Epochs

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.” — St. Augustine

Friend Jenn is an ER doctor. At the beginning of March, when it was clear the coronavirus would ravage the country and the richest nation in the world couldn’t supply enough N95 masks for its hospital workers, she and the other docs slid their masks into brown paper bags at the end of their shifts and wrote the dates on those bags. The masks could sit for five days — the estimated time for virus to die off — before cleaning and re-using them, if necessary.

“The other day I was marking my paper bag and I remembered writing March 3,” she said. “Now suddenly I’m writing November dates.”

Was this the longest year, or the shortest year? First the toilet paper ran out at Costco. Then I rushed off a New York subway two stops early because I was too scared to cough while Chinese — back then, only Wuhan was locked down and the anti-Asian racism raged. Then yellow caution tape went up around the playgrounds and masks went up on our faces. I picked up Eva from school, and it still hasn’t reopened. Friends started gardens, and sourdough. In June, I started wearing a Christmas sweatshirt that said, “Merry Merry Merry” to try and cheer myself up. QR codes came back, for menus at restaurants only open in what used to be their parking lots. We attended drive-by birthday parades. And Zoom weddings. The three-year-old showed me how to mute and un-mute her Zooms. We got to know the parks and the running trails and everything that could happen outside. I smized as much as I could.

I’m still wearing that Christmas sweatshirt, only, it’s actually Christmastime now.

Time’s elasticity has never mystified me more. The Groundhog Day-ness of our routines, the complete lack of travel, the death of serendipity, surprise and strangers … did it stretch time or compress it?

Neurologists say novelty enhances memory, and while 2020 was devoid of the “novelty” we used to plan for — vacations, milestones, the gatherings where you’d meet novel new people, we got surprises we didn’t want: a public health crisis, economic crisis and social crisis. A presidential election, while resolved, has permanently damaged our already fraught American democracy. Being hyper-alert and anxious all the time would, reasonably, stretch time in the way trauma does. And relationally, I feel as if I’ve known my COVID19 trench friends and “foxhole crushes” for 80 percent of my adult life, despite really only deepening our friendships over the grueling months of the plague.

We wanted the election to hurry up and come so we could be put out of our uncertainty. We wanted this year to hurry up and end. And suddenly it’s almost over and I’m sitting here thinking, WTF happened to this entire year? What have I done with myself, if anything?

Psychologists study the “trip home effect,” an illusion in which we feel like the drive back from a destination is shorter, even when it’s the same distance. The common explanation was that familiarity undergirded that feeling — you recognize the landmarks on the way back, and you’re devoid of the original uncertainty of that drive. A more recent study points at expectation as the reason why the drive home seems shorter:  “Initial optimism made the trip out feel longer than expected … pessimism starting back makes the trip home feel shorter.”

Or, it’s about distraction: You’re more focused on a target when you’re going somewhere for the first time, but when you’re coming home, you’re more easily distracted, making the trip seem shorter.

In pondering the elasticity of time this year, and how the trip home effect might relate, I stumbled on perhaps the bigger, more philosophical question: Is life in a pandemic trying to get to a destination, or trying to get home?

What To Read During A Pandemic

Since the 2016 Trump election, I have made it a priority to read at least 52 books a year, and have kept up that pace during the tumultuous years since. I find it a balm to bury myself in a book and do some “deep reading,” as Ezra Klein calls it, and am better for it. I see new frameworks and systems, find myself connecting concepts to life or work, and in general, reading expands me and I love it.

This year is different. (The word “different” is doing a LOT of work there.) I am trying to write a book of my own, which is not going well for all the reasons you can expect. And I find it hard to concentrate long enough to read well. Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been impressive creative work coming out this year. So I’ll recommend a few periodicals that resonated with me and might stay with you, too.

