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Desert Companion

Life on the Inside

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Bookshelf
Illustrations by Kristina Collantes

Dispatches from Home in the New Las Vegas

Say what you will about the stay-at-home order Gov. Sisolak issued April 1 to stop the spread of coronavirus — that it’s a life-saving necessity, that it’s a recipe for going stir-crazy, that you’ve binge-watched the entirety of Tiger King twice — but don’t say it’s bad for introspection. With too much time on our hands, we’ve had abundant opportunity to closely observe our domestic lives and consider larger truths. These five essays explore just that — the family dynamics, moral questions, and emotional pangs that emerge when life is standing still. 

What I Hoped For

When I found a box of old mementos, I encountered a past self
with a secret that surprised me

By Heidi Kyser

I’m trapped in my study with a gaggle of girls who won’t shut up about their accomplishments. There’s a 10-year-old in a brown polyester turtleneck who came in second in the citywide spelling bee. Grinning under her homemade Dorothy Hamill haircut, she says, “I almost won!” And a 12-year-old in a white cheerleading uniform, complete with mascotted knee socks and pleated skirt, who informs me that seventh grade is one of her favorite years of school! The sixth-grade narrator of the church Christmas play, the freshman homecoming princess, the sophomore on the tennis team, they’re all hovering around my filing cabinets, chatting on my antique brocade couch, distracting me while I try to work.

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They’re cute and sweet, in a white-privilege way, but they’re also uninvited. And, perhaps most troubling, they’re all me. I stupidly unearthed these old versions of myself in a trove of scrapbooks I found while going through boxes I thought held only books, and now I can’t get rid of them. As I pay bills, play with my 16-month-old pit bull Buster, or scour the internet for distractions from the coronavirus pandemic, they’re there, nibbling at the edges of my awareness, reminding me — at a time when I least need to be reminded — that I’m going to die alone.

 

***

Okay, maybe not “alone” alone. I am, after all, married. My husband, Peter, and I bought this four-bedroom house in Downtown Las Vegas in 2006, two years after I moved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. When I first arrived here, I didn’t bother unpacking my dozen or so boxes of books. They’re mostly French and classical literature from my college years, and I figured I’d get around to it when time and space allowed. That didn’t happen until Peter’s kids, who he had joint custody of, got old enough to either get a job (in his son’s case) or go to college (in his daughter’s) and move out. A few months ago, I bought a set of three, various-sized bookshelves on Facebook marketplace from a retiring child psychologist who was moving home to the South. The white wooden shelves go well with the brocade couch and sea-foam wall paint. At last, I thought, I can turn my functional workspace into the relaxing library I’ve always wanted!

Eventually. As is often the case, the shopping part of the idea happened much more quickly than the labor part. Weeks went by, and the white bookshelves held only Buster’s toys and piles of unread New Yorkers. While I lounged on the couch doing crossword puzzles, Peter would stop in the doorway and joke, “I love what you’ve done with the place.”

Then came the coronavirus. I’ve worked remotely off and on since the mid-2000s, even as a staff writer, but being sent home from the office with a VPN connection on my laptop and instructions to stay away until further notice was something new. The freedom to focus on my writing away from the incessant banter of the newsroom turned into an oppressive sentence to the solitude of my home cubicle. Outside my office walls, Peter and his daughter, who’d moved back from college, roamed the rest of the house, inescapable — and contending with their own complicated versions of exile. Even as the isolation period imbued Peter’s companionship with a deeper significance, I also realized that, for the duration, my office and the outdoors were the only places I could go to be alone. I needed to make this room a sanctuary.

So, I hauled all the boxes out of the closets and cupboards where we’d stashed them 14 years earlier and started, finally, to unpack.

 

***

Over the years, I’ve learned that I handle big projects best when I take them one digestible bite at a time. In that vein, I told myself I didn’t need to unpack more than one box per day. I’d work on them in the evenings, after dinner.

I’d forgotten what was in the boxes, specifically, but I remembered it being mainly books. I studied Romance languages and literature in both undergrad and graduate school, so I had a ton of French novels, classical mythology, and critical theory — interspersed with the Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut I devoured during school breaks to cleanse my mind of Proust. The boxes’ labeling was suspicious, scratched out and written over multiple times. The first evening, I dragged a box possibly marked “scrapbooks and photo albums” into the middle of the room and dug in not really knowing what to expect. Surprise! It was full of scrapbooks and photo albums.

A funny thing about the memorabilia bound up in these expandable volumes is, I’d completely forgotten them, and yet, once there, they were exactly as I remembered. That’s how mementos work, of course, but it was eerie, turning the pages of my life, instantly pulling up images long buried in my mind’s cache.

And with the benefit of distance, I was struck by how bluntly and meticulously I documented everything I did. “My first recital after taking piano lessons from Mrs. Hall 1 year,” I wrote next to a mimeographed program folded into green construction paper. “Flowers I got this year,” above a half-dozen of the two-by-three-inch notecards that come with bouquets.

There are four tabloid-sized volumes of this, stuffed three inches thick with cutout newspaper articles, participation certificates, ribbons, playbills, postcards, and other, seemingly endless, documents. Objectively, the volume of things I did is impressive.

But subjectively, something’s missing: An emotional component. Occasionally, I would lace captions with commentary — I was “surprised” I won homecoming princess; chorus banquet was “a blast” — but, by and large, it reads to 51-year-old me more like a detached catalog of accomplishments than a joyful record of a childhood well-lived, which is the only way I can recall recalling it, as long as I’ve been an adult. The dry, evidential narratives before me made me wonder if, decades before social media (or even the internet) had been invented, I’d fallen prey to the instinct to edit my experiences for a certain audience, presenting what would make my parents and teachers proud, rather than what really mattered most to me.

