But last week I watched the first half of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin broadcast by the Met, and noted in the subtitles this line, sung by the mezzo to the baritone about the soprano: “She is beautiful without the arrogance of beauty, noble without the arrogance of nobility, pious without the arrogance of piety.”
I liked it because the virtues (whether the 4 cardinal or 7 holy ones) have always seemed like obnoxious impossibilities. It’s like when I first started talking again to Jesus and reading about his deeds and ideas. I’m supposed to live as he did? Who can possibly compete?
The living as turns out to be key. Here, the mezzo (a) points to how the virtues become more virtuous and useful when we see them as ways for acting, guidelines for one’s behavior and comportment, while (b) simultaneously warning us against exemplifying or being characterized in full as any one of them.
In other words, make the virtues adverbs, not nouns.[*]
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
You might want to point out that the mezzo extols the soprano’s virtues with adjectives. She “is beautiful” and “is pious”, but I’m reading those as effects of verbal actions. Or better: how is her generally being-a-person? Oh she does-be’s beautifully. She is-acts nobly.↵
Two quick thoughts on the push to reopen stores and beaches and things while states are still seeing an increase in covid-19 cases. The obvious thought is that undereducated people are being convinced that fighting The Rich Man’s War to Resume Making Money is a virtue, a form of patriotism, in much the same way the U.S. military works to convince young people of limited means that dying for oil barons in endless wars might make them a hero.
The less obvious thought is that undereducated people are being convinced that Deciding For Yourself When To Get A Haircut is a form of civil disobedience, which has a grand history in the U.S., and which feels very good to take part in, with the long-term added benefit for our current administration of becoming the obvious scapegoat if a second-wave of virus deaths happens this summer.
In other words: it won’t be Trump’s fault that so many Americans have died. It’ll be all these disobedient people, who in turn will be happy to take the blame away from their deadbeat dad.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. In California, there’s a (semi-) detailed plan for reopening what’s been closed since March. Right now, retail stores have reopened with curbside pickup only. The next phase is to open “personal care” businesses like salons and gyms. The final phase is to reopen concert and sports venues.
It’s odd that California’s plan doesn’t mention bars and restaurants (my guess is they’re somewhere in the late-2 / early-3 stage, at least smaller-capacity ones). But it’s all I and my friends here talk about. Nobody’s yearning to drive to a curb to pick up a pair of shoes they bought online. Everybody wants to be able to hang out together.
That reopening shops and businesses is our focus has something to do with public health but a lot to do with money-making always taking a priority over people’s well-being.
I. We in San Francisco are into our third week of sheltering in place, officially. Neal and I had already been staying inside for about a week before the order. Other states and cities are finally getting on board. I know: I hate it too.
I’ve said a lot to the friends I text that I can’t wait for things to get back to normal. This usually means going to bars and restaurants and movie theaters. Hugging friends again. And if I think individually, this sheltering in place feels very abnormal. Something is wrong and off, and I feel driven to return to a time I didn’t have those feelings.
Thinking beyond my individual experience makes me see this desire as faulty and dangerous. The circumstances of everyday life were deeply strange and abnormal—funny, in the 2nd definition of the word—before the virus hit. I couldn’t understand why billionaires were allowed to accrue tax-free billions when even owning a home was increasingly out of reach for large swaths of the population. Or while environmental protections were being dropped as our summers get hotter and natural disasters happen every year.
You see it anywhere. The growing tolerance of racism in our political discourse. The reliance not on public services but rather profit-driven companies to provide people with basic needs, despite them being unprofitable. A constitutional right to own a gun but not to a job or a house. Very little of how we operate as a public, or a populace, makes sense or feels normal.
II. You’ve probably heard about the environmental impacts quarantine has had—clearer waters, birds returning, lower emissions—and what I hope everyone is talking about is how necessary large, strong government systems are in getting people what they need to survive and be well. I’m not talking just about the obvious need for single-payer healthcare (clearly affordable if we can just decide to pay for it), but also about the role of public health experts.[*]
In this light, I’m trying to see quarantine as a correction, a stabilization, a re-norming. This idea came from reading Deborah Nelson’s chapter in Tough Enough on the philosopher Simone Weil. Writing about the era in which Weil’s work was published in the U.S. (1940s/1950s), Nelson points to the return to domesticity the country was going through (or what another scholar she cites calls a “bomb shelter mentality”):
The embrace of normalcy—often under coercively normalizing terms—was a post-traumatic effect, the outcome of decades of dislocation, deprivation, and loss during the depression of the 1930s and the mobilization of World War II.
