This post is for my dad, who says he likes reading these blog posts (though we also communicate one-on-one). He noticed that I’d had a regular flourishing of posts when the pandemic was first announced and we were suddenly thrown into this strange time of global uncertainty and disruption; and then, I kind of stopped.
It’s been pretty up and down over here. And sharing the downs is harder than sharing the ups. This is not a great time to be a hypochondriac, for example. Is everyone else in a panic when they wake with a runny nose? The anxiety alone causes tightening in my chest. In truth, it’s not that hard for me to stay home with my family. I can easily list five things to be grateful for today! But to be stuck home, sick, would be a totally different story, one I find overwhelming to imagine; just as I find it overwhelming to imagine being a health care worker right now. So, I vacillate between many different emotions, including guilt for enjoying any part of this time.
My mood shifts throughout the day, and from one day to the next. I had a night of shimmering, comforting dreams. The next night, I woke every hour certain something was catastrophically wrong (like, a global pandemic, maybe?). Last night, I slept from the moment my eyes closed till the moment my alarm went off.
I know my mood affects my family’s mood. When I am frightened, anxious, spiralling from too-much-Twitter feed (note to self: remove that app from your phone!), I’m helping no one. I’m seeding worry in our tiny family plot. And, yes, that’s going to happen from time to time. What I’m trying to do, when it does happen, is to recognize that it’s happening, name it, and ask my family for forbearance and forgiveness. Apologize. Accept feedback. Forgive myself. Try again. And do my level best to change the channel by seeking out activities that improve my mindset.
Here are my current top five comfort-giving, mood-boosting, survival-tactic activities:
My first sourdough loaf, six days in the making, an experiment necessitated by the national yeast shortage. Can you believe this loaf is made of flour, water, salt, and time? And that’s all???
One. Baking, cooking, cleaning
I must confess, if I were to get sick and need to self-isolate within our house for 14 days, as the guidelines suggest, my biggest challenge (assuming I was still functioning well enough to stand and breathe), would be to stop baking, cooking, cleaning, or doing laundry. Performing these tasks assures me that I’m nurturing my family, and also that I’m in control of something: keeping the house functioning, relatively smoothly.
On the flip side, maybe I should practice ceding control over some of these tasks, while everyone is home together now?
Two. Meditation and yoga
I have a new best friend. Her name is Adriene, and she posts free yoga on her YouTube channel, and our relationship is entirely one-sided, but feels strangely real at the moment, especially when I sneak away from the family, close the door, and join her for a 20 minute heart-and-hip opening practice, or some such, which inevitably scrolls into another video of whatever yummy-sounding Adriene-offering is popping up next. Combined with my real friend Kasia’s nightly live-streamed yoga classes on Facebook, I’ve been doing excessive amounts of yoga. I’ve also been meditating. A lot. My office, which is tiny, has become a yoga and meditation studio, primarily.
For some reason, I’ve been framing all this yoga and meditation as a guilty pleasure, maybe because it feels really good, and I keep wanting to do more and more of it, and that seems … wrong, under the circumstances? But my eldest daughter pointed out last night that as far as guilty pleasures go, this one is downright healthy, and possibly even healing and helpful. So I’m giving myself the permission to do as much yoga as I need to, to get through the day.
Three. Going outside
I feel better when I’m outside early in the morning, when hardly anyone else is out and about; this is when I’ve been running. I’m nervous about adding any non-essential traffic to the sidewalks and parks right now; but it’s amazing how even a short dog-walk around the block after supper can lift the spirits. The birds are awake and busy. In our backyard this afternoon, I kept kneeling to look at tiny green sprouts unfurling their heads from the ground.
How can we live without fresh air, and sun? It seems essential.
Four. Talking to friends and family
My sibs and I have been meeting on Wednesday evenings for a catch-up. Like everyone else, we’re using Zoom. I also text quite regularly to check in with friends and family. I’m pretty sure this interaction, even from afar, is saving my sanity and restoring my humour right now. I never feel lighter of heart than after I’ve spent some time with my sibs. And feeling light of heart — it’s a challenge right now, I confess.
