Finding form in shapeless times

Following an acute infection diagnosed on Easter, my appendix is just super. A regimen of antibiotics, a pill as chunky as a grave adult multi-vitamin, has snuffed the appendicitis, vaporized the pain and eased worries. But not all worries. No, of course not.

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The surgeon who’s my supervising physician cheered my improvement but cautioned that the infection could return in three weeks, three months, a year, who knows. He’s suggested preventative surgery relatively soon to snip out that hateful organ. 

Such dreamy thoughts for the quarantine — just what I or anybody needs right now. Boy, when this all blows over, I get to have belly surgery! 

Surgery sucks and so does house arrest, but distractions are plenty. Sort of. Not really. I toggle between reading and writing and watching the occasional movie (“Little Women,” “The Lighthouse,” “La Collectionneuse”). I spit words into my journal, take a brisk walk, shop for books online, practice my French (lie!), donate money to animal causes and ponder the meaning of life, this stuffy, neutered, unmoored version of it. 

Chat with friends on FaceTime, you say. I don’t do FaceTime, yet I had to with my doctor a few times to discuss my ailment — his idea. It was my first time, my iPhone deflowering, if you will, and I cannot say I wasn’t mortified. It went swell. 

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The appendix episode has lightly anchored this adrift vessel for now, furnished a focus, given me something to gnaw on, something to be more anguished about.

My journal jots reflect some of the days’ monotony, some of the dread of what’s out there (COVID-19, a maniacal leader) and what’s inside me: “I’m cured. I am not cured. This thing, I fear, will return like a cancer,” I wrote yesterday about my pesky malady. I muse about the pets with withering boredom: “The gray cat’s eyes weep and glisten with viscous slop that congeals into a tar-like goop.” And I note time’s quarantine creak: “Grinding forth, the day leaves skid marks.” One entry reads simply: “Blech.”

Chalky-gray is the new black. Specificity has fled. Vagueness as an existential condition is unsettling. Stasis lurks. We waft, not run. Atrophy, hovering near, sees its chance.

Where are we headed? That’s the burning question, one I’m not sure I want answered.

For introverts, self-quarantine isn’t so bad

Introverts tend to enjoy more time to themselves, are very aware of their internal thoughts and recharge more in solitude. Extroverts are just the opposite. Extroverts are more outspoken, outgoing and absolutely love being around other people. They’re talkative and like being the center of attention.”                                                   — Chelsea Connors, therapist

Extroverts chafe me. This certified introvert has spent most of his life avoiding them: the whooping jocks, chest-thumping frat boys, screechy sorority girls, cocky corporate management types, knee-slapping laughers, actors, garrulous social hambones who have to keep everyone rapt with hypnotic anecdotes and stories, the very loud and touchy.

These are the people who are having a hard time with “social distancing” during COVID-19. They’re on FaceTime and Zoom, keeping the party going electronically, lest life in self-quarantine shrivels them up into lonely nobodies. The outgoing who live to go out, hug and high-five and fist pump and kissy-kissy on both cheeks. And strangely cracking up, constantly.

friends_having_fun-1200x628-facebook.jpgIntroverts, on the other hand, are naturally adapting to the situation, even relishing it. This, pundits declare, is the year of the introvert, what with mandated social distancing during the pandemic, which demands people stay apart, social scenes closed or restricted, and families huddled in their homes. No sports events? Oh, darn it.

“Finally,” a tweeter rejoices, “something I’m good at: staying at home and avoiding people!”

Isn’t it great? 

In case I’m branded some sort of antisocial Hamlet or “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” I emphatically aver that I do (did) like to get out for a great dinner, good movie or a play, and some drinks. And my inveterate world travel is taking a heartrending hit. 

But it’s worth noting this shift in the social landscape: the meek shall inherit the earth, for a while. From the Twitter-sphere come these words of comfort for the eternally uncomfortable:

— “Any other socially awkward introverts out there feel oddly aroused anytime anyone mutters the phrase ‘social distancing?’ Asking for myself. Obviously.”

— “As single and an introvert, we’ve been social distancing since before it was popular.” 

— “Introverts have been doing this for years! Look who’s suddenly the cool kids at the party now!” 

— “Finally introverts experience a world that is suited to us. All events cancelled, we don’t even have to go thru the trouble of flaking. No one is making random small talk or physical contact. Everybody minding their own business.”

— “So ‘social distancing’ is gonna save us all from #CoronaVirusSeattle.YAY. INTROVERTS WILL SURVIVE AND RULE THE WORLD. Quietly, of course. But still.”

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School sucks. ‘Eighth Grade’ doesn’t.

Her chin and forehead dappled with continents of acne — I thought I spotted an inflamed Australia — 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy with rumpled long blonde hair, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly-crooked and slightly bucky, will break your heart.

Kayla, played by a preternaturally perfect Elsie Fisher, is the can’t-keep-your-eyes-off lead in Bo Burnham’s indie hit “Eighth Grade,” and she’s a compendium of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. 

