Journal of the Plague Year 2020: Time for a Ballad

I don’t have a large mixing bowl or cookie sheets. This seems intolerable to me, because I feel I must bake granola.

Yesterday I left home to make a quick trip to my parents’ house to pick up a mask my mom made on her sewing machine. Much of the way there and back, I kept thinking, I need a mixing bowl and cookie sheets. Should I stop by Target? Should I order them on Amazon? Should I ask to borrow them from my mom? Each of these solutions seemed fraught with logistical and ethical problems, so I errored out and did nothing. Now I have fried rice, but no granola, and no prospect of granola.

This morning The New York Times had the usual article about the economy, filled with speculation about when we’ll be able to get back to normal. In America, one sign of middle-class normal is having whatever food you want, when you want it. For some people that means crafting a specialized, highly restrictive diet in the name of health; for others, it’s a Cinnabon every time you get off a plane at LAX, or produce grown locally by a farmer you know.

When I was a kid, most produce was still only available seasonally. Now most fruits and vegetables appear on the shelves year-round, due to some combination of a global supply chain, genetic selection for storage and transport, and hydroponic or greenhouse farming.

I remember my first taste of yogurt — at the time, an exotic treat vaguely associated with Eastern Europe, and villages where people routinely lived into their 90s and 100s.

The story of food in late capitalism is too rich and variegated and strange to capture here. Suffice to say, as with most things, since I have money, I buy what I crave. My main regret is not having enough time to cook.

There is a point here, I promise. As I read about how to get businesses back up and running, it seemed to me that economists are preoccupied with getting back to what they think is normal: Global trade, high specialization, quick delivery of specialized goods from the four corners of the globe.

In “The Communist Manifesto,” Marx and Engels write:

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country…. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climates.

Marx points out at various times that there are distinct advantages to this model — among other things, urbanization rescues people from “rural idiocy.” The overthrow of the local, feudal model comes at a crushing cost, however. The price extracted from workers is visible all around us, as poorly paid delivery workers venture out without proper protective gear. As Marx predicted, left unchecked it has “concentrated property in a very few hands.” It leaves us vulnerable to supply chain disruptions, and ravages the environment. It’s not sustainable.

Policy discussions have centered on getting back to a very specific “normal.” The New York Times has published supercilious stories about middle-class, urban people with time on their hands desperately buying up chicks and seeds.

I think about growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, with a mother who grew up on a farm in rural Minnesota in the 1940s. She knew how to make Play-Doh from scratch. She learned how to sew and cook and can and bake. She’s vocal about the hardship and deprivation of that existence — I think she would agree with Marx that urban life offers relief from very real isolation and deprivation, from “rural idiocy.”

Even so, I find myself wondering if there isn’t an alternate model: One of making do, staying local, increasing barter and accepting delay.

I admit that this is nostalgia, similar to Tereus’s ideal of establishing a self-sufficient farm outside the city gates. But during this pause, we have a chance to use time instead of money, and to make do instead of ordering online. We’re amusing ourselves instead of watching sports, and learning to stock up and cook in bulk.

Maybe we don’t have to go back to “normal.” Maybe there’s something better out there.

***

A friend of mine who’s a nurse practitioner sent me a video called the Covid Manifesto. It’s a doctor’s call to change the health care system radically once the crisis is over. This is what I mean when I say the pandemic is an opportunity. When inequity is exposed and people suffer, we have a chance to do better.

***

I felt grieved as I drove to work. The death toll in New York is staggering, far outstripping 9/11. And so I played an Adam Ant album full of old punk songs, B-Side Babies, and I forced myself to sing along.

I was sitting at a stoplight downtown when “Beat My Guest” came on, with its piercing guitar line, followed by heavy bass and drums. The sound triggered a carnal recollection of seeing Adam Ant live last December in London. I was so close to the stage that when the guitarist dropped a pick, it fell at my feet.

The audience was packed in tight. A couple of roadies passed out plastic cups of water to all of us who were shirtless and sweat-drenched and crammed up against the barricades. It was that point in a gig where you’re tired and shaky and dry-mouthed and sore, but every time a new song starts up, you start to dance again.

Adam looked down at us and said slyly, “It’s getting bit hot in here. I’ll have to slow it down. Play a ballad.” Then he laughed and kicked off “Beat My Guest.” We all started head-banging and howling again.

I traveled across the Atlantic for a rock concert because presence matters. Even the fondest and most visceral memories can’t hold the experience of being crammed in with a bunch of rabid fans, all moving to that Burundi beat: Two drum sets, bass, rhythm and lead guitar, and a few thousand people shouting as one.

The stoplight turned green, and I pulled forward. I thought, someday I will go back to London again. I will see Adam Ant play, or Frank Turner, or some other British punk. I’ll be packed in with thousands of people who are not strangers — middle-aged Brits who have gone crazy for the night and recalled that they’re a new royal family, a wild nobility.

Covid-19 Cases in Arizona: 2,726

Hospitalizations: Not Reported

Deaths: 80

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