COVID-19 Diary: Goodbye To All That

 

Goodbye To All That

In this edition of my COVID-19 Diaries I traipse from a viral theory of the earworm, through new possibilities of doing nothing, into an account of my first ‘Pair Up’ call.

 

24th March 2020:

 

I went to the supermarket with a wheely suitcase today. I don’t have one of those grandma shopping bag/carts, so one must be resourceful with what one has. Nobody else seems to be doing this that I have seen. Perhaps because the sound of those suitcase wheels is so disturbing you have to play music through headphones on the way there and back just to drown it out.

Another recovered word; piety.

Devotion. Strong belief in a religion that is shown in the way someone lives. A conventional belief or standard.

Corona piety? We are renunciating and we are trying to love thy neighbours. Never before have so many smiles been exchanged with those in the surrounding apartments. The virus is making us nicer.

 

 

There is a poster on this wall that is starting to really bug me. The previous tenant left it here. It’s by a Swiss artist, and he said we could take it down if we want. There are days when I don’t see it, and days when it is all I see. The phone bothers me far more than the penis. That gross device manifesting all over his naked languid pose and pointing towards the room. I should really take it down but every day I tell myself ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’. There are lots of procrastinations now. Because now (which is really no different than before) we have an excess of healthy tomorrows to put task to. All the time in the world to do chores or make work or achieve those niggly actions that one avoids until it’s too irritating to bear. This poster must not have become totally unbearable yet. Perhaps soon enough it will be too much a part of this room, and this time, to say goodbye to. ‘Goodbye To All That’, Joan Didion’s title for the last piece in her Slouching Towards Bethlehem collection of essays. Those four words ring and ring in my head like an earworm.

Punch, brothers! Punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

–Mark Twain,  A Literary Nightmare (1876)

An earworm is a piece of music that gets stuck in your head and won’t go away. Sticky music. An auditory hallucination. In the short story A Literary Nightmare (download), a virus-like jingle is spreading. The narrator Twain first reads it printed in a newspaper and becomes mentally incapacitated by it. Once the jingle latches to his mind, he loses all concentration and can no longer remember anything. Not what he had for breakfast, whether he ate at all, nor the words he had ready to use in his novel. Twain is debilitated for days until he manages to “infect” his Reverand friend on a walk, thus releasing him from the virus and deleting the jingle from his mind.

According to research by James Kellaris, 98% of individuals experience earworms. Women and men experience the phenomenon equally often, but earworms tend to last longer for women and irritate them more.[1]

What if contracting a piece of sticky music could affect our rhythm of life so? Imagine picking up a tune so influential it overrides our enduring haste, causing us to slow and slack. I realise as I write this that I am describing the impact of COVID-19. At first I considered a new rhythm of the mind to change everyday life into a lower gear, but it appears the current crisis presents a similar effect; except it targets the body of the being rather than the mind.

Another story of an ear worm is Fritz Leiber’s 1959 Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee (download). Let’s set the scene:

Once upon a time, when just for an instant all the molecules in the world and in the collective unconscious mind got very slippery, so that just for an instant something could pop through from the past or the future or other places, six very important intellectual people were gathered together in the studio of Simon Grue, the accidental painter.

In Leiber’s take, the six intellectuals contract a rhythmic drumbeat “so powerful that it rapidly spreads to all areas of human culture, until a counter-rhythm is developed that acts as an antidote.”[2] Norman Saylor, the cultural anthropologist of the six, approaches a theory of cure;

When questioned about his own researches, the cultural anthropologist would merely say that they were “progressing.” He did, however, have one piece of concrete advice, which he delivered to all the five others just before the gathering broke up. “This splatter (of the accidental painter) does have an obsessive quality, just as Gory (the clinical psychologist in the group), said. It has that maddening feeling of incompleteness which cries for repetition. It would be a good thing if each of us, whenever he feels the thing getting too strong a hold on him, would instantly shift to some engrossing activity which has as little as possible to do with arbitrarily ordered sight and sound. Play chess or smell perfumes or eat candy or look at the moon through a telescope, or stare at a point of light in the dark and try to blank out your mind—something like that. Try to set up a countercompulsion. One of us might even hit on a counterformula—a specific antidote—like quinine for malaria.

If the ominous note of warning in Norman’s statement didn’t register on all of them just then, it did at some time during the next seven days, for the frame of mind in which the six intellectuals came to the gathering after the third week was one of paranoid grandeur and hysterical desperation.”

Eventually the counter is discovered (I won’t spoil the ending for you) which breaks the earworm’s spell. The story illustrates a scenario of possibility for rhythm to stick and effect the creative outputs, daily routines, and overall approaches to life of a person. To produce an influence on a society’s “idiorrhythmy” (Roland Barthes’ term for ‘ a productive form of living together in which one recognizes and respects the individual rhythms of the other’).

