If you don’t fit in your pants, f*** the pants
Enough with the guilt. We’re still in the pandemic woods, and the priority is survival.
She never forgets a doctor’s appointment, but this week she does. A super-attentive dad shows up to pick up his kids and only realizes it’s not his turn when he sees his ex-wife behind him in the carpool line. I fall asleep during movies, something I have never done in my life. A friend with a prestigious clean-up job for a big company has begun to see that his assignment is undoable, and has gone on leave. The Covid relief bill has finally passed, and stimulus checks are starting to go out and prompting #stimmy #bidenbucks memes on Twitter. But many people are broke, and many businesses have already closed.
I finally make it back to my hometown because enough relatives are vaccinated for me to be able to see them, and on one village block almost every storefront is vacant. A sign on a restaurant door reads, in part:
We have regrouped and cannot reset at this time.
We don’t have answers and our world seems to change daily.
That place has been shuttered since June, so the sign is probably from then. Years ago, I broke up with someone at the bar there over an old-fashioned. It was a good bar for that sort of thing: quiet, discreet. I don’t know where you go to break up with someone now, not that I’m looking. A park bench, I guess, or FaceTime, or bed or the car, since most of the people I know who are breaking up live together.
I didn’t really have the wherewithal to write last week. I was prioritizing real life and thinking about priorities: in my case, meeting the most wonderful tiny new nephew, who somehow figured out how to smile at people at only five weeks old, and making sure my adventurous toddler was okay when she bonked her head. But I, like many of us, sometimes find myself struggling with what’s important. After a year of this pandemic nonsense, people are exhausted. Some people’s jobs are more massive than ever—nurses, contractors, social workers, elementary school teachers—while millions of others are out of work or piecing it together, like the guy I met recently who was combining sneaker speculation and Lyft driving, both of which he preferred to Instacart. Some encounter a whole second layer of danger at work, facing defiantly maskless customers in Texas or mass shooters mowing down employees at massage parlors or the grocery store, just like old times. When we said we hoped life would return to normal, this was not the normal we meant.
Amid all this, a kind friend said she was concerned about my getting behind in my career, which made me anxious for days. I am practicing saying the opposite: that the teens should do less homework, not more; that people are overwhelmed by working twelve hours a day because that would be too much even if there weren’t a virus and DIY childcare and hate crimes, and that they should be gentler with themselves; that under the best of circumstances figuring out how to breastfeed a newborn is like trying to learn to backflip, and these are not the best of circumstances. But some people’s priorities are unbending. People are being preachy about Krispy Kreme offering free vaccine-incentive donuts. The New York Times runs a column excoriating us for weight gain during the pandemic; the author says the cookies we’re stress-baking are “not the most wholesome products” and that if we ate vegetables and practiced portion control like she does, we wouldn’t have gained a pound. This to people who are just trying to stay alive. If you don’t fit in your pants, fuck the pants.
One in three American adults has gotten at least a first dose of the Covid vaccine. That’s a lot in a way, but also not a lot. Many of us don’t know when our turn is coming, or when we will see our coworkers or extended families again, or when our entire industry (live music, say) will rise from hibernation. Some people like to say, “Let’s get together when we’re both vaccinated,” but I’m not saying that. Maybe when I’m vaccinated myself, it will feel okay to start planning parties, vacations, and so on. Today it still feels presumptuous.
At moments, I feel blank. Then I drink a cup of coffee and try to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing and do some of it. I am zen on other people’s behalf and neurotic on my own. And that seems like a normal way to be in these times. We still don’t have answers, and our world seems to change daily.
What to read
While I was trying to figure out how to put out a Substack in a week away from home, an all too salient kerfuffle arose about the labor and economic implications of Substack. So far the Interpreter is free, which (maybe?) keeps me slightly out of the fray until I figure out how else to reach you all, but many Substackers charge an optional or mandatory subscription fee, with the company keeping a portion of proceeds. It recently emerged that some of the people making good money on the platform are doing so with the aid of a not-publicly-advertised advance from the company—and some of those may have politics, like being anti-trans, that some other Substackers find appalling.
