In case you’re new to them, how shall I describe them? Perhaps I’ll say they’re a technology for many humans to try to talk at once, and somehow simultaneously also for no one to talk for quite a long and awkward time, from different locations. They’re also quite possibly the greatest-ever advance in human boredom-creation technology.
If you’re a conference call veteran, then you’ll know the feeling of awkwardly announcing your presence, then waiting for fifty-five minutes absently refreshing your email while someone explains something in great detail that one other person on the twenty-person call needed to know, and then pretending to have enjoyed the experience when you, with a vast sigh of relief, say “Thanks, everyone!” and press the big red button just in time for lunch.
Now, introducing: conference calls in the time of COVID!
Who among us can say that they don’t get really mad when people refuse to use their brains properly? Especially strangers on the internet. There is an irresistible temptation to shame the person into thinking better, often by trying to show them how their actions or beliefs or words are harmful or hypocritical or just intensely moronic.
But how often does this work, really? Basically zero percent. People often dig in even deeper, finding that the attempted shaming proves their original point.
Here’s the thing: shame is externalized guilt. That’s why it doesn’t work to convince people to change their minds. Allow me to explain.
When I regret that Ian has no more Oreos to eat because I ate the last one, I feel guilt. But when Ian goes “Wow, how could you do such an unkind thing as eating all the Oreos so that I have none to eat?” I feel shame.*
For shame to work, I have to agree with the premise. I have to be guilty about the thing and then have someone else also reflect that guilt at me. I have to agree that it would be good for Ian to have any Oreos, and I have to agree that it was unkind of me to scarf them all down in one sitting. (As it happens, I agree with those premises. For now, at least.)
If, on the other hand, it is my firm belief that the Oreos were mine to begin with, and he deserved none, and it was actually right and good for me to eat them all less than 24 hours after the biweekly grocery shop, then I would simply toss my head back and laugh at his attempt to shame me.
See the problem? I have to agree with a premise before I can be shamed by it.
When I am already grumpy is when my clothes don’t fit right, when my shirt gets stuck around my ears somehow. My pockets hook around door handles, yanking me backward when I’m already rushing around. The neighbors shout and turn their TVs up and my brain can’t tune out the wah-wah-wah noises. The tea is too hot. I spill boiling water everywhere. The weather goes bad—sticky and hot when I want to run, giving me a headache, but turning chilly and clouding over when I try to sit outside with a book. Every car lays on its horn. My stomach hurts. My headphones glitch. My hair falls across my face and into my ears, feeling exactly like ants. I can’t get comfortable because the bench is too straight-backed. Even the goddamn bird song is loud and piercing.
Then I let the tea cool a bit, and I drink it down (Earl Grey with honey and milk, perhaps the best beverage). I read a paragraph over and over again, unable to absorb it because that woman in that one apartment keeps laughing, and someone else appears to be learning how to play the drums.
More tea. I finally make it through the paragraph and something in it inspires a fun detail for Book Three. I write it down. The breeze is starting to feel very nice. Birds are zooming and cooing. I think about how some people are very energized by living in a city, precisely because of these things that so often set my teeth on edge: the unpredictable, chaotic, joyful, tense, terribly human sights and sounds.
In spite of myself, I relax and I decide I’m going to make it through the afternoon.
On an unrelated note: how can we city-dwellers let out some good bloodcurdling-scream energy without having the authorities called on us?
I thought I was going to get away scot-free. It was nothing like last year yet, when I’d have coughing fits so strangling that I would be stuck with my eyes streaming until the pollen let go of my throat. It’s been rainy and cool. The trees leafed out without incident.
I thought I was safe.
But no, this allergy season is merely delayed, my friends. The pollen is falling in a thick powdery blanket of menace. It’s my fourth spring in DC, and I know what’s coming based on how grumpy and itchy I am. This is just the beginning.
My kidneys itch. My liver itches. My emotions itch. Every inch of my clothes itches every inch of my skin. It’s as though someone has sprayed quite a lot of corn starch into my throat, and put sand all over my body.
Why would they do this?
