This Quarantine Is Not Not-Normal

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.

Until now.

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 concern 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 make it something new. Even if that means dining out at restaurants every night for three weeks, or high-fiving every stranger just to make touch a muscle memory again, it’ll be all of us together, driven by our desires to remake the world the way we need it.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. 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.

On Learning New Things about Pants and the Body

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:

(Mrs. Hughes nonplussed as always.)

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.

Check It Out: My New ASMR Discovery

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.

Behold:

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.

So Check It Out.

In Defense of Briefs

I’ve been watching a lot of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee these days, and one thing Jerry Seinfeld likes to ask his male guests is what kind of underwear they wear. Many of them say briefs, and Jerry always goes, “Briefs?!” with that incredulous tone we all know him for.

Then he takes a moment to teach his guest about boxer briefs, and how they are superior, and more adult.

His guests never tell him how he’s wrong.

They always just laugh and aw-shucks themselves onward in the conversation. The reason for this might be that they haven’t formulated the argument. Most briefs wearers might only know briefs. They began in them and then continued. But I began in briefs, got shamed into boxers in gym class locker rooms, discovered boxer briefs while working at Old Navy, and ultimately went back to briefs after coming out.

Because briefs are sexy.

Two things that are true about briefs:

  1. The pouch of briefs wraps fully around the scrotum, which prevents it from sticking damply to the thigh, and so you never have to do that extra wide step thing you see boxer-briefers do to unstick the scrotum from the thigh.
  2. Most men look better in boxer briefs than they do in briefs. But still not great. Most of us aren’t underwear models. But any man who looks good in boxer briefs looks better in briefs.

Briefs.

I mean the word alone…!

Why Pay for Your MFA?

Awards, Accolades & Publishing
News came in yesterday that Alan Chazaro, a MFA student at the University of San Francisco, where I teach, won something called the Intro Journals Award from AWP. For those outside MFALand, this is an annual series of awards granted by our prof. org.: the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. (Like the MLA but for creative writing.) Every creative writing program in the country is invited to submit one student’s work in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, which then get judged by a single writer. The top 4 students (8 in poetry) are chosen to win publication in a leading journal and, of course, prestige?the idea being that AWP is introducing the world to talented new writers via journal publications.

Two key things:

  1. The judging is blind. No names or affiliated schools are anywhere on the manuscripts.
  2. A USF student has won an Intro Journal Award every year for the past four years. And we’ve had someone win in every genre.

This is a success worth bragging about, and so I have. Here and on Twitter. And it shows a continued track record of excellence: our students’ work wins awards and finds publication while they’re still students here. And yet, as far as I know, USF has never once been ranked in even the top 50 MFA programs in the country.
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