#14: My brain is melting in suburbia
Hello to my closest and dearest confidants!!!
…That was my attempt at a “familiar” greeting so Gmail will stop marking my newsletter as spam or squirreling it away in people’s Promotions tab. Did it work?? Some of you DM’d me last week about not receiving Maybe Baby every Sunday and it made me very sad! I looked into it and it seems Gmail has some pretty intense filters (the number of links I use might be tripping some kind of spam alarm…lol). So if you want to make sure you keep receiving these, it might be helpful to add email@example.com to your contacts and mark this email as “Important.” As explained via this helpful graphic…
And if my emails are already getting dumped somewhere mysterious, you can search and drag them to your Primary inbox and then say a prayer to whatever god you believe in, and if it’s Tropical Mentos Gum, I feel like that will work because I’ve eaten a lot of it lately, semi-against my will. Thank you!
Ok now let’s get started.
Last Saturday I flew to San Diego with my brother and boyfriend. The plane was filled to 25% capacity and smelled like rain-scented hand soap, not unpleasant. We wiped everything obsessively before we sat down, and then again whenever we touched anything. Compulsively sanitizing always makes me feel half-crazy, because I’m either doing it unnecessarily or I’m literally wiping away a lethal virus, neither of which I want to be true. Once we were in the air the flight attendant handed each of us a zip-lock bag containing a mini water bottle, a mini packet of Cheez-Its, and two mini Toblerone chocolate bars, as there would be no beverage or snack service. I accepted them like a grateful kindergartener.
I spent most of the flight writing, the boys sleeping on either side of me. I paused only to sneak an entire hard-boiled egg under my mask and into my mouth, which was a humiliating and regrettable experience I will never repeat again for the rest of my life. When we landed Avi was sweating and said he felt ill, and in the car to my parents’ place he sat slumped against the window as if he were about to pass out. Andy and I exchanged looks. Could he have caught it that fast? We didn’t feel well either, but then we’d abstained from drinking liquids all morning to avoid public restrooms and had been wearing masks for nine straight hours, so of course we did. When we got inside we ripped them off like we’d been holding our breath under a pool, and within an hour we felt better, even Avi, who reasoned he’d gotten “plane sick,” which sounded fake, but I believed him.
My parents have been asking us to come here since April. We turned them down out of reluctance to leave New York or spread ourselves around unnecessarily, and because we thought their condo would be too crowded for all of us. But my sister moving to Denver changed things: She needed help with childcare, so my parents decided to drive to Colorado, which meant their place would be empty for a few weeks and they needed someone to water their plants. “House-sitting,” my mom called it. I knew what she was doing—reframing the offer as a favor so we could feel good about accepting it. It was kind, and once we realized we could safely quarantine after flying, we said yes and immediately started dreaming of their backyard, which is actually just a deck as big as my and Avi’s entire apartment.
Once here we ran all around the place, up the stairs, around the kitchen. There was sunlight and space to do jumping jacks and, with three bedrooms, the possibility of not seeing each other for hours at a time. My parents had left us printed-out (!) sheets of instructions on the counter about when to take out their trash, how to check their tomato plants for caterpillars, and where to go on hikes, which we couldn’t get over. We were so excited to not be in our apartments that we felt manic, shooting texts of gratitude to our parents as if they’d single-handedly saved our lives. I immediately put on a bathing suit for no reason, and then Avi perked up and New York might as well have been on the other side of the world.
Melting Literally and Metaphorically
It’s hot here, I keep getting burned. A couple days ago I left my book out in the sun—M Train by Patti Smith—and when I went back to read it a couple hours later, all the pages before my bookmark fell out of the melted spine and onto my stomach. I was shocked for a second, confused, and then I thought it was kind of satisfying, to hold what I’d read in my hands. I’d never seen book pages detached like that; they somehow seemed less significant that way, like anyone could make a book. When I started reading, every page I turned fell out. One by one, just like that. I felt like I was living some kind of heavy-handed metaphor about story, the way you can’t take it back, or the way it matters less once it’s happened. I was grateful I had an intact version back at my apartment, a present from Avi. This one was a press copy.
