not a fairytale of productivity

This week Jamelle Bouie started his newsletter, which he writes every week for the New York Times, with admission:

Longtime subscribers know that I try to begin each newsletter with an extended thought or take or observation. Unfortunately I don’t have one for you this week. My personal bandwidth for writing beyond what I need to do for my column has narrowed considerably, in large part because I don’t have the energy for anything else. In lieu of the usual, I want to share a few more stories for you to read this week. Perhaps next week will be the one when I’m able to think beyond the next 24 hours. I’m sure many of you who are living exactly one day at a time can relate.

I love this, because even pre-pandemic, there was an expectation — for public figures, but also just people in your life — of steadiness. You get things done, regardless of how you feel, and whenever anyone, truly anyone, asks you how you’re feeling, you say good! Even if you were “a beautiful mess” or whatever language a certain swath of influencers use to describe their “just keeping it real” aesthetic, the goal was always a whole lot more beauty than mess.

But a global pandemic has wiped away so much pretense. For the past few weeks, I have stared at an item on my to-do list — WRITE TALK — and shuddered. In our non-pandemic universe, I would be going to New York at the end of the month to give a talk at a big conference, the sort where I’m always the weirdo without a snazzy powerpoint overflowing with animations. Usually I get by on, I dunno, the strength of my ideas, but when they canceled the conference, they decided to put the entire thing online. I’d still get paid, I’d just have to give my talk from my dining room table. Earlier this week they sent a box full of expensive equipment for lighting and filming. I have a rehearsal scheduled. There’s a director. I want to hide.

But I wrote it this week. I tried a bunch of different intros, cobbling together bits from chapters of the book, but none of it worked. The only thing that felt right was starting by saying just how much I didn’t want to write the talk — that doing anything more than what I’m (barely) doing already feels impossible. That none of this is normal and pretending otherwise only benefits the powerful and the profit-hungry. The more we give ourselves permission to actually feel what we feel — anger, grief, despair, fear — the more our resolve will strengthen to 1) not let this a shitshow and governmental failure of this particular magnitude happen again and 2) actually enact change, personal and systemic, on the other side of all this.

The pandemic did not have to happen this way in the US. The economic fall-out and confusion did not have to unfurl the way that it has. Nearly every other country in the world is evidence. Our systems have been broken for some time. It’s just become even harder to pretend otherwise. So don’t pretend. Let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling and let others know too, so long as you’re not putting anyone in danger or being an asshole. Be honest about your limitations. You’re a human who’s grieving. You’re not working from home; you’re working from home during a global pandemic. You’re not parenting; you’re parenting during a global pandemic. You’re not going school or job searching or trying to navigate governmental systems for unemployment; you’re doing all of those things during a global pandemic, and all of it sucks. If we pretend otherwise, we’re buying into the idea that our primary purpose in life is to be a work robot. We’ve been trending that way for some time. But what would happen if we used this opportunity to reject the premise entirely?

I wrote the talk. I’ll deliver it from my dining room table this week. It’s not slick. But at least it’s not a fairytale of productivity during societal collapse.

Some Things I Read and Found Compelling These Past Weeks:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this as a momentary distraction in their inbox every week or so, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences; I am writing this fucking thing during a global pandemic.

what sort of sacrifice it will demand

It feels different now, doesn’t it. It shouldn’t — thousands of people are dying every day. More than 67,000 have died in the U.S. alone, and 245,000 worldwide. But contemporary capitalism has an extraordinary capacity to subsume tragedy: it depends on growth, and on movement, neither of which can happen during the sort of societal paralysis that would be appropriate during this time. Not only, of course, because people are dying — but in order to stem the spread. And so (at least some of us) relax into a sort of short-term amnesia. You want things to be the way things were, you want not to feel this way, so you just act as if things aren’t this way.

