The Pleasure Of... ???

On life indoors, Zoom, and what helps.

So... here we are. Trapped in the funhouse mirror/horror movie version of the joyful domesticity I’ve been used to celebrating here. Oh, you want to bake bread? How’d you like that bread leavened with existential despair? (I baked it anyway. I had yeast in the freezer and a stockpile of flour. It was good and insanely easy.)

I see people sharing and parsing the pronouncements of experts—doctors, epidemiologists, economists, and those who play them on the internet—the same way Greek seers prodded the entrails of birds for answers. We toss around phrases like “the foreseeable future” like we’ve ever been able to foresee it. Amid all this, I’ve accepted that I need to tune everything out—the panic, the predictions, the statistics—in order to function right now. I wrestle with this, ethically: how do I swim responsibly in oceans of information without drowning? Other people seem able to do it, but I can only manage to get my toes wet, ready to scurry up the beach when I have to, terrified of what the riptides might do. I’m not sure if this is cowardice or self-preservation—probably both. I fundamentally don’t believe that anxiety, or terror, or rage, or dread, are more morally justified than joy and hope, even under pandemic conditions. More than anything, I think they’re attempts to ward off pain. Nobody wants to be caught unawares, to be the innocent fool, the first victim, the one who didn’t look over her shoulder, who took the dark shortcut. The grasshopper, not the ant, her cupboards bare of pasta and beans and toilet paper and the better flavors of LaCroix. At the same time, though, the limits of the ant-brain have become pretty obvious. What good is it really for your cupboards to be stocked, if everyone else is at a loss? What good is it to be prepared without singing?

I know that interesting times are supposedly a curse, but I also think it’s a blessing to be interested, which I am, deeply, in how this is playing out in different places, and forcing us to reevaluate how we’ve set up these fragile systems we told ourselves were ironclad. I’m interested in what is being unearthed: the chains that link us together, how our decisions and movements affect one another, how our money circulates and what happens when it stops. How do we manage our basic needs when it isn’t just one sector of the population, easy to cordon off and vilify, that needs help surviving, but everyone? In the US, my one wild hope is that all this might reveal the futility of a system that ties benefits to employment—when even *this* disastrously nihilistic Administration is forced to contemplate sending bailout checks to every citizen. If there are no atheists in foxholes, then I guess there are no fiscal conservatives in a pandemic. 

But I’m no economist, or politician, or macro thinker: I can’t manage statistics, only stories. So I’m curious about domestic life, how this enforced, close-quarter indoor living might be reshaping families and relationships, and assumptions about childcare, education, and what we value. What work looks like, what achievement means, what we’re ambitious for. It’s there in the office-dwelling fathers suddenly seeing how relentless childcare is, how draining to energy and creativity and patience. In freelancers doling out work-from-home productivity tips and lessons in dealing with uncertainty. In middle-class parents acknowledging that teachers should be paid a million dollars a year, and blithely comfortable New Yorkers realizing that delivery workers and grocery-store clerks should earn hazard pay.

In the meantime, we gather together. My inbox is filling up with invitations to virtual cocktail hours and catchups with friends I haven’t seen in months or years. We’re checking in, and we’re checking up, and over and over again we’re exclaiming how great it is to see each other, to hear each others’ stories. My friend Marianne mentioned on Instagram that she’s found dating apps to be busier than ever, not for meeting up, but for simple connections, conversations that are deeper and more honest. “People aren’t just bored,” she wrote, “we are remembering we need each other.” Her book Help Meby the way, is great: the memoir of a year spent trying to follow the advice of a series of classic self-help books, and figuring out that it’s impossible to help yourself in isolation. I interviewed her just over a year ago, in a cafe in north London, a lovely conversation over tea and cake and wine. A simple thing I hope we can do again soon. 

I wrote a little thing about being home with a newborn in this weird moment, for Slate’s great Coronavirus Diaries series. Because hey, maternity leave is a myth.