Objects of Affection #1 - Believer Magazine
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Objects of Affection #1

An Oral History of Newfound, Pandemic-Related Bonds
by James Yeh
Photos by featured contributors
May 14th, 2020

Uncertain times beget uncertain feelings. Amid a global crisis, we find ourselves feeling, well, not ourselves. Maybe we feel more kindly toward a challenging loved one, previously disliked authority figure, or Zoom-facilitated gathering. Lately I’ve noticed this manifesting on my Instagram feed: a collection of empty glasses captioned “WFH colleagues”; a liquor cabinet titled “happy family”; a distressingly fetal-looking carrot that is a “new friend.” Over Zoom book club, a friend told us how she was now “touching plants a lot” and thinking of them as people. 

For me, locked down in North Brooklyn for the past sixty-plus days, I have been listening with new ears to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” that schmaltzy number I’ve never much cared for but now voluntarily, joyfully, submit to hearing each night in my local park, played at 7:02 PM, after our customary clapping for essential workers.

We listen as the song is performed by a tall, bearded man with a shaved head named Kayvon Afshari, who cranks the song through his home speakers in a modern building bordering the park. On recent days, Kayvon, a documentary filmmaker, has taken to donning a gray suit and bright tie for the occasion. He croons, he belts, he executes Rockette kicks. Then he switches into a T-shirt, straps on an electric guitar, and turns up the gain to accompany Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” Almost everyone who is watching is also filming, myself included.

In March, when this was all getting started, my friend H. M. emailed me from Karachi. “It’s a real global shitshow—like Old Testament shit,” he wrote. “But we’re all in it together, no?, for the first time since then?” In Portland, in Madrid, they’re also clapping. In Santiago, Chile, they’ve apparently stopped clapping, in defiance of a government order.

In April, I put out a call for stories about these newfound objects of affection. Then I picked up the phone. I decided to do one interview a day, to make it part of my routine, a “practice,” if you will. I wanted to have something daily to look forward to, but I also didn’t want to get too worked up, so accustomed I’ve grown to going around in silent isolation.

While compiling these oral histories, I’ve been reminded of Jason Lazarus’s captivating project Too Hard to Keep, a collection of anonymously submitted photographs that he says are “too hard too keep, but too painful to destroy.” Here, I think it’s sort of the inverse: during this time of difficulty, we are pulling things in. But the desire to tell another person strikes me as related.

Readers have emailed a wide range of objects, each of which has been fascinating in its own way, from the wonderfully weird to the touchingly common, and everything in between. Patterns quickly emerged: items with a tactile quality, artifacts signifying non-Covid times past or future, devices that deliver comfort or caffeine. A disproportionate number have been bird-related. What I quickly learned is I was only seeing the tip of object-affection iceberg. 

Here’s the first installment. Special thanks goes out to everyone who took the time to write in, especially those I spoke to, and to the indefatigable Nicolas Vita, who tirelessly transcribed their words.

—James Yeh

 I. Now Everybody’s Like, “You’re a Genius”

Observer: Christopher Frizzelle on April 26, 2020, in Seattle, WA

Object: Fake mini-Christmas tree

Level of Affection: Recent proud parent

Right away Christopher apologized for his “heavy breathing.” He’d just been to the grocery store and was racing back up the stairs to his apartment.  

The tree was given to me by a friend who didn’t want it. Actually there were two of them and they were sort of matching, and I didn’t think I had room for two, but she was just going to throw them away. So I said, “Well, why don’t I take one and I’ll have it be my mini-Christmas tree.”

And then after that Christmas or whatever, I put it back in my closet. It would be a better story if it was because of Covid that I pulled it back out. But I did pull it back out this year for Christmas, and then something in me was just like, You know what? This little funky tree cracks you up and it gives you joy, why don’t you just leave it out all year? And I’m already a very annoying person who likes to sing Christmas carols year-round. Sometimes I’m whistling in the office and people are like, “Are you whistling Christmas carols? It’s June.” And I’m like, “Oh, sorry.” I grew up listening to a lot of Broadway musicals, so I already have a little bit of an annoying taste in all things, but especially music and, like, holiday shit.