It’s a different sort of protest than the ones happening in places that still haven’t opened yet. It’s more subconscious, and I think many of us who aren’t working in the medical field succumb to it from time to time. And part of it is just our minds trying to make sense of a seismic change in the way we interact with the world. We can adapt ourselves to this new normal because we are eminently adaptable creatures, but that other life still seems so close, within reach. All we have to do is forget — forget each of our actions has the potential to put thousands of others at risk, forget that we live in a country where profit has become so much more important than human life — and forgetting can be so very easy.

That’s the heart, I think, of what makes these weeks feel so uneasy. I live in a place that experts agree should be slowly opening up: our cases have been in steady decline for weeks, down to zero to two new cases a day. Over the past week, businesses have gradually re-opened (some with appointments, all with distance in place) and restaurants will follow this week. But I’m not ready, and I don’t know when I will be. Weeks? Months? How will continued flare-ups and hotspots change my thinking? How to square this with deep sadness and worry for my friends and community members who are out of work and freaking out?

The answer, at least in the United States, is that we cannot protect ourselves and others and protect businesses. We either sacrifice our health or “the economy,” those vague words to describe the system that, for years, has extracted wealth for a small few from the labor (and, in many cases, the health) of those who mostly just manage to get by. What we’ve arrived at, then, is a sort of continuation — and amplification — of the system as it was before: to protect “the economy” (which benefits the already rich) we’re sacrificing the health of those who cannot afford to stay home.

Essential workers should be essential because they make it so that society doesn’t collapse. But under this new rubric, especially as the country continues to re-open, they are essential only insomuch as they will make the economy run: they are the least valued, the most interchangeable. When and if they get sick, the company will blame them — as the Smithfield Pork Processing Plant did in South Dakota — and their cultures’ “living conditions” instead of the company’s own wanton disregard for safety amidst the search for profit. The company will continue to put them at risk — as Costco is doing, loosening its crowd restrictions — for more profit.

And I get it: these massive, massively profitable companies are trying to survive. They are simply following the logic of capitalism, which demands that profit trump consideration for human life. All companies that treat its workers like humans do so either because they’re forced to (by unions and labor laws and regulations) or because of leadership that’s figured out that treating workers like humans actually makes them more productive and profitable (see previously: Costco).

Left to its own devices — which, given the incredible deregulation and union-busting of the last few decades, is basically the current case — capitalism will treat laborers like robots, cogs in a machine, unworthy of respect let alone benefits or a living wage. It’ll produce a whole bunch of Amazons, with a founder worth 139 billion and hundreds of thousands of others barely making ends meet. It’ll produce a scenario in which we don’t have adequate ventilator supply, or rural hospitals, not because they’re not profitable, but because they’re not profitable enough. It’ll lead us, in other words, to the shitshow of the last three months.

But we knew capitalism was broken. We just kinda dealt with it, reconciled ourselves to the idea that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism by saying the phrase “there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.” Or just didn’t see any feasible alternative. But capitalism is unable to deal with the sort of societal pause demanded by a pandemic. It’s like fuck this, I’ll be fine. And it — and the very few who benefit handsomely from it — will be fine, because it’s like a video game monster that eats everything in sight, sucks out all the nutrients, shits you out, and is like, hey, why don’t you let me eat you again? Sorry, this metaphor is bad, but so is capitalism!

Capitalism thrives on the cult of the individual. It creates situations where it’s incredibly difficult to look beyond providing for our immediate circles. It is fueled by those forced to make do in bad labor situations because the only other option is destitution. And, unchecked, it will thrive now. Our mix of fear and anxiousness is the anticipation of what sort of sacrifice it will demand, what it’s already demanding.

Of course, capitalism isn’t a video game monster. Or, if it is, it’s the sort where a handful of (white men) are sitting in the head of the monster piloting it. We can rail against it, and them, which I am certainly doing here, but we also have to remember that 1) we’re all part of it and 2) even absent a massive socialist revolution, its character can be changed. It can be regulated. The unmitigated profit and growth demand can, in fact, be mitigated. There is a way to sell goods and value the people who make those goods possible. What if we used this horrible opportunity to demand as much?

