The Juilliard faculty and students made a gorgeous group production of Ravel’s Bolero, which is very worth seeing. In one section, the dancers trace with their fingers the contours of the rectangles that frame their images on the split Zoom screen.
As is the case for so many of us, I am now represented professionally to the world through a rectangle in my home. The people who talk to me every day on Zoom–students, colleagues, TV interviewers–don’t see a Zoom background behind me, frankly because I haven’t had the time and the wherewithal to figure out how to conjure one. Instead, I have found the one semi-rectangular part of a wall in my house that simulates a work-like environment. There are books behind me, they are shelved in a way that makes me look semi-professional, and two makeshift lamps cast light on my face that makes me visible (if not professionally prepped) for TV purposes. Pivot my screen an inch up, down, right, or left, and less professionally presentable parts of my home life come into the frame: the storage area under the stairs, a painting that a man in prison in Brazil once gifted me, the door to the room where I work, from which partner, child, or cats, may emerge at any moment.
There is a partly apocryphal story about Grigory Potemkin, an 18th century Russian nobleman, who in preparation of Queen Catherine’s royal visit in 1783 set out to fabricate idealized villages for her to see from her carriage. Time Magazine recounts the story: “[P]asteboard facades of pretty towns were set up at a distance on riverbanks. At stops, she’d be greeted by regiments of Amazonian snipers or fields set ablaze by burning braziers and exploding rockets spelling her initials; whole populations of serfs were moved around and dressed up in fanciful garb to flaunt a prosperity that didn’t exist (later precipitating famine in the region).”
I am the mother of a toddler who I’ve been caring for in shifts with my partner for the last three months. We have no childcare and no extended family support. We are very fortunate to be both employed in jobs that enable us to work (mostly) from home. And against the backdrop of the miseries suffered by so many worldwide, mine are precious complaints to have. I’m also lucky in that the division of labor at my home is more egalitarian than the unhealthy dynamic that has driven women out of the workforce because their male partners have developed “strategic helplessness”, as Rebecca Solnit calls it, in regard to parenting their own children. We are also extremely privileged in that our son, while very young and in need of constant engagement, does not have special needs. But I’m here to tell you: the Zoom screen through which I speak on TV, record dozens of lectures for my students, and interact with colleagues on litigation and scholarship matters, is a Potemkin village.
What is going on for me and for so many of us is the opposite of the exhortation of math teachers, “show your work.” The picture in the Potemkin village window does not reveal the amount of concentration we have to scrounge to fit ten-hour workdays into our children’s naps. The sheer mental exhaustion from multitasking makes concentrating a real hurdle. Whatever the final product is–in my case, lecturettes, TV interviews, functioning at meetings, public speaking–it is the polished final product of hours of sluggish prep in suboptimal conditions. Even so, there is an enormous amount of thinking that goes into it. A twenty minute lecturette, delivered smoothly and lucidly, in a comprehensible manner, with seamless transitions into and out of a full deck of PowerPoint slides, takes hours of preparation and invariably multiple recording takes. It is much, much harder for me to prepare than a two-hour live class. After all, the latter is what I’ve been doing for a living for twenty years. Being in a rectangle on a screen is not. I know this is true of a lot of us.
Because everyone is bending over backwards to merely function, it is hard to see other people’s efforts and easy to find blemishes. Thankfully, the vast majority of my teaching evaluations this semester were great. But as is always the case, appreciative people seldom take the time to write a magnum opus. The few that weren’t were blistering in their rudeness, the coup-de-grâce being the breathtakingly vicious “it’s not my fault that she has a kid.” It is difficult to imagine a male instructor receiving this comment. As a consequence of the negative bias of the mind, in a sea of seventy praising comments the mind gloms to this one comment, robbing me of the little sleep I can scrounge between bedtime stories, emergency milk bottles, and post-nightmare-comforting. I can’t even blame whoever wrote this. The pandemic has created a sense of compassion deficit. People without little kids–and, more often than not, people with grown kids whose selective amnesia has painted the early years in rosy colors–have no concept of the total concentration and endless giving that goes into keeping a very young child occupied the whole day, and of the toll of the mental transitions between what this absurd society has separated into “adult” and “children” worlds.
The prompt for these reflections was an event that happened yesterday. I was invited to give a TV interview about the protests, policing, deploying the military, the Insurgency Act. Even for five minutes on air, that’s about twenty minutes of preparation in the least. We carefully scheduled our work and childcare shifts that day to enable me to do the interview behind a closed door while my partner cares for our child. Forty minutes before the interview, my partner was called into his office in an emergency and I was left in sole charge of my child who, blissfully, was napping at the time. The interview was scheduled for the hour in which he was to wake up. The office is forty minutes away from our home, discounting traffic. I spent my twenty prep minutes with a pounding heart and sweaty palms, running through scenarios. What if he wakes up while I do this? Do I leave the interview and go to him? Does he leave his bed and enter the room? The mind leapt to disaster scenarios. My child has blond curls and blue eyes. Will it come off as completely tone deaf if I hug him and express comfort on screen on a day in which so many of my friends are out protesting the heartbreaking challenges of raising black children to be potential suspects? potential shooting victims? And what if I get incensed on air and say the wrong thing–because I am exhausted and sleep deprived and did patchy preparation–and whatever I say germinates on the Petri dish of collective rage that we are all experiencing?
