Coronavirus Diaries: Week One

Feb 27

Whew. What a morning. Amelia seemed to be being difficult on purpose, refusing to wash her hands for, like, ten minutes after she peed in the potty. And I’m like, if you want breakfast, you HAVE to wash your hands, or your pee hands are going to go right in your mouth, and that’s gross.

Meanwhile, coronavirus has made it to the U.S., and if anyone is gonna contract it, it’ll be Amelia for sure, if she keeps refusing to wash her hands. 

March 3

A lot of the writers I follow on social media are debating whether or not they’ll attend the annual AWP Conference. It’s in San Antonio, Texas, and the mayor there just declared a “state of emergency” regarding the coronavirus. Apparently, they were considering canceling the whole conference, but lats I heard, it’s still happening. They’re letting people back out and refunding their money, though. My friend Maryann was going to go but has a sinus infection now; it’s not a good time to go to a city that is teeming with a highly-contagious virus when your immune system is already compromised.

Hundreds of people are backing out.

All this worry might be for nothing. They might be missing a great opportunity out of fear.

Or they might be saving lives, including their own, by not taking the risk.

I guess we’ll never know.

“Did I frighten you?”

The problem, I’ve noticed, with Shirley Jackson month, is not that I haven’t the time for it (#parenting); by taking quotes from her short stories, I had hoped to generate interest in her writing. Yes, I wanted to focus on the more unsettling qualities of her voice to match the eerie atmosphere of October, but by focusing on only a sentence or two, her stories are taken completely out of context.

So when I posted a quote from “The Witch” (a misleading title) where an old man talks about how much he loved her sister that eventually he strangled her, it’s no wonder than my mother, bless her, commented that the story must certainly be one of Shirley’s “more morbid pieces.” To her credit, my mom was one of those people who was completely mistaught Jackson in high school, so no wonder she is inclined to think the worst of her.

On the contrary, I can’t think of one thing that I’ve read of Shirley’s that I would consider “morbid.” Yes, strangulation is not particularly pleasant, and no, stoning someone from the village in an annual ritual isn’t exactly cheerful. But when I think “morbid,” I think gruesome. And Shirley never gets gruesome. She leaves the gruesome up to the imagination of her readers, always giving them a taste of panic and then cutting them off. I can say with a great amount of certainty that she always believed it was her readers who were the morbid ones to imagine such violence. She just wrote what she saw. 

Case in point: “The Witch” is not morbid at all. It takes place in a train car. And old man has an inappropriate conversation with a little boy while his mom tends to her baby. No one gets killed or tortured or mutilated. It’s all just talk.

The little boy is just as guilty at being outrageous as the old man, insisting that his mother’s name is “Mr. Jesus” and his baby sister is 12 and a half years old. He tells the old man he’s looking out the window to look for witches. 

It’s important talk, all the same. One interpretation of the story could be that it unveils patriarchal themes, that the boy, even though he is only 4, is not at all dismayed by the man’s story of violence against his sister, because violence towards females is something our society normalizes with males, no matter the age. In fact, it seems the little boy respects the man more than he respects his mother, since he laughs happily with the man when his mother tries to intervene in their conversation.

Or it could just be a realistic story of a weird old man and an imaginative bored little boy on a train.

Shirley Jackson’s writing is scary, certainly, but not because she’s morbid. No, it’s scary because it shows the shocking reality of American society.

(Read the whole story here.)

The Lottery

Yesterday was the first of October, and I hereby declared it to be not the month of Halloween, nor Fall, nor the month of Pumpkin Spice Lattes, but The Month of Shirley Jackson, because her writing is brilliant and beautiful with a touch or two of bewitching. What better reading material for October than one that puts a spell on you?

I wanted to start out slow with one of her most famous short stories, “The Lottery.” It is usually required reading for middle schoolers, which is a terrible idea (like middle schoolers can appreciate any good literature) and is usually mis-taught with class-held mock lotteries and lacking any sort of cultural or historical context. But that’s a post for another day. If you haven’t read the story, go ahead and do so now, because spoilers lie ahead. Trust me, it won’t be time wasted.

I originally thought that this blog post would be about some of the topics I touched on in my 100-page Master’s Thesis: how American Cold War culture led to strict regulations of what was an acceptable lifestyle, and anyone who varied from that lifestyle was considered a threat (I’m looking at you, Red Scare). In this case, it’s Tessie Hutchinson, who is late for the annual gathering and then speaks out about the unfairness of this age-old tradition that no one questions ever. No wonder she’s the one (SPOILER ALERT) who is murdered in the end.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head.

Ralph Ellison had a story along the same vein called “King of the Bingo Game,” where a man is picked to play a lottery-like game of chance in order to win money to save his ailing wife, but he fools himself into believing that, with the right push of the button, all his dreams will come true, and no longer is willing to take a chance. The audience that watches him play (or not play, since he refuses to make a move to advance the game) tires of his inaction, takes the game away from him, and beats him.

Super nice stories, I know. While there are many ways to interpret these stories, one thing is for sure. When it comes to games of chance, you can’t win.

I’ve never been a lottery player. I don’t have the best of luck.

How appropriate, then, as I’m thinking about writing a blog post about “The Lottery” that I, in fact, win the only lottery I’ve ever played regularly: the one where, if you win, you can purchase tickets to the Broadway smash Hamilton for $10.

There’s a catch. Of course there’s a catch.

You get less than 24 hours notice for the show that you’re able to attend. The closest theater with Hamilton running is in Chicago, a three-hour drive. I’m a mother of a toddler with a part-time job and few daycare options.

My mother-in-law, our go-to caretaker, is up north on vacation. My mother was already planning on coming over and would probably be tickled to, instead of just visit for a few hours, watch my kid all day long, but I can’t help feeling how terribly rude that would be to ask. My husband has a big project scheduled for work (kind of a rarity, to be honest, so go figure), so he can neither attend the show with me nor work from home and watch the toddler so I can go with a friend. My friend S can’t go because her only childcare option–her parents–just left on vacation (although she does offer to watch my daughter if I find someone else or go alone, which is beyond sweet). My brother can’t go because of lots of good reasons, one of them being a newborn; I didn’t really expect him to drive two hours to my house and then another three to Chicago anyhow.

What a bad time to have good luck.

I should have known from Shirley and Ralph that I shouldn’t even bother playing the game.

I could have made it work. I could have dropped my kid with S, who my kid adores and probably would have had a lot of fun with her two boys, and I could have gone on my own. When else might I get the chance to see this world-renowned show for so cheap? In the end, I decided that just didn’t feel responsible. I didn’t want it bad enough to screw up everyone’s day and spend the whole day alone in my car.

I’ve used the excuse that “kids ruin everything,” that if it weren’t for my daughter, if it weren’t for S’s lack of childcare options, if it weren’t for my brother’s newborn, there wouldn’t have been a question if I were going, and I would have had my pick of who I wanted to go with. Spontaneity does kind of fly out the window when you’re a parent.

But really, being a parent just brings focus to perspective. I didn’t care enough about that show to drop my daughter somewhere for the day, to cancel on my mother, to go off on my own. There was too much to sacrifice. And having a lot to sacrifice is an indication of how much you have to lose, and if you have a lot to lose, then that means you’ve won in your life.

I’ve won. Even though I lost this, I’ve won.