Quarantine

What can I say about this virus that hasn’t been said? I haven’t worn a bra in weeks. I have noticed but not fully acknowledged the scum buildup in the toilet since I put my cleaning lady on paid leave. I have dug my overgrown nails into my calloused fingertips to prove to myself that I’ve done something creative during this unbearable lull. I’ve cooked for the first time in many months. I’ve played the Sims for hours. I’ve considered making a TikTok.

I’ve rotated my desk ninety degrees to provide better lighting and a neutral background for online classes. I have come to terms with the fact that I will never see my own students, whom I’ve had for a year and a half and love dearly, again. I have cried about that. I’ve commended the Vietnamese government for closing schools right away and also lived in visceral fear of being dragged away to a quarantine camp.

I have watched my neighbor across the alley put her laundry up every morning and take it down each night, measuring out, like coffee spoons, this halted life. I’ve listened to her smack her kids, I’ve listened to them cry, and I’ve carried on watering my plants; overwatering them; having faith in them; killing them.

I’ve dreamt of the dead. I watched footage from inside a Wuhan hospital of a man slumped, greyish-yellow and waxen, in a wheelchair, his daughter holding his lifeless body up. I’ve watched videos of Italians singing from their balconies, breathing joy into their cities as if performing CPR on these times as their parents and grandparents become statistics. I have called my grandmother.

The virus gets closer and closer to me – it’s in the cities in which I’ve lived, it’s in the hospitals in which my family members work, it’s in the family members of my friends, it’s in my own family. It hasn’t infiltrated my house, but it is in my neighborhood. The last time I drove down the main road, it was all but empty – storefronts shuttered, sidewalks empty, quiet. It’s just so quiet. It’s a heavy silence – like we’re lying in wait, like we’re under siege, like we’re pretending to sleep.

Other than that, it was perfect

Rain starts falling. I walk away from the hellish, jager-fueled fun that’s being imposed upon this otherwise serene peninsula of paradise. Tables are heaving with tribal tattoos, sanskrit tattoos, tattoos that are I’m sure very meaningful; sunburnt, roadrashed bodies are gyrating to the greatest hits of the aughties, and no everybody-knows-this-song can stop me from fleeing the scene and stepping into my own personal Natasha Bedingfield song in which I can feel the rain on my skin.

It’s still too loud over here but the white noise of the rain drowns out some of the barbaric yawping and some of the incessant thumping which has been the sonic backdrop of my misery for three days and nights. I walk around the pool, which is perfect. I walk barefoot across the grass, which is perfect. I sit on the tree swing, which is perfect. I’m being pelted by raindrops, which should annoy me, but in a masochistic twist, is perfect. I’m meant to seek shelter, but the shelter is a steaming hog shed precipitating with ethanol-infused sweat and cigarette smoke.

I’ve tried to like it here. I ordered a bucketful of mojito of my own volition within an hour of our arrival, and I continued drinking from buckets until I was drunk enough to sing Folsom Prison Blues when the karaoke started. I was the first one to take off my clothes and jump into the pool, and that was only the first of several instances involving public nudity during this nightmare of a trip. I’ve been having some actual, genuine, organic fun here, but mostly I’ve been lurching between forced fun and utter misery.

When I’m not forcing myself to have so much fun, I’m in the throes of an existential crisis. So I’m in this hammock, which is perfect, having an existential crisis while the thunder of distant Fun sends me into a psychiatric tailspin.

Everything is just so fucking perfect here – the green mountains give way to the white sand which gives way to the blue water. The sun and the breeze and all that. The hostel itself is a giant white and blue villa through which fresh air flows freely because every door and window is actually a slatted shutter. Seating is ample – bamboo benches with identical pristine blue cushions are placed throughout the corridors and scattered across the grassy areas. There’s a basketball court, a volleyball court, a terrace for twice-daily yoga, an outdoor gym, a perfect blue pool in close proximity to a well-stocked bar, a nightly buffet feast (Taco night! Sunday roast! Vietnamese bar-be-cue!), and RFID wristbands that make it easy to pay for all of the things you need, want, and want more of.

It really is lovely, in principle.

