, an outbreak of yellow fever was concentrated first among residents in Lower Manhattan, with a picket-fence barrier strung up on Chambers Street as city dwellers fled north, a newspaper reporting, “From daybreak till night one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandise, and effects, were seen moving toward Greenwich Village.” In 1832, New Yorkers read about the outbreak of a new disease called cholera sweeping across Asia and Europe, were slow to quarantine ships so as not to staunch the flow of trade, and ultimately had to commandeer buildings like a school and a bank to cover the shortage of hospital beds, forming benevolent committees to help those out of work while cartloads of coffins rumbled through the streets. In 1892, when another cholera outbreak swept form Persia to Russia and western Europe, steamships from Germany bobbed, quarantined, in New York’s harbor while a new health department carried disinfectant and pamphlets in six languages to overcrowded neighborhoods. (These details compiled from Gotham, Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace’s sublime history of New York City.) For each of these local examples, we could dredge up counterparts stretching back much further into history. The global simultaneity of the coronavirus feels new, but the larger exigencies surrounding the disease are not.
Anyone in the nineteenth century and their elders would have carried a visceral memory of bereavements, deprivations and survivals during lethal epidemics, and I am interested in the role of this kind of memory not for its practical value but for its spiritual and psychological effects. One who has lived with death and disease as close companions may be less undone by their reappearance. In The Fire Next Time James Baldwin describes the way that, “for all its horror” the brutality of the African-American past “contains something very beautiful … If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne.” I have been returning to that passage in recent weeks. As I’ve watched the coronavirus story unfold, I’ve had a sense that the epidemic reveals not just material shortages—of hand sanitizer and ventilators, toilet paper and test kits—but shortages of psychological and spiritual imagination, of the kind of internal hardihood that Baldwin describes.
This meagerness of spiritual resources intensifies the larger drama of modernity, where medicine and technology lengthen and protect more lives while steepening the drop between what is within our control and what is not. Anyone who imagines that their experience of the world can be controlled—and our hyper plugged-in lives, in which everything seems to lie before us, sharable, mapped, and reviewed, must worsen this—is less emotionally equipped to deal not just with pandemics and hurricanes but with the basic precariousness and uncertainty entailed in being human: the doubts and leaps, the fragilities and griefs, of love and trust, illness and mortality.
I don’t mean to romanticize the past and its privations. They interest me only because they open up possibilities for the future. Knowing what’s come before us can provide a sense of resilience, of larger arcs and survivals that extend beyond our individual lifetimes. Knowing the past also reminds us how different things have been in other eras, and not so long ago—and if the values of the past were different, those of the future can be also.
Last week, when I took a walk in Prospect Park, a young woman wearing a white face mask passed me, carrying a bouquet of yellow flowers. I wondered what the story behind the flowers was—and found out a bit later as I walked past the arch at Grand Army Plaza and saw someone else carrying an identical bouquet. As I neared the fountain, I saw the cast-iron statue of Poseidon wreathed with marigolds, a face mask of flowers knit over the god’s mouth. A dozen bouquets were also splayed along the fountain’s edge beside a sign reading CORONA COLLABORATION!, a hashtag for #flowersforthepeople, and black arrows inviting passersby to “PLEASE TAKE.”
I picked up a bouquet and moved aside to watch. Others stepped up to take pictures and, sometimes, take flowers, waiting their turn as part of the new courtesies of social distancing. Whether gestures of public art and solidarity will be snuffed out as quarantine measures tighten or whether there will be more art in the streets as the suffering worsens, I took heart in seeing resilience bubble up in my neighborhood. The ways that we find emotional and internal sustenance during this time—the ways we mourn and make meaning—will be as large a part of our bequeathal to the future as the more tangible changes that follow the pandemic. In Mexico, marigolds are the flowers placed out during Día de los Muertos, their pungent smell thought to help guide the dead back to the living. Those flowers I took from the fountain are on my desk now, their sticky-sweet smell in the air, a few tiny yellow petals falling to the floor.
March 22, 2020
ISTANBUL, TURKEY—I proposed to my partner, an artist, at a restaurant in Istanbul last December, when people were still allowed to go to restaurants. At the time, I pictured the future as a large canvas featuring celebrations with friends, a honeymoon in a distant town, forms of social interaction that I hadn’t been able to enjoy as a bachelor. I pondered the prospect of having kids and raising them in a society we recognized, where nurseries and schools functioned like they had since we were born, where the public sphere was still a battleground between competing powers and ideas, where it was possible to enjoy a cuppa together after breakfast and be alone in the subway before noon, where the mostly separate spheres of public and private, solitude and companionship, still existed.
