Thursday, April 30, 2020

Minds immobile in the silent vat of our skulls

Day 50. I'm getting sick of this, really today I just want to cry, I'm tired of planning breakfasts and of planning dinners and of rationing whatever it is, I should save that egg so I can bake something nice on the weekend, I won't have a second cappuccino today because I'm afraid of running out of milk too soon, I'm tired of planning when and where to do groceries, I'm tired of planning when and where I can just go for a walk.
But we are not just minds immobile in the silent vat of our skulls: we are minds in movement, and we find movement intrinsically rewarding and motivating. So, the developmental move from crawling to walking illustrates in a deep way the theme of cognitive mobility as necessary for us to fully understand and participate in our physical and social worlds. The experience of walking, of movement, is the experience of a brain and mind moving through the world. And this movement in turn changes our experience of the world because the mechanisms of brain and mind are more fully engaged by movement.
Reading Shane O'Mara's In Praise of Walking is a kind of torture right now. As someone who would regularly daily rack up 8km by just, you know, going places without even going places, I feel curtailed. Walking to the mailbox or the recycle bins in the building's garage exhausts me. I am demonstrating O'Mara's theory in reverse: I am disengaging from the world and devolving.

I'm tired of rationing the sparkling mineral water, I'm tired of not being sufficiently hydrated, I should just get myself a soda maker, but of course it's sold out in this country, and the shipping charges are more than the cost of the appliance.

I'm tired of not being able to get down to work in the morning, of not getting comfortable, I still haven't figured out where to sit, where should my office be, at the kitchen counter or the dining table, I'm tired of my back hurting. My head hurts, not every day, but a lot of days. Sometimes it's after I've been for a walk, it must be allergies, my sinuses are pulsating. But I'm also overdue to have my eyes checked. My laptop screen is too small and too low, but then I shift it and I end up squinting and straining my neck. I ordered myself an ergonomic laptop stand, it shipped over two weeks ago, it may be another four weeks before it arrives.

I'm tired of doing yoga. It seemed like a good idea to sign up for the introductory offer, a limitless month. But I have limits. I can't do yoga every day. Who has the time?

I'm finding working from home extremely stressful. There's no escape:
One big problem is there's no escape. With nothing much to do and nowhere to go, people feel like they have no legitimate excuse for being unavailable.

Then there’s the fact that people have turned their living spaces into makeshift offices, making it nearly impossible to disconnect.
I'm not so bad at being unavailable. Mostly I just feel guilty about it.

I resent work for invading my life.
Then there's the fact that aspects of our lives that used to be separate – work, friends, family – are all now happening in the same space. The self-complexity theory posits that individuals have multiple aspects – context-dependent social roles, relationships, activities and goals – and we find the variety healthy, says Petriglieri. When these aspects are reduced, we become more vulnerable to negative feelings.

"Most of our social roles happen in different places, but now the context has collapsed," says Petriglieri. "Imagine if you go to a bar, and in the same bar you talk with your professors, meet your parents or date someone, isn't it weird? That's what we're doing now... We are confined in our own space, in the context of a very anxiety-provoking crisis, and our only space for interaction is a computer window."
I feel like I processed all these difficulties and emotions weeks ago, in the early days. I feel somewhat vindicated now that major news outlets have articulated them, I am validated by being part of a vast social trend.

Last night I dreamt I was in the office, it's where I work, but I didn't recognize the space at all and it was a team of people I'd never worked with before, I don't know what we were trying to get done, but someone recognized a photo on my dating app and couldn't believe anyone would be interested in Jerdkhgarwa — I couldn't catch his name, we've been messaging a while, but I don't know his name — he works there too, a real weirdo they thought, but I was interested in him and wondered why I hadn't run into him before at work. It was crowded and there was champagne at lunch. One woman accused me of procrastinating on the training she was giving me but I really had to go the bathroom.

I can't focus today at all, I'm so tired, I just want to cry.

I guess I won't be going to Paris anytime soon. I miss being kissed.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The life lived in the external or internal world of a writer

When promotional material for Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know fell into my inbox, I couldn't resist comparing its contents against my own mental list of quirky writers and literary obsessions.

Written by Ian Haydn Smith and illustrated by Kristelle Rodeia, this volume covers a decent cross-section of slightly off-mainstream literature available to the English reading public. Some of the writers are better known for their poetry or essays, but all had authored at least one novel. (For those interested, the publisher's page reveals the full list of writers.)

Note: The contents of my digital review copy differ slightly from the public list (swapping out five entries). I truly hope Eve Babitz and Joan Didion made the final cut over Joseph Heller and James Joyce.