But when I saw them unloading a van full of sound equipment, I felt the first shudders of turbulence. It was the resort equivalent of an ominous rumble in the gut, or a sudden drop in barometric pressure, or a strand of hair that isn’t yours in your lover’s bed. I took some precautionary measures, like Valium, and lied to myself about not beating but joining them. At dinner, I met some people and had an interesting talk – not the vapid where-are-you-from bullshit that’s unavoidable at hostels, but the kind of conversation that constitutes human connection.

I had an idea that maybe our little group could move things to the beach while the semi-human knot of Bootcamp Traps and Instagram Asses sucked different types of powder into their faces and sort-of danced before retreating to the dorm rooms to have sex with each other. Maybe we could find somewhere away from the stage, where the DJ with the stupid fucking name and the stupid fucking hat would be “making” stupid fucking music. Maybe we could stock up on some beers and find an unoccupied picnic table somewhere at the far reaches of this perfect place and have a nice evening in spite of the looming prospect of Fun.

Then the music started and I wanted to kill myself. I watched as people Put [Their] Hands In The Air™ and sidled up to people who were about as attractive as themselves and yelled in each other’s ears a few times before sort-of dancing with each other. I watched as the DJ disappointed everyone and they continued to pretend to enjoy themselves. I saw them silhouetted by moving lights and slopping buckets of liquor around like Fantasia’s possessed brooms. They stumbled around, they sweated profusely, they stuck their fingertips in baggies and saw false gods.

I was in such a state of despair that I couldn’t even get drunk. Kasey and I retreated to a bench in a corridor to talk. We were still being assailed by the Mancunian DJ – the noise was truly inescapable – but at least we could talk. People occasionally walked past and thought we were in the middle of a breakup because the pain on our face registered as emotional turmoil, which it was. Are we assholes for hating this? Are we wrong for thinking this isn’t fun? Are we old now? 

The music lasted until 1am. The slurred, strung-out voices lasted until 5:30. I left the room to plead with the fun-havers to go elsewhere so that everyone else could sleep. I cried. I ground my teeth for three hours during my sleep.

At 9:30, I went down for breakfast. The Mancunian DJ was sitting across from me at the table. He had taken charge of the music, yet again, and was bumping his bullshit from the speakers, so I turned down the music to a tolerable volume. I sat down and sighed and took a sip of shitty coffee. He got up and cranked the music back up and then sat down again and committed the gravest of sins.

“Smile,” he said to me.

The sleep deprivation and the exhaustion only just kept my seething rage from boiling over. It was surface tension; fury kept at bay by little more than the promise of a nap. I put my coffee down and gave him that look – you’ve seen it – the one that women have evolved, over the course of many centuries, to use in lieu of actually castrating men with rusty cleavers.

“Go on, say something positive,” he said.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” I said.

A Poem for my Fan

Oscillate

Be my welcome wind until the storms roll in from the east

And shatter a trillion marbles on these tin roofs.

Lull me to sleep with your quiet sidewinding hum

Before that roaring white noise wakes me before dawn breaks.

The freight train season will be the reason I wake up swearing,

But you, my metronomic breeze, you’re perched near my ceiling idol-like,

Sapping my affection for the capricious skies with your endless Mona Lisa sigh.

Heirlooms

This is the letter I wrote to my grandmother when she was in hospice care. These are my last words to her.

Dear Grama,

When you used to visit us in Georgia during the holidays, you would always sit in the same place – on the loveseat by the lamp. You would nap, insisting that you were just resting your eyes, and for days after you left I would smell the sofa where your head had rested and I’d smell your perfume. I catch a whiff of it sometimes and I always think of you, and I always will.

I’ll never forget the last Christmas we spent together. My dad was pouring everyone drinks in your apartment, and three times you admonished him for not making them strong enough. It made me laugh, and it when my drink burned its way down my throat, I knew that I was indeed your granddaughter. And as I flipped through the pages of your incredible photo albums – you and Grandpa in the Ukraine, in Azerbaijan, in China – I knew that I’d inherited a great deal more from you. Our family heirlooms live in our bones, not in our houses. Although I did look around my kitchen one day and realize that I’d outfitted it in red kitchenware – my microwave, my kettle, my spatulas – pops of red everywhere.

There is something about red, isn’t there? It’s powerful and daring – like hopping into a fighter jet in Greenland with some handsome airmen and whizzing through the fjords. I thought of you when I went paragliding in the desert in Spain several years ago. “This is the Grama gene.”

