Saturday, April 18, 2020

faux food insecurity

An interesting thing about the whole self-quarantine experience is how much of my anxiety and horror about what's happening in the world get poured into the grocery shopping, an activity I used to really enjoy. Except for maybe a two- to three-day respite following a given shop, I work on the grocery list constantly, with weird intense pathological desperation. That list is by far the most cursed thing in my home (or on my phone, I guess). Hundreds of years from now, if an anthropologist finds one of my pandemic-era grocery lists, its horrible dark energy will probably kill them instantly. They won't even have time to wonder why I have so many different kinds of fake milk while also using real cream in the coffee.

Like a lot of my anxieties relating to the pandemic, this new unhinged relationship to food feels... unearned. Whatever I'm feeling isn't food insecurity, a real actual problem that a lot of people have, especially now. The extremely disordered way in which I sterilize and put away the groceries (which is somehow both completely inadequate and wholly over the top?) may make me feel like Meredith Baxter Birney in a Lifetime movie, but I don't in fact have obsessive-compulsive disorder. So it's this very circular stupid psychodrama of having weird fears and fake problems, and then feeling guilty and even ashamed about the fears and problems, because honestly it seems reasonable that those of us who aren't sick or grieving or working for Bezos (yet) should buck up and not complain. Part of the problem is that I know my brain is equipped to scan the landscape for predators and instead it has been reduced to checking the same five websites for my preferred brand of paper towels. For the first few weeks I think my body was flooded with stress hormones, like I woke up every morning and ate several handfuls of stimulants, but that seems to have died down, at least. Finally, my nervous system (if not my brain) seems to have grasped that the stakes of human survival in this household are - for now - having enough cans of the good tomatoes.

Anyway part of this whole melodrama is the new (fake, but deeply felt) stakes of cooking, another formerly pleasant activity which now feels very fraught. There was a viral reddit post (also fake, imo) about someone's girlfriend burying cans of beans in the woods "for when things get bad" and that is like 100% the mentality I have to fight to cook a dinner. That reddit post is either a parable for whatever my problem is, or an actual story about my future, and I'm not sure which. Anyway I'm now (probably appropriately...) worried about food waste and using the gross stems of vegetables, etc. So a type of quarantine content I have really appreciated is chefs who are committed to helping people figure out how to cook stuff. I mean, I can cook, more or less, but it's been hard to take any pleasure in it. Or, worse than that, where cooking used to feel pleasurable, I find it sort of upsetting now. So I'm just intensely grateful for any podcast or show or anything else hosted by people who make me feel better about food: buying it, cooking it, eating it, experimenting with it. There's a lot of this content right now (I'm sure I haven't even scratched the surface), but my very favorite is a TV show with Jamie Oliver called Keep Cooking and Carry On. It's not available in the US, but some kind soul links up all the episodes on deep reddit.

Jamie Oliver is probably my favorite celebrity chef? In a profession that is so often about machismo and misery (which whatever, I'm into some of that too), he stands out. He just seems like a good person, plus I really like his recipes. One time someone gave Chris Morocco a Jamie Oliver recipe on Reverse Engineering. It was just the saddest burger in the world, and CM spent the entire show making fun of whatever chef had devised this terrible recipe. But then! After the reveal, when Chris Morocco he found out this burger he had insulted for half an hour was made by Jamie Oliver, he immediately backtracked and talked about how much he loved and respected Jamie. I'm not sure if that's a meaningful anecdote to anyone else, but to me it had the same kind of magic as when someone's difficult pet decides that you're all right. The Chris Morocco blessing.

The incredible thing about the new Jamie Oliver show is that it was sort of thrown together, but still quite well produced for about a week before he started literally filming it on a phone in his garage. After a handful of episodes it went from this:

To this:

Dirty t-shirt. Uncombed hair. I think the first thing he made was quesadillas. It was straight up dorm-kitchen cooking, albeit in the cake pan storage area(?) of his literal estate, and I love it so much.

You know...working through it.

