The first full week under President Biden and life undergoes an immediate improvement: save for a few pieces about plunging membership at Mar-a-Lago, there are almost no photos of Himself on the front pages. The daily anger spike is gone, leaving in its place a flat, sour, hungover feeling, and a sense of not knowing quite what to do.
The answer, in my house, is to find other things to be angry about. I don’t mean the craven failure of the Republicans to back impeachment, or, from afar, the spectacle of Boris Johnson trying to look contrite. As ever, frustration and uncertainty work their way out via indirect means, and on Monday morning – as on every Monday morning – it comes down to my turbulent relationship with my printer.
For years, these rage spirals came roughly once every few years on the unhappy occasion of my having to print out a manuscript. Then came the pandemic and with it the demands of remote learning. Now, at least once a week, I am left cursing at the machine while composing, in my head, a slim volume on anger management entitled What I Talk About When I Talk About Printers.
Briefly: I dispensed with colour cartridges, got the tiny black-and-white laser jet everyone said would change my life and still it torments me – this week, by sucking printed pages back into the mechanism and printing new pages on top of them.
“Jesus actual Christ,” I yell, with five minutes on the clock and half the day’s worksheets unprinted.
“$20!” calls a child from the next room. Why can’t Elon Musk, rather than faffing about with unnecessary space travel, apply himself where he’s needed and do something about printers?
“Oh my God, have you seen Fauci?!” Everyone is saying it. The face of Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US and a man whose expressions have, over the last 12 months, held up a daily mirror to the torture of the Trump presidency, is suddenly everywhere, smiling. It’s like he’s doing a victory tour, talking about science, basking in the light of an administration not run by an idiot.
For a moment, I permit myself the fantasy that Fauci and Biden can save us, before getting online for a live chat with my insurers and remembering where I am. The new president may defeat Covid but it seems unlikely he will solve the problem of American healthcare, something I think about while being told I am responsible for most of a $1,600 bill relating to a brief trip to hospital last summer. There is, he says, a $100 cap on outpatient visits; if I’d been admitted and run up more charges, my insurers would’ve met them. As it is, I’m on my own. “Also,” types the agent, “the hospital you visited was out of network, so we don’t cover 20%.”
This is the typifying experience of emergency medicine in the US: a trip via ambulance to an ER, prior to which you are supposed, somehow, to find out if the ER is in-network, and if not, to call back 911 and ask for a different provider.
“Oh I see hahahahaha,” I type, hysteria rising, and in need of a human-to-human moment. “I’m having very unhappy thoughts about how healthcare works in this country, but of course, that’s not your fault.”
With democracy restored, it’s time for some lighter reads on my nightstand. I’m ripping through Avid Reader, Robert Gottlieb’s memoir of publishing in its heyday in New York and it is divine; full of bitchy and luvvie-ish anecdotes about the great and the good of Gottlieb’s list at Knopf. Here is good old Lauren Bacall, who couldn’t get herself to write her memoir at home so Gottlieb lent her an office, to which she turned up, dutifully, each day to file like a pro. Here is the vileness of Roald Dahl, who in Gottlieb’s telling, was so disgusting to junior staff at Knopf that, after a particularly monstrous letter from Dahl detailing all sorts of unreasonable demands, Gottlieb called his bluff and invited him to walk (he did); ditto Salman Rushdie, who Gottlieb accuses of behaving “atrociously”, particularly during the fatwa. In amongst the stars there are untrustworthy agents, lifelong best friends and lots of summers with people who have houses in Italy.
There is a single thing I resent him for; it’s one thing to confirm my suspicions about Dahl or Rushdie, quite another to try to ruin Katharine Hepburn for me. The two came together to work on a book about the making of The African Queen, during which Hepburn was, writes Gottlieb, entirely professional. Observing her socially, however, he concludes she was vain, peevish, attention grabbing and prone to tantrums. One day, a mutual friend reports to Gottlieb that Hepburn has invited her to a dinner with Michael Jackson, which they both see as “just another symptom of Kate’s vulgar and pathetic desperation to stay up to date and in the limelight”. Imperious – OK; vain, it goes with the territory. But vulgar? Never! I won’t have it.
I’m trying to organise an opinion about GameStop, but as I do every few years when a big investment story comes round, I just get depressed that I didn’t buy any stock. In this particular tale, it is hard to know who to root for, or rather, who to boo at; the evil hedge funds, left with multibillion-dollar exposures after plucky day traders drove up the stock price and foiled their short trades. Or, wait, should we hate the day traders for trolling the market into a state of volatility, which will end up hitting us all in the 401K?
I have no idea. There is one interesting aspect of this story, which is that the hatred of finance people in general and hedge funders in particular seems to have reached such a popular peak that it may finally start to impact recruitment. For decades, legions of smart graduates have been lured into finance, foregoing more traditionally high-status and socially useful careers. This year is different; with the pandemic raging, Fauci a national saviour, and doctors on the frontline rightly applauded as heroes, applications in the US for medical school – that formerly desirable profession lately perceived by ambitious 22-year-olds to be dowdy and underpaid – are way up.
It’s the kids’ second and final in-person day of the week at school, where, while art and music are suspended, PE rages on. It won’t get them into med school, but some lingering jock chauvinism makes me insist they enjoy PE, or at least not abjectly hate it.
“Yay! It’s PE!” says one of my six-year-olds, conscientiously following the script.
“Yay!” I say.
“I love PE!”
She looks at me slyly. “PE’s my favourite subject.”
“OK, let’s not lose our heads.”