On to Los Angeles

              Large swaths of California are comprised of what Steve called “music deserts”: areas lacking quality radio stations. Places where you look out the window of your car and see nothing but expansive fields of…lettuce, perhaps—or Love’s gas stations and bare hills covered in parched grass; and the soundtrack to this depressing landscape consists of outdated pop, tacky country (“if I had a dozen roses/I’d send them to her/just to have her back!”), or Jesus shit. Actually, the Spanish-only stations often had good driving music, and since Steve couldn’t understand the lyrics, he had no way of knowing if the writing was bad. Since leaving the Bay Area, Steve spent much of his time on the road angrily switching between stations before finally landing on something passable—only to lose signal and have to start the whole process over. His mood was made drearier still by the lingering diarrhea caused by a Denny’s outside of San Jose.

              Fortunately, though, Los Angeles was not far out. The coastal views lifted his spirits, as did the increased quality of the music on the radio. Tasteful soft rock; liberal, urban America beckoned once again. Steve caught the tail-end of “Come on Eileen” before stumbling upon a personal favorite: “Daniel,” by Elton John. Right away he grooved to the gloomy synth and drummed his hands on the steering wheel. Started singing along even before Elton could describe Daniel’s lonely overnight flight to Spain.

              “Do you know what the song’s actually about?” Steve asked. Though he was the only one in the car and no one was on the phone with him, he waited a few moments before answering his own question. “It’s about a Vietnam veteran. Written from the perspective of the younger brother, I guess? The older brother—Daniel—went away to war and, well, as you could imagine, he didn’t come back the same. That’s why Elton says those things, about how Daniel’s ‘eyes have died, but you see more than I.’ Get it? Pretty sad, huh?”

              Steve paused his rambling to sing the chorus, to chant that Daniel was indeed a star in the face of the sky. Maybe he didn’t sound as good as Elton but, shit, his own singing brought tears to his eyes all the same. That’s how much he believed the song.

              “I don’t know why,” he said, “but for some reason I used to think that Elton was singing about a lover. I clearly wasn’t paying enough attention to the lyrics, though. I mean, you know, given the fact that at one point he even says ‘Daniel, my brother.’ Shit!”

              These moments on the road, alone with the person he missed the most, loved the most, that’s what made the driving bearable. Enjoyable, actually. That’s what made it possible to put up with the fact that most of the country was just stinky lettuce (cabbage? What crop gave off that awful smell?), diarrhea, and bad music.

Memorializing 9/11 Doesn’t Makes Sense in this New Reality

One might imagine that a major milestone in post-9/11 America would feel more momentous than this: somber messaging on social media that feels mostly forced, the tepid commemorative ceremonies that I’m sure are taking place all across the country today in various forms, depending on how seriously any given community takes the threat of COVID-19. Twenty years on, I guess this is all the enthusiasm that we, collectively, are capable of mustering. As if we’re a dysfunctional family engaging in some yearly family tradition, not because we want to, but because we know it’s important to that one family member who wants so desperately to keep us all together. However inauthentic and pathetic it may feel, we participate in this collective ritual because, for some reason, we feel obliged to placate that one naïve sibling.

What purpose is commemorating 9/11 supposed to serve anyway? If I had to guess, I would say that it has to do with two major things: honoring the dead and reminding ourselves of the importance of national unity. That’s why nations have days of remembrance in the first place. Coming together around events like this, tragic or otherwise, is an important part of building and preserving a national character.

But given the current state of our nation, it’s almost impossible to think that there’s anything that could give us all a sense of togetherness. Twenty years later, memorializing 9/11 feels more like mourning the loss of a national spirit that no longer exists—and that, to many, no longer seems desirable.

We no longer have the capacity to properly honor our dead. Or, insofar as we do, we certainly don’t do so as “fellow Americans” the way we once might have done. That sense of unity is now, like 9/11 itself, a thing of the past. We’re a broken country.

This country wasn’t as fatally broken when the towers went down. Don’t get me wrong—our military response to what happened that day was painfully flawed. No, with the exception of our immediate collective expression of grief (which really was a beautiful thing to see), most of what came after 9/11 was downright horrid. More brutally evil, in fact, than what actually happened on September 11th. But America’s post-9/11 response did at least follow a pattern familiar to all who have had to bear witness to this country’s messy and often dark history: we were attacked, and we swore to come together to avenge those we lost. Much like what happened after a German torpedo killed hundreds of American tourists aboard the Lusitania, or after Japanese planes killed thousands of American service members, we identified a common enemy and turned our energy towards the eradication of that threat. After the towers fell, we demonstrated a similar capacity to act against external enemies, and we showed a sense of sacrifice in order to defeat that enemy. We found unity in a militant barbarism directed at a common foe.

When the pandemic first came to the United States, I remember that a lot of my friends and family members imagined that we would once again find that same kind of unity. It felt good to think about such a possibility given how divided we’d been for such a long time. Of course, that unity never really materialized. What was missing, I guess, was that common enemy, that feeling that our problems could be solved if we simply “went to war” against an external enemy, the same way human societies have done for millennia. Our national leaders even attempted to characterize our struggle against the virus’ spread as being, in a sense, a “war.” What a ridiculous notion. A virus is not an agentic actor against which one can wage war. A virus is a freak act of nature; it doesn’t know why it exists; it doesn’t know why it’s killing us; it just does. Because it acts without a conscience, it’s not really our enemy at all.