Along those lines, I’m working on something this week about how your own thinking about buying shit (as in, I have less and less desire to buy anything) and labor have shifted over the last few months. If you’re up for expounding a bit, respond to this email (or annehelenpetersen@gmail.com), and I’ll send you some questions when I have them ready.

Things I Wrote This Week:


Some Things That Stuck With Me The Last Two Weeks:

As always, if you know someone who’d like this as a momentary distraction in their inbox every week or so, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences; giving myself some freedom with imperfection is what gives me the mental space to write this thing for free every other week.

foreword

My editor asked me to write a foreword to my forthcoming book on millennials and burnout. (Pre-order here from Bookshop, which actually gives indie bookstores commission). I’m sharing the first draft of that attempt here.

Millennials Don’t Stand a Chance.” That’s how Annie Lowrey titled her piece, several weeks into widespread quarantine amidst the spread of COVID-19, detailing the myriad ways the millennials generation is, indeed screwed. “The Millennials entered the workforce during the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” she writes. “Saddled with debt, unable to accumulate wealth, and stuck in low-benefit, dead-end jobs, they never gained the financial security that their parents, grandparents, or even older siblings enjoyed.” And now, right when we should be reaching our “peak earning years,” we’re faced with “an economic cataclysm more severe than the Great Recession, near guaranteeing that they will be the first generation in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.”

For many millennials, articles like Lowrey’s feels less like a revelation than a confirmation: yes, we’re screwed, but we’ve known we’re screwed for years. Even as the stock market rose and official unemployment numbers fell in the supposedly halcyon economy of the late 2010s, very few of us felt anything close to secure. In truth, we were just waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the bottom to fall out, for whatever metaphor you want to choose to describe the feeling of just barely arriving at something like financial or job security, while also feeling certain that it could and would all disappear. It wouldn’t matter how hard you worked or for how long, how much you devoted yourself to your job, how much you cared. You’d find yourself back in that lonely, panicky place, wondering all over again, how the roadmap set out for you — promising that if you do this, and you’ll arrive at this — could’ve proven so very wrong.

But again: few millennials are surprised. We don’t expect jobs to last, or the companies that provide them. So many of us live under storms of debt, threatening to swallow us up at any moment. We’re exhausted by the labor of trying to maintain some sort of equilibrium: for our kids, in our relationships, in our financial lives. We’ve been conditioned to precarity.

For millions of people and communities in the United States and across the world, precarity has been a way of life for decades. To live in poverty, or to live as a refugee, is to be conditioned to precarity. The difference, then, is that this was not the narrative that millennials — particularly white, middle-class millennials — were sold about themselves. Like the generations before us, we were raised on a diet of meritocracy and exceptionalism: that each of us was overflowing with potential, and all we needed to activate it was hard work and dedication. If we worked hard, no matter our current station in life, we would find stability.

Long before the spread of COVID-19, millennials had begun to come to terms with just how hollow, how deeply and depressingly fantastical, that story really was. We understood that people keep telling it, to their kids and their peers, in New York Times editorials and in how-to books, because to stop would be tantamount to admitting that it’s not just the American Dream that’s broken; it’s America. That the refrains we return to — that we’re a land of opportunity, that we’re a benevolent world superpower — are false. That’s a deeply discombobulating realization, but it’s one that people who haven’t navigated our world with the privileges of whiteness, middle-class-ness, or citizenship have understood for some time. Some people are just now realizing the extent of the brokenness. Others have understood it, and mourned it, their entire lives.

