Hey world

so yes, this is a piece written during coronavirus, about coronavirus, because of coronavirus et cetera, like a million others like it.

and that’s okay, because it means that we have more time to reflect. the world has been rejiggered enough that we’re going to learn new things about ourselves, we’re going to miss the status quo and also question it, we’re going to wonder what we can’t live without and then live without it anyway. for those of us who have only experienced displacement, trauma or survival in small doses, we are learning what it means to live in a world where the future is a luxury.

there will be pieces about love in the time of coronavirus, about scarcity, and solidaridy, and consumerism and about our devices changing overnight from vices to lifelines. there will be guilt over mourning things deemed too trivial, for bursting into tears over a tweet when people are gasping for breath, when many more can’t afford food or medicine, when grandparents are dying alone.

that is alright too. everyone has lost their balance. maybe it will be two months, and cases will peak, and the economy will stabilize, and we will see the end, even if it is a grim one. maybe things will change so fast and we won’t be able to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our freedoms. maybe we will spend a spring indoors, while the world blooms. maybe the earth is laughing at us.

a friend asked me over text if I was lonely. he is a new friend and we are only just exploring the contours of what our friendship is. I resented the question. because there was a moment last night when I played, “if the world was ending, you’d come over right?” after a day spent alone on the couch learning the Korean alphabet and watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine. at that moment I wanted someone to come over, I wanted to be someone’s first call when the earth begins to shake. at first I wanted to escape the feeling. then I sat up on the couch, breathed in, and let the feeling sink into me. it felt like loss.

I did not want to confess this to the new friend, to suggest I had failed at being unlonely. this despite the endless calls and texts and video chats and virtual happy hours with friends and family. checking in on others, responding to check ins, watching movies, telling a friend, “I’m okay, but I’m on the floor sobbing right now.”

that’s it. I don’t have anything big to say. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. but I want to live this moment. I want to accept what it has to offer.

Ruminations on space

As a child I lived on a flat suburban grid. The mile streets were numbered; the houses sat on rectangular plots with lawns in the front and yards in the back, separated by driveways that emptied into the street. Beyond the square mile we lived in, bounded by 9 Mile and 10 Mile roads, freeways confused the linear order, but I was too young to know that.

As a student I lived on a mountain in Israel. I climbed 150 uneven stairs to get to school every morning. From the window of my dorm room space fell away. At night, I could see the outline of the Kinneret, a black hole surrounded by city lights miles below me. On days that school ended after sunset, I would watch the sky turn colors in the gridded windows of our trailer classrooms. Some days, I walked out of class and into the orange sky. I felt much closer to the heavens.

After Israel, I moved to Los Angeles. This time I had a car. The shape of the city changed in relation to me; mountains shifted, purple ridges appeared at the top of a street and disappeared several feet later. West began to mean something. It meant a fulminating ocean, the burst of blue that greets drivers emerging from the tunnel at the end of the 10 freeway. The ocean was always there, impossible to see or hear, hugging the end of the world.

In New York, I deny the feeling of entrapment it gives me. A world unto itself and impossible to leave. With a car I’d conquered space. In New York, I am constrained by it. Everyone hungers for it. The glass supertalls crane their necks up above the shoulders of the huddled masses of buildings, breathing cleaner air.

The city’s defendants keep their eyes on the frenetic life of the street; more life in a square block than all of Missoula, they say, more anger and love and injustice and desperation here than anywhere. A square foot costs more than your Mom’s mortgage payment, more than minimum wage for a week. Chinese takeout near designer handbags near drunk college students at the top of the world.

At work I talk to people who buy and sell pieces of space. They call our homes asset classes. They call the rent we pay net operating income. They think of the shapes of spaces as FAR, the amount of space zoning laws allow them to use for sleep, for play, for staircases so narrow they force awkward encounters with your neighbors.

Once, when I lived in East Harlem, I wrote about it for work, the forever story of New York: a neighborhood changing, a possible rezoning, near-death buildings abandoned by landlords, a neighborhood coffee shop opened by an optimistic half-Peruvian, determined to create a meeting place for residents old and new.

While reporting the story, I crossed the street from my building to the calm northwestern corner of Central Park, near the pond where two bodies were found when it thawed earlier that spring. On most days it was occupied by locals: runners, dog walkers, parents with strollers, parents on their way to school, workers on their way to work, the elderly from the home across Fifth Avenue, packs of teens, schoolchildren, depending on the time of day.

That day, a Sunday, it was still too chilly out for crowds, and the only man I had the courage to talk to was sitting on a bench facing the pond. He told me he was an organist who played at a storefront church on Third Avenue; he was playing at 4 that afternoon in fact, and I was invited.

He’d once lived across the street, on Fifth Avenue. He was in his fifties. Oh it was different back then, he said, and then paused, not mournfully but in a way that meant, where are we to start?

