The piety of the COVID absolutist

The New York Times has picked up the coronavirus absolutism debate, which is more important than it might seem when encased in the paper’s morning “briefing” format. David Leonhardt links to a Derek Thompson piece in The Atlantic, but the more salient connection, in my read of this 21st-century performance art, is Freddie deBoer’s blog post from a few months ago. The thing is, deBoer nails the overt hostility and the shrieking piety that we see in COVID absolutists (deBoer uses “Covid realist”). To these individuals, this blob, the very interpretation of the coronavirus pandemic is a game to be won or (never!) lost.

We all know these folks, right? The COVID absolutist is not merely the compliant citizen, masking up and avoiding mass gatherings, dutifully maintaining a kindly distance between other shoppers at the supermarket. The COVID absolutist lives among the degenerate faithful, those who rely on a set of beliefs outside themselves—and, inevitably, within others’ improper behavior.

I had a professor in college, in the j-school, who quoted H.L. Mencken on this point: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

It’s an insufferable character trait, and the global pandemic (and its attendant reshuffling of social norms) thrusts it into the frontal lobes of this grunting population—loony to the bone and high as hell on their own shit. They’ve been here all along, waiting to fuse into an obnoxious cluster of human.

“The Covid realist religiously follows the Atlantic‘s pompous, self-impressed, imperious coverage,” deBoer writes, coincidentally drawing tethers in my own piece today. “The Covid realist says, ‘You think you’ll be able to see your friends after the vaccine? Fat chance!’ The Covid realist tells you that, when you’re feeling upbeat about the medical advances, the virus could always mutate. The Covid realist wants you to know that you’ll never see the lower half of a stranger’s face again. When you say that you’re looking forward to going to a basketball game next fall the Covid realist says, ‘Ha, good luck.’ The Covid realist thinks that imagining holding a birthday party a year from now is not only deluded, but irresponsible. The Covid realist does not just want to regulate your behavior. The Covid realist wants to purify your thoughts.”

Eleven months in, it remains all-consuming.

I know a short cut

And I do think there’s something of a loss-of-individuality problem emerging. This has been covered elsewhere, of course, but I see it more and more as time goes on. This is the age of the crowd, the blob, the mass, even as we convey ourselves through tiny windows and custom-branded digital avatars.

I think of Tim Wu’s great piece in the Times a few years back, “The Tyranny of Convenience,” in which he dissects a prime mover in the 21st century. Convenience (for the sake of it, often), automation, templated speech patterns… This is obvious, right? It’s how we communicate with one another and, more importantly, with ourselves. We communicate conveniently.

“The paradoxical truth I’m driving at,” Wu writes, “is that today’s technologies of individualization are technologies of mass individualization. Customization can be surprisingly homogenizing. Everyone, or nearly everyone, is on Facebook: It is the most convenient way to keep track of your friends and family, who in theory should represent what is unique about you and your life. Yet Facebook seems to make us all the same. Its format and conventions strip us of all but the most superficial expressions of individuality, such as which particular photo of a beach or mountain range we select as our background image.”

Here’s where I would say, “Nailed it.”

I’m not sure what else is driving this, however, in terms of culture. Why is this mass individualization so… massive and shitty? The internet is a cause, certainly, but I wonder too if there are other forces at work, from the late 20th century onward, that have restricted our collective sense of creativity. Because of the all-consuming second-life habitat of the internet, the boundaries of our actual reality are growing tighter, narrower, more rigid. More rules are placed on adolescents and young adults than ever before (whether this involves financial instruments, debt, capitalist materialism, social norms, standardized testing, police militarization, etc., to say nothing of our society’s deeply beloved racial and classist inequalities). And “rules,” the way a child understands them, are oppressive and claustrophobic and, the more you relent, very difficult to surmount. On a long enough timeline, the most extreme rules are normalized and replaced by an ever-narrower set of social expectations. To whatever degree you hope to self-actualize in this culture, at this time in history, well, good luck.

That’s vague and not well thought out, sure, and it’s somewhat early, yeah, and I’m listening to Kid A again, but my point is that the two trend lines are converging, asymptotically, to create a wary, oversocialized and antisocial sense of community. We’re atomizing as we’re coming together, fusing increasingly crisp carbon-copied stamps of ourselves onto the next moment, inching forward into a future that we’re too eager to describe as a memory before we have a chance to experience it. It’s more convenient that way.

