Recently, I’ve reviewed several new books for Lone Star Literary Life and for this book review blog. And I keep looking guiltily at the other books I’ve gathered over the months and years before the pandemic hit. I want to be reading them, too. Yet, even when much of life is shut down and “house arrest” is beginning to feel “normal,” I still can’t find enough time to go back and read the books I stacked up in preparation for blizzards that never came, beach holidays that never happened, and those lazy, carefree afternoons that are just an urban myth. Meanwhile, enticing new books keep appearing in droves.
The Only Good Indians by the prolific Stephen Graham Jones is an offbeat and truly horrifying horror tale set on a Blackfeet Indian reservation. Suffice it to say, bad things can happen if you try to ignore, go against, or forget your culture and heritage. You can get the book hereif you don’t mind shopping on Amazon.
Jessica Goudeau‘s compelling nonfiction work, After the Last Border, follows two immigrants on their difficult journey through America’s politically imperiled refugee resettlement program. The author convincingly makes the case that the program needs to be saved and rebooted under new and better national leadership. More information about the book is available here.
Poetry is almost always a hard sell in the book market. (For example, it has taken me more than 40 years to get my inventory down to the last ten copies — from a press run of 500 — of my first book of poetry, Waiting for Water. Most of them I’ve simply given away.) Anyway, I recently reviewed Variations of Labor: Stories and Poems by “writer and labor organizer” Alex Gallo-Brown, who has been called “the poet of the service economy” by other reviewers. It’s an entertaining and intriguing collection of short works, all related in some way to “the way work happens in our lives.” (My review is here.)
Meanwhile, stay safe, keep reading, continue holding writers and poets in your thoughts and prayers, and buy somebody’s new or old book soon, if you can. We’re all in this global tragicomedy together.
On Twitter, Seattle poet Alex Gallo-Brown (@AlextheGB) modestly calls himself simply a “writer and labor organizer.” But he’s more than that. He has been hailed as “the poet of the service economy” by Valerie Trueblood, a contributing editor to The American Poetry Review. And Washington State Poet Laureate Caudia Castro Luna has declared that “Alex Gallo-Brown’s first collection…reminds us of the myriad ways, beyond physical exertion, that work happens in our daily lives.”
Mike Elk, founder and senior labor reporter at PayDay Report, adds that he is “a big fan of Alex Gallo-Brown’s ‘Variations on Labor.’ It’s a mix of poetry, prose, and critical analysis. Really unique as far as labor books go.”
Indeed, it is a unique book, with stories, poems, critical analysis, and illustrations (by Seattle visual artist Devon Midori Hale) that seem startingly timed to speak to the loss, confusion, and desperation now felt by untold millions of people thrown out of work by the coronavirus pandemic.
Gallo-Brown also offers words that speak to the disruption and uncertainty felt by those laboring for free to take care of their children, meals, household cleaning, or aging or disable relatives. Even the efforts required to grow into adulthood or to mourn the loss of a loved one are among the many “variations” of labor in our world, he contends.
Some of the titles within the book are almost short poems in themselves, especially when contemplated against a backdrop of the Great Depression-level unemployment that’s still rising: “He Was a Worker”; “The Job at the Technology Company Cafe”; “Relief”; “The Union Organizer”; “In the Trader Joe’s Parking Lot.”
The opening stanza to one poem, “Before Charlottesville,” contains prescient words applicable to the unsettled way many of us might feel right now:
Days pass and the self grows louder than before, slumps, sinks, rises again like a dog irritated by an instinct something has gone wrong.
Just three years ago, according to The Atlantic, “the services sector—a broad category of the economy that now includes financial services, media, transportation and technology—accounted for 67 percent of GDP in the United States.”
Today, only the consortiums of gods know exactly where America’s Gross Domestic Product currently stands. The service sector itself is in deep excrement, and much of its gains and positions likely have been flushed down the economic drain. The biggest question now likely is not “Will there be wage gains?” It’s “Will there be wages again–and when?”
Those who previously worked, or still work, in America’s and the world’s service sectors now need all of the voices they can gather on their side: economists, politicians, diplomats, social scientists, philanthropists–the list is long and grows distressingly longer with each job lost in the pandemic crisis.
To help add one more essential voice to the panel of experts lofting prayers and recommendations for recovery, I hereby second the nomination of Alex Gallo-Brown to be “Poet of the Service Economy.”
Staying Sane & Entertained While Forced to Hide from the Coronavirus
Charles Dickens likely did not have a deadly global pandemic in mind when he wrote the “best of times, worst of times” opening for his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. He was contrasting life in profitable, peaceful London with grim life in revolution-torn Paris at the end of the 18th century.