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I kept wincing, re-feeling those awful transitional days, the insecurities, the free-floating dread, the fluttering anxiety — and the irrepressible excitement of the new.

But that’s not the movie’s point. “Eighth Grade” isn’t about me and my cohorts’ feathered hair, terrycloth polos, flared corduroy Levi’s and those giant combs hanging out our back pockets. Or the flubbed first kisses and mortifying social fumbles. 

As Owen Gleiberman puts it in Variety: “The beauty of ‘Eighth Grade’ is that it’s highly specific and generational. It’s the first movie to capture, in a major way, the teenage experience of those who have only existed on this planet during the digital era.”

In other words, it’s not about us geezers and our times bridging, torturously, eighth-grade and high school. It’s about today’s kids, like my niece, who’s exactly in Kayla’s fashionably beat-up sneakers. She’s 13. She’s glued to her phone. I wish her good luck.  

It’s about forging one’s individuality amidst willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for our times, I truly believe, lives by her words, the dictums she professes on the videos she so bravely records on her phone. It doesn’t always work out, but watch her grow stronger after each posting. 

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For all the bracing, spot-on scenes in Burnham’s dynamic debut — the movie is really a 90-minute reel of the smashingly real — I picked out my favorite midway through. Kayla is alone in bed at night and she’s surfing a kaleidoscopic stream of videos, social media, Instagram and whatever kids sift at no attention-span speeds. The music, playing loudly on the soundtrack, is sublime.

It’s the most affecting use of Enya’s 1988 harp-heavy hit “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” I’ve ever heard. The scene actually redeems the woozy, New Agey song. Lush, lyrical and frenetically up-to-the-minute, the sequence is a masterpiece of visual-aural agreement. It weirdly moved me, and it encapsulates the undeniable artistry, the tender emotional truth of this excellent film. For a brief moment, Kayla soars. 

See the trailer for “Eighth Grade” HERE.

#DeleteFacebook? You bet.

A few years ago, I did something harebrained: I joined Facebook.

Mere hours later, I quit the network, deleting my profile in its gurgling infancy. I joined right around midnight. I hit delete early the next morning. I did so with a massive sigh of relief: What was I thinking?

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What was I thinking?

I was thinking, gee, maybe, as all my friends tell me, I’m missing out on some electronic fun, unfettered 24-hour socializing, photo and content sharing. I could post my marvelous travel pictures. I could see what long-lost pals are up to. I could crow about my fabulous life, crack wise and click the “like” icon with fulsome abandon. I was feeling adventurous.

Before, none of that had sounded attractive in the least. For some reason, in a momentary lapse of sanity (was it the pinot noir?), it did. And then it didn’t again. Cue the cold sweat the next morning. Cue the get me the hell off this thing panic.

During my rash registration I invited several friends to “friend” me, or whatever it is one does to connect on Facebook. By the morning I had a small tribe of friends, cyber-pals, some of whom, to my horror, had posted pictures of me on my page. I felt exposed and mortified. My instincts were spot-on: Facebook wasn’t my bag.

It’s all about sharing, and I’m not a big sharer. I don’t really want oodles of people to know what I’m up to. I certainly don’t want to see someone’s family photos snapped at Disneyland. I also don’t want to hear about so-and-so’s chronic illness. And that endless stream of (totally unreliable) information trickling down the page smacks of so much irksome spam.

Facebook and its ilk, from Twitter to Instagram, I think, are for people who like to share, show and showoff. They must be connected to feel alive, validated. There’s a boastful, presumptuous strain at work. Obsessively scanning their phones, staring in a locked zombie state, I see inborn extroverts, the gabbers, those tautly comfortable in their skins, the socially amenable and acutely people-ly. I see the FOMO syndrome. I see neediness.

What is this blog if not a way to connect? you might ask. It’s really just a billboard on which to write stuff. It’s far from a network. Any connections are stubbornly vague and mostly through distant “likes” and the rare comment. It’s written largely behind a scrim of anonymity. My last name is nowhere to be found and, save for the picture of me as a kid on the “About” page, there are no photos of me. I can be irrationally shy.

th-3Facebook is even less alluring amid current reports of vast security breaches plaguing the network. The data and privacy of 50 million Facebook users have been compromised, prompting a social media backlash, a call to #DeleteFacebook. People from all walks (even Cher!) are deleting their profiles with great, groaning exertion, extracting themselves from what is arguably an addiction for many. (Unfortunately, some Facebook accounts represent charities and small businesses that can’t afford to nix their profiles.)

Party-pooper, anti-social, misanthrope, grandpa-grumpus — call me what you will. I connect in my own ways — email, texts and calls: perfectly efficient — without waving my arms in the air to get attention and unloading my life on fellow Facebookers. I share things on this blog, of course — it sometimes reads like a journal — but reading an entry is not a social transaction. It’s smaller than that.

We’re told to live out loud. Some of us prefer to turn it down a notch. Not to put it on mute — where’s the fun in that? — but at a setting more like a conversational nudge, not a bullhorn.