Cousins

I have fifteen cousins and I like them all. I don’t mean to brag, but it’s true. I am rich with cousins, the best kind of family member. Cousins ask so little of me, but give me so much. I feel nothing but pity for those people with no cousins.

As a kid, my cousins played with me at what would have otherwise been boring family dinners. As an adult, my cousins help me analyze our respective parents’ sibling bonds and the histories they speak to within our extended family. It’s easy to focus on all that’s wrong with the world, but cousins! They are an unending delight.

A few weeks ago, a cousin of mine came over. He’s in his mid-twenties and very smart. All of my cousins are smart, actually, which is another thing I’ve got going for me. This cousin and I started talking about late capitalism. I’ve been doing my reading lately, trying to understand why so much about our economic system seems so terrible, and if there’s a better way to exist. A year or so ago, I learned that bell hooks describes the various interlocking layers of oppression as the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and I’m working my way up the chain. I understand patriarchy, now I’m trying to understand capitalism, check back in a year or two and I might be on to white supremacy.

It was clear my cousin had been doing the reading, too, and I started pressing him about his perspective. He believes that capitalism doesn’t exist purely here in America or anywhere, and that it therefore doesn’t make sense to rail against it as a generic concept—better instead to rail against its specific ills in a particular context.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this idea, I don’t know enough, I’ve just barely started this reading. I tried to tell him about Silvia Federicci, a Marxist feminist scholar best known for launching the Wages for Housework groups in America in the 1970’s, but I don’t really know much about her, I’ve only watched a few YouTube clips. I asked for her essay collection, Revolution at Point Zero, for my birthday next month so I might know more eventually, but as it was I was mostly incoherent, not providing a rebuttal to my cousin so much as saying words in his direction.

My cousin cut me off after a few minutes and said: “Wait, have you only just now started thinking critically about capitalism?”

It pained me that my honest answer was yes. I’m so far behind my younger cousin. But his question also made me excited for the future. He’s been contemplating capitalism’s flaws for years, and he’s almost a decade younger than me, and much smarter.  Young people will save us, I really believe it.

A few days ago, another one of my cousins came over to babysit my daughter while my husband and I went on a date. My husband was putting my daughter to sleep, and so my fourteen-year-old cousin and I watched a series of ASMR slime videos on her recommendation.  I knew slime was a thing, and I knew ASMR was a thing, but I did not know they were a thing together, or that anyone would willingly choose to sit down and watch videos that combined them.

My cousin was being funny talking me through the videos, she understood that I found them weird. Halfway through the second video, though, I started to see the appeal. That video was shot from above as a pair of hands emptied eye shadow palettes into clear slime. Eventually, after the hands emptied at least six or seven palettes plus a tub of highlighter, they mixed the slime with the makeup and it became a very pretty silvery purple blob. The video was soothing, or at least lulling, and I liked it.

My cousin likes to post on Tik Tok, which caps videos at 15 seconds. Her friends use Instagram and Snapchat. Instagram stories are also capped at 15 seconds, though you can string them together for longer content. In comparison, Snapchat’s 60-second clips are lengthy.

There is no narrative to a slime video. Gen Z media is like that: it’s all snippets of things, random flashes, sensation over story. “Does Gen Z hate narrative?” I asked my cousin. She said she likes Stranger Things, so that’s something, I guess.

I told my husband what I’d learned later that night. “Narrative is dead, this time for real,” I told him. Then I described the slime video.

“It sounds like poetry,” he said.

My husband has an MFA in poetry, he can find the poetry in anything. I agree with him about the slime videos and Tik Toks, though: they are poetic. My problem is that I don’t like poetry as much as he does. I’ve loved a few poems in my life, but I need stories. I can’t live on slime videos alone. Maybe young people won’t save us after all.

Two weeks ago I read Beloved by Toni Morrison for the first time. Reading that story was like a gong going off in my head. After I finished, I entered something like a catatonic state and stayed that way for twenty minutes before I could engage with the world again. Only days after finishing the book could I talk about my favorite parts with my husband, and only then could I cry about them, because of course it’s a very sad story in addition to being a beautiful and complicated and artfully told one.

Sometimes I feel like I experience life as a series of shocking revelations. Someone shows me a slime video, or tells me something about capitalism, or I read Beloved, and I have to reorient my entire world around this new information. I’m a slow learner, so when something clicks for me it can feel transformational, as if I’m finally becoming a new and smarter person, the one with all the right kinds of information. Then a few weeks later I learn something else and the process starts again.

Still, that’s another thing that’s solidly good about the world, in addition to cousins: learning things. When I think about all the good stories I haven’t read and all the information my cousins might someday share with me, I feel excited about the many gongs that have yet to go off inside my head, all those catatonic states I may one day enter. It’s great, being able to learn things.

Two nights ago after our daughter went to sleep, my husband made us popcorn, as he does most nights, another way in which I am rich beyond measure. We sat down to watch TV, and an ASMR slime video came up in our recommended videos list, because of course the algorithm knows that I once watched this sort of thing.

I thought about the promise of a future with more poetry and less capitalism, and how I’ll have to orient myself to that reality. The future doesn’t come easy, even when it’s good, and being open to the world requires a willingness to change one’s most deeply held beliefs.

“Should we watch it?” I asked my husband.

“No,” he said, and we watched something with a plot, ate our popcorn, and went to sleep.

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