Who did I do this for? And why?

 

***

Ironically, what I found to be missing from my scrapbooks would turn up later … and be disappointing. Having learned my lesson from the “scrapbooks” label, I shoved the “Heidi’s secrets” box to the back of the room and spent the next week’s worth of evenings going through what appeared to be — and actually were — books. Then, the first weekend of isolation, I screwed up my courage and dove into my “secrets.” It was just as the label promised: cards, letters, and photos from my two previous marriages, and stacks upon stacks of journals and poetry. Here, behind a “Proceed at your own risk” sign, were the emotions I’d found to be lacking from my scrapbooks. All of them.

The past relationship stuff was easy enough. With time and good girlfriends, I’d wrestled those regrets into submission. I had to set down the final card my second husband wrote to me and cry for about two minutes, prompting Buster to rush over and lick my face. And that was that.

The journals, which appear to have been mainly creative writing assignments from middle and high school, were unexpected. I didn’t remember being a journaler, maybe because I haven’t been one as an adult, but I applied to them the same diligence I did to all my schoolwork, with regular entries about friends, siblings, crushes, and the thoughts and feelings they inspired. What little I could bring my present-day self to read was boring as hell, but I didn’t have the heart to throw the journals out. What kind of writer would I be if I didn’t hold out a modicum of hope that someone, someday, would want to open this window onto my young psyche?

The poetry, on the other hand, was mortifying. Who said everybody’s got 100 bad poems inside them and one good one waiting to get out? Well I, apparently, had a million bad poems inside me, maybe two decent ones, and the determination to get them all out. I skimmed it, desperately looking for something worth saving, but only set aside a few collections that I’d gone to the trouble of typing and binding with hand-painted covers. The rest I carried out and dumped into the recycling bin, where I stood for several minutes, wondering anxiously if there was any chance someone could retrieve them, and they’d see the light of day.

It was comforting to realize I’d grown enough as a writer to kill my babies with such ease. I knew work with no potential when I saw it now; it would be unfair to expect the same of my immature teenage and early-20-something selves.

Still, there was something endearing in my innocent hope that everything I wrote held promise. With enough revision, I must have thought, this could be publishable. And this. All this. What a gift to believe in such crap. How could I have kept going in this unforgiving profession any other way?

 

***

That was pretty much it for the boxes. A few are still piled in the corner of the room, filled with books I plan to donate once schools and thrift stores are back in business. And I left a final one unpacked. It’s so lightweight that I know it doesn’t hold books, it’s bound with packing tape bearing a red “Decision Systems International” logo, which rings no bells whatsoever, and it’s unlabeled — a total mystery. I’m saving that one for a special occasion, when my need for a pick-me-up outweighs the guilt I feel for navel-gazing while other people go hungry. When the depression comes, I’ll pour myself a glass of wine and take that self-indulgent trip down memory lane.

But besides the books, there’s one other thing from my past that found its place in my new study: a handful of hyper-feminized collectibles. I kept three music boxes, for instance, out of a series of dozens I’d been gifted throughout childhood — a family tradition — and a jewelry box with a column of tiny drawers alongside a mirrored stage around which a two-inch-tall ballerina twirls to “Somewhere My Love.” There’s also a statuette that fits in the palm of my grown-up hand, a flounce-skirted girl bearing, in one arm, a flower with a cubic zirconia center and, in the other, a small, folded piece of cardstock reading, “Diamonds are for innocence / pure and sweet and good. / I always try to do the things / that I’m sure I should.” It’s a tribute to the month I was born, April, whose birthstone is diamond; my sister had September’s equivalent. I placed it at the end of my nonfiction row, right next to Virginia Woolf.

Finally, there were five dolls, ranging in quality from a plastic Southern belle with no shoes to a porcelain blonde named “Joyce,” a numbered member of the Heritage Mint Limited series. These I remember wanting, asking Santa for — indeed, I thought I had more of them. Maybe I did and the others are in that lightweight, heavily taped crate. Who knows? What’s clear is, I took care of them, brushing their hair and smoothing down the folds of their skirts before packing them into bags and boxes. I was preserving them for posterity.

That’s when it struck me: The younger me’s, the ones who saved and sorted all the items in the albums, carefully affixing and captioning them, who arranged the journals and poetry in chronological order and put them under metaphoric lock and key — they did this, maybe in part for the nostalgic older woman I am today, but mostly for the children and grandchildren they imagined I’d have by now. The children I don’t have, and never will. Peter’s son and daughter are wonderful stepkids, but they have enough to do looking after their birth-mother’s and -father’s heritages; I don’t hold them responsible for mine, too.

I arranged the dolls on my brocade couch, snapped a phone picture, and sent it to my two oldest nieces asking if either would be interested in having them. “It would be nice to keep them in the family,” I said. Neither girl replied, but one is a nurse in a children’s hospital, and the other is a pregnant schoolteacher with a six-month-old baby. They’ve got much more important things on their minds right now than the random sentimental request of an aunt who hasn’t sent them birthday cards since they were in high school.

Later that evening, Peter held me as I cried, mourning the daughter I’d never had. By the next day, I was done feeling sorry for myself. There was no reason not to save my heirlooms for Peter’s kids’ kids, who would know both Peter and me as grandparents. And if they weren’t interested, so what? I could sell or donate the dolls, and the rest only had intrinsic value to me; after I’m gone, I wouldn’t care anymore.