The quarantine pulled the tablecloth from under our marriage. For the dead, death is what it is: the absence of all that is social and worldly. But marriage requires sociality, because it entails various types of social performance, and the wedding ceremony is but the first act of the play. If sociality has ceased to exist, why play social roles at all?
Apart from this philosophical conundrum, there were the logistical knots of the ceremony that my partner and I had to face. Our parents are in their sixties; they had to commute by car to Beyoğlu, the bustling heart of Istanbul, for the ceremony, on March 15th. How safe was that? Two days earlier, I had been in a pub in London raising a pint of Guinness with my editors, rode the Tube afterwards, and later savored the taste of crisps on my fingers at Tate Modern’s crowded cafeteria before flying home. How safe had that been? By asking our parents to witness our marriage vows, we could in effect be signing their death warrants.
I never thought inviting guests to my wedding would turn into an ethical dilemma. My family doctor, knowing my travel history, demanded that I check in with her every morning on WhatsApp and report any symptoms I might have picked up in England. I dared not tell her this was the week of my marriage.
Still, I considered myself lucky. Had I waited another four months, would I have proposed to my partner? How would she have reacted to my proposal if it was received it in self-isolation?
Our wedding ceremony seemed to have been scheduled for the last day of the world as we knew it—a Sunday evening, hours before we’d wake up to curfews and plundered supermarket shelves and news of best friends struggling to find ventilators. In between that future and the present was our wedding, a threshold between the still familiar and the unsettlingly unpredictable. Which is what a wedding traditionally is, but on the other side of a yesterday when corona didn’t exist, the unknown had become potentially lethal.
What is the meaning of saying “I do” to an unknowable future while fundamentals of sociality undergo such a worrying mutation? Was it just a caprice to insist on marrying in the days of COVID-19? I felt responsible for the witness who performed her task wearing a medical respirator. I thanked but also feared the audio engineer who asked me, in a tiny, stuffy room, which song I wanted played when we came on stage. A few minutes later, when the moment to commit to spending our lives together arrived, I was reminded of Molly Bloom’s resounding affirmation at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses, her “yes I said yes I will Yes,” while I said, despite all the uncertainty and fears, “Yes, I do.”
Afterwards there were congratulations but no kisses. Families were sent to their respective quarantines. The marriage official told me we were the last couple before closing time. I watched the lights of the marriage office go out.
March 22, 2020
LONDON, U.K.—When I arrived in London for a week-long trip to visit friends on March 11th, I had left behind a United States that was slowly hunkering down: universities and museums had begun to shutter, travel was being canceled.
The British capital, I was pleased to find, was still running at full steam. “Welcome to London,” boomed a gap-toothed newspaper delivery man as I emerged from the Tube in Chinatown, pulling my suitcase. I was staying with my cousin, who lived on the top floor of an area walk-up; the gay bar on its ground floor pumped out its usual techno, albeit at a muted, breakfast-time volume.
That night, I went to a jazz concert in a converted tunnel arch in Deptford. The space was so small that the audience—young, dreadlocked, fluid-limbed—danced right next to the performers. Sweat, saliva and hot breath swirled together under the dim red light. Over the next few days, I took in a play, went to a lecture, wandered through the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, met friends at pubs for dinner and drinks. Unlike the rest of Europe, the British government had taken a fairly lax stance to the pandemic. The public was likely to experience “behavioral fatigue” if severe restrictions were maintained for too long, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated at a press conference on March 12th. The government saw promise in encouraging “herd immunity” whereby infections now would mean greater resilience later.
The example of the rest of the world was just one of many reproaches to the Johnson strategy, and the British public started to do what its government would not. Plans with friends on Saturday night retracted, from a concert to a spacious well-ventilated bar to ordering in pizza and eating it in one friend’s living room, bumping elbows instead of hugging to say hello (now, of course, even that proximity seems cavalier.)
By the time I left, on Monday, a few days earlier than I had planned, in order to avoid the chaos of the U.K. travel ban, a pervasive social chill had set in. Even during morning rush hour, few people lined the escalators in the Tube in Leicester Square, one of the city’s main arteries; as I walked from the stairwell to the platform, the area was so quiet that I heard the echo of my own footsteps.