“Coercively normalizing” is key. It’s easy to see how one person’s norm is another person’s nightmare (if you’re happily, fervently monogamous in your marriage, just imagine state-sanctioned polygamy as the social norm to see what I mean).
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. (And I think I’m not alone in being heartened by the growing criticisms toward the ultra-wealthy and how they’re spending their luxury quarantines.)
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. In this line of thinking, I was very happy to wake up this morning to Peter C Baker’s argument in The Guardian about the opportunity this virus provides us to make a better world:
For years, in mainstream politics the conventional line – on everything from healthcare to basic living expenses such as housing – has been that even if the world has its problems, expansive government intervention is not a feasible solution. Instead, we have been told that what works best are “marketplace” solutions, which give large roles to corporations motivated not by outdated notions like “the public good” but by a desire to make a profit. But then the virus started spreading, governments spent trillions in days – even going so far as to write cheques directly to citizens – and suddenly the question of what was feasible felt different.
From this perspective, the task today is not to fight the virus in order to return to business as usual, because business as usual was already a disaster. The goal, instead, is to fight the virus – and in doing so transform business as usual into something more humane and secure.
When this normal is over, we’ll all be ready for something else. Let’s collectively insist on some useful strangenesses. And I don’t mean just in terms of income redistribution and egalitarian infrastructures. We can make New Normals in our behavior and personal choices.
I don’t want a return. I’m seeing this time as a wiping of the slate. I, like you, will be spending a lot less time inside. But I don’t think I’ll ever teach a traditional workshop class again. And I won’t let fears of being branded a creep stop me from seeking out the connection of touch I can feel I need.
Maybe what I’m doing is seeing the pandemic as a long New Year’s Eve, piling up resolutions to live better and to Manifest The World I Want etc etc. But I’m happy with that. On New Year’s Day, it’s hard not to look forward, the weight and mess of the previous year falling off you like a shedded skin.
Let’s all be remade by this time apart, and return better for each other.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Though I also worry that this administration’s total lack of leadership during the pandemic will lead to people more affirmed that it’s only the free market (and like fucking Elon Musk) that we can rely on to save us.↵
Last week, I learned on my own why older men do that thing, when they sit in chairs or hunker down, where they pluck up the thighs of their pantlegs with their fingertips. I was at home. I think I was cleaning. I don’t remember how I put 2 and 2 together, but I put them together: it keeps your waistband from sliding down your ass.
Now: far be it from me to keep men from showing off some of that ass whenever they bend over. Plus low-rise pants are very 2010, so this may stop being a problem for a while.
I can’t quite figure out the physics of it. I think it’s that the knees pull at the pants when you sit, or maybe the ass does? The thing with plucking up the legs, like this guy here is doing…
…is that it seems to distribute excess hanging-leg fabric toward the groin, so that the waistband stays in place no matter what shape you’re bending into.
I’m 41 years old. For ever, I didn’t understand why older men did this, and at the risk of embarrassing myself, I assumed it had something to do with what I heard often in jokes: older men sometimes sit on their testicles. Is it true? Is it only while wearing boxers? I imagine I’ll learn the hard way someday, and as I’m 41 that day might be sooner than I think.
One effect of plucking up the pant legs is that it tends, almost paradoxically, to tighten up the groin area, or maybe one’s bulge gets tucked in by the pant’s fabric, like a toddler at bedtime. So the move shows off a bit of the goods, for better or for worse, like in this photo of Lord Grantham:
Why I’m even bothering with this post is that nobody ever taught me this trick, neither my father nor the hundreds of issues of men’s magazines I’ve read since I turned 20. (Not that it’s a tool of the patriarchy or anything; I imagine the physics works on all genders’ bodies.) I’ve just been letting my shirt hems come untucked and brand of underwear get broadcasted for decades.