My kids have their video games. Kevin likes Netflix. Sometimes the two of us watch something together (like Schitt’s Creek on CBC’s Gem; and Sex Education and Feel Good on Netflix) while drinking a beer. (I haven’t taken up video games yet). What got me through some extra-anxious hours recently, however, was the combination of listening to a podcast (on a subject completely unrelated to the pandemic) while playing free-cell solitaire online. Who knew? I also like lounging around reading random articles in The New Yorker, and re-reading comfort-fiction like Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton’s National Velvet. And I’m watching the late-night hosts on YouTube attempting to broadcast, with varying degrees of success, from locations around their houses. There’s also writing & drawing, which should probably have its own separate category; on the rare day I don’t do it, I notice.
In terms of distractions, I know things are bad when I start compulsively scrolling through Twitter; that’s a sign that my anxiety and focus are spiralling dangerously downhill. (Follow-up note to self: remove that app already!) So I’m trying to minimize that form of entertainment, which is actually more of a form of self-immolation.
So that’s my list. What’s comforting you right now?
Like many of you, my days — their very substance — have changed. And I’m finding comfort in a daily drawing and writing session, the results of which I’ve been sharing here. Will it last? I don’t know, but I’m debating whether these cartoons and poems should replace the ordinary content of my blog, which is more like this … more like me talking to you (rather than me talking to my notebook), more conversational, a little more “newsy.” The writing I’ve been doing in my notebook is closer to fiction or poetry; and its tone might not fit the blog’s, perfectly.
But, still. I’m making it, and I enjoy sharing it. I will keep sharing it for the time being, and perhaps find another way to do so, in order to preserve this space for, well, this.
How are you? I hope you’re finding ways to enjoy your days, which may feel extra-long and extra-slow; the stretched-out passage of time, in the absence of much happening, reminds me of my days spent parenting small children.
We are good, here. Our eldest returned from his trip to Montreal (where the city had shut down around them); he’s restless, and has yet to settle in to the strangely calm routine the rest of us have invented for ourselves. Kevin is our designated leave-the-house-for-supplies-person. We are grateful for our big back yard. There’s room to kick a soccer ball. Room to refinish a coffee table. My office is an oasis of peace. I’m mainlining meditation, and have been tuning in every evening at 8PM to my friend Kasia’s livestream kundalini session on Facebook. At some point this week, I baked a double batch of cinnamon raisin bread that was divine. Yesterday, I wiped down every major surface with a bleach solution, a tedious and wearying project that opened my heart with gratitude and amazement for everyone whose job it is to wipe down surfaces, to keep us safe. My admiration and thanks are with each and every worker on the front-lines, putting themselves at risk, doctors and nurses, and also cashiers and cleaners. My job by comparison is ridiculously easy: stay home, stay calm. I think often of those who have lost work, who fear the immediate future, the basics of survival. A couple of weeks ago, I was mercifully awarded a major grant from the Canada Council for a novel I’m working on, the timing of which has been a major relief; I’m certain we’ll be okay even if the kids can’t work their summer jobs, even if Kevin’s business shrinks in the near-term. I feel fortunate, too, to share my home with five other people, plus dog. We might irritate each other from time to time; but we also have close companionship. Staying connected, generally, has taken on increased significance. I enjoyed tuning in to my church’s virtual service this morning. Last week, my sibs and I met for drinks via Zoom.
The forced presence and stillness suits me, at least for now. But, as you’ll see from my “poems” below, I’m also aware of underlying anxiety, of uncertainty, of the fear of the unknown that seems to be floating through the atmosphere, bubbling up from the depths.
Below, you’ll find samples of my drawing and writing from the past couple of days. Feel free to read, or skip, as you wish. Sending you presence, light, hope, stillness, and, in place of anxiety, free-floating poetry.
PS Add this to your recommended reading list: Washington Post article about a poet in Southern Italy who shared his personal cellphone number on social media, offering to talk to anyone who wanted to call. As Seth Meyers would say: this is the kind of story we need right now.
Thursday’s cartoon was drawn to Lindi Ortega’s “Fires.” I think it’s a double self-portrait, of me, right now, waving to me, from a time before coronavirus. But who knows? These portraits seem to draw themselves.
What’s on your mind?
Today’s poem comes to you from a land of uncertainty where nothing and everything has changed from one moment to the next, and the landscape looks the same, only bleaker, and the world is windswept and bleary, all crispness reduced to the edges of dried grass rustling as we shuffle past, keeping a safe distance from one another. When our hands brush briefly, accidentally, before parting, I flinch as if I’ve touched fire, fever, the source of fever — or is it I who am a danger to you? Either way, I bear responsibility for the possibility of infection, and this reminds me that we must be guarded and vigilant, we must restrict our children’s movement and our own.
