Normal Service Will Be Resumed

I was talking to my therapist about everything, because that’s what you talk to your therapist about; specifically, I was talking to her about the protests and the police brutality, about the riots and the curfews and the sense that things were, honestly, slipping further and further towards a dystopia that still feels almost fictional if you think about it too much — there’s still a pandemic out there as everything is happening, and I really can’t shake the question, what happens to the infection rate now that we’ve all started gathering in large numbers again? because that’s how my brain works — and I said, essentially, how are we supposed to not feel utterly overwhelmed by all of this?

The things is, as overwhelming as it feels, as debilitating as the totalitarian forces stepping on us slowly, the sight of the President pushing the country closer and closer to martial law because he’s a scared old racist who can’t even manage to hide how small he really is being both laughable and horrifying, as bad as this all feels right now, I don’t want it to stop feeling this hard. Yes, it’s a struggle to work right now, yes, my brain refuses to engage properly on normal tasks because I’m all too aware of everything else that’s happening, but… that’s got to be a good thing, right?

When the coronavirus started closing everything down, ending the world as we knew it, I remember thinking to myself that I didn’t want quarantine to become normalized in my head, for the simple fact that it’s not normal. Months later, that’s harder to comprehend fully because… well, it’s been months; memory fades, and while I can objectively look at the Way Things Were, or think about the millions out of work as a result of all of this, the emotional costs for everyone unable to see loved ones, the hundreds of thousands dead, it somehow did become easier to accept everything. It became the new normal.

What’s happening now can’t go the same way. We can’t accept that nightly protests, the police and the National Guard (in DC, the military, too) at war with the citizens they’re supposed to be protecting, is just the way things are now. It’s too important to surrender and accept that as a new new normal. So, overwhelmed it is.

Hold You Up To The Flames

The world is on fire.

That is, at once, a metaphor and a reasonable, realistic description of the country I live in, as I write this (the Sunday morning before this publishes, for a change; no working three weeks in advance this time). Across the country, protests against police brutality are being met with further police brutality — does it still count as irony if you’re heartbroken? — and cities are literally aflame at night as a result. The world, at least my part of it, is on fire.

I’m finding it hard to think of anything else. Perhaps I should be grateful; it’s a new obsession, something to finally push the coronavirus out of pole position. Now I have a new tragedy to be unable to stop thinking about! But even that grim humor holds no truth — the new normal had set in to the point where I’d search the news each morning and allow myself to read stories on different topics again, the COVID of it all settling into everyday background radiation. What’s happening now is an additive, not a replacement.

In a way, that makes it… maybe not worse, but certainly more layered. I support the protests, but worry that everyone there is going to get sick, that each protest is the ideologically acceptable, morally right equivalent to the spring break party petri dishes I disdained last month.

I feel tired, I feel sad, I feel overwhelmed. How could anyone not? What’s happening feels so big that it pushes out the smaller stuff, even when it’s not really small. There’s a sense of, how dare I feel sad about the dogs going back to my ex-wife who still doesn’t wear a face mask when out in public, but why should I be surprised, she also drives between states needlessly despite quarantine, but surely none of that is too small to feel, even now…?

Or perhaps it is. It’s not clear in my head right now. There’s a world burning all around me, after all.

Oh, Sit Down

As if things weren’t strange enough these days, there’s a new rhythm to my week that I’m still struggling to get used to, on a number of levels. Thanks to the economic calamity caused by COVID, THR has cut my rate by 20%, which had the effect of essentially furloughing me one day every week, to the distress of everyone involved. (Me especially, as you might imagine.) The upshot of it all is, every Wednesday, I sit down from THR. It’s been harder than I’d expected, and I’m not entirely sure why.