Writing this from the middle of the pandemic, it’s become clear that COVID-19 is the great clarifier. It clarifies what and who in your life matters, what things are needs and what are wants, who is thinking of others and who is thinking only of themselves. It has clarified that the workers dubbed “essential” are, in truth, treated as expendable, and it has made decades of systemic racism — and resultant vulnerability to the disease — indelible. It has highlighted the ineptitude of our current federal leadership, the dangers of longterm, cultivated mistrust of science, and the ramifications of allowing the production of medical equipment to be run like a business where profits matter above all else. Our medical system is broken. Our relief program is broken. Our testing capability is broken. America is broken, and we, too, along with it.

When COVID-19 first began its spread in China, I was finishing the final edits to this book. When cities began shutting down, my editor and I began wondering how we could address the seismic emotional and economic and physical changes that have accompanied the spread of the disease. But I didn’t want to wedge commentary into each chapter, pretending each section had been written with these new shifts just slightly out of mind. That would be harder, but it would also feel weirder, falser.

Instead, I want to invite readers to think of every argument in this book, every anecdote, every hope for change, as amplified and emboldened. Work was shitty and precarious before; now it’s more shitty and precarious. Parenting felt exhausting and impossible; now it’s more exhausting and impossible. Same for the feeling that work never ends, that the news cycle suffocates our inner lives, and that we’re too tired to access anything resembling true leisure or rest. The fallout of the next few years won’t change millennials’ relationship to burnout and the precarity that fuels it. If anything, it will become even more ingrained in our generational identity.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s the refrain of this book, and that, too, remains true. Maybe all we need to act on that feeling is an irrefutable pivot point: an opportunity not just for reflection, but to build a different design, a different way of life, from the rubble and clarity brought forth by this pandemic. I’m not talking about utopia, per se. I’m talking about a different way of thinking about work, and personal value, and profit incentives — and the radical idea that each of us matter, and are actually essential and worthy of care and protection from precarity. Not because of our capacity to work, but simply because we are. If you think that’s too radical of an idea, I don’t know how to make you care about other people.

It’s true, as Lowrey puts it, that millennials don’t stand a chance. At least not in this current system. But the same dire prediction holds true for large swaths of Gen-X and Boomers, and will only get worse for Gen-Z. The overarching clarity offered by this pandemic is that it’s not any single generation that’s broken, or fucked, or failed. It’s the system itself.


Some Things I Wrote These Past Two Weeks:

  • A piece I’m really proud of, drawing on 30+ interviews with the residents of Blaine County, Idaho — one of the earliest COVID-19 hotspots, with one of the highest case/mortality rates in the country. Including incredible portraits that really make all of this feel very real.

  • Building on something I wrote about a few weeks ago — my piece on how no one knows anything, and everyone’s angry, and we’re mapping that anger onto others online, aka COVID-assholery


Some Things That Stuck With Me This Week:


I hope you’re all hanging in there, even by a thread, amidst all this sadness and upheaval. If there’s a story that you feel needs telling or amplifying, send it my way. If you know someone who’d like this as a momentary distraction in their inbox every week or so, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences; I’m trying to give myself a lot of grace and I hope you’re giving yourself a lot, too. Finally, if you’re able, consider giving to your local food bank. You can find yours here, or simply by googling your town’s name and “food bank.” Even a small amount goes a long way.

authority vacuum

Every morning I wake up and I look at the damn map. Every night, before I go to sleep, I look at that damn map. Montana updates its numbers at 4:30 pm, and I find myself clinging to the computer, even after I’ve finished my work for the day, waiting to see what it’ll say. I’ve bookmarked the page, something I never do. The updates in Idaho, where my mom lives, are more sporadic, so I’ll refresh throughout the day. I yell out to no one in particular: “would you look at those numbers in Gallatin County” and “another death in Nez Perce County.”

