How It’s Going in August 2020

The rare times I see anybody who isn’t my partner, in person or on camera, they ask “How’s it going?” and I say the same thing each time: “The same. I’m the same. Every day’s the same.”

In California right now, it’s hard to go outside because not only do 5,000 new people test positive for COVID-19 each day, but there are enough wildfires surrounding the Bay Area that the air outside isn’t safe to breathe. So now even going for a walk isn’t advisable, and we spend all day in our 500 sqft apartment.

I’m trying to write about something other than self pity, but I do pity us in our position, and I do feel anger that U.S. profit-motive policies over my lifetime, coupled with the ruinous fascist my fellow citizens elected, have made it a danger just to leave my home. I think what I’m trying to write about is how it feels to miss the people in your life, that hard hole in your heart, while also kind of knowing that you are right now feeling exactly what they are.

We’re suspended, it feels like, and in this suspension, we’re all lonely, but lonely together.

Really what I’m aiming for here is some solution. Is every day’s being the same a gift or a poison? My nature leads me to want to see it optimistically as a gift, as I wrote here, many many months ago: This Quarantine is Not Not-Normal. Back then, I saw the pandemic as a chance to recalibrate our commitments and priorities:

Once the numbers come down, once a vaccine is available, if what results from this pandemic is a welcomed return to normalcy, whatever norms the country returns to will always only be majoritarian norms—that is, the norms of the wealthy ruling class…. Instead, I’m thinking of this moment as the normal I want, even with all its disruptions and cruelties. For if the time before the virus came was normal, it’s not a normal I want to return to. 

I wrote that in week 3 of sheltering in place. Tomorrow begins week 25. What I latched onto then was the potential for change, and what I’m affected by now is the absence of it. Admittedly, much has seemingly changed in our lives since April 1, but depressingly there’s nothing new about wildfires burning much of California, cops murdering black people with impunity, and members of this administration (finally) getting indicted for their crimes without much change in the president’s approval rating.

Nothing has changed and everything is getting worse. That’s what waking up feels like.

I don’t write about God a lot here, but one thing I learned some years back is what it means, to me, to “serve God”, and how I personally can go about it: make new things in the world. “Things” there can be anything: new ideas, new experiences, new meals to cook Neal for dinner, new essays, new blog posts. I can text a friend. I can take a different path on a walk through the park.

I can even tweet. In an absence of moments and spaces in the world to make new things in, I’ve been going online. I only kind of sometimes like online. Though we’re often happy to hear from one another there, none of us is focused on each other, and online time doesn’t provide for sustained thinking and feeling.

Mind the slippery-slope argument here, but online is, by design, a distraction from the mess of the living world; when that world is taken (however temporarily) from us, distraction risks becoming absorption.[*]

So maybe what I’m getting at is the feeling of being increasingly absorbed in a distracting medium. And I’m also getting at the removal from my life (maybe yours, too) of a future to make changes toward. The future has always been uncertain, but I’ve also always felt like I was waking up each day moving toward its becoming. Now, that future just keeps looking like the present. What should I be making new things for in this world?

Which gets me back to change. Is this what mindfulness is supposed to be like? Are Buddhists more equipped for these times than the rest of us laser-focused on teloi? I am not a mindful person. To accept the present and know what I want from it, to plan only to honor the present and be the man I want to be inside it—these aren’t things I’ve really learned how to do.

A couple years back I made a list of things that I felt together made for a good full proper day. That’s what I labeled the list, A Good Full Proper Day:

  • Pray
  • Engage in a writing project
  • Walk or physical activity
  • Connect with a friend (email/postcard/texting)
  • 2 fruit servings
  • Water all day
  • Show Neal love
  • Write in your journal
  • 30 minutes reading before bed

This is my style: make a rational plan for feeling better or doing better and Deploy Procedure. It’s a way to distract myself from the task of listening to what I want or need. I already know what I want or need, see? I made a list.

This endless present feels like it’s not asking anything of me, and that’s part of the problem, but it’s also feeling like it’s tasking me with accepting this challenge. How do we fill our days in days like these? Take these moments right now, the one when I’m writing this sentence and the one when you’re reading it. What’s the one thing you want to be doing after it? What new thing can I make in this world, this static isolated place?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. For what it’s worth, movies made this shift 100 years ago, once filmmakers started exploiting the mechanics of this new medium—editing, chiefly—to create narratives with more character development than, say, Two Drunk Irishmen Wrestling. In time, you had The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the launching of a new high artform. We’ve had the Internet for a quarter of a century now, and I don’t see any um … content creators making such a move yet.

R.I.P. Randall Kenan

News came this morning of the death of writer Randall Kenan, who came into my life twice and made a lasting impression. Once, as a graduate student, I had to take him to the State Office Building to get a replacement Social Security Card, so that my school could officially pay him for the guest lecturing he was there to do. It was a ludicrous, silly task, and he took it in an only lightly bewildered spirit—I’ve had similar chores with visiting writers and usually they’re quick to get vocal about their being inconvenienced. Randall had this buoyant, sparkling laugh that he wasn’t ever stingy with.

Eight years later I was honored to be his fellow at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I was there with my story collection, but I wasn’t writing fiction then, and so I didn’t take up his time with a one-on-one conference about my work. I immediately regretted it. I regret it still, but I remain fortunate to have watched him talk about fiction in class. His co-lecturer was a notorious blowhard, well-meaning but exhausting, and it was such a delight every time to watch Randall gently and insightfully step forward, so to speak, and center our focus and concern.