Essay: “When the World Went Away, We Made a New One” by Leslie Jamison
(And her NY Review of Books piece on the early days of quarantine while suffering through the virus, single parenting her toddler, is also deeply resonant)

Poetry: The Blue House by Tomas Transtomer

Testimony: 1964 Testimony by Fannie Lou Hamer before the Credentials Committee, Democratic National Convention.

Longform News: The Truth is Paywalled but the Lies are Free, by Nathan J. Robinson

Hug A Tree, Or, Everything Is Always Changing

Photographer Nate Anderson shoots the remains of a burned out Eastern Joshua Tree in the Mojave National Preserve.

I learned Ruth Bader Ginsburg died while I was standing outside LAX, just back from my first flight since March 12 and waiting for the annoying LAX-it shuttle to the Uber lot. A friend simply texted, “RBG. Fuck” before I received a series of similar texts with just the single word.

A conversation with conservationist Brendan Cummings.

This gutting news came at the end of a four day trip to the Mojave Desert for VICE, where we drove past mountains on fire to see the burn scar of an August wildfire that killed tens of thousands of trees in the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world.

Team Vice among the dead trees. L to R: Curtis Mansfield, Sam Rosenthal, Nate Anderson, me, Sarah Svoboda

Climate change was in the haze and the heat. Climate change was under our feet, in the scorched earth on which we stood. Reporting this devastation — and efforts to do something about it — is crucial and I’m pleased we got to get the exclusive footage up there in the Mojave National Preserve. I’ll share this visual, heart-breaking story on Monday. Behind-the-scenes, it meant briefly returning to BC — Before COVID, when I took long road trips or hopped on planes all the time for these intense reporting trips.

First flight since pre-quarantine

Everything is changed. Driving out to Joshua Tree, the sound guy and I avoided stopping anywhere. Hotels don’t do cleaning service because COVID. Everyone is fortified with their masks and clear plastic shields. We wore masks in all the interviews, even though they took place outside, because of the optics and for the extra protection.

Flying for the last leg of the reporting made me feel anxious and suspicious. I was scared to sneeze. In the Sacramento airport on my way home (from the one interview we flew into town for), only one restaurant in the food court remained open — the vegetarian one, natch.

But we also found joy and serendipity on this trip. As a VICE team, we ate and drank together outside by the pool after long days, sunburned from the desert and pricked by burrs at our ankles. Producer Sarah got a chance to see her sister, brother-in-law and toddler niece for the first time since Christmas when we did a drive by their balcony in Sacramento. My friend Rachel and her new baby, Simone, are also staying in Sac during COVID and the ladies drove out to our interview location so I could sneak a moment with Baby Simone. My little brother, Roger, had come to LA to help care for the girls while I was away, and we siblings were able to reunite for the first time since December at LAX for a mere moment, as he was headed home to Dallas and I had just landed from Sacramento.

When Roger and I reunited at LAX for two minutes before he took off. We snapped a photo for Mom and Dad

After I got home and got the girls down, David Greene, one of my most reliable drinking buddies and closest friends from NPR West, gathered a few of the regular friend squad for a night out of drinking and revelry like the old times. Only, we were always outside and we hugged with masks on and with our faces turned as far away from one another as possible. We used to go drinking together at least weekly, and we hadn’t since March. Finally we were all together again which felt restorative after a nonstop reporting trip and given the news, a tough, tough day.

I got home just before midnight and the earth shook. At first I thought, oh, maybe I’m drunker than I thought but nope, nope, it was an earthquake. Magnitude 4.8, and no damage or injuries here, but a reminder the ground beneath us is always changing.

The Big Idea

If there is one big idea I have really spent the year interrogating and emphasizing through my work this year, whether it’s my book (which is about capitalist-driven definitions of beauty that drive an endless cycle and competition toward unachievable standards), or through my newish social science and parenting podcast, Labor, it’s about the fallacy of emphasizing personal responsibility over systemic fixes.

Whether we’re talking about climate, health and caregiving policies, how we treat poor people or reckon with race, it all boils down to this: The US consistently asks individuals to take both the blame for systemic problems and the responsibility for solving them. This strain is synonymous with neoliberalism, which dominates the globe’s economic systems, and especially so in American society and culture.