I've read 32 of them, and obsessed over several of them throughout various phases of my life (though only one served as namesake for a pet cat).

Women writers are relatively well represented (23 of the 50). Regarding language, 18 of them do not write in English. All but 12 writers are dead.

Only one author had I never heard of (Juan Rulfo).

Each entry is topped by the writer's name and dates, with a pithy descriptive label, like "Chronicler of the Weird" (Murakami) or "The Literary Outlaw" (Genet) or "The Experimenter" (Lessing). Some of these are repetitive, not particularly insightful, arguably not even accurate, but I'd be hard-pressed to come up with better options — that's a tough exercise.

The entry covers a combination of biography, publication history, and public reception — it sticks to objective fact rather than attempt to offer insight. There is little attention to any particular work, but in most cases a style is attributed to the author — "Southern Gothic" (McCullers) and poetic Confessionalism (Plath) — and their work is described in broad thematic strokes. Every entry is complemented by an illustration of the author (that's Bulgakov below, and can you guess who it is on the cover?), and some of them feature quotations.

The book is indexed (mostly people, institutions, publications, and prizes) and includes a list of key works for each writer.

But how do you define the cult status of a writer anyway? Without setting hard and fast criteria, Smith focuses on the fervour of their readership and their transgression of genre boundaries.
However, for all its focus on their work, this book is ultimately about the creators. Which raises another question: is a cult writer defined by the work they produce or the life they have lived? As you will glean from the portraits included here, the answer is: both. More specifically, it depends on the life lived in the external or internal world of a writer.
(Umm, what? I think I disagree.)

I would dispute the status of some of the writers included (and here my own biases will be laid bare).

One stumbling block for me is that I don't think it's enough to have authored a cult book to be considered a cult writer. To me, you're only a cult writer if, having experienced your work, I'm compelled to search out and devour everything you've ever written.

By my thinking, JRR Tolkien does not fit the bill. The world he created is massive and influential; Middle Earth inspires worship, but Tolkien does not. Besides, he is too obvious and too present in our culture to be a discovery — cult status is reserved for the special, beyond mainstream.

Pauline Réage authored but one book, The Story of O. She is, I think, unfairly labeled here as "the sado-masochist author," diminishing the sexual paradox of liberation in slavery that it explores and the controversial brand of feminism it inspires. While I think her novel is an important one and it enjoys elite status, the author, anonymous for years, remains essentially unknown.

Ken Kesey. Really?

And Ayn Rand. Does anyone read her seriously after high school?

But I was pleased to see Chris Kraus in this company (whose work I only recently discovered, and yes, I am compelled to explore more).

And then there are the inevitable oversights.

Smith justifies some of his choices in the introduction: "Thomas Pynchon stands in for other experimental writers such William Gaddis, Roberto Bolaño and David Foster Wallace." Even while they're all postmodernists, and often maximalists, they're quite different. I suspect Pynchon is less prevalent on college campuses today than the others. But maybe not. (Smith acknowledges, "Times are changing and so should this list.") Since the entries tend toward the biographical with only a minimal attempt to place these figures on the literary landscape and describe their significance and influence, the idea that one writer might stand for a group isn't strongly conveyed. (I would've chosen Bolaño to represent this group, because he resonates more strongly with this millennium's readers.)

Smith nods at a few other writers that didn't make the cut (I would have included Mark Z Danielewski over several of the others).

The one writer missing who, in my view, absolutely ought to be here: Clarice Lispector.

Despite my quibbles, I love lists, and I think Cult Writers makes for a great coffee table book. It has smallish dimensions but the illustrations are a lot of fun. It's not the kind of book you read cover to cover; you flip through and learn a random fact, reminisce over the copy of Cortázar your ex gave you, be inspired to finally read Train Dreams.

I'd happily bestow this book on the right college student, possibly annotated to better mould their mind.

Whom would you include in a list of cult writers everybody needs to know?

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The one realm of free expression

Most mornings I wake with my body full of tension, as if I've been clenching my jaw and my fists all night.

One night this week I dreamt I went to a party. It was in something like a gallery space. I was only there because a man I have a crush on (but who is off limits) was in attendance. But I wouldn't leave the ground level because I refused to take the elevator, which I assumed would be virus-infested. Which meant I was essentially acting as greeter for people I didn't know at a party I didn't really want to be at. I stepped back from all the air kisses, puzzled that no one was talking about the elephant of the plague, as if it had never existed.