That was back when my building was still subsidized, before real estate agents tried to rename the blocks above East 96nd Street, before the condo building had been built on the corner opposite. In a deal with the developer, its first two floors had been designated as a community center for African-American and African art and culture, but the nonprofit organization had failed to raise the funds to build it. So for the three years I lived there, the concrete interiors of the grandiosely planned Africa Center sat vacant, beside the golden glow of the residential lobby next door.

That afternoon, I walked gingerly into the Third Avenue church, at the end of a bustling stretch of El Barrio. It was cozy inside and perfumed, packed with the body heat of the swaying congregation. The music bellowed, a woman described being possessed by the devil to a chorus of intensifying Amens.

This was a sacred space I didn’t understand. I left before the service was over to retread Third Avenue, to traverse El Barrio, to preside over the projects below me from my eighteenth floor apartment, to think endlessly about what it means to be situated in this space.

Aluminum butterfly

I was still in middle school when Sara Levin got a scholarship to Harvard, or Stanford, or MIT. Sara’s scholarship was an open secret, but only after — and maybe because — she turned it down.

When Sara’s father, Dr. Levin, was the cantor in shul, he bellowed the prayers in his distinctly American accent. “Oseh Shalom Bimromav,” he brayed while taking the three steps back at the end of the amidah. His broad shoulders, wrapped in a Talis, dipped to the right and left as is the custom; his overgrown brown beard stabbed the air as he dipped forward. His gartel, the fringed fabric belt Hasidic men wear, wound around his black frock coat, accentuated his oval girth while he swayed.

Afterwards, around the Shabbat table, we would mock him. For the hardness of his American Rs, for the eagerness with which he took the podium, for how loud and assuming he was, how large; so unlike the slight, yiddish-speaking men like my father who lived in perpetual indecision, like they were still surprised to be here in Detroit and not the shtetl.

Dr. Levin was not a doctor. He had gone to college, and rumor was he was very smart, mad-scientist smart. Rumor was he had invented the little aluminum butterfly on soda cans and beer cans. Rumor had it, he’d never gotten the credit he deserved for inventing the can-opening mechanism, now as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola. The college that had bestowed upon him the title of doctor had taken the credit, and the royalties, for his invention.

That was why he lived in a house in Oak Park with his wife and four kids, in between 9 Mile, the Hasidic enclave where we lived among our gentile neighbors, and 10 Mile, where the rest of the orthodox Jewish community congregated.

Like her family, Sara was larger than us and more obviously American, two things that seemed related in my mind. I thought unkindly that she turned down the scholarship to prove that she was one of us.

I knew I was supposed to celebrate her sacrifice, but I could not. I knew that I should feel guilty for being disappointed for her, but I did not. I felt instead a very distinct and very powerful feeling of loss, even though it wasn’t mine.

Mostly, I was jealous. Because I would never get the chance to turn down a free ride to Harvard, or Stanford, to MIT. I would never get the chance to know if I could.

Sara Levin went to seminary and married my cousin. She moved to Australia and had twins, and many more children after that.

I went to a jazz concert last night, and while I listened I played with the aluminum butterfly on the can of Bad Seed Cider in my hands. It was in the back room of a Brooklyn bar, among friends and musicians, and after a few turns, the butterfly came free in my hands. While the music played and the Bad Seed Cider filled my head with lightness, I remembered Sara Levin and Dr. Levin’s prayers and thought about how gray his beard must be now.

How to get dressed on the hottest morning of the RNC

Written on July 17, 2016 when I was newly unemployed and the bleeding of normalcy into something entirely different was not yet complete.

It is 9am and I am still wearing the men’s boxers I bought yesterday for four dollars. I keep seeing their polka dotted pattern and the weird way they bulge, and myself, in the sleek floor-to-ceiling mirror my new roommate has placed opposite the apartment door entrance.

I have already burned the toast I tried to broil in the oven, like I have the last few mornings. I finished the last 6 percent of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, the book I’ve been reading that makes me think equally of British gardens and Parisian architecture and the holes Germany left everywhere. I’ve read about Milo Yiannopolous from someone who went to his gay neo-fascist party and seems genuinely frightened by the soullessness of the super trolls and “weaponized insincerity” and the fact that after the party a less hardened liberal journalist broke down crying and said, “Why is there so much hate?”

I’ve considered the threat of what would happen if Trump lost for the first time. Until now I thought his losing would make this all go away but suddenly I need to at least consider the possibility that that’s not the case. What would happen to all the hate?

It is hot in New York and it will be hot for the week to come and I’m scared of the heat. I want to ignore the RNC and November and the fact that my brother said he wants Trump to win because his ego will make him try to prove himself. And I don’t know what to make of the fact that someone painted a swastika on my (same) brother’s driveway. I refuse to believe the hate everyone keeps talking about.