With this notion came another answer to the question of why I’d kept everything the way I did: to find comfort in remembering who I am, where I came from. Saving a small homage to the conventional gender roles I was taught as a child, for instance, served the dual purpose of marking my evolution and reminding me to stay open. There’s plenty of space left on my bookshelves for new ideas.

And the process of arranging my study has had something in common with the scrapbooking and journaling I engaged in decades ago. I’m curating evidence — books and décor — of the life experiences that are meaningful to me now, albeit with more fluidity and, hopefully, feeling. I’m creating a space where I can be with myself, hunker down in a crisis, and reconnect with my roots.

The pandemic has only started taking what it will from us — jobs, money, security. I’m no more certain of how it will end than I am of whether I’ll have grandchildren someday. But centered in the present, surrounded by evidence of my ability to work hard, withstand heartbreak, and keep growing, I’m ready for whatever comes next. 

 

The Apocalypse Is a Waiting Room

Waiting Room

Notes on video games, and other dumb distractions, in the pandemic age

By Andrew Kiraly

I’ve had a song stuck in my head lately. It’s part of the thematic score to a popular video game. The opening theme to Fallout 4 is a stern, plodding piano dirge that builds into an anxious baroque of strings and brass. I’ve come to think of it as the soundtrack to the new reality we’re living in. I hear the song in my head when I see images of desolate city streets, or barren store shelves, or tent hospitals in parking lots.

Fallout 4 was released in 2015 to much acclaim. Even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve surely ingested many of its recycled tropes that have become standard in the subgenre of entertainment that concerns itself with survival after apocalypse — tattered cityscapes, scavenger tribes, humans and animals transformed into monsters. In Fallout 4, the plot premise is that you’ve been unsealed from cryogenic suspension 200 years after a global nuclear war, and now you’re searching an obliterated Massachusetts to find out whatever happened to your infant son, who was snatched from your bunker. The game is an enthralling interactive museum exhibit of the aftermath of cataclysm. It takes place in a gorgeous ache of a ruined world, a kind of abandon-porn Disneyland filled with rusting cars, sagging high-rises, and supermarket shelves peppered with dusty canned goods. The sky is a queasy, emulsified yellow smear from which radioactive thunderstorms scour the land. You contend with grimy human settlers, cyborg soldiers, mutant bears, and psychopathic robots. Praised for its ambitious scope, Fallout 4 is a vast, complex game; it offers branching storylines with a cast of pulp-novel personalities, balletic carnage, and a construction system that allows you to forge weapons, manufacture drugs, or build an entire human settlement, if you want. You can even have a pet. (Mine is a German shepherd named Dogmeat.) The game’s encyclopedic array of quests, tasks, and pedestrian chores to complete — known in gamer lingo as “the grind” — makes you consider with something like awe the depths to which the shallowness of modern video games can go. As of this writing, my character, Lurkr, is a stealthy level 33 assassin who terrorizes the villains of the Commonwealth with his laser sniper rifle. Even from blocks away, I can hear the red beam’s visceral thud as it vaporizes hulking super-mutants into writhing orange ash.

My evenings of the past few weeks have been mostly spent getting high and playing Fallout 4. I submit wholly to its unfulfilling but narcotically satisfying grind. I play until my attention span reaches a state of high, fine, almost haptic hypervigilance that I can only describe as paying attention to attention itself. It’s oddly similar to the type of attention our rebooted minds have had to muster in order to operate in this new reality, devoting extended logistics and calculations to things we used to do on autopilot. You know, how going to the grocery store or picking up a prescription suddenly requires adopting the mindset of a military tactician. The metabolic demand of this rewired attention has its own fallout, at least for me: I skim countless headlines and news stories every day, but, embarrassingly, have been too psychically exhausted to read anything of substance whatsoever in weeks. (But, when taking a break from the game, I seem to have no problem inhaling three-hour blocks of Rock of Love with Bret Michaels. Again, embarrassingly.)

I’ve been thinking about the quality and amount of attention Fallout 4 demands of me, and why I’m so willing to invest it — particularly now, when there are so many more worthwhile things that deserve the engagement of the mature, educated, responsible man I like to think I am, the one who likes books and chess and yoga. Sure, in obedience to ambient social prompts, I guess I should be using this quarantine to embark on a course of virtuous diversion and edifying distraction like everyone else seems to be doing: taking an online Spanish course, learning to pickle eggs on YouTube, or attending streaming concerts in a show of cultural solidarity. Instead, I’ve become hooked on what Fallout 4 offers in this particular place and time — not just as a game, and not just as a strangely safe fictive parallel to strange times that feel like fiction, but as a curiously hypnotic resting place for an anxious, brittle mind.

Before the pandemic, the game proposed itself as mere retail dystopian fantasy. I originally played, I suppose, for the traditional purpose of frivolous escape. But in this crux of history, it suddenly offers a more complicated emotional menu. It offers not mere fascination, but a mirror to functional fear. Today, Fallout 4 evokes the specificities of thrift amid scarcity, and provokes, again and again, distressing mental encounters with the real. The game has become a tutorial in the psychological mechanics of chronic uncertainty; its purported offer of escape is punctuated by stark, wholly probable, moments of accidental realism. After, say, the operatic exhilaration of massacring a nest of scuzzy wasteland raiders with well-placed bottlecap mines and my Furious Power Fist (a hunk of concrete and clawlike rebar engineered into a lethal pneumatic boxing glove) comes a mundane ritual that prickles with topical urgency: scavenging corpses, shelves, and crates for food and medicine. Here, a precious box of Sugar Bombs cereal; there, a rare can of purified water. (Note: Toilet paper is not a thing.) In Fallout 4, the gameworld envelops and enthralls, true to the promise of immersion that any good game delivers. But much of the gameplay, intended to provide an element of strategic management, impels me to encounter the version of this happening outside. The game frequently functions not as a diversion from reality, but as a detour toward it. Fallout 4 is why I saved my empty disinfectant wipe container, since I can make ad hoc cleansing towels with the leftover liquid at the bottom. It’s why I check the number of cans of soup in the cupboard several times a week, or limit myself to two meals a day to postpone the stress of shopping. But this tic dissolves as the game soundtrack surges in alarm — uh-oh, this destroyed supermarket I’m looting is infested with feral ghoul reavers. (I pause to save my progress in case I die.)