I mean, there are the obvious reasons: I’m working less, and earning less money as a result — although, in this case, it’s actually the reverse: I was told I’d be earning less money, so the conversation pivoted to, “Well, clearly I have to work less,” a deduction thankfully shared by my wonderful editor Aaron — which is going to be a stressful situation at the best of times. It’s one not helped by the fact that, earlier in the month, Wired laid me off entirely, again because of COVID-related cutbacks; through no fault of my own, I’ve ended up with roughly 60% less income on a monthly basis, which has been an entirely unwelcome cause of extra stress and worry.

But the Wednesday thing is somehow odd beyond that. I find it curiously difficult to not work, if that makes sense. The rhythm of my weekdays is thrown off — I don’t have breakfast with everyone then head upstairs at 9am to get started, because there’s nothing to start; the muscle memory kicks in and I have to consciously go, not today, body, internally. I’m also oddly, distractingly aware of the fact that, if news breaks on a Wednesday, I’ll miss it, and that’s proven to be hard to come to terms with, mentally… as has the fact that, by Thursday, my inbox is a mountain of unread messages to catch up on.

Despite all this, I know that this isn’t a bad thing — well, aside from the financial aspect, of course. The break means I feel more energized on Thursday and Friday, and it lets off stress steam that would otherwise smother me. I get to spend more time with Chloe, which feels like a sneaky gift in the middle of everything else.

I’m trying to look at this as a potential benefit in disguise, a blessing in the form of a shit sandwich. Maybe it is! But it’d be easier if I wasn’t worrying about money, my email, or the possibility that the biggest story in the world will break in the middle of the week for unknown reasons. I’ll get there eventually — just in time for THR to restore my salary and everything to return to normal, most likely.

You Must Remember This

I have a terrible memory at times.

That’s clearly not always true; there are people, places, events that I’ve lived through that live on inside my head in, at times, shocking fidelity despite happening decades earlier, things that I can see with such clarity right now even though it’s been years since I last thought of them. On some things, my memory is amazing. On others, though…?

I don’t mean this in the sense of not remembering people’s names when they’re introduced —although, yes, that, too — or misremembering the details of a story when retelling it. That’s just an everyday, shared experience, I think, the mistakes all of us make because our brains work the way they work. Yes, that’s a memory thing, but everyone has this version of memory, surely…? This isn’t the failure of my memory I’m talking about.

No, I’m talking about my constant surprise at things that not only happen on a recurring basis, but which I know enough to be able to predict. I’m talking about forgetting about the weather.

We had the first full flush of heat this year, recently. It had been teased for weeks, it felt like; the sun vanquishing the clouds in the sky, the temperature going to a level I’ll call “nice enough to ditch the sweater” but no further. It was clear that it was only a matter of time before things actually got hot. The weather forecast was checked over and over, and eventually the big day arrived… and I was surprised.

I wasn’t surprised by the heat per se; I was surprised by how it felt. Despite the fact that every single year this happens, I was surprised by how tired I feel when it’s hot, how the very air feels just that little bit thicker and more difficult to exist it, that little bit more draining. (This sounds particularly dramatic, I know; I’m overstating it to a degree, but I do wilt in warm weather for some reason. I blame my Scottish DNA.)

Like I said, this happens every year, and I know this. Every single year, summer is going to arrive and in a manner more literal than the Rock catchphrase that it sounds like, it’s going to bring the heat. Yet, each year when it does happen, it’s a surprise, somehow. I’m unprepared, and ultimately, unhappy for the crossover.

As I seem to remember saying, I really do have a terrible memory at times.

During Wartime

When all of this started, I remember clearly thinking to myself that I didn’t want to normalize the lockdown, the quarantine, sheltering in place, any of it. It felt strange for everything to be closed, for the outside world to be so still while the inside one was so chaotic — more people here now, all the time, and one of them is seven years old and loud — and I promised myself that I would try my best to remember that this was an aberration, a break from the norm, instead of the “new normal,” whatever that may mean.

By now, I’m having trouble remembering what life was like before plaguetimes hit.

