Quaroutine: Staring.

Now we come to one of the most important parts of the daily routine: 


At what, you ask? 

Not to be rude, but clearly you’re not great at this yet. Don’t worry; there’s plenty of time to learn.

Back to first principles: we inessentials are not going much of anywhere. It’s sort of like being on a ship, if the inside of the ship were your dwelling and also there’s wifi and no rocking (we hope). 

Think about it: there’s a lot of time to look at stuff while on this boat ride.

Assuming you are awake about 16 hours every day, my back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that you will spend roughly 90 daily minutes with your eyes closed due to blinking.* Now, what will your eyes take in for the other 14.5 hours? 

If you’re anything like me, the answer is roughly 13.5 hours of a combination of laptops, phones, and TVs, what with all the working and hobbying and online workout classing and maintaining every relationship you’ve ever had over video call.

(Does this feel good? Not even a tiny bit. It feels a bit like dry cotton balls have been rubbing against my eyes, or perhaps my optic nerve, by the end of the day.)

So that’s the first kind of staring: gazing into the white-light void about a foot from your face all day. It seems to contain all the world, but it also sort of makes you nauseous and doesn’t let your brain finish any of its processes.

Plus, the allure of Content is fading a bit. Back in the old world when you were always falling behind on television, didn’t you wish something would happen that would require you to stay home for a while? You fantasized about having long uninterrupted stretches to binge-watch this or that, or to play through that one video game you bought years ago. But when it comes down to it, you just don’t even seem to have time for that, or it loses its luster immediately. And aren’t you having a lot of conflicted feelings kind of regretting that wish you once had for a break back when the world felt normal, but also basically hoping you’ll never have to go back to the office?

Just me?

Here’s a dog I mutually stared at for a while the other day.
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The last grass

The first thing that struck me about this place was the greenness. Remember that one afternoon hugging the bluffs over the Potomac in late July when I was 24, how green it was? I imagined God creating this place in a frenzy:  

This is where He smashed His hands on the keyboard that is GREEN, playing all the notes at once and letting a thousand shades explode all over the trees. 

Later that summer, I took a bike ride and wrote: 

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Plant extraction

Today I went to the office. It was weird.

Before you raise the alarm, I did it for the plants. Assuming it will be quite a long time before I stop working remotely, it seemed like a good time to dart into the emptyish building and perform an extraction.

The roads were empty enough that driving was actually a rare pleasure. I paid the exorbitant parking fee of $0.70 in coins, and went through security. The security guards weren’t wearing masks, nor did they make me remove mine (a silly handmade one cut out of a tee shirt I bought years ago at a truck stop in South Dakota with a coffee filter tucked inside) to match my face to my ID photo. They were very nice and normal. I bet work is weird for them now, guarding an empty building.

CNN wasn’t on in the lobby, as it generally is. At least they’re getting a break from that.

Up on my office floor, most of the hallways were dark. I was the only one there. The fire doors were closed, and I was walking around the floor in my jeans and mask, with most of the lights off. All of this together made the place feel altogether bizarre.

It’s odd how places where we’ve spent so many hours can mutate with the smallest of changes. Remember Back-to-School Night? How odd it was to be at school, with a bunch of adults, at night in summertime. The temperature and light were all wrong. The lights in the hallways would be on, flickering orange fluorescent onto the shrubs. The teachers would be wearing normal clothes, not teacher clothes. It was all kind of exciting and unsettling, like a glimpse of a mundane parallel universe, and all due to a few small changes from normal.

Anyway, that’s what it was like in the office today.

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Alley tourism

In my meanderings/experimental trespasses, I’m drawn to alleys. Primarily because they increase my ability to not repeat a route, which is not allowed. But also because they’re such a trip. They meander delightfully, zigzagging in strange directions between and around houses, so it’s often unclear when you enter one where you will come out. 

Plus, it’s like looking behind the curtain at the character of the houses and the people who’ve lived in them. Like a lot of places, DC’s homes are often clustered in identical rows developed together. (Most places in DC, they are rowhouses, which you might call “townhouses” or “terraced houses” depending on where you are.) You can tell roughly when a line of houses was built based on the size and style: low, two-story clapboard ones with no basement are from around the Civil War period. Larger brick two-story houses with basements (or “garden levels,” if you’re trying to make yours sound nicer than it is to rent it out) are later. In wealthier areas, you find three-story Victorians with all sorts of turrets and crenellations. In other places, there are gluts of later-built perfunctory gray blobby guys. 

This is all to say: each row of them tends to look the same from the front. There will be variation in color, if someone has bothered to paint it, and sometimes wild variation in siding material, depending on when the last major reno happened. But the bones all look the same. It’s like a row of coloring books filled in by different children with decent motor skills: the same structure, but different choices of decor, and varying tidiness.

That’s from the street. 