And so, we once again had to face the reality of our current situation. Here, today, in the United States, there seems to be no greater enemy out there than other Americans. Does anyone honestly still think that “Islamic” terror is a threat that we need to take as seriously as we once did? Would anyone really be willing to go to war over it? Maybe someone who just woke up from a coma that began in late 2001. For the rest of us, though, that’s simply not the reality we live in anymore. Now, we feel more endangered by each other than anything else.   

The manner in which we feel threatened by one another depends very much on one’s vantage point. For me, my greatest existential threats currently come from unvaccinated Americans, or strangers who approach me without a mask, or people who support policies that destroy life on Earth, or unhinged men with guns who hate the left with every fiber of their being. I hardly recognize these people as Americans, because I see in them a total lack of willingness to sacrifice any amount of personal comfort for the good of humanity as a whole, their warped vision of “freedom” being complete anathema to the values held by those who built this country and anyone who has striven to make it a better and more just place.

Yet it’s this group of Americans who commemorate 9/11 with greater enthusiasm than anyone else. I suppose they prize these empty patriotic gestures because it allows them to feel like they’re the “real Americans” without needing to do anything to actually safeguard the lives and wellbeing of their fellow countrymen. I’m sure it is also important on a psychological level that they appear to care about the senseless loss of thousands of lives that occurred on that day because it allows them to ignore the fact that, with the pandemic still raging, their choices contribute to thousands of unnecessary deaths every day.

I’m just sorry that so many good Americans have had to put everything on the line to protect others while being obstructed by a radicalized right that believes that a perverse notion of individual freedom is more important than saving as many lives as possible. On this day, I honor the hardships endured by those good Americans, I mourn the tragic loss of all those people who have died for no reason—both in the here and now and on that fateful day 20 years ago, I yearn for an idea of what this country could be, and I celebrate the people who have the will to fight to make that America a reality.

With Vaccine Nationalism, America Sleep-Walks into New Fantasy Realm

Like any good business, in politics you strive to construct a version of reality, or at least a reality that could be, that appeals to a significant-enough number of people. Former occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, was something of a marketing whiz when it came to selling voters on illusory versions of reality. In 2020, he came in hot with a fantasy narrative that described a pandemic-free world in which life could go on as normal. As appealing as it might have been to buy the notion that COVID-19 was a hoax (or real but overblown–the narrative was never entirely stable) and that there was therefore no need to disrupt our normal lives, a majority of Americans, at least in this instance, were wise enough to accept the truth–however harsh and bitter the truth might have been.

Set against Trump, Joe Biden, with his promise to deliver straight talk and transparency about the virus, was a warm welcome for the nearly 80 million Americans who voted for him. Finally, we were free from the morass of Trump’s manifold lies, free from his fantasy land.

Well, yes and no. The denialist fantasies that Trump created may no longer have influence in the White House, but the spirit of fantasy thinking doesn’t seem to have gone away.

Most potent among the Biden administration’s fantasy narratives is the irresistible hope that comes with the promise of vaccines. We know how the story goes: in the months ahead, vaccine supply steadily increases, more and more Americans get vaccinated, and as a result we get to enjoy a fairly normal summer (on July 4th, we’ll be able to celebrate independence from the virus, Joe Biden says). We have only to hold on for a little longer; then, Americans will more or less be in the clear.

As we amble into April, Biden’s vaccine optimism has not diminished; rather, it’s only increased as more people get their shot quicker than was originally forecasted. The American public is riding this wave of optimism right alongside the President–or at least, that’s what I think is suggested by the 75% approval rating Biden has received on his handling of the pandemic. In fact, given the explosive spring break we just saw, along with a more general letting down of our guards, I think it’s safe to say that the hope felt by the American people is even stronger than that which is evoked by the President’s public statements. It’s a hope that’s taken on the force of fantasy.

One could argue that the expectation that the U.S. will finally get a grip on the pandemic is not mere wishful thinking, that it’s grounded in reality–if one is using case numbers and the rate of vaccination as a barometer. But what I argue makes this hope a fantasy is its largely unspoken and patently absurd underlying premise: that in a global pandemic, the United States can somehow return to a state of near normalcy even when much of the rest of the world hasn’t yet.

Indeed, however hopeful the situation might look in the U.S. (recent threats of a fourth surge notwithstanding), other countries lag far behind America’s stunning rate of vaccination. What this means is pretty obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: it will take much longer than Americans currently expect to effectively eradicate COVID-19 the world over. According to some public health experts, the slow rate of global vaccination could mean that masking and social distancing will continue for years.

These worrying global trends run alongside the perception around the world that the United States is a vaccine hoarder. America’s vaccine nationalism came to light most clearly when the New York Times reported that the Biden administration was refusing to relinquish any of its stockpile of AstraZeneca shots for distribution in other countries. Since that report, the United States has agreed to share some doses to Mexico and Canada (we don’t much like the AstraZeneca vaccine anyway), but the “America First” logic of Biden’s vaccination program remains the same: the inoculation of all American adults takes priority over the needs of other countries.

