500 Words: Wait, Wut #9
This is the web version of 500 Words, a place for 500-word essays and creative risks. When you see posts that are numbered, they are part of a series. To receive the posts in order as they come out, just click the button below. You’ll receive 500 words of short-form writing in your inbox as I write them.
When the smoke was thick, the sun was a salmon orb. It stayed an unhealthy pink until the burn from the north blew our way. Then it went dim and seemed like it might go out.
Staring at the sun, and being able to stare because it was a behind a veil of smoke, reminded me we were living in a dystopian family drama following a script that I didn’t like. But the cast was superb! Brave dad ordering supplies, fierce mother goddess overseeing mental and physical health, a genius kid, a cat providing love for food and litter changes, all trapped for months in a containment vessel (well, apartment) while everything burned.
What is happening now is something we will remember for a long time. Our children will divide their days by before and after just as we did after 911. The United States is ranked at number 28 for quality of life among the nations of the world. If my father were alive he would be worried, calling me on Sunday to say, Where is the fire now? Do you have enough work to pay the bills? Can I send you paper towels because we’re ranked 28th now?
Wait, wut? The US is ranked twenty-eighth in the world for quality of life? We’re far behind Norway, Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand.
I take a moment to consider this, my fingers swollen from pressing buttons to order food, disinfectant, and books, the requirements of survival in the containment vessel, and wonder what the hell happened, and how did it happen so fast? I teach a university class filled with students from abroad. They can’t wait to get back to their home countries. America is too dangerous, too polluted, and our government too dysfunctional. What happened?
It’s easy to cultivate a sense of calm! Just think of the good: So many people have moved out of New York, the oysters and honeybees are moving back to the bays and parks. Nature: beaten back by humans but not done yet. There are fewer cars on the road in Los Angeles, so you can see the mountains through air that is clearer than it has been in years. I order books from bookshop.org and Powell’s, not Amazon. There is progress.
Nothing big happens fast because we are subjects to a mighty king: Incrementalism. Things slip slowly, so slowly. 911 was a culmination, not the beginning; it represented years of the Bushes’ business and political dealings with the Saudis going sour slowly, so slowly, years of rot falling through. This thing we’re in now also happened slowly, like the tide receding so slowly that we can’t see the marks it makes in the sand. But they are there.
Anne Helen Peterson, who writes a newsletter called Culture Studies, puts it this way.
The past year has been an exercise in mass compartmentalization: how can you take what’s happening around you, flatten it, then divide it into small enough sections that you can endure it? If you can just get through the summer, you’ll be okay. If you can just get through the week, you’ll be okay. If you can just get through the day, the afternoon, the hour.
She, and others, argue that our civilization is bending toward its end. We order wine using an app while the world’s wheels are coming off, but slowly, so slowly. One wheel gets a little wobbly, we note it, and we keep driving. The radio still works, so we keep listening to music and open the windows to let the wind in. Scenery flows, so we must be going somewhere. Dystopia arrives step by step. As William Gibson had it: the future is already here - it’s just not very evenly distributed.
You can’t keep bending to the new normal. Sometimes you have to break and that means taking a new direction.
Next week’s post will be a dispatch I’ve obtained from the future. Written in 2025, it looks back on where we are now.