The toxicity of this idea is made tragically clear in our largely preventable COVID hellscape this year. Ed Yong writes:

“Pushing for universal health care is harder than shaming an unmasked stranger. Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, and Americans gravitated toward the latter. News outlets illustrated pandemic articles with (often distorted) photos of beaches, even though open-air spaces offer low-risk ways for people to enjoy themselves. Marcus attributes this tendency to America’s puritanical roots, which conflate pleasure with irresponsibility, and which prize shame over support. “The shaming gets codified into bad policy,” she says.”

I also serendipitously got to reinforce this idea in a TED Talk I introduced this summer, from the journalist George Monbiot.

“Our good nature has been thwarted by several forces, but I think the most powerful of them is the dominant political narrative of our times, which tells us that we should live in extreme individualism and competition with each other. It pushes us to fight each other, to fear and mistrust each other. It atomizes society. It weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living. And into that vacuum grow these violent, intolerant forces. We are a society of altruists, but we are governed by psychopaths.”

Worth a watch.

Online School For Small Children, A Poem

To the parent or guardian of

Student

Know this address, as it serves as the gateway to Schoology

Google Apps

Edgenuity

Benchmark

Zoom

And other tools used by your child’s school

Activate and access accounts to ensure readiness when learning begins

The PIN will be mailed to you in a separate letter in the coming days

The class code is incorrect

Choose an account

627dyze

It wont let me do it

Whenever you sign into Google classroom you have to log in as her mymail credentials 

ihustile0001@mymail.net

This page isn’t working

accounts.google.com redirected you too many times

Reload

During these unprecedented times

Wishing you a successful school year

Things I’ve Done While Quarantined, A List

Topless Tuesday was every day, in quarantine.

Gulped down my vitamins with vodka
Wiped my own snot onto my shirt sleeve
Wore Sunday Funday shirt on Tuesdays, and Thursdays, but who knows which day it was, ever
Accidentally showed up a day early for someone’s surprise birthday parade
Finally hung that one framed picture
Organized little plastic baggies of toiletries plus money for the homeless
Went to a bunch of drive-thrus, masked
Yelled a lot at my kids, sorry
Got yelled at by my kids, they’re not sorry
Wrote fifty letters to strangers
Received so many thoughtful, personal responses from my new pen pals
Helped connect doctors and frontline workers with the tech industry so they could get their own Slack to share information
Let toddler go topless all the time
Read a book that said, without irony, “Have you asked your spirit guides for help?”
Considered dying my hair with Kool-aid, just to try it
Started a food scrap garden experiment

Back On The Streets

Rolling deep with Team Vice in LA.

They use the term “the streets” as a catch-all for beat reporters who “work them,” but you don’t actually have to be ON the streets for it. But this week for reporting with my latest new employer, VICE, we were literally on the streets of Santa Monica and Venice, with the homeless. The official number of those experiencing homelessness in LA County is something like 66,000.

At work in Santa Monica.

For me this was a return to the field — or streets — for the first time since the original stay-at-home order hit California in early March. I’m working with VICE News as a correspondent on the West coast now, made possible by becoming a project person earlier this year. (I’m not contractually tied to any org exclusively anymore, wheeeee!)

“But I love plastic” was part of a mural on the wall and photog Zach got it in frame, making for a fun joke.

The crew and I were talking over tacos on Wednesday, saying we were honored to be telling a story about the emergency effort to get vulnerable homeless off the streets as the virus raged, because it’s an opportunity to tell the stories and flesh out those experiencing homelessness. Humanizing people who so often go unseen in our communities even though they live among us and are full and complex human beings, is what journalism is here for.

But of course, reporting during COVID19 is a different, eerie ballgame. We had risk assessment people monitoring us and our reporting environs. We had a doctor who made sure we kept enough distance or that we were never in any indoor space for longer than a few minutes. We were sanitizing nonstop, we were temperature checked everywhere, we were gloved and SO masked that I will technically be appearing on your television but largely unseen, because I and others are all masked, all the time.