On Tuesday, Johnson conceded that Britons should stay away from restaurants, pubs and theaters. Museums and libraries began closing. The schools stayed open until Friday, upon which they were closed indefinitely. By the weekend, Johnson had changed his stance entirely, speaking of the necessity of making a “heroic and collective national effort to slow the spread” of the virus. The pubs—the country’s lifeblood—were shuttered en masse for the first time in history, and a lockdown in London seemed imminent.
Innocence is usually lost gradually. One of the many surreal things about the COVID-19 pandemic is the swiftness with which our collective expectations for the future have been overturned. Yet London is one of the best places to meditate on such a reversal, and to start to see it as not so much an aberration but the order of things.
During one of my last mornings in the city, I headed to the long, thin whale-spine of Millennium Bridge, walked down a set of narrow, railless stairs, and stepped out onto the banks of the Thames. The weather was typical for a British March—overcast and damp, with a cutting wind. It was low tide, and the south side of the city seemed unnaturally close, the Shard glittering at a distance that I felt I could forge with my arm. The banks of the Thames contain the smashed fragments of the city’s past, a relic of a time when the river doubled as the city’s main thoroughfare and a liquid trash heap. Under my feet were broken roof tiles from Victorian factories, shards of Tudor pottery, a profusion of ceramic pipe stems, oyster shells that shimmered through the grime.
Out on the bank, I encountered two men wearing thick angular wellies and mud-splattered parkas. Between them were a pair of buckets, a shovel and a rake. They were mudlarks, in other words, possessing two of the about fifty licenses London grants to individuals to plumb as much as four feet into the banks’ depths. I smiled at them, hoping to appear friendly but not annoying, and stood by as one dug into the black sediment, heaving the watery earth into a pile while the other used a metal detector to pat the dirt down and then waved it across the level surface, checking for treasure.
As I watched them work, they recovered a Georgian coin, an intact pipe, a thin piece of brass that once covered the end of an Elizabethan shoelace. These remnants were missives from London’s past, a past that was long, difficult and full of acts of destruction large and small. But it was also a past, I observed as the cool wind gusted through my jacket, that demonstrated that pain could be fertile ground for beauty, and that life carried on.
This realization soothed me in a way that difficult adult truths do—mildly—and I felt newly resigned and determined to face the coming crisis in whatever form it would take. Eventually, I thanked the men for their time, climbed back up to street level, and went on my way.
What Can Guide Us?
March 20, 2020
PALO ALTO—Last week my chair sent an email to the department asking what reassuring words she might include in a message to our majors and minors as they fled campus. Initially I found myself focusing on “applicable skills,” the kind of justification for a humanities discipline that university administrators love. “We could say we hope the things they’ve learnt in their philosophy classes will help them in the next few weeks/months,” I wrote, “e.g. attention to what matters most, moral concern for others, a longer view of the bigger picture, etc.” But after sending my reply, part of me felt we should be giving them a bit more content than that. So I jokingly suggested a quote from Aurelius’s Meditations:
Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.
Then what can guide us?
I’ve always enjoyed that passage, mainly for the laughs, but afterwards it didn’t feel like a joke, or at best a sick one. The earlier parts of it kind of hit home right now, don’t they? And the last sentence seems even more painfully inadequate than usual.
Maybe to process my discomfort, I made the quote into a meme (my first!—we academics are upskilling fast this week!): that one going around lately where the captions under the images in the CDC’s thirteen-step hand-washing instructions are replaced with song lyrics. By step six, the image that looks like a wringing of hands, I’d gotten to “Soul: spinning around.” By step thirteen, I’d arrived at the clincher—“Only philosophy.” The hands in that picture are adjacent and apart, palms raised to the sky. They’re empty.
We philosophers are known for that: while people often come to us for life advice and succor, we’re also famous for being totally depressing or useless in response. There’s something bracing about that persistent strain of darkness in the philosophical tradition, that determination to face the elementary facts, that refusal to offer easy consolation. A lot of us are energized by Camus’s claim that Sisyphus “knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent … There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” It’s cool to be the dark one, the one who wasn’t fooled.
It’s certainly true that the others—the optimists, the fools—can be a liability in a real crisis. They can be dangerous: think of all those criminally reckless brunchers and pre-Patty’s Day partiers this past weekend, not to mention the president’s shamelessly enabling tweets about everything being fine. They can be tiring too. The only time I’ve cried in this whole disaster so far has been when someone tried to repeatedly convince me over the phone to collude in their fantasy that it’d all be over in two weeks.
