Monday, May 25, 2020

Guest Post: The Ulysses S. Grant Of Lockdown

This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Felix Kent.

The first time I ever made waffles was in the beginning of what California calls shelter-in-place. It was the very beginning and my work hadn't yet figured out how we could telework, so I was officially off the hook, although I couldn’t stop checking email and trying to return voicemails, normally tasks that I avoid. But also I was staying up as late as I wanted and one mid-morning still in my pajamas and with that weird milky morning smell still around me I for the first time used the waffle attachment for the Cuisinart griddle I bought my husband for his birthday a few years ago. I made the batter at Martha Stewart's direction in a big white porcelain bowl. At first the waffles didn’t cook at all, but then I figured out the knobs were improperly calibrated, and I deduced the right temperature, and the waffles rose into fluffy piles, and they were good with blackberry jam, at least as good as an Eggo.

The whole thing had that feeling I only normally get when I go to my mother's house for Christmas, which I haven't done in years and years, a kind of relinquishment of moving forward. It was great, I loved it. I took more baths than I took showers. Once a week I had to go into the office and the lack of cars on the road would make me cry, would remind me that people were dying, but then I would come home and I would read in a way that it felt like I hadn’t read since I was a kid on summer vacation, a total abandon, a loss of self. It was so messed up. Last summer something went wrong in my back and for months and months the nerve that goes down my right leg had been shrieking in pain anytime I stood up and I had been kind of desperate to be at home and then all of a sudden the world closed down and I was home all the time and I loved it.

I had this English teacher in junior high who was one of those well-known great teachers except that I hated her and I don’t think she liked me very much, but at one point in the class she asked us how to treat other people well and I, believing myself both smart and good, raised my hand and said that we should think about what we would want in their situation and she whirled around and looked at me and said, no, people are different from each other. And no other teacher that I’ve had has ever told me anything as useful as that. I joked a lot during the beginning of the pandemic about how this was my Winston-Churchill-in-World-War-II moment, my Ulysses-S.-Grant-plucked-from-his-hardware-store. I was made for this historical moment. I like staying at home; I like not seeing people. A decade ago I flew all the way across country to a friend’s wedding and the night before the wedding this group of friends I hadn’t seen in years -- some of my closest friends -- tried to lure me out of my hotel room until finally the one of them that was closest to me said, are you kidding? The hotel room is her favorite thing. And he was right and I went to sleep and I felt a little bad about it but not really.

It was a cozy apocalypse; my bedsheets were clean and I wore my comfortable stretchy clothes around the house and the CalTrans signs on the freeway told me not to go anywhere and mostly I didn't. And I didn’t know an apocalypse could be cozy in that way, but the other thing I didn’t know, even though I should have known, even though that terrible John Cusack movie tried to tell me, is that the apocalypse would be nicer to people with more money.

The apocalypse was cozy for me. Because I had a job where I didn’t have to go in and because I had a house that is comfortable and because I had a car and because I was still getting paid. This was not the human condition; this was my condition. It was messed up. The internet in my home was super-fast; I bought expensive maple syrup to put on the waffles. Probably I was doing the most useful thing I could do at that particular moment. I could have been just as characterologically well-equipped to stay home and if I were poorer my historical moment for greatness would have passed me by. It wouldn’t have been less unfair if I had hated sheltering in place, but maybe it would have been better in another way. I don't know.

Monday, May 18, 2020

In Which My Colleague And I Read Classic Pandemic Literature

When the lockdown started, my colleague Doreen Fraser and I were both seized by the same impulse: to read classic historical pandemic literature.

Doreen, seeking a sense of historical perspective that is absent from panicked news stories, picked up Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe's book was written in 1721 when the plague was spreading across Europe, but describes the earlier 1665 outbreak. Defoe was only five years old when that happened; he wrote the Journal as fiction intended to be historically accurate -- and written as a warning and practical guide to preparations for Londoners.

For myself, I'd happened to read a think-piece that mentioned Alessandro Manzoni's novel The Betrothed, a 19th-century classic of Italian literature that takes place in the early 1600s as the Great Plague of Milan plague swept through the Lombardy region. I had read The Betrothed years ago, and while I had remembered that the plot involved a man and a woman who want to marry and encounter endless obstacles, I had forgotten about the plague. Like Defoe, Manzoni drew on primary sources for accuracy; he also isn't shy about inserting his opinions about the massive failures of information and planning that made things so much worse than they had to be -- and resulted in the death of 25% of the population.

Doreen and I were struck by commonalities of practical advice, fascinated by other parallels, and amused by peculiar philosophical takes. So we wrote this piece together.

