On Escape


I have allowed myself to live this little life, when inside me there is so much more. And it’s all gone unused, and now never will be. Why do we get all this life if we don’t ever use it? Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and hopes, if we don’t ever use them? That’s where Shirley Valentine disappeared to: she got lost in all this unused life.

(Shirley Valentine)

This is my favorite story:

Once upon a time there was a housewife/mother/professional woman who got lost/got left behind/swapped houses/invested in a dilapidated villa/somehow conned an editor into paying for a stay in a charming village/neighborhood/ashram in the Caribbean/Greece/Italy/the English countryside/India/the Hollywood Hills. At first she felt lost/confused/abandoned/overwhelmed; but soon, with the help of quirky neighbors/gruff old timers/demanding teachers/hot resort employees/incomprehensible tradesmen, she found a home/a job/love/amazing sex/previously-untapped and unappreciated talents. She made a choice that was no choice at all: forever transformed by her experience, she turned her back on her old life. She became a beloved member of a new community, and, with the unexpected, but true love of her life, she lived there happily ever after.

We love a good escape story, one where our protagonist somehow, through a combination of some choice and a lot of accidents and coincidences, is torn from her regular, boring, thankless life and forced to start over somewhere better – immersed in better weather, better scenery, better food, and better people, our protagonist finds a better version of herself, one who is connected, appreciated, useful, loved, and (not incidentally) well-fed.

We know that the narrative of the transformative journey has ancient, archetypal roots: as Joseph Campbell describes, the hero’s journey is kind of everywhere in human storytelling.  But the particular genre of escape story I’m talking about here is far removed from the epic quests of myth and legend. For one thing, they’re not about heroes – men who are born to be, or who become, great warriors or kings, whose worth is tested through crusades, odysseys, and fearsome battles fought for noble principles of freedom and honor.

Instead, what we like about contemporary escape stories is precisely that while they are struggles for freedom and honor, they’re not epic, not about heroes, and (the best ones) pointedly not about male experience. Virginia Woolf (who I’m betting would find Campbell a little tedious) lamented in A Room of One’s Own that Western culture has more than enough of those stories already  – like, almost all of them. Instead, in an important sense, the woman-centered escape film is about eluding that male influence, of organizing one’s story not in reference to men – as protagonists or antagonists – but in relation to concerns and ambitions of one’s own.

So we relate to the protagonists of films like Shirley Valentine, the Holiday, Bread and Tulips, My Life in Ruins, Under the Tuscan Sun, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, who are all quite ordinary women, living very recognizably-ordinary, contemporary lives, and feeling vaguely bored, trapped, and frustrated as a result. It’s gratifying to see a character like ourselves asserting her claim to be at the center of the story, taking some authorial control over the plot of her life. Like ourselves, our heroine is the good girl who has tried to make all the right decisions to conduct her career and relationships the way she (thinks) she ought to, in the naive hope that her efforts will be rewarded with a kind of fulfillment that will never come; who instead has become burned out by the roles she plays; who has put her dreams and desires on hold because to do otherwise would be irresponsible, and she’s nothing if not responsible; and who could never give herself permission to just put all the burdens down and walk away…until some nutty set of circumstances and people combine to make the decision for her.

And it’s all about those choices and decisions in regard to doing the “right” thing, “achieving,” being “successful” in career and relationships: the process of escaping calls those definitions of what’s “right” and “successful” into question. Confirming what we’ve suspected all along, wherever the protagonist ends up, she finds that all that she thought mattered a great deal, doesn’t matter much at all. She’s been living an empty life of draining effort spent in pursuit of superficial, empty rewards.

The story isn’t all that subversive – it’s not like the character ends up living off the grid in a polyamorous hippy commune somewhere. Wherever she ends up, she still works, makes money, has possessions – she still participates in capitalism. But it’s a vision of capitalism that is less cruel and cutthroat, where it’s easier to live simply, be less ambitious, have more free time, and yet still have enough material comforts, and, presumably, health care  (no accident that our heroines often find their happy ending in European countries with a social safety net). She might have to work hard, but it’s invigorating rather than draining, because the work involves doing something that makes her happy, which she’s good at, which builds meaningful connections with others. 

And she doesn’t throw off the constraints of heteronormative monogamy either – she generally (as far as I know, always) ends up with one person, not several, always a man – but she learns that the man to make her happy is not necessarily rich or prestigious, or all that stable, or even all that physically perfect; rather, he’s the man who gets her, who is interesting and interested; he’s not dependent on her, nor she on him; instead they can enjoy generously caring for one another.

So where do we fit into this story? What is it about the character’s escape that we relate to?  I suppose you can watch Bread and Tulips or Leap Year or The Holiday and be gratified when the protagonist realizes that her husband or fiancé is boring and childishly needy, or boring and selfishly arrogant, thinking, with some smugness, “I’m so lucky my husband isn’t like that!” or “I’m glad I’m clever enough that I would never end up with a husband like that, and instead am destined for happiness with Jude Law or Matthew Goode cooking delightful omelettes for me, while our charming, improbably-articulate, impeccably-behaved children (who I have not had the discomfort of gestating) caper happily at our feet.” You could watch The Holiday, and when the haplessly-single protagonists find the loves of their lives, perhaps feel warm sympathy – and more smugness – thinking “I’m so lucky I have a husband – those poor, hapless single people!”

That is, what we enjoy in the story might all depend on where we’re at in our own lives – we might be watching with relief, grateful that our lives look more like what the protagonist escapes to rather than what she’s running from. Or we might watch with a certain amount of desperate hope, that if we’re not there yet, we’re on our way (“I want to go to there…”). Or we might watch in total denial, willing ourselves into the belief that we have escaped, that we have found the better, more wonderful life already.

(And speaking of Wonderful Lives, it’s interesting that we encounter all of these stories thanks to money-making ventures like book publishing, or the film industry – making money by selling us fantasies about not making money).

I think we tend to focus on how lovely the escape turns out to be, without thinking too hard about why it’s so lovely – because, if we really pay attention, what makes the ending gratifying is its contrast with where the character begins, trapped in a life that is ordinary, recognizable, profoundly unfulfilling, even – as the Netflix tagline might put it – soulless. Even if it is just a film, a fantasy, if we’re relating to the character, rooting for her as she finds her true self in her new, better Tuscan/Venetian/Irish/English/ Greek/French/Caribbean life, identifying with her in all the travails that she sloughs off like some metamorphosing cocoon… does that mean there’s something ever-so-slightly soulless about the lives that we’re living?

Obviously, one’s fantasies can have nothing to do with the “real” world at all, and be completely healthy, fun, diverting, without calling into question all of one’s life choices. It’s in the nature of fantasy that much of it is meant to be unattainable – we revel in being imaginatively immersed in the impossible or inadvisable, knowing that we’re never too far from the safety of the quotidian, the very mundanity of our lives giving fantasy its contrastive flavor.

These escape stories aren’t really all that unattainable – or shouldn’t be. Some of the details are a stretch, to be sure – current immigration law alone would put the kibosh on a lot of these fables of transplantation. But the character’s literal, geographical move is less important than what she leaves behind – her fear and her regret, her conditioning to put up with things that happen to her, her habit of enduring rather than deciding. Many of us aren’t in a position to make the literal move ourselves, but shouldn’t we be able to actually make the figurative moves in the lives we’re already living? Isn’t it important to question those life choices, which might not be choices as all so much as a series of acquiescences? If we suspect that the lives we’re living are making us worse, and not better – or worst of all, not making us anything— isn’t it almost an obligation to make a break for freedom?

There’s deep conditioning in many cultures to endure, to accept that ours is a world of suffering, that it’s vanity to believe that one deserves to be happy when so many others can’t be, that our ambition should be to radically accept where we are, rather than to be where we aren’t. There’s important wisdom in those edicts, along with the very important truth that, as just so many atoms in a vast and entropic universe, there’s very little in our lives that we have real control over (….not to mention that the ideologies which govern our lives – money, class, religion, power – all rely on our patient, compliant, endurance). It’s hard to recognize a chance for escape when we see it, harder still to take that chance (what about your health insurance? what about your retirement? what about that committee meeting next week?).

Surely it would be best to seek contentment with what we have.

That’s what we tell ourselves, as though the harder, more noble choice is always to endure. Escape, running away, that’s taking the easy (immature, irresponsible) way out, and nobody would want that.

Except we keep asking for and telling that escape story, over and over, obsessively, as though touristic voyeurism can be fulfillment enough, at least for now, at least until.…

In the meantime, we’re just waiting.


And you may ask yourself

What is that beautiful house?

And you may ask yourself

Where does that highway go to?

And you may ask yourself

Am I right? Am I wrong?

And you may say yourself, “My God! What have I done?”

(Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime”)

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On Confinement

At the end of every month, Google helpfully sends me a summary of its surveillance of me and my movements, in the form of its timeline. Usually, this update elicits a mix of self-satisfaction and concern: “Hey look at how cool and active a person you are, as evidenced by all the interesting places you’ve gone to, the things you’ve done, and the distance you’ve covered, which we know all about thanks to our pervasive and insidious scrutiny of you as a subject-consumer with zero privacy under neo-liberal surveillance capitalism!”

I usually set aside the sinister bits and (well-indoctrinated) take this update as intended: the timeline tells me what I want to hear about myself, that I’m a privileged, autonomous person whose intentionality and desire finds embodied realization in relatively-unimpeded movement through physical and social space. 

Which means that, normally, my days are punctuated by a lot of roaming around – I walk, bicycle, run, hike, and travel by planes, trains, and automobiles, from one geographical point to the next. 

