BY MAX BURBANK
December 12, 2019: A cluster of patients in China’s Hubei Province, in the city of Wuhan, begin to experience the symptoms of an atypical pneumonia-like illness that does not respond well to standard treatment.—The CDC Museum’s COVID-19 Timeline
March 11, 2020: With 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 deaths, the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic.
March 15, 2020: My employer, Harrison’s Comics and Collectibles in Salem Massachusetts, closes its doors, as do most “non-essential” businesses in the United States. Three days later, I would post the first entry in a writing project I called My CoviDiary. I wrote almost daily for about a year, tapering off a little toward the end, with a final entry on February 22, 2021. Much of it was published on the very website you are reading now. I wrote a brief afterword a month and a half later that closed with the following:
I’ll write later about why I didn’t write for more than a month (or theorize about the many reasons maybe I didn’t, because lord knows I can’t claim to know anything for sure.) Soon. The next entry, or upcoming entries, or let’s be honest, maybe never. I am nothing if not an unreliable narrator.
And then, dear reader? I wrote close to nothing at all. For almost three years, the longest I have gone without writing since I was a teenager, and friends, I am currently 61 years old. It was not a decision. My intention was only to give myself a moment to take a breath, but it must have been a very deep one that maybe I am still holding…
So. A long pause here. A beat, if you will, as aging theater folk put it, even when they have not been on stage in decades.
We have in our house, as we often do at this festive time of year, a bag of Clementines. In preparing to write this piece, or perhaps avoiding it, I grabbed one to snack on. I can’t write without snacking, a thing to which the unspeakably sticky keys of my laptop will attest. Curiosity and habitual procrastination being what they are, I had soon tumbled down a rich rabbit hole of information regarding why clementines are associated with the Christmas season. I invite you to tumble down it likewise at your leisure, as I am disinclined to excavate it for you.
I’ll say this much; once upon a time, Clementines were rare and expensive and when tots in days of yore discovered one in their toe of their Christmas stockings, their hearts presumably brimmed with wonder and delight. Time, factory farming and labor abuse have made the clementine as ubiquitous as city pigeons, and yet here we all are, grimly trying to ignite the faintest spark of holiday wonder by grabbing a bag (We buy them by the bag, good lord!) as if “tradition” was an adequate substitute for exotica instead of the exact opposite.
To my irritation, the skin of the little bastard resisted peeling, which is some serious bullshit, as I would argue the entire value of Clementines, now that they are commonplace, is that they are easier to peel than their larger cousins. I slid my thumb into the rind near the top, something bitter experience should have long ago taught me not to do. While I failed to achieve any substantial peeling, I did manage to jam a portion of horrid, white, citric acid-soaked albedo (the fibrous white layer lurking beneath the outer skin) under my thumbnail. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about and, as this is a universally shared experience and not simply one more of the myriad minor annoyances that happen only to me, piling one atop another like autumn leaves that when endured singly weigh almost nothing, but in aggregate must eventually crush your rib cage as effectively and fatally as the stones on Giles Corey’s chest.
I’m sure by now you think I am attempting some as-yet opaque life-metaphor, and indeed I am, but the pain of the experience was anything but figurative. It stung, way too much and for way too long, producing a level of irritation that seemed impossibly outsized when compared to the miniscule sliver of underpeel causing it. It’s a particularly focused and absorbing discomfort, it occupies the brain in a way that is hard to think around, like tinnitus WHICH I ALSO SUFFER FROM, YES, AND IN SPADES, and it makes writing quite impossible.
Hemingway could not have written with a nasty bit of Clementine albedo wedged beneath his thumbnail. I am told that master of modern horror, Stephen King, avoids all citrus fruit entirely for fear that even an author as prolific as he might be stopped dead in his tracks.
The point of all of which is to say that for nearly two years now, the experience of existing in the world has been a wedging clementine under-peel beneath my thumbnail. CLEMENTINE UNDER-PEEL! A fruit supposedly prized for its thin, yielding, rind; the round-heeled citrus treat famous for its eagerness to disrobe! The natural order turns and betrays us! Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world! What rough Clementine, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
That. That is why I stopped writing. Metaphorical Clementine peel under my thumbnail. And also, I was very, very tired.
Another beat. Bear with me as I take a lengthy pause to gird my loins for the plunge.
If I am going to write again (and I surely hope I am, but there’s no certainty), I feel like I have to start by writing about how I stopped writing. Not why, but how it happened that I stopped doing the main thing that, for most of my life, allows me to pretend to navigate the world I exist in.
Four days after the presidential election, enough votes had been tallied for the networks to call the race for Biden. Though Trump did not concede and has not to this day, though an alarming chunk of the Nation takes as an article of faith that the election was stolen by the infamous archcriminal mastermind and demented, enfeebled geriatric Joe Biden, the mainstream media’s November 7th consensus that Joe beat Donald was enough for me.