Scholar Mihir Sharma offered a much needed critique of our country’s vaccine nationalism, arguing that hoarding vaccines would not only alienate America’s struggling allies and trading partners, but that doing so would also backfire on the United States: the longer the virus is able to circulate around the world, the more it is able to mutate, ultimately making it that much harder to finally eradicate.

This is a quandary that ordinary Americans and media pundits have a difficult time grappling with. The delusional notion that the U.S. can finally put a coda to this crisis, even if the rest of the world hasn’t, is a highly appealing one. It is especially attractive to a country that has, due to a series of bad decisions, been distinctly hard hit by the pandemic. But unless some extraordinary and highly immoral decisions are made in the future, I fear that this hope we Americans have of how the pandemic’s endgame will play out in our country is a fantasy that is only a few degrees more sophisticated than any of the fairy tales that Trump created. What’s more, if and when our hopes are shattered, we will be poorly positioned to confront the bitter truth because we will not have been preparing for its arrival.

As such, it might be better to come back to reality now before it forces itself upon us. We might, for example, want to have wider conversations about how prudent it is to vaccinate healthy American 20-somethings who work at home while more vulnerable groups in other countries still wait for their shot. Maybe we also need to remind ourselves that this fight, being a global one, is about saving as many lives as possible everywhere, and not just in our country. And maybe too we need to be reminded that, in a global pandemic, the ultimate goal is worldwide herd immunity, and not just national herd immunity.

Alright, maybe at this point, fatigued as we all are, that’s a sacrifice most Americans simply aren’t willing to make. So we continue to hoard vaccines, and the nation overcomes the virus while the rest of the world continues to struggle. Then what? How are Americans supposed to travel abroad when all the tourist hotspots remain crippled by the virus? How are citizens from other countries to travel to our now-open economy for work and play when they could potentially be bringing with them new variants of the virus for which we have no protection? Do we close our borders and restrict or suspend immigration and all travel in and out of the country? Under these conditions, America starts to look very much like Trump’s dark fantasy land again.

I can’t say with absolute certainty that our tacit acceptance of vaccine nationalism will produce all or some of these outcomes, but none of it is beyond the realm of possibility. As such, this is an issue that’s at least worth taking seriously. Dreaming about a hopeful future is understandable, probably even healthy in moderation; but if we float too long in the dream world, the reality we wake up to could very well be a living nightmare.

Featured image: Photo of COVID-19 vaccines taken U.S. Secretary of Defense – https://www.flickr.com/photos/secdef/50720831313/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97585337

COVID-19 won’t change a damn thing–unless we want it to

Written back in August 2020. Boy, I was very angry when I wrote this. Dealing with the loss of a parent, as well as the loss of your former life and former self, is a lot to handle in just one short year. That kind of pressure and emotional stress causes you to behave and think in ways that don’t really speak to who you truly are as a person. While I don’t exactly disagree with anything I argued here, I do in hindsight take issue with the overly bitter and resentful form with which I decided to articulate my thoughts. But I’m sharing anyways, at the very least as a manifestation of how mainstream culture’s response to the pandemic unnerves those who might feel the effects of COVID-19 far more acutely.

Do you remember back in the Spring when your effervescent friends, Coca-Cola, and practically every car company in the country battered you over the head with this bravely optimistic message?: “Things look pretty scary right now, but look on the bright side!” And out poured the whimsical fantasies:

We would all stay home for a few weeks to reset and stay safe (staycation, am I right?!), and as a result, we would become more enlightened, less materialistic; we would learn to slow down every now and then. Families would be brought closer together. Thanks to the pandemic, those who survived would emerge from it better people due to sacrifices made and hardships endured.

We would find inspiration in front-line workers’ everyday heroism. We would repay the favor by making FREE painted rocks. Thanks to the pandemic, humanity would come together like this, united by the simple fact that an undiscriminating virus affects all of us equally.

Nature would heal. After just one month, maybe two, of people mostly staying home, the environment would begin to bounce back. A significant — albeit partial and temporary — reduction in carbon emissions would somehow undo roughly two and a half centuries of unfathomable ecological destruction.

Now several months into the pandemic, we’re a bit less naive than that. We know the pandemic has not necessarily brought out the better angels of our nature. Masks are irritating, they’re hard to breathe through because I never learned how to breathe properly, and they make it hard to talk because I never learned how to enunciate and project. And hang on, grocery store workers want hazard pay to become permanent? Nurses are traumatized and exhausted and fed up with the public’s platitudes? Teachers would rather live than babysit little super spreader Kenny so that I can be freed up to work my far less stressful job in which I make double their salary? I’ll have my pretty rock back, thank you very much.

We also know now that a pack of blue whales could reclaim Times Square for nature and it wouldn’t change the fact that the Arctic is melting, forests around the world are on fire, failing oil and gas companies are haphazardly abandoning wells across the country and leaving ordinary people to suffer the environmental fallout…all while deadly heat waves and freak hurricanes continue to kill thousands.