Thankfully, my son napped through the interview, which went without a hitch. But that’s not the point, of course. There is nothing here that is special or unique to me. We all have cultivated these Potemkin villages because this is what is expected to us, and we are all good little cogs because we want to pay our rents and mortgages and bills. Nor is any of this unique to the virus era. Like the Zen teachers of yore, the ones in old stories who used to slap monks into awakening, COVID-19 is not a gentle, kind teacher (it would be quite something to see the virus’ teaching evaluations, come to think about it.) It has exposed the ugly truth we knew all along: we live in an economy that values some activities, grossly devalues others (caregiving, caregiving, caregiving), and consistently tells you to hide your work. Our families are a sideshow to be tucked out of sight. Our caring natures are weaknesses, deficiencies, to be criticized for. Our loved ones are inconveniencing the economy. This must be why, in the name of “work-life balance,” we rally for “affordable child care” instead of rallying for meaningful lives. Like the good little cogs we are, we fight for paid childcare for nine to ten hours a day so that we can do our paid, socially valued work, instead of fighting for sensible workdays that give us actual time in the afternoon with our children.
What happens when these lies are exposed–when your Potemkin village is breached–is instructive. A few years ago, Prof. Robert Kelly gave an interview about South Korea to the BBC. He did it from his home, and the footage of the interview reveals the efforts he put in to frame a rectangle of professionalism in his life: a world map behind him, a bookshelf on his left. Halfway through the interview, his two children, Marion and James, came into the room. Kelly’s wife, Kim, pounced on the floor in an effort to corral the children and get them out of the room. Kelly’s interview footage–what he would hope would bring professional acclaim, because speaking on the BBC on international politics is a very big deal–instantaneously became an object lesson on Twitter, a canvas upon which millions of people suddenly projected their worldviews and opinions. Notably, the endless dissection and opining skewed in every which direction: Is it professional? What about the wife? Gender critiques were lobbed. Counterexamples of how he could display warm fatherhood and a positive model of vulnerability abounded. Everyone had Something to Say. In a Potemkin village, any time a bit of your real life drips into the rectangle, you become a morality tale. As Kelly said, “I did not stand up because, as they say, the show must go on. . . Had I stood up and broken out of frame, any semblance of professionalism would have been lost.” Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I should know: I’ve given TV interviews with my child pulling on my pants where the camera can’t see. I’ve given TV interviews in which news camera crew spent ten minutes scouring my house for a rectangle containing no evidence of children. I’ve given TV legal analysis for hours coming in and out of a green room I converted to a playroom for my son, with TV crew helping out periodically during the five minutes I was onscreen. I’m sure a lot of this is imperfect, displays flawed professionalism, displays flawed mothering. Outraged? Be my guest; take your grievances to Twitter.
It should go without saying, but nothing these days does: I’ve offered you a peek into a very fortunate life, padded with good salaries and social advantage. Around me, people work jobs with hours that are inflexible; write into the night; have gotten fired from their jobs and are already scrambling to send out resumés; raise their children as single parents, with little or no help from the outside; battle the daily grind of supporting children with special needs and challenging medical condition. They love and care for their children. And they step in and out of their respective rectangles, fronting as Ideal Workers. As someone famously wrote two months ago, though everything seems like years ago: parents are not okay. That those of us with mountains of privilege write these pieces tells you volumes about the lives of our friends and neighbors who don’t even have the late night hours to think, let alone write, anything.
To the extent that what I do every day is supporting the illusion of the Potemkin village, I’m gonna give it to you straight. The center cannot hold. Worn hearts are crying, for racism, for tiredness, for inequality, for exhaustion, for financial precariousness. Something’s gotta give.
After this is over, those of us who survive the home-life thing are going to be wrecked, exhausted, burnt out, in a thousand visible and invisible ways. It won’t be an individual problem–it will apply to all of us–and the harms will be too diffused to attend to in any systematic fashion. If you’re looking for a villain to direct your ire, of course, there’s no shortage of that, starting with the villain in the White House who turns everything he touches, including pandemic response and his own citizen’s right to peaceful assembly, to ash, a reverse, perverse King Midas. For some of us, at least, the anger temporarily wins the battle against exhaustion. Someone commented online that, even with a 28:3 advantage, COVID-19 loses to racism. Someone else quipped that COVID-19 is a guest, while racism is playing on its own turf. As we rile against the despotic, violent fantasies of military intervention that Trump is stoking, the breathtaking ineptitude of managing the epidemic retreats to the background–simply because minds and hearts cannot contain all of this and the immediate risks to black people in our streets are not only chronic, but acute. The problem is that this is a marathon, not a sprint, on both counts. The center cannot hold.
A friend posted today the incredible story of Daniel Thorson, who completed a 75-day Buddhist retreat and has just emerged into this poorly written dystopian fantasy you and I have been calling “our timeline.” He is trying to make sense of it all. I wish we could all awaken from this dehumanizing nightmare, in all its facets.
Comic credit Lulu McManus and Ellie Zitsman.