So much delight to note from behind the scenes: I love watching documentary camera men do the dance of keeping out of each other’s shots and figuring out who is going to position where, all while rolling on the action. They just gesture at each other and communicate with their silent movements. I love our LA native musician who worked sound, Defari, who made all our mics invisible. I love being with a crew again, especially a producer who handled all the logistics and booking and planning and made sure that if I missed a question, it was covered.

Sarah the producer and I became fast friends and ended up laughing over drinks on patios after each long shoot day; it made this upside down time in our upside down world feel a little bit normal, and that’s a huge gift.

Sound engineer Defari working the boom

Semi-Reopening Life

Summer 2020, embracing the exclusively outdoor hang way of life.

COVID life has lingered long enough now that I can’t remember The Before, or BC (before COVID). School let out for the “summer” but what does that mean, when school let out in March, really? And what is a summer without vacations or camps or any summertime rituals we’re used to?

The girls didn’t join in any of the BLM protests but Eva has gotten a lot more woke about the mistreatment of Blacks in American society and wants to read about slavery and is constantly aghast about the lack of humanity in the practice. She learned yesterday that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington kept slaves and this shocked her. I explained that while people can do good things, they also do terrible things, and that’s the complexity of life and human beings.

LA County is still seeing climbing numbers, but climbing steadily and not exponentially (like some places, cough Texas cough). Cooped up too long, I’ve relaxed some of my more vigilant anti-COVID practices and have let the girls have outdoor playdates with the siblings Brandon and Emma, with whom we carpooled. The kids sprung to life when they could all be together again, I was delighted for them and sad at the same time, knowing how much socializing they’ve missed.

My friend squads are getting together for socially distanced hangs in the pool or out in courtyards or at parks. Last weekend a bunch of us from NPR hung out together to gossip and complain (as journalists are wont to do) and it felt great. Well, at least until I overheated. I showed up in my “Merry Merry Merry” Christmas sweatshirt so I lasted for about 45 minutes out there in the blazing sun before having to bounce.

There’s no end to this in sight. School probably won’t start in the fall. Uncertainty and just living in the moment is the way forward, as it’s the only option.

Bruises That Won’t Heeeeaaaal

If you’re not still in shock, you’re probably grieving the way things used to be. Life as we knew it melted away so fast we didn’t even get to say goodbye. My four-year-old asked me permission to touch her face today — she had an itch. My next door neighbor, who managed a high-end Venice restaurant called The Tasting Kitchen, has already lost his job and filed for unemployment. I am settling into a new normal of “working” while “teaching” homeschool. I taped an hourlong special that will air on NPR airwaves later this month from under a baby blanket in our guest room closet.

The older girls take a watercolor class via Facebook Live. God bless all the creatives who gave generously of themselves to teach via video.

In New York last week, my literary agent Howard and I kept playing Sia music, and I discovered an excellent Sia cover of the Radiohead classic, Paranoid Android. Since then I’ve been back to playing No Surprises on a loop.

A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal
You look so tired and unhappy
Bring down the government
They don’t, they don’t speak for us

From Leah Finnegan:

“We are all now in this boat: people whose daily lives have been obliterated, normalcy and joy replaced with fear and sadness. We will likely get a little sick. We will definitely know someone who gets sick, if we don’t already. Some people will get sicker. Others will die. Children will lose their mothers. And we have no choice but to witness it; we will spend the next few months being suspicious of the air we breathe, anticipating certain pain. We had the nicest plans, but.

If you want you can call this time period The Saddening, kind of like The Troubles. I might do that, treacle be damned, because it’s sad, what is happening, how we are trapped in it, how there’s nothing we can do to get out. So I’m just gonna be sad for a while. It will pass eventually and, when it does, everything will look a lot different.”