This is once again a crisis over what it means to try to be simultaneously a platform and a publisher, in this case an unbilled publisher that, one might argue, is effectively paying a few writers to entice others onto the platform to give the company a cut. Many smart people are writing about this, including Annalee Newitz, Casey Newton (who has an impressive Substack, Platformer, devoted to such issues), and Aminatou Sow, who pointed out this week that certain writers making an exodus from mainstream media to this platform “truthfully…are just refugees from good editing.” Mm-hmm.
My own view is that there’s an inevitable conflict there. A publisher’s primary mission is to offer good content to consumers, which generally means taking bets on certain creators, being selective, and editing; a platform’s primary mission is to offer distribution to creators, which generally means minimal gatekeeping and only as much moderation as it takes to keep the whole thing from collapsing. Usually companies will end up picking platform, since it’s way cheaper and comes with less legal and moral responsibility. By way of example: Blogging site Medium announced this week that they’re upending the editorial side of their operation, as they seem to do every couple years, to focus on the platform side. HuffPost, which made a contrary but journalistically sound decision a few years back to get rid of their unpaid “contributor” pieces (many of which were essentially press releases) to focus on editorial, was just sold by Verizon to BuzzFeed and is undergoing deep staff cuts. Basically, journalism is expensive. Anyway, read some of these wise structural thinkers on what this all means and let us know in the comments where you think it’s going.
On an entirely different note, see this fascinating Andrew Solomon piece for the New Yorker about polyamorous and polygamist family groupings and the place where these very different communities’ interests overlap. I 100% do not have enough emotional energy to negotiate a family life this complex, but plenty of people do—and as I wrote recently on the dizzyingly prolific Hilaria and Alec Baldwin clan, the pandemic has made ever more clear how idiosyncratic our real family pods are.
Over at the Washington Post, the brilliant writer Eli Saslow has done a heartbreaking series of stories about different Americans touched by Covid-19. His latest is a gripping ride-along with an assistant principal at a California high school making house calls to students all over his district who have gone missing since the start of the pandemic. I wish I was reading more accounts like this right now, about the pandemic experience of people who don’t have time to sit around complaining on the internet.
Also at the Post is this excellent data analysis of the supposed border “crisis” happening on Biden’s watch, making the case that what we’re seeing is actually just the usual spring rush plus a backlog of people held back by Trump: “We analyzed monthly CBP data from 2012 to now and found no crisis or surge that can be attributed to Biden administration policies.” Really important point—though it doesn’t change the facts that there are 14,000-plus kids in US government custody and the public needs better transparency into what’s going on.
What to consume
I can’t believe my family is about to hold our second annual Zoom seder. Here are 18 Passover recipes from the New York Times so you can coordinate what your far-flung family is eating, if you so choose. Next year at a table together.
Watch drone operator Bjorn Steinbekk’s epic close-up footage of a volcanic eruption in Iceland, complete with splattering lava and a river of molten earth. That country is still the most beautiful place I have ever been.
The talented Gurdeep Pandher of Yukon, who went viral dancing bhangra on a frozen lake after getting his Covid vaccine earlier this month, has a new video that involves him tromping into the snowy woods on a big stocky horse to go dance there. It’s an extremely Canadian situation, although arguably not as Canadian as this beaver recently apprehended in a Toronto subway station.
Finally, an update on the last issue about The Phantom Tollbooth: Terri Schmitz, the awesome proprietor of the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, MA, dug up this actual photo of Norton Juster signing books for me and a bunch of other rapt kids. So it was real! And watching my pandemic toddler find out that there’s such a thing as a bookstore was a joyous highlight of the month. Wait till she sees a library.
Be safe, hang in there, and I’ll see you next week. We’re still in the woods, but there is light through the trees.
My journey through Covid isolation has been made so much better by the writers, and the podcasters (and seasons of English TV on Britbox). As a retired person, my outer world has shrunk, but my inner world has been so enriched by folks like the entire Swisher clan, favorites and funny videos on Twitter, a few choice journalists, and authors. As I get my 2nd shot tomorrow my world can slowly start to open up, but I made it through. Thank you so much for what you do!
Thank you for writing this piece. It made me realize things that I wasn’t aware and wake up from my numbness.