There’s really no good reason to continue playing. The game is not exactly fun. If I’m having anything resembling fun, it’s in playing the game to continually monitor whether I’m having fun playing the game in a kind of neurotic meta-game with myself. In fact, Fallout 4 is trenchantly boring. It’s all grind. It offers the same kind of nervy, paralytic boredom of grazing Netflix previews, scrolling through Reddit, or making a project out of worrying a hangnail. It increasingly seems like a monumental waste of time. And it is — intentionally. I acknowledge this obsessive act of killing time as a craven attempt to fast-forward myself through this history we’re living in. I suspect we’re doing essentially the same thing when we’re clicking from one browser tab to another, refreshing news sites in the hope that something, anything has happened with enough gravity to feel like a benchmark that suggests, if not progress, then at least the reassurance of time lurching forward in a world that’s become so ruthlessly still. It’s a kind of wishful, willful time-travel aiming for the other side of the dire headlines that confront us every day. But putting it like that, characterizing it as time-travel, is far too dynamic a metaphor. Playing Fallout 4 is more like a form of suspension. I’m trying to freeze myself; wake me when the war is over.

One recent Saturday evening, I was on my backyard patio, getting hella high, taking a break from the game. I heard a girl’s shriek from a neighboring backyard. Then I heard the shout of a boy. Then I heard another boy, his laughter brassy with the hint of adolescence. They were playing, chasing each other around the backyard, squealing, chattering, and laughing as the sun set. It was the most natural, human music I’ve ever heard. I sat there for nearly an hour and drank it in, greedy for it, thirsty for it. And yet at the same time, it felt too real, somehow undeserved. I went back inside to play some more, looking forward to the boredom of looting the abandoned National Guard armory without getting nuked by one very offended sentry bot.

Something was amiss in my house. I recognized the feeling, but I felt it as new, freshly misplaced, recently transplanted here from somewhere else. It had taken going outside to make me notice it.

It felt like I was returning to a waiting room. I realized that the appeal of the exotic boredom of this game was that it offered the kind of distractions that beckon in the anxiety of a waiting room.

That’s the feeling of the pandemic stay-home order. It’s like being in a waiting room. My house has become a waiting room. The anxiety is exactly that of a waiting room — that uncertain anticipation, brushed with a residue of fear, as you wait for the car mechanic’s diagnosis, the discomforts of the dentist’s chair, the blood-test results from the doctor. A place where all the humans only interact at a level of distant, official remove. A place where the narrowed spectrum of possibility runs from terrible to merely tolerable — and only on rare occasions offers relief that, phew, the news wasn’t as bad as you expected.

Waiting rooms are where we often revert to the runner-up version of the selves we think we are. It’s where we’re vulnerable to moral vacancy in an atmosphere of ready stimulation. In waiting rooms, your anxious mind becomes prey to their thousand facile distractions and benumbing grinds — daytime talk shows, brochures, dog-eared lifestyle magazines, the seductive debris field of Facebook’s outrage and antic optimism.

I’ve always admired people who can read books in waiting rooms, or at bus stops or on planes. That’s not me. I need to learn to wait better. Or, the more frightening prospect, learn to accept that we are not in a waiting room — not in a liminal phase of transition, but rather in rehearsal for a new truth. In the meantime, I’m the one bingeing on nothing much. My quest is stasis. My apocalyptic adventure is the mute scream of standing still, refreshing the news, saving my progress, and waiting.

 

Passover Magic

DorothyYou ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?

By Erica Vital-Lazare

There is a moment at the beginning of The Matrix, when Neo is awakened from troubled dreams to a knock at the door. We’re made to understand he is a dealer of sorts. It’s 1999, so we anticipate baggies of crystal or a vial of what was then the pleasure-seeking epidemic of choice. But what he offers is a disc, a sleeker version of our now-outdated floppies. And as he pulls his stash from the hollowed-out, and hallowed, pages of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, the writing-directing Wachowski siblings make sleepwalkers of us all. We are Neo, bumbling through tenebrous film glow as we follow the white rabbit. Not in Kansas anymore.

Who could have known that just days after screening the film for my students in Marginal Voices in Dystopian Literature — where as one body we ooh and swoon over Keanu’s feline swagger, marvel at the Oracle, boo the ruthless ubiquity of agents and Cyphers — the college would shut down live classes, converting us to virtual? And we would all become Dorothy, in our own previously unimagined versions of calamitous stories, cycloning in the wind.

I am often called upon for my calm, for my seeming quiet at the center of alarm. But what has shaken me most about this hyperreal plunge into darkness — this pandemic, this age of plague — is that the fear, this cold drip of cortisol emptying and refilling from head to belly, belly to head, is the baseline for so many of us, an underlying rhythm, even in the days before sequester.

