Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
March 29: On Twitter overnight people were sharing the cover of Playboy from their birth month. Mine — July 1973 — featured nipples on it so I decided not to post it since it might’ve gotten flagged, but it was worth looking up all the same as it had an in-depth interview with Kurt Vonnegut.
For it being nearly half a century old it was striking how of-the-moment the interview was in places. There was a lot of talk about how trust in government has eroded. About how people were searching for community but couldn’t find any. About how people either make nothing or make way too much money and there seems to be nowhere in between and how all of that is decided by corporations determining how much money they can make off of your work. Having read all of that, I can’t decide if it’s comforting that our problems aren’t necessarily new or if it’s awful that we can’t seem to solve anything, basically ever.
Vonnegut was struggling personally at the time — he was promoting “Breakfast of Champions” and that novel had a long and difficult birth — so there was even more pessimism in his answers than usual. At one point he talks about how people who lived through the Great Depression didn’t learn to love life very much. His mother committed suicide. A decade after this interview he would attempt suicide himself. He knew of what he spoke.
That led to the interviewer asking him about how he deals with the unhappiness. Vonnegut said his books had been written in an effort to like life better than he did:
Playboy: So your books have been therapy for yourself.
Vonnegut: Sure. That’s well known. Writers get a nice break in one way, at least: They can treat their mental illnesses every day.
Truth bombs, as always, from Kurt Vonnegut.
I’ve talked about my walks and trips to the grocery store a lot, but let’s be real: most of us have been living pretty constantly online since this all began.
Allison spent several minutes today watching an Instagram stream in which John Legend and Chrissy Teigen performed a wedding ceremony for two of their daughter’s stuffed animals on their pool deck. A couple of weeks ago I would’ve had a lot of thoughts and feelings about that but today I simply nodded and said “OK.” That’s just a thing that happens now. I don’t suppose it’s all that crazier than anything else going on at the moment.
This evening we did FaceTime cocktails with a couple we met on our cruise two months ago who just so happen to live in Columbus. We hung out with them once here in town just before the social distancing began and I suppose with all that has gone on it’d be easy to simply lose touch, but Allison is pretty good at reaching out to people and maintaining contact in ways that I’m simply not, even during a pandemic.
I was worried online drinks and chat would be awkward but it was actually pretty fun. I have issues with larger groups sometimes. My hearing is not always good, so I also tend to have trouble tracking conversations and distinguishing people’s voices in loud or crowded settings. Lively bars and restaurants often make me key on one person or tune out entirely. A video conference’s built-in limitations seem to work pretty well for me. Four people is about as good as you can do and still have natural conversational flow, and living rooms are quiet and calm. I wouldn’t object to a lot more of that kind of thing even when this is all over.
Another thing I did today: I cut my own hair. Which, given that I’m bald is not exactly a big job, but the sides that grow get shaggy and I usually go get a cleanup every 2-3 weeks. Today I took some clippers I have and did a close shave-over. It’s shorter than I usually do, but it’s not like it matters much:
I’m not the first one to do this in the family, as Anna cut her own bangs the other day with a pair of scissors. I wouldn’t have noticed if her brother hadn’t said something about it. They look fine. We seem to be handling the ban on going to the stylist pretty well. We’ll probably draw the line at doing our own dental work.
Today Trump attempted to shout down a black reporter, Yamiche Alcindor of PBS, referring to her as “you people” and accusing her of being threatening because she had the audacity to question him about actual words he has spoken in the past week. Then the White House staff cut her microphone. That barely-veiled bit of racism, disrespect, and aggression would normally disgrace any public figure but there have been hundreds of such incidents in the past four years. The rules simply don’t apply to Trump.
Nor do the normal rules of presidential accountability. A damning report came out yesterday chronicling the failures of Trump and his administration to take effective action in response to the coming pandemic when it would’ve made a difference. They would, again, in any sane era, cause a president to resign in disgrace, face removal from office via impeachment and, quite possibly, would subject him to a criminal investigation. Not Trump, though. He proudly disclaims all responsibility for his gross incompetence — an incompetence that will, ultimately, lead to the needless death of thousands — and he will, in fact, face no consequences for it at all. All we can seem to do is make dark jokes about it because there is no other recourse.
A similarly damning report came out yesterday setting forth how our for-profit medical system — specifically, the outsourcing of ventilator production, which public health officials had identified as a crucial public need — led to zero ventilators being produced over thirteen years due to the lack of profitability of the endeavor. Again, that which was responsible for this calamity — medical need taking a backseat to private business making money — will not be held responsible. It will likely not even be seriously scrutinized.
For most of the past three years and change I’ve been taking all of this in and thinking that we’re at an unprecedented point of crisis as a nation. But after reading that 1973 Vonnnegut interview this morning, maybe I’m just seeing something that has long been the case and I’m simply confusing it with something new.
The dark jokes about our lack of recourse in the face of Trump’s malevolence and fecklessness?
Playboy: Is that what’s called black humor? Or is all humor black?
Vonnegut: . . . Freud had already written about gallows humor, which is middle-European humor. It’s people laughing in the middle of political helplessness. Gallows humor had to do with people in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were Jews, Serbs, Croats—all these small groups jammed together into a very unlikely sort of empire. And dreadful things happened to them. They were powerless, helpless people, and so they made jokes. It was all they could do in the face of frustration . . . it’s humor about weak, intelligent people in hopeless situations. And I have customarily written about powerless people who felt there wasn’t much they could do about their situations . . . There is that implication that if you just have a little more energy, a little more fight, the problem can always be solved. This is so untrue that it makes me want to cry—or laugh.
The stuff about the lack of accountability of the people?
Playboy: The Vietnam war has cost us even more than the space program. What do you think it’s done to us?
Vonnegut: It’s broken our hearts. It prolonged something we started to do to ourselves at Hiroshima; it’s simply a continuation of that: an awareness of how ruthless we are. And it’s taken away the illusion that we have some control over our Government. I think we have lost control of our Government. Vietnam made it clear that the ordinary citizen had no way to approach his Government, not even by civil disobedience or by mass demonstration. The Government wasn’t going to respond, no matter what the citizen did. That was a withering lesson . . . we’ve learned over the past eight years that the Government will not respond to what we think and what we say. It simply is not interested. Quite possibly, the Government has never been interested, but it has never made it so clear before that our opinions don’t matter.
While we’re on the subject, Trump said something else petty and fairly appalling today when he touted the ratings his TV appearances have received in the midst of all of this death and disease and horror:
Again, Vonnegut in 1973:
Playboy: Humanity and optimism was the message that George McGovern was trying to get across. How do you account for his spectacular failure?
Vonnegut: He failed as an actor. He couldn’t create on camera a character we could love or hate. So America voted to have his show taken off the air. The American audience doesn’t care about an actor’s private life, doesn’t want his show continued simply because he’s honorable and truthful and has the best interests of the nation at heart in private life. Only one thing matters: Can he jazz us up on camera? This is a national tragedy, of course—that we’ve changed from a society to an audience.
I’ve decided to change my answer from above: It’s not comforting that our problems aren’t new. It’s a goddamn tragedy.