Good things:
My favorite Jamie recipe
My other favorite
Highly entertained by these coronavirus update videos from Spiegelman and Seth
The Longform podcast interviewed Ed Yong, my fave science writer

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

meditations in an emergency

Am I to become profligate as if I were blonde? Or religious as if I were French? The two coronavirus pastimes are baking bread, or hating people that bake bread, and unfortunately I can't get into it. In a perfect world, I would've gotten around to my vague aspiration to "get into meditation" before this pandemic cranked into high gear (premium David Lynch brand, not that cubicle-poster shit). You know... that ship has sailed. So my personal journey seems to be transforming from a vaguely anxious person into a state of pure consciousness I fondly imagine as a raccoon trapped in a trash can.

Any complaint I could possibly make would have to be offset by 10 years of gratitude journaling, a fate almost worse than death. So this is just an observation: My concentration is bad. Very bad. Every day is just a row of car alarms going off in the middle of a tornado siren. Everything takes longer than it should. Sometimes I stare at the screen, or forget what I'm doing. I rewrite things until they start to sound like me? And it still sounds like someone else. But apart from a sort of blankness, and the bizarre experience of the gears grinding so slow I can almost feel a thought laboring its way through my brain, the worry feels physical. It jangles its way through my nervous system. I worry about the risks in my family. My oldest friend works at a poorly supplied hospital in a hot zone. The required reading is about to get worse (much worse, I think...). My old job is taking a lot longer, and now I have this second job trying to piece together some idea of how any of this works. At the same time, even in a vacuum of leadership and the most basic facts, I feel alienated by a lot of the conversation about uncertainty. I feel the question mark of it all on a personal level for sure, but what really overwhelms me is a stunningly clear notion of what this first stretch will look like, if not what comes after that. And then this intense state of emergency gets some very complex notes and shades from the new uncanniness of everyday life. I'm just constantly fascinated and deeply unsettled by how the most banal, pleasant tasks from before - walking around, buying groceries - have these new overtones of anxiety and dread. I really miss walking around in a regular way. The little moments that make a day.

So anyway I wish I'd gotten into meditation. It might have come in handy. But it always seemed like homework, and maybe also meta spiritual thinkpiece hell. Sometimes the people who teach meditation describe learning it as a process of embracing failure, because it's so difficult to clear the mind. The experience of frustration and failure is perversely what trains your brain to meditate better. And I guess maybe now that I'm typing it out, that's what it's like to learn anything? idk, I don't have the patience.

What I do have is a little low-effort trick - a relaxation hack, if you will! - that doesn't feel like anything reading bad Bechdel comics. Just as backstory, I began using it a few years back, when I started getting headaches. Getting a lot of headaches seems sort of like having a small child, in that your are constantly trying to appease something that is irrational, all-consuming, and only partially under your control. (I guess anxiety is like that too, come to think of it.) I ended up trying a lot of stuff, but the activity that helped most over the long term was acupuncture, I think because it helps with tension? But the caveat is that acupuncture can make your body feel weird in all sorts of wild and mysterious and unsettling ways, including rousing the fight-or-flight instinct. This can happen even if you're not squeamish about acupuncture at all. You start to sweat. Your heart races and you feel faint and ill, and all of this is because your lizard brain perceives a threat on some level of consciousness you don't even have access to.

The trick I learned to offset this was to focus on a positive memory to center myself and relax.

This could obviously mean a million different things. But just to give you an idea of how it works for me, the memory needs to be a very specific, with a very high level of zoom. I choose experiences (always from travels, seems like?) where I felt either really content or full of awe and wonder. The first memory, my go-to, is from a boat ride with friends on a beautiful day. I don't really think about people during these fake meditations, because that somehow feels too charged (even before all this). So I think about the moments where we were standing quietly looking out across the water. I think about how the sunlight glinted off the surface, and how the water made the nicest sound as we moved toward an even more scenic view, and how blue and stunning the sky was that day. I think about the cool wind on my face as the boat moved through the water, and how glad I was to be there.

My other go-to, which is considerably more sociopathic but extremely effective, is from the time I went to a museum where the exhibits were just these massive halls filled with enormous Viking ships.

It was a calm and awesome and intensely metal place. The floor plan of the building itself formed a cross. Minimalist presentation. Walking through those halls made me feel a deep sense of wonder that I was looking at things people made and used a thousand years ago. At least two of them were burial ships, if I remember correctly. I liked approaching each ship slowly, just full-on gawking. And I especially liked going to these raised platforms that let you look down into the decks. You could gaze down into these beautifully made objects and indulge a gentle kind of curiosity. Who were the unhinged murderers who made these incredible things? I went to public school! Who knows!

