That's the barometric pressure of an incoming election, and the anxiety of not knowing how it will turn out. See that other thing, off in the distance? That's calm and clarity at the end of an impossible year — what T.S. Eliot called "the still point of the turning world."
That's a ways off. So we wait. And while we wait — in line to vote on Nov. 3, for the results of an election that may not be decided on Nov. 3, for a vaccine, to return physically to classrooms, to enter a movie theater, to see loved ones again — while we wait for something resembling normal to return to everyday life, here's a bit of Chicago history that's rattling in my head:
At the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1975, the performance artist Chris Burden asked for a 4-foot-by-8-foot sheet of glass and told the curator he would lie on the gallery floor beneath it. Dennis O'Shea, now the museum's manager of technical production, says Burden handed the MCA a statement that he was placing his life into their hands.
"He expected the museum to throw him out," O'Shea recalls. "And they didn't."
So Burden lay there, waiting.
And the audience filtered past, waiting.
Burden wet himself the first night, some viewers tossed coins at him, one man leaned in to say the artist was boring and everyone was waiting for him to do something, anything.
"It became a big news item," O'Shea said, "yet nobody at the museum knew what to do next. Until a doctor showed up and said Chris would die if he didn't go to the bathroom or eat."
So, beside the artist, O'Shea placed a pitcher of water and a pan for urination. And with that simple act, after 45 hours and 10 minutes, Burden sat up. The show was over. Burden was just waiting for help.
I've thought a lot about that since last spring.
If the past year and the election season and the pandemic and the protests were defined by waiting, they're also marked by our uneasy understanding of patience.
We are still waiting for yesterday to return because we have shown due patience, and because, conversely, for others, patience ran out. To enter supermarkets and medical clinics and schools, we stand in lines now and wait, patiently. And yet that look in the eyes of students (and teachers) who are virtually learning is like a Nintendo energy meter measuring their collective patience and fast approaching zero.
It seems I can no longer take more than a breath at a green light before someone honks. That's about patience — as is my honk at the driver in front of me reading texts. Their iPhone, a cure for their own impatience, means I wait, growing impatient.
"Take elections, a prime example of something where wait times produce frustration," said Jason Farman, author "Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting From the Ancient to the Instant World."
"The complexity of elections isn't something most of us completely understand so when it takes longer than we're used to seeing, it builds anxiety. I think we're all about to experience that again, so I think the public would benefit from some expectation setting. If we just called this November 'Election Month,' see, then that's suddenly a very different set of expectations."
As a measuring stick of impatience, you might also consider that moment in late May when the White House tear-gassed and cleared a park of protesters so the president could hold a Bible for a photo. It was a low point in waiting.
Though in an arguably more existential way, so was the sadly ironic news that "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" would be shown only on Apple TV+ from now on. A pair of soothing, deliberately paced, nearly meditative animated specials — both of which had once required generations of viewers to wait all year for single 30-minute network windows to catch — will no longer be found on broadcast television because audiences want everything faster, on-demand.
Daniel Eisenberg, a professor of film, video and new media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, teaches a course about time and its relationship to art. Early into the pandemic, watching how we were handling ourselves, he began thinking of Luis Bunuel's 1962 classic "The Exterminating Angel."
It's about these friends in a fancy mansion who find they can't leave, and don't know why they can't leave, but finally they are released from this unknown bondage and go into a church to give thanks, and find themselves locked in the church. I think that film is really instructive as a way to see this somewhat predictable time we are living in. We won't get over this until we get over our frame of mind.
"We are trained to always accelerate and go forward. This is a moment requiring something different. A virus doesn't have a consciousness. It just is. We need to see it as no different from a tree. We think we can control the natural world. We can't. So we have to figure out our place — and frankly, that is a discipline we are not prone to do."
Our history, in a way, is a history of waiting.
Postage stamps and plumbing and the wheel are, fundamentally, about managing time. Time, as you have probably heard, is an artificial construct itself. Yet we've altered our relationship to it so radically that we now distinguish time from "real time."
"History is about attempts at getting rid of waiting," Farman said, "and you could chart it as the technologies we invent to save time."
Occasionally when I am using the map app on my phone to plot a long drive, for fun I estimate the trip using the walking option. Try this, it's a hoot. According to my iPhone, if I walk from Chicago to Detroit, around the clock without a break, it'll take four days — six, if I decide to walk to Minneapolis instead.
Religion teaches that waiting is a natural state. Faith itself is a form of patience.
"Yet patience, in philosophy, is one of the trickier things to pin down," said Bart Schultz, a senior lecturer of philosophy and director of the Civic Knowledge Project at the University of Chicago. He notes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1964 book "Why We Can't Wait" as a fine argument against patience. Civil rights leaders in the 1960s — not unlike Black Lives Matter leaders today — were often urged to be patient.
So then, patience is not a virtue?
"I'd press hard against it," he said.
Voters are often asked to show patience with long lines on cold November election days, and yet those lines seem to be more common in marginalized communities. For his 2015 Court Theatre production of "Waiting for Godot" — a play famously about waiting for whatever happens next — director Ron OJ Parson used an entirely Black cast to reframe Samuel Beckett's surreal milestone as more of a story about social progress perpetually delayed.
"Let me tell you ... rehearsals got emotional. It seemed to become about waiting for justice, and for the solution to the turmoil in life ... here's a play partly about patience, which was something that ran out for people — just as it ran out last summer for a lot of people."
Patience, of course, is generally sold as positive. It pays to be patient, we're told. Researchers say having patience can not only help with depression but it can lead to more cooperation between strangers.
Still, Americans have other ideas.
"We don't see waiting as productive," Farman said. "We see it as wasted productivity. We think nothing valuable comes of waiting."
So now that a pandemic is here: "Well, we haven't done well. We haven't embraced waiting as an investment in our social fabric, and we could have done so much more with a quarantine. Instead, we think it's robbing of us of time. Yet if you think of how my time is wrapped up in your time — which it is — then it serves me well to wait."
He says waiting is practice for hope.
But unlike hope, waiting is a natural state.
Remember this while you're standing in line to vote or waiting for results. You're doing the right thing. You're taking the time. You're building your community.
As Beckett wrote, "It's already tomorrow."