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:
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)
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.↵
I. Searching for something else in my files this morning, I came across this old note:
How do you get better? How do you get better at being a person? Does it always just happen over time? What if you get worse? What if you work so hard every day to become somebody and in the end you become worse? No one’s ever going to tell you, and so you’ll never know, and there’s nothing worse than a terrible man who doesn’t know how terrible he’s become.
I seem to have written this seven years ago, back when I still lived in Alabama. They were very dark years, for a number of reasons. These are the years I’m writing about now, on these very last days of my sabbatical.
I’m not sure which aspect of myself I was thinking about when I wrote this, but all these years later I’m struck by how often these questions still feel valid, and the answers just as elusive.
The saddest tweet I read today (always a tough contest) was this one:
If you don’t know Andrew Sullivan, he’s a gay conservative terrified at the potential for racial justice conversations to put him out of a job. He likes also to holler online about how leftists are trying to shut down “civilized debate” while also throwing tantrums when people push back about his falsenesses:
In short: he’s one of a number of mediocre thinkers paid—still, in 2020, confusingly—to profess opinions. But Sullivan is not my focus here, it’s the unfortunate person in the first tweet who lauded Sullivan for “making sense of all the chaos.”
My point in this post is that that’s how despots come to power.
While searching last week for the origins of the archaic term bedswerver (it’s from The Winter’s Tale), I found this pic:
You might recognize the composition from the image behind the “distracted boyfriend” meme from 2017:
Being who I am, I thought it was interesting that the latter photo became the viral hit and not the former photo, and I wanted to know why. After all, few if any of the memes relied on gender, the distracted boyfriend standing in for “people”. So why not let a girlfriend stand in for “people”? I had my suspicions, but I took it to the court of public opinion that is Twitter:
You can click on the comments to read along if you’d like (unless it’s past 30 days and the tweet’s been autodeleted), but the general consensus was that the girlfriend in this pic isn’t distracted/horny, she’s offended/angry. Only in the context of the original, boyfriend-centered pic, goes the argument, would we ever think this girlfriend was aroused.
I’m curious about this because physiognomically these two are doing the same things: furrowing their brows and pursing their lips. Also: we can see what this woman looks like when she’s offended/angry, because you’ve probably noticed by now that the model also plays The Girlfriend in the viral pic. Her angry expression looks like dropped-jaw, widened eyes.
This is a change in my position. Used to be I understood that fantasies are separate from reality and do not indicate anything about a person’s behavior or ethical beliefs. So I’ve refused to judge people into Nazi porn, or, say, Daddy-Dom / Little-Boy fetishists who dress the latter up in diapers and give them the former’s dick to suck. I don’t judge incest fantasies or rape fantasies. I don’t judge race play, even though it can make my stomach curdle.
This isn’t a radical position. This is sexology 101.
Yesterday I found a fantasy that I’m judging the hell out of, and I want to figure out why.
This is from Jack Morin’s The Erotic Mind, which is a self-help-adjacent book about the roles that fantasies play in developing one’s individual eroticism. Morin surveyed around 350 people about their peak erotic experiences and longtime sexual fantasies to gather the data from which he’s formed his ideas. “Judy” is one such survey respondent (note very 1995 language):
Ever since I was about fifteen I’ve fantasized about being a prostitute. I was always supposed to be “good,” but prostitutes claim the right to be blatantly sexual. As a hooker, I relish my seductive walk, whorish clothes, and dirty talk. I imagine a man slowing down for a look at me. If I like what I see, I ask if he’s in the mood for action. Sometimes I’m a streetwalker and we do it in his car or a fleabag hotel. Other times I’m a sophisticated call girl catering to rich businessmen. But I’m always in control, totally sexual, and I don’t give a damn about what anyone thinks.
Perfectly good sexual fantasy. Common as hell, I imagine. But in Morin’s drive to understand the emotions behind our fantasies, he asks people to think about them, and where they came from or what makes them so charged, and Judy has a revealing answer:
I know I kind of wrote a whole book on this, but I find myself thinking about it again today, this ongoing way of finding insights into human nature by comparing our behavior to animals’. Often it’s wolves or dogs. There’s alphas and betas, these folks say. Putting aside the fact that alpha wolves don’t exist in nature (PDF link), there’s really no reason why we should believe that studying animal behavior can clue us into our own.
Actually, there are two reasons to do this:
Your understanding of (or faith in) evolutionary psychology is such that you believe our current behaviors are dictated, even unconsciously, by Darwinist notions (e.g., survival of the fittest, sexual selection, etc).
In looking at what’s natural in human behavior, you focus on the natural while equating animals with The Natural.
If you’re a #1 person I, an evolutionarily aberrant homosexual, don’t know what to tell you. If you’re a #2 person, I’ve got a guy for you to read: Thomas Nagel (another PDF link).
Okay I haven’t read him either, but I’m going to after having come across his ideas on sexual perversions in my research. Plaguing philosophers (among others) for centuries has been the question, What’s natural human sexuality look like? Most folks follow St. Thomas Aquinas in looking at the “natural” part of that construction. And most folks fall into his “animals = nature” trap.
So: because animals only have sex to procreate, natural human sexuality = procreative sex.
Again, lots is factually wrong about this, but Aquinas died almost 750 years ago so we can forgive his not knowing about dolphins or penguins or bonobos. But you can see how this idea (along with all kinds of religious dogma) has made it easy—indeed, made it “feel natural”—for people to hate / kill queers.
What Nagel does is say, Shouldn’t we focus on the human part of “natural human sexuality”? That is, what separates us from the animals and puts us in the category of Human? In that sense, what’s unnatural is only having procreative sex (again, in Aquinas’s ancient formulation). Or, more up-to-date, because animals seem not to take partners’ mutual pleasures into consideration, human sex that does the same is unnatural.
To Nagel, you’re a pervert if you refuse to recognize your sex partner(s) as mutually aroused and interested in sexual pleasure, and you’re a pervert when you disallow yourself to become your partner(‘)s(‘) sexual object.
More complicated? A little. But look at how Nagel refuses to let specific genital mash-ups or partner-numbers or any of those details get in the way of finding a path to moral evaluations of sexual behavior. I know this isn’t new, this idea (Nagel’s paper dates to ’69), but it’s new to me as a way to shut down animal behaviorist arguments.
“We are not animals, we are given them,” is how I resolved the question. Nagel’s seems more to my speed today.