Is twenty seconds long enough to thoroughly clean my hands?
The pressure in my chest expands. I sneak into the bathroom to take my temperature again, momentary reassurance that I am well. But is this well? I stand in the bathroom looking at the number that presents itself to me, a neutral number, on a neutral device of measurement, and I ask, what about the invisible suffering parts of us, how can we measure and assess those fevers and chills and aches?
There is so much surface that needs to be disinfected, vast and spreading; what’s underneath must be even vaster, almost infinite, the darkness we fall into, the anxious pain that presses against the ribs, trying to get out. I see it everywhere, written on everyone, muted, uneasy, restlessly awake now.
We knew we would die one day.
We thought we would know better what we had dominion over, what we could control. These depths bubbling like lava, like an eruption at the bottom of the sea, like rumour — are not the message we’d been awaiting. We want instruction. A six-step undertaking to cleanse our surroundings. A bleach solution (9 parts to 1).
A tincture, an inoculation. A cure.
Friday’s cartoon was drawn to Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” A friend observed that the past two portraits seem to be expressing a fractured self; in any case, the figures are all boxed up and separated, though some of them are reaching out.
What’s on your mind?
My mind empties out and I see behind the overcast grey sky a clean-swept blue; now hidden, but still there, and I imagine the wind pushing at the clouds and opening a smear of light; the clouds torn like paper, ripped like fabric.
Experience has the same effect, working on my mind to rub away the clouds of certainty. In its place, a frayed understanding — that nothing holds, and that certainty is less desirable than I’d imagined, that instead I am happy to settle for being useful, for finding myself, occasionally, in the right place at the right time.
I see that vulnerability is like an invitation, while certainty silences. The rip in the massing clouds reveals the sky, blue, which was always there, if I’d known to open myself, frayed, worn, fragile, as I’ve always been, whether I knew it or not. I let myself be seen. And in return, I see you.
Saturday’s cartoon was drawn to Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream.” I drew it with my eyes closed. I took the theme rather too literally, which is why I’m running, sort of, though I couldn’t visualize what dream, exactly, I was running down. So I drew a few little star-like flowers that can be seen near my right elbow, like the flowers I noticed on the spider fern whose tendrils are hanging over our sink (pictured at the top of this post).
What’s on your mind?
This time is this time is this time of now and now and now and it is almost impossible to be anywhere else or with anything else but what’s before me.
I notice the spider fern is flowering, tiny delicate blooms hanging over the sink.
I notice my son’s head smells like sweat, and my daughter’s head smells like coconut oil. I touch their hair.
My hands smell of bleach, though I used gloves, and I wonder if the smell is real or remembered, is it in my nostrils or just the memory of it, the way I can smell cigarette smoke from someone else’s car even after I’ve rolled up my window and driven away, even after I’ve left my car in the parking lot to sit outside the door of my daughter’s piano lesson, how even here I think I can smell the stranger’s cigarette smoke in my hair — and by extension, her poor decisions and regrets and longing; which are, of course, my own.
The piano studio has locked its doors.
We live inside.
We do not drive anywhere. We are in a time of plague and even yesterday seems very far from today, estranged from today.
Now. Now. Now. The sound of my pen scratching — too fast, sloppily — across the page. I’ve only just noticed that I grip it as near to the tip, the nib, as is possible. I only just see it — my pen — as an instrument I am playing, an extension of my body, a tool encircled by five tips of fingers, each with a half-moon circle of curved, opaque nail. There are no straight lines on my hand. The pen is straight and hard and useful to me, it is made for this task and nothing more; but I am made for bending, praying, curling, holding, I am made for giving way. I am made for praise. For contorting myself anew.
I am made for change and ever-change, evermore, now, as before.
Yesterday’s cartoon was drawn to Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want.”
I wrote: I guess it’s not so impossible to imagine myself writing out of this pandemic and finding myself on the other side. I guess it’s not impossible to imagine the world spinning on its axis, the sun rising, the night, the moon. It’s not impossible to imagine the unimaginable, a different world where we do for each other unusual kindnesses and in return ask only for the chance to record what is beautiful, what mattered in that moment. We came together, apart, and it’s not impossible to imagine we were changed in ways we could not guess, when looking out the window at the barren street and silent passersby, their dogs keeping them from falling out of love entirely, in this waitful watchful time of suspense and drudgery, a quietness which once we’d named fear; and now, unnamed.
spot the dog
While in this time of strangeness, isolation, social distancing, and hunkering down waiting, waiting, I’m trying to sort out how to get through each day intact, as whole as possible. I’ve been informed by my children that I must must must limit my intake of coronavirus news; and they’re right; and I’m trying.