I’ve been spending as much time as possible outside, wearing the same two bathing suits on a loop. The other day I plopped dramatically onto a deck chair and hit the back of my thigh against the corner of it, where a blood blister immediately formed. It looked horrific, which I liked. I wasn’t sure if it needed to be popped or cleaned, and it was in an awkward place for me to judge, so Avi offered to “take a look,” which sounded like heaven to me (“Checking Your Blood Blister ASMR”). I lay face down on the couch and looked out the window at a tree swaying in the breeze while he gently examined it and thought to myself, I’m so happy right now. I imagined we were orangutans and he was picking nits out of my fur under the shade of a rock and then I thought, I must really have been down in New York.
Me and the ill-fated corner. I’d show you the blister but you might be eating.
Most afternoons we drive my mom’s car along the coast and listen to music from high school (Blink-182, The Starting Line, Saosin), and every night we cook and eat out back as if we were born to live like this. I feel a little like a teenager again. Not because I grew up in San Diego—my parents moved here four years ago—but because I feel so taken care of. So safe and isolated and malleable, and that reminds me of when the world seemed much simpler to me. I have room for solitude, access to private outdoor space, enough time in the sun for my book to melt. That these seem like almost inappropriate luxuries might speak to a New York mentality that fetishizes suffering, but I wonder if it’s not also a recognition of the grim reality that most people simply don’t have these things, and it’s not fair that I do. Then the light breeze carries that thought away and I’m 16 again, and it feels both rapturous and dangerous, to be nostalgic for that kind of ignorance.
Retreating and Its Opposite
I’ve been thinking a lot about the morality of societal withdrawal, and how much easier it is to do in the suburbs. In a city you’re thrust into the contradictions of modern life; you have no choice but to grapple with human suffering and the moral turpitude of billionaires every day. The risk is only that you become inured to them (and to be fair, many do). But manicured suburbs inoculate you by design; they obscure the inherent chaos of human organization with clean lines. To engage with a more varied reality you have to seek it out. And if you don’t want to, you don’t have to, and many don’t. As my brother said the other day, our faces turned up to the sun, “It’s easy to imagine not taking the virus seriously here. Everything almost seems fine.” Of course we know it’s not, but in New York we couldn’t wrap our heads thinking otherwise, and now we can.
This inner conflict—of feeling both deeply relieved and questionably insulated—led me to revisit Jenny Odell’s chapter on “The Impossibility of Retreat” in her book How to Do Nothing. In it she explores the concept of utopia, and especially the way the communes of the 1960s attempted to create their own by withdrawing from an increasingly industrialized world. As Odell explains it, although many communes achieved some version of a peaceful and egalitarian society initially, they almost always gave way to some kind of political turmoil, either via outright conflict or something more insidious, like oppression via manipulation (often by a single man who fancied himself God).
To draw conclusions about why communes fail, Odell borrows the philosophical writings of Hannah Arendt, who argued that any attempt to “design” a perfect society was merely an avoidance of “the haphazards and moral responsibilities inherent in a plurality of agents.” In other words, organizing and cooperating is messy as fuck, and the only way to escape that would be to obfuscate free will, or transfer power from all to power for a few. “There's no such thing as a clean break or a blank slate in this world,” Odell writes.
I think what she’s saying is that, as a political gesture, withdrawal from society falls short of changing anything. To escape it all—into the woods, into a commune, into your own little world (which you can do anywhere)—is to either accept that some must suffer for your pleasure or ignore suffering altogether. And yet she also acknowledges the necessity of retreat from time to time—in fact, How to Do Nothing is itself an argument for how to retreat thoughtfully and politically. “We have to be able to do both,” she writes, “to contemplate and participate, to leave and always come back where we are needed…. As the attention economy works to keep us trapped in a frightful present, it only becomes more important not just to recognize past versions of our predicament but to retain the capacity for an imagination somehow untainted by disappointment.”