Keep it for your self

I’ve dialed back my Twitter output considerably in the past two weeks, and, N.B., it feels good. As far as that shit-eating platform is concerned, I’m trying to rethink my “approach.” Real highfalutin, I know. The irreverent/savvy goofball angle is my particular favorite, but it’s a ca.-2012, -2013 vintage that just doesn’t sell these days. I can’t tell if that reveals more about the culture or more about me.

Anyway, I figured I’d just move my unnecessary retweet two cents over here today (sorry). Joe Weisenthal, a Twitter luminary of the play-it-straight ilk, provided this dismal clip of the new Dolly Parton Super Bowl ad (???), which, ‘scuze me, but this is about as sad and depleting a message for our impressionable American youth as possible.

Frankly, it’s just classic Super Bowl ad spend nonsense. No doubt, however, that this inane bit *speaks to* countless navel-gazing “makers” who are looking to make sense of the passing days/years, etc. Time keeps sliding by, and, gosh darnit, I just can’t seem to find a moment of happiness! Let’s say we transact against the soul just a little bit more! Sell something now! This is what we’re teaching people these days. It’s embedded in the story we now tell ourselves in 2021. It’s all too on-point for the Big Game.

Austin Kleon has a great piece, “In praise of the good old-fashioned hobby,” that I think was part of a recent book of his. I wouldn’t assume that any of my own wise and tasteful readers (what, four or five of you now?) need this patronizing tone from me, but Kleon approaches the subject more softly, which is maybe a helpful thing in this weird century. I’ll add, too, that Kleon’s blog has been a source of small joys for a while now, particularly for anyone looking to clear their head and soak up some streamlined/cogent thoughts on the writing life. If you’ve read this far, well, maybe you’re like me after all.

Furthermore, Kleon points us to Ann Friedman’s 2018 piece on the subject: “Not Everything Is a Side Hustle.” Can someone phone Dolly, for Christ’s sake?

That this needs to be pointed out publicly at all speaks volumes about the state of things: in our economy, in our class structure, in our shared American culture. This whole pattern language we’re picking apart is the very bone marrow of an American capitalist ethos, and it was absolutely, for a brief moment this afternoon, disgusting to see this self-care grift financed to the tune of multi-million-Super-Bowl dollars or whatever.

See? Sharing all that on Twitter would have been a total waste of time.

You

It goes without saying that we need more original voices, more iconoclastic visionaries sharing their work in the new year. So much of our American culture anymore is just rehashed joke templates and pious entreaties for self-care and performative socialism, a bunch of sad sappy suckers slinging the same half-dozen gags into an unhappy void. To me, that’s the unspoken tragedy of “2020,” if you’re bent on shaking your fist at the idea of year-as-scapegoat: It’s an unsettling vacuum of humor and individuality on a sprawling scale.

I guess my point is that, with social media conducting broad swaths of our society’s shiftless identity, it takes a bold sense of intent to simply be yourself. And with the zoonotic diseases, climatic uncertainties and rising nationalist tides roiling around the world right now, that’s the best thing you can be: yourself. Not a celebrity, not an image, not a god, not an echo of another, not a memory: just you.

Anyway, RIP MF DOOM.

Nine stories

Earlier this year, I wrote a short story titled “Walter and Helen,” and the vague sense of terror that lurked between the lines was something that never let up as 2020 wore on. In the fall, I wrote another batch of these flash fiction pieces, and, now, I’ve gathered them into one tidy bundle to throw into the world haphazardly.

You can read those stories here.

2020 in books

Where the pandemic/quarantine made it difficult for many people to concentrate, and I certainly understand, I found that I had a bunch of spare time for books. In fact, I sort of needed to pour my attention into something. As the year went on, looking back now, I probably trailed off from my daily news obsession and spent more hours with books. Some of these novels, in particular, kept me laughing while the world was falling apart (Portis, moments in DeLillo, Mooallem), and in general the rhythms of reading helped me make sense of the complete fragmentation of time. It was calming.

