This week, poet Dorianne Laux’s poem “For the Sake of Strangers” has repeatedly found its way to my inbox. And for good reason: It reminds us that we are tethered to one another, even when (especially when) we are isolated and alone:
No matter what the grief, its weight,
we are obliged to carry it.
We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength
that pushes us through crowds.
And then the young boy gives me directions
so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,
waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.
All day it continues, each kindness
reaching toward another—a stranger
singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees
offering their blossoms, a child
who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.
Somehow they always find me, seem even to be waiting,
determined to keep me
from myself, from the thing that calls to me
as it must have once called to them—
this temptation to step off the edge
and fall weightless, away from the world.
In the context of a pandemic, the poem takes on the weight of melancholic nostalgia. Crowds are a distant memory. And who is this kind woman, blithely touching the handle of a communal door?
While we wait for the thronging masses with their careless touches to return, we find other ways to keep ourselves from ourselves, to stop ourselves from falling away from the world. Prestige (also trash) TV can help, as can Instagram baking tutorials, at-home yoga apps, and home-streaming movies.
I have a two-foot stack of to-be-read books on my bedside table, but pandemic reading seems to call for something special. I’ve ordered Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s lauded first book in her recently completed Thomas-Cromwell trilogy, and My Brilliant Friend, the first book of Elena Ferrante’s beloved Neapolitan quartet.
Starting a series can be as intimidating as starting a heralded classic or a formidably big book. In regular life, I don’t like feeling obligated to read on (and on) to find out what happens. But from my more narrow pandemic perspective, the promise of a future unfolding feels more like a (reading) exercise in hope.
We’re writing under a NWO here in Minnesota…and everywhere else. Schools are closed, and events, bars, restaurants, cafes, clubs, and anyplace else people want to congregate, are cancelled or shut down to flatten the COVID-19 curve.
It’s a new normal that can be hard to process in the permanent now of Twitter’s micro-moods. Some of us (or just me) are swinging between a fight-or-flight response to the immediate crisis and the more considered calm required to take care—of ourselves, our families, our communities, our jobs.
In this case, taking care may mean thinking through—like thinking through the consequences of choices about self-quarantining, social distancing, and vector-stymying so that we can take care of ourselves and each other.
But we can also take care by thinking through seemingly less impactful choices, like the words we use.
The words of the pandemic, for example, have been shaped into weaponry for deployment in infectious warfare. Over the years (errr, likely throughout the history of language), war metaphors have been dulled by overuse. But such metaphors still signal the scale of struggle and the unity required to face and fight a common enemy.
Often, the referent makes the difference: When the federal administration chooses to refer to the coronavirus or COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” for example, it matters. An enemy called COVID-19, for example, requires armament in kind: masks, tests, hospital beds, a systemic and coordinated frontline—and rearguard—response. Since we know we don’t yet have these weapons in effective numbers, we know we cannot effectively fight this enemy.
An enemy called the “Chinese virus,” on the other hand, diverts attention from the weapons we don’t have (and why) by modifying virality with origins. It unifies an “us” against a foreign invader, and signals the need for weaponry of a different order (such as the border closures President Trump indicates have aided the fight). In this way, the racism contingent on and inherent to the distinction may not be considered by its users to be a symptom but salutary.
The challenges inherent to naming diseases are significant: Just ask the WHO. Yet, because language is not “a natural growth” but, as Orwell argued, “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes,” we should take care to think these challenges through. Our words won’t keep us safe from COVID-19, but they can make a difference in how and where we focus the fight.
Oh, look at those young women up there! It’s hard to believe how much has changed since Jessica Knight and I began Modern Writing Services: Houses bought and sold; babies born and grown; and, of course, business growth and change.
This year marks the first full year without Jess. In 2019, she transitioned from her role at Modern Writing Services to that of a full-time research writer and analyst at United Health Group. While she still consults at MWS, she does so in a bespoke capacity. Here, she talks about her move:
Q: What precipitated your decision?
A: There’s not really one why, though going in-house is something I’ve thought about for a while. I was interested to see what it would feel like to have a longer-term stake in my work than I was able to have as a consultant. It can be tough to pour your heart and soul into a project and then have very little control over what happens to it after you turn it over to a client! I was also ready to step back from the business-ownership side of…well, owning a business. And I knew Molly would continue to do great things with MWS. Plus, it gave me an excuse to buy a bunch of new clothes!
Q: What’s your new position like?
