The Happiness Lab Presents: The Chronicles of NowThe Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos
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- 9 Jul 2020
Covid-19 has made us all prisoners of our homes. And at times, our families. If the pandemic goes well into 2021, what will an extended quarantine do to our relationships, our country, our daily lives? Roxane Gay, the best selling author of Bad Feminist and Hunger, has some ideas. Sex? Yes. Vaccine? No.
Narrated by Bahni Turpin. Hosted by Ashley C. Ford.
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Hello, happiness lab listeners, I want to tell you about the newest podcast from our Pushkin family, The Chronicles of Now Every Week, The Chronicles of Now presents narrated original short fiction that's inspired by the headlines. The podcast features stories from amazing authors like Colum McCann, Carmen Machado and Curtis Sittenfeld. The show's host, Ashley C. Ford then interviews the authors to dig deeper into their stories and to learn what inspired them. The episode you're about to hear, it features a story from one of my favorite authors, Roxane Gay.
I've loved her work since I first read her painful and radically honest memoir, Hunger, a few years ago. She's long been an important voice in the fight against racism, and her stories are an often raw call to action. In this episode, Roxann tackles a topic that's affecting many of us right now what covid does to our relationships. It's an issue we've tackled on several of our Happiness Lab episodes. But Roxann explores this problem through fiction, and that's one of the reasons I love the chronicles of Now.
It gives us all an opportunity to turn to art, specifically fiction, as a way to make sense of what we're all going through. And so I hope you'll enjoy this episode. Look for Chronicles of Now wherever you get your podcasts. Here's what we know.
A Washington state resident fell ill after returning from Uhaul in China. In a world gone haywire, sometimes art is the only thing that can make sense of it all. You know, it's going to be a matter of, you know, several weeks to a few months for sure.
This is the chronicles of Now, where we ask some of today's greatest authors to write short fiction inspired by the news. I'm Ashley for it.
Here in America, confirmed infections are now more than double that of any other nation.
When the coronavirus hit and America hunkered down, we had no idea what we were in for or how long it would last.
There is a hope of a vaccine and if you get it in a year and a half, that would be record time.
We still don't know what we're in for from Daytona, where crowds shut down traffic and we still don't know what we're doing to the Lake of the Ozarks, where people swam on top of each other for hours, social distancing, nowhere to be found.
Here's what we do know. Families have been stuck inside together for months on end. Yes, things are opening up. But how long will that last across the nation?
July 4th celebrations canceled as the virus continues its deadly surge now.
Thirty four states in the country are seeing new cases up from now.
Coronavirus cases are absolutely skyrocketing. I don't even think we've begun to see the extent of what's going to happen in this country.
That's Roxane Gay, the best selling author of Mad Feminist and Hunger and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. Her story is about a long, long quarantine.
I just thought, what would it be like to live with your partner in isolation for a year? My wife loves to travel. She always has interesting stories about a soup she once tried in Hanoi and what it was like to crawl up the steps of a temple in Tibet and so on.
One time, on the grounds of anger, what a Buddhist monk gave her a red bracelet, told her it was good luck.
It was a piece of strings, really, but she loved that string and it seemed to love her because month after month it stayed wrapped around her slenderest even as it thinned to nearly nothing. Every night, just before bed, she would take off her watch and set it on the nightstand, and when she turned to smile at me, I stared at her wrist trying to understand how that string could withstand the rigors of being attached to a human body. The string was biting me by hanging on.
I began to ask her hypotheticals about what she would do if I tore the string. I asked her if she loved me more than the string. Are you having a midlife crisis?
She asked. It was a reasonable question. I had recently purchased a ridiculous car. One evening after we drank a bottle of red wine that we got from a small vineyard in Tuscany where the owner cooked us the most incredible meal we have ever eaten and got us so drunk that we bought an unfathomable quantity of wine.
I tugged on the string gently and my wife tensed.
This drink has brought me so much good luck, she said. It brought me you. I don't want to think about what might happen when it falls off. I turned away my body, a long line of irrational anger, and from that day on the string became my nemesis. I stared at it and conspired against it and waited. But then. When the quarantine began, we were really worried, we have a nice house, we have Netflix, we have books, we have each other and we're quite good at sex.
We would amuse ourselves every day. Soldiers dressed in protective gear left a box of rations and four large containers of water on our stoop. The rations were uninspiring to salty industrial once a week, we received fresh produce, it was never interesting, only things like spinach, cabbage, kale, pears. During the first few weeks, we pretended we were on a cooking competition and tried to make the food palatable, but there is only so much you can do with rice and beans and dry graham crackers.
The soldiers were brisk, efficient and ignored us when we tried to talk to them, glean some information about life beyond as far as we could see. The street was empty and quiet, save for the military, the helicopters going in and out of the nearby heliport were gone. There were no sirens wailing. That was the worst part. The sound of nothing. To keep ourselves reasonably sane, we developed a routine in the morning, we trudged up and down the stairs for 45 minutes and lifted hand weights.
It was important to stay fit.
We decided just in case we eventually had to fight for our survival, we'd shower separately most of the time. And then catch up on email, do some work, because it seems like work still mattered or we needed it to matter so we could believe that eventually the quarantine would end and our lives would be waiting for us starting to reopen.
And children quarantines in other countries had already ended. So we weren't deluding ourselves.
When we got bored with work, we watched a TV show or movie, we played a lot of board games and sometimes got testy with each other. We had to stop playing UNO entirely. Neither of us were particularly fond of our own nudity.