Enough for me to loosen muscles I’d been clenching so long I’d forgotten they were not simply strung that way, to exhale the breath I had been holding for four years, most recently behind a taught N95 mask. I’d like to say I allowed myself for the first time in a very long time to relax, but the truth is less dignified, and the word “collapse” is more descriptive.
My chronological grasp of what happened when for the last few years is poor, a state of affairs that masks my ability to pinpoint exactly when my personal timeline started getting fuzzy. It would suit this narrative to say that Biden’s victory was the moment. It could be argued the tsunami of relief was so vast after years of manic, assiduous attention to the minutiae of national and world affairs, my sense of day-by-day history was swept out to sea along with the crippling anxiety that had been so closely intertwined with it. I suppose that’s partially true and it paints a more flattering picture of me, but the truth is I am foggy by disposition and easily distracted. What’s really changed over the last year (or so) for me personally is an increase in personal fogginess coupled with the disturbing feeling that you have joined me in the fog. Not you the reader, the larger you. All of you. Everyone.
For instance: I required the Internet to remind me that on the day Biden won the presidency, the COVID vaccine was not yet publicly available. Though we’ve largely forgotten it, in the immediate aftermath of the election if you came down with COVID there was a decent chance you’d be saying goodbye to your loved ones over Facetime, because if you did it in person you risked dragging them with you into the great beyond. So whatever it was about Trump’s defeat that inspired such relief I barely wrote a word for over three years, it couldn’t have had much to do with COVID. I mean, that’s the logical conclusion, right? I think? That my fear of living under a demented, leathery orange fascist was greater than my fear of death?
I think the answer is, for me, more complicated. In my mind, Trump and COVID are inextricably bound together. I began writing about Donald Trump (for the precursor physical publication that led to the very website you are reading now) directly after the 2016 Iowa caucuses. I wrote about him through the primaries, the general election and on into his presidency. I marinated in the politics of Trump for years. And for most of it, my overarching concern, my primary fear, was: What will become of us if this incompetent, narcissistic, imbecilic, authoritarian buffoon is faced with a crisis, as all but the luckiest presidents eventually are? What deadly hash would so uniquely unqualified a leader make of a real mess, and would any of us live through it? For me, COVID and Trump were never two distinct fears. They were a terrifying combo plate. While COVID is far larger than any one man, it’s advent coinciding with Trump’s reign was devastating.
And if his election loss took a great weight off my shoulders even pre-vaccine, the events of January 6th were, if anything, more soothing. I know, that sounds counterintuitive to the point of absurdity, right? But follow me here for a moment:
Though evidence suggests this is not the case, 1/6/2021 ought to be like the Moon Landing, the Kennedy assassination, 9/11—an occasion where everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. To be fair, those of us who think the events of that day were more than routine tourism or a legitimate form of political expression do. I was up in my attic room, futilely attempting to bring some order to what had once been my writing/art studio but had over the years become more like a possible crime scene where police discover the mummified remains of an octogenarian hoarder who possibly spent his declining years attempting to domesticate squirrels. I was interrupted by my daughter climbing the stairs to inform me that a violent mob was storming the Capitol. And while my first thought was probably the same as yours, “Holy shit!” my second was “Oh, thank God.”
Because in that instant, I believed with complete certainty that Trump and Trumpism were over. That there was just no way that either the man or the movement could survive this event. I did rouse myself to write a CoviDiary entry about it, the second to last entry, just two days after the fact, a final sprint. To my mind, it’s one of the best entries in the entire damn project (You can read it here if you are so inclined.) We know a lot more now than we did then, but re-reading it, all the basics are there. It’s lengthy and ugly, but I get off a few good jokes. I closed by stating as succinctly as I could why I feel compelled to think about, write about and laugh at whatever the most difficult, scary shit is going on in any given moment: “If I can find a way to make some concrete thing out of them, something I can work on until it feels acceptable, something I can finish as much as anything ever really gets finished… then I can allow myself to set it down and walk away.”
That’s as close as I got to describing the weird, upsetting relief I felt, because it was embarrassing and almost shameful. But at a distance of a little over three years, I’m beginning to get that “relief” was just a bad description of my state of mind. It was the wrong word.
A lifetime ago when I was a self-impressed, absurd, and wistful little teen, I thought if I learned to play the guitar and set some of my awful poetry to music, girls would like me better. Unsurprisingly, guitar turned out to be pretty hard and it hurt my fingers and I gave up. But not before I had an experience which years later makes for an apt metaphor I can use here, so maybe it wasn’t all for naught. I was trying to tune my instrument and for some reason I just could not get one of the strings high enough. I turned the string’s peg, tightening and tightening until suddenly and violently… it snapped.