From the alleys, it’s a whole different matter. There are no zoning protections back there. The backs of the houses are utter chaos. It’s hard to know even what the original developer’s plan was for the back, because every house has had so much done to alter it. Many houses used to have sleeping porches in the unthinkable days before air conditioning made these soupy summers bearable. In the years After Air Conditioning, many homeowners* changed the sleeping porches into something else, but everyone had a slightly different plan with it. Now there are open-air balconies, enclosed game rooms, extra apartments popping up over the top of the original house, spiral staircases meandering down to ground level, barbecue patios and planter beds, ersatz garages and exercise equipment. Porches spring up in all shapes and materials. There are big windows facing in on dining rooms. The modernity of the chandeliers, the finish on the table, piled high with homework or clean as a whistle waiting for the next dinner party, all tell a story.

Perhaps wandering in the alley is almost a bit indecent, like spying. The front of the house is for guests, for deliveries, for appearance on the nightly news in case something of interest happens on the street. The back of the house is more just for the neighbors. Perhaps they didn’t anticipate a weirdo at the edge of her rope on a desperate walk taking solace from the Weird Times seeing the personality of each little house bumped up against its friends. 

But I suppose a lot of things are weird right now, and I’m just one among all of them. And my hope for all of you, gentle readers, is that you can let your freak flag fly in the alley of your life, whatever that is, no matter how tidy and regular you keep your street side.

*One of the very few English words containing a “meow!”

Don’t read the comments.

I couldn’t sleep last night. Insomnia used to plague me, and has abated in the last six months or so, but last night whatever magic that has been keeping me asleep wore off. For several hours I was wide awake. Couldn’t get comfortable. Ravenous but unwilling to get up and eat a snack. 

In moments like these, I am ashamed to say (but not so ashamed that I’ll refrain from saying it): I scroll Twitter. Yes, this is a horrifying choice, as I am reminded whenever I confess to Ian. I don’t scroll Twitter much, if at all, during the day. But somehow, in that bizarre alternate reality that is the dead middle of the night, it’s often what my brain and fingers long for me to do. 

Now, another confession. One of the things that fires all my greedy little brain receptors is reading the comments. This is ill-advised at the best of times. Humanity is great, but people can be terrible. And people are at their most terrible in the internet-comment setting, simultaneously cruel and moronic. They think they know so much and none of them make any g-d sense.

So why am I compelled to read what they have to say? What am I looking for? 

Reality, I guess, ironically. I want to know what I’m really in for as an Earth-dweller. What are my neighbors thinking? What are the social norms? Where are all the deviants?

But also, stimulation. Proof that some people are dumb. Proof I’m right. 

A brief detour through some vintage Psychopomp content: remember the Enneagram? If not, it’s a personality typing system (sort of) that I find fascinating and very useful. I’ve learned a lot about myself by seeing what the Enneagram reflects back at me, so now I’m quicker to notice some of my deeply entrenched habits as they rear up. This can be annoying. But it’s also an early-warning system when I start to do the Same Old Shit (SOS)®. 

All that to say: on the Enneagram I’m a type 9 with a 1 wing. The “1 wing” means I have a lot of characteristics of a Type 1, which is the “idealist” or the “perfectionist” type. Type 1s are fiercely critical of injustice in the world, but also fiercely critical of their own perceived flaws and everyone else’s too.

My 1 wing is getting quite a workout from this whole COVID situation. (And I’m not the only one). I’ve turned into a raging perfectionist about my behavior, but also about literally everyone else’s in the world. No matter what anyone else is doing, it’s wrong—just as what I’m doing is wrong in everyone else’s eyes. How can this be? Because no one knows what the hell they’re doing. No one has lived through a global pandemic before. The stakes couldn’t be higher for everyone to follow the rules properly, but we’re not really sure what the rules are. Is it 6 feet or 2 meters? And anyway, why is the safe distance slightly different in Europe? What about following distance? Passing distance? What minimum tightness of weave is acceptable for a cloth face covering? Who should cross the street first? Is it a total dick move to walk two or three abreast in two-way foot traffic? (YES)

I get a little charge out of muttering “give way” to people who pass me too closely, in my opinion, on the sidewalk or trail. (I mutter only because, as some of you know, I am literally physically incapable of yelling). And don’t even get me started on all the people I see wearing masks around their chins or on top of their heads. WHAT ARE YOU DOING PLEASE YOU MUST STOP. If this goes on for much longer I might start becoming That Person who actually lectures total strangers on how to wear their masks, and pleads with them for God’s sake not to pull the mask down to rub their noses, holy mackerel.

Anyway. Phew. Time for a sip of water. I’m getting a little peaky.

That’s better.

You see, there is some small part of me that must get a kick out of being wronged, because when I’m wronged I’m right.

So here’s me with my warning system blaring that I’m getting extremely judgy, and for what good? All I can control is myself. I can flatten myself against a fence or a wall to create six feet of distance between me and the next walker, but I can’t reach into that person’s brain and motivate them to do the same for me. I can wear my own face mask, but I can’t make everyone else do the same. I can pull it up over my nose (and eyes, almost, in some cases—for surely that is even safer?), even if others are wearing theirs around their knees or whatever. As I’m only able to control myself, I’d be better off, calmer, more at ease, and just as safe learning not to fume at strangers’ unwillingness to follow my set of rules. Especially when, inevitably, I’m failing some of theirs as well.

