In these strange days, we checked in with essayist/humorist Shalom Auslander, whose work frequently explores Jewish paranoia, the impulse to "go into hiding," and the meaning of suffering.
This month, Shalom published a new essay in Tablet magazine, "Consider the Ostrich: Some words of advice from a man who’s been self-isolating since 2001." Here's how it begins:
I blame Wolf Blitzer.
I was fine before Wolf came along. I was healthy, I was writing, and 20 milligrams of Prozac was keeping me on a chemically even keel. I was practically functioning. Sure, now and then I’d watch the news, who didn’t? After a long day at work, just to catch up. But I didn’t have a problem. I could stop at any time. Then Sept. 11 came, and with it, Wolf Blitzer.
The product of an unhappy and extremely sheltered Orthodox childhood, he is the author of the memoir Foreskin's Lament (2007); the short story collection Beware of God (2005); the novel Hope: A Tragedy (2012), about a Manhattanite who escapes city life for the Catskills only to discover a foul-mouthed old woman, living in his attic, who claims to be Anne Frank; and a frequent contributor to Public Radio International's "This American Life."
Shalom visited us at the University at Albany in 2007 and 2012. In the clip below, he discusses his discovery of creative writing as an act of transgression against his strict religious upbringing:
Q: Where are you self-isolating?
A: My basement garage. Concrete floor, oil stains, pipes. There’s a narrow 3-foot wide space between the car and the boiler, just enough for me to squeeze in a card table, lamp and space heater. It’s dark and grim and depressing, but every now and then I can open the garage door, fill the room with the smell of garbage from the dumpsters out back and enjoy the gentle sounds of the homeless urinating in the alleyway.
Q: Is there any action you'd like us all to take in this time of crisis?
A: Get offline. Seriously. The websites you think are informing you – left, right, center, I don’t care - aren’t. They’re keeping you afraid so you’ll keep reading.
I can tell how long my friends and neighbors have been online by how suicidal they are.
One hour per day: depressed and lethargic.
Two hours: resigned to certain doom.
Three hours: Unshakably convinced this is the end of mankind.
I don’t mind any of those particular views, by the way, I even hold a few myself; but the people who have them because of the internet are utterly humorless about them. There’s an earnestness to their misery that grates on me.
Q: Any fresh news from your life?
A: My new novel Mother for Dinner is coming out in September, and the play I adapted from my previous novel Hope: A Tragedy is supposed to open in spring of 2021. But that’s more than enough time for another epidemic, fire from the sky, a comet, war, frogs, pestilence, boils or environmental collapse to happen, so I’m trying not to get ahead of myself.
Q: What do you do to stay sane?
Q: What do you do to keep in touch with people?
A: I’m having a lot more success not staying in touch with people. I like people, don’t get me wrong, but everyone on the East Coast wants to talk about COVID and looting, everyone on the West Coast wants to talk about Trump and the election, and I’d rather not talk about either.
Q: What do you do to stay physically active?
A: Look at myself naked. That usually gets me right back to the treadmill.
Visit the Penguin Random House page to pre-order Shalom's new novel, Mother for Dinner.
Find out more about Shalom in this interview, Pretty Shitty Monkeys: A Surprisingly Optimistic Conversation with Shalom Auslander, listen to his stories on The Moth, and read more of his writings at www.shalomauslander.com.