But I’ve felt distracted, full of questions about what’s right to do, what’s wrong to do, and whether the decisions I’m making are harming or helping our collective cause, and the individual lives in our immediate family. Last week was a whirl of decision-making, including cancelling The X Page’s remaining workshop sessions and the performance, while making plans for publishing the stories. There was a constantly changing flow of information from public health officials and various levels of government. We found out on Thursday that schools would be closed at least till early April; all soccer cancelled too; just last night, it was recommended that all bars and restaurants in Ontario close or move to take-out or delivery only.
And I’m pretty sure the phrase “social distancing” entered my vocabulary less than a week ago, but now we all know it, and we’re trying to practice it, and to understand why, and to explain it to those people in our lives who don’t see what the point is, exactly.
It’s been a bit too much, while also being not nearly enough. Fears: diffuse; particular; unseen.
And now the late-night talk shows have gone off the air, just when I most need their mixture of news, satire, reassurance and comedy!
So here’s what I’m doing to stay afloat, mentally. I’m not saying it’s all working for me, just that these are the lifelines I’m grabbing hold of today, and did yesterday, and in all likelihood will again tomorrow.
Meditation. I have a kneeling bench that my dad made for me a few years ago, which is comfortable to sit on yet prevents me from falling asleep. (An habitual problem.) I recommend The New York Times’s guide to meditation, if you’re just getting started. There are also lots of apps to try out (I like Headspace; it’s not free, but you might be able to access a free trial to see if you like it).
Over on Instagram, Elizabeth Gilbert posted an easy-to-do meditation you can bring into any moment of your day, taking notice of a descending list of things all around you. This is my scribbled version, below, and it’s helped me at least once today when I was waiting to wash my hands, as there was a line-up for the bathroom, and I was feeling irrationally irritated about the waiting:
Podcasts. Below are a few. If you have a favourite, could you please leave your suggestions in the comments? I need more!
The Daily from The New York Times, a podcast that lasts just about long enough for a quick morning run (and, yes, it has been a lot about the coronavirus lately, but the info is solid and trustworthy, not inflammatory).
On Being, a podcast that I sometimes have patience for and sometimes not (it’s dense with spirituality).
Poetry Unbound, a podcast in which a poem is read, discussed, then read again. Episodes are about 11 minutes, the perfect amount of time to sit in quiet mediation.
Dog walks with Kevin and Rose have also been a balm. However, I cancelled a walk with a friend this morning, perhaps an over-reaction? I just don’t know. Does anyone?
Finally, here’s one last lifeline, which I’m hoping to share with my writing friends: daily drawing/writing in my notebook. I haven’t done this yet today, but it’s on my to-do list. (That’s yesterday’s cartoon, above.)
Follow this recipe for 10 minutes of bliss: Put on a song at random from my Lynda Barry playlist on Spotify (which has 64 followers at present!); draw a self-portrait to that song; then write for 3 minutes, answering the question: What’s on Your Mind? Or Why Did This Song Choose You Today?
I wasn’t in a good cartooning mood yesterday. But I wanted to capture this quotation from Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton, which I was reading. So I sat down and wrote it out, arranging the words on the page as if they were a poem. I started by writing the words in non-photo blue pencil, and inked them in afterward. I was quite sleep-deprived, and realized only later, when reading over my efforts, how many “typos” I’d made. So it wasn’t a good cartooning day. To cartoon, you need patience, focus, concentration. In keeping with my word of the year, I’m trying to pay attention to what manifests, in order to understand what’s underneath. In all honesty, I might not have noticed I was lacking those traits yesterday if I hadn’t tried to cartoon.
In conclusion, I need more sleep. I have been trying to get 7 hours of sleep each night, consistently; trying and failing, I must add. I’m addicted to early morning exercise. It’s my bliss. And that means getting to bed earlier. Which means turning off my phone earlier, and climbing into bed with a book. Like the one in which I found the words I felt compelled to record, above. But I confess it’s a hard habit to change — to read a book instead of scrolling though social media feeds. The latter offers the illusion of connection, and sometimes, in the case of Twitter, a steady stream of outrage that temporarily livens my brain; but also drains me of real purpose, or the desire to act in real, tangible ways.