Commonalities of practical advice:

While these events took place well before the development of the germ theory of disease, everyone knew that people in proximity spread the plague. Doreen says that we learn from Defoe that the best thing to do to preserve your family from the distemper was to lay in as many provisions as you could and lock yourself up in your abode. Defoe warns his readers that the "necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city, for the people catched the distemper on these occasions one of another, and even the provisions themselves were often tainted."

In London, self-isolation was initially practiced by merchants from the Netherlands, who had experienced the plague there the previous year. Defoe reports that more than ten thousand people shut themselves up in their ships on the Thames. He describes (presumably based on his uncle's journals) how he himself bought two sacks of meal for baking bread and "laid in a quantity of salt butter and Cheshire cheese." And crucially: "I bought malt and brewed as much beer as all the casks I had would hold, and which seemed enough to serve my house for five or six weeks." No flesh-meat, "for the plague raged so violently among the butchers and slaughterhouses on the other side of our street … that it was not advisable so much as to go over the street among them." (Which has an echo in the current pandemic.)

The Great Plague of 1665-1666 in London from the National Archives

Manzoni also talks about the importance of shutting yourself up. Also, he talks about how rich people went out to their country houses, travelers were required to quarantine themselves on arrival in a new place, and plague survivors went around acting like they had immunity passports. As in our own society, poorer people were much more adversely affected: they could not afford to escape plague-ridden areas, they often had to work and could not self-isolate, and they were seen as dirty and dangerous by wealthier people. The inequality of horrible pandemic effects isn't a new or unforeseen happening.

On a lighter, more practical note, while we moderns tend to think we're so clever, both books describe 17th-century food practices that would be very familiar to us. Defoe talks about how when you bought your joint of meat from the butcher, you would take it directly from the hooks and you would put your money directly in the butcher's jar of vinegar. When Renzo, the hero of The Betrothed, went to a bakery, "The baker signed to him not to come in, and held out a small dish filled with water and vinegar on the blade of shovel, telling him to drop the money in there. Then he passed the two loaves over to Renzo one after the other, with a pair of tongs." I thought: this is just like when I go for take-out and they have a table set out with the food and a sign saying "no cash please."

I was also touched by many small details. Manzoni talks about how all the men ended up with weird long hair and beards, and how friends would greet one another from across the road to chat. When two old friends met up after a long absence, one said to the other, "Now let's go find an open space, out of doors, where we can talk comfortably, without any danger." This made me feel the Lombardians of 1630 were like my old friends. Plague people: they're just like us!

Other interesting parallels:

Doreen noticed that the people of London were watching the numbers as closely as we are and that statistics were the same source of obsession and uncertainty for citizens of 1665 as they are for us. In particular, everyone carefully attended to the weekly bills of mortality. These bills listed the number of burials in each parish broken down by cause of death. This allowed Londoners to gauge which parts of the city and suburbs were currently worst affected. Increases in the numbers occasioned fear and sometimes "inexpressible confusion"; when the numbers decreased people were greatly relieved.

As we are seeing right now, effective counting became challenging and maybe impossible. Defoe says that initially, deaths due to plague were underreported by individuals due to the stigma attached, as we also see now. However, numbers of dead significantly higher than average indicated the presence of the plague anyway, as we suspect today. At the height of the plague in the city, a prodigious number of deaths were recorded in the bills, but the true extent of the devastation was still underreported. The accounting system broke down under the strain -- drivers of the dead-carts either died or fled before their dead were buried, the drivers did not trouble themselves to keep account of the numbers because they were too busy clearing the streets, the parish statisticians died, or entire households perished and the bodies were not found until later.

Bills of mortality, from History Today

The modern day JHU tracker

Meanwhile, we learn from Manzoni that the citizens of Milan had the same problems that we do with plague-deniers, a desire to confer blame, and bizarre conspiracy theories. I couldn't help but think about modern scapegoating and 5G conspiracy theories when I read about the Lombardians' belief in the "anointers." The belief had taken hold in Milan that the plague was being intentionally spread by evil-doers who would spread onto surfaces some substance that would cause the illness.

While the theory was completely false and absolutely without evidence, the desire to blame was so strong that gangs of people would attack and kill anyone suspected of being an anointer. Manzoni describes a case of an old man who wiped off a church bench before kneeling on it. And then "all the people in church (in church, I repeat!) dashed at the old man, seized him by the hair, white as it was, and loaded him with blows and kicks. Some pushing, some pulling, they hustled him to the door. If they spared his life for the moment, it was only so that they could drag him in that battered state to prison, to judgement, to the torture." Manzoni describes his amazement that even the most educated and most skeptical people believed in the anointers: the most they could bring themselves to say was that their role was minimal compared to the effect of the actual plague.