For single mothers rooting for coins under couch cushions at the end of the month, for itinerant workers waiting for pickup jobs in strip-mall parking lots, for orphaned elders facing a maze of medical bills, for those without shelter, medical insurance, or retirement fund, the threat has been constant and another kind of Real. Hunger, displacement, the doom of arrest and police violence, voter suppression, environmental disaster, separation of family, the takeover of AI, have long drifted across the lids of worried minds struggling for their piece of an elusive good sleep. The juggling of bills and childcare, the fostering of aging parents, prayers for our children of good jobs and no harm — these are now the teeth in the mouths of gators swimming the ponds of our subconscious for eons. 

Ides of March 2020, as municipalities slowed, streets cleared, and grocery aisles began to resemble the breadline lore of bygone Soviet drama, we have been forced to share the monster beneath all our beds. It growls, and we buy more sanitizer and pasta. It turns over and we stage another Zoom meeting, plan a podcast — sip Instagram mimosas. It bites and we turn from C-SPAN to CNN.

In 2018, Chapman University published a survey of “America’s Top Fears.” Having lived through the purloined election of Bush over Gore in 2000, the uranium yellowcake debacle preceding the Iraq War, and the failed majority election of the first woman president in 2016, political corruption was listed first among those polled. Pollution of our waters, second; and not having enough money for the future, along with the serious illness of those we love, close behind.

As those shadowed scenarios have taken shape and now freely romp and roam, America 2018 seems decades ago.

“When the real is no longer what it used to be,” Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation, “nostalgia assumes its full meaning ... it plays at being an appearance — it is of the order of sorcery.” Or, as Neo says, “You ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?”

From the viewpoint of this pandemic, look back into the postmodernist’s matrix, and you recognize the false oases our known fears and comforts have been. Revisit the parables, Ecclesiastes, the teachings of Ífè, the Torah, the Tao, the Qu’ran, and there is precedent for the wailing and the keening, but also for the hope that this too shall pass. 

I keep this in mind as I make an emergency run to the pharmacy in the days after “Stay Home for Nevada.” Ahead in line is a man, white, possibly 50. We are safe in our quadrants, abiding by taped markings on the floor, when riffs of drugstore jazz give way to ’90s R&B. The Backstreet Boys are feverishly belting, “Ain’t nothing but a heartache/Ain’t nothing but a mistake/ I ne’vah wanna hear you saaayyy, IIIIII want it that way.” The man’s head is swaying; my body is moving. We are outpacing The Boys aloud and shamelessly. We are masked, but the bop is infectious. We’re apart, but the bop will not be contained.

There are moments like this that shimmer ’round the edges of unaccustomed days. On a morning at the market I ask a woman heading out if I might use her cart when she’s done. I keep the socially prescribed distance, trailing, so that she might unload at her car. Senior hour has ended, and the woman’s mother carefully dodders along. She is 82 and lovely, her accent silky and warm. She warns me there are no potatoes, no Clorox, no dried beans, no eggs. The daughter smiles, forbearing, at her mother’s need to chat. The skies are a B-movie above us, unseasonably overcast and dark. I am masked and I am gloved, but the woman and her mother are not. The lot is teeming, cars still inching in. “We got here early,” the older woman says. Her cheeks and brow are beautifully etched, her fingers lingering on the emptied cart are parchment. She blesses me, tells me there is kindness in my eyes, and I see the mirrored versions of ourselves standing closer, talking longer.

As of now there are 3,728 cases and 155 deaths in Nevada. Globally, playwrights and doctors, musicians and artists, delivery persons and pastors have tragically succumbed. A friend quarantined in Manhattan texts daily; his latest report cites the frightening number of NYPD testing positive, while down in Georgia, my cousin KeKe is thankfully off the ventilator and now recovering. I sleep with the light on, wake before dawn: sip tea laced with turmeric, write, love on my sons. I prep elaborate lentil soups, bake peach cobblers with my mom. I read, stretch, e-chat with my students, catch-up via webcam with other women in the arts. Come Saturday, or Sunday, or maybe a Monday — I saddle my dog to her harness for another restless walk.

With casinos decreed nonessential and their doors temporarily closed, my neighbor, a Strip entertainer, has rolled a magic cabinet to the edge of his lawn. He’s going to perform anyway. I make a point of crossing to the opposite side of the street, averting my gaze and cooing softly to my pug. I don’t want to break the spell my neighbor is crafting. I want my neighbor’s magic to hold. But I have already seen the partition lifted, have already heard a woman’s voice drift out from behind the false door. Clearly a contortionist to fit the way she does, she is suggesting some adjustments to accommodate her more. They are professionals together. But I know the panic in her tone. I seek comfort in believing they have worked this magic before.

 

#PandemicLife

Pandemic Life‘Our 4-year-old found a dead rat in the backyard. Time for Science Class.’

By Kim Foster

Right now, I’m not wearing pants.

I’ve completely given up and now just wear pajamas. My day jammies, however, should not be confused with my night jammies. They are two totally different pieces of apparel. You see, my night pajamas have a little tomato sauce stain from when my husband, David, and I were binge-watching Tiger King, and there’s that moment when Joe Exotic takes his third, hot, completely straight, hillbilly husband, and I go to dip my mozzarella stick into the tomato sauce, but I’m screaming at the TV, and I hit the sauce dish with my foot, and it splatters all over my leg.

I only wear those pajamas at night now. But that could change if I wash them and adopt semi-normal cleanliness standards. But let’s be real: Probably not gonna happen.

My day pajamas are not stained. I wear them, with a cleanish, oversized gray sweater when I Zoom with my colleagues. My colleagues are probably naked from the waist down, anyway. This is what it means to be in this together — pretending shit isn’t happening as a group.