I’ve always taken such great pride in telling people about my Grama who served in the Air Force, who visits Antarctica and Morocco and a thousand other places, and who manages not just to see the big wide world but to take pride in her own corner of it and try her damndest to change it. One day, not long after 9/11, we were doing a jigsaw puzzle during one of your visits and I said something about war maybe being necessary sometimes, and without lifting your eyes from the puzzle you said that it wasn’t necessary, ever. I’ll always remember that.

I’ll always remember you when I smell your perfume, drink vodka, choose red, get on a plane, or vote. I think of you often, but I’ll always, always think of you when I do those things. Heirlooms live in our bones. I love you, Grama.

Love,

Emily

Patricia Finder-Stone
1929-2019
You can read more about my truly amazing grandmother here.

Kondocano

If I was supreme dictator of the whole entire universe, I guess I’d start with cargo shorts. I find them distasteful. I know it’s pretty low on the scale of societal malignancy, but it seems like a waste of fabric, and honestly, when you’re supreme dictator, you ought to start somewhere benign before you start chipping away at the big stuff. It’s the foot-in-the-door method of totalitarianism.

The thing about cargo shorts is that they’re ugly and only seem practical. People don’t walk around with things in the pockets of their cargo shorts because physics dictates that the contents of the pockets would flop around on one’s leg and pull the shorts down, exposing one’s Fruit of the Loom brand underwear. Cargo shorts haven’t been fashionable in a decade but people buy them thoughtlessly in the same way they buy the brand of margarine spread their mom always bought even though it tastes like wallpaper paste. No one would be sorry to see cargo shorts and margarine spreads thrown into an active volcano.

So I’d definitely start small. I’d find other things to throw into the active volcano, things that people wouldn’t really miss after a few days. Car fresheners that hang from the rearview mirror? Volcanoed. Anything that bears the likeness of Bob Marley? Vaporized. Home decor that has inspirational wording on it? Incinerated. You’re welcome.

You can get rid of those kinds of things and people won’t really fuss too much, and no one would call you an evil dictator if you paired your megalomania with one of those minimalist philosophies that people like Gwyneth Paltrow champion on lifestyle blogs as they hawk rose gold bonsai trees. “Does it bring you joy?” I would ask, dangling a Blender Bottle over the gaping mouth of a gurgling volcano.

The next step is more difficult; the more obvious I am about my loathings, the more people will call my character into question. Window decals that memorialize the dead – my approval ratings would plummet if I threw the In Loving Memory of Chad factory into the bowels of the Earth. “You think a sticker remembering my dead child is distasteful?” they would ask. I wouldn’t really have a good answer; I guess I would subsidize garden plaques.

Halos of Camera Flashes

Ariana Grande’s whistle tone chirps over a symphonic refrain – “imagine… imagine… imagine…” The song culminates abruptly in an upswing of modern gospel – a life cut short. Throughout the song, in spite of by-now nauseating cultural references, like “skrrt skrrt” and “click click click and post / dripped, dripped, dripped, in gold,” the song manages to fuse the balladry of mourning – that keening whistle note and the cathedral-sized interludes – with R&B and well-placed silence and sultry verses.

It’s the fusion of the light-hearted appeal of Hollywood and Tragedy; the compassion and chatter on Twitter, the tributes and the triumphs and the trials of The Known Class – they’re versions of ourselves but with more money. But the personal life of a celebrity is something that’s immortalized on a Wikipedia page. It’s something that can make or break a person’s career; it can be a boon or a bust, and there’s no stepping out of it like there is in other industries. They’re branded for life, their own names and faces either haunting them or making paychecks.

That inseparability – of the public and the private life – has transformed pop music into a goldmine of genuinely personal work.

The pop music of the late 90s and early 00s was filtered through record execs and management teams and paparazzi and stage parents. The music was infectious and remains memorable, but the fact remains that teams of producers and songwriters and hordes of industry buffs were in collusion churning out radio-friendly, semi-salacious, auto-tuned bullshit, much of which was a blatant and bad reinterpretation of the hip-hop that the decade was blessed with several years prior.

Today, the genre is sprouting YouTube and Soundcloud talent, and that competition is driving the big names to capitalize on not just their music but their stories as human beings. An album is equal parts spin-story and sound. Artists like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Drake have at once capitalized on and suffered within their music, their lives exposed, during vulnerable moments of heartbreak and tragedy and scandal.