Which is sort of what I think happened to me. I spent four years trying really hard to understand and write about what was going on in an increasingly crazy world, and the part of me that writes about stuff got tighter and tighter until it snapped. After January 6th, I had one more piece in me, and it was a good one. I worked on it until it felt acceptable, I finished it as much as anything ever really gets finished. I found a way to make a thing out of it. And then I set it down and I walked away. I just didn’t have a good picture of how long I’d be walking away, what I was walking away from and if I planned to come back. I wasn’t relieved. I wasn’t just tired, though of course I was. I was a snapped string. And you can’t make music on a snapped spring. You can’t even make a note.
It seems absurd to say I don’t feel like me when I’m not writing, considering my general distaste for ambition. I quit guitar because it was hard, but also? Ugly truth: I like doing nothing. It’s a passion, maybe even calling. Is the me that loves doing nothing as much me as the me that writes? Why would you think I’d know? Honestly, I’m a little irritated you’d even ask.
And the me that’s a snapped string? The me that’s wandering around in the world not writing? I think that’s you too. I mean, not you, specifically. I don’t even know who you are. I mean everyone, which is a hard thing to think, because I’m super committed to my belief that I’m special and different, an exquisite, puckish imponderable that really, really likes to sink into a good couch.
Did we actually live through a pandemic? Could it possibly be that there were ever refrigerator trucks parked outside of hospitals? Is the Coronavirus death toll at almost seven million worldwide? That can’t be true. Doesn’t it seem like that would be a lot bigger of a deal with, I don’t know, everyone?
Did we come within a hair’s breadth of a fascist coup? Having dodged that bullet, are we as a nation honestly flirting with choosing fascism four years later? Because Biden is so old and out of touch that maybe it’d be OK not to vote for him and let the dude that’s just three and a half years younger, twice impeached, four times indicted, facing ninety-one charges, Hitler-curious, and DEMONSTRABLY INSANE win?!
And don’t get me started on whether or not we’ve passed the tipping point on the environment. I mean, literally, don’t, because I have no idea at all on how to function regarding that topic.
It’s all so big. So much. Shouldn’t it have stopped everyone in their tracks? I’d have thought more monuments and speeches and days of contemplation, and maybe, for god’s sake, change. But maybe what we’re doing is what “stopped in our tracks” looks like.
We are all shell-shocked. We are all wandering around pretending that nothing too far out beyond the edge of normal has happened, that this is all copeable with. There’s a whole giant pile of subjects that when we come close to them, a flashing red light goes off in our brains, a stern recording (the voice of the Robot from Lost in Space, at least in my head) says, “Danger! Danger! Do not approach! Do not approach!”
We are all one provocation away from a loud, hot, expectorating rejoinder, and that provocation could be absolutely anything at all; an opinion, perceived side-eye, a joke that didn’t land or maybe it landed exactly the way the provocateur intended and it was just crafted to look like it didn’t land, because that’s how provocateurs GET YOU!! My God, if someone told me that they liked liver and onions I would have to break one of their fingers, AT MINIMUM! We are all of us shambling to and fro mumbling, “It’s fine, everything is fine and within the parameters of normal, I am OK, I can do all the things I have to do and not scream if you just don’t say anything weird to me or maybe ANYTHING AT ALL because I am JUST! FINE! JUST LIKE YOU!!
We (or maybe it’s just me) are all stumbling through a dense fog bank, arms outstretched to keep from colliding with walls or each other. We are all (or I am) fighting a desperate urge to say, “Marco!” in hopes that you (I) will hear far away (or maybe quite close by!) someone out there saying, “Polo!” We are all looking for something like a Clementine in the toe of something like a stocking, something that hasn’t become dreadfully commonplace and flavorless, something still rare and exotic and much to be desired. Something that would bring us joy to eat without attendant thumb pain—a lovely snack to pause over and concentrate upon while the fog cleared, so we might see all the ground we’ve covered, take account of who’s still with us, weigh the cost of those who are not, and at last begin to consider the way ahead.
LEARN A LITTLE BIT ABOUT MAX BURBANK | Burbank is a freelance writer living in Salem, Massachusetts. His work has been published by Cracked.com, NationalLampoon.com, i-mockery.com, and the literary magazine websites (because he is both hoity and toity, but neither enough to get in the print versions) Monkeybicycle.net and Frictionmagazine.com. Once upon a time, before the Internet, he sold science fiction stories to the legendary Algis Budrys for Tomorrow: The Magazine of Speculative Fiction. Until recently, he was the political satirist for Chelsea Now, where he won a PRESTIGIOUS first-place award for editorial cartooning from the New York Press Association, because gosh darn it, he draws real good, too. A huge, steaming pile of Max’s comedy writing can be found archived at maxburbank.wordpress.com. Max is available for freelance work, both writing and illustration, because he likes to eat.
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