If my coworkers could see my day pajamas, they’d see how dusty white they are. This is where I wipe my hands while baking sourdough. It is very trendy right now to bake the sourdough. All the cool kids in quarantine are doing it. My neighbor brought me a jar with some starter in it, and I have been feeding it like a newborn baby, making sure it is in a warm place, carefully opening the top to see if the little holes are forming, which tells me that Geraldo is happy. That’s right, I named a jar of fermenting bacteria Geraldo. He is my weird-smelling little friend.

Don’t judge. Geraldo is getting me through self-isolation.

There’s that term again: self-isolation. That’s confusing. See, David and I have four kids. We are never isolated. We have not really been alone since 2005. Isolation is more like a dream than a state-imposed condition. In fact, in the weeks we’ve been quarantined together, David and I have not said one complete sentence that hasn’t been viciously interrupted by a child demanding toast or quesadillas or explaining the intricacies of their poop.

“It looks like a giant brown worm but with pieces of corn in it!”

Obviously, we are homeschoolers now. Yesterday, I spent three hours creating an elaborate scavenger hunt, featuring Pinterest-inspired, hand-lettered cards and objects that I shaped out of clay, stashed through the neighborhood. I Instagrammed it. “You are the coolest mom!” someone wrote in the comments. It took the kids 10 minutes to find everything, and then they were bored again. I am thinking about burning Pinterest to the ground.

But things recently took a turn for the better. Our 4-year-old, Desi, found a dead rat in the backyard. Time for Science Class. She carried it around in a Ziploc all day. His name is also Geraldo. This experience allowed us to work on important pre-K vocabulary concepts like “rigor mortis” and “blood pooling.”

The unlikely hero of the quarantine is our 15-year-old daughter, Lucy. In the absence of her friends, she has taken to her room to watch a solid 15 seasons of Criminal Minds. We try to lure her out with vegan dinners and threats of dinner table conversation, but she is unfazed.

“Total. Isolation. That’s what the governor told us,” she says, her hair freshly washed every day and her nails manicured, as if she might get a date to the quarantine. “I’m saving the planet,” she scoffs without cracking a smile and then locks herself back in her room. I hear the Criminal Minds theme song again, and I know we’ve lost her.

Which brings me to our son, Raffi, who could basically ride out this thing in his socks and underwear, on the couch, eating giant Costco bags of cheese sticks and letting Fortnite be his mommy. He is in this for the long haul. To save water, he has given up bathing or brushing his teeth, and could weather any pandemic as long as he has his Nintendo Switch, an internet connection, and a supply of cheddar cheese cubes. I fear he might have coronavirus because he can no longer smell the stench of his own feet. We stay six feet from him at all times. He hasn’t noticed.

But I am mostly proud of David for how he’s used his time. He has stood over the coffee-maker, morning after morning, painstakingly making and remaking 13-year-old Edie’s coffee to her exacting specifications, since she can no longer go to Starbucks. Finally he nailed it — an Iced Grande Vanilla Latte with whole milk and exactly 18 grams of vanilla, which we think might be two pumps.

“Ummmm, yeah, it’s okay,” she says.

Next week, he’ll watch 100 YouTube videos and learn how to make the little heart swirl on top.

The days are looking pretty much the same around here. Is it 2 p.m. already? Wednesday? Where’s the relief of a Friday? No matter. It’s wine o’clock every damned day. And no need to wait until we all get home from work — it’s always cocktail hour in a crisis! Twenty years from now our kids will tell their therapists about how they were educated by day drinkers.

One big plus is that I no longer have to pack lunches for my kids. On the other hand, they want snacks and home-cooked meals pretty much all the time. And they get hungry at different times, so basically I’m running a short-order diner. For breakfast, the baby wants three sausage patties with a lot of ketchup. Raffi wants eggs, scrambled in butter. Edie, hater of all breakfast food, will eat ramen or quesadillas, and Lucy, who is vegan, wants avocado toast. David is scrambled eggs with a little labneh mixed in, some scallions, and a big ol’ dollop of Spicy Chili Crisp. This doesn’t include midmorning snacks, prelunch bites, postlunch bingeing, a proper British tea, sit-down dinner with all the fixin’s, or evening munchies. After social distancing is called off, I plan to work as a short-order cook in one of those busy diners, where the sassy waitress clacks her gum and hollers, “Gimme an Adam and Eve on a raft and wreck ’em, will ya?” 

Now that I have all this free time, I’m working on one of my great aspirations — becoming a viral Tik Tok mom. I’ve been practicing my moves in the mirror, picking out my favorite songs, working on my choreo. Of course, I couldn’t care less  about Tik Tok, but my teenagers will be mortified. I’m nearly giddy thinking about how much their friends will love it.

I know it’s hard to be in isolation, and we all share the anxiety about what will happen as we move forward. And, you know, our livelihoods are all going to hell, and we might die hooked up to ventilators, so there’s that — but I have developed some tips for getting through social-distancing at home. I call this list, “Things I Am Going to Be FINE With During the #Coronapocalypse”:

• It’s FINE to wake up feeling completely paralyzed, because the world actually is falling apart. Don’t look at Twitter until you’ve had a few belts of coffee and an SSRI. And maybe whiskey. Morning booze helps.

• Feel free to Instagram that you are about to do yoga, lift weights, finish writing your true-crime novel, and then make sushi. We know it’s a lie. It’s FINE. No one will know you took a preservation-nap on the couch instead. Addendum: It’s okay to watch a video of a chipper 22-year-old blonde Marie-Kondo-ing her bedroom closet, then silently wish her dead. You do not have to get shit done. Resist.