So what does this all have to do with reading the comments?

I’m never more aware of being a social creature as I am when I realize that I’m more interested in knowing what the others think of an article or tweet I read than I am in knowing what I think about it. My desperation to know that the tribe agrees with me, or my sicker desperation to locate those who are terribly wrong, is just the tremendously strong human impulse to create community, coming out in a really bizarre way.

I’m just a human who wants to know that the group is going to be okay. I want the group to stay healthy. I want to correct those who are risking the group’s health. But also, I want to know that I am the member of the group who is doing the best at it.

The Internet is a hypnotic tool for socialization, which must be what I’m seeking when I feel really lonely and bizarre on the ice floe that is my bed in the darkest hours. So I seek to join the group, even if the group is just a bunch of fragmented thoughts from a bunch of strangers all over the world.

And then I seek those who are wrong in the group.

I do not recommend this as a treatment for insomnia.

In short:

A modest argument.

Corporations are indeed people. 

I mean this on an emotional level, not a legal one, and I hope you will soon agree.

Have you ever talked to a corporation? Of course you have. As you’ll remember: they are coy. Like a sequestered fairy-tale princess, they do not permit to be spoken to directly. You must approach from a distance. You must find the allowable envoy, the maidservant at the castle gate who can take a message.

Or, rather, you must call the 800 number and navigate the inside of a computer using your phone’s keypad (a knightly quest!) before you can reach the inner keep.

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Phishers of men

Full disclosure: this blog is not (yet) an international phenomenon. 

However, it does get a fair number of comments (but not page visits, puzzlingly) from people based in other countries who would very much like for me to click on their links and probably provide my banking information.

So that’s something like being an international phenomenon.

I have a lot to learn from these commenters. They are expert in the rarefied arts of both marketing and flattery. 

Don’t get me wrong: some of them still post treatises about global conspiracies to kill us all through RFID chips, and some are tactless enough to come right out and say that they want me to click on lots of grody links to infect myself.

But many of them, wearing the guise of a credibly middle-America-sounding name like Bob Democracyman, have cleverly decided to provide compliments and no links. Just flattery. 

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I get itchy with the urge to leave sometimes.

But I can be so grateful for the trilling birds, for the bee upsetting my earbud in a mad dash for my brain.

For the flowering trees pink and white and raspberry-yogurt color against the bluest sky. 

The clean breezes. 

The quiet smiles of people reading a newspaper on the porch swing. Delivery workers gently maneuvering hand trucks laden with what we need to keep us all afloat. 

For shy buds spreading their fingers in greybrown woods to stretch their green skin out against the sun for the first time.

For drops of rain on tulip heads. For babies screeching in sheer joy. 

For the sweet salad smell of wild onions rioting through the forest. 

For the cool, mournful smell of city gardens after a thunderstorm.

For a birthday party taking place on a stoop and spreading out into the street so that clusters of guests can give each other a six-foot berth. Balloons spelling out a golden HAPPY BIRTHDAY across the awning. It’s almost normal and it’s happening right here.

For birdsong at the open window and the four or so walls that keep us safe and together.

Quaroutine: Cooking

It’s cooking-dinner time!* Join me!

I thought I’d show you how I whip up something tasty using some unusual pantry combinations.

Did I say “unusual”? Freudian slip. I meant “creative,” probably.

One of my favorite things to make is chili. This is primarily because it’s one of those words with almost no actual meaning, kind of like “sandwich” or “dumpling.” I find that anything between a soup and a solid can legally be called a “chili,” if you’re prepared to keep a straight face and stick to your story when you announce what you’re serving.

Today I’m starting with some beans I soaked last night.** We’ll just set them on to boil. That’s another nice thing about a chili: set it and forget it!

While we wait, here: let’s take a look at one I made before, as a sample.

Okay, fine, I know these are cheese balls. I just really wanted some cheese balls for breakfast. They may be to blame for my burgeoning nighttime ulcer and the scabs on the roof of my mouth but I see no reason to stop.

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Some other place. The right place.

Here’s the irony about this fixation on places: so much of my time is spent in the great nowhere/everywhere that is the inside of a modern apartment with an HVAC system and the Internet. 

On top of that, my current dwelling, although very comfortable for my needs, is a gentrification fever dream. How it feels to live there; the walls and pavement that line it; most of the people who now walk their (many) dogs and (far fewer) human children around it—none of these meaningfully existed fifteen years ago. It’s been terraformed of the whole cloth of long-term neglect. The neighborhood got a new name to anoint its rebirth, its entry into the witness protection program.

Living in gentrified space like this can feel like a grander version of living inside with the HVAC and the Internet. It’s a way to escape being somewhere. A way to escape being anywhere at all. 

On the other hand, my search for somewhere feels as though it’s all about dirt, trees, bricks, mortar. A place that is not just anywhere. An idiosyncratic place. One on which I can have an impact, and it on me.

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