It has often been the case that I haven’t felt especially, mindfully, grateful for that roaming – much of the day-to-day movement has felt hectic, pressured, the exigency to get to whatever’s next. Either I’m careening through the city to satisfy the obligations that keep me out of trouble (the job), or struggling to get to the things that help me cope with meeting those obligations (therapy for body and mind, the gym), or, with the least time of all, rushing to whatever’s supposed to reward me for meeting the obligations (everything else) …Every so often it will occur to me that all that privileged, autonomous movement is really part of a Foucauldian practice of bodily discipline that serves the interests of oppressive state power, and all my freedom is in fact an illusionary byproduct of the panopticon

One has the luxury to self-indulgently reflect on the limits of one’s liberty when one is confined to quarters in a quarantine. 

I don’t know how expansive my world really was under usual, or “normal” circumstances (when do we get to stop putting “normal” in problematizing quotation marks?), but I liked the illusion, that all that literal distance travelled translated figuratively into forward movement, growth, progress toward becoming…something more, or, failing on the becoming, then at least performing the movement of Productivity that has come to matter so much as a measure of adult success. 

…And then the pandemic came along, and with it a quarantine, and my world, which may or may not have been nearly boundless Before, has undeniably, suddenly shrunk. Whatever mattered, whatever the matter was, has folded in on itself, contracting into density, exerting a crushing gravity. My little apartment has now become a singularity.

My timeline for April was not usual or normal. I hardly went any more than 3 miles in any direction in April. I didn’t leave the house for 16 days out of 30. All of a sudden, I didn’t go anywhere at all.

What happens to our figurative forward movement when we literally can’t move?

I miss going to therapy. I mean, I’m still “going” to therapy, but in the same ways that I still “go” to dance class (my kitchen), and “go” for a drink with my friends (my living room), I “go” to “meet” my therapist by phone (my bed). I miss being able to actually go to see her, insofar as the action, the verb, entailed a change of position, a change of state. I would walk there, exchanging my office for hers; the transit through the city was a transition of mood, thought, identity. I would wait for my appointment in that most liminal states, the waiting room, the hallway. Being called into her office was to be invited across a threshold. I would set down my bags (always more than one, the things I carried always weighing me down with symbolic expectation, and reproach –  what I would have to endure in a day, what I would aspire to do, what I couldn’t manage to do, all hanging penitentially from my shoulders). I’d take off my shoes, pull up my feet, and curl up in a corner of her couch, the appearance of coziness a cover for the need to have solid furniture to brace myself against. She would take a deep breath and ask: “where shall we begin?” And I would press my back into her therapy cushion, press my hands down on my knees, and talk.

Going to therapy meant crossing a barrier, from the demands and threats of the world, into a space that is recognizably domestic, and yet free of the domestic baggage that we go there to unburden ourselves of – a place that is designed to be separate, special, safe.

I hadn’t really given much thought to how vital it is for us, to have these separate, special places, until the possibility of going to any of them was so brutally put on hold.

“You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone….”

Now my apartment is being pressed into performing service it wasn’t really designed for – as office, conference room, library, bar, gym, doctor’s office, cafe, therapist’s couch, ballet studio. My little converted attic is not prepared for this work in a physical, material sense – the lighting is always all wrong, the ceilings too low, the floor too hard, the rooms too cluttered. My quarantine and I delicately herd one another from one room to the next: “if you’re finished watching TV, I thought I’d do a workout…if you’re going to be on zoom in there, do you mind if I take over the bedroom? … Let me know when you’re done in the kitchen so that I can dance/cook/carve/plant….” 

What’s troublesome is that this space is not meant to be those spaces; the goals, the ambitions, the responsibilities, the pleasures, and the many, many anxieties that would take me out of my home are not meant to be replicated in it. I would go there because I had to, for obligations of course, but also for the specialized equipment, the expertise of others, the freedom from distraction. We value our home because here is where we can be ourselves…and that’s why we need to be able to leave, to go there, where we can practice being some other version of ourselves, sometimes a version we might not like all that much, but sometimes also an experimental version, a necessary prototype, that requires room for ungainly, uncoordinated test-runs, the occasional explosive failure. You don’t want that thing going off in your living room. 

When the rest of the world is all hectic movement and necessarily expended energy, we need our homes to be places of calm and rest…but the same stillness that makes home a refuge under “normal” conditions resists, discourages, the introduction of that worldly bustle and drive. The conflict of dynamic and static creates confusion, tension, discord. 

Not only were those other places made special simply because there was not here – but the act of going had a symbolic, ritualistic function, where literally moving from one place to another meant figuratively changing roles, relationships, mindsets. Not moving from here, confronted with my own image blinking and fidgeting back at me from the camera of my computer, I miss that change of state, of identity, of being somewhere else, of being someone else. 

Maybe we need the permission afforded by another place: change the stage, change the props, change the persona.

I’d come to take for granted the absolute necessity of self-improvement, self-actualization, self-acceptance…and it turns out that a lot of that work on accepting the self depended on being able to put that self through its paces, through all manner of changes, multiple times per day. That takes up a lot of space.

My little apartment has been reluctantly transformed into a Room of Requirement, and I can tell the effort is straining the structural tolerances. 

And yet – even as my home trembles and strains under the psychic weight of being all places, all roles, at once…it has to hold together, because there is still nowhere else (nowhere safer) to go. Even as it seems almost impossible to stay put, to make do, we’re getting used to it — accommodating, finding ways to make the small space seem spacious enough. Or maybe we’re accommodating ourselves to moving less, taking up less space, limiting how much we move, or act, or change to fit into an ever smaller area, one that contains fewer stimuli, and certainly fewer people. 

Is that adaptation, or is that a traumatic response to captivity? I’m getting used to a quieter life not out of some mindful, patient, acceptance but rather as a kind of quarantine-induced Stockholm syndrome.

Rather than call it a quarantine, or a lock-down, or even a shelter-in-place, some people prefer “The Great Pause.” Meanwhile, the French call it le confinement.  

We won’t know for sure what effect quarantine life is having on us until we don’t have to live in it anymore. And while others are getting excited about “opening back up! going back to business as usual! resuming normal life!” …I don’t feel ready. Do you? Can you imagine going back to “normal” – going back to all that hectic movement back and forth, coming and going, Productively progressing, but also pressing, fighting our way from one point in space to the next….? Can you imagine all that movement, alongside other people….? 

There is so much that I miss – that we all miss – about life Before, so much that we’ve been deprived of, that has been put on hold. In the last couple of months, we’ve only been able to reminisce, or fantasize: “As soon as things go back to normal the first thing I’m going to do is [insert desired activity performed in public space, with other people].” I wonder what we’ll really want, or need, to do, and with whom? (or for whom?) How much will the quarantine have changed our priorities? How much will our desire, our ambition, our need for movement have contracted during the last couple of months? To what extent will we find that – even in the midst of confinement – our desires have expanded, but into spaces that are quieter, full of less motion, fewer people? 

Much might be gone for good. 

That is: that so much might be gone, might be good, might be good for us. 


(is this an overly-grand claim? what’s the alternative?)

…maybe it will turn out that having gone nowhere, we’ve actually gone quite far.

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On Enforced Idleness

Those of us inhabiting the oddly purgatorial condition of the home quarantine, with its unlooked-for mix of relative comfort and existential dread, find that our response falls into one of two categories. 

On the one hand, there are those who have become (maybe always were) a little manic, filling their waking hours (which are many, as they’re not sleeping) with much busy-ness. At the beginning, we all joked: “thanks to the quarantine, I can finally get some work done!!” – but while the rest of us were still figuring out whether and how to decontaminate our groceries, and allowing a nasty slough of flour and water to languish in a kitchen corner as a faint gesture toward maybe eventually learning how to make sourdough…those in the first category actually did it: they got Productive

They claim to be a little worn out from working more than they would have at the office! They’re writing grants and book chapters, and reading Tolstoy! They’re attending lectures and symposia and touring the Louvre and listening to the entirety of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (excuse me: Der Ring des Nibelungen, because they’ve also been learning German).  They’re outfoxing the mask-less hoards by getting their run in at 5 am (in their own home-made masks, made from fabric left over from that quilt they just finished). They’re setting up elaborate photo shoots and composing extensive treatises on their food blogs about the amazingly-decadent and fulfilling vegan-paleo-low-carb-high-virtue meals they’re preparing every day, while documenting all the hours that they’re not eating any of that food because their intermittent fasting window is only between 3.30 and 3.52 pm. And they still have time to call their mothers, drop in to zoom cocktail hours with drinks made from artisanal bourbon and home-made bitters (and not wine with the cork pushed in because the corkscrew got thrown out with the trash, and can’t be replaced because in the midst of boycotting Amazon in a pandemic, we have no idea where to find kitchenware anymore).

For the Productive, the quarantine is, of course, a terrible global catastrophe (#inittogether) but it’s also [said fulsomely, hands pressed against their heart chakra] a gift, an interval for reflection, optimization, and growth (#blessed #gratitude).

At least that’s what they’re saying on Instagram.

All of which I suspect is mostly heavily-massaged narrative in service of personal brand development, and consequently more image than reality, but which is nevertheless real enough to make the rest of us in the second category feel badly about behavior that, in the Before Time, would look like laziness and moral failure – and yet, since Before is now a long time ago, we can consider more sympathetically as what the experts call “allostatic load” – or what I think is more aptly, because more histrionically, called Melancholic Languor

Unlike the Maniacally Productive, the Languorously Melancholic have no trouble sleeping. In fact, we’d probably be sleeping even more than we do, were it not for two things that reliably drive us from bed: 1) the unsettled, Kafkaesque pandemic dreams of being pursued, beset by crawling things, harried by purposeless but urgent wandering through vivid, surreal landscapes; and 2) the demands of our Maniacally Productive colleagues to meet regularly, just like NORMAL, to ruminate collectively and collaboratively over all the decisions we can’t make because of all the knowledge of the future we don’t have. 