• Be mildly amused by videos of folks fighting over toilet paper, but maintain perspective. Connect to that part of you that would wrestle a lady to the ground for the last box of Playtex tampons. Accept that animal part of yourself. It will help you survive. The animal in you is FINE.

• Eat that pound of Whole Foods dark chocolate that you thought would last the whole quarantine. Forgive yourself. The #Corona15 is real, and it’s FINE.

• Let yourself become super-existential in the shower — if you do, in fact, decide to shower — and ask a lot of questions that can never be answered. Like, Why didn’t our government prepare for this? Can I make a face mask out of my underpants? Can it be the apocalypse without zombies? Why is my apocalypse wardrobe flannel pajamas? Acknowledge that you would be so much more bad-ass wielding a katana and wearing a leather bustier. But stick with the pajamas. This is FINE, too.

• If you are a parent, it’s FINE to turn on Pink Panther so you can have 20 minutes of uninterrupted sex on the bathroom floor. The sex will make a whole lot of everything better, so just do it. If the kids bust through the lock and walk in, pretend you both are searching for a lost contact, coincidentally while naked.

 

 In the end, we are all in this together. Let’s check on each other, barter for goods, be nice to cashiers, bank tellers, mail carriers, medical folks, and gas station attendants, and send little gifts of food and wine to brighten each other’s day. I appreciate every little gift and sweetness that has been given to us.

Still, if you happen by my house and you see my kids in the street, kindly don’t worry about making them come back inside. We are having a fire drill. A long one.

Because #PandemicLife is the new normal, at least for now, we just have to buck up and deal as best we can. Meanwhile, the Geraldos send their best.

 

Social Distance

Closed - Tumbleweeds

In shut-down Las Vegas, another kind of distance separates us: the wide chasm of inequality

By José Orduña

As I drive toward the Strip, I see remnants of the last catastrophe everywhere: bumper stickers on Kias and billboards on the side of the highway that read “#VegasStrong,” the tagline commemorating the massacre that occurred here on October 1, 2017. Along with the slogan, there was the void left by the shooter — a black rectangle surrounded by gold on the north wing of the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino where Stephen Paddock fired more than a thousand rounds into a mass of people. I peered into it for days, maybe weeks, every time I went to the university where I work, turning from Russell Road onto Maryland Parkway. It was discomforting, but also made the horror tangible. It reminded me of what had occurred, meaning the threat was over. On one of those occasions, staring at the broken-out window, I remember thinking that it felt particularly “American” that the deadliest mass shooting in this country’s history was carried out by an individual.

I head toward the Strip because, after two weeks in isolation with my wife and baby, I need to see some artefact of this catastrophe in person. We’ve been lucky in that, so far, the sickness hasn’t come into our home, except in the form of apocalyptic headlines, small photos of medical personnel on my laptop screen, and charts with curves that represent the hundreds of thousands of projected dead. But I know the hammer is coming down soon. My parents, both hourly employees and renters in Chicago, are in their late fifties. My mom’s hours have dried up, and my dad who works at a grocery store and has high blood pressure has the “choice” to either continue going to work risking his life for a subsistence wage and his employer-provided health insurance, or quit or get fired and be left with no health insurance and no unemployment benefits. Still, for those of us who haven’t yet become symptomatic, there’s an unsettling ambiguity that makes the virus somehow ubiquitous but also elusive; there’s an irreconcilable dissonance between staring out the window at a sunny day and the reality of field hospitals in Central Park, medical personnel working without protective equipment, and refrigerated trailers for the mass of accumulating bodies.

Parking lots that are usually teeming — Spearmint Rhino and Planet 13 — are dead. I pass Trump International Hotel and the trash-strewn lot next to it before turning south onto Las Vegas Boulevard. The lot was supposed to be a second high-rise that was aborted amid the financial crash of 2008. The golden tower abutted by fenced-in blight now looms over an almost completely abandoned Strip. The continuity of the ruin makes it feel as though these crises aren’t distinct, but are instead fissures in one long disintegration. The things I see on the Strip look like a second-rate disaster movie: a few mallards linger around the doors of a shuttered casino, loose clusters of pigeons idle in the middle of the boulevard, the fountains at the Bellagio are stagnant, the roller coaster that usually hurls screaming tourists behind the fake Statue of Liberty is silent and still. The colossal LED screen above the 24-hour CVS cycles from an advertisement for a themed saloon to an ominous CDC PSA imploring the public not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth. The only people I see are a handful of workers in neon yellow vests. One woman pushes a cleaning cart across an otherwise abandoned elevated walkway, two men ride a maintenance cart down the sidewalk, and most absurdly, a man carefully clips the hedges in front of the darkened Louis Vuitton store into perfect geometric shapes.

The familiarity of today’s movie images of desolate urban spaces that signal apocalypse reveal the specificities of this country’s death fantasy. Hours after returning home from my drive, I see social media images of traffic jams on the Strip that night. Everyone wants to see it. The buildings are all intact, and many of the lights are still blinking. What’s missing, and this absence usually signals the apocalypse, here and in the movies, is dynamism. The Strip is a space that completely relies on, and is therefore made and maintained by, a controlled frenzy: the buzzing-about of people, the perpetual flow of traffic, the continuous extraction of money. But now, in an ironic reversal, life requires that everything freeze. This may seem like a novel development — this catch-22 in which we’re left to choose between health or perhaps life itself, and money, but masses of workers have been stuck in this impossible situation long before this pandemic came into being. It’s not a choice that arises from the nature of this virus, but one that has been constructed by the imperatives of our economic and political systems. Now it’s become clearer to many, because it’s become generalized, that this system requires us to feed it our people.