Accusing the Anointers in the Great Plague of Milan

Manzoni vividly describes his dismay at the mistreatment of the officials who were acting to prevent the spread of the plague. They had the best information and actual plans to prevent the spread of disease, but because of misinformation and misplaced blame, were seen as the source of the problem itself. As Monzoni puts it, these people who "saw a terrible catastrophe coming nearer and nearer, and did everything they could to avert it; and at the same time encountered obstacles where they looked for help, became the butt of popular indignation and were regarded as enemies of their country -- 'pro patriae hostibus' in the words of Ripamonti."

Peculiar philosophical takes:

Alongside the belief in the anointers, Manzoni describes a deep and widespread reluctance to believe that the plague was the plague. People wanted to think that the illness was some other kind of illness, or that people were exaggerating, or that it was all a big scam. Educated people saw the cause of the sickness in a comet that appeared in 1628, together with a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter.

Philosophically-minded scholars, always eager to play their part, contributed to these efforts by proving by syllogism that the plague could not exist. The man of letters Don Ferrante goes about it this way: "'In the nature of things,' he would say, 'there are only two kinds of entity -- substances and accidents. If I prove that contagion cannot be either the one or the other, I shall have proved that it does not exist, that it is a mirage. And here I am to do that very thing.'" To his critics, Don Ferrante says "I'd like to hear them deny that fatal conjunction of Saturn with Jupiter!" Insert your own jokes about philosophy making progress or not.

The end of the story:

Overall, the ending of the Journal was satisfying. (The plague ends!) But there is also a disappointing deus ex machina. Throughout the book, Defoe is scathing in his criticism of miraculous cures, quackery, and charlatans. He offers a sustained defense of the plague having natural causes. (With the tremendous effectiveness of transmission by contact and through the air, why would God need to resort to supernatural means?) But Defoe attributes the lifting of the plague to God’s intervention: "when the condition of the city of London was truly calamitous, just then it pleased God, as it were, by His immediate hand." However, it is worth noting that this view was not universally shared. (No prize for guessing who the contrarians were!) According to Defoe, physicians acknowledged that a natural account of the end of the outbreak could not be given, but the philosophers were hung up on searching for natural causes.

As for Manzoni, you won't be surprised to hear that the story has a happy ending. Well -- obviously not for the massive number of people who died of the plague, but definitely for betrothed themselves, who do finally get to get married and live happily ever after. Interestingly, the chief obstacle that sets the plot in motion is that a rich and corrupt nobleman, Don Rodrigo, is doing everything he can to prevent the marriage because he wants Renzo's bride Lucia for himself. So in addition to being a plague book, The Betrothed is also a #metoo book, showing again how the problems of modern life are often the same problems of everyone.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Lockdown, The Singularity, And The Idea of Post-Humanism

Back in 2010, when we were younger and more naive, a bunch of people were excited about something they called The Singularity, a time in the not-so-distant future when humanity would be replaced with ... something else. Post-humanity. A "superior intelligence that will dominate," so that life will take on a radically altered form that we cannot see and predict now.

Here at TKIN, I expressed my skepticism. Sure -- if you want to make an artificial liver or bionic limbs or whatever, awesome, I love it! But that's not post-humanity. It's the human experience, just somewhat improved. Longer, more fun, less painful, whatever. Beyond the human-upgrades interpretation, the suggestions get more radical but also more vague. We're going to meld minds and machines. We're going to upload your consciousness into a computer. You'll live forever, in some unforeseen Venn diagram overlap zone between virtual and real.

When I pondered this in 2010, I was like WTF, and now that we're in lockdown I feel even more like WTF. Aren't most the best pleasures of life embodied? In 2010 I listed sex, food, wine, sports, music, and dancing as things we like to do that are embodied, seemingly inaccessible to the computer-based post-human. And what's on the other side, on the post-human, singularity playlist? Math? Most people don't even like thinking about math.

I don't think I'm alone when I say that lockdown has made the importance of the embodied life even more vivid to me. We're sick of interacting through screens. We long for the touch of our family and friends. People are flocking to bake bread, grow plants, and acquire pets; the concept of "going for a walk to get some fresh air," at one time a symbol of a life lived quietly and meditatively, is now essential to the happiness of millions of people. I myself have taken care to notice the minute daily progress of leaves coming out on trees in my neighborhood.

I was mentally reviewing all the internet think-pieces I've read about what people are experiencing in lockdown, and the one disembodied activity now flourishing that I could spot was online chess. Touchingly, the New York Times places this news in the Sports section, where they are clearly dying for content.

Anyway, after writing that post in 2010, I expressed my doubts to some guys who were roughly in the robot-biz, and they smiled that guy-smile that comes up when a woman says something they think is stupid. It's not computer-based in that sense, they explained slowly to me. You'll still be able to do all the fun things. It's just that the whole system will be artificial, and therefore more permanent, less flawed, and better.