In my defense, it’s been two months now, a figure that seems difficult to fully comprehend because, as many have pointed out, time feels elastic and meaningless in a number of ways. At some point a couple of weeks ago, I realized that I’d genuinely forgotten how long we’d been in lockdown — I was trying to count the weeks and failing, eventually coming up with a figure of “eight, maybe nine weeks, perhaps it’s seven.” The confusion felt correct in some inexplicable manner. (It was the eighth week, for those wondering.)

I can remember everything from before the shutdown in an abstract way, of course, as a series of “we used to…”s — we used to go out to dinner, we used to go to the movies, we used to go to the grocery store and it was fun and not an existential terror ride where you don’t even want to squeeze past the person blocking the aisle because they can’t decide what kind of pasta they want and why aren’t they even wearing a mask, what the hell is this…?!? That kind of thing. I can remember the shape, but not the color, the way it actually felt. That feels important, to have lost that memory.

And, again, it’s been two months. An indistinct number of weeks. Of course things are going from memory like that. This is the new normal now, just as whatever comes next, whatever unusual world will come post-lockdown, will be a new new normal; you can’t fight it, not really. But there’s something sad to me about what I’ve lost along the way, and will likely never get back.

Keeps On Slipping Slipping Slipping

Perhaps it’s because March felt like the month that would never end, but I’ve been surprised how quickly April has gone; there was a point in the middle of the month where I had to look up the date and felt genuinely surprised by how quickly we’d reached the teens, as if they’d crept up behind me and jumped out in surprise: Hello, it’s April 17th already aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! 

What had actually happened, I suspect, is that the strange, disturbing sensation of days beginning to blur together and seem meaningless in this era of self-quarantine was starting to take hold of me, as well. When time itself seems to be an arbitrary concept — is it Thursday or Friday? Oh, it’s actually Wednesday? Really? — then it’s not the biggest surprise that any sense of time passing in a larger sense starts to fray around the edges, as well.

It was, again, mid-month that I realized that I’d lost track of how long we’d been in quarantine; I’d been telling myself it had just been four weeks, but I’d lost one and we’d been internally quarantined for five already at that point. It was a realization that was part oh, I’m so forgetful, silly me and part wait, am I losing it? all at the same time. Which feels entirely appropriate and authentic to the world as-is, to be blunt.

I don’t subscribe entirely to the view that every day is the same now — I’ve always worked from home, so there’s definitely a sense that my day-to-day isn’t significantly different from what it was, just busier and more compact — but I can’t deny that time certainly feels different right now, in ways I can’t fully wrap my head around… More elastic in some ways, more malleable, without the edges and the shape that used to make everything recognizable.

There’s no punchline here, nor a smart realization or wrap up that puts everything in perspective; I’m just living in the moment same as everyone else, trying to make it through. But, as counter-intuitive as it may be, I’m excited that April passed so seemingly quickly; all things considered, I’d rather time flies than crawls as we collectively hope that things can change and we get to open our doors and see people again.

Singing Cathy’s Clown

And then, there was the time where I did four podcasts in a five day period, which was both eye-opening, and somewhat exhausting. All four were comics-based, and all four required re-reading a bunch of material — two of them needed hundreds of pages each — and drawing some kind of critical analysis. Suffice to say, it was a pretty full five days.

The scheduling was actually entirely accidental; three of them were long-standing commitments, and only one had been scheduled significantly in advance — that one was an episode of Drokk!, the monthly series re-reading Judge Dredd with the far-smarter-than-me Jeff Lester; I’d say that was also the least stressful of the four, if it wasn’t for the fact that I had to edit it the next day, too. Each of the others, though, kind of just coincidentally happened at the same time.

(They actually all started to be scheduled on the same day earlier that week, all via Twitter DM. It’s actually kind of amazing how much of my work and/or work-related conversations happen via Twitter DM these days; they’ve started to take the place of texts, which took the place of emails some time back. There’s an evolution of shorthand, but important, ways people get in touch with me for work that’s kind of fascinating. But I digress.)