When I read, especially fiction, I transcend the body I’m in and become familiar with other bodies, other realities, through immersive sensory perceptions. I see through other eyes. And in this exchange, I often feel seen, or feel able to see myself more clearly. That is how I felt reading the passage above: It says what I cannot.
Reading it, I wanted to write out the words so I could keep them in tangible form. The words called out from me a response. Which led me here. Which is, where, exactly? Sitting at my desk on a dull Saturday afternoon, the first day of February, my fingers smelling of peeled garlic, not vacuuming or cleaning the bathrooms, composing a small gathering of thoughts for release, winging out into the ether.
One final thought: I write fiction to know how others are, in large part because “I realize I don’t know how others are.” But one of the oddest things I’ve discovered while writing a collection of autobiographical stories, is that I also don’t know how I am. Fiction is a necessary construction, and sometimes it becomes a mirror. A fictional character, like Lucy Barton, can say what we cannot because as a projection of her author’s imagination she is elaborately protected from the particular dangers of human pain, and this makes her free, as a character, to reveal what our human minds protect us from most vigilantly — her ambiguities, confusion, contradictions, the places where she gets stuck, the ways in which she hurts others, her lies and her truths. We see her, and we see ourselves more clearly for a moment, too.
There are times, unexpected —
Choice is power. But the illusion of choice renders us vulnerable to exploitation. I woke from this morning’s 20-minute nap with this thought clear in my mind.
I’d been reading an article in The New York Times (a very long-read, as this manifesto before you threatens to be), called “You Are Now Remotely Controlled.” Upon waking, I sat down with my notebook and began to write. “I’m having an important idea,” I told my youngest, home from school today because his teachers are striking in support of strong public education. “When will you be done with your idea?” he asked, at last. He wanted me to pour him a bowl of cereal. “It’s turning into a very big idea,” I said. He poured his own bowl of cereal.
I want to use this reflection to pull together a number of disparate thoughts / observations / concerns about choice, autonomy, responsibility and shame. I want to reflect on how the illusion of choice shames us into believing that we are willing participants in our own exploitation, that we’ve willingly consented to give away our private lives, and that we deserve what we get. We might even believe that we prefer it this way. Anyone with a car can drive Uber or Skip the Dishes to earn a bit of extra cash; anyone with a room can rent it out at their convenience; anyone with an internet connection can publish a blog for free; anyone with a cellphone can become an “influencer.”
But it’s this illusion of choice, this illusion of independence and personal autonomy, that makes us vulnerable. It is only when we know we are oppressed that we can fight back. If we are kept in a state of confused distraction, if we feel shame about our personal choices (which may in fact be “choices”), we will remain disorganized, overwhelmed, stressed out, and isolated, even while believing ourselves to be ever more connected. Sure, we’re connected — but to what, and by whom?
I can’t stop thinking about something Trump said while still a candidate for the presidency: “I love the uneducated.” I think he instinctively understands the moment in which we’re living, which makes him especially dangerous. We think he’s joking when we says things like this, but he’s actually incredibly transparent: he’s stating his game plan (and it’s not just his). As citizens of democratic countries, we not only want to imagine ourselves free, our identity relies on it. Paradoxically, this makes us vulnerable to manipulation too; when identity is at stake, recognition of a different version of reality can be too painful to accept. The less we know, the less equipped we are to understand and interpret our triggers, which are attached to our pain, let alone to distinguish between facts and “fake news.”
It’s my observation that the gig economy is a function of this moment in time, too. We’ve been sold the idea that contract employees are willingly trading security for independence. But the gig economy only makes sense if those employed by contract can earn enough to live at a similar standard to those employed in traditional jobs. And it’s clear we can’t. Also clear that the gig economy puts pressure on the individual to support themselves in ways that go beyond their capacity as individuals to fulfill — to negotiate higher wages, save for retirement, etc. Further, the gig economy has the effect of eroding traditional jobs — with labour so cheap, and labourers so plentiful, who can afford tenured professors, for example?