We want to be more productive. Or rather, we want to be the kind of person who is maniacally productive, which we so obviously aren’t, because we can’t summon sufficient energy or focus, because of the melancholy and languor. Thus, our day is, in intention, in theory, exactly the same as our busy friends’… if you took the full roster of their activities, threw it in a fire, then retrieved the fragments and tried to make sense of the pieces: worn out…decadent…low…eating…cocktails…

That is, coping with the frightening uncertainty of a global pandemic (with a federal leadership that is literally worse than useless) turns out to be surprisingly draining.

We’re doing what seems to be the bare minimum, and that’s going to have to be enough for the time being.

That doesn’t photograph as well for Instragram (#enduring #hangingon).

I can’t give you an impressive roster of my activities for the past…day? week? month? because I kind of don’t remember most of it – one day has been very much like another, each day seems to evaporate, and suddenly it will be 5pm and I don’t have a good account for how I spent the waking hours (which aren’t really all that numerous these days anyway, with no extrinsic requirement to be anywhere on anyone else’s schedule). I look out the window at my bird feeder a lot. I stress-bake. I suppose I’m reading a lot, though it’s mostly the stream of obsessive analysis that the Productive are churning out to soothe themselves, and which is, simultaneously and perversely, fueling and exhausting the rest of us. I have gotten the bare minimum of paid work done. I have showed up, somewhat irregularly, to the regular (NORMAL!) meetings that colleagues seem to find reassuring (during which I turn off the video and work on my “Color Yourself Zen” coloring book, because if bureaucratic meetings made me feel like a trapped animal Before, the whole pinned-entomology-specimen feel of a zoom meeting, held as a pageant of normalcy in the “current unprecedented situation” pushes me to a limit of endurance that can only be soothed with a rainbow of markers and pencil crayons).

I am NOT at the height of my intellectual power. Sustained, focused thinking is – ooh! blue jays at the bird feeder! – a challenge. The fragmented, disjointed tenor of our pandemic dreams is just the echo of the haphazard mental processes that pass for thought during the day. Why expect coherent ratiocination in incoherent times?

Thought is hard. Keeping syntax from trailing off into ellipses, and herding refractory words towards any kind of expressive goal is…also…what’s another word for hard? 

To Melancholic Langour, add Enervation and Mental Lassitude. Throw in some Ennui while you’re at it.

If it’s a bit (!) of a struggle to move my brain, I’m finding I can’t move my body enough – or rather, it insists on moving itself. Baking, coloring, aimless drifting from one room to the next to stare out of windows – ooh! mourning doves on the porch railing! – compulsive floor-sweeping, neurotic worrying at my fingernails – my animal self knows it’s pent up, and doesn’t like it. 

And yet, as we know, going outside has become almost intolerably fraught. “Hell is other people,” indeed. Who could have imagined how enraged – because terrified – we would become in the presence of our neighbors? What should be a restorative pleasure – a literal and figurative walk in the park – has become an exhausting exercise in exasperated, hyper-vigilant misanthropy. And almost as horrible as the inescapable proximity to others without masks, is the claustrophobic misery of wearing one oneself. Urban living in a pandemic is teaching me that safety depends on remoteness and solitude. 

Therefore, if my body demands movement, pandemic-induced agoraphobia demands that I confine most of my movement to my house.

I guess I could use the current situation to just take a break from exercise. 

That would be a terrible idea.

Being an anxious person, the provocations of daily life accrue relentlessly in the course of the day, agitating thought and emotion to the point of paralyzing internal frenzy. Over the years, I’ve learned that if I go and lift something really heavy, or blunder, ungainly, un-swanlike, through a dance class, or pedal desperately up some imaginary mountain until I’m gasping for breath, wrung out, legs shaking…the immersion in physicality has the wonderful, merciful effect of resetting mind and body back to zero, at least until the next existential onslaught begins all over again.

But the sanity-preserving benefit of working out has always been a pleasant side-effect of the very maladjusted reason I started exercising in the first place, in middle school, around the same time I started dieting, which was about the time one begins to realize one has a body, shortly after which time one begins to believe (because the world is sadistically intent on this message) that one’s body is simply not acceptable, not the right size or shape, in fact completely all wrong for pretty much all social relationships. Taking pleasure in movement is really very nice, but when motivation flags (sapped, for example, by the not-inconsiderable effort it takes to not completely lose one’s sh*t because we’re quarantined because of a global pandemic)…what reliably keeps me going is the fear that I’m always one meal (too many) or  one workout (too few) away from complete interpersonal calamity. 

I know (or so I’ve been told): that’s never been terribly rational. Right. I’ll work on that first thing as soon as we’re no longer in immunological peril.

And so the first obstacle to #workoutfromhome is overcoming the decades-old adolescent baggage of all those miserable intervals of working out in the family living room, grimly enduring Jane Fonda’s leg lifts and hip thrusts, and the 20 Minute Workout’s maniacal jumping jacks, and knee-ups, and all the bouncing exhortations to feel that burn! just 4 more! you’re doing great!…all fueled by carrot sticks (just as satisfying as chips!) and apple slices (for when you just have to give in to your sweet tooth!) and caffeine (because I was never committed enough to try diet pills, laxatives, or smoking). 

These are extraordinary times, so I just have to take those unsettling memories, set them aside, and get the workout done…Except that I live in an urban apartment, a converted attic in fact, the little rooms and low ceilings of which seemed charmingly cozy in the days when I was able to leave the house to go to vast warehouses filled with equipment, and sprung floors, and expert instructors, and music specially chosen to have just the right beats per minute to be motivational…and all those people, all…breathing…in proximity to one another, without any way to measure antibodies or viral loads… 


The first couple of weeks of home workouts and dance classes did NOT go smoothly – and under quarantine stress, the stupidest little frustrations magnify to tantrum-level agitation with alarming ease. I kept grape-vining into the potted plants, and relevé-ing into the ceiling fan; I would get distracted during pilates by the dust and birdseed on the floor; I have had to rearrange the furniture, and improvise gear (I discovered that my hoard of bread flour, stuffed into a knapsack, doubles as a kettlebell – and you just know I’m going to lose my grip mid-swing, and take out my tv, or possibly a FedEx delivery guy, or a neighbor’s car windshield). I got excited by all the free dance and fitness classes offered on Instagram…except if you put your phone far enough away that you don’t destroy it with a kick-ball-change, the instructor is effectively an inch-and-a-half tall, and if I had the visual acuity to make sense of such wee images I’d have pursued my dream of a being a mercenary sharp-shooter. Instead, as an aging scholar, I did research and – with no small amount of self-satisfaction – figured out screen casting and can now summon one-foot-tall fitness pixies to urge and chivvy me from the magic lantern of my tv.  

The next challenge was improvising a barre for ballet class. All the professional dancers teaching from their tastefully appointed apartments in London and Montreal have portable barres and 3 square meters of marley flooring. The rickety wooden thrift-store chair that I had at my disposal slid around on the polished floor boards too much – again, endangering plants and light fixtures – so while I can do interval training, pilates and – heaven help me – Zumba in the living room, I have to move to the kitchen sink for ballet. – Which is fine until the class is on zoom, which then entails a frenzy of cleaning to make the space presentable for the webcam – because video conferencing has taught us a whole new form of status display, as this classmate signs in from what looks like the atrium of a villa, and that one is using her baby grand piano for her barre with a view of the ocean outside her floor-to-ceiling windows – and there’s me in a lather trying to dispose of last-night’s dinner dishes as my newly-laundered plastic bags drip-dry over the necks of empty wine bottles.

And then, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – I’m doing ballet IN MY OWN HOUSE and I’m still struggling to get to class on time, waving at the instructor on the other side of the screen with my toothbrush dangling from my mouth while I struggle to get my sports bra fastened. Which should be no cause for embarrassment since all the instructors and participants – almost all women – have been routinely flashing one another with our décolleté – this is where #leanin has brought us, as we repeatedly dangle our, um, accomplishments in front of the web cam as we adjust for flattering angles and lighting. 

The whole process of setting up the necessary space and the AV equipment, going through the ritual greetings (“Can you hear me? I can hear you but your video is muted. Is this loud enough? Can you see my feet? Oh – you just froze. Oops – don’t mind him – that’s just the cat/dog/baby/partner! Sweetie you’re going to have leave me alone so I can do my class so I don’t kill us both later this afternoon. Love you – mwah!”) – never mind doing the actual workout – takes, easily, four hours out of every day.

Now that I think of it, I’m not sure I’m getting that much-needed mind-body reset after all of it, either.

No wonder I’ve yet to finish the collected works of Dickens, finish (start) the self-assessment for my annual review, or settle down to that memoir I’ve been meaning to write. 

This is what counts as coping, these days. 

(Oh – and what’s the word for the awareness that the teacup-tempests of life as a restless academic sheltering in a comfortable apartment are ridiculously small, compared to the efforts of those doing the real work of keeping the world turning…is that irrelevance? superfluousness? shame?)

And now it’s 5 o’clock again.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day…

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On Being At Home (like it or not)

(This is the longer version of a post for Medicina Narrativa)

So we’re four weeks into the quarantine, and learning how to re-align our awareness, our perceptions of what it means to get through a day. We’ve all become anthropologists of the very, very particular. Our field work has contracted, compressed; researcher and research subject have collapsed into one. Individual, tribe, habitat, culture – those concepts have started to seem loose, unstable, full of uncertainty, on the verge of unforeseeable potential. The validity of the study is questionable, we’re making the methods up moment by moment, and we probably won’t have a hypothesis until we’ve achieved something resembling a conclusion….