I recently stumbled across an article on How Dreams Change Under Authoritarianism, and it has spurred a new obsession — investigating my dreamlife. That life is typically closed to me — for most of my life, I have slept deeply and do not remember my dreams. My sleep over the last year or so has become restless — light, often interrupted, and inadequate — an effect of various stresses and preoccupations but also of aging and my changing body. But this month I am dreaming more.

Charlotte Beradt collected dreams in Nazi Germany, which were finally published in 1966.
The links between waking life and dreams are indisputable, even evidentiary. In an afterword, the Austrian-born psychologist Bruno Bettelheim notes the collection's many prophetic dreams, in which, as early as 1933, "the dreamer can recognise deep down, what the system is really like."
See also Sharon Sliwinski's discussion, adapted from Dreaming in Dark Times.

Beradt's dreamers "grappled with collaboration and compliance, paranoia and self-disgust, even as, in waking life, they hid these struggles from others and themselves." I suspect we are also dreaming about compliance and paranoia. I don't mean to suggest that our quarantined lives are in any way comparable to the terror of the morally repugnant Third Reich. But pandemic means health and economic crises, with everyday stresses to cope with and moral imperatives to contemplate.

Surely the collective psyche of our society is in turmoil. Are we dreaming of life under lockdown, or after lockdown? Of our old life, or a better life?
At times, The Third Reich of Dreams also echoes Hannah Arendt, who saw totalitarian rule as "truly total the moment it closes the iron vice of terror on its subjects' private social lives." Beradt seems to agree with this premise — she understood dreams as continuous with the culture in which they occur — but she also presents dreams as the one realm of free expression that endures when private life falls under state control. Under such conditions, the dreamer can clarify what might be too risky to describe in waking life.
How does the stress of physical distancing with its associated enhanced need for emotional connectedness present in dreams?

Yesterday, there was a puff of a bee outside on the stairs up to my apartment, dead I thought, but when I went back down to bring up another load of bags, I noticed it was still moving. When we went out for a walk later in the day it was gone. That must be how the bees got into this morning's dream. There was a bee on my mother's kitchen counter, it was slow, like it was drunk, but I managed to wave it through the front door. Then there was another that emerged from between the fruit on the counter, it looked bright and young, but it struggled to fly at all, I trapped it under a glass and took it outside. I started turning over everything in my mother's kitchen. I knew the bees were back from wherever they'd disappeared to, but they are all sick and dying.

What are you dreaming these days?

(Deborah Levy dreamt a pangolin walked into her bathroom.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

How much I am a person

Now that I have so much time to myself, I wonder at my times of happiness, why I've been allowed them, even now when I am lonely. Why I can walk and how even walking, at the right hour, in this temperature or that one, the lights just coming on, or the sky lightening, I am able to love it. How much I am a person.
I am zipping through Indelicacy, by Amina Cain.

I wonder why everybody says they have so much free time now. Were they always out at bars and restaurants? Or at the gym? Have I always lived slower than them? Or less fully?

Arguably I have less "free time" now than before. I cook more, I clean more. At first I resented this. But now I am feeling fine. Happy, even. Perhaps introverts are better equipped for lockdown. After some initial sleep disturbances, I am starting to feel remarkably rested. I have books to read and things to learn.

Yesterday, Poland reopened its forests.

Yesterday I took delivery of a dozen samosas and a mango salad. And a fresh baguette.

Yesterday, we watched a movie about a sinister religious cult that was even weirder than we'd hoped.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Ideologically opposed to her own despair

I choose what I want to see. I know I am imagining this. I, in the here and now, am willfully abstracting my own history. Because? There are a number of answers to this but today's will be: I can never find my past where I think I've left it and, in his designated role as catalyst, he is the worst offender of all. He will never just lie down where he lay. I keep discovering him wandering around inside me again.
Strange Hotel, by Eimear McBride, is another in a series of slim, meditative novels I appear to be drawn to these days.

The prose is beautiful and easy, but this is not an easy book to read. One has to work to assemble the story.

Strange Hotel is a little like a pared down version of Helen Weinzweig's Basic Black with Pearls (but ultimately very different). One review says it's reminiscent of Joanna Walsh's work, including Break.up. Deeply interior.

We know next to nothing about the narrator — not her name or profession or why she's travelling so frequently to international destinations. We don't know what her days are like. We have only glimpses of hotel-based evenings, mornings, and middles of the night.