With most Americans now being told to stay away from their jobs and remain sheltered for weeks in their homes or apartments, people are coming face-to-face with a harsh reality: How do we keep ourselves sane and entertained while contained within four walls almost around the clock?
What follows are short reports from five people in different parts of the United States. They describe how they have responded thus far to being confined to quarters. They have not complained of feeling like people under house arrest or like space passengers practicing for a long, mundane cruise to Mars.
For some, at least, the pandemic response has been a time for reflection and reinvention, as well as frequently seeking and needing entertainment.
Erin J., a Boston college student, is still recovering from coronavirus-like symptoms. She has been staying in a small living space for several weeks since her university closed and put its classes online.
“Well, I wasn’t tested for it, but I can say that the first week I slept for 16 hours a day and didn’t care much for entertainment. I’d put on anything to have noise. The second week was a little better, but I still slept most of the day and night but had midterm exams to prepare for. Took me four days to write a paragraph. I started consuming more media as a means to stay distracted and try to figure out what was going on. I found movies that were like comfort food and almost played them on loop. By about the end of the second week I started feeling human [again] and was more interested in doing schoolwork, and became more aware that I was stuck inside.
“I’ve stayed entertained by trying to find comfort in media that reminds me of the world I knew.”
Terry P., a writer and entertainer in Long Island, N.Y., has chosen a positive andpragmatic approach to coping with the current economic and health disaster:
“Planted a bunch of seeds and ordered a compost bin, planning a vegetable garden. Also taking piano lessons and writing a book for self-employed entertainers about how to kick start their businesses when this all ends. And watching Netflix, of course.”
Linda B. is a PRN (pro re nata – “as the situation demands”) worker in Austin, Texas, who currently is not doing much work, but filling time with many other activities.
“Slowly reading a serious book, What the Eyes Don’t See, about the Flint water crisis, by the pediatrician and activist who didn’t stop until the story was told and changes made. Making bread for my neighbors. Cooking new recipes. Using FaceTime, learning Zoom and What’sApp to see and talk to people I love. Staying up-to-date on happenings for my work which doesn’t need an ‘as needed’ PRN employee right now. Walking with another neighbor or [doing] something for exercise most days. Learning what it feels like to see the world “non-24″ by going to bed when I feel like it and staying there 7-8 hours no matter what hour that is. Today, 6 am – 3 pm. Recording the local news in case I’m doing something more fulfilling at the time; then watching without ads. Doing the same with movies and documentaries so that when I choose to watch TV, I can see interesting things or delete it. Learning after three weeks that I can live without touch for today. I may crack tomorrow, but for today, I’m at peace working on the ‘Mindboggler 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle of the Carpathian Mountains’ I picked up on a whim at Half Price Books months ago.”
Musician and retired teacher Pamela F. lives in a small-ish town north of Austin, Texas, and avoids boredom by staying active on several fronts:
“Walking twice a day. Sometimes walking with the seven-year-old son of my next-door, single-parent neighbor. Trying to learn Zoom. Writing music. Using FaceTime and Facebook Messenger to see friends and relatives. Eating, and then eating some more. Small projects like cleaning out a drawer or a closet. Napping. Continuing my physical therapy regimen. Playing piano and accordion. Keeping up with friends on Facebook. Reading. Quiet time.”
Joe S., a Dallas-area journalist, is taking a more focused approach to using his sheltering-at-home time:
That’s a 547-page work of history subtitled “A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.” Sounds appropriate and inspiring for coping with current times.
Catherine B., an Austin, Texas, university librarian (her school has gone to online classes) also is focusing on a central task, but is taking breaks to pursue other, more entertaining activities:
“I have been reading manuals and a glossary for a new integrated library system, the thing behind the scene that runs the online catalog. In my free time, I am sewing quilt blocks. I got excited when I found the perfect elastic for making masks. [And] Tom and I watched ‘Downton Abbey,’ the series and the movie, on DVD. We started that in early March before the social distancing. I have also made 20-second videos of rain and birds singing.”
Many things can be done while stuck indoors, including taking online classes, watching yoga or tai chi how-to videos, reading books previously ignored on your bookshelves, starting a home-based business, baking bread, or taking up new or lapsed hobbies. The possibilities are vast, and the time to get started currently is abundant.
Thanks for reading this effort to make creative use of some of my own inside time. And please feel free to add comments. Something posted here may someday end up in somebody’s sociology book, history book, graduate thesis, movie, or novel about these treacherous times. Who knows?
Si Dunn is an Austin, Texas, novelist, screenwriter, book reviewer, and journalist. His books include Dark Signals, Jump, and Erwin’s Law.