Mostly, I’m paying attention to time.

The sense of time passing, of how it ought to pass, has become completely confused, complicated by existential fear and uncertainty. Should I grade some papers, do some committee work, or should I wonder about just who I am in a dysfunctional, capitalist rat-race run by greedy sociopathic autocrats? As my professional and consumerist world has ground nearly to a halt…how much have I ever needed it anyway? how much does it need me? When  I strip away most obligations, and all the apparatus of my life that goes into coping with those obligations (therapy, physical therapy, massage therapy, the gym)…what do I really want or need to do on any given day? I’m interested and made uneasy by frequent feelings of guilt and resentment: if I’m doing what I like, I feel like I ought to be doing something else; if I’m doing what I ought, I feel angry that I’m not doing what I want. Without the demand to satisfy students, employers, co-workers, the world –  what satisfies me?

…Deep questions, and yet concentration and motivation are elusive – I drift through the day, staying busy (but am I productive??), and time passes quickly. It’s hard to find the impetus to do work, for work. It’s easy to find the energy to work out – like a border collie, I crave purposeful movement, not easy to achieve in a small apartment; instead of gnawing at the furniture and scratching at doors, I’m becoming compulsive about moving, and – oddly – about sweeping the floor. 

I’m sitting too much. 

But there is – literally and figuratively – nowhere, and not enough reason, to go.


I’m sitting too much, moving too little.  

What happens to our bodily experience when the demands of capitalism have all but disappeared? I don’t have to go anywhere, be anywhere at any particular time. My day doesn’t have to be shaped by commuting, meetings, classes, moving from private to public spaces.

I notice: no need to set an alarm in the morning or feel pressure to Get. To. Sleep. at a certain time at night; meal times are as much defined by what fits with my work schedule as by hunger; with no need (no public health justification) to go farther than the local park, the marketplace figures in my day mainly through its absence. Where once I would pass by the grocery store, the bank, the mall, restaurants, bars, on my way to work or this or that appointment, now, if I leave the house at all, I encounter empty streets, spring time flowering of leaves and blossoms, sky. My bird feeder has become a major source of entertainment. 

Does it even make sense to separate discussion of mind from contemplation of body? how I move and how I feel, what I’m drawn to physically and mentally, and what I resist…if they weren’t all the same thing before, they’re becoming the same thing now. 
We used to fret so much about not feeling integration of body and mind…Surprise! it’s been there all along, and we just needed a pandemic to be forced into enough stillness and presence to know it…. 


Solitude: the introverts are the best prepared of all. Is it wrong if we’re finding pleasure in not having to engage with others, in having long stretches of the day when we don’t have to be on  for others? when we’re talking out loud to ourselves and consequently don’t have to deal with the agitation of being interrupted or trying to take a turn in conversation? when we don’t have to worry about being diplomatic, pleasing, assertive, attentive when we’re bored, polite when we don’t feel like it…The relief of not having to engage with others makes it easier to notice what kind of encounters feel good, necessary, invigorating or calming, and which ones are burdensome, obligatory, effort.

…And yet, how much solitude can one take before it becomes isolation? So many friends are stuck at home alone, with no-one there for company, no-one there for comforting presence and touch. What effect will that have on those who are already lonely, anxious, depressed?

The crisis is creating a whole new category of relationship challenges. As our world started to contract in mid-March, it was a decision point, time to pick what Dan Savage has coined “our Quarantine” (rhymes with Valentine): who do you love enough to lock down with? who do you love enough to insist on a long-distance arrangement with instead? 

I’ve been on the phone and video chat more in the last 3 weeks than I think I have in the last 3 years (devoted readers will remember how much I dislike being on the phone); it might have taken a global emergency to supply the exposure therapy necessary to break me of my telephonic phobia. Still not happy about it – I still feel like a pinned butterfly, fixed there in front of the camera, making eye contact not with my friends on the other end, but with my own thumbnail image there in the corner. It’s hard to ignore one’s mirror image, hard not to be aware of how this angle or that shadow improves or ruins appearance. I’m fidgeting constantly, to keep my face lively, lifted through the mouth and eyes, but smooth across the forehead. I miss my botox and my hair cut. My nail-biting has gotten worse.

In week 1, we were all socializing a little manically. Dinner with a friend, a check-in with the parents, virtual cocktail hour with this group of friends, ill-fated online truth-or-dare with that group. Now, at the end of week 4, the impulse to connect seems to have ebbed a bit. Maybe it’s just too many video-chat hurdles: frozen screens, yelling over one another in our Bradybunch grid, hangovers, news of hacking of our so-called private conversations held on our employer-provided conferencing apps, motion sickness from being carried through other people’s apartments from the living room to the kitchen for refills, odd downtime staring at friends’ empty sofas while they run to the bathroom, alarmed collective outcry when someone tucks in to their wasabi peas without muting the volume first.

…As clever as the technology is, it’s not perfect. Our bodies recognize the artifice. Not natural. Uncanny. Body language, tone of voice, eye contact – before, we might not have been sensitive enough to the physicality of the other, but even in encounters with friends we’d never touch, our bodies still felt that other person there, their energy, warmth, presence – and we’re finding that as much as we might spend time looking at one another across our screens, there’s an absence of immediacy, of the contact that our animal selves need, and now miss. 

Or maybe it’s just that after four weeks stuck in our apartments, we don’t feel like we have all that much to say. 

Them: “So what have you been up to today…?” 

Me: “Not much – I did a pilates video, swept the floor, stared out the window. How about you?”

Them: “The same.”

Me: “….”

Them: “….”

But is it the case that we’re really not doing much that’s conversation-worthy? I suspect rather that we just haven’t got used to who we are when removed from the stimuli of hectic, urban, professional life. That is, think of how much of our conversation consisted of bitching steadily about stress, overwhelm, demands on our time and attention, provocations of poor infrastructure and a culture that allows too much rudeness, not enough kindness…all of which would then lead to reports of what we would do to combat those provocations – workouts, “self care,” indulgences like dinner or cocktails or shows, travel, the escape/aneasthesia of binge-watching. 

And if all that goes into performing our professional and social identities (sorry, I mean, our personal brand) comes to a sudden, grinding halt, and we have to look to smaller, more subtle incidents to give the day meaning…we might not be prepared for that. 

Take away that whole stimulus-response process, and apparently, we’re left with nothing else to say for ourselves. 

But is that true?

Spending imaginative time, as I do, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it occurs to me: Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre and Dorothea Brooke all lived pretty retired country lives, and they all found plenty to do, and plenty to say. The pace of life was different, but hardly empty (and as constraining as it might have been to be a woman in the 1830s, at least they could leave the damn house) – and if it looks to us as though those women didn’t do much, that’s only by comparison to our lives which we thought, a few days ago, were purposeful and meaningful because they were FULL of productivity! of ambition! of constant movement! – and which to Lizzie, Jane, and Dodo might seem horrifyingly frantic and pressured, leaving no time or energy for contemplation, for connection with one’s loved ones, one’s environment, oneself…

In those days, the words “intimacy” and “intercourse” were used routinely, not in the narrow, limited sense that we do now, to refer almost exclusively to sex – but in a more expansive way, to describe the kind of quiet, private (as in, simply, not public), attentive interactions that were valued for true friendship. A dance, a fête, a route – those more rowdy events were exciting, sure, but relationships were built and maintained through quiet togetherness, intimate conversation, and sharing – a book, letters, music, walks, meals, work.

If Lizzie, and Jane, and Dodo could find something to talk about with one another, I think we can too. 


I’ve never been very good about adhering to any human-made system for maintaining whatever we mean by “spirit” – I’m a Sunday School dropout and a dilettante pagan, whose cosmology is a patchwork of ideas and images drawn from Buddhism, yoga, myth, and, mostly, beloved stories. So far, as extraordinary as quarantine life has been, how much of a strain it’s becoming, I have not become that person who can sit still for ritual, sermons, dharma talks, who feels a sense of connection to something larger than herself through the use of symbols and shared invocations…I wouldn’t have described myself as having much of a spiritual life at all, except that – in the absence of all the busy-ness and agita of my daily neurotic life which makes me simultaneously self-absorbed and yet not all that in touch with myself – now, confined to quarters, confined to one’s own sensations, it seems there are some things that are calming, centering, sustaining. And yet I wouldn’t have called this “spirit,” because for me, it’s really so much more physical, bodily, embodied: movement (cleaning, baking, walking, and when possible, dancing); sound (music, birds, rain, wind); scent (freshly baked bread or new blossoms); sight (leaves, flowers, trees, sky); touch (real and imagined).  

How does this attention to spirit differ from that of mind, body, or relationships? Aren’t all of those the ingredients of this experience, of the struggle to notice and accept, of being?

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Random thoughts on…whatever-this-is-that-we’re-living-through

…Because just what is happening to us right now? In so many ways, it’s not possible to make sense of it because we don’t really know what it is. We can all put the situation into words: “a public health crisis on a global scale, demanding a global response” – but those words hardly capture any sense of magnitude, of potential, of meaning. 

Whatever tools reasoning creatures need in order to make meaning, are, like toilet paper and N95 masks, simply not in stock.

For starters – as of week three of the 2020 quarantine, there is too much that experts don’t yet know about Coronavirus, and what they do know has to compete for attention with all manner of other “information” – that is, out-of-date news, spurious opinion, fears, folk remedies, propagandistic manipulation, political posturing. Every 12 hours we get some new bulletin that changes, or contradicts, everything we thought we knew yesterday: how, or if, we can work; how we can move and how far; who we can see and at what distance; whether it’s worth the risk to go to the grocery store for fresh fruit (yes); whether we should be dunking our lettuce in soapy water (no); whether we should wear masks (probably); whether we should burn all our clothes and wash the walls with vinegar (maybe, but wait – that advice was for plague and scarlet fever – never mind); how we know if we’ve had it (was that bad cold in January actually it?); how we know if we’re getting it; what to do if we’ve got it; whether we can get it again. 