For the most part, anybody still peddling early Corona fantasies are rightly dismissed either as damn fools or charlatans. Yet some optimism remains that something good is bound to emerge from the pandemic, that there’s inevitably going to be some sort of revolutionary political or socioeconomic change — or both.

For proof that things are going to change, we apparently need to look at history. In search of parallels to our own time, some pundits will point to the Second World War — a cataclysmic global event that strengthened the cause of social welfare in Western countries. Given that we’re “at war” with a deadly virus, the logic goes, maybe we will come out of this fight with a renewed commitment to equality and social justice.

The WWII analogy almost makes sense until you step back and realize that it’s actually absurd. We’re dealing with two very different contexts: WWII was a war; the current pandemic is not. In fact, it can’t even be characterized as a figurative war anymore, as that would imply a shared sense of sacrifice that is clearly belied by the selfish hostility towards mask-wearing and closures.

Fine, maybe we’re not engaged in total war with the virus. Would it be fair, though, to suggest that our current situation is very much like the Great Depression? Given the economic disaster wrought by the virus, this does seem like a fair comparison. It would also then seem fair to assume that we should anticipate a host of drastic systemic change a la New Deal. Once again, though, I think our current context is too distinct. During the Depression, it was easier to make the claim that the crisis was produced by fatal flaws within the economic system itself, thereby making reform essential. But because today’s economic crisis is so inextricably tied to the virus, it’s too easy for those opposed to reform to say that there’s actually nothing wrong with the system. Their arguments, however flawed, are helped on by the fact that the economy was in decent shape before the pandemic hit.

These erroneous comparisons to other historic events is symptomatic of a common problem: the tendency for people to draw the wrong lessons from history. Lessons that are most amenable to their hopes for the future, but perhaps not grounded in harsh reality. The unfortunate truth, that which many of us would like to ignore, is that the best historical antecedent we can find to the current pandemic is, of course, another pandemic — the Spanish flu. Unfortunately, the lessons we can draw from this much more relevant event are desperately lacking in any kind of silver lining.

To sum up a complicated story, Americans emerged from the influenza pandemic of 1918–1920 understandably exhausted: worn out from the death, tired of shortages, sick of uncertainty. On the whole, ordinary people did not choose to see their brief intervention in WWI and the public health crisis that followed as opportunities to refashion society and the political system. Instead, after all the suffering and hardship they endured, most Americans hungered for a return to the status quo. The 1920s became an era of small, business-friendly government; rampant stock market speculation; rising income inequality; retrenched racial divides — seen perhaps most clearly in the resurgence of the KKK. It was precisely what people were after: a “return to normalcy.” A return, in other words, to all America’s ugliness.

Over 600,000 Americans died from the Spanish flu. Sadly, their deaths turned out to be as meaningless as the millions of deaths caused by the First World War. Despite these losses, little changed. That’s the key lament of the disillusioned artists who came to be known as the “Lost Generation.” So many people died for nothing.

In our own time, are we doomed to cry a similar lament? What ultimate lesson is to be drawn from history’s closest parallel to the present crisis?

The most pessimistic argument would be that, just like the Spanish flu, COVID-19 will inevitably push people to return to what’s comfortable rather than do whatever is necessary to address the glaring socioeconomic issues that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief. We can already see signs that we’ll be reverting to the status quo once the virus is under control. The proof is in the angst over a possible second lock-down, the outrage over remote learning this fall, and the apparently massive appeal of a boring, moderate presidential candidate. It is after all Joe Biden’s “normalcy,” rather than any hint of progressivism, that accounts for his popularity. (That and the fact that his clear competence makes him a thousand times more palatable than the sitting president — who appears hell-bent on driving us towards failed-state status.)

In this scenario, we confront the same harsh reality that people faced 100 years ago: sometimes, bad things happen and there’s no silver lining. A new virus emerges and — like our own species — it does everything it can to adapt and survive, even at the expense of other living organisms. We are so disturbed by such a merciless act of nature that we want nothing more than to forget what happened as soon as possible. The outcome is a society firmly retrenched in the familiar — despite, or perhaps because of, the experience of mass death.

I would rather argue, though, that what the 1918–1920 pandemic teaches us is not that we’re doomed to an equally dreary outcome, but that events are not the most significant catalysts for change — it’s people. When disaster strikes, people choose how to react, and those choices determine our future trajectory.

People who choose to believe that certain seismic events will inevitably produce change fall into a dangerous passivity. They tend to believe that they’re powerless to alter the future — history is going to do what it’s going to do. To think that everything, for better or for worse, is inevitable, is to accept complacency.

Yet most historians would contend that absolutely nothing is inevitable. Rather, the outcome of events is contingent upon what people choose to make of the manifold crises and tragedies that unexpectedly befall us. For instance, it was not inevitable that the murder of George Floyd would produce the largest mass protests that this country has ever seen. Activists chose to make George Floyd a new rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, and millions of ordinary people chose to listen. Without this human action, Floyd’s death would’ve been nothing more than another example of racist police violence, but not necessarily a catalyst for civil rights protests.

By the same token, it’s a fantasy to think that COVID-19, in and of itself, is not only a deadly virus, but also somehow a harbinger of miracles. If we choose to believe that the pandemic by itself carries enough momentum to bring about the change we desire, then, just like the previous pandemic, all the death will indeed be meaningless.

There is no silver lining to this pandemic unless you make it so. Things aren’t going to change just because you sat at home for a month, learned a new hobby, painted a rock, and let your gas-guzzling SUV hibernate in the garage. You want change? Let the people in power know that you’re angry and fed up. Continue to show up as an ally for your oppressed friends. Do whatever it takes to get your ballot in this November. If Joe Biden wins, don’t rest on your laurels; it will be tempting to take your eyes off government and Congress once the professionals are in charge again, but don’t fall into that complacency. Keep the pressure on Biden and other moderate Democrats to pursue genuine change. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that events alone will do the work for you. And — for God’s sake — don’t wish so desperately for things to go back to normal that you lose sight of how gravely ill the world already was under the status quo.

A Love Letter to Chicago

When President Trump announced his manifestly fascistic Operation Legend yesterday, I felt the need to revisit this love letter I wrote about Chicago. Trump’s promise to invade the city with his federal henchmen reminded me again of my burning affection for that place I briefly called home. To see that enchanting, brilliantly diverse hub of art, culture, intellectual and political life characterized as “out of control” was an absolutely ludicrous attempt to justify an illegal power grab over cities run by Democrats. Anyone who has ever lived in Chicago, even visited Chicago, knows this: the city and its people will not abide outside intervention. It doesn’t need anyone’s help. It’s far from perfect, but the city stands on its own and the people there help each other out. That’s the magic of Chicago that I tried to convey in this letter I wrote on the eve of my departure, that I share publicly now as a plea to see the city the way I do, and not the way the President wants you to see it — as some urban cesspool.

A sudden rain that feeds the newly lush trees of late May, causing me to take refuge in the first bar I find (a cheesy sports bar, lonely in mid-afternoon: one bartender and only two patrons, including myself). A whirlwind tour of mid-century walkup apartments with their decaying wood frames and charming courtyards that become barren wastelands in the winter and verdant gardens in the summer — buildings that hardly exist in the agonizingly twenty-first century city that I come from. An unfortunate encounter with an ex near the Howard station, someone I hadn’t seen in years, who I thought I’d never see again, someone I didn’t even know lived in Chicago. We pretend not to notice one another. A spontaneous visit to the bathroom of the nearest Jewel-Osco to have a nice cry over the emotions that seeing her stirred up inside me (I had to be escorted to the bathroom by a security guard; Howard is a rough location, apparently). Squeezing into a packed train on its way to dump fans into Cubs Stadium. A meeting in one of Lincoln Park’s many posh neighborhoods with a stranger who would soon become my most important — and my only — friend in that city. Getting hopelessly lost on my way back to my Airbnb, at which point I witness a mugging outside a Walgreens in West Chicago.

These are some snapshots from my less-than-glamorous first encounter with you, Chicago. Since these anecdotal ephemera are from two years ago, they’re probably destined to be a permanent part of my mental archive, being instantly retrievable from memory even if no physical record of these events exists. These initial experiences with you might have left a bad taste in my mouth, lingering long after the smell of your sewage has left my nostrils; instead, they caused me to immediately fall in love with you. How could that be?

I think it’s because you don’t hide who you are. If Los Angeles is a city that never turns off its Instagram filter, then you’re a city that’s too old to even know what Instagram is, or to care about the culture of pathological lying fueled by social media. With your unwashed brick buildings and crumbling infrastructure, you leave your grit on full display. But you give us things of beauty, too — the Art Institute, early twentieth-century movie theaters, restaurants offering up food that’s as diverse as the people of Chicago, not to mention an absurd number of spacious parks — and by doing so, you make a point of showing us that urban blight is not all that you are. And we, the people who live here, believe you, because you’ve shown us the ugly side too.

When I first arrived here in 2018, the Laquan McDonald case was rising to a crescendo, soon to turn into what Black Lives Matter activists would rightly characterize as a miscarriage of justice, yet another victory for institutional racism occurring even as Chicagoans elected their first openly gay black mayor. The following year, historical societies, activist groups, and intellectuals across the city commemorated the 1919 riots that were ignited when a black child was murdered by white adults for unwittingly transgressing racial boundaries. With the McDonald case and the 1919 centennial, we were forced to repeatedly reckon with a racial violence so brutal that it would take the lives of people too young to fully understand the complexities of the racist system into which they were born.

These acts of violence happen in a city like you, Chicago, because it’s part of your genetic makeup: you were designed in the days when white supremacy was the stated law of the land — rather than something that’s coyly hidden behind complex systems of legal and social inequality. But people who have come to call this place home, people who have come from all parts of the country, all parts of the world, have also built into you a kind of energy that creates space for frank conversations. This level of honesty is a quality in a city that’s far from easily obtained. Having spent a lot of time in southern cities, I can tell you that one often must do a lot of digging to find evidence of a city’s traumatic past — or even of the evil deeds that continue in the present, for that matter.

But above and beyond your brutal honesty, the thing that has really confirmed my love for you over time is the perspective that you’ve given me on life.

With the passing of each season, you help us gain a deeper understanding of what it means to live in this world. I know every tree in my neighborhood and how they behave in each season — which ones bloom the earliest and which take the longest — because you’ve encouraged me to attend to the cycles of life around me: death in winter and spring’s rebirth. In November, when the snows come, we’re all initially a little eager to play in the fresh powder, but by January we’re all in agreement about one thing: winter here is truly awful. The trees stand naked and skeletal, a dead silence fills the air as the birds hunker down for the season, and the days are stuck in a perpetual dusk. I’ll say no more on winter than that because I’d rather move on to spring — which starts off as a lighter version of winter, but eventually comes into its own with its soothing breezes, refreshing rains, and kaleidoscopic colors. While there may come a point in deep winter that I begin to hate you just a little, in spring I fall in love with you all over again. But for many (though I disagree), late spring is just a rehearsal for the real show, summer: the time of year when all the sins you committed against us in winter are absolved over long bike rides along the lake; a swim in the refreshingly cold, probably polluted, waters of Lake Michigan; days that never seem to end; nights that pulsate with the energy of millions of people who’ve waited six long months to really party. Yet summer wouldn’t beat so hard with the vitality of life if winter weren’t there to remind us of how quickly it can be snatched away. Eventually, the relentless heat and passion of summer does make us weary, and fall arrives just in time to cool our heads and invite us to slow down. We accept this new passing of the season just as we all learn to accept the coming of old age — and eventually death.

Every year you force us (sometimes too harshly) to confront the fact that life and death are entwined, but the presence of the latter only makes us appreciate the former all the more strongly. To varying degrees, of course, this is a fundamental lesson about life’s tricky balance that we all share, one of the few things that’s able to transcend the North-South divide simply by virtue of the fact that we’re all human, living here, choosing to face the deep freeze of winter so that we can feel especially delighted by the eventual arrival of a warm day.

Yet while you may say that life is a balance, in our present moment there are forces at work threatening to disrupt that balance. The virus’ spread has brought feelings of a present calamity to the forefront in a way that the slow process of environmental degradation could not.

Sometime in late March I took what might have been my last bike ride to downtown. On the way down, I rode past innumerable empty bars and restaurants with “closed” signs on their windows: chilling reminders of the economic freeze brought about by the pandemic. Once in the heart of the city, I still felt no pulse. I looked down a street normally packed with tourists and saw nothing but a gaggle of geese slowly crossing Grand Avenue, unhindered by cars or buses.

Even as spring has progressed, I continue to sense a stillness and quietness of death in you. I feel a winter-like phantom haunting the increasingly sunny and balmy days ahead of us.

But a city like you should never be allowed to die. You contain too much history, too many lessons. You’ve introduced me to amazing people, you’ve shown me beauty, restored in me a sense of enchantment about the world that I thought I’d lost forever; but you’ve also made plain to me the evil of which all people are capable, shown me the ugliness of urban decay, and given me painful memories I wish I could forget. Such are the paradoxes of life, though, and that’s the lesson you’ve taught me, which will stay with me no matter where I go and no matter what the future holds for you and me.

It’s painful to have to say goodbye to you; but if I were happy to do so, I would not, in all honesty, be able to say that I love you.

Due to unforeseen crises both personal and global, I moved from Chicago back to Austin in the summer of 2020. I wrote this after I had already decided to move and shortly before my mother died. Since then I have considered moving back, but have opted instead to remain in Austin while making (hopefully) frequent visits to my temporary home city. As you can tell, the city has a way of calling you back after you leave.

I left my PhD program on the eve of the pandemic…

…and I still don’t regret my decision.

Don’t get me wrong, leaving my PhD program was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It produced an existential crisis that I’ve only recently begun to recover from and has had a host of consequences that are still developing even seven months on. Most significant of these repercussions was the fact that I withdrew from the program in December 2019, having no clue of the economic and public health crisis just on the horizon. Yet at no point have I felt remorse so acutely that I would consider a return to grad school (if, hypothetically, I had the option).

Part of what made me confident about my decision were the soothing words from former PhDs who wrote about their own experiences leaving their programs. (Just Google “leaving the phd program” and you will get TONS of results.) Their stories helped me feel less alone, like I hadn’t lost my mind for contemplating a break with the academy. That’s why I want to share my own story about leaving academia, so that if there’s someone out there who’s considering leaving their program, they too won’t need to feel so alone.

The existential crisis of leaving grad school

That one December night, it felt as though I had abruptly erased my entire identity — since that’s what academia does, it makes you believe that you have no existence outside your course of study. Since I was about 19 years old, I had been telling myself that I lived and breathed history, and that I would only be happy if I one day became a history professor. For most of my twenties, I was convinced that I was willing to submit completely to the demands of graduate school because there was nothing else for me in life. So when I suddenly decided that pursuing a PhD in history was no longer making me feel happy or fulfilled, what do you think the result might have been? It was like my entire adult life had been a lie. It was like the biggest part of me had died.