But somehow this year I just felt this urge. On New Year’s or something, I was like: I just want to keep this tree up. And so I did. And people would come and be like, “Is that a Christmas tree? It’s, like, February.” And I’d be like, “Yeah, it is.” And they’d be like, “You’re so weird.” And then, lately, I’ve been doing a lot of things on Zoom like everybody else, including this thing that we do at The Stranger called the Reading Party.

It usually happens in this old mahogany-lined hotel lobby. And it’s a hundred-year-old hotel and there’s a piano player who plays piano and it’s really a fun party and it’s all about getting people to read. ’Cause my own thing is that I think that literary culture is too writer-oriented and it’s all about the celebrity of the writer. Like, hear the writer talk or go to a reading where the writer talks about their book or whatever. And I don’t think there’s nearly enough in the culture about just the pleasure of reading or ways to get people to read, irrespective of whatever author they’re reading.

We’ve been doing the Reading Party on Zoom, and it’s actually a huge, huge hit on Zoom. Way bigger of a hit than it has ever been in person. And my Christmas tree is in the frame, and people keep being like, “That tree is amazing, how’d you think of that? It’s so warm and cozy and beautiful.”

So, whereas I used to be getting made fun of for having my Christmas tree up year-around, now everyone’s like, “You’re a genius.” And I was just in a little book club where we read The Plague together, and I’d read it before, but I was like, Oh God, this is really not the thing to be reading right now. All of these long digressions about what they’re going to do with all the bodies and turning all the subway systems into, like, corpse distribution networks and the mass burials for the men and the women. It’s just too close to home.

Yet whenever I would look around my apartment while I was reading, if I saw my Christmas tree, I’d be like, Oh, that’s great. It secretes joy into my life whenever I look at it, even in all this bleakness.

If you have a Christmas tree year-round when everyone’s happy, you’re a freak. But if you have a Christmas tree year-round when everyone is despairing, you’re brilliant.

I did a lot of musical theater as a kid. I was in a production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. And, you know, I’m balding. So, my mom thinks of me as Charlie Brown and she will forever think of me as Charlie Brown. ’Cause I played Charlie Brown and now I kind of look like Charlie Brown. So, she always gets me Charlie Brown shit, which is how I got that Woodstock bird with his own little Christmas tree in a nest ornament. That was from my mom. So that’s the story of the ornament that depicts a little Christmas tree hanging from a Christmas tree.

But yeah, I have been a defender of its honor for quite a while now, and only recently have I become a proud parent. Everyone is full of praise for my little tree, whereas before I had to explain it.

It’s very low maintenance. I turn on the cord of lights and I turn it off. And that’s about it. I do put it prominently in the window. There’s a transit station across the street. Anyone who’s getting off the light rail can see my little tree.

 II. Don’t Ever Do That Again

Observer: Alecia Dantico on May 4, 2020, in Chicago, IL

Object: Used teabags and tinfoil

Level of Affection: Garbage turned treasure

Alecia has been sick the past six weeks with an “unknown respiratory virus,” which led to a familiar set of symptoms: high fevers, lost sense of taste and smell, shortness of breath, and an inability to sustain any physical activity—no yoga, no walks. (She was denied a Covid-19 test in late March—Illinois did not have enough and she did not meet the testing criteria.) The illness, whatever it is, also caused hallucinations that, she told me, heightened her sense of creativity. “I literally have a hundred small pieces of paper with things written on them,” she said, “and, like, words are coming.”

I get tea in the morning before I go to work. I usually sit in a coffee house by my office. I go in early and I take really the first 30 minutes of the day for myself and just kind of ease into it.