The one thing we’ve all gotten used to is knowing what the grammatical antecedent of “it” is.

Experts don’t know enough. And not only do the rest of us know just about nothing; more importantly, we don’t even know how to know – or how to know when we don’t know – because the individual human brain isn’t set up to process the ramifications of a global pandemic. 


I  mean, how do I grasp, really get, what today’s numbers mean

This many cases here, that many cases 6000 kilometers away, 200,000 projected deaths, so many trillions lost in the economy…distances, stock valuations, risk probabilities, the costs of providing care to people, or bailouts to corporations….

The obsession with numbers is understandable: we want facts right now, we want concrete data. We want certainty. But is that what the numbers are doing, is “certainty” what those numbers mean? It seems like a lot of the numbers are really just a thin shell, a crust of quantification over a purulent mess of unwholesome qualification, of prejudicial assessment of worth: the worth of grocery store workers, or grandparents, or prisoners, versus the long-term performance of investment portfolios and polling numbers for upcoming elections. How prepared are any of us to perform these calculations of value? of power? 

Something we know (or should know, or have no moral excuse not to know) is that reason, logic, and order are what will save us. And yet – while evidence-based protocols will save lives, mitigate harm – such measures don’t help me understand.

Sorry, bioethicists and economists – you don’t have much to tell me that helps right now. The scale of this, of it, is a matter of being able to grasp how my individual needs (stupid, trivial, all-consuming) compare with the needs of the whole teeming planet, and all the statistical modeling and thought-experiments we’ve studied in safe classrooms, bland offices, and rarefied libraries (all shut now, everywhere), are insufficient to capture the simultaneous enormity and particularity of what’s happening. 

We might think we know. 

We have no idea. 

— I mean, really no idea, insofar as any idea you have right now is a product of how we thought last month, last week, yesterday. Neither you, nor I, have the ideas to process today, let alone what’s around the corner. 

I put my faith in art to do the meaning-making work that mere reason just can not manage right now. 

You can try to tell a story when you’re in it, because you want there to be a story, that is, something with a beginning, middle, and end – a shape – a meaning…You can try to tell that story, but you might not get any further than the realization that whatever-this-is-that-we’re-living-through-today refuses narrative, resists shape, denies meaning.

This is what we call a chaos narrative.

We don’t understand it well enough to write it yet —

(though we’ll try; we can’t help it).

In the midst of it, all we can do is live it. 

That means – if there is meaning – enduring the chaos, and the inconvenience, upheaval, and suffering it brings. 

And that means – if there is meaning – that living the chaos demands living – being alive to all that we have, allowing – reveling in, wallowing in –  feeling, perception, connection. 

This is where the art comes in.

Let reason and order emerge when they can, where they must. We need to think, of course – but as we’re learning, as one day blends into the next, trying to do the thinking that imposes order (over what? we know little and control less) – might not get us any farther than the distance from the bedroom to the kitchen and back again. To travel any farther distance than that, now, depends less on linear narrative, careful plotting, analysis, and purposeful, targeted inquiry, and more on (about all that most of us can muster) exploration, wandering, daydreaming, imagining what ifwhat else.

This is the thinking, the feeling, that will ignite poetry, art, music.

This is the thinking, the feeling, that will fuel manifestos, that will set movements alight. 

Inhabiting the chaos narrative – that is, the story that defies storytelling – is uncomfortable at best. But the discomfort – the upheaval, the destruction – is also the enemy of complacency, of obedience, forcing us to move, react, create. 

Complacency doesn’t teach us much. 

But, whether we like it or not, we have much to learn from chaos. 

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On Clean Breaks

I feel rather as though I ended a long-term relationship, but then had to spend the last month living in a shared apartment: I hated to bring to an end something that I loved, but having taken that fateful step, it became uncomfortable to stay, and I was itching to move out, to move on.

For those who have been avidly following my exploits of boycotting, opining, and soap-boxing, the update is that my membership at Equinox is up, and after a careful search, I’ve joined a new gym where, as far as I can discern, the fees I pay for membership will NOT end up funding campaigns for politicians dedicated to harming children, women, immigrants, people of color, everyone in the LGBTQI rainbow, animals, and pretty much the whole planet. 

I gave my notice to quit Equinox 45 days ago. I should have quit on the spot; I should have caused a scene; I should have, at the very least, flounced out with dramatic finality. But instead I quietly and awkwardly rode out the time remaining on my account, until it just quietly and anti-climactically expired. There was, contractually, no way I could avoid paying the last 45 days’ worth of dues without a medical excuse, or without some kind of highly improper behavior. I was too healthy for the first option; and while it’s not AS brave as, say, parading naked across the weight room floor, which is what I really wish I had done as a grand parting gesture but was too timid to attempt – I guess it’s a kind of bravery to act according to my values and leave a place that has anchored my existence for the last 12 years. You can’t change the world if you’re not willing to change your own habits, however gradually, right?

So after over a month of lurking around Equinox with growing unease and reluctance, feeling more and more like I don’t belong there, I’m finally out. 

Not for nothing – 12 years, and a few thousand dollars in fees later, the company made no move to stop me (and I suppose my boycott didn’t do a damn thing to change how, and with whom, they do business either). It’s a sad breakup when you finally get the courage to leave, only to find out that you won’t even be missed.

Right. We carry on.

I had thought of joining the locally-owned gym in my neighborhood.  At about 1/4 of what I was paying at Equinox, this one is what you’d call no-frills: lots of exposed brick and steel beams; photos of body builders on the entry walls; clanking, thumping, and grunting as weights are lifted, dropped, racked;  a subtle-but-unmistakable fragrance of sweat and under-washed workout clothes. No more fancy apps to book an array of classes at the vanguard of fitness innovation, manage workout schedules, and coach (indoctrinate) us to meditate our way to our optimal self; no more fancy shampoo on tap in the fancy showers; no more team of “Maintain” workers trained to politely ignore their own exploitation while they pick up after the optimized, privileged, hoards…These were sacrifices in comfort that I felt I was ready to make in the combined pursuit of fitness and justice.

Except this gym doesn’t have fluffy towels, a steam room, or pilates classes, which items, apparently, are vital equipment for my life as an activist. 

I bet Greta Thunberg didn’t demand a steam room as part of her skolstrejk för klimatet and consequent global protest movement, you might mutter, pointedly. 

Fine. I’ve become a little spoiled. Plus I have weak lungs and get a lot of winter colds, and the steam room really helps. Plus, Greta is Swedish and probably enjoys a good sauna herself.

The next obvious choice was the women’s gym: not as posh or expensive as Equinox, but positively swanky by comparison to the local lifters’ gym. And: not only do they have fluffy towels and a steam room, they have a whirlpool…and yoga with baby goats!?!? I have no idea how they get goats into an urban yoga studio – but the prospect of capering with caprine kids, then (showering, because: goats??) soaking away a bit of eco-anxiety in a hot tub…Sign me up! 

Am I losing sight of my activist goals here, distracted by the comforts of the pampered bourgeoisie? Unlike Greta, I’m not 17, and protesting is hard on the joints. Plus: baby goats! Plus: some of the predictions about our collective future are pretty dire, and there’s a case to be made that enjoying a bit of comfort now is forgivable in the short term if it helps us keep up the struggle. Plus: I think every day about living off the grid in a yurt as a realistic form of protest and/or survival, in which case I’ll be grateful that all that pilates gave me good core strength.

Setting aside the problematic specter of complicit capitalist wallowing, the women’s gym poses an additional challenge to my feminism. I’ve long believed that creating separate parallel spaces for women – gyms, ride-sharing services, co-working spaces – is NOT the way to achieve equality. Women-only spaces are meant to create safety, refuge from a misogynistic world where we have to deal with harassment, aggressions both micro and egregious, and real threats to our well-being. There are places in the world where mixing with men means to risk being assaulted, maybe even killed. But an important part of the struggle for women’s social and political rights has been to demand access to public spaces – to be able to go into a bar without a chaperone or a date, to be able to ride the bus or walk through a city unmolested to run errands or do work, to participate in sports and fitness – all of those “privileges” of freedom of movement have been very hard-won in some cultures, and still to be achieved in many more. Creating women’s-only spaces when we have the legal right to be wherever we like has always felt, to me, like segregation, like self-imposed purdah, like surrender. When we withdraw from some piece of the world, we give the misogynists what they want. 

So I had dismissed the idea of the women’s gym as soon as it occurred to me – I’ve taken it as a point of feminist pride that for the last several years, I’ve been out there on the weight lifting floor with bros larger and younger than me, and I have Claimed. My. Space. 


The day after the 2016 election, I was, like so many of us, stunned, horrified, and – I hate to admit it – frightened. I was also very, very angry. That election had been determined by people who, I realized, hate me. They hate the idea of me: my education, my sexuality, my politics, my gender. I could feel that hatred in the cultural air around me. They hate me. And in this new climate of bigotry and animosity, I knew that “they” were – not exclusively, but overwhelmingly –  men.

In late 2016, as I walked to work, in a busy area in a crowded city, I would pass a man and wonder: “do you hate me? are you one of the ones who voted in hopes of hurting people like me?” A few of my male colleagues made the rounds at the office, checking in on us, which was nice, and well-intentioned, I suppose (because #notallmen…); but I found their reassurances more irritating than comforting. It’s easy for men to say, everything’s going to be all right, because it is more likely to be all right (in the way that it has always been more likely to be all right) when you’re a man – a straight, white man in particular.  