And the optimists can be irritating. I’ve always hated that rose-tinted “it’s so beautiful, we’re coming together” response to a collective catastrophe. It sounds like a simultaneous orgasm and it does feel like that, sort of. You get it at the bus stop after an earthquake, when people you’ve been riding next to for years look you in the eye for the first time and everyone says, “Well, that was rattling, wasn’t it?” You get it when everyone starts donning a “Boston Strong” cap or t-shirt after passionate, determined long-distance runners have their legs arbitrarily blown off. You get it at a citizenship ceremony, even if the main reason you’re signing up is because you’re worried the asshole-in-chief will deport you. Some people love the frisson of publicly expressed mass sentiment, but when I detect that mawkish sensation rising involuntarily in my gut, the non-joiner in me, the anti-silver-lining-er, resists. No no no, don’t try and redeem this shit! I’m saying. While another rebel part of me is begging please, please redeem this shit. What’s more depressing than an orgasm you’d prefer not to be having?
But the skeptics and pessimists need the optimists, just like the sick need the well. What happens when the whole planet falls into one category? It’s a disaster either way.
So, though the professional doomsayer in me might be thinking, as the planet slips into isolation and darkness, “Now the rest of you get it! Now you know how I live!”—like all those crowing introverts on Twitter at the moment—I’m not. Instead I’m thinking “now I get it”: I get that I need you, you appallingly able-bodied and optimistic people, you people who feel at most a light twinge in the back once a season, you people who have Life is Good® stickers on your bumpers, you people who sing from the balconies of Siena. For the love of god, the whole glowing rose-colored lot of you, remain healthy, keep singing, and stay the fuck inside—for me. For each one of the me’s that are us.
This is an excerpt of a longer essay published on our website.
Click here to read the article in full.
March 19, 2020
LE PRÉ-SAINT-GERVAIS, FRANCE—The French government, of which a certain paternalism, in connection with the still-Napoleonic centralization of command, can seem even in “peacetime” exotic to an outsider, rolled out restrictions progressively. Since noon on Tuesday the 17th it has been illegal to leave one’s house without a permit. Cops are checking. You download and sign it, swearing on your honor you’re just going out to buy food, and fill in your address, which they check. On Thursday the 12th it was announced schools would close; on Saturday the 14th, it was announced a closure of “nonessential businesses” would take effect that night.
I was with friends. We had just left a bar. One of my favorite traits of the national character is the conviction French people have that there is a discoverable optimally enjoyable way of going about anything. (This is what’s meant by savoir-vivre.) H., texting family members all figuring out where they’d hunker down and if the young, more likely infected ones would do best in keeping away from the grandparents, looked up. She said I should call P.—another friend of ours—and see if I could stay with him. As H. and P. know, I live alone.
It was funny, because I had, by coincidence, made a kind of fake, simulated version of that request earlier in the day. I felt constrained to ask P. to sign a piece of paper swearing that I lived with him, which I will explain. I am American and have lived in France nearly five years, non-consecutively (or else I’d be able to apply for citizenship). You have to ask weird favors. (You are lucky, and marked out by your privilege as different from the vast majority of immigrants, if that is all you have to do.) The first I had to ask was in 2013 of a school friend’s aunt, who was generous in agreeing to co-sign my lease as a guarantor. I had a real job, teaching at a university, which meant I was a government functionary; rent was just 500€ a month, but unless you make really a lot of money, you need a guarantor, and they have to be French. More recently, I haven’t bothered trying to rent from an agency as I am, this time around, a student without income in France. I have lived, instead, in a series of arrangements made with individuals.
In the contemporary idiom, the term for one’s situation in the eyes of French bureaucracy is vie administrative, one’s “administrative life.” You take care of it, or not, the way you take care of your body, family, finances. In the first chapter of Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex 1 (2015), in which the eponymous character’s slide into homelessness is achieved believably in about thirty still leisurely pages—flashbacks to old love affairs and all—Vernon, receiving an eviction notice, reflects that he “no longer takes care of any administrative paperwork” [ne s’occupe plus d’aucun document administratif]; a lapse in hygiene, this connects with having “mentally paralyzed himself” [il s’est mentalement paralysé]. There are, in France, charitable organizations that task themselves with establishing addresses for use by homeless individuals. Domiciliation administrative, such addresses are called. Apparently, a time comes when you have to touch base or you’re it.