So, I scheduled the podcasts and staggered them out: one on Thursday, one on Saturday, two back-to-back on Monday. (They were two episodes of the same show, so it made sense.) This way, I told myself, I’d have a breather and time for my brain to readjust and prepare for the next one without it being too much.

Reader, I was wrong.

I was wrong for the simplest reason, which is just that… life happens. There’s relationships and work and, shockingly, a need to actually switch off at some point or else you’ll go mad, and all of that makes fitting in hour long recording sessions, and finding the many hours required to do the homework ahead of time, trickier than I’d initially given any thought to. In theory, I knew this already — I do it monthly for Drokk!, after all — but what I can handle for one event per month is, it turns out, somewhat different than four in less than a week.

Each of the podcasts, I enjoyed doing a lot. I certainly don’t regret doing any of them, and I think I did a pretty good job on each, even if I’ll never listen to any all the way through again. But, in future, if this ever comes up again, I’m going to be kinder to myself and ask for a schedule that lets me breathe and think about something other than comics for awhile.

Oh, It’s Bigger Than The Universe

I think I mentioned a couple of time that I burned out in February and March — I got exhausted and sick and, around the time of Super Tuesday and the coronavirus really making itself felt, I reached a peak of frustration with… well, the internet in general. By which I mean, really, social media and news reporting, which are my two primary uses for the internet beyond “having a job.” (That both are heavily related to my job is neither here nor there, except that it is, of course.)

I was, at that time, just done with seeing the same self-righteous and utterly inane arguments day after day after day, each one completely convinced of its own ideological purity and unwilling to imagine compromise as anything other than betrayal. There was a level of confidence that dipped into arrogance in, it felt like, every single statement everyone made, and I couldn’t take it. I wanted to walk away from the whole thing. The internet? I wanted to melodramatically declare, It’s not for me.

Cut to now, when the internet has become everyone’s lifeline in these surreal times.

I’m far from the first person to ask you to imagine the coronavirus if the internet didn’t exist; by the time you’re reading this, I don’t doubt that I’m far from the fiftieth.  But this entire experience, with everyone closed in and reaching out virtually to interact with the world around them — be it through social media, using Google Earth to visit places in the world that aren’t their homes, or Netflix and Hulu or whatever for just the barest glimpse of human contact and the sound of other people’s voices — feels as if it it’s redefined the purpose of the internet once again, underscored it’s importance in so many lives.

I know that I’m one of those people. Not only has my need for up-to-the-minute news grown with everything that’s happened, but so has my need to hear other voices during everything. See others getting through this, or struggle with the things I am, or find humor where I can’t. The whole thing.

It’s an unexpected, selfish silver lining of everything, that my faith in the internet has been restored by watching it be the lifeline I always secretly believed it was. At this time, I’m taking every silver lining I can find.

Ugly Apparition

There’s no such thing as a cursed email, I know this on a rational level. But sometimes, our brains aren’t rational, especially these days, with everything that’s going on.

I’ve come to fear communicating with my ex-wife. “Fear” isn’t the right word, not exactly — dread, maybe — but it’s something I hate doing, something that leaves me feeling nervous and sick ahead of time, and anxious and upset afterwards. I’m not entirely sure why, beyond the feeling of disdain present in every interaction — the continued feeling that she will instantly dismiss or disagree with anything I have to say, purely on the basis that I said it, through an increasingly brittle face of faux politeness. After every time we communicate, I feel like shit. The accumulation of almost two decades of emotional abuse still working its way through my system, I guess.

It’s become clear to me that she’ll choose the path of spitefulness wherever possible in the past few months; I took the dogs at the end of last year after she told me her dad was sick and she was going to visit him, only to discover her posting on social media about scuba diving in another state entirely with her fiancée; she then moved to California with the dogs weeks early without telling me, only informing me via email after the fact that she was starting her new life and they were there with her.

