Art: Figure at a Window, Salvador Dali, 1925
Vicki’s Note: Normcore is taking a break for Passover, and will be back the week of 4/20.
One of the things I’m doing with my daughter to help her cope these days is a lot of reading, and watching hand-drawn cartoons from the 1990s and 2000s (with the exception of Moana, they seem more real and more enjoyable than most storytelling attempted with computers these days.)
Right now, we’re watching and reading “The Incredible Story of the Giant Pear.” a charming Danish book translated into Russian. The book was written by Jakob Martin Strid, a cartoonist who’s come up with a lot of beautiful, whimsical content for kids. I’m not sure why the book hasn’t been translated into English, but that’s a Normcore question for a later time, when I’m not wondering about stuff like why we still don’t have face masks and tests.
Anyway, so The Giant Pear is about an elephant, Sebastian, and a cat, Mitcho, who live in an idyllic Danish town by the sea, governed by a benevolent, friendly mayor (burgemeester, in Dutch) named J.B. Everyone loves J.B. Everyone hates the vice-burgemeester, Kvist, who wants to build an enormous, super-modern Rathaus that blocks the sun. (The author doesn’t hint at his politics here since it is a children’s book, but I get the distinct feeling that J.B. probably would not have allowed Facebook to build a data center nearby. )
J.B. goes missing, but Mitcho and Sebastian go fishing one day and find a mysterious letter in a bottle from him, along with a seed, with the instructions to plant it.
Overnight, an enormous pear grows in their yard, and destroys their house. Through a series of adventures, they find themselves adrift in the ocean with a bunch of household goods, a kooky scientist named Dr. Glucose, and a sail made out of sheets, on the quest to find the Mysterious Island and rescue J.B.
This is from the not-terrible movie made about the book, available on Netflix:
Often, these days, I feel like my household is the pear. We, the four of us, are surrounded by a huge ocean of humanity, but one that, because of quarantine, we have to be completely separate from at all times.
This week is particularly rough because it’s Passover, and, like most Jewish holidays, it’s meant to be communal in nature. It is not good for man to be alone, says the Torah, and I don’t think organizing a Zoom seder counts.
The Passover Seder centers on the experience of being thrust out of our homes, but these days we feel trapped inside of them. The story involves miraculous plagues that saved us; today we pray for the end of one. There’s the commandment to clean our homes of all non-Passover food, which we just spent innumerable hours and dollars hoarding.
Then there’s the real heartbreaker: The Seder is when we traditionally gather with family, friends and even strangers. “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” we say. These days, many of us can’t even be in the same house as our own parents or children. We don’t come within six feet of strangers.
The more isolated we become in quarantine, the less I am able to remain unplugged from everything going on. First, for instance, I need to be fully present at work, which, as anyone with small children at home understands, is a daunting, Sisyphean endeavor.
For me, personally, working from home while trying to keep a baby and a preschooler happy and busy has been the most draining, exhausting thing I’ve ever done. (And I read AWS documentation for a living.)
My day is a frenzied blend of trying to work, parenting during a pandemic, cooking three times a day for four people, cleaning the neverending kipple of Melissa and Doug activity kits off the floor, and trying to order groceries two weeks ahead on Instacart and formula two months ahead on Amazon.
When all of that is done, it’s time for Zoom hangouts with friends and family. In the three seconds of brain space I have left after a schedule that starts at 4 in the morning and ends at 10 at night when my oldest goes to sleep, I’m often worried about my dad, who is essential staff and still goes to work every day, about my mom, who he might pass anything he catches on to, about my grandpa, who is now cut off from the family and technology that might allow him to feel connected, and, finally, about the country as a whole, where we are economically, physically, and emotionally, and how long this thing is going to last and what impact it will have on our world.
Because I have been pushed inside during this pandemic, what has been pushed out of my life is quiet time for research and reflection, the kind that is absolutely vital to writing long Normcore posts that link a number of concepts together. Previously, I wrote,
I’m always “on” in the sense that I’m thinking about the newsletter, but it’s not any different than when I used to write primarily blog posts: I love writing, thinking about ideas, and sharing those ideas in long-form. This was especially important to me during maternity leave, when I needed an outlet for my brain. The fact that I make money from it now is a very nice bonus.
The good news is that there is always something to write about. My week of brainstorming starts usually after I release the latest free newsletter, on Tuesday-ish. My main news source is Twitter, where I follow a lot of people in data, tech, news and on the fringes of those fields. I’ll scroll through a couple times a day, which I’m doing anyway, so it’s not an extra cognitive load. My primary method of communication with myself across devices are Telegram, my favorite messaging platform, Google docs, where I start my drafts, and the Substack editor, where I paste them in once I’m done.
A woman needs money and a room of her own to write, said Virginia Woolf. What she meant by that was financial, but also space, the room for your mind to roam and circle an idea until it comes to a satisfying conclusion. She was talking about Die gedanken sind frei.
Indeed, she came up with the idea for the essay while sitting outside, near a river.
Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please--it is not a matter of any importance) sitting on the banks of a river a week or two ago in fine October weather, lost in thought. That collar I have spoken of, women and fiction, the need of coming to some conclusion on a subject that raises all sorts of prejudices and passions, bowed my head to the ground. To the right and left bushes of some sort, golden and crimson, glowed with the colour, even it seemed burnt with the heat, of fire. On the further bank the willows wept in perpetual lamentation, their hair about their shoulders. The river reflected whatever it chose of sky and bridge and burning tree, and when the undergraduate had oared his boat through the reflections they closed again, completely, as if he had never been.
There one might have sat the clock round lost in thought. Thought--to call it by a prouder name than it deserved--had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until--you know the little tug--the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one's line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out?
When I started Normcore Tech last May, I was working, seven months pregnant, and then had a newborn, and then went back to work, and was still able to keep that room in my mind open. I’d ruminate over ideas on my walks while the baby was sleeping in the stroller, during late-night feeding sessions, during the commute to the office, during trips to the grocery store. Normal life provided the pauses I needed to hash things out.
But these days, in the giant bardo that has become our coronavirus spring, all of my mental energy is dedicated to keeping our personal family pear afloat. In the pear, there is a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, and kids’ room. There is barely enough time for a 20-minute conversation with my husband, let alone room to read long things, to think about them, to let them marinate in my brain until I feel that satisfying little tug of a fully connected-idea, ready for examination.
Opting out is a luxury, I’ve written, but for me, as a writer who physically needs to express herself in order to feel fully human, it’s a need that has been left critically unfulfilled since the end of February.
So, what a perfect opportunity Passover brings to take a quick break from the newsletter, and to give me some more leeway to think.
I’m taking the next 8 days off. I have a couple ideas in the hopper, but I need time to read books that have accumulated by my bed like weeds, to deep-clean the house, clean up the crayons on the kitchen table, and, most importantly, to think about the logistics I need to give myself room to think in this brave, new world, and give the little germs of ideas that I have rattling around room to grow into a juicy, gigantic pear of a post.
Have a safe, healthy next couple weeks, and see you soon.
What I’m reading lately:
Jack’s Google docs donation
Popular Info continues to be one of the best sources of exposing people who are doing shady stuff during the pandemic
Matt Stoller’s every newsletter delivers
This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out once a week to free subscribers, and once more to paid subscribers. If you like it, forward it to friends and tell them to subscribe!