You must not delude yourself into thinking that the only people who leave grad school are the ones who were never really that serious about it in the first place. I know from firsthand experience that a lot of PhD students adopt this attitude; it plays a considerable role in the tension that pervades departments all over the country. Nobody wants to be outed as the slacker in the cohort who’s less committed than everyone else, so we all constantly one-up each other, sharing stories about how we’ve been consuming history books and documentaries since childhood, how we used to love it when our parents would take us to museums, or how we would stay up all night crafting the perfect paper about the French Revolution rather than partying with friends the way a normal college kid might. We lie to ourselves and to others about our steadfast determination to go on with the program not because we intentionally want to put people down; rather, we find it a useful coping mechanism for dealing with the psychological damage that grad school inflicts on us all.

When the day finally comes that the lie can no longer be maintained, it inevitably produces a catastrophic identity crisis. I will never forget the way I sobbed uncontrollably on my yoga mat after I meditated and made the decision to leave the program, or again the next morning when I emailed the Director of Graduate Studies. The emptiness inside of me was unbearable. I felt no desire to get out of bed, no interest in bettering myself or making healthy decisions. I did, however, have a strong urge to tear to shreds the Foucault books on my shelves and the departmental documents piling up around my computer — that was about the only energy I could muster.

Initially, I started overcoming the severe depression that my decision caused by making a list of all the reasons why I left the program. I came up with at least 16 unique reasons. Doing that helped me realize that, despite the short-term pain, this was obviously something that needed to be done for the good of my mental well-being. I also started thinking beyond my immediate suffering and into the future, imagining a better life for myself later on because of the sacrifices I was making now.

Those coping mechanisms I devised for myself were helpful, but it didn’t mean that I had definitively restored balance inside of me. In fact, if it weren’t for the much bigger crises of COVID-19 and the death of my mother, I would probably still be confronting the gravity of my decision in a much more emotional way. Because of those far greater tragedies, though, leaving the PhD program feels like very small potatoes indeed.

Like so many others right now, the hell of 2020 has forced me to adopt new perspectives on life. Now, I no longer construct my identity around things that I do, but rather around the things that make me who I am, because now I realize that, when everything goes to shit, my basic humanity is the only thing that I have control over.

The consequences of my actions

The emotional repercussions of leaving grad school are, I think, the most important to address, but there are a slew of practical concerns you’re forced to contend with as well.

In December 2019, I left my PhD program knowing that I wouldn’t be able to predict all those consequences, but BOY HOWDY, I never expected 2020 to be the year that it’s been. Like many people who keep up with the news, I’d had a hunch that there was some sort of minor recession on the horizon, but otherwise the job market looked pretty good. I had no illusions about how difficult it would be for me to find a job after dropping out of the PhD program (“mastering out” is the polite term), but I didn’t expect to be entering a frozen economy.

But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. Because initially, things didn’t look quite so bad. At first, it seemed like at worst I might need to pick up a serving job to cover the bills. Since I’d already had a robust working background as a server, I didn’t see this as a problem — which isn’t to say that I wasn’t dreading the prospect of returning to the restaurant industry, I just didn’t think it would be impossible to do so.

In my search for a full-time job, I imagined employers would have lots of questions about why I left my PhD program. In fact, this has basically been a non-issue. Sometimes employers will express confusion when they see that I have two Masters degrees, but often times even that doesn’t come up! The fact is this (and this is absolutely critical to keep in mind if you’re thinking about leaving your program): outsiders don’t really know what goes on in academia. It sounds obvious enough, but when you’re cloistered in a university you tend to forget that it’s not the center of the universe. In reality, though, the vast majority of Americans don’t have a graduate degree, so they wouldn’t be able to intuit that if someone has two MAs then that means they were on track to earn a PhD but then “mastered out.” My best guess is they think you just really like school. And so I have been pleasantly surprised to find that my status as a PhD dropout carries little stigma in the job market. Nobody really cares.

And there’s the not so pleasant surprise: the fact that nobody really cares is a double-edged sword. Because most Americans never attend graduate school and therefore have false assumptions about what graduate students do, employers aren’t necessarily going to be impressed when they see a resume decorated with so many degrees. Unfortunately, we live in a society in which most people only value education insofar as it can be used as a tool to unlock job opportunities. The pursuit of knowledge in and of itself does not seem to be highly valued outside academia. We need only look at the current state of the humanities during the pandemic to see where our country’s priorities are. As a result, I have had to find creative ways to pitch my advanced education as an asset to employers — and this, as it turns out, is a hard sell.

The unfortunate truth, one that I really didn’t see coming, is that in a lot of ways my two Masters degrees are a liability, not an asset. Here’s the main reason why: if you’re transitioning out of a PhD program and searching for careers completely outside your field, you will most likely have to start at the bottom because you lack the necessary skills and experience. For me, this has meant applying for a lot of low-level admin assistant type jobs that I’m hugely over-qualified for in terms of my education but hugely under-qualified for in terms of work experience. Yes, I have tried to pitch the things I did in grad school as representing transferable skills (constructing a thesis became project management experience, fulfilling TA duties became administrative experience, etc.), but the fact is that most employers don’t want to waste their time wrapping their heads around how being a grad student is a full-time profession (and a difficult one at that), and they don’t want to risk hiring a candidate who is “too educated” for the job. To them, someone with that much education probably won’t last — either because they’ll get bored or because something better will come along. In sum, if your background is anything like mine, you’re probably a little too qualified for entry-level jobs but not quite qualified enough for anything beyond that.