What “You Are Now Remotely Controlled” focuses on, though, is the power that data mining — which feeds artificial intelligence — gives to private corporations, whose interests fundamentally put them at odds with our interests, with the public good. Instead, we become consumers to be activated by “remote control.” Our phones are always with us. (Mine is plugged in beside me right now, ringer on.) We can’t imagine life without this device that only recently entered our lives — I didn’t carry a cellphone on my person till around 2010, yet I went into full-on panic when briefly separated from my phone due to a mix-up this past weekend. What would entertain me while I did chores? And what if someone needed to reach me? I was like a smoker separated from her pack of cigarettes.
Okay, so I’m addicted to my phone. I confess it. Aren’t most of us? Despite surviving the majority of my life without it, I seem convinced that my well-being depends on it. Yet it is this device, according to “You Are Now Remotely Controlled,” that makes it so easy for me to be monitored and manipulated — it is an important tool, among many other tools in the “internet of things” that is turning us into robots.
I am writing the first draft of this reflection by hand, in my notebook. The act of writing by hand becomes, in our era, an act of rebellion against the norm. A notebook cannot be surveilled. It is not connected to anything but itself. (Not to mention that my handwriting is virtually illegible, even to me.)
Surveillance capitalism traffics in prediction. The better a corporation is at predicting what we want / how we feel, the better it is at telling us what we want by understanding what we’re feeling. We are not, in fact, private autonomous individuals making multiple choices independently every day, we are highly predictable creatures with our inner lives, habits, routines and decisions being carefully monitored and collected digitally.
I’d like to connect the NYT article to a program that aired on the CBC’s Ideas on Friday evening, which was so compelling that I didn’t turn it off, even after I’d finished the dishes. It was part 2 in a series called “Why journalist Emily Bell is calling for a civic media manifesto.” Bell observes that it is legitimately becoming more difficult for us to find trustworthy news sources, especially at the local level. (Note that the two sources I’ve used for this post are The New York Times, which is probably the biggest independent newspaper in the world; and CBC radio, a public broadcaster funded by the Canadian government.) As anyone who works in journalism knows, the industry has suffered massive job losses and cuts over the past decade; we also know that bloggers are no replacement. A journalist without independence (or without adequate independent funding) is not free to do their job. “Influencers” are an example of personal journalism that is manipulated, easily and cheaply, by corporate interests. Why? Because an individual is personally vulnerable. An individual lives on a knife’s edge. She has children to feed, her reputation to protect. Freelancers need to get hired again, and again, and again.
This is what the gig economy thrives on. It’s the illusion of choice that I flagged way back when, at the beginning of this very very long essay.
An individual will sacrifice a great deal in order to feed her children, keep a roof over her head, and ensure she’ll get hired again. And she’s exhausted. There’s only one of her. How can she afford to anger the rich and powerful? When I worked as a sessional lecturer, I talked to a department chair about the insecurity built into the system: they tried to explain that I was fortunate to be given courses for two consecutive terms. That’s eight months of work. The standard for contract lecturers, in my experience, is to be given a contract for a single term (four months of work). And then you have to reapply, or perhaps, if you’re lucky, you’ll be offered a contract again, seemingly out of the blue. There is no stability. I was trying to explain, in return, that this made it very difficult to plan ahead. And they explained that the budgeting system made it impossible for them to make better offers. As I sat in their office, I thought, We are two human beings trapped in an inhumane system. How many people at the university were employed as contract lecturers, I asked them? And they said there was no data available on that. They suggested I could find the data myself, contact fellow adjuncts and contract lecturers and try to organize, to protest. I was flabbergasted. I was one person. I had limited resources, was already overstretched and underpaid. I was exhausted.
The NYT article suggests that protection for individuals requires governments to pass stronger laws, supported by the slow but certain democratic impulses of their citizens; this may be the solution. But is it too late? As Emily Bell points out, large data-mining corporations now possess more information than any single government. What would regulation look like? Who would enforce it? Who has the power? I fear totalitarianism by stealth. I fear all that we are accepting without question.
“Who will write the music, and who will dance?” writes the article’s author, Shoshanna Zuboff.
I can think of a number of policy changes that would help. A living minimum wage would go some distance toward reducing inequality. Strong public education with well-paid teachers is foundational, too. (“I love the uneducated.”)