Maybe it’s the plants’ revenge, or maybe just their triumphant aria, the price to pay for how quiet they go all winter, the celebration that WE’RE ALIVE, BITCHES. After being cooped up like that, battening down the hatches in the cold and wind, I totally understand the desire to let your hair down and scream a little bit.
I just wish they wouldn’t demand that I scream along with them.
Plants, listen: you want us to be able to breathe free and clear. We exhale that yummy CO2 that you love. Let us do it freely, please?
But, really, whatever you need. I’m just glad you’re still around. I guess I can choke a bit for a few weeks in exchange for all the oxygen you make, keeping me breathing otherwise.
You’re right. I’m sorry I complained. Confetti the world with your gifts, friends.
It suddenly struck me how odd it is that the most terrifying thing is human.
As I stretched out my wet rain shell over the chair when I got home today to my empty apartment I saw that one of the lights in my hutch was on. Just the left one. It was shining a strong yellow on the martini glass inside.
My first hypothesis was that it had been on for days. I went logically through what might have happened: I had tried the light days before to show my parents; it didn’t work. Maybe it eventually turned itself on. But I had tried it days ago, and I was here all last night, alone, assembling my furniture and collapsing on the couch. Surely I would have noticed if a light was on all this time.
This is the second half of a short story. The first half is here.
I move in that weekend. He lives in this sweet little town in the mountains and owns a house that looks cozy and big to my cramped city eyes. I fill out the transferal paperwork online for my job. Moving locations due to a sort is one of the few things they’re able to process basically immediately. That’s one of the reasons the system works so well. Congress made it really clear that the public-health benefits of everyone’s commitment to proper sorting would basically set the economy on fire. If we’re all happily coupled with the person that we all know is perfect for us, that takes away a lot of the romantic drama and longing and heartbreak that reduce productivity. It’s a win-win.
It certainly feels that way for me. There’s a lightness in my heart of the kind I haven’t felt in years. My general sense of worry, of insufficiency, goes quiet, even as I’m packing all my boxes with Alex’s help and leaving the place I’ve called home since college.
That night we have sex for the first time. Alex makes it clear that he’s happy to wait for as long as I want, because again, there’s no rush at all. But I pull him into bed, shaking my head, and kiss him hard. As I should have expected, it works out. Really well. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but really only a bit. The system works. We smile at each other like giddy co-conspirators before turning out the lights for the night.
A few weeks later, we introduce each other to our families. First mine come to our house, because they’re RVing around the country and it works out pretty well. I’m nervous about how they’re going to act, because they’ve always been a little weird around my exes. Alex squeezes my hand and I know what he means: It’s going to be okay, because it’s going to be okay.
Below is the first half of a short story I wrote recently. I’ll post the rest tomorrow. (Update: it’s here.) Let me know what you think!
Sitting down with my phone, I think: my chances are now about as good as they’ll ever be with Chris. There’s so much going for us. Similar taste in music (equal parts Baroque and Top-40); movies (anything with a good balance of comedy and drama, but nothing at either extreme); and activities (generally bookish, but also running). Such a good match.
I would generally be paranoid about thinking things like this, because you never know nowadays whether your thoughts are going to stay private or whether you’ll see them echoed back to you online, but now I’m letting myself hope openly about our connection. After all, I’ve been in love with him for, what, eight months now? “Love” might be a bit strong given that nothing has actually happened, but I’m not sure what else to call it when I get indigestion with anticipation of seeing him, try hard to figure out how to ask my friends about the status of his relationship, and start planning my whole life around how to accidentally run into him. Basically, it’s time to close this deal.
What happened in your brain and your body when you looked at it? For me, it’s a bit of a recoil. The word is laden with a kind of strangling Puritan sexual morality.
This is why, when I was learning about the moral tastebuds and learned that my own morality is based strongly around purity, it was a bit uncomfy. Surely I am no Puritan!
But purity in that moral sense is not (only) about sex. It’s about the very human reaction against the dangerous. The same urge that would make you avoid drinking a cup of water with a cockroach in it. A good urge.
When this urge to avoid physical contamination becomes symbolic, it teaches us to avoid mental and spiritual contamination, to seek out the beautiful. Also a good urge.
But if you look, you’ll see it metastasizing everywhere.