There's a neat thing McBride does in switching form third person to first person, I barely noticed it at first, but it is very deliberately meaningful. It's a lovely interplay of the past and present, how we become who we are. (And it tells me that if I'm aware of that, I've got a better shot at authoring my own future.)
She scans her body for some distracting wound to press but it's pretty well; even her mouth is not, currently, in need of a dentist. Her skin, despite her revels, bears not the slightest nick. Her shoes may be nondescript but fit so she has no grazes or blisters to attack. In short, she possesses no immediate means by which to hurt herself back into the clear. How she longs for that sky to be blue. But, ideologically opposed to her own despair, she contemplates a heavy blow to the wall instead. And the ameliorating effects of such an activity are: the gratifying click and bruise of knuckles. The pain shooting its ferns up into her arm. The slightly amazed exhalation, then the clarity behind. All very tempting, yet she does not permit herself this. There remains the matter beyond the door, and only with careful deliberation will she ensure it becomes appropriately resolved.
I'd been meaning to read McBride for years, and this new novel felt like the right place to start. I'd heard or read an interview that basically covered what's documented in this exchange in The Quietus:
I was writing about a middle-aged woman – which makes sense because I am a middle-aged woman – and how angry and bored I am by the tropes about, you know, what it's like to be a middle-aged woman and what our preoccupations are, the things we worry about and how we're supposed to behave.

So, yes, I really wanted to take back the notion that a middle-aged woman going to a hotel room to have some anonymous sex with someone is an act of self-hatred and self-harm.
So, being a middle-aged woman who is somewhat preoccupied with the notion of a middle-aged woman engaged in and enjoying casual sex, how could I not read this?

I was a little disappointed, then, to find this book was not so subversive as to let its narrator simply take pleasure. She satisfies a physical need while applying an emotional analgesic. (But I forgive McBride. After all, this is not my story.)

We learn that she's known heartbreak and grief, but we're never told the full extent of it.

While it's not exactly self-destructive behaviour she engages in, it carries an element of undermining her own pleasure, if not her happiness. It's not unconnected to her emotional past, and it's a conscious effort to maintain her current level of emotional well-being. She's afraid of falling in love again (I'm not), because it would be a betrayal of her "true" love, because it would be an act of forgetting, because it would open the door to the potential for fresh loss.
She has lingering concerns about whether anything exists beneath what she is standing on. And, let's face it, there's nothing like the threat of the abyss to make one reluctant about purposefully striding across an unfamiliar floor.
Interview: The Quietus

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

A creature of oil and mess and stain

Day 35. No baguette. My mistake: Too early to the grocery, before they'd received their bread delivery.

I am starting to find my groove. Yoga, jigsaw puzzle, German lessons. Work. Watch a movie, read a book. I could almost enjoy lockdown. Except for the part where I have to procure provisions.

Yesterday I ventured to the pharmacy. Hands sanitized, but stopped at the door. Questioned, instructed, and allowed in. (I hesitated, wondering if my list really warranted a trip. What did I need here that I couldn't get on my weekly grocery trip?)

Approach the counter, let the employee know what you want and he'll go get it for you.

Extra-strength Tylenol. Small or large?

Hair conditioner. Brand? I don't know. Whatever's on sale. (Can I smell it first?)

Cortisone ointment, I brought an empty tube. But I want the higher percentage.

Pads, do they still call them maxi pads? Mini pads? I need a pack of regular, and pack of long, or heavy flow. Brand? I don't know. I usually stare at the shelf for ten minutes wishing I had the gene for brand loyalty and trying to remember what I bought last time. (Have I really been doing this for more than 30 years?) He brings me a package. No, I want thin. (They still make non-thin?) No, not panty liners. Yes, that'll do. And a pack now for heavy flow.

Maybe toilet paper. How much is it?

And on it goes.

Some things, like cat litter and kleenex, I decide can wait till I'm browsing grocery store shelves myself.

Do they have any Easter chocolate left? Am I allowed to ask that? There are now two women waiting behind me. (Well, one woman is two metres behind me; the other is standing near the entrance, to ensure appropriate physical distancing.)

It's not often I have to articulate my shopping list and the micro decisions regarding size, brand, quantity. And in another language to boot. [I remember needing bandaids in Portugal, 1993. (And a corkscrew.) Everything in Poland, 1994.]

Still reading Eimear McBride's Strange Hotel.
While she may not consider herself to have achieved any particular greatness in life, it's been hard enough to keep on clocking those decades up. To get to her late forties has taken a lot of ploughing through. There may have been considerable work put into forgetting too — sometimes with more success than she cares to admit — but without those accumulations displayed in plain sight it would be as if she had never lived at all. She'll not stoop to clichés about the blank canvas of youth — despite, generally, subscribing to their truth. She's just not unhappy about being a creature of oil and mess and stain. She has been bitten and will bite and there is a life in her home, even when she is not around, which bodily exists and is true.
I regret not asking for smokehouse almonds. They're hard to find.