The first week of being home, the Starbucks on the corner was open. I could walk there. And then Starbucks closed, and then I got sick. But one of my luxuries is having Starbucks pour the hot water over the teabag, which I’m certainly capable of doing myself.

Now I work from home. Everything’s at home. The Starbucks is closed. So it’s like, what’s happening? So obviously I’m making my own tea at home. But the interesting thing is I’m saving all of the teabags.

I just made a cup of tea this morning, and then I’ll make a second cup of tea, probably at about 11:00, and I will keep the bags on the counter. And I will make then a third cup of tea and a fourth cup of tea from the used teabags. And if I don’t get to them today, I’ll leave them on the counter and I’ll wake up tomorrow and be like, Oh, there’s my teabags.

And it’s this really odd sense of comfort for something that, in the past, I would have considered garbage. I either would have thrown it away, or I would have walked it out to the compost bin, which I never really figured out how to compost very well.

I mean, tea steeps. It’s not like coffee: drink it and it’s gone. That’s the whole process of the tea. And while this was something I allowed myself the luxury of doing on the weekends, it’s flipped now and I’m thinking, Why didn’t I just bring an electric kettle with me to work and make my tea? I realized I don’t need to go to Starbucks to pour hot water over a teabag.

And the same kind of thing is happening with tinfoil. I have a stash of used tinfoil on the counter. I have OCD. I’m a neat freak. I don’t have that much on my counter, but there’s used tea bags and there’s used tinfoil. I’m thinking, What is going on here? Like you can still get tinfoil, you can still get teabags. And I’m like, Oh my God, this is what my grandmother used to do.

She was born in 1913. So she saw World War I. She had kids in the middle of World War II. She went through the Depression and she was very, very frugal. She worked very hard. She supported the family, and I never understood why she would save the scraps of dough when she would make cookies. She would roll them up and wrap them in Saran Wrap and put them back in the freezer and save the scraps of dough for the next time. And I’m like, “Grandma, I’ll buy you more flour. I’ll buy you more eggs.”

In a way, I never really understood until going through this and watching myself save teabags and save tinfoil. It’s frugality, but it’s a frugality driven from a point of scarcity, not from a point of “I can’t afford another teabag.” It’s like, “What if there are no more?” And that’s kind of where I am.

I’m just thinking how attached I’ve become. I accidentally threw some tinfoil away and I’m like, “Don’t do that ever again.” And now they’re a part of my everyday life and I’m like, “What am I going to do when we go back?” Buy a kettle and leave used teabags on my desk at work, which may raise eyebrows, but now I kind of get why my grandmother couldn’t do it any other way. She’s like, “No, it’s just what I do now.”

The tea is bringing me a pleasure that it didn’t always bring me before. Now it’s infused with joy. Given that they are so simple, their power to impact my life is stunning. And that causes me to think about all the crap in my life that doesn’t impact my life. With the objects and things I’ve accumulated over the years, they ostensibly have more meaning and more value than a teabag or tinfoil, but maybe these have been the important things all along. Like, I don’t need most of my crap. But I do need my tea. If it came down to what I would fight for, I’d fight for my tea. And that’s new.

So I’m affectionate toward and grateful for these objects. I’m trying to process what they mean to me emotionally and how I will carry those emotions forward into this next phase. I don’t want to lose this. I used to think of both as garbage. The fact that I now consider them treasure, I mean, that’s a step up on the evolutionary scale.

Yoga is important—it helps me feel better, it helps my body—but the entire point of that practice is actually contained in the simplicity of a single teabag. That’s it. The whole industry, one teabag. I’m like, Huh, OK. Don’t need the pants. Don’t need the mat. And I don’t need to be in any spot other than in my kitchen. The lesson is so simple. I guess it never really clicked until now. Like this is what I should be doing, making a cup of tea when I get stressed. Oh, OK. Cool. And then preserving that for later and having another cup of tea in the afternoon. That’s all it takes?