I’d flunked a visa appointment. My landlord at the time (November) had not honored my request for a piece of paper saying I lived at his place; such paper, which can be replaced by a lease if you have one, must be accompanied by photocopies of the landlord’s ID card and a utility bill in their name, and because I was obliged to use the set of documents I had from a previous landlord, the utility bill was more than three months old. Additionally, on the piece of paper provided by my university, a venerable institution, no mention was made of the number of hours of coursework the program entailed. Despite these failures—I was given to understand this was an act of mercy—the prefecture supplied me with a piece of paper that would extend the validity of my expiring visa as I waited for a makeup appointment at which I would have to make a better showing; this, paper plus visa, would be good through May 21. But I was told to make the appointment for as soon as possible, and I went a couple of weeks ago. I learned that, because I’d moved to the Pré-Saint-Gervais, another municipality, I would have either to start over, making an appointment with the prefecture of Bobigny, or, if my wish was to continue working with the Paris prefecture, with its special office to help students, to live in Paris. An example of someone who does live in Paris is P. I was thinking of going home for a visit in April, and it crossed my mind to do that and come back as a tourist, live here with the default tourist visa, but as of recently that’s out.
I was actually going to bring the paper for P. to sign that night (which H. now refers to in English as “the last dinner, oops, the last supper”), but I forgot it at home—the de facto, where I am staying as the tenant travels in India, seeking treatment for a chronic illness. The apartment is “very personalized,” as I had cause to remark over supper, “but not to me.” This gives me something to do. I am doing something even as I am doing nothing; I am a custodian of the place where I am living, keeping mail that comes for the tenant in a tall envelope and, with all this time at home, dusting her decorative objects, being careful to restore them in their places.
Goethe or Horace?
March 19, 2020
CAMBRIDGE, U.K.—When I lived in Heidelberg in the early Seventies, the city sanitation department had large and very efficient rubbish collection vehicles that went around emptying dust bins and cleaning the streets. For a while these high-tech vans had inscribed on their sides two lines of doggerel by Goethe:
Ein jeder kehre vor seiner Tür
und rein ist jedes Stadtquartier.
[Let each man sweep before his door,
and clean is the whole neighborhood.]
This aesthetically truly execrable couplet uses an excruciating off-rhyme (Tür/Stadtquartier) but look also at the verbs. Grammatically, what one has here is a conflation of two structures, each of which is simple enough in itself. First, a third-person subjective functioning as an imperative (kehre) with an added specification of consequence, the consequent also giving a reason for the imperative: Ein jeder kehre vor seiner Tür, damit jedes Stadtquartier rein sei. Here the verb in the clause specifying the consequent (sei) would seem most naturally, I think, also to be in the subjective. Second, what classical grammarians call an “open” conditional with verbs in both protasis and apodosis in the indicative: Wenn ein jeder vor seiner Tür kehrt, ist jedes Stadtquartier rein.
These two lines are often cited as an admonition to individuals to do their individual civic duty, and, of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but this should not blind us to the fact that, as they stand, they also state a patent non-truth. It is not the case that if everyone sweeps before his or her door, my whole neighborhood will be clean—because the late nineteenth-century “terrace” in which my house is located fronts onto an open public greensward. The Cambridge City Council, in a branding exercise clearly intended to make the area seem posher than it is, has tried recently to baptize this open space “Cannon Green” because apparently after the Crimean War a couple of captured Russian cannons were displayed there for a while, but no one who now lives in the street ever saw those cannons—they disappeared ages ago—and no one who lives here actually calls the place “Cannon Green.” Still, it is a chunk of common land, and by definition that means it is not in front of “my” door, or either of my neighbors’ doors, but has a different status. Will our neighborhood be “clean” if some of the hundreds of homeless people in Cambridge begin camping out on “Cannon Green,” if the grass is completely trampled down and the rubbish bins next to each of the two benches that stand on the green begin regularly to overflow with rubbish?
Goethe does not usually come across as a self-satisfied Bürger of the freie Reichstadt Frankfurt am Main, but he does in this couplet.
It pains me exceedingly to have to admit that in the face of the coronavirus, it is that grinning advocate of aurea mediocritas, the lapsed-republican-turned-imperial-toady, Quintus Horatius Flaccus who had a better idea:
Nam tua res agitur, paries cum proximus ardet
et neglecta solent incendia sumere uires. (Ep. I.18.84-85)
[It is of your concern, when your party-wall is on fire,
and fires neglected tend to grow stronger.]
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Cover image credit: Edward Hopper, “Morning Sun,” 1952