Monday, April 13, 2020

You too have experienced time

And then it is another day and another and another, but I will not go on about this because no doubt you too have experienced time.
There's a lot happening in this little book, even while it feels like there's nothing happening at all.
Just the other day I heard one woman tell another that slowness is a form of goodness.
Weather, by Jenny Offill, covers climate crisis and survivalism, drug addiction and depression. Relationships under strain. Health concerns and health care concerns. The political climate. How to turn dread into action. How to use a can of tuna as an oil lamp. How life doesn't quite go to plan. Whom to invite into your doomstead.

Spare on the surface but dense with meaning, as the LARB put it.

This book was released February 11, with several positive reviews published at that time and throughout the month, largely before COVID-19 affected our privileged Western lives in a material way. Had it been released a scant six weeks later, it might've been considered in a different light.

My reading of it, the beauty of it for me, is inextricably linked to the backdrop against which I experienced it.
There is a period after every disaster in which people wander around trying to figure out if it is truly a disaster. Disaster psychologists use the term "milling" to describe most people's default actions when they find themselves in a frightening new situation.
We've been milling for weeks now. We are milling at home alone. Don't go out unless you need to, they tell us.
"Why don't they farm deer?" I wonder. "Is it because they are too pretty?" She shakes her head. "It's because they panic when penned."
Groceries once a week. The occasional sanity-preserving walk to breathe in the fresh air, although it's sometimes more stress-inducing than is worth it. Avoid physical proximity; nod in acknowledgement when someone veers off the sidewalk to make way.
"Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life."
It is eerie how relevant I find her words. I did not read this novel for plot; I read it slowly, for daily meditation.
It is important to remember that emotional pain comes in waves. Remind yourself that there will be a pause between the waves.
Tragically, I will not remember this as a novel that inspires environmental change. There is no disaster event, other than the one we've lived with for years. No climate climax. Weather does not show us a world gone wrong, but slowly going wrong, anticipating the effects. It's the atmosphere we live in, and with a more pressing crisis now invading our lives, it's hard to remember that we even care about the environment. It's a luxury to think about the future of the planet when our daily actions may have more immediate life-or-death consequences.

Ironically, pollution is down and oil consumption has dropped drastically, as traffic dwindles to a trickle of essential services.
He tells me that at the wilderness camp they teach the kids something called "loss-proofing." In order to survive, you have to think first of the the group. If you look after the needs of others, it will give you purpose and purpose gives you the burst of strength you need in an emergency. He says you never know which kids will do well. But in general the suburban kids do the worst. They have no predators, he says.
Weather is full of meditative wisdom, though it hits a mark other than the one intended.

The book ends in hope, kind of. Disaster doesn't strike, it only continues to loom. Everything seems to come into balance.

Literally, the closing page leads us to the Obligatory Note of Hope, where Offill invites us to consider, "How can we imagine and create a future we want to live in?" She also offers Tips for Trying Times, which I find are perfectly suited to these pandemic days.
It's summer and there's nowhere for anyone to go.

"Why did you wash your hands for so long?"

"They were very dirty."

Saturday, April 11, 2020

There was youth and then there was later

On the thirty-first day, I run out of the good scotch. I listen to Beethoven's Ninth repeatedly, with its Ode to Joy.

Last night I dreamt I was in Vietnam with a man I didn't recognize for a car parade I didn't care about. The man was a fool and his car was so white it sometimes looked black. While he enjoyed a hero's breakfast before the event, I waited for someone else to fall in love with me. I wanted to go see the cars lined up on the boulevard, so I stepped out of the hotel directly onto the beach. There was no road. The building extended out into the water, and several dozen loungers were set up but, oddly, not facing the water, rather looking along the sand and into the forest. The water was blues and greens I'd never seen before, with exotic trees on the beach leaning down to drink from it. I wanted to snap a photo, if I could just get around the corner of the building. The gentle waves are lapping at my feet already. I'm wearing white sneakers (in fact, I think I'm wearing tennis whites) and in my left hand is Strange Hotel with my index finger marking my place and in my right hand my phone poised to take a picture. My shoes are already wet so I step forward a bit further. And the current pulls my feet out from under me, I'm only a metre or two from the edge, and I can see the bottom, but I can't touch it, it's dropping away beneath me, and I think about dropping my book and my phone but already it seems too late and I wake up with a gasp.