My favorite book of the year was Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, easily. I decided to check out his stuff after reading this feature by A.O. Scott, the first installment of what is slowly becoming an incisive series on unheralded American writers (the second and third installments of which center on Edward P. Jones, also on my 2020 list, and Joy Williams, respectively). Scott wrote: “[Stegner] can’t be enlisted as a partisan in the culture wars, but he isn’t a pacifist either. He’s more like a one-man battlefield, whose dreams of peace — the ‘repose’ and ‘safety’ promised in those titles — express the longings of a tectonically divided civilization.”

Runners-up in my personal favorites include: About a Mountain (which I read in one day, completely mesmerized by the surrealist and controversial blend of journalism and essay), Gringos (the one repeater on my list this year), Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, River of Shadows, Eat the Document, The Meadow, Invisible Man and If Beale Street Could Talk. Just great stuff.

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

About a Mountain by John D’Agata

The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth

2019 Best American Magazine Writing ed. by Sid Holt

Draft No. 4 by John McPhee

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Zed by Joanna Kavena

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

True Grit by Charles Portis

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta

Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario

Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee

The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal

Gringos by Charles Portis

This is Chance! by Jon Mooallem

Ornamental by Juan Cardenas

On Anarchism by Noam Chomsky

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

The Names by Don DeLillo

The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William Blundell

Stoner by John Williams

Make Noise by Eric Nuzum

Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel

Boom Town by Sam Anderson

Little, Big by John Crowley

Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass

River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

Here We Are by Benjamin Taylor

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

The Years by Annie Ernaux

Native Son by Richard Wright

Norwood by Charles Portis

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas

Black Boy by Richard Wright

The Glass Eye by Jeannie Vanasco

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Zero K by Don DeLillo

Litany for the Long Moment by Mary-Kim Arnold

The Silence by Don DeLillo

Barnstorming Ohio by David Giffels

Blackfishing the IUD by Caren Beilin

Gringos by Charles Portis (again!)

Uncle Tom’s Children by Richard Wright

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones

The Meadow by James Galvin

V. by Thomas Pynchon

The Man Who Walked Backward by Ben Montgomery

Remembering Laughter by Wallace Stegner

Write it down

“If you’re looking for a New Year’s Resolution, keeping a daily notebook is a pretty solid one.” So sez Austin Kleon.

And I agree. My notebooks have been sporadic, but I do have 2013-2014 pretty well covered, and then I picked it back up 2017-present. Kleon’s three-notebook model is good, if you’re searching for a rhythm. I’ve got one that I use daily, a mix of creative writing, doodles, financial planning, reading reflections, all the early drafts of the shit that ends up on my blog. And then I’ve got a legal pad for more immediate scribbles, almost all of which get tossed in the recycling bin by the end of the day. I guess my goal at this point would be to add a small notebook for the daily stuff — mostly nonsense, stray ideas, all the dialogue snippets I would otherwise forget. Think of the notebook like a net for all the thoughts that rush out of your head.

Before you was listening

We love the Barr Brothers in our house, but the band that came before was called The Slip. For those seeking a certain heady late-90s aesthetic, maybe with a dash of Saturday morning psilocybin in your head, this trio is hard to beat. Their early stuff is all but impossible to find in record stores anymore, but the internet is kind enough to supply stuff like the 12/31/00 Honey Melon, a 22-min. free improv trip complete with scat-bebop drum solo and at least one visitation from alien life forms onstage.

When they pick up the chorus again toward the end, listen to how Brad overlays the lyrics in a totally different time signature (this happens in other Slip songs, notably their groovy/ontological cover of “Before You Was Born” by Nathan Moore).

Which, speaking of, we may as well queue that one up.

12/4/19

The last Phish show I saw was one year ago today.

It’s sort of a strange show, and the past year troubled its emotional grip even more. As we drove home in a blizzard that night, who could have guessed what we were moving toward (away from)?

I haven’t listened back too much, but at times this is a richly textured night of music. The core of the second set runs through a weird/moody sequence: Runaway Jim > Ghosts of the Forest > A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing > Prince Caspian > Fuego > YEM, and certain jam segments feel almost “watery,” like we’re coursing through submerged wreckage in some exotic gulf.

The memory is hazier than I’d like to be, frankly. Despite the goofball bustout encore, I feel like I left good friends on an odd note. That’s how it is sometimes, though, innit?

All that being said, the first-set Halley’s jam is some of the most chilled-out groovy funk I’ve heard from the band in recent years (outside of Tube, of course).