Thinking back on the rituals that I had before all of this. What was I attached to? Was I attached to the brand of the tea, of the coffee house where I got the tea? It’s like, no, I just want the tea to taste good.

I’m getting stuck on the Starbucks. I’m trying not to judge myself, but it’s just like, What was that? What were you doing? I get the signal and start of the day and all that great stuff, but like, Why didn’t you do that at home?

Maybe I just didn’t know. Maybe I just told myself I was too busy to take the three extra minutes in my home to brew a cup of tea before I left. You know? So it’s just a recalibration. And there will always be a time and a place for some Starbucks. But I’m like, if what is truly meaningful to me is the ritual, then it’s all the more meaningful when I’m the one performing the ritual for myself, versus outsourcing the ritual.

 III. OK, Y’all Have to Get It Together

Observer: Ashley Gates on April 28, 2020, in Pensacola, FL

Object: Ivory-billed woodpecker

Level of Affection: Judgmental god

I’ve been paying more attention to birds. It’s not exactly a newfound fascination—my parents were avid birders and I grew up watching them watch birds. What is new is this… obsession. I don’t use the word obsession often. But I’ve been trying to identify birds based on sound, and when I was looking for one online, I came across some article about the ivory-billed woodpecker. I had heard of this woodpecker, because I grew up in Mississippi, and their habitat was the low-lying hardwood swamps and pine forests along the Southeastern US.

The last universally accepted sighting was in 1944 in Louisiana, but they were supposedly rediscovered in Arkansas in 2004. It’s a blurry, four-second video. The story has almost a Bigfoot quality. Many people have claimed to see them since 1944, but we don’t have any conclusive evidence. Most ornithologists pretty much agree that they’re extinct. But, because of this disputed sighting in 2004, some people think that a very small population could still be out there.

Sufjan Stevens wrote a song about them, “The Great God Bird,” after that 2004 sighting. They’re fascinating because they’re birds that require a huge nesting range of, I think it was six to ten square miles of large-scale forest. A lot of their habitat in Louisiana was destroyed because the Singer Sewing Company wanted to make more sewing machine frames. They logged big swaths of this forest so that they could make these frames, and also because the Army needed more ammunition cases and caskets during World War II.

I think I’ve become weirdly obsessed with this bird because it somehow encapsulates this kaleidoscope of grief I’ve been feeling. It sounds ridiculous, right? Luxuriating in the story of a missing bird. But the story has somehow helped me make sense of this grief. At the beginning of the year one of my good friends, Jason Polan, died of cancer, so I was already feeling this really personal, inward grief. And then this pandemic happened and now there’s this very publicly shared, universal grief. And something about the story of this lost bird perfectly captures the different stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

If you were to look at a specimen of this bird in a museum, you could point to it and say definitively, “We screwed up.” Because of our greed, this bird no longer exists.

I wish I could ask Jason if he ever drew one of these. I think he drew, like, 132 birds at the Museum of Natural History in New York. And he actually did some sketches for the Audubon Society. I also wish I could ask my dad, “Did you ever see one?” He loved the outdoors and wildlife and he explored the very places where they would’ve lived.

I like to think that there’s some tiny population out there just saying, OK, y’all have to get your shit together. That’s where anthropomorphizing comes in. It’s angry at us for how we’ve behaved. I think if it’s out there, it’s keeping its distance in a place where we can’t find it.

It has this mythology surrounding it. The nickname for it is actually “Lord God Bird.” That’s what people would supposedly utter when they would see it, because it’s the largest woodpecker in the US, or was. I think the wingspan is thirty inches or something.

It’s a story about searching. It’s a story about paying attention. It’s a story about what we did wrong. There’s this hope that they’re still out there. And, you know, there are things that we thought were extinct that still exist. There was a flower in Hawaii that was supposedly extinct and then some drone found one on top of a mountain. So, it’s not entirely implausible to think that they’re still out there.