Afternoon featured a live-streamed yoga session. I'm doing the seated cat pose and suddenly my cat, seated on the chaise longue directly in front of me, sleeping so soundly seconds beforehand, is very alert and looking at me intently, as if to say, what the fuck are you doing?
Sometimes she forgets all the places she's been until someone asks and she'll remember then. Then remember that what she's been regarding as bedrock has, in fact, acquired sediment. No, she hadn't been there once but now she has. The time for not knowing about it has passed, and often considerably, on. She likes to think this happens only about countries, allowing her to enjoy recalling that she had indeed travelled and is no longer the girl who's never been anywhere. When this happens it's a real, and valuable, pleasure but is also not the only occasion it happens to her. She keeps so little of her past bonded close that she frequently has cause for surprise. Here lies a whole slab of your life you've completely left out in the cold. Not on purpose, out of cowardice of shame. Not, in fact, for any good reason she can name. Except there was youth and then there was later but only youth got to dig its claws in.

She's heard it's to do with "getting older" or lines on the face, or greyer, or the hideous "thickening around the waist". It's about finding it harder to get pregnant — which she does not even want. It's having too many children or not enough. Being with someone too long or too long without. It's disparities in the workplace. Professional failure, or success. It is that despite everything, all that's been accomplished and all that's been missed and all the accretions of the life that's been lived, for a woman in her early forties, unhappiness is what's assumed to be in store. That, and the mandatory belief in a younger face behind her face which is the only place where the possibility of any happiness resides. She really admires the effort and co-ordination it surely required to make this belief as rottenly insidious as it is now. But she does not believe it and objects to the assumption she ever would.
The world does not want you to go into yourself, the instructor says.

We practice mindfulness. We practice yoga. Everything is practice.

This writing is practice. I practice German and music. My cooking is practice. I practice breathing. What the fuck are we practicing for? Will there be a show? Will I be good enough? I've been practicing for a lifetime. We practice to master something we can never master.
There's nothing to be gained by the gratuitous exacerbation of pressure.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

The arches of her feet unclench

Twenty-eight days later. Every morning between 7 and 7:30, I hear a flock of geese fly overhead.

Once or twice a day, we hear an airplane. The girl and I look at each other and wonder: Who is on it? Where do they come from? Is it like this over there too?

Groceries today. A woman near me was roundly scolded by store personnel for shopping with her teenage son. She was aggressively defensive about her bad back, she can't carry all these provisions by herself. He was escorted to wait outside. I went off-list and bought jellybeans.

Guided meditation today. The guide's wisdom: The mind wanders; that's what it's meant to do.

Yoga today. The more I practice, the stiffer I become. As if awareness of my tension heightens it.

Everything today.

This week I'm reading Strange Hotel, by Eimear McBride. It could be a while before I find myself in a strange hotel.
There's not much she knows about that, pours, and does not spill a drop. Drink. She drinks it down with some considerable relief at outmanoeuvring her travel fatigue, the buzzing, the desiccating heat and its risk of a maudlin dusk. That's it right now, agitating her veins. Coursing through until the arches of her feet unclench — the most secret pleasure of drinking, she thinks, and unquantifiably nice. Her wrists will follow soon. Inevitably, knees. Loosed shoulders are desirable, if difficult to achieve. The key is to stop before it gets behind the eyes, after which all circumspection generally flies. That's tight-rope drinking. Tonight she will make the attempt — to unhitch from while remaining in possession of. This is her intention. Certainly, more is not in the plan and, unwilling as she is to expand on that, she had little difficulty in recollecting why. So, she will drink only until her musculature relents which, even from this starting point, will require some intransigence. She has the time for it though, probably plenty too.
Sonofabitch pinot noir today.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

The engulfing doom

Neath the sea the land sinketh, the sun dimmeth,
From the heavens fall the fair, bright stars;
Gusheth forth steam and gutting fire
To very heaven soar the hurtling flames.

The fates I fathom, yet farther I see;
Of the mighty gods the engulfing doom.
Today is day 27 that we are removed from our lives. I'd suggested a casual curriculum a couple weeks ago — a book to read, a language to learn, some documentaries to watch. I'm pleasantly surprised that Helena took it to heart.

Last night, we watched Werner Herzog's Into the Inferno, ostensibly about volcanoes, but more about volcano-rich belief systems, including North Korea, with an odd bit in the middle about fossil hunters.

Also, Herzog recites from the Codex Regius, an Icelandic book of Norse poems.

Comes the darksome dragon flying,
Nithhogg, upwards from the Nitha Fells.
He bears his pinions as the plains he o'erflies,
Naked corpses; now he will sink.
Nature is fearsome. This time disease, a dragon of doom.

