Wit’s End: No More Bread, No More Circuses

The year 2020 was a circus, all right. But was it my circus?

A mask rests on a loaf of bread.

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You may recall that, last year, a few months into “two weeks to flatten the curve,” many Americans confined to their houses started baking bread.

In my local grocery store, you couldn’t find a single packet of yeast. A 2020 swarm of stress bakers had picked the aisle clean. For weeks, white flour and sugar were sold out, so if I wanted something to put in my coffee, I had to resort to large, brownish, organic granules that were, oh yeah, not actually sugar.

But it was either that or molasses, and I refused to sweeten food like some frostbitten gold miner living in a shack in the Sierra Nevada, 125 years before my own birth.

During this time, I didn’t really feel like baking bread. While other women were Instagramming their loaves, I had retreated to a dark place in my mind, and also in my house: the garage. Hunkered down amid the cast-off ephemera of our lives, I could finally hear myself think without overhearing my husband’s lengthy work calls or having to troubleshoot Zoom school.

Does a cornered animal want to make sourdough starter from scratch? I was constantly deleting teachers’ emails, but the icy finger of remote instruction kept tapping me on the shoulder. Then summer came, and I realized nothing would be opening up: not sports, not summer camps, not the public pools. And still, I failed to tie on my apron and start researching croissant recipes on Pinterest.

I’ve always been lukewarm on the domestic arts, and as our society became unrecognizable in a matter of months, I was not going to be distracted by them now.

Instead, I developed a morbid fascination with the news. Scrolling through 24/7 updates on my phone, I could hardly believe what I was seeing.

In 1979, Joan Didion observed: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” But in 2020, I could barely impose a narrative on the shifting phantasmagoria that comprised the daily news.

As the months passed, I began to feel manipulated into a constant state of anxiety, confusion, and anger. I seemed to be witnessing a real-time circus, but not a fun, musical circus as in the movie Madagascar 3. Rather, I felt like an audience member at the avant-garde form of theater known as Grand Guignol, “dramatic entertainment featuring the gruesome or horrible.”

Though its heyday was in fin-de-siècle Paris, this type of entertainment was also popular in Shakespeare’s time, probably because people could leave after the show and go home. Unlike today, mayhem and insanity were not in your pocket all day and night, a mere thumb-swipe away.

The year 2020 was a circus, all right. But was it my circus? A self-help phrase began to float into my mind fairly often: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

Early in 2021, I found myself re-watching the 2012 movie Hunger Games. Though I’d always enjoyed it, it now struck me as one of the enduring classics of our time. Cast with A-list actors of immense talent and presence — Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, and a very young Jennifer Lawrence — it was a model of compelling storytelling on the screen.

But the real star — in this writer’s humble view — was Suzanne Collins, the author of the young adult novels on which the film was based. Drawing on war footage, reality TV, and Greek myths, she created a world that was both dystopian and instantly familiar.

Set in a futuristic North America some years after the collapse of civilization, Collins’s invented nation of Panem is modeled on ancient Rome. In an interview, Collins explained, “Panem itself comes from the expression panem et circenses which translates into ‘bread and circuses.’”

The phrase was coined by the Roman satirist Juvenal in the early second century, an era not so different from our own. The poet observed that, in a time of widespread corruption and social dysfunction, the commoners were kept distracted by “bread and circuses.”

In 2021, I may get around to baking bread, but I’ve got better things to do than watch the circus. As Hunger Games would have it, may the odds be ever in my favor.

Featured image: cosma / Shutterstock

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