It’s our first morning under a stay-at-home order here in the Bay Area, projected to last three weeks. Yesterday, the day the news arrived, the weather was gorgeous, Studio Ghibli clouds sailing across a radiant sky; uncanny. We’ll see how today looks. The order permits walking for recreation; you can be sure I will be out doing so.
Below, a suggestion; an exhortation; and, finally, your instructions.
Our present public health crisis approaches outpaced by a crisis of commercial demand: one that has targeted, with uncanny precision, the small, local businesses that depend on the free flow of foot traffic.
These businesses are critically important. They are tiny engines of culture and happiness; one of the many things they “produce” is public life itself.
Suddenly, they are without customers.
Governments at every level—city, state, and, of course, federal—need to quickly build them a bridge to the other side of this crisis. Zero-interest loans, emergency grants, lease abatement: do it all, do it now. Any support you and I can lend is, compared to intervention at that scale, small potatoes.
Greetings, potatoes. Thank you for joining me.
I’d like to mention a few small businesses that deserve your support and ship everywhere in the U.S. (International readers: excuse my parochialism, and feel free to skip to the next section.)
First is INNA Jam, which operates a small kitchen just a few blocks from where I’m sitting right now. INNA produces what I believe is the best jam in the country, and they’ve just drastically reduced their shipping rates to make it easier to stock up from afar. I’ll tell you what: you can really doctor up that quarantine gruel with a jar of Santa Rosa plum jam.
Here is INNA’s jam selection.
Next up, two of a feather: Green Apple Books and the Raven Book Store of San Francisco, California and Lawrence, Kansas, respectively. Both will mail you a book for $1 or less.
From Green Apple, I recommend The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, one of my favorite books of all time, a modern classic, playful and heartwarming, the best kind of Americana, balm for anxiety. (Green Apple only has a couple of copies in stock, so if this sounds appealing to you, go get one!)
From the Raven Book Store, I recommend Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. I just reread it over the winter, and I have to tell you: it does ALL the things a novel is supposed to do. It is rollicking, romantic, transporting, and, maybe most of all: this book loves language. (Do not neglect the glossary at the back.) Its setting—India and China, just before the First Opium War—is fascinating and revelatory; to me, our entire world seems prefigured there.
Even better: it’s the first in a trilogy.
Of course, if you’re able, you should ignore these recommendations and call up YOUR local indie bookstore instead. Many will bring your book out to the curb! You don’t even have to stop the car; simply slow to 5 m.p.h. and crack the window. Booksellers are trained at the academy to make these shots.
I don’t like the “breathless creative exhortation” genre any more than you do, but, I have spared you for enough years that I think I’ve stored up some credit: which I will now spend.
We’re entering a stretch during which no subject, no task, other than this pandemic and its prevention will seem to “matter,” and I am here to insist, as you contemplate the next level of the video game you were building, the next stitch in the fanny pack you were designing, the next edition of the newsletter you just started:
The diagnostic tool is straightforward: Do you want every glorious weirdo you’ve ever followed to morph into the same obsessive faux public health expert? YOU DO NOT!
I’m writing this as much to myself as to you.
Every calamity fractures the world, opens new seams: many economic, some political, still others aesthetic.
In 1816, the gloomy “Year Without a Summer,” Mary Shelley stayed indoors at a lakeside hotel; not quarantine, but maybe quarantine-adjacent. There, bored and haunted, she conceived the story that would grow into her novel Frankenstein, the foundation stone of the genre we now call science fiction.
It’s moderately annoying when people invoke work like that, because it feels like the implication is, if you’re not writing Frankenstein what are you even DOING? That’s not what I mean. It’s just that the big, bright examples help us see it clearly: toil in the shadow of calamity will have its day.
Toil in the shadow of calamity WILL have its day.
A crack in everything; that’s how the art gets in.
Remember, the Klingon word for “crisis” is composed of the characters for “danger” and “I travel the river of blood.”
I should clarify: I’m operating here on the assumption that you are doing everything you can to flatten the curve; that you have contacted your neighbors and offered your help (or asked for help, if you need it); that you are taking seriously your own health, physical and mental.
If all those things are true—if you feel sheltered and safe—then and only then it’s possible that you are wondering: what now? Where do I direct my attention, of which there suddenly seems to be a surplus?
That’s the point at which I want to step in and say: direct it at the same thing you loved on the first day of this year. Then, crank up the intensity.
There’s a world waiting on the other side of this crisis, and in that world, you won’t think, gosh, why didn’t I sit and stew all the time? Why didn’t I slice my anxiety even more prosciutto-thin? Really missed an opportunity there…
There’s a kind of grit required to get through creative failure, whether that’s commercial rejection or just your own frustration with yourself; you might be acquainted with it. This crisis demands another, deeper kind of grit, because this crisis whispers in your ear:
Even if you succeed, it won’t matter. That thing you do, it is not life and death, and everything now is life or death, one or the other, with nothing in between. Your pampered preoccupation is utterly trivial. It took a pandemic to make you see it, but it’s been true all along.
There’s a world waiting on the other side of this crisis, and that world wants your strange, personal video game; your cleverly-designed fanny pack; your email newslet—
Scratch that. There’s a world right here, right now, and THIS world wants those things! Even more, it wants, it NEEDS, signs of their production: the light in the (browser) window, the (digital) curl of smoke from the chimney.