As for the sticky words of Goodbye To All That in the procrastination directed at the poster –soon there will be so many goodbyes to be said that probably I am just avoiding adding another to the list.

 

25th March 2020:

 

When I was thinking about Demolition (2015) (the film where  Jake Gyllenhaal’s investment banker character Davis loses his wife in a car accident and finds solace in destroying appliances, and eventually his own home) the other day, I started to look up about it and stumbled upon Behavenet.com. On the site they have a fantastic list of movies; “A catalog of films, indexed by time, with content, themes or depictions related to mental illness, addiction and their treatment.”

There is also a blog, with a recent piece titled The Joy of Shredding Records from 24th January this year, where a doctor recounts the counting down until he can dispose of patient records, and the relief at the end of it. ‘What happens if the patient wants a copy of their record after I have destroyed the paper?’ physician Berry Edwards asks. There is not much to the piece. Merely a voicing of a practical conundrum faced by the profession. I was hoping for a more passionate description of destruction. The visceral joy of watching a long-stored object be annihilated. Some kind of liberation. Alas, no. he just debates joining the cloud or the possibilities of digitalisation, as we all do. It’s another task that this window of opportunity – the times of isolation during COVID19 – holds as possibility, but probably will not come to fruition. Join the club, man. Has the quarantine given a whole new meaning to Jenny Odell’s ‘How to do Nothing’?

 

“He always has his inbox at zero. That is fucking inspirational.”
– Overheard on this morning’s walk.

 

 

26th March 2020:

 

I had my first Pair Up call today. It was a little bit disturbing and a little bit boring. The German woman who is ‘Creative Director’ for a retail agency requested a call with me the day I signed up. Why I signed up to participate I do not know. Perhaps I was caught at a moment of weakness, a moment of contracted FOMO from the virtual goings-on of Life At Home During COVID-19. Whatever the reason, I knew it would be interesting ‘research’ of what was on offer to fill your time and ‘connect’ while forced to stay all day in the living room.

“Pair Up is a place for creatives to find and offer their time to others with the goal of sharing, learning and problem solving with each other. 

Stuck on a problem?

Lost with a side project?
Unsure about a piece of work?
Don’t know how to do something?
Have a bad tutor and need help?
Want to just share a passion? –––––––––> Pair up with someone and talk about it.

Sessions are advised to be 30 minutes long, and are taken over a video call, with the software up to each individual. Bookings are
first come, first served.

When booking, please give a description of what you want to talk about, who you are and anything else you feel is relevant (such as a URL to your work).”

My phone autocorrected her name to ‘Smirks’. When it came to arranging the Zoom call, I was sure to keep the predetermined talk duration to 30 minutes. That was all we needed, all I wanted, and a fun element of bounded-ness to bring to the interaction. She was right on time in true national precision, and situated in the agency’s Stuttgart office since nobody was around. ‘I cannot concentrate at home. There’s too much going on.’ We spoke for the full half hour and traversed industry topics and expected (now unavoidable) pleasantries of life in lockdown, beginning with ‘how did you find out about Pair Up?’

Pair Up is a simple link-up mechanism where one can put forth their availability to call and outline the categories somebody might want to ask you about (all in the realm of creativity-as-work); design, brand strategy, portfolio advice – you know the drill. I wanted to put something unusual like Offline Action (barely shocking), though others have gone further including ‘Mills (ustwo)’s bold Hype, Biz Building and Lolz. Others list team dynamics, remote work, and image-making as expertise. I wonder if those offering ‘Freelancing Tips’ are experiencing a spike in popularity. Another guy just puts ‘agile’ as his repertoire.

Smirks tells me she just got off a zoom call of 400 people put on by The House of Beautiful Business. ‘Have you heard of it?’. No.

‘It’s usually really expensive, a few hundred euros of month, but now they’re holding these open seminars where anyone can join. It was really great. They had somebody from Google talking there’.

Smirks later sends me a link to their Instagram, which bio’s itself as ‘…a global think tank and community for making humans more human and business more beautiful.’ Their talks have titles like ‘The Future of Work. Revisited’, and ‘The Great Reset’.

 

Still 15 minutes to go.

 

Smirks laments the new stresses of her employees;

‘This morning we did our regular Monday Morning Meeting that we would normally do in the office, now done over video call, obviously. Everyone was saying how now there are so many yoga classes or seminars there are to participate it, and how these are highly influencing them. They say they are stressed by the confusion of not knowing anymore whom to follow, what to watch, where to tune in, etc. They say it’s easier to stay offline. It’s just too much. Too much.

I think everybody experiences that working remotely, there is really something missing. It’s not the same as if we were in a room together. It’s not the same as being sat at the same table. I’m not even looking you in the eye right now! We don’t look at the camera, we look at the screen.’

I haven’t seen dialogue about there being something missing. From what I’ve seen, we are adapting and making it work. Continuing as we were, instead now from home. The same work, only done remotely. I see substitutes; 5’oclock drinks done over the computer with no real bodies around, or weekly ‘Town Halls’ with all the employees dialled in, watching. Muted.