There was also that stuff, I’m sure you saw it all over the internet, the meme that “nature is healing,” you know, “we are the virus,” and all these fake pictures of animals coming back. Elephants passing out in fields drunk, the canals being clear again in Venice, the world kind of returning to its natural state. There is less pollution and that’s a good thing, but I don’t think humans should disappear. I think we just have to make better choices. And this bird has really helped me think about these questions more closely. Like, Who do we choose to take care of? Who do we choose to neglect? The pandemic has made it pretty crystal clear that we choose to neglect a lot of people.

I think I told you I ordered some items from the Louisiana Ornithological Society and the treasurer emailed me after. It was an AOL email address and it was in Comic Sans. She thanked me for ordering and wrote, “Just curious, why the sudden interest in ivory-billed woodpecker items?” And I stared at the question for ten minutes and thought, “That is a good question.”

And I thought: I have a sudden interest in this bird because it’s helping me make sense of the world. But I didn’t tell her that. I just told her that I’ve been paying a lot more attention to birds in quarantine and that I wanted to support the Louisiana Ornithological Society.

I think there’s something about the ordinariness of birds that is really comforting. There’s so much untruth in the world, you know. I look at a bird and I think, This bird has no idea what Fox News is. This bird has no idea what CNN is. This bird has no idea that the president is suggesting, you know, mainlining bleach. There’s something about successfully identifying a bird. It’s this tiny wrangling of a small truth. And when we see the administration just lie to us every single day, there’s something comforting about being able to do that.

It’s actually helpful to talk about this because I’ve felt a little insane. I’m, like, ordering weird items on eBay. I ordered this stamp from the Maldives that has an ivory-billed woodpecker on it. Or not ordered—I’ve placed a bid, I should say. The auction ends on Wednesday, tomorrow.

That’s another thing I’ve been wanting to tell Jason about, because he was such an obsessive eBay user and we would always go back and forth about what we’ve gotten on eBay. I want to say, Hey, look at this bird stamp I’m bidding on. So far there’s only one other bidder. I think I can, at the last minute, swoop in, as they say, and just try to get that woodpecker stamp. That’s what’s ridiculous. I don’t even know what I’m going to do with this stamp. I’ll probably frame it in five to ten years if I’m still alive and look back and think, Oh gosh, I remember in quarantine when, you know, um, I was obsessing over this woodpecker.

I really have been obsessing. Like, I’ve been staying up until three in the morning reading about this bird, all of these peer-reviewed scientific papers. The odds of seeing one are one in 15,600 or something.

So I think that the bird to me really symbolizes grief. And there is also some part of me that thinks, This bird is judging us. Like a judgmental god.

The eBay listing ends tomorrow. The very tiny question is: Will I win? But I think the larger question is: Why have we chosen to live this way? Why are we allowing so many people to suffer unnecessarily?

I think what you have to do—and this is in the story of the bird too—when you feel helpless or overwhelmed, you turn to what’s nearest to you and say, What can I take care of that’s closest to me? And that’s all you can do. Try to take care of your neighbor and try to take care of yourself.

When I texted Ashley later to see if she won the stamp, she texted back immediately. “I did!” she wrote. “It’s in the mail!”

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Do you have a newly significant object you’d like to speak to me about? If so, please email james[at]believermag.com with the subject line “Objects of Affection.” Briefly describe what the object is and how you would characterize your pandemic-era relationship to it. I will read through all responses and contact you for a short interview should the object suit this story. We will be publishing these weekly through May, and possibly longer.

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Christopher Frizzelle has been a writer and editor at The Stranger since 2003. A feature story he edited won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Seattle and is also the inventor and host of the Silent Reading party, which used to happen in the lobby of an old hotel and now happens worldwide on Zoom.

Alecia Dantico is a writer, bookworm, feminist, Francophile, oenophile, professor, and geek, living in Chicago.

Ashley Gates is a Mississippi-born photographer living between the South and New York City.

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For more installments of this series, go here.

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