But in Shoshanna Zuboff’s words I hear something that’s already within us — it’s our capacity for creativity, our capacity to write the music, real music, not computer generated. Algorithms are inherently boring. They are designed to predict the future; in other words, they’re predicated on predictability. It’s why I find Amazon’s suggestions for books I might like so boring — what I want is a human being who loves reading, in a bookstore, handing me a selection that’s a bit off the wall and unexpected, something I wouldn’t have chosen for myself. Human beings have the capacity to surprise ourselves and others. In surprise is delight. An algorithm offers, instead, a solution. But our brains don’t necessarily want solutions and efficiencies — we want absurdity, we want to be able to laugh and to weep at what we intuitively understand is not fixable. We crave mystery, though it can be difficult to recognize that — a page-turner, I would argue, takes us toward a solution, but we read it because we love the process of getting there.
Here’s a good example: Little Women is a beloved and much-read book not because of its tacked-on happy ending, but because of its imperfections — because we know the happy ending feels tacked-on (as Greta Gerwig’s film’s version brilliantly subverts). But if Jo and Laurie had married, I doubt Little Women would still be read, and relevant, today. We love Little Women for its complexity, for the messy emotions it evokes in us, and because it reminds us of our own imperfect lives. When I was a kid, I read it over and over again, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it — how it could have turned out differently for Jo, how unfair things were, how it lit in me a longing for a different ending, and yet how I had to accept it, nevertheless. This is the pleasure, the delight of the “wrong” solution, the solution unknown to the algorithm.
Something else. When we can buy anything and receive it instantly, we are denying ourselves another pleasure, that of anticipation, of weighing our desires against our needs, of imagining what the wanted thing might give us. We have been lulled into believing that the easy path is desirable. Yet we know in our bones that everything we care about deeply is hard. Parenting is hard. Love is hard. It aches. But it brings us to life. That is what we are losing. You know that feeling when you walk into a room and everyone is staring at their screens? And they glance up and their eyes are blank and they look numb? The men who design the tech that would manipulate our every decision are very smart at efficiencies, and at making us want more and more of whatever is being sold; but what makes life worth living? There’s a basic immorality at play in the systems they create — or any system created to maximize profit: an indifference to what’s being destroyed. And what’s being destroyed is the humanity of the humans lured into and trapped in these systems.
I gave up being a contract lecturer not exactly because I didn’t like teaching, but because I despised the system, and could not support it, if I could afford to choose otherwise. So I calculated what we could afford, and I chose otherwise. But the truth is that I didn’t really want to be a tenured professor either; I could see that their roles were untenably uncomfortable too, in many ways. It makes me wonder what to wish for.
The problem with systems designed for maximum efficiency is that these systems almost invariably fail to count some losses as actual costs; the losses that count are the ones found on a ledger. The loss of an individual’s security is not counted as a cost. Nor is the loss of an individual’s creative life. Nor the loss of pleasure, relationships and community-building when an individual is stretched to the limit just to survive, or when an individual has as colleagues other individuals who are treated as second-class.
We are not machines. We can’t live like we are. We won’t thrive. Here’s my own personal proof: I’m close to completing a project that I started a year ago in February, which I call “The Hourlies.” Each month, I’ve taken a 24-hour period and drawn a cartoon depicting each waking hour. It’s laborious, time-consuming, very dear to me, and completely non-monetizable. It’s also an enormous accomplishment in which I take great pride.
Drawing a cartoon is an act of creative rebellion. And each act of creative rebellion is an antidote to the paranoia, despair and fear that we’re being fed daily.
You know, Trump is half-right in his paranoia and fears — we are being monitored and many news sources are untrustworthy; he’s tapped into real fears and that gives his message currency and power. It’s just that he’s also the logical conclusion of what happens when we let paranoia, disinformation, ignorance, gossip, fear, greed and self-interest become our guiding principles. So let’s not do that, even though we could, even though we’re being pushed to. If we become like Trump’s example, we will live only on the surface of our lives, sating our base desires, but cold to the best of ourselves, to our openness, generosity, curiosity, and our imaginations, where images live.
Images can be used to manipulate us, too, of course; Trump knows how to draw a crude portrait that calls out our basest emotional responses — disgust, envy, greed, rage and fear. But images nevertheless remain my personal source of hope.
I think we can fight images with images.
Images can become stories, poems, drawings, songs. Images can be made into something that helps us see and know that we are human, we are alive, we are not machines. Visit with your own personal imagine. Let the joy of surprise and creation pull you away from your devices and screens, at least for a little while, every day. Call it your own personal rebellion against the surveillance economy. Get a cheap composition notebook and a black pen, and let yourself be led.
Maybe our creativity will disrupt the cruelty of efficiencies. Maybe policy will follow.
Thank you for reading all the way to the bottom.