Since then, some of that initial fear has eased up (or has just been diverted into concern for the planet…quick check: yep, still plenty of fear there). But the initial shock left an impression. I had taken a lot for granted, for example, that my equality is protected by law wherever I go, that I have autonomy over my body, that I have a government that represents me, that that government recognizes my humanity, that it’s reasonable to expect that I live in a safe and orderly country…I don’t take those things for granted now. 

A lot has changed in just a few years. 

So I was trying to make the mundane (not mundane) decision about a new gym, as a consequence of boycotting my old gym (because: the straight white man who runs the company is an apologist for the straight white man who invests in the company and then uses the profits to fund the political ambitions of straight white men who are also racist fascists). I walked past the women’s gym, advertising “a community of women” and thought reflexively, if only my feminist principles didn’t prevent me from embracing separatism and segregation. 

Then I thought: hang on.

I’ve had it up to here with straight white men, with bros of any age, reassuring me that things will be all right, doing nothing to help, turning a blind eye to nearly-incomprehensible violence in the world, yelling at one another about baseball rather than the fact that the planet is on fire.

Yes, I know. You don’t have to be a man to be a horrible person. Again: #notallmen. We can all point to this male friend or that male lover who isn’t so bad. I hear good things about Bill Gates these days. But it was a teenage girl who got millions of people around the world out into the streets to protest against the climate emergency; it’s teenage girls who have been looking white men straight in the eye while pointing out that they made this mess, and they’re failing all of us by refusing to deal with it. Human rights, the environment, social justice, political justice – when you think of who has the financial and political power to perpetuate all this violence, if men aren’t the ones making it happen, it’s men who are making excuses for why they’re allowing it to continue. 

Why on earth would I also want to work out beside them?

Decision made.

Never mind my choice of gym: a yurt in Herland is looking pretty good these days. But in the meantime, working on my strength and endurance amongst a community of women, sounds very appealing indeed.

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On Untimely Loss

For Kimberly.

I needed a poem about loss. 

Or rather, I needed a poem about death—your death, the loss of you, my loss. 

And while I know that death and loss must be right up there with love as a subject for poetry, I’m realizing that I don’t know much about any of it, about loss in particular—and consequently need the help of art to say something meaningful to you, though perhaps now it can only be about you, since we ran out of time, suddenly, and you’re gone. 

None of the poems about loss that I know best seemed to say quite the right thing. Or rather, they said exactly the right thing, but I wasn’t sure that people would understand what I meant. 

Which people? Well, not you, I suppose. Rather, in your absence, I was thinking mostly of your family, your friends, our friends, who might read a poem or two if I posted them on Facebook, as we do now, to perform our mourning in public. Would you approve of my choices? You aren’t here to read them now, and I never shared them with you in life, because who could ever have imagined that we’d need poems about death? —until we did, and now it’s too late. 

You weren’t supposed to go, not now, not for a long time, so all of us were taken by surprise. We—I, we, you—were in the middle of things begun with blithe cluelessness of impending finality. While you were on the way from being there to not being there, it was a beautiful summer day, and I was here, trekking through moss gardens, over rocks and roots, to a summit, where, exhausted and accomplished, I was grateful for sky, mountains, little birds, and a body that, however grudgingly, had brought me so far.  What were you doing? what were your plans, in the moment before your body betrayed you, and took you… farther, too far, farthest?

In the middle of things, you died. In the middle of things, I learned that you were dying, and thought the simultaneity strange, impossible. Present, absent; joy, sadness; everything, nothing.

“[T]he sun shone/As it had to….”

Even as you stopped, we carried on. Unfathomable, “how everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster.”

That’s WH Auden’s “Musee Des Beaux Arts,” which is one of the poems that I thought of, as you were dying:

About suffering they were never wrong,

The old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

Auden is responding to Breughel’s depiction of the fall of Icarus, where the boy, giddy with the power of flight, dares to climb too close to the sun, too close to the divine; as punishment for his temerity, his waxen wings melt, and he plunges to his death. It’s an adventure story combined with a cautionary moral, a warning about vanity told on a mythic scale. But what Auden loves is how Breughel deliberately shifts the focus from foolish mythical boys and cruel gods, to the ordinary people of his world whose lives are heroic and glorious in their ordinariness, people like you and me, who try to love and do good in the sphere we’ve been given, and who have to carry on in the midst of tragedy, partly because we don’t have a choice, and partly because it’s through being gratefully-immersed in the pain and joys of this world that we give meaning to one another’s lives.

And deaths. 


I think you’d like Auden’s poem, including the bit where, “in a corner, some untidy spot/…the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” I think you’d understand why I’ve had the poem on my mind since I first heard you were going to die. I think that at the idea of the horses scratching, you’d laugh and snort and revel in the irreverence, and the deliberate incongruity with the grand tragedy taking place in the background.  

I think all of those things about what you’d like, but I really don’t know. I suppose we hadn’t known one another all that well in a very long time. I only heard about your death third-hand, from a mutual friend, who had in turn heard it from your best friend. I had a moment of confusion: wait, I’m your best friend, I thought. Wait: you and I were best friends once, growing apart very quickly after high school. I had imagined, then, that you disapproved of me, somehow. Years later, you said that you had thought that I couldn’t be bothered with you, that my life was moving too fast while yours wasn’t. We had both felt left behind by the other. A stupid misunderstanding. We were both grateful to have had the chance to reconnect. The friendship was still there, strong as ever. We kept promising to call more, to visit more, but you were busy and I was busy, and we didn’t, and we thought we had more time. And we didn’t. 


When I found out that you had died, part of my sadness was that I didn’t feel more sad, because perhaps we’d already lost too much of one another too long ago. 

Which is why I think you’d like this one, “One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master…

…I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.

I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

She’s trying to be wry and witty to downplay how much pain she’s in, something you and I are (were?) good at, I think, though perhaps I know my ideas about you better than I knew you, yourself. That’s why I like the poem, because it’s all about losing things through carelessness—only, by things, Bishop means connections, ties, to the people, who we like to think are too precious to misplace, neglect, and forget about in the same heedless way that we forget our keys or our pens—making it all the more shameful, deserving of chastisement, when we discover what we have lost. That we have done the losing.

And, see, this is why I figured that the people I don’t know (in the life of yours that I didn’t know) wouldn’t appreciate this particular poem, because it’s not about the loss of you, not really, it’s more about how I feel about the loss of you, about my loss, about me. I’m at a loss for words, because I didn’t know you, because I misplaced you, and (“write it”) I shouldn’t have. I guess it could be fair to accuse you of the same thing, once, of having misplaced me—but not now, because you’re not here to defend yourself, and it’s unseemly to make recriminations about someone who’s passed away. Passed. Past. 

You see what I mean: there must be thousands of poems about loss, and yet I hardly know any, because what do I know about loss? what do I know about the loss of you? I know absence; I know a lot of words that do nothing to fill it. Did those two poems say what I needed to? Because that’s the point, right?—that a good poem can speak better, mean more, than clumsy, regular words, especially the words we never actually utter, because we’re hurt, or afraid, or because we’re caught up in living as best as we can and we just figure we’ll have a chance to say the important words sooner, or later, and we don’t know how entirely wrong we are. 



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On Knowing When to Commit

I’m giving my notice today: if Equinox doesn’t #committosomething and end its ties with Stephen Ross, and by extension the Trump government, my 12 years as an Equinox member will come to an end. Here’s why:

The real shock of the ongoing Equinox scandal is that we are all so shocked. We had collectively no idea that our super-corporate, super-slick, super-expensive gym could ever have any kind of financial or ethical ties to right-wing politics. How, we wondered, could a beloved big business like ours…be a lot like any other big business which survives and profits through investment and development orchestrated by the kinds of people good at such things? —And by “such things” we have to understand that we’re talking about the ruthless, mercenary, prioritization of making money over such wasteful pastimes as social justice.

Shocking indeed.

So Equinox is a company partially owned by a bigger company, The Related Companies, the board of which is chaired by a Trump supporter, Stephen Ross, who is responsible for raising tons of money for Trump and politicians like him who endorse policies of racist, misogynist, violent hate, not to mention every kind of abuse of human rights and of the planet itself.

Members didn’t know, nor did instructors, trainers, maintenance workers, or managers. Except now we do know.

Now what?

Equinox leadership has been scrambling for damage control, assuring members in recent days that our gym’s mission remains the same, to promote both health and community, to celebrate diversity; they insisted that our gym is aligned, financially and ideologically, with values of inclusivity, and positivity. “No company profits are used to fund politicians,” they insisted, in an astoundingly clueless press release issued last week, especially not through the channel of a “passive investor” like Ross.

Members everywhere aren’t buying it. Ross is the CEO of The Related Companies, which in turn is a minority investor in Equinox, so while the latter might have a fair amount of autonomy in terms of its brand and stated values, the former is hardly “passive.” If no company profits—that is, profits from the thousands of dollars each of us pays in fees every year—are making it to Ross, and thus to a political regime inimical to most of its members, Equinox has been slow to offer proof. In response, social media have lit up with threats to quit, to boycott, to vote with our feet and our wallets.

This should be an easy decision for me, really: I’ve already got a lengthy boycott list, and it should be no trouble for me to take my business elsewhere in this case.

So why am I dragging my feet? Why are you? Why does deciding what to do with your gym membership suddenly matter so much? or does it?

I joined my local EQ when it was still under construction in 2007. Moping around the city in the winter after my marriage disintegrated, I was ready to indulge myself a little, upgrade from my functional but unlovely urban gym, distract myself by working out, maybe meet some like-minded people, though I was skeptical of the latter: I’d already been a gym-rat for long years of my life, and had been consistently dismayed by how closed off and unwelcoming my fellow exercisers tended to be. But the sales manager assured me that this new gym, Equinox, would be a family, a community, and in an unfriendly Boston February 12 years ago, that sold me.