So I thought I’d share the knowledge. And in doing so, I’m reminded of Edward P. Jones’s “A Rich Man”, which my colleague Laleh Khadivi turned me on to some years back. It’s about an older man, a bit of a lothario, and one element of his allure gets rendered early in the story:
“Listen,” he said as she talked about her father, “everything’s gonna work out right for you.” He knew that, at such times in a seduction, the more positive a man was the better things went. It would not have done to tell her to forget her daddy, that she had done the right thing by running out on that fat so-and-so; it was best to focus on tomorrow and tell her that the world would be brighter in the morning. He came over to the couch, and before he sat down on the edge of the coffee table he hiked up his pants just a bit with his fingertips, and seeing him do that reminded her vaguely of something wonderful. The boys in the club sure didn’t do it that way. He took her hand and kissed her palm. “Everything’s gonna work out to the good,” he said.
I knew exactly what that “something wonderful” was the instant I read it. It’s, I imagine, akin to what supporters of the president feel every time he tweets or opens his mouth: daddy’s here and will take care of everything. It is a good feeling that’s not always a good-for-you feeling, like starting in on a third martini.
A better feeling, for me at least, is knowing how and why to do the move, which is to say knowing myself better, my body better, and looking out less for the comforting help of other (older) people.
Let’s take a look at Prasanth. He’s a man in India who reviews consumer goods and more on YouTube. He places the item in front of a white posterboard display so that it seems to appear on a cloud, or in some void outside the spacetime continuum. Then he speaks off-camera into a close microphone with a touch of echo in the background, like what we imagine the voice of God sounding like.
Prasanth has a voice like feathers strumming muted guitar strings. His plosive P’s and B’s are wet enough to tingle my scalp without being spitty, and his vowels are carried by this low husky rasping that for me seems requisite (hail Bob Ross, ASMR King). But the real magic of his voice is the thrumming of his half-trilled R’s. It feels exactly like having your hair stroked gently, or your back scratched. I could listen to him for hours.
ASMR is as subjective as comedy, and so I don’t expect you to find Prasanth soothing. But I do expect you to find him interesting. Here is a list of some of the nearly 3000 things Prasanth has reviewed:
Every video is the same. The thing to be reviewed materialized on the already vacant white space. “Let’s take a look at this NAME OF OBJECT,” Prasanth says. Usually when it’s a food item, he’ll show you all the sides of the box, point out its country of origin, list many if not all of the ingredients. He’ll tell you how much he paid for the item in rupees, and then say, “or uh … X dollars or so,” for us Americans. He likes to read aloud some of the package copy, or in the case of his review of the Mag Magazine Board Game, he’ll read a number of the playing cards inside.
He is vocal about his disappointments. The one video I have saved, and the first I discovered, is his compilation of stationery sets. The first one contains a pad of paper that looks like a USD 100 bill, but when he unwraps the thing he sees that only the cover is the 100, the rest of the papers are blank white. Later, a pen that has a plastic flipping hourglass at the top has only enough sand to count about 3 seconds. “That’s a little disappointing,” he says, and points out it would be great if it were more like a minute,
Still he gives it 5 hearts at the end, and he says what he always says: “Quite nice. Check it out.”
Then he reviews a plastic Disney’s Frozen slingshot with a pencil sharpener inside.
Prasanth never uses the term ASMR in his videos, though his bio page admits that his videos are a good cure for insomnia. While there are now links to purchase the items reviewed (there didn’t use to be), the point of the videos seems less a public service and more a kind of David Byrnean art project. Prasanth seems not to have found a consumer good he didn’t find Quite Nice, and as somebody with anxieties about rampant consumerism there’s almost an exposure therapy effect of these videos: I’m made to accept, and in short time to wonder, about all the pointless crap the world creates.
Plus, Prasanth’s enthusiasm for the world’s goods comes with a voice and tone that sounds flatly dead in the YouTubiverse of young pretty folks being all up in the camera and Just So Excited To Show You This Thing Today Guys! He never exhorts. He doesn’t ask us for anything, but only to Check It Out.