Part of reporting locally is knowing counties and their profiles, like when you hear “Toole,” in Montana, you think “what if it’s in the Hutterite Colonies.” But the numbers — especially the numbers indicating confirmed cases — are increasingly meaningless. Nate Silver has a long, thorough explanation for why over at Five Thirty Eight, but the simple version is that the amount of testing we’re doing is wildly inconsistent, and “confirmed” cases, at this point, tells us very little about how many people are actually sick in an area. Confirmed deaths is a “better” indicator, but also doesn’t tell you that much. Right now, there have been 6 deaths due to COVID-19 in Montana. Three of those were in Toole County, whose population is just under 5000. Is the county a hotspot, or is it the nursing home where the mini-outbreak originated?

I listen to the science journalists at BuzzFeed tell me the same: don’t pay attention to the confirmed case numbers. But we keep tracking them, just like the Times and so many other places do, and people like me keep compulsively checking them. How else can we manage all this fear and anxiety, other than to obsessively monitor what feels real and tangible, despite so much evidence that it’s deceptive and distracting.

The lack of testing — and the lack of “confirmed” cases — is what led so many states to delay closing down. It allowed others to ignore cautions to socially distance, because “it hasn’t gotten here yet.” But one confirmed case simply means it’s about to be in a lot more places. By the time the first person tested positive in Blaine County, Idaho, dozens of people were sick. Today, there are 410 confirmed cases in a county of 22,000, giving it one of the highest per capita case rates in the United States. But that high number of cases likely just indicates that a whole lot of people were able to get tested, as they had “confirmed” contact with someone else who’d tested positive, which, in a lot of places, remains a criteria for getting tested. One positive test can beget a slew of additional positive tests. Tens of thousands of others, like my colleague Shannon, have symptoms and are denied tests unless their symptoms worsen to the point of requiring hospitalization.

We share stories with each other of people we know who have it, how they’re doing, what’s scary. We read remembrances of the people who’ve died, their unique lives, their solitary deaths. We attempt to personalize what’s happening outside of our closed doors. But none of it, not the maps, not the personal stories, feels adequate. None of it makes anything make sense. And I don’t mean death, death never really makes sense. And I don’t mean the disease itself, that actually makes perfect (scientific) sense.

I’m talking about how this pandemic — the phenomenon of a virulent disease making its way through society — and how we’re responding to it. The complete lack of medical supplies in a country that’s supposed to a top world power? Doesn’t make sense. Cutting pay and staff at hospitals right now? Nonsensical. Allowing states to outbid each other in a frantic play for supplies? Lack of tests when every other country seems to have them? Truly what the fuck. Everything to do with ventilator supply. Fucked. The shifting wisdom on masks. On what age groups are vulnerable. On why there’s no toilet paper. (This actually explains that one; why couldn’t anyone give us this explanation sooner?) On the number of false negatives (up to one third!!!!) from the test we are using.

When I listened to this episode of The Daily earlier this week, breaking down the unique (unregulated capitalism-caused) reasons why there’s no masks or ventilators, I felt a palpable sense of relief: this is fucked, but at least I fucking get why now. Same for this piece in The Atlantic about the testing delays. But then I read pieces about the various scenarios for how this will end(ish), and all of them, all of them, seem contingent upon widespread testing, antibody tests, and an eventual vaccination. How can I put faith in any of those scenarios when the governor of Georgia — and the mayor of New York City — are admitting that they didn’t even know the virus could travel through asymptomatic carriers until this week?

I don’t trust anything anyone, save medical professionals, say. I certainly don’t trust a word that comes out of the daily presidential briefings. I only trust what I see happen. I trust local officials who say they can’t get supplies over federal ones saying everything’s fine. I trust the people I talk to while reporting, saying that they couldn’t get a test, or that they had the exact same symptoms as their partner who tested positive, but their test came back negative. I trust the small business owners saying that the process for applying for government assistance is incredibly labyrinthian and discouraging. I trust the people saying that a $1200 check won’t be nearly enough.