For me, a reliably potent antidote to anxiety and uncertainty is evidence that there are people out there who are okay; people who are quietly working.
I’m out here. I’m okay. I’m working.
C. S. Lewis, by way of L. M. Sacasas:
The war creates no absolutely new situation, it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.
It’s time to get weird.
What a moment! to dig in the crates—to slip out from beneath the boot heel of the present, go cavorting through the past. Watch some of my beloved Ultraman episodes from 1966. Have you ever seen the original Godzilla from 1954? It’s fabulous!
(That’s all recent history, I know. Want to go further back? Get the incredible new translation of Li Shangyin’s poems, written more than a thousand years ago, yet still somehow… modern? They have the book at Green Apple.)
What a moment! to map out whole genres—explore not by pecking but by gulping, not by tip-toe but by belly-flop. I predict the ~vibe~ of 1970s America will soon have fresh resonance. If you’ve never seen Three Days of the Condor, now is the time. Then, if you enjoy that atmosphere, continue onto Alan Pakula’s “political paranoia” trilogy: Klute, The Parallax View, and, of course, All the President’s Men.
What a moment! to find an artist new to you, really engage with their work, toss a few dollars their way.
Sloane Leong is a psychedelic sci-fi comic book auteur who, in addition to her traditionally-published work, offers a clutch of digital editions for about a buck each. Also: “A short novelette about family, dueling mechs, and romance at the end of the world…”
Quinn Bowman is one of my favorite artists in California. She runs occasional pop-up sales on Instagram, through which I just bought something last week, the lovely cut-out on the left:
Ash Ferlito is an artist whose newest project feels zeitgeist-y to me: she lures moths to a sheet drenched in photosensitive chemicals and, using techniques I do not understand, creates prints from an evening’s worth of visitors. If Julie Mehretu’s paintings were portraits of the world of the 2000s, rich and self-regarding, maybe Ash Ferlito’s prints show us the 2020s to come. We should be so lucky.
What a moment! to dig deeper.
What a moment! to plunge off the path.
What a moment! to challenge yourself.
In a recent video chat, my parents were melting down. “Divine,” my mother exclaimed. “This, to me, was true cinematic art,” my father said.
They were talking about a movie they’d just watched. I will reproduce my mother’s email rave for you here:
The Professor and the Madman, 2019, with Mel Gibson and Sean Penn.
It is superbly done in all aspects. The glory and power of words and books won our hearts. The passion, the radiance, the tragedy, and the treachery filled us with inspiration and joy.
WORTH YOUR TIME AND ATTENTION
I should add that this movie received from my mother, who is a diligent and exacting IMDb reviewer, the full ten stars: vanishingly rare.
C. S. Lewis again:
Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have “chosen” a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.
The Metropolitan Opera is offering free streams of its performances. I don’t think I like opera… but… maybe I should test that opinion?
Here are two long-ish talks I have queued up to watch:
Low view-count theater: this very short video was clearly not “published” with any intended audience; it might have been uploaded to circulate among a few people, or even by accident. As I’m writing this, it has 315 views. It is totally guileless and beautiful; it could loop in a museum. This is one of my favorite internet genres.
This video essay investigating the godlike powers of the Nintendo video game character Kirby is unhinged and brilliant.
Masks Confronting Death, James Ensor, 1888.
Kathryn and I recently completed a full rewatch of Halt and Catch Fire, cementing its position as one of my top three TV shows of all time. What an incredible work of art. If you’ve ever had any curiosity at all about this show, which traces the trajectory of a group of glorious weirdos working on computers and computer networks in the 1980s and 1990s, first in Texas and then in [redacted], please let me provide the nudge that convinces you to finally watch it. Sublime.
On Instagram, I sent one of the actors, Toby Huss, an extremely dorky expression of my admiration, to which he replied: “thanks, dude.”
Here, at last, are your instructions.
I am an avid, overenthusiastic fan of M. John Harrison, who wrote the science fiction novel Light and its two sequels, among my favorites of all time: charismatic, kaleidoscopic, and unquestionably 100% literary.
Honestly, this goes beyond fandom. Harrison is part of my personal pantheon; for me, a god of fissures and alleyways, simultaneously wise and wild. On Twitter, on his blog, in his fiction, his intelligence arcs and sizzles. His political commitments crackle and pop.
I’m about to quote a passage from a short speech he delivered back in October 2019. In that speech, he inveighed against prophecy which, of course, guarantees that it was a prophecy.
Turns out, in October, M. John Harrison told you, very simply, what you have to do. For all that has changed, or seemed to change, in the past few weeks, how wonderful, how steadying, to know that your instructions have not:
Try to understand the science. Try to tell the truth. Try to find a medium in which to tell the truth. Try to extend the envelope in which you will be permitted to tell the truth. Prophecy is over. Persuasion is over. Action is the last thing left. Rebellion is the last thing left. Stay steady in the face of it all. Do what you can. Write that. Record that. Try to pass helpful messages between practical, determined people.
Oh, yes: painted in quarantine.
The main thing to do here is sign up for my email newsletter, which is infrequent and wide-ranging. It goes out to around 18,000 people, but/and I try to make it feel like a note from a friend: