• #12 - T. J. Stiles

    T.J. Stiles


    They say the best thing about working at home is the commute. Now the worst thing about it is there’s no commute. With the coronavirus lockdown, every day is Take Your Entire Family to Work Day. I was going to write something else about that, but I was interrupted by my twelve-year-old son, who read a passage about prehistoric India and remembered nothing. There’s a lot of that going around.

      At the moment, I’m trying to figure out how to put a gun on the table, one readers know will go off, so I can keep them with me while I take a couple of laps around the kitchen. This is not the Chekhov cliché. Well, it’s a play on the Chekhov cliché: I mean a literal gun on a literary table, the opening of a review of two nonfiction books on firearms and gunmen. One of them is pretty good, but the other is taking up precious review space that better books deserve. How do you save a review from your own dismay? Or scorn—I’m not sure which. Only now I’ve got the kids at home. They’re like fireworks going off in the next room. If it were a hay loft. In a drought.

      My wife is inclined to take the risk of natural disasters more seriously than everyone else. We don’t evacuate when there’s a wildfire; we evacuate when there are red-flag conditions that make a wildfire more likely. Fortunately her instincts served us well this time. We started early to amass canned goods and toilet paper (yes, it’s all in our house, along with all the Top Ramen). I reluctantly agreed to her request that I suspend the karate classes I teach; then the school district announced its closure at the end of the same day, followed soon after by a county-wide shelter-in-place directive. She has earned the right say a hearty “I told you so,” but she declines. That highlights how she is a better person than I am, and so is rather in bad taste, I think.

      I am self-employed. That’s another way of saying that I make poor life choices and am obsessed with money. I face a constant anxiety of opportunity costs. Exercising, doing dishes, reading the newspaper—I’m always asking myself, Do I have time for this? With the kids home all day, I have anxiety of parenting costs. They need guidance. They need home schooling. Do I have time to work? I am failing at everything.

      My usual financial deus ex machina is now just ex. I have come to rely on fees from speaking engagements to supplement my writing income. The pandemic has led to postponements of two upcoming events, both critical to my getting through the year. That is a metaphorical gun on the financial table. I’m really hoping it won’t go off, but if it does, I know whom it will be aimed at.

      My father died of congestive heart failure on December 1, which I now think is probably for the best. My mother is in her eighties and vulnerable. I worry about her, about her taking this seriously. I can’t imagine how difficult or complicated it would be if both my parents were alive and one or both fell ill with COVID-19. Could my siblings and I even get to them? Could I get to her now? One of my best friends is in isolation at home after attending a party with someone who is now in intensive care with the virus. Will I see her again? My wife worries because I have asthma; if I get the disease, I am at far greater risk. This is a menace with many teeth, any one of which may cut. Or just grind.

      I have lived through epic storms, terrorist attacks, life-changing crimes, and man-made disasters, but I’ve never lived through anything like this. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know how to plan. I don’t know what to do now. All I know is that it feels like I’m living inside a barrel. I think it might be a gun.

    In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Stiles’ contribution will be directed to Mrs. Dalloway's Bookstore in Berkeley, California.

    T.J. Stiles received the 2009 National Book Award for Nonfiction, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History. A past Guggenheim fellow, he belongs to the governing boards of the Authors Guild, the Society of American Historians, and the Organization of American Historians. He lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and two children. 

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