On the Problem of Identity During the Plague Spring


The quarantine month has been a pretty tough time, as measured by how often we’ve had to go to the basement and berate cinder blocks. It’s a better coping mechanism than punching the cinder blocks was. The cinder blocks aren’t taking this personally. They know they’re there as support. Emotionally speaking, cinder blocks are bricks. I don’t say that cinder blocks are also literally bricks, because I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble with the brick enthusiast community. I don’t need someone explaining how something essential to bricks is incompatible with the nature of cinder blocks, because I would find that fascinating. I would read three different books, each at least 280 pages, on the history of bricks. I’m already enough of a caricature of myself. I do not need to become even more of that.

But this lands me on my point four times as well as I had expected just three sentences ago. Honest, I was lost. My point is: a lot of us are having a rough time now because we don’t have anything to do. There’s no hanging out at barcades. You can’t even go to the pet store and stare at the baby guinea pigs. A lot of people don’t have jobs. Those who do, have those jobs gone all weird. Two months ago you would spend all morning in a meeting to resolve what five minutes of e-mail would have. Today, you spend all morning in e-mail exchanges to resolve what five minutes of meeting would have.

All these things that we would do evaporated. So now we face the gap between the stuff we do, and who we are, and who we figure we want to be. That’s tough stuff. I remember who I wanted to be, growing up: the astronaut who draws Popeye. It’s been an adjustment, learning that the person I am doesn’t want to make the effort it takes to draw Popeye. Or to convince the people who hire astronauts that they need someone on staff who’ll draw Popeye too. That one’s on me. I keep applying for astronaut jobs, but at the interviews I never ask if they’re bringing a Popeye-drawer on board. I just take it for granted that if they don’t list it on their web site, they’re not going to, and I don’t even respond to their offers. I’m only messing up my own life like this.

How to handle the gap between what kept you busy and what your identity is? This involves serious quiet, letting all the thoughts imposed from other people — well-meaning or advertisers — wash out. Think seriously about what you are when at rest, and see what residue of life remains. Then realize this is a hecking lot of work and the results are terrible. You know how, on your body, you have this indestructible nostril hair that every booger in the world condenses around? Your personality is like that, only worse. It starts with that time you were six and teased that kid Christian across the street because his name rhymes with the imaginary word “Ristian”. And it’s accumulated like that since then. No, you’re better off finding a new store-bought identity and putting that on.

There’s so many to choose from! You could be the person who cruises social media, finding folks who are screaming at CSS for not being able to do what seems like a simple CSS thing, and reassuring them that the problem is that CSS is not actually good at CSS things yet, and never will be. (CSS is that computer thing where, for no good reason, sometimes all the stuff in your web browser is 50% off the edge of the screen to the right.)

You could be a background character in a Studio Ghibli film. In these times you’ll definitely want to be in one of the lower-stress movies. Take up some role where you look over bunches of vegetables, that kind of thing. You’ll have to act nonplussed when a bunch of kids run through on some lightly daft whimsical adventure to help the ghost wolf reconcile with its family or something. So remember to look up exactly what “nonplussed” means. You want to know how to react.

Or you could try being an astronaut who draws Popeye. The drawing Popeye part should be easy, but the real trick is getting up into space. To do that, you’ll want to practice jumping until you’re so good at it you jump into outer space. Go practice right now! (Note to the rest of you: if you’re hired as astronaut they provide the outer space for you. I just want to get my competition for the job out of the way.)

The exact choice isn’t important. What matters is that you realize who you are. Then we can see about fixing that.

Me Week: What Are Jobs Even About?


One of the essays I’m happiest with was Working Out The World. That’s from May 2015. It was inspired by some of the baffling things we were asked to do as students. And it got into some mulling over what jobs are, and what kids understand jobs are. I grant that in many ways I was a nerdy, oblivious child, but I never really quite understood what grown-ups did all day. A couple tasks I understood but they didn’t seem to quite fill a whole job, much less a career. Decades on, I’m still not really good about it. I don’t think I’m alone, but, maybe other people do.

I think the line about “what’s a job to a kid? It’s just a place adults go to become tired and unhappy somehow” is maybe the most Ian Shoalesian thing I’ve written. If it isn’t, it’s only because identifying corporations as the imaginary friends of an adult who had money edged it out. I don’t think I quite manage the transition to the closing paragraph right, but the closing paragraph is where everything falls apart.

Safety Pants


I bought a new pair of pants because … well, I’m not sure that actually needs justification. It seems like the fact of the purchase explains the reasoning behind it perfectly well: “I needed some new pants because somehow I don’t have quite enough to go a whole week without laundering them, even though I haven’t thrown any out or given any away and they’re all in good working order so I don’t know.”

Anyway, I bought a pair of the kinds of pants which are right for me, which is to say, cargo pants which come folded with such severely sharp creases they emphasize how much I dress like a Lego character. And I noticed one of the nearly four labels I had to remove (which isn’t an unreasonable number of labels, considering) before successfully wearing it in a non-test circumstance was a tag mentioning “Meets CPSC Safety Requirements”.

Of course like you I’m amused by the thought that someone checked that this pants design had proper safety railings and no unnecessarily exposed spinning metal blades, but what got me is this: somewhere out there is a person whose job is “overseeing cargo-pants safety guidelines”. And that person either grew up wanting to be a cargo-pants safety guideline overseer, or is someone whose career led there. Either way is a staggering thought.