I don’t trust our government to get anything in order in time for a fair presidential election that doesn’t disenfranchise millions of people. I don’t trust Joe Biden’s campaign to figure out how to effectively message everything that’s gone wrong, and who’s responsible. I don’t trust congress to not bail out massive corporations, enriching the already ludicrously wealthy, at the expense of the already suffering. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is an often pompous asshole who’s still set on massive statewide cuts to Medicaid, but people are treating him as a savior who should run for president. That, at least, makes sense: sure, he’s no progressive, and his childish feuds with DeBlasio are ridiculous. But at least he’s leading, which, in our current moment, means being incredibly visible and refusing to bullshit.

Other states, like Washington and here in Montana, have found that sort of leadership in their governors. In Blaine County, Idaho, that leader has been Ketchum mayor Neil Bradshaw. On Lummi Nation, it’s Dr. Dakotah Lane. But the solace of local leadership can only do so much. The dark reality of our national mishandling reasserts itself, again and again. “This has been a real blow to the sense that America was competent,” the former chairman of the National Intelligence Council told the Washington Post.

There are all sorts of people who have known that American was not, in fact, competent. People with whom the American government has broken promise after promise, whether in terms of civil liberties or treaty obligations. This pandemic only feels scandalous because everyone in America is being faced with the reality that many have known for some time: that the system is broken and untrustworthy, with a massive vacuum of authority, or integrity, or responsibility at its center.

So we do what we can do. We make bad an ugly bread, we give our phone numbers to people down the street, we try and care for ourselves and others who’ve become sick, we tip and donate and save and hope against hope for the best instead of the worst. We distract ourselves, we get mad online, we map our fear and sadness onto other people in our lives when what we’re really mad about is that it didn’t have to be this way. It really didn’t.

I’ll keep checking those dumb maps, even though they mean nothing. I have to give shape to the nonsensical suffering, in whatever way I know how.

Ways You Can Help Those Most in Need This Week:

Some Recipes I’ve Made This Week to Distract Myself:

The Most Compelling COVID-19 Reading of the Literal Billion Things I Read This Week:

If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and link to it) here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Please excuse typos or weird sentences; inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to get this thing out in the world for free. Best gentle on yourself and generous towards others in your life — this week and in the weeks to come.

the pandemic is not your vacation

No traditional newsletter this week, as I was working on this piece — the result of talking at length with three dozen people who live who live full-time in rural/resort areas (or who are debating leaving the city for their second homes). I was trying to get at the larger story of how the privilege to “escape” cities is going to ravage rural communities, and was assisted mightily by several rural studies scholars who’ve been working and analyzing and writing about these issues for years.

What I arrived at:

“Americans struggle mightily with the ideology of individualism: that all that matters, in a particular moment, is what is happening to you and yours. Rural America is asking you to think otherwise. You might “enjoy” your quarantine more. But the rural places so many Americans treat as playgrounds, and the workers who make that play and respite and feeling of safety possible, may suffer profoundly in your service.”

I hope you’ll read the whole thing, and share widely with others who might be considering for these sorts of escapes — or those in rural areas looking for a way to tell others why it’s so important to stay away. This is all so hard, and all so important.

If you have ideas for a story or angle on everything that’s happening that you feel is going uncovered, just reply to this email (or find me at annehelenpetersen @ gmail.com). I also have Signal, which you can ask for, and will never quote you or use your story without your permission.

All of my stories these past few weeks have relied on people from all over, in all sorts of situations, telling me what’s going on and why it matters and others should pay attention. We have to keep telling this story the best we know how — and, at the risk of extreme corniness, I can’t do it alone. Tell me what’s getting ignored, what’s different and happening in your community, and I will do my very best.

Everyone’s asking how everyone’s doing, and most everyone is answering “not great.” Fucking same. But this, too, will end — and how we understand it now, and later, will determine how we can make sure that when it does happen again, it won’t be like this.

All of my good and sustaining thoughts, hoarded and allocated your way. And some Steve for good fortune.

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