And it wasn’t an empty promise. Somehow, the people at that branch of a big chain really were more sociable, more open. Members talked to one another. After being in the same classes with a couple of women, we were brave enough to start chatting on the way to the locker room. Another woman who we’d seen regularly joined in. Soon we were going for drinks and hotdogs together; we invited the instructor of our dance classes; he invited other members—the next thing we knew, we could count on seeing friends whenever we went to the gym.

I hated EQ’s advertising campaigns for a variety of reasons, but I couldn’t deny that when they said “it’s not fitness, it’s life”…increasingly, it was. Sunday mornings, when other people would go to church, we were all at the gym together, taking a kind of communion in spin class, of all things, with our erstwhile drag-queen instructor in the pulpit of what I called Our Lady of Perpetual Vanity; instead of tea and cookies in the church basement, we went for mimosas over brunch. Fit and fun, so urban, so work-hard-play-hard. We loved it. We had accomplished a rare thing, creating connectedness in what can be a pretty lonely city.

In recent years, our #fitfam has become a bit frayed around the edges. Beloved instructors have been promoted into management, and we don’t see them as often. Some of us had to move away for work; others got married and moved to the suburbs; injuries sideline all of us with regularity. We’re getting older. Things change.

But worst of all, the world has changed around us. Fear and violence are pressing in on all sides, it seems. How wonderful it would be if our gym, our community, could be a refuge. For as long as I’ve been there, we’ve all believed that it has been. And now it turns out that may not be true —the threats are everywhere, after all.

If you’re not a fitness person, you might not see the big deal here. If your principles matter, take a stand, you might suggest. It’s easy. A gym’s a gym, right? You don’t like how it’s run, find another gym.

But we have history, me and my gym. There are still familiar, beloved faces there, and good memories. Friends. My former marriage, my job, my gym: in that order, those have been the longest commitments of my adult life.

So I’m dithering over this choice, debating with others about what it might mean to cancel our memberships, because it actually will mean a lot. For one thing, it will hurt me. More importantly, if I and other long-term members quit, we could hurt our friends. If this boycott really works, beloved instructors, managers, trainers, and maintenance people could lose their jobs.


—Many of us have been drawn to Equinox because of its stated commitment to LGBTQ rights, and yet some of the profits from our labor and fees go to someone who hates us. Many of the women who clean up after us are immigrants, and there’s a good chance that if they’re not illegal, they know others who are…and some of the profits from their labor go to a man who hates those women; or if he doesn’t hate them, he’s still willing to pass those profits on to his friends who definitely do”, friends who would sanction deporting those women, and putting their children in camps. While I and people I care about attempt to be healthy, to find a little refuge of wellness and friendship while the world is on fire, a man who profits from our membership (from our community) hates us. He might object that “hate” is strong word, but the political friends that he supports would strip of us of our human rights at the first opportunity. That seems a lot like hate to me.

So it’s not just a gym. As Equinox has insisted all along, #it’s not fitness, it’s life. That is: this isn’t a trivial decision about a trivial purchase in a life defined by purchases. This place has mattered to me; my values also matter to me, and I can’t be afraid to take a stand for those values.

Many Equinox members acted more quickly than I have, dropping their memberships last week. Others have decided to stay, arguing that a boycott won’t make a difference.

One objection I’m hearing—from friends who are members, from staff—is that a boycott doesn’t really do anything except harm the people at the bottom, the people we care about. Giving up my membership, they say, would be hurting them more than it would some fascist fat cat, insulated by money, privilege, power—and would change nothing. But the #GrabYourWallet campaign, started in the wake of the 2016 election to target over 100 large companies for their business and political ties to the Trump family, has had a real effect. There are currently 15 companies on the boycott list (Equinox and Soul Cycle having just been added): 89 other companies have dropped Trump connections over the last couple of years. If it’s just me boycotting, or just you, then sure, that won’t do much; if we all boycott, that might force changes, namely Equinox severing ties to the Related Companies. It takes 45 days for a membership cancellation to go through—we could leverage a lot of corporate policy in that span of time.

Another objection: I vote, I volunteer, I donate time and money—I’m doing what I can; I’m doing enough already.

Apologies for being difficult: but are you doing enough? I know I’m not. I know plenty of people whose lives are already too precarious for them to risk doing anything. I also know plenty of people who aren’t doing anything but living lives of insulated comfort. So what might constitute enough of an effort for me has to be doubled or tripled to be effective on behalf of those who are unable to do enough, or those who just won’t.

If we were all doing enough, the world would look very different at this precise moment.

The final objection: if you worried about how ethical a given company is, you’d have to boycott everything, and that’s just not realistic.

Think about that last claim for a minute. Take it to a logical conclusion: you’d have to boycott everything…


You’re right—look into the people behind the goods and services and most institutions that we pay for in exchange for comfort in our lives, and—surprise—you’re going to find people who are amoral at best, actively contributing to violence and bigotry at worst. And I don’t want to see what “worst” looks like. Surprise: the very framework of our lives is rotten to the core. So, to protest, to challenge that framework and demand meaningful change—that’s not realistic…because?

Because you know that part of the protest would involve, at a minimum, discomfort and inconvenience, and maybe you’re just tired and stressed from working too hard, and not earning enough (working for whom, again?) to have the energy for that kind of disruption.

Because you’re afraid that if I, you, and everyone we know really wanted to do enough, we’d have to go far beyond boycotts: our actions would change our individual lives, and have consequences for the lives of others. You might hurt other people’s feelings. You might get in trouble. Once you start protesting violence, hatred, the rape of the planet, the incarceration of innocent children, you might get fired (by that same corporation that you’ve been loyal to all along). You might lose your health insurance. You’d be confronted with the fact that you, like those on whose behalf you’d protest, don’t have that many rights, or all that much safety.

When you put it that way, you’re right, cancelling a gym membership is a trivial action. One person boycotting here or there is not enough.

Because: if we honestly face up to just how much peril we’re in, we should all drop everything that doesn’t matter and take to the streets, to protest, to demand a different world, to start living a different world, one that might be a little less comfortable than what we’ve known, but which would be a lot more kind, just, safe, healthy.

You’re right: it’s not fitness. It’s life.

Commit to something.

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On the Refusal of Service

One of the pleasures of a certain kind of Boston life, is to spend an afternoon reading and writing in the Public Library. The BPL, like all libraries, is an amazing phenomenon, a space dedicated to learning, to the sharing of knowledge by the creators and grateful consumers of all manner of media. And as anyone who spends a lot of time in libraries knows – as anyone who loves learning knows – the values which make that sharing, that generosity, of knowledge possible tend to associate with other kinds of generosity, like, for instance, offering hospitality, refuge, safety. As a recent episode of This American Life put it, the public library is truly a magical Room of Requirement.

Which is why is should be no surprise that the BPL, like other libraries, is a magnet for all kinds of people on any given day – those who come here to work, who come for diversion, and those who come here because a “clean, well-lighted place” filled with books, newspaper, and peaceable people is a wonderful respite in the midst of a city that can often be hard, unwelcoming, and unkind.

That is, the library attracts a lot of Bostonians who might be homeless, or indifferently sheltered, those who are not privileged, not well, and not in a state where they can accept much help from others, if there are even any others to offer it.

If you go to the library a lot, you’ll see them, wearing more clothes than the weather would encourage in the summer, or too few in the winter, maybe sitting with a book or a paper, maybe not, often surrounded by several bags or bundles, the belongings they have to keep with them wherever they go for fear of having someone take the little they have.

In a city like Boston, this all tends to become so much background – because what can anyone do about it, surely that’s something for the City to take care of? I’m no better than anyone else either – caught up in whatever urgent rushing around that we all do, I steer a path around the person talking to themselves; I do that thing, where someone asks you for change and somehow it would be rude to pretend you don’t know what they’ve asked, but it’s all right to instead avoid eye contact, give an apologetic shake of the head, a sympathetic, whispered “sorry” – and keep walking by. What do we know of how our disadvantaged neighbors manage to find something to eat every day, or where they go at night if they’re not sleeping rough, or where they find a place to bathe or clean their clothes? We don’t know, because we don’t want to, and the structure of our lives makes it possible for us not to.

A couple of years ago, I was passing through the newly-renovated atrium of the library’s Johnson building, the space bright, welcoming, and bustling with patrons, when I noticed a younger woman just…standing still. Everyone else was on their way somewhere, and she…wasn’t. I tried not to stare, but kept looking, as my brain registered a disconnect between what I was expecting to see – perhaps a college student, dressed casually for an afternoon of studying – and what I did see, which was that, while her clothes were unremarkable, they were also filthy, as was her face, and her hair wasn’t fashionably tousled, it was in fact tangled and stiff with dirt. As people flowed around her, she stood still, staring intently at something and nothing, clutching one of those quilted, floral bags that you pay quite a bit of money for at the mall, so that other people recognize with approval that you’ve all paid to have the same bag – only her bag, like the rest of her, hadn’t been washed in a very long time.

I didn’t stop. (Did you?) And if I thought about the young woman much at all it was to wonder selfishly (callously) if BPL security was going to nudge her out the door before her dirtiness disturbed other patrons.

Which must have been what happened, because I saw her again the next day, only instead of being in the library, she was across the street, in Copley Square. She was still filthy, still standing still, still staring fixedly ahead of her. I wondered if it was the library’s beautiful 19th century facade that held her attention, or something, someone, else, as invisible to passersby as the woman herself.

