Image Credit: Chelsea Snow
I stream my lesson and ask the quarantined teenagers questions. My tone is modulated and fractured into a caffeinated stutter amped up by something else odd and sick. I feel between law and desire—between a feeling of shared despair for every old and knowledgeable person and only this tab, this screen. The blue light of new data about the disease can temporarily appease my itch for yet more disastrous news, offer a sense of comparative safety, fill me with fear, or, as it is designed, bolster my sense of self-importance by offering the love from those who would click-on, love, like, and text me.
There is an urge to know more about the latest horror in the orbit of COVID-19. They did a good job of giving it a scary name. It has a power beyond physical infection. At this point, it is not only a thought, but The Thought. It infects every conversation. Our talking about it is our survival and sickness. The poking-in to yet more vectors of social media and news aggregators collective panic can only temporarily mask the images, imagined and coldly real, of hospitals packed with coughing bodies—“lungs [filled] with fluid and debris” (Pathak, MD).
Chest x-ray of a patient with mycoplasma pneumonia. Original image sourced from U.S. Government department: Public Health Image Library, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, as I stream my lesson to my students, who are on the brink of high school, and in turn, their life as official teenagers, there is a comfort in my students’ blasé attitude toward this whole thing. In the Youtube Live stream chat, some say they are just bored. Others are stressed. Some seem happy with 10 hours of Call of Duty gatling gun fire echoing through noise-canceling headphones and modded Minecraft servers teeming with their screaming peers. Most just want to go back to school. “I’m sorry,” I say. “For the good of others, we need to stay in our homes for a while.”
I’m reminded of a debate topic I had projected onto the whiteboard while we were still in the brick building: “Does social media make us more alone?” Some of the students, already familiar with prodding and trolling their way into end-times, saw the irony and laughed. They were how I first learned of The Thought. The students updated me on The Thought until I looked into it myself. They asked me if I had enough limes for The Thought. They all coughed and said they had The Thought while giggling. They said they got The Thought from drinking beer. I looked into The Thought. Slowly, the giggles gave way to a real feeling of fear. They were sick of hearing about it. World News Wednesday became our everyday. The Thought was becoming a threat.
This is a screenshot of the first thing you see, when you set up Open Broadcast Software (OBS), which allows you to share your screen on YouTube Live. The student who taught me how to use it called it “The Inception Effect.” He says it is normally used for Twitch. It is a stream of the stream of the stream of the stream. My face would normally appear in the upper right, but instead, we have an image of our Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” in puzzle form.
My students called it “the boomer remover” and “the boomer doomer.” They are pissed about global warming and the broken education system. They are pissed that we make them go to school and study things that they think won’t help them. They are plagiarizing memes.
I first heard “Boomer Remover” in the last few minutes of our last day before the schools closed from a student who liked to say controversial things. The severity in my own tone surprised me as I lashed back: “My parents are boomers. Do you want my parents to die?” I knew the student just wanted to joke and heal himself for a few seconds. I would quote it later in a conference call with friends and they would all laugh. I am also a boomer to my students. I explain, no, I am not a boomer, but a millennial. I might be 32, but to them I am very old. I love poetry too much for this new neon era. I have a tendency to try and sell the students on a dream that might be dead for them. For me, this dream involved doing what you loved at whatever cost. Their generation seems more pragmatic than this—they question the efficacy of school. According to the Google Form I sent out, their top three preferences for debate topics were “Do straight A’s really matter?,” “Is College Necessary for Successful Life?,” and “Do We Experience More Anxiety than Other Generations?”
I’ve been given an excuse to accelerate my clicking into the tab and feed. I half-read ten articles. I let it flood into my eyes and mouth as The Thought smeared across surfaces of metal and glass and plastic and wood.
There is no sun or fluorescent office light to stabilize us, though the windows condition us toward a pattern. The Thought is on the door handle. The door handle is rubbed into your mouth.