How could the music not address it? They, and the industry at large, directly capitalize on folly and downfall and death. A catalogue that doesn’t address the tabloid fodder would be inherently dishonest.

Is this the idolatry of our time – the myths behind the art, fallible and suffering but untouchable and divine, in halos of camera flashes? Consumption culture riding as disembodied Gucci Tennis Shoes on the back of a line about Cane and Abel. Tiffany’s and “red bottoms.” The smiles and pap walks, the pouts and press and ever-presence.

Beyoncé is perhaps the master of the untouchable pop culture goddess — one recalls a recent video of she and Jay-Z standing in front of the Royal portrait of Meghan Markle, actress and duchess, thanking fans for honoring them with a Brit Award for Apesh**t. That was itself was a callback to the music video for the lead single from their collaborative album THE CARTERS, the third installment in the Carter Family saga (the first being Beyoncé’s Grammy-nominated Lemonade, the second Jay-Z’s 4:44). The trilogy addressed the rumored marital problems between the untouchable couple in art, nullifying the cultural value of the infamous elevator scuffle that sparked the rumors.

There are now enough celebrities to epitomize virtually every positive and negative personality trait; and it should perhaps come as no surprise that, in a cyclone of reality TV and politics, we’ve been smited by a Charybdis posed as a pseudo-dictator. The noxious side of pop culture, with its Twitter clarion calls and capricious tantrums, has been crystallized on the head of a spray-tanned and unclothed emperor.

Merch is a wearable anointment, a garment; the concerts and interviews and rallies and speeches are churches made available in our pockets and purses. Legions of worshippers watch as their rulers, their idols, take up arms online, in verse, in real-time. The feuds and failures turn the lens back around on us – the viewers, the consumers, the supporters, the followers. The followers.

Follow. It’s a word that succumbs easily to word fatigue, but it’s a term commonly applied to Christ Himself. It’s been turned into a monetized button, a tithing, and a near-perfect barometer of public interest.  “I’m so successful,” boasts Ariana Grande. Follow. It’s a measure of clout, an accomplishment in and of itself – to be known, to be heard. To be heard. One of the latest phrases in our cultural back pocket is just that: “I hear you.”

It’s infectious, isn’t it? The music, in its accessibility and the personas in their imperfection – but most of all the idea that a single human life is something that ought to be heard by others. The clout so easily begets, in a PR shitstorm, notoriety; the fame begets infamy; the fortunes ride the coattails of indiscretion. But their worst-of-times croons nevertheless echo our own.

Our expectations of pop music now reside in our expectations of its makers, and our demand is reversible and forever at-odds – humanity and perfection; a tug-of-war between the self and the icon.

I am Felicity Jane. I am a tornado.

He used to call me Felicity Jane and ask me if I was a tornado. “I’m a tornado. Why do you call me Felicity Jane?”

“That’s what your parents should have called you. They should have called you Felicity Jane. Felicity Jane Crane.”

***

He took baths on Sunday mornings in something that smelled like evergreens and he was particular about the kind of margarine and marmalade that he scraped across his half-charred toast each morning.

He’d let me turn off the burglar alarm when we’d come back from a trip to the countryside. “Do you remember the code? 4428.” 4 April 1928. His birthday.

He notoriously painted the kitchen a near-fluorescent color called Lemon Ice once after having been tasked with choosing “just a soft yellow, Ewart.”

“Granny’s cross with me,” he said with a grin, admiring his work.

***

“Good heavens!” he’d say about the news or about how much I’ve grown since he’d last seen me.

“Blast!” was for when he hurt himself or forgot where he’d parked the car when he picked my brother and I up from the airport.

“Shall we get some ice creams?” was for when we went on holiday. He’d buy Magnum ice cream bars and we would sit on a bench in Portscatho or Beaulieu or in the garden of some National Trust site.

***

The last time he bought me ice cream, the cancer had spread far enough that sitting and standing and walking was painful and he gritted his teeth. We still had a pub lunch like we always did but it was cut short by his pain.

“Would you like an ice cream Emily?” he asked on the way home. I said no but he stopped the car and hobbled into the shop and got me a Magnum ice cream bar. That was in late August of 2012.

On the evening of December 11th, hunched over my laptop finishing a term paper, I had another.

At 6:30 the next morning, my Dad called me. “I’m afraid this is the call.”

***

I am Felicity Jane. I am a tornado.

***

Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

 

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

 

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

 

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.