Monday, April 06, 2020

All merged into one enormous rock

I have never asked a bookseller for a book recommendation. Disclosing desires and expectations to a stranger whose only connection to me is, in abstract, the book, seems too much like Catholic confession, if only a more intellectualized version of it. Dear bookseller, I would like to read a novel about the banal pursuit of carnal desire, which ultimately brings unhappiness to the ones who pursue it, and to everyone else around them. A novel about a couple trying to rid themselves of each other, and at the same time trying desperately to save the little tribe they have so carefully, lovingly, and painstakingly created. They are desperate and confused, dear bookseller; don't judge them. I need a novel about two people who simply stop understanding each other, because they have chosen to not understand each other anymore. There should be a man who knows how to untangle his woman's hair but who decides not to one morning, perhaps because now other women's hair has become interesting, perhaps because he has simply grown tired. There should be a woman who leaves, withdrawing either slowly or in a single sad and elegant coup de dés. A novel about a woman who leaves before she loses something, like the woman in Nathalie Léger's novel I'm reading, or like Sontag in her twenties. A woman who begins to fall in love with strangers, possibly only because they are strangers. There is a couple who loses the ability to laugh together. A man and a woman who sometimes hate each other, and will, if they are not stopped short by a better part of themselves, block out the last ray of innocence left in the other. A novel with a couple whose only engaging conversations are about revisiting past misunderstandings, layers and layers of them, all merged into one enormous rock. Dear bookseller, do you know the myth of Sisyphus? Do you have any version of it? An antidote? A piece of advice? A spare bed?
— from Lost Children Archives, by Valeria Luiselli.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Love in the time of corona

Allegedly you are not supposed to cut to the chase and ask your fellow dater to tell you about the time he was most soul-crushingly lonely. Allegedly this is not a best practice. But it makes a date so much less boring.
I considered deleting my dating apps. What's the point of them? It's not like I could actually meet up with someone for a date these days. Besides, I'm too busy barely surviving and self-caring and learning German.

But sometimes those apps help keep boredom at bay, if not loneliness. They help me maintain romantic hope: some photogenic and articulate man will someday swipe me off my feet.

Maybe this plague will give me perspective. Dating has been tiring and tiresome of late. Generally I prefer to meet my potential matches as soon as possible — in-person chemistry is so important — but the rules are changing.
I don't know what's wrong with me. I can't seem to stop making bad decisions. The weird thing is they don't sneak up on me. I can see them coming all the way down the pike.
Maybe I could use this time to consider what it is I really want and possibly even nurture something meaningful through text.

I shouldn't be surprised: dating apps are seeing a lot of activity during lockdown, you horny bastards. Men I barely glanced at are suddenly concerned for my well-being. At least there are some forthright ones among them: "Wanna have video sex?" (I don't see the point of video sex with a stranger. I date because I want someone to touch me.)

One fellow invited me over to his place, suggesting I simply stay there for the duration. In another lifetime I might've taken him up on it. But plague-dating requires a different level of trust.
I just... I couldn't bear the part where you fell out of love with me, I tell the guy who smiles at me on the subway. Telepathically. But he hears me. Now he's playing some game on his phone, not looking at me at all.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Techniques for calming a fearful mind

There are little signs everywhere in the library now that say BREATHE! BREATHE! How did everyone get so good at this breathing thing? I feel like it all happened while I was away.
Today nothing much happened. I feel outside of time.

I burst into tears while making my morning cappuccino. The coffee was so much better at the office. Maybe it's the hormonal flood of PMS, or the onset of menopause, one or the other, I can't tell which. Maybe it's because I didn't sleep well.

I'd read an article before going to sleep about a study of coronavirus in cats and whether they could carry the virus from human to human. Apparently cats can become infected from a human and can pass the disease to other cats, and if you are sick, you should protect your pet by keeping your distance. Yesterday I'd noticed Rosie sneezing more than usual, so I drifted off to sleep thinking I must've picked up the virus on my grocery excursion, I must be asymptomatic, and Helena's simply lucky, or immune, and while I've been wallowing in the company of my cat and relishing our early mornings together when she burrows into my right hip, the whole time I have in fact been killing her, and this preoccupied my dream life last night.

I tried to work, but that didn't go very well. I'm mad at myself for having taken on work I shouldn't have to do. I'm mad at myself for not initially understanding the extent of another job. And I'm mad at myself for not being able to pay attention.

At least I had a yoga break (via Zoom, with coworkers), difficult as I find it to breathe these days. I zoned out through my other two meetings today.