I don’t think the suburbs necessarily represent a retreat, nor does the city represent participation—if anything this moment of turmoil has highlighted the unjust hierarchies that exist everywhere. But I do think we all understand, on an individual level, what it means to show up for ourselves and to show up for others, and maybe the challenge of living thoughtfully is learning to find harmony between the two. As Jia Tolentino put it in a recent interview: “The people setting the best example right now are long-term movement workers, who know how to integrate righteous rage into a life that includes joy and pleasure and lightness—organizers know how to rest when they need to without ever leaving the fight.”
1. This line from Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I’ve thought about a lot since quarantine started and finally looked up: “To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it, look very hard at what was close to hand and make it stand in for the whole.”
2. This lit-er-al-ly heartbreaking news about The Blobfish, offered in response to the question, “What is a common misconception about an animal that you would like to dispel forever?”
3. The first season of The Great, a show on Hulu starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, which I watched faster than I’ve watched any show in recent memory.
4. This immersive Vox profile of a minister who recently risked her job to come out to her congregation as trans, and then the sermon in which she did it, which left me and Avi crying at the kitchen table (neither of us are religious):
5. The google results for: “why don’t I ever remember any movies?” (no clear answer beyond I think I just don’t care enough about movies?)
6. This moving clip of Maya Angelou reading one of her poems, posted by my friend Bobby:
And then this interview with Angelou from The Paris Review about her writing process (riveting the whole way through).
7. The weekly rental rate for a medium-sized yacht I walked past the other day in downtown San Diego, after my brother looked it up online: $275,000/week. Eat the rich.
8. This New York Times profile of Ziwe Fumudoh, the creator of the race-baiting interviews (with people like Caroline Calloway, Alison Roman, and Rose McGowan) that keep going viral. I appreciated her interpretation of the show, which is that it’s a comedic way to take discomfort that’s often invisible and endured by Black people and make it visible and endured by white people.
9. The completely charming and somehow also heartbreaking IGTV series, 2 lizards, by Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki, recommended to me by a reader. You can watch the entire thing in 20 minutes and you won’t regret it.
10. Two different pieces about Michaela Coel—a New Yorker review of her new HBO show I May Destroy You by Doreen St. Felix, and a GQ interview with Coel about her compelling belief that “if you don’t think racism exists, your trauma has made you blind.” (I’ve also watched the first three episodes of I May Destroy You and can’t wait to finish it.)
11. From the aforementioned piece by Doreen St. Felix: the definition of “bildungsroman” (it’s “a novel dealing with one person's formative years or spiritual education”).
12. These new art pieces by Jean Jullien in a French botanical garden (click through to see them all):
13. A recent column from The New York Times’ The Ethicist, titled, “I’ve Protested for Racial Justice. Do I Have to Post on Social Media?” by Kwame Anthony Appiah. The answer is blurry because context is everything, but Appiah offered some convincing arguments for virtue signaling.
14. This line from M Train, by Patti Smith: “Without noticing, I slip into a light yet lingering malaise. Not depression, more like a fascination for melancholia.”
15. For some reason, this distant dance party between Margaret Qualley and Kaitlyn Dever, which made me want to dance.
One Last Thing
In case you missed it, I launched a Maybe Baby podcast on Tuesday! I did a reading of my last newsletter for it and offered some extra context behind what I wrote and recommended, which I’ll be doing going forward. A heads up that starting in August the podcast will be exclusive to the paid tier I’m launching next week, but I’m offering it free for the month of July so you can try before you buy! To everyone encouraging me to keep going with this project, I can’t thank you enough. Your supports means the world and makes me cry.
Until next week,