Legally, we share custody of the pups “by mutual consent.” When she told me, months earlier, that she was engaged and would be moving with the dogs, I pointed out that we had to discuss some kind of arrangement where we both agreed on how often we’d both see them; that’s what mutual consent is. “I don’t consent to anything that isn’t what I want,” she replied.

(I got the dogs for a few weeks in March. When it came towards the end of the agreed upon period, I wrote to her to say, “I should keep them for longer, there’s a pandemic and both our states are in lockdown, traveling would be dangerous and stressful, and they’re happy, healthy and thriving here.” She drove from California to Oregon to collect them anyway. So it goes.)

I realized that, because she and I filed joint taxes for the final time last year with what had been our shared house as the address — we’d agreed upon this because we’d started the year making advance payments jointly — this year’s weird, uncomfortable but also increasingly financially necessary stimulus check was likely to be addressed to both of us, and sent there. So, as much as I didn’t want to, I wrote an email saying, basically, when that check comes in, can you let me know and we’ll work out how to handle it. Her response was to tell me that she filed independently for 2019, so there would be no joint check.

I know, I said, my anxiety spiking, but they calculated everything based on 2018 taxes, so please, if and when the check appears, can you let me know. She repeated that she filed independently for 2019, and that I was wrong. That second email sat at the top of my inbox for a day, every other incoming email either junk or deleted, and every time I saw it, my stomach sank. There was something about it that felt ugly and cruel, somehow. Dismissive, disdainful.

I didn’t feel as if I could delete it or move it to a folder, as if it held some weird power that would hurt me if I tried; instead, I just hoped for new emails to come in and hide it. Like I said, there’s no such thing as a cursed email, I know this — but I’ve rarely felt happier to receive a battalion of work-related emails on Monday morning.

I’ve Sellotaped My Brain To The Pillow Once Again

I read, somewhere, that people worldwide were having trouble sleeping during the self-quarantine era in which we’re currently living. I also read, somewhere, that people worldwide were having particularly vivid, almost lucid, dreams during the self-quarantine era in which we’re currently living. I’m not entirely sure that these things aren’t somewhat contradictory.

Neither one is necessarily true for me, right now, anyway. After a few weeks where I was sleeping poorly — for reasons that had far more to do with restless dogs deciding that they needed to go outside at 1am than anything to do with the virus — I seem to have rediscovered my ability to sleep incredibly well. In fact, not only am I sleeping more deeply than usual right now, I’m sleeping longer, as well; I’m waking up anywhere between 30 and 90 minutes later than where/when I’ve woken up since the Brazil trip, and I’m feeling more refreshed and relaxed, as well. Global pandemics are, it appears, good for my sleep cycle.

With the sleeping in comes something else new; I’m remembering my dreams (slightly) more.

I think it’s happening because, more often than not, I’m actually getting woken up by something external — the dogs, most mornings — and, therefore, getting woken up mid-dream, so they’re fresher in my head. This probably doesn’t stand up to scientific thinking, I’m sure, but it’s what I’ve got, and I’m sticking with it.

It’s particularly unexpected because… well, I feel like I haven’t really been remembering a lot of dreams in general for awhile. I’ve been told that this, the not remembering, is a sign of being in a good, relaxed headspace and getting comfortable sleep, and that might be true, but it’s particularly dull at the same time. Doesn’t everyone want to have a little insight into what their brain is thinking when they’re not using it…? Isn’t that something other people are curious about…?

What I’m remembering aren’t full stories, or even complete scenes. Instead, they’re feelings, glimpses of other things that honestly make a lot of sense right now: there’s a lot of traveling, being in different countries and just being outside, being amongst other people. The things that are impossible now, and which may in different circumstances feel exhausting or oppressive, but right now feel exciting and exotic. I dream of things that don’t exist anymore. This feels right, somehow.