I see survival. I see coping. I don’t see critique of the inadequacies (besides new revelations on Zoom’s privacy policies). Maybe we are all staying hopeful and optimistic. This is afterall an industry (the creative industries) that sees positive thinking as a cure-all.

Smirks asks what I do and how I do it. Within minutes I find myself complaining about how all work is the same, all problems are answered with the social media solution, and hear myself falling further out of love with the profession I never identified with. It sounds weirder and weirder – I have little good to say and it doesn’t make sense why I am in the game at all if I have no belief in it. Even the reason of doing it to make a living gets murkier by the day. The boyfriend’s call next door speaks of marketing strategies that deploy ‘taste makers’ in ‘key markets’ to supposedly set trends including their products; a story I have heard a million times before. Over five years in the business and none of the tactics have changed. Everybody is trying the same thing over and over again, and wondering why it appears to work for everyone but them.

We discuss the potentiality of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown to effect consumerism. I realise my doubts lie in the distraction from what’s going on. Sure, if we could recognise our compulsive purchasing and how unnecessary it is, we might recalibrate values in these tight four walls; prioritising family and friend connections or realising the dependency on devices for a ‘feel-good’ factor in life. But if we are further distracting ourselves in this time – all the calls, all the news, all the newly invented to-do’s or picked up to-watch’s – when we reenter outside life, nothing will have changed. We might even lean on our little devices, exterior objects and former automatism-to-buy harder than before. Damn. For a moment there it really looked like it was going to be a period of adjustment. That we would emerge to a new world that had changed in what we thought we wanted, and what we thought we needed. If we couldn’t deal with the extreme discomfort now, the deeper distraction from withdrawals cannot have passed us beyond the painful part. It was a refusal to experience the pain, we will stay. Scroll the hurts away. Everybody stayed online and now we’re back to business-as-usual.

Smirks reminds me of the pitching process. The process of presenting a big ‘blue skies’ idea to stroke the client’s ego into believing themselves to be that kind of company, only to result in making something unremarkable and identical that what has gone before, or what somebody else is doing. It’s a trigger. I had forgotten about this corner. My body feels further and further detached from this world. The former effect of disappointment feels a juvenile lifetime away. I don’t care anymore. I know the game.

Smirks is trying to use this time to ‘figure out’ what she wants from work. For work. ‘Something more purpose-driven’ is the closest mirage she has arrived to. I’m now in the other camp. Over the idea of ‘doing what you love’ as the ultimate goal of paid work, and making clear separations from what you do for money, and living life. ‘To live and breathe your work’ they say. Perhaps I still live it, but no longer can I breathe it.

‘You’re self-employed right?’, she asks. ‘Do you think you should give up self-employment to focus on different things. To go back to a regular employed job where you enter an office and they take care of all the bookkeeping, the taxes, so you don’t have to do it?’ Trigger.

I hear ‘do you want to hand in your freedom?’. I explain the alternative economies I am trying to build and exist within. Exchanges of bookkeeping for maintaining someone’s website, or ‘rent’ in exchange for other arrangements of care. Smirks is impressed but doesn’t get it. We go into reducing your costs of living to the bare minimum in order to have maximum free time. She tries to understand the preference of that trade. ‘It’s a mindset’ she says. I’m not sure I agree. The conversation struggles to get past the binary of full-time employment or full-time freelance hustler as the only options.

 

30 minutes is up. ‘This was great. So philosophical. I can’t wait for more Pair Ups,’ Smirks summarises before signing off.

 

I doubt I’ll do this again.

 

“Chronic grief” — a concept often discussed in chronic illness circles. The ongoing, non-singular experience of grief that occurs and reoccurs. Requires diff coping strategies. Also: it’s perhaps a more anticapitalist form of grief. Ongoing, internal, non productive.
This concept might be useful for understanding grief re the coronavirus.”

– ANTISTATIC, Untitled Presentation

 

“Basic”

‘You knew these people would be basic’ the boyfriend reminds me over dinner. ‘Why are you doing this?’ He continues to ask, and I still don’t know. Today basic is one of the lowest of insults. To be basic is inferior to being complex. ‘It’s complicated’ we say when one cannot be bothered, or doesn’t know how, to explain.

 

“We come from a world that has always deceived itself using the notion of complexity. For many people complexity is, rightly, the formula for a lie. When people don’t want to say what something’s really like, they say, “it’s complicated.”
– from an interview with Heinz Bude

 

“I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex.”
– Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry, Chapter 2.

 

Jess Henderson

Jess Henderson, founder of No Fun and Outsider, is an independent writer and research based in Zürich and Amsterdam. Their book Offline Matters: Radical Strategies for the Creative Worker (Amsterdam: BIS Publishers, 2020) comes out in September.