Fine, but as I've already said, I don't think that's post-humanity -- that's more like keeping your human self while being less susceptible to the world's problems: less vulnerable to injury, less in need of food and medical care, less dependent on others for your well-being. Our desires for life to be less difficult, less painful, less scary and less mortal are very human, and like the embodied pleasures, they have been intensified by the lockdown and the pandemic itself -- as we have all been reminded how vulnerable we are to illness and death, how challenging it is to care for others, and how fragile our little systems are.

Of course, in our radically unequal world, these things bear more heavily on some people than others, and awareness of our shared situation and our interdependence has been a bit of a wake-up call to some people who maybe used to imagine themselves as self-sufficient tech-oriented rich people.

I don't know what those people are dreaming of now, and whether it's still something like The Singularity or whether it's more like a walled city in New Zealand with a stockpile of ventilators. But whatever it is, I hope they'll remember it's not really post-humanism that they're hankering after. It's more like human life made less difficult and scary. And that dream is not only shared by everyone, it's also about the most human thing you could possibly have.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Dance Like No One Is Watching? The Existential Question Of Zoom Video

Before the lockdown I used to go to dance classes. Dance was something I had done as a young person and then didn't do for like ... thirty years or something. Then when I started up again it literally took me years to work up the nerve and motivation to go -- which could, itself, be the topic of another blog post whose conclusion would be something like "just because years have passed doesn't mean you won't do it eventually." I mostly do Contemporary -- but I also supplement that with classes in other styles like ballet and hip-hop.

It's an interesting question why dance class creates anxiety. The most obvious answer is that dancing well can be difficult, and class creates an atmosphere where people are together and naturally you worry that others are judging you. Or maybe you are judging yourself. I feel like one of the weird lingering effects of Anglo-Saxon culture is that there is something about dancing itself that feels especially vulnerable. But I wouldn't know how to connect those dots.

With the lockdown, dance classes are happening online, some through Zoom. It works OK, but I have had a hard time articulating to my friends why dance class via Zoom is such an impoverished experience for me compared to dance class in person. Zoom works OK for me for fitness: the instructors says to do a lunge or a burpee and I do a lunge or a burpee. It's not the same as being in person, but I get a workout and have some echo of the experience of working out with other people.

But with dance? It's just not the same. Part of it is communicative: in class, there is a back-and-forth between the instructor and the students with respect to what students are getting or not getting and how they're feeling about what is happening and what the instructor has in mind for the choreography. In addition to obvious things like "oh you're supposed to turn to the left, do it this way," there is also a complex interplay about the mood and the feeling of the dance. I guess it's not impossible for some of that mood to pass through the internet. But it's not easy.

A more significant factor more me seems to be just the essential pleasure between dancing-with-people -- even for something like Contemporary which is not, on the face of it, what we'd call a "social dance."

And that pleasure brings me to the great question of dance-via-Zoom: video on, or video off? For students, video-on is optional. And I feel like we're still working that out. I've been to classes where almost no one has video on, and I've been to classes where almost everyone has video on. Even though I'm seeing everything through a MacBook Air-sized screen, which means that from the recommended 6-8 feet away I can barely see anything, it is still way better for me when people have their videos on. It's a far cry from being together in a room, but at least there's the feeling of interaction and dancing-with-people.

It's an individual thing of course, and people have all kinds of reasons for choosing video off. I chose it myself recently for a ballet class that I feared was above my level (and it turned out I was right). But I feel like there is definitely a social norm aspect to it. Like, if you log on and everyone has their video off, you think "oh I guess I should too" -- it's embarrassing to be the only one putting yourself out there. But if you log on and everyone has it on you're like "oh ok, we're doing this? I guess I will too."

So I feel like livestream has changed a situation that was necessarily collective -- you're all in a room together, you all have to suck up the vulnerabilities -- to one of those weird individual versus group things where you have to ask yourself whether everyone is doing it and if not whether you're willing to put yourself out there as the only person doing it or what. It's a little sad.

Anyway, unless I have reasons, I try to always turn the video on for dance class, and I always hope that everyone else will too. Even though it's "optional," I was happy to hear a recent instructor admonishing the class to "clean up your room next time" so you can have the video on. Meetings are something else altogether -- but when we're dancing? I miss seeing y'all when your names appear in those black boxes.

I had never really thought much about that thing people say of "dance like no one is watching." I get it -- you're supposed to go all in or something. But one thing I have learned from lockdown is that, like a lot of inspirational quotes you find on coffee mugs and placards, it's not really solid advice when you take it too literally.