If you don’t know his work, I can recommend his debut novel, A Visitation of Spirits (or his forthcoming one, If I Had Two Wings). To help remember Randall, I dug up this old post/review of Visitation, from 2016:

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Some of the Ways I Love (& Don’t Love) My Families

When I was 13, my granddad drove me to things like the orthodonist. He’d moved in with us after my grandma died. He was born in 1909, impossibly old to me. I’d watch him drive, eager to start learning. He did this thing where when it came time to signal a turn he’d lift or lower the turn signal with his pinky, just like a half-inch, and then halfway through the turn he’d let it go. Whereas my mom, when she drove, would just push or pull the stick all the way and let it click back off itself.

Once, on the way to the orthodontist, we came to a red light that was more backed up than usual at this hour. Two cars ahead, there was a car in two lanes; the driver must have realized too late that they needed to go straight and not left, and so our left turn lane, with our green arrow, was stuck. Granddad raised a finger off the fist he gripped the wheel with, pointing at that car. “Bet you she’s a yellow-skin,” he said.

I think of that moment a lot when I hear the words “family first.”

I think of a lot of things. I think of James Dobson and his anti-gay Focus on the Family. I think of the colleague I once had who said that asking faculty to host events for students on the weekend was “the opposite of family-friendly”—meaning my family wasn’t a family because it didn’t have kids in it. I think of The Godfather and the Fargo TV series and Oedipus and ruin. And naturally, I think of Philip Larkin (pictured, right) and his perfect poem, “This Be the Verse”:

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Lost Beauties of the English Language

Back when we could wander libraries, I wandered past this beauty on the reference shelf of the Mechanics’ Institute. Ages ago, when I was in gradschool, I read the advice that a good way for a writer to expand their vocabulary is to find a pocket dictionary and underline those words you know but never use, because habit or other motivations never bring it to mind when you need it. I did this years ago but never took the time to make a list of such words, which is the only thing that makes this practice useful.

For the MacKay book, the job was more “underline those words that aren’t at least worse than the common words we now use instead of what like Chaucer or Spenser were writing”.

These are the lost beauties I love:

  • afeared – struck with fear (contra the French afrayer)
  • aftermath – the pasture after the grass has been mowed, a second mowing
  • alder – genitive plural of all; superlative prefix (Alder-Father = father of all)
  • bangled – beaten down by the wind
  • barm – yeast (from Ger. bier-rahm); hence “barmy”: yeasty
  • bedswerver – adulterer (from A Winter’s Tale)
  • birler – a pourer out of liquor; “birling” being to pour down
  • blashy – thin or weak, as tea or beer
  • brangle – dispute or quarrel (from be-wrangle); “brangled” means confused or intricate
  • branglesome – quarrelsome (Mackay also has “janglesome” and “tanglesome”)
  • brightsome – shiny
  • chancely – accidentally
  • chirming – low confused twittering of birds that huddle in a tree before a storm
  • dam(m)erel – effeminate man overfond of society of women and disinclined to society of men
  • dave – to thaw
  • daver – to droop
  • doly – mournful, melancholy, doleful
  • dorty – conceited, proud
  • eldritch – haunted by evil spirits, ghastly, unearthly, eerie
  • embrangle – to perplex (hence “embranglement”, perplexity)
  • feather-heeled – nimble, agile, sprightly (after Hermes)
  • feckful – powerful
  • flaunts – finery, gew-gaws (cf. “trantles”)
  • franch – to crunch with the teeth
  • hurkle – to shrug the shoulders
  • inwit – conscience (opposed to “outwit”: knowledge, info)
  • kexy – juiceless, dry
  • lowlyhood / -ness – humility
  • lugsome – heavy, difficult to drag along
  • mammer – to hesitate or doubt
  • plackless – moneyless
  • rindle – to sparkle like running water; a mountain stream
  • ro(a)ky – hazy, misty, nebulous, not clear (from French for hoarse, thick)
  • samely – monotonous, unvaried
  • snipsy – sarcastic, cutting
  • squintard – a person who squints
  • thoughty – meditative, pensive
  • tifty – quarrelsome
  • trantles – articles of little value, toys, petty articles of furniture (cf. “flaunts”) twisty contentious, ill-humored, capricious
  • wofare – sorrow, misfortune (the opposite of welfare)
  • wordridden – to be a slave to words without understanding their meaning; to be overawed by words rather than an argument
  • yonderly – shy, timid, retiring
  • youthy – having the false appearance of being youthful (cf. childish v. childlike)

There are a lot of words in this language for “quarrelsome”, which reminds me of fruit bats, who it turns out spend most of their squeaking hours complaining. But what I mostly took away from the book is that Charles MacKay[*] has a fundamentalist insistence on the Anglo-Saxon that would make even James Joyce roll his eyes.

That said, it takes a certain type to love at first sight “samely” over “monotonous”. “Monotonous” has suddenly become such a stupid word, all those dumb O’s, that stupid silent U. Call me wordridden, but “samely” is … I dunno it just feels honester.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Mackay? There’s not a single spot in the book where this name isn’t printed in all-caps so who knows?