And she was there the next day, standing still, staring at the library. And she was there most days after that. I first saw her in July; and she was still there, standing, staring, well into the fall, into the onset of winter. At some point, as it got colder, she appeared with a new-looking parka, though she kept the same shoes – once some kind of loafer, now shapeless and down at heel – and had no socks, even in the damp cold and November wind. She’d have been warmer inside the library, but as far as I could tell, she wasn’t going back in, though the fascination of the place remained. She continued to stand and stare.

Obviously, she had somewhere to go at night. Right? Surely she wasn’t sleeping on the streets? Someone had given her that coat, but what help did she have beyond that? She wasn’t any cleaner; did she have food? This young woman was very clearly unwell, very clearly vulnerable. Was she safe?

Asking these questions upset me. But what could I do? (because that’s what you ask, when you don’t have the combination of care, motivation, and knowledge to override your social conditioning, to override your discomfort, and act, but then you can say that at least you were upset). Why didn’t the City do something?

I thought about this woman a lot, and about the many other people like her in so many ways, but, who, unlike her, were somehow able to satisfy the library’s security, and have, at least, a warm, peaceful place to go for a few hours of the day, who could maybe use the library’s bathrooms for a bit of cleaning, a bit of dignity, who might be able to sleep, knowing they’d be safe, that their belongings would be safe too. I thought of the Richard Selzer story I often teach, “Toenails,” a parable of charity which takes place in a public library, a story which I use to prompt my students to think more empathetically (good for me, teaching empathy, when I was so overflowing with it myself that I did nothing for this young woman). I thought, if someone, if the City, if whoever was supposed to be caring for our neighbors were going to do something, the library would be the ideal place to do it.

Surely I couldn’t be the only person to have that idea?

(So I could wait, in hopes that someone else would have the idea, and would do the thing that I didn’t know how to do.

And where were you, at that same time?)

A couple of weeks ago, I saw an NPR report on how some libraries, recognizing the role they play in their communities as a refuge to a variety of people, have begun hiring social workers, and training librarians in how to help patrons with more than finding books, connecting them with vital social services as well. Wonderful, I thought. Someone is doing something after all.

Then I went to my library, the BPL, one of the oldest and most venerable institutions dedicated to welcoming the public within its doors, and encountered this sign at the entrance:

If these rules were only designed to limit bad behavior – loud talking, the noisy consumption of pungent sandwiches in the quiet study room – I’d be grateful for the library’s crack-down. Apparently other patrons felt the same, as I’m sure these rules came about after one too many visitor had complained. After all, the library might be open to all, but not to all kinds of bad behavior, right?


I thought of the young woman (one person, somehow visible when it’s so easy not to see the many others). I thought of how badly she needed shelter, and how poorly equipped she was to meet the library’s criteria for admission; how if she had the ability to present herself as neat, and tidy, with no offensive smells or offensive needs, she might not have been drawn to the library at all; she wouldn’t have stood, staring at the library for months. Indeed, this checklist seemed designed deliberately to be unachievable, and to give security the right to turn away a lot of the people who most need the library to be refuge, who most need somewhere welcoming to go.

Because if it’s not the library, where else, exactly, can they go? Who else will welcome them?

Whoever made the complaints that led to this Code of Conduct: will you take care of those whose behavior, whose existence, is objectionable? Excluding those people from the awareness of deserving patrons like ourselves (because we don’t think we’re the same, do we?) won’t make their problems go away, and will, in many cases, make them worse. Someone should really do something about those people, we all agree, except that it won’t be me, or you, or our public library, but surely this will be taken care of somehow, by someone.

We can sleep easy at night, and use our library with a clear conscience in the morning.

Can’t we?

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On Being Off

“Do nothing, and everything gets done” (Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh)

I just spent the last two months unplugged.

That is, for the last several weeks, I’ve been on a social media diet, on a retreat from all forms of electronic communication, in self-imposed rehab from an addiction to emails, texts, posts, updates, inboxes, likes, alerts, followers, threads, forwards, saves, pins, and links. #digitaldetox

Did you notice?? Did your social media universe seem a little dimmer, did its gravity feel off, because I wasn’t in it? Now that you know that I wasn’t there, does that explain any unaccounted-for FOMO that you might have felt during those two months, a sense that somewhere I was doing something more interesting that you wish you were doing too? Did the negative space created by my absence make you jealous and vaguely resentful that you weren’t also absent? Because presence or absence in the digital realm are now metrics of individual worth: if the time I invest in social media is time well spent, it’s in return for being noticed, for being taken note of, for making my #influence felt, for mattering.

I guess I spent two months not mattering.

It felt pretty good, actually.

Of course, it’s not like I went cold turkey, completely off the grid. Some technological tools are so useful, so necessary, that I couldn’t avoid using them: navigating, making sure I had a clean place to sleep every night, paying my bills, getting library books, making sure that I wasn’t mistakenly ordering entrails in restaurants, or saying yes to dangerous or illegal activities on the beach…And while I am unlikely to ever be fluent in Catalan, my phone is, which turned out to be surprisingly useful.

Nevertheless, I was grateful that the last several weeks often took me places where I could neither receive nor be received; where I could escape my cage because there were no bars; where my little triangle of connectedness was just an outline of nothing, more negative space: for days at a time, I couldn’t plug in even if I wanted to.

Helplessly unplugged, I was healthily unaware of every instance of cruelty, idiocy, and bigotry that would occur in the course of a day at the local, national, and international level; I couldn’t check my work email at the bureaucratic and tail-chasing level. And at what we call the social level, I couldn’t follow the latest announcements of happiness, or indignation, or helpless passive aggressive lashing-out (and I couldn’t inflict exactly the same on anyone else either).

I did miss feeling informed about current events, and connected to the lives of people I genuinely care about, but who are too often too far away; I missed being able to use social media for the use we were all originally sold on, which is as a tool for building and maintaining communities and friendships.

But, in the absence of all that positive connectedness, I was also able to withdraw from the negative, exhausting entanglements which, if they weren’t deliberately manufactured to distract and addict, have become indispensable in keeping us hooked, consuming, consumed. Un-connected, I became aware of just how disconnected I’d become from too many other important parts of myself.

Unplugged, I stopped having long, protracted arguments in my head with everyone from the GOP, to certain colleagues, to neighbors, to a cousin or acquaintance or two; I stopped mentally composing diatribes which I would (could?) never post, where I would devastatingly lay down some Truth that would first shake each one to the core, then effect a revolutionary course-change in their behavior, then become a viral sensation that would build my brand. For two months, I had no brand. I was unproductive, and relieved from the pressure to make myself a product. No consumption of media, no consumption of me by the media.

Instead, I followed the advice of author Jenny Odell in How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, to try to reset my attention, to stop attending reactively to whatever provocation was pinging at me in any given moment, to choose to be attentive, to be present.

I had been afraid that my attention had been so fragmented and splintered by posts and push notifications and messages and memes that it was broken beyond repair, that I’d never be able to focus on anything again. Being able to formulate a thought, plant a seed, let it grow, prune and trim and coddle it to fruition – being able to think without being buffeted by the clamoring thoughts of others – came as an enormous relief.

I read books – not articles, not headlines, not posts, not snippets of paragraphs, but actual books. Like summer vacation when I was a kid, I lay down in a shady spot with the intention of reading for just a few minutes, only to emerge from a literary fugue state two hours later. And when one book was done, I put it down and started another. I wrote. I sat with my feet in the creek, and let a sapphire-blue dragonfly land on my outstretched hand. I watched the wind ripple through fields of grain and riffle the tops of trees. I gardened, canned apricots, ate cherries off the tree, watched the sun set, strolled through the orchard, helped a friend build a staircase. Over bread, cheese, and cheap wine with ice cubes, we conversed at length about the health of trees, how to keep flies out of the composting toilet, why creativity seems so hard in the midst of urban professional life. We talked about art, and our childhoods, and dogs. We talked to the dogs, when they came over for belly rubs, tired out from chasing bees and chickens. Turns out, Williams was right: so much does depend “upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens.”


I couldn’t live that life indefinitely. (Could I…?) Vacations end, and responsibility – signified by dozens of accumulated emails, in turn signifying meetings to schedule, proposals to write, policies to develop, research to do – grinds back into gear, and the next thing I know I’m sucked back in to all of it, posting on social media again, idly scrolling through other people’s posts, skimming headlines, listening to a podcast on mindfulness, turned up to drown out the high energy music of the gym, the unwanted soccer games and children’s cartoons on the subway, the tedium of waiting in line at the grocery store, the agitation of being a thinking, feeling being in an age of violence and chaos.

People unplug all the time, which we know because the first thing they do when they plug back in (as one must, sooner or later, mustn’t one?) is make a big production out of how transformative it is to be unplugged, preferably integrating the experience into one’s brand identity. #simplicity #enlightened #enviable

Will my experience be any different? Was two months spent turned off enough time to calm mind and nerves, to renew focus, to reconnect to what I really value (rather than trying, frantically, to avoid everything I don’t)? Was that period enough to, if not transform me utterly, at least to insulate, or inoculate me, to give me greater resistance against the pernicious infiltration of all those bits of data which accumulate, proliferate, and suffocate attention?

I hope so. The point of unplugging, of being Off, in all senses of the word, was never to do nothing, and keep on doing nothing. On the contrary, as Odell argues, it’s when we feel like we’re doing everything – all the information, all the posts, all the attention, all the #socalledinfluence – that we’re conveniently distracted from doing anything, that is, anything organized, focused, meaningful, revolutionary. Do everything, and nothing gets done. Rather, what I hope will stay with me, as I return from my absence, will be the knowledge of what it’s like to be comfortably or uncomfortably present, as the fundamental condition of doing something.

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