I stream my lesson and copy and paste an image of an actual stream into the upper-right hand corner of our first shared slide. The students do not notice. It is at least an imitation of what I normally do. I use the “Spectral” font because I think it projects a nice mix of literary elegance and techno-dystopian awareness. The spacing between each letter is a subtle hint to no one that I am aware of Google Slides’ synthetic essence. My students tell me white on a black background is best on the eyes and saves power, so while it is normally best to ignore the advice of 14-year-olds online, I follow their suggestion.
A screenshot of a literal stream on the slide I will share on the digital stream and an example of anti-humor.
One of my students had walked me through how to rig Youtube Live, this other node or vector, so that all the other nodes or vectors could connect and see my face talking on Youtube Live. It is not really an academic platform, but I kind of liked that. I wanted it to be fun. A few of my old students, who are now sophomores, slipped into the stream chat to spam vaguely ironic statements and comicaly un-toxic jokes like “my toilet is broken.” Their names are masked by makeshift nom-de-plumes that reference e-sports teams. I quickly ban them, or instruct those I’ve appointed as “moderators” to do the same.
In the test stream, you can see a few students behind me trying to help me configure the thing. We were nervous about The Thought. The Thought’s energy could be felt in the room. Planned Parenthood had canceled their sex ed. lesson, so I was reading off answers to their questions about pregnancy and abortion in a cold, robotic tone that had a hint of forcefulness that was meant to undescore the importance of what I was saying, but probably sounded like panic. I had copy and pasted most of the facts from WebMD and the Planned Parenthood websites. We were in the last period of our last day before all the schools closed, and the virus scared us all smart. You can still watch the video of the test stream. My students are standing behind me in the recording. Their heads bob up to peak at the screen from behind my computer chair, which contains a large image of all of us, and a small image of themselves in the corner—pixelated and delayed. I’m smiling, delighted by all the unique expressions of self that streaming could afford. They watch me watch themselves as they yell at me to move my mouse, which moves my arrow called a cursor toward a working thing.
Even if they’re screaming, when they’re in their rooms, watching or pretending to watch me, typing and gaming into the screen-lit darkness, all I’ll see is their strings of chat.
They like to repeatedly type “f” toward the end of a lesson stream, and when they would normally be itching to leave. “F,” which I thought might be a reference to video game streamer culture, or a notification that the stream is frozen. According to stayhipp.com, it “originated after a feature in the 2014 release of Call of Duty asked players to press F on their keyboard or X on their controller to ‘pay respects’ to virtual fallen soldiers” (Sommer).
I forge ahead with my lessons as if blind to their spam, and the precariousness of this new, spreading virus named after a summer beer—this Thought, this reaching non-song of panic and administrative chaos. Stay home, says The Thought, but come together again for a glitched-out conference call.
The Internet puts its toes in the freezing clear and muddied stream. The highway is not a stream, but a river of great, toiling strength. The Thought is not a river. Not a stream. Not a field.
Already, the doctors are running out of masks. They are told to cover their mouths with handkerchiefs and scarves while the politicians debate whether the rich or the poor should get our money.
I’m learning to fragment my brain across 10-20 nodes, which chain us together over great distances to students, friends, and ex-friends. I’m reading the beginnings of a few different books. I’ve been dipping into Allison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, which pushes the graphic novel into a form of high literature. In Fun Home, she deals with the suicide of her father. Here, she copes with the emotional distance of her mother. I’m also distractedly reading Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. Hong was my teacher, and I have always loved her poetry because she somehow figured out how to give the finger to the experimentalists and traditionalists at the same time. She connected me with a video artist collaborator and told us to read as much as we could outside of what is traditionally labelled poetry. She has fun with language, but it never feels like she’s pushing you away. In Minor Feelings, she writes sprawling essays that cite everything from contemporary art and poetry to Sanrio in order to discuss savaging the English language on behalf of her family, loving Richard Prior, fighting white supremacy, and wrestling with her Asian-American identity. My students are about 80% Vietnamese and Chinese. One boy who projects minimal sense of classroom expectations or authority told me a lady driving by in a Tesla called him a “chink.” He said he thought it was because they were probably high. We talked about how it might be because of The Thought.
Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings was published on February 25th.
My partner and I watch the The Tiger King. Did Carole kill her husband? Is she just running another cruel roadside zoo? I read and clickbait myself into a feedback loop drug trip that numbs, agitates, and projects. My Instagram is filled with skateboarders and poets. I do not skateboard, but I followed a bunch of them recently because I found their brand of nihilism refreshing. They do 180s over smashed Sedans in Joker costumes on steep San Francisco hills. They do manuals on burning blocks of ice in San Leandro parking lots. After The Thought spread, many took to skateboarding in their homes. One of them did a 360 kickflip on their glass coffee table. A few others smashed the shoe store they owned. They remind me of when I was a kid and also did not skateboard, but liked to sit on the curb and watch my friends.
The Internet is boring to even mention in writing. My colleague from our bookstore gig once mentioned this to me: that he wouldn’t even pick up a poem if it mentioned Youtube or Facebook. I guess it is too easy like writing about what just happens to be in the room. I realize now, as I write, “it is a cheap way to seem modern,” that I do sound like a boomer, which is just another way of the young to say, “Fuck anyone who is older than me with that 10-miles-through-the-snow shit. You polluted our air until the weather rioted and it was difficult to breathe.” But, what else can we do now, but socialize and plumb deeper into the old information superhighway, and write about how the highway makes us think: how quickly The Thought spreads good and bad information about other countries’ efforts as we sit in our rooms in our sweats, sweating?
I’m secreting the same nervous sweat I had while trying to sleep as a first-year teacher. I’m in my third year now, which is another way to say I’m still failing, but I can tell you with more accuracy why certain lessons fail, or why schools seem to be failing in general. These failures help me find small successes, but there is always some larger, looming failure. There is always some way you could be doing more. I am still in a credential program full-time and am learning all time how to fail less. Above my whiteboard is the Samuel Beckett adage in supply store bubble letter cutouts: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” It is meant to centralize a growth mindset, but I fear it suggests futility and may even be an ideology complicit with Silicon Valley’s fetishization of failure. The Thought triggers the same strain of nervous sweat that oozes out of me when I think a lesson might fail, or when a student seems like they are about to try to turn the whole grade against me. I used to wake my partner up in the middle of the night thrashing about a lesson plan that I knew was doomed to be a disaster. I am emitting the same smell. It is thicker and cannot be masked with the traditional methods of the deodorant stick.
This is an image of my wall as I assembled my first classroom. Most of the books came from the private school we were taking over. I covered the walls in highfalutin poetry and quotes. I bought two plastic crows. These were the things I deemed vital in the last moments of summer leading up to my first year as a teacher.
Each square inch of breathing room clusters with diseased air. According to The New York Times, they come at you in little spheres with red nodes. They hook into you and find your lungs like a wolf might find meat in a superstore. A few weeks ago, on one of our last rideshares before The Thought, our driver was motor-mouthing about the open skull she had seen after a car accident, how we really do just have meat inside us, like chickens she said.
There is a certain acceptance when writing during a crisis that you are too close to the thing anyway. You’re exploiting the tragedy and “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” It might well come out gaudy and garish, but god-dammit this is what I’m going to do: feel. We’ll feel, and feel publicly for nurses, doctors, bartenders, waiters, small business owners, gig-workers, and everyone else. We’ll repost articles about how we shouldn’t go back to the way things were. An article will hook you into an argument about the death of capitalism by showing you a shopping cart half-eaten by mud. The Whole Foods employees are on strike. The Instacart shoppers are on strike. The governors are demanding more masks and ventilators. The ventilator research was botched by market pressures. My brother writes a song about being socially distant. Eventually, through this public expression of feeling, people find some way to heal others and change things.
Even now, part of me thinks this text might only clog up the digital airwaves with more useless musings on The Thought when really we need more pragmatic guides to survival, and still yet more important instructions on how to not forget to care when strangers die. I will stream tomorrow. We will find some structure over the connected nodes, and maybe some temporary escape from The Thought and its attendant pressures on our bodies and brain.