A: It’s really challenging, and really interesting. It’s been a huge learning curve, and I imagine that’s going to continue pretty much as long as I stay in this job, since developments happen so quickly in the healthcare and R&D worlds. My role involves very diverse work, from conducting literature reviews and writing white papers for our business and scientific leadership; to working with our data scientists, statisticians, and clinicians to help them develop research questions, analyze results, and create narratives of their research; to collaborating with our subject matter experts to refine conference presentations and papers for publication.
Q: How is it different from, or similar to, your MWS work?
A: It’s a ginormous company, which has benefits and drawbacks. To some degree, the R&D group feels like its own little island with an independent culture, but even within R&D I have a couple hundred coworkers. And the work I do is very collaborative across research teams and roles, so the day-to-day feels a lot different from what my day-to-day was like at MWS, when my projects were almost completely solo ventures.
However, the job draws on a surprisingly similar skill set to a lot of the work I did at MWS. While it’s obviously all healthcare focused, the research, writing, and editing that I do isn’t so different from the kinds of work that I did for nonprofits, universities, and presses with MWS.
Q: The best part?
A: The energy and intelligence of my coworkers—it’s really exciting to work with such smart people and to be tasked with trying to solve such challenging problems. I’m constantly learning—and I love that constant learning is a foundational part of my job. And the food. We have weirdly good food at our office!
Q: The worst part?
A: Hands down it’s the commute. I’ve gone from rolling out of bed and into my home office, to slogging through a 30–60 minute drive each way. I can work from home, but it’s often just easier to be in the office. I listen to a lot of books on tape, which, thank god for books on tape, or I’d be a totally rageful driver. I do my best to be zen about it, but it’s for sure a drag to spend so much time in the car.
Q: When will you work with Molly again?
A: In my head, I still work with Molly. We collaborated on everything we did for six years at MWS, so I think there will always be a little piece of my brain that operates on a WWMD (what would Molly do?) basis. And I jump on any chance to actually work together again–I’m always available to come on board for special MWS projects
It’s the Amazon alternative founded by Andy Hunter (of Electric Literature, LitHub, and Catapult fame) to sustain and foster independent bookstores and their dedicated reader communities.
The Bookshop model offers readers Amazon-like convenience, but it disburses proceeds to independent booksellers and gives a 10-percent share of book sales to affiliate linkers—whether they’re independent bookstores, magazines, bloggers, or other members of the book-loving public.
Of course, Amazon is cheaper. It’s cheaper because it only offers affiliate linkers a 4.5-percent share of book sales and because, compared to Bookshop’s on-average 8-percent discount, Amazon book discounts are much, much deeper. In fact, its unsustainable discounts are a major reason Amazon drives competitors like local and independent bookstores out of business.
So, in this as in so many other cases, “cheaper” comes at a price. Committed to books? To weird and wonderful bookstores? Help them (and readers!) thrive by buying from and linking to Bookshop. Its transparent effort to support local independent bookstores may be a more expensive alternative, but anyone interested in and committed to fostering a lively and long-lived cultural conversation will benefit from its marketplace.
As has been documented (here and…everywhere else), I welcome the opportunity forced by the new year to reflect on the old, contemplate the present, and imagine a better, slightly more accomplished future.
But reflecting on the old means reflecting on very many resolutions I’ve failed to uphold. So, when I make resolutions, I make one or two, in areas of life I actually want to spend time in, and small enough so I have a chance of fulfillment.
My 2020 book challenge is much less ambitious: I want continue tracking the books I read (a prior, miraculously successfully met resolution) and also track why I read the book in the first place.
The Newsletter Age has resulted in many excellent book recommendations, but they are hard to track. When I finish a book, whether I loved or hated it, I want to (mentally, at least) discuss it with its recommender. Yet, by the time I receive and then read the book, its provenance has vaporized with the mists of memory.
The Library Extension tool and my trusty Excel spreadsheet are going to help me keep this resolution. The former (for Chrome or Firefox) will find the book at my local library the moment it’s recommended, and Excel will track its provenance.
It’s too late for Trust Exercise–I reserved it in 2019 but no longer remember who recommended it–but I trust I’ll be able to engage in many more mental dialogues in 2020.
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While most people benefit from plans, it’s often the preparation begotten by planning that matters more than the plan itself. This truism is attributed to Eisenhower, but its commonsense application pre- and postdates his mid-century usage. First-time nonfiction authors, whether they walk the traditional or self-publication path, benefit from planning when they develop a completion* […]