But some days we didn't even bother putting on clothes or we wore outlandish outfits. When we got stir crazy, we ran around our small backyard, really just a patch of concrete with some nice outdoor furniture, a fire pit and a grill. We burned things and it felt good to commit small acts of destruction. We ordered things we didn't need from Amazon because they contracted with the military to handle their deliveries during the quarantine and the military gladly took their money and we knew we were complicit in something but couldn't say quite what.
We took to spying on our neighbors in the huge apartment building across the way and they took to spying on us. We saw some things about the ways other people lived their lives, and many of those things were terrible. Some days we ventured up to the roof, looked around and saw people for blocks in every direction, also standing on their roofs, no one tried communicating. We just smiled at each other wanly, shrugged like pandemic. What can you do?
My wife and I had a lot of sex that never got boring. Every freaky or weird thing we had been too shy to try was suddenly part of our repertoire.
I put my tongue in places I still thrill to think about. She was suddenly more demanding, less demure, like she was determined to draw as much pleasure as she could out of me.
I was more than happy to oblige. We did not fight much at all because we're in our 50s and understand the importance of not wasting time.
There was only one news channel in those days and the journalists broadcast from their homes so they didn't have much to say.
Once in a while, a small child would toddle in the background, having escaped the watchful eye of another parent or a sibling. That was nice, a reminder of why we were doing this thing at all.
Mostly, the journalists parroted whatever talking points they were given by the government, how the quarantine would last for a year or two at the most while the vaccine was developed and tested and manufactured in mass quantities. The rest of the world had a vaccine, but the American president had angered so many world leaders that they left us to our own devices and helped each other instead. Whenever he gave the nation an update, the president looked unwell like his genetics were revolting all over his face and extremities.
So that gave us some hope and cheer.
15 months into the quarantine, the red string remained around my wife's wrist. It drove me to distraction. The vaccine was ready. One morning we received a note with our daily rations, a medical team would be bringing us the vaccine at the end of the week. See, my wife said one evening as we watched a Spanish television show about angry teenagers who seemingly didn't have parents.
We're alive because of this string, she raised a fist triumphantly. This dring, desperately frayed, taunted me. I clench my jaw and inhaled deeply. I willed myself not to pluck it from her wrist. It would take no effort at all as it was barely hanging on.
I wanted to say we were alive because of our isolation, general good health and daily calisthenics in and out of bed. But she looked so calm and assured. I could not take that from her. Or even myself. That was string theory by Roxane Gay. The reader was Bonnie Turpan Roxann, it's now June.
And I happen to know that you wrote that story back in early March. What made you into it?
This was going to be a long, long ordeal.
I think I started to get a sense of how much of an ordeal the pandemic was going to be because we have incoherent and incompetent federal leadership. And so I was thinking about that like literally what is the worst case scenario when an idiot is president and a pandemic is ravaging the country? The story actually started in a really weird way. My partner, she went to Cambodia about a year and a half ago and a monk gave her this piece of red string that he tied around her wrist.
And it's a good luck type blessing. And we would joke about it because it drove me crazy. I was like, why won't that fucking break what is happening here? And she got very protective of this little red string.
And so then I decided to write a story about it and then the pandemic was happening and that's where I took it.
I was telling someone recently that this felt like as much as a pandemic story, a love story about loving a person enough to allow them their faith, even if you feel like I don't know.
I'm wondering if you could talk to me about what that string means to these two different characters, even though they're stuck together.
So to one of them, it means that there is life beyond quarantine, that there is something to believe in, beyond the moment to moment, the day to day for the other partner. It represents this infuriating thing that should not be sustained, that should not be intact, but is intact. And so then it becomes a sort of mildly antagonistic thing, like, oh, now I want to break it.
I want to prove that that faith is misplaced. But the longer the quarantine progresses for these women, the more the antagonist realizes, oh, maybe it is time to have a little faith because. We're stuck with each other and we love each other, and if this matters to her, then it's got to matter to me. And so there's this evolution of that.
Back in March, we also didn't know George Floyd would be killed by Minneapolis police. This is all started an uprising the likes of which this country hasn't seen in 50 years to be close.
Do you see a relationship between the pandemic and these uprisings?
Absolutely. The uprisings were going to happen no matter what, because black people have truly had enough. We are done. This is it. But people have had a lot of time to sit at home.
There's no sports, there's no new TV, there are no new movies there, there's no new nothing, and that, frankly, there won't be until next year.
And so we have a lot of fucking time to sit around thinking about what we think and feel. And I think that absolutely contributed. Besides which, people are scared, they're angry, they are broke because we have, again, an incompetent federal government and that is a lethal combination. Plus, summer is starting. So people are getting out of school like there's literally nothing to distract us without work, without play, without school. Yes. People are going to have the time and in many ways, the pandemic.
I mean, it is a curse, but it really laid bare just how divided this country is and just how imperiled black life is and. I'm not grateful for it, but sometimes something necessary rises out of something painful. Absolutely.
If you were writing this story today, not back in March, how would this story and the story would end with more action?
It wouldn't just be like and then life got back to normal. And I think it would end on a note of we don't know what's next, but we know that whatever is next will inevitably be better than what we left behind, because we're going to leave behind racism and law enforcement unchecked and all of these systemic biases that allow law enforcement to to brutalize black people. So I think it would be more active at the end instead of this sort of passive.
Let's get back to normal.
Roxann, thanks so much. Thank you so much, Ashleigh, for it.
You can read my full interview with Roxane Gay on our website Chronicles that find where you can also read string theory and other short fiction torn from today's headlines. Our sound designer and composer is Bart Warshel. Our producer is Curtis Fox. Tyler caBBed is the executive producer and founder of Chronicles of Now for Pushkin Industries. Special thanks to Little Mallard and Jacob Weisberg for the Chronicles of Now podcast. I'm Ashleigh for thanks for listening.