Just before the Strip suddenly disappears on its south end, a giant Sphinx sits before a black pyramid. An image like this corroborates the idea of Las Vegas as pure spectacle, or the ultimate postmodern city, as some very smart people have declared it. But the imperatives that animate this valley in the desert feel very old to me: the giving oneself to an image one knows is false, the monetizing of the id, and a surplus of good old American exploitation. As much as this is a place of spectacle, it’s also a place of service doors and loading bays, undocumented immigrants and low-income veterans, schoolchildren on WIC benefits and single mothers working multiple jobs. The same boulevard that contains a replica pyramid, Eiffel Tower, and Statue of Liberty very quickly turns into strip malls and dingy cheap motels. I see a few people ambling around, some sitting on concrete parking lot barriers, others lingering around shuttered convenience stores. I assume they’ve got nowhere to go, no home to shelter-in-place within, and now no flow of pedestrians from whom to squeeze a few bucks.

In early March, I stood in front of a classroom full of university students less than two miles from here. We discussed a literary passage where two people suffered from asthma; one was a traveling medical student from an affluent family, and the other was a poor old woman living in a one-room shack. My students, many of whom are Latino and working-class, some of whom work on the Strip, drove straight to the heart of the matter. One of them brought up the notion that although both people would undoubtedly suffer, one of them had access to resources that might alleviate their suffering, while the other didn’t. Another brought up the idea that there are a whole host of diseases for which science has cures, but that nevertheless continue to kill innumerable people across the globe. To that point, another student added, “Well, if that’s true, can we really say it’s the disease that’s doing the killing?”

I canceled the following in-person class, then it was spring break, and then everything shut down. Less than two weeks after our discussion, my students and I were immersed in an object lesson that’s still ongoing. As New York City became the epicenter, the rich fled the density of the metropolis for their bucolic summer homes. Those of us who still have jobs are divided into people who can work from home, and those who now risk contracting the virus for their hourly wage and employer-provided health insurance, if they’re lucky enough to have that benefit. Since having our nine-month-old, my wife and I have been relying heavily on ordering everything online, including groceries. When we place an order now, we also displace the risk we would incur by going into a supermarket onto a gig worker.

Early on, politicians and media figures offered the public their version of reassurances. They’d said mostly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions would die, and we’re now starting to see some of what that actually means. In addition to the elderly, initial reports out of Chicago and Louisiana indicate that black Americans are dying at an alarmingly high proportion. Chicago’s black community makes up 30 percent of the overall population, but 72 percent of those killed by COVID-19. In Louisiana the numbers are even worse. It’s by now common knowledge among doctors and researchers that the poor and racial and ethnic minorities suffer from catastrophically high incidences of underlying conditions, like hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, in other words preventable but nevertheless prevalent chronic diseases. Here in Las Vegas, we’re the U.S. city with the highest share of undocumented immigrants, and we’re among the top ten cities with the highest homeless population — both communities already at incredibly high risk, and both expressly or de facto excluded from stimulus relief.

During our discussion, I’d asked my students to imagine how forces of nature move through social structures and institutions before becoming effects in peoples’ lives. I asked them to imagine a wave washing onto the beach, how it comes in and washes over the sand evenly, and then recedes. Then I asked them to imagine that a few kids playing on the beach dug a trench and a large hole. The wave comes in, and instead of washing evenly over the sand, it’s channeled into the hole. When the water recedes, the hole remains filled. Researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health say that “approximately 245,000 deaths in the United States in the year 2000 were attributable to low levels of education, 176,000 to racial segregation, 162,000 to low social support, 133,000 to individual-level poverty, 119,000 to income inequality, and 39,000 to area-level poverty.” The researchers concluded that, “Overall, 4.5% of U.S. deaths were found to be attributable to poverty.”

On Saturday April 4, Donald Trump appears on the television and tells the American people that “There will be a lot of death, unfortunately.” What he means, more specifically, is that there will likely be a level and distribution of death that we’re not well-adjusted to. Society functions without a hitch when premature death and suffering is concentrated in poor, working-class, and racialized populations — those for whom we expect life to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And although this virus will surely affect those marginalized by our systems with particular brutality, its high transmissibility is also overwhelming that order. At the time I’m writing this, Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, is in an intensive care unit receiving oxygen. Paradoxically, at a time when the prescribed intervention is social distance, when we’re shuttered away in isolation and asked to only interact with those in our household, it’s become impossible to ignore our social reality; the fact that life doesn’t allow us to live as granular individuals, that our survival is bound to the survival of others.

On the morning of Tuesday, April 7, my wife and I read that the previous day, the cumulative U.S. death toll exceeded 10,000. We decide to not read any news for the rest of the day, and go for a walk in the park with our nine-month-old son. During this outbreak, he’s made us feel both painfully vulnerable but also lost to the world in his games and laughter. There are a few other parents out with their children, everyone avoiding each other in clusters. We see a woman with two young kids on a blanket in the grass. The woman sits, while the kids dance around her singing “Ring Around the Rosie.” Despite historians casting doubt on the nursery rhyme’s infamous connection to the plague, children do make games out of the stuff of life, including tragedies like disease and mass death. During the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003, children played SARS tag, running around pretending to infect one another with the virus that was killing people in their city.

Our boy is too young to know what’s happening, but his mother and I fear what kinds of games he’ll have to play when he’s older. The kids in our park seem too young to have gallows humor, but their words end our walk nevertheless: “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

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