That’s been one of the biggest unforeseen consequences: a job search in which I’m putting all my energy towards trying to secure a job that really shouldn’t be that hard to get, performing all sorts of mental gymnastics to contrive a way to convince just one employer to take a chance on someone who left academia to pursue a different kind of life. We ex-academics deserve to be treated like any other person who’s made a career change, but somehow we’re a class apart, because in our society there’s just something inherently off about someone who wastes so many years in the frivolous pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. As I’ve already suggested, we live in a time and in a country where intellectual life is often viewed with disdain.

In hindsight, would I have done anything different?

If I knew what I know now, would I have seriously mulled over leaving my PhD program…but then blinked? Probably not. I was suffocating. The feeling was overwhelming — I had to get out. It’s too bad that things got to such a boiling point when it did. Due to the poor timing, I unwittingly entered an extremely tight labor market in which employers are particularly risk-adverse (and therefore even less willing to look at candidates with unconventional backgrounds). On top of that, I don’t have the ability to collect unemployment. I’m also facing the prospect of losing health insurance next month during a pandemic.

Even so, I wouldn’t take it all back. It says something about how miserable I had become that I still don’t regret leaving despite the precarious position that doing so has put me in.

That said, there were certain benefits to being a grad student that I miss — specifically, the monthly stipends, the health insurance, and having my student loan payments defrayed. You don’t know how valuable those basic protections are until they’re gone. (I should acknowledge that not all grad students get all these perks; some grad students actually have to pay to be in their program.)

So, my suggestion to you is this: if there’s any way you think you can grin and bear another several months of grad school, during which time you would secretly be looking for a way out while you continue to collect a steady paycheck from the school, I would strongly encourage you to do so — especially during this prolonged period of crisis. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but several months ago I didn’t even consider this possibility. So obsequious was I that I believed it would be unethical to lie about my continued interest in the program just so that I could collect the benefits. But hey, this is the kind of servility that grad school breeds; while some professors and administrators do fight back against this toxic culture, it remains an overwhelming force in most departments. So, if you’re anything like me in this respect, remember that, in the private sector, people do this all the time. We can all name at least one friend who secretly hates their job but stays with it until something else comes along just so they can pay their bills. So long as they’re still doing their job, nothing about this seems even remotely unethical, does it? If you still don’t feel right about taking advantage of your program like that, I’ve got news for you: your school takes advantage of you all the time.

All this is to say that in hindsight I do think that abruptly leaving your program — the way I did — can be a bit foolhardy. Nevertheless, if there is any part of you that feels like you can’t endure even one more day of graduate school, then you should get out as soon as you can for the sake of your mental health. It might comfort you to know that my department was extremely gracious with me when I left the program. At the same time, I fear that this isn’t the case for all PhD students who choose to withdraw. If you do receive any kind of blow-back from your department when you decide to quit, you should know two things: 1) Nobody knows what’s best for you but yourself. 2) Once you’re out in the wide open world, there’s probably very little your former professors and colleagues can do to detrimentally impact your future. This, I guess, is one silver lining to the fact that much of the public (your future employer included) cares little about the opinions of academics.

Final thoughts, words of advice

I am by no means a career coach, but it should be obvious by now that, through a lot of trial and error, I’ve learned a thing or two about what happens next when you leave your PhD program. Some of this I learned on my own, and other things I’ve learned from reading Susan Basalla’s and Maggie Debelius’ “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia. (If you take anything away from me, it should be to read that book.)

My other piece of advice is this: in your job search, cast a wide net, being as open as possible to any number of opportunities you think might be a good fit with your values, skills, and interests. Beyond the obvious fact that doing so will up your odds of getting a job, you might also find it liberating that your life can go in a lot of different directions. After so many years of being on one very narrow track, your life can finally start to feel boundless again.

Also — and this is a point that Basall and Debelius make in their book — you need to get comfortable with completely reworking your professional biography to make it fit with the norms and standards of the non-academic world. You are no longer trying to get a professorship, so it’s not helpful to talk about your teaching experience or pedagogical theory. Instead, think about how your teaching background gives you the necessary skills to train and supervise people, or to lead presentations. It’s also not appropriate to give potential employers the finer details of your thesis or dissertation research, but it is important to mention how that research background gives you incredible project management skills, a meticulous attention to detail (God, employers love this), and the ability to rapidly assimilate new knowledge.

But in the final analysis, the most important question is still the existential one. Who are you if you’re not an academic? For most people, this is a really tough thing to address, and ultimately everyone has their unique way of dealing with it. No matter how you choose to work through this deeply personal inner struggle, though, remember that you were always more than just an academic; at the same time, you will probably never completely stop being a scholar — and that’s okay, too. In fact, when the dust finally settles, you’ll likely find yourself wanting to engage with scholarly debates again, and you have every right to do so. You are still free to read and critique books, share your deeply informed thoughts about pressing issues with friends and family members (if your uncle tries to talk over you, just shout louder!), or blast politicians for making dangerous, unfounded claims — all of this you still get to do despite the fact that you made the perfectly rational decision to leave the academy behind in order to build the best possible life for yourself.

This was originally posted to Medium back in July of 2020.