I've been trying to build up a better stash of these small, quiet moments. One I'm working on is from a time I was in a place where it had been gray and misty for days, when a patch of clear sky opened up to reveal the distant mountains. It looked like a portal into another world, and was maybe the most magnificent thing I've ever seen. I like to think about sitting on a bench that was almost too warm from the sunshine in a botanical park. Or the occasion, so many years ago it feels like it was someone else's life, when I was in the mountains floating down a really quiet river edged by the fullest, tallest trees.

That's it. That's my advice. Close your eyes. Work up a nice memory by really fixating on the sensory details. Remember the easy feeling you had in your chest. Take deeper breaths. Think about the possibility of going somewhere else.

Good things
Jamie Oliver's quarantine cooking show - The raw mania emanating off Jamie in episode 02 is truly something to behold. Would die for this man.
Samin Nosrat's quarantine cooking podcast - good vibes, solid advice
Bon Appetit test kitchen home kitchen vids - I have a lot of opinions on this
Daniel Lavery talks about the Americans - a topical television program about tension

Saturday, March 21, 2020

notes on another person

I'm not big on offering advice. I would never presume, just for instance, to share my thoughts on how to work from home, though I have done so for most of my adult life. I have zero boundaries and multiple levels of catastrophic sleep disease, and while I prefer my own coffee and the lack of commute there are times when I feel like I'm coming up short on every side of the equation--at work, at life, etc.

There are an awful lot of articles right now on how to do this thing, huh? Judging from appearances all my work-from-home brethren have been living right! They have routines. But all that advice...whatever listicles there are for these poor souls who have suddenly found themselves running an old-fashioned schoolhouse for their kids out of two-bedroom apartments, plus all this new required public health reading, the interviews with epidemiologists, all this shit we've got to read to feel we're on top of all the different ways in which we're about to die...the answers these words on our screens purport to offer feel more inadequate than usual. As disorienting as the moment may feel, I believe the world is weirdly simple right now: a stunning series of object lessons about obvious issues that too many people have tried very hard to ignore.

I mean, don't get me wrong. I've fully subscribed to the empty American dream of using this time to organize the closets and heal my gut. There's just the horrible unease of being forced to nest when you're feeling crazy that feels like it's going unacknowledged. It's the elephant in the room that's never mentioned in each day's packet of explainers, right? The strain of it.

The question that people are asking isn't how do I work from home. It's when will life go back to normal. And it's in thinking about that subject that I realized I actually do have a piece of advice to offer: It won't. And that's okay.

People are still asking if this is going to change the world, when it seems very plain that it already has.

There is a thinness to things I've always felt, a sort of tenuousness or transience. I assume it comes from the experience of having been a kid who saw my parents in crisis. A difficult fact of life is that some of the most basic things you take for granted are secretly subject to sudden, violent revision. That reality is a contract that is easily broken. I learned about how events beyond your control can change the person you thought you were into another person who feels unfamiliar. Then 9/11 happened! I was living in another country at the time, and had been laid off from my first grown-up job. I came home and I started someone else's life again, and at some point it became mine.

I don't mean to sound flip. Last night I heard the mayor of Chicago is looking at empty schools and convents to house thousands of sick people, which is somehow the most sobering fact I've heard to date. But the bigger picture according to my reading packet suggests this won't be an extinction event. What I know is that when the world changes, you become another person.

This is the New Productivity: becoming whoever we need to be next. It's day nine of quarantine. Yesterday I ordered a cookbook with the dumb fantasy of preparing simple, nourishing Japanese food in a methodical way, like a character in a Murakami story. I want to meet whatever intensely weird thing the world throws out next with instant acceptance and unflappable patience. I did not expect to find myself in a reality in which unknown forces are trying to murder me. Whatever. I'm going to heal my fucking gut.

I'm posting through it, y'all. Please be well.

Some good things:
Just listened to my favorite episode of my favorite podcast
That cookbook
Series of lectures that explains pandemics as a product of history, not an outside attacking force
New hobby: pretending your living room is various Witcher taverns