In Austerlitz there are just a few pages that describe what the character’s parents thought, living in Prague in the 1930s, how his mother wanted to be a singer and his father witnessed a rally for Hitler and he felt the hell that was coming.

What I wonder is, is there a way that the individuals are not bad, but their accumulation is? I don’t believe in American exceptionalism, I think it’s another word for nationalism from which there is a quick hop to the evils of last century, but are the people who do (believe in it) evil? are they more selfish and needy than everyone else? what makes their sum so dangerous?

I don’t want to think about this. I want to think about what to wear. But my headache is sinking from between my eyes down to my cheeks and jawbones and the single siren outside my window which is white with sunlight is reminding me of the todo list I’ve neatly written in a small spiral notebook I have taken to carrying around with me. There is no floor I fear. No dark, cool corner free of the fear of next month’s rent and the chaos of the RNC and the city’s sun and sweat.

Is it feminism if you don’t know it

I read “The Feminine Mystique” as 2016 turned to 2017. I spent several hours riding from Harlem to Crown Heights and back on the first day of the year, engrossed in the feminist classic, somewhat embarrassed to be coming to it so late.

I hang out with people for whom I assume Betty Friedan’s book is biblical; if they haven’t read it they’ve absorbed its content anyway. And I had been feigning feminism for several years now, so the outrage that began to flame in me as I hurtled to Brooklyn felt amateur.

I was hangry by the time I reached Crown Heights to meet my family for dinner at a greasy Kosher restaurant. They had already posted a picture to WhatsApp — a religious ritual at this point — of the whole gang surrounding a table covered in the disposable flotsam of dinner.

I walked up a dark Empire Boulevard, and passed the Kosher market where the automatic doors were open, framing a large, shoddy man in black hat and beard, paying at the cashier. I stared egregiously at him, thinking that if I looked harder, I would know him.

Then I saw a poster stapled to a pole advertising a lecture series called “Dating with awareness,” with Chana Schneider*, an acclaimed dating expert. The name catapulted me back ten years to a makeshift classroom in Tzfat in Northern Israel when Chana Schneider had come to talk to my seminary class about dating and marriage.

I remember only that the gist of the conversation was advice on how to deal with petty arguments about open toilet seats and dirty socks left on the floor. As a 17-year-old, this genre of marital education seemed ridiculous. I had no intention of marrying anytime soon. And this dowdy woman, in blond wig, oversized suit and buttoned-up shirt, who was heralded as some sort of bride-whisperer, was not going to be my guide to womanhood.

Since then, I have made choices that would have endeared me to feminists, but I did not know it. I went to college, I chose a career, I left a set of rules and searched for new ones. Yet somehow I’ve been called a bad feminist by feminist friends because I don’t know their canon and my version of sexism was and remains different. (The slow realization of my body’s power over men, something I had legitimately not known until my middle twenties, meant that for a long time I preferred reveling in that power, rather than acquiescing to the narrative that a male-dominant civilization equals a male-dominant interaction on a street corner.)

Ironically, in following the path away from early marriage, I ended up living across the street from Chana Schneider and her many happy, well-adjusted children in Los Angeles. I ate Shabbat lunch with her and was advised to seek her counsel by people with my best interest at heart.

Now, reading Betty Friedan, I recognized so many of the argument that had been made in the name of god and the Torah. And here there were, visible now as angry, domineering, morally righteous, outrageous positions of men against every attempt women made at freedom. Some of those arguments had been made by our beloved Rebbe, whose teachings line the walls of my childhood home and continue to dictate the lives of my parents.

Empire Grill is a loud shop, full of Israelis and Yeshiva students. When I came in, a patron was slurping noodles steeped in a brown sauce off a paper plate. I sat down next to my mother, a woman who bore nine children, and who since her last child has left home, has blossomed. Her brown wig had been curled to frame her face like a young girl. She talked gaily about shopping with her twin-sister.

Later, I left my mother outside my brother’s home, where she’d play grandmother to his five or six kids. I took the train back to Harlem where I live with two roommates, too many frozen Trader Joe’s dinners, and a life that is Chana Schneider’s worst nightmare.

*Not her real name


That we’re aware of it (and by we I mean I) does not absolve us of signing away our lives. What has happened now that the childhood virtue, the long hours in rebellious books, is temptation and escape?

Which is it? A life to take and take the best of music and wisdom and sentences, or to add to the beast? Consume or create, the only options.

Who is being hurt? Are we depriving ourselves of the world or depriving the world of us? The answer is among friends. I’ll send you a letter and then publish it for all. Am I a writer or a millennial? Am I enriching myself or drowning?

The redemption is a world submerged in water, engulfed and breathing truth, knowledge and light. Says Maimonides. A frightening image in some ways, if you’re afraid of water. I wonder if we’re not already there. There is no need to wake up, except for better dreams.

We are not prepared for infinity, but it has found us.

Consume and be consumed.