I did spend some downtime deliberating over which jigsaw puzzle to purchase. My current puzzle is 2000 pieces and slow going, it's fucking hard actually, a veritable tsunami of puzzle, everything is blue. I bought it for myself at Christmas because I like to have a puzzle to get me through the cold, but this winter I went to Morocco instead, as if I knew I wouldn't have the opportunity to travel again anytime soon, as if I knew I should save that puzzle for a metaphorical rainy day. Ordinarily when I start a puzzle, I have to finish it — I forgo sleep and showers and spend all my time on it. But this is no Christmas vacation. There's no deadline — it's not as if I have to clear the table before the dinner party. So I've been pacing myself. But someday in the not-too-distant future I will finish it. I have my eye on a couple 4000-piece more-conventional landscapes, and I should pick one while shipping is still available.

I wonder if I were reading something other than Weather right now, would I also find it profoundly appropriate?
Q: What are the best ways to prepare my children for the coming chaos?

A: You can teach them to sew, to farm, to build. Techniques for calming a fearful mind might be the most useful though.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

The incredulity response

"Wait," I say. "Were you talking about seconds? When you said you were so out of step and living slowly, did you mean by seconds?" She considers this. "Yeah," she says, "seconds probably."
I feel out of step.

Today I had a nap. A rainy-day late-afternoon two-hour nap. An emotionally necessary nap, not a physical one. I feel guilty about it. I need to make up work time.

Apparently thousands of masks arrived in Quebec the other day, which were then mysteriously routed to Ohio.

They are starting to fine people for being outside unnecessarily, for gathering. This is fast becoming constitutionally treacherous territory. As if groups of two or more might be "conspiring." (Conspiring to what?)

The provincial premiers plan to release their modeled projections, but the prime minister is holding back. What does he not want us to know? Is he afraid of instilling panic? What would we do as a panicked society? The toilet paper and the flour are already gone. Congregate in the parking lot of Timmie's?

Or is it a question of timing? Maybe he's timing the panic response for maximum effect. To stop us dead in our tracks.

"What it takes to survive a crisis" looks at how people respond to life-threatening situations:
People simply don't believe what they're seeing. So they go about their business, engaging in what's known as "normalcy bias." They act as if everything is OK and underestimate the seriousness of danger. Some experts call this "analysis paralysis." People lose their ability to make decisions.
The incredulity is starting to wane. We are entering another phase.

But this is a crisis on another scale. The times call for a benevolent dictator. We might be lucky. If we're lucky.

Weather is clearly about a different sort of crisis, but it's discussed (to this point) only tangentially. The feeling of crisis is broadly applicable.
That night on the show, there's an expert giving advice about how to survive disasters, natural and man-made. He says it's a myth that people panic in emergencies. Eighty percent just freeze. The brains refuses to take in what is happening. This is called the incredulity response. "Those who live move," he says.
Where can we move to?

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The acceleration of days

Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters?

Old person worry: What if everything I do does?
Day 21 of wfh. Today I went to the grocery store.

I woke later than planned. No reading ritual, straight to work. There is not enough separation between work and real life these days. Whatever "real life" is.

I'm trying to find the optimal off-peak shopping time. I wanted to put in a couple hours before a midmorning excursion.

Today I put on real pants, not yoga pants or cozy leggings.

I haven't done groceries in two weeks. I used to simply pick up whatever I needed on my way home from work. I haven't figured out how to shop in this new world. I made a list, but it stopped making sense as I filled my cart. It doesn't help that my local grocery store recently renovated and reorganized. I don't know where anything is anymore.

In and out, they say. Be efficient with your time and in your choices. I have a mini meltdown in aisle five because I can't find any harissa spice blend. If they've stopped carrying it, my life will change drastically.

Part of the stress of shopping lies in the mystery of what I may bring home with me. Not so much that I will be infected — I don't matter — but that I will inadvertently infect my daughter. She's not a child anymore, but I'm still responsible for her. It's not just me fending for myself.

It's a variation of the rescue distance: the further I venture from our safehouse, the more chance of encountering a disease vector that will lock onto me and breach our perimeter.

I bought flowers.

I got home in time to catch the last half of my workplace's guided meditation session. (What does "workplace" mean if it's not a place anymore?) I notice that I spend a lot of the time holding my breath.

I changed my pants. Real pants are overrated.

This evening I read a few more pages of Weather. The narrator (does she have a name yet?) tried a meditation class. Like me. She's cynical. She's a realist. She has garbage to take out.
My #1 fear is the acceleration of days. No such thing supposedly, but I swear I can feel it.