Where I live, Fall has arrived abruptly with a more than 50-degree temperature swing overnight between Monday and Tuesday. Highs suddenly went from 80 or 84 to 28 and 32 on Tuesday and Wednesday. Toward the end of the week, things are climbing back up towards the 70’s, but it is assuredly no longer summer. Labor Day marked the end in a very literal way this year.
It seems like a good time to document some of the things I want to, or, rather, should remember about this spring and summer.
- Waking up to Amanpour and Company streaming on PBS over coffee. We needed more news, but quality news with context and nuance. We did this for a long time, but I ultimately had to give it up with no end in sight. I was spending too much time in front of the TV, even though it was nutritious TV.
- Suddenly being inside Christaine’s home, and Judy Woodruff’s, Mark Sheild’s, David Brooks’, Amy Walter’s, and Tamera Keith’s. Sometimes in their offices, sometimes in their living rooms. In Hari Shrinavasen’s case, we were in front of his blank, white wall until the News Hour graphic loaded. As of this writing, we are still in John Oliver’s blank, white void. We met William Brangham and Lisa Desjardins’ cats. We saw their art and their books. Judy’s tome on Grant stood out. It was weirdly intimate, and it must have been so for them as well, showing their private homes to the world. Now it seems normal. It is something we have all stopped noticing.
- Darting back inside the house or the car to snag the mask I almost forgot to bring on my walk or wear into the store. How is it that I am still doing this, six months after masking became a thing?
- In the spring, I could not bring myself to spend any significant time indoors. I set up a patio table and did many of my unemployment-required work search activities outside. I did huge amounts of yard work, and went for long walks. I was keenly aware every single day of how lucky I am to live in a place with a yard, a patio, and great walks.
- The unforeseen shortages. There was a shortage of yeast, of kittens, of bikes, of puppies, of flour. The toilet paper shortage, though irrational, was something you would expect. No one’s emergency preparedness plans included kittens and flour.
- The agony of watching the country adopt a worst of all possible worlds approach, both tanking the economy and failing to control the virus. Knowing this was going to go on and on and on because we were so committed to getting it wrong, then having the gut-churning feeling of being right. The horrible helplessness of watching the country ignore the experts, with predictable consequences.
- The homemade masks. It seems like it took forever for companies to get around to making and stocking masks. It’s only recently that I have finally started seeing them in Walmart. Suddenly, even before lockdown started, everyone was doing DIY masks. They even sold kits at the arts and crafts stores. Many were donated to health care workers and may have been of some use, though they were not what they needed. People were making masks for their own use, too. But mostly, I think the sudden popularity of mask-making was about the feeling of doing something. It was so surreal to endure a crisis when the best way you could help was by doing nothing. Sitting at home binging on Netflix while New York was collectively gasping for breath just felt wrong. By making masks, people at least felt like they were helping.
- How utterly empty and spooky things were in mid-April. I went for 25 days without leaving the house except for outdoor exercise, and once just to drive with my mom. Walking towards my town, going through the local elementary and high schools’ parking lots, was haunting. There were no cars on the road, no voices in the air, no bustle, just empty parking spots and silence.
- Conversely, how busy things were on the trails. There is a county Open Space park near my house. To be fair, the county’s more populous areas mostly foot the bill for our Open Space. In our case, the cities of Lakewood and Golden pay the bulk of the sales tax that provides this wonderful resource. This summer, it has felt like most of Lakewood and Golden has been up every weekend. The county next door was so inundated that they closed their roads to non-local traffic, and shut their parks down.
- How reassuring it was to see all those people on the trails. Don’t get me wrong. On several levels, it was far more alarming than reassuring. It was so crowded people couldn’t stay far enough apart, many people chose to hike in big groups in close proximity, and very few people were wearing masks. At a conscious level, a run in the park was actually pretty stressful. But on a subconscious level, it was a huge relief to see people, to confirm that the world hadn’t ended, that the empty streets didn’t reflect a post-apocalyptic reality. Humans are social animals, and the need to connect with others, even at the very superficial level of nodding or mumbling a greeting on a trail, is profound. Hiking or running in the park left you anxious about all that contact, but also relieved that people were still out there, and still people.
Good historical fiction has always been one of my favorite ways to learn about the past. It allows me to connect to different eras by providing reasonable speculation about what things were like. All of life is living through history, of course, but you are far more aware of it at a time like this. And you are far more likely to be asked, years down the road, what this time was like, how it felt, what you noticed, what you did.
So from time to time I will write down some of the things that I think it is important to remember. Please leave some of the things you want to remember in the comments section. When my great-grand-nieces need to do a research paper, or decide to write a book about 2020, they will have a rich resource (if incomplete — I didn’t even get to George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, the presidential campaign, or the fires) full of information on what it was really like.
I used to work in low-income senior apartment buildings. In addition to my duties as a landlord, I got to do some fun activities. Our local public transportation agency had a program where they would provide a bus if you had enough interested seniors, and take them to the museum, an afternoon jazz show, a tour of the local tea factory, a trip to the Italian restaurant with the seemingly endless buffet, and the like.
Seniors in low-income communities have typically been through a lot in their lifetimes, and they are still living under the grinding, relentless trauma of poverty. Many were hesitant to spend even the reduced rate bus fair and activity costs. They were worried about spending money on something they might not enjoy. They asked me, over and over, what will it be like?
My mind keeps returning to that plaintive question now. What will it be like has become the question on everyone’s mind. It haunts our national discussions, our private lives, and our dreams. What will it be like when the second wave hits? What will it be like if/when I have to go back to work? What will it be like to find work to go back to? What will it be like to live during an economic depression?
Unfortunately, no one can answer these questions, and we don’t have the option of not finding out.
I’ve written before about tolerating ambiguity as an important life skill that we are all learning and relearning together. Since then, the ambiguity has only grown. Can we open up safely? Can we address the staggering life and death iniquities faced by people of color in modern America? Will another documented instance of shocking police brutality, this time overtly murderous, finally lead to meaningful change? Will there be more legislation to help the states and individuals? Will they extend unemployment?
We aren’t used to this anymore. In 1815, it took news of the Battle of Waterloo four days to travel to London, a distance that can now be covered in about five hours by car. The whole continent was holding its breath. Now we get our information in near real-time. We never have to hold our breath for very long. And our forecasting in a variety of fields has become so sophisticated that we’re downright affronted if we don’t know about a storm ten days in advance. Forecasts in politics and economics are often inaccurate, but having constant access to them makes us feel better.
We no longer know what to do with ourselves when even the experts are careful to tell us that they don’t know what is going to happen. We’ve never lived through such a slow-moving crisis before. The repercussions of changes in policy now, as the country is opening back up, won’t be seen for weeks, even a month.
It’s hard to think of times in modern life when the question of what will it be like has been so central. I think about my nieces when they made the big leap from elementary school into middle school. And I think about that right of passage for Americans lucky enough to have the classic college experience. Moving into a dorm for the first time is still fraught with uncertainty, no matter that the campus has been toured and you’ve gotten to know other freshmen online.
But those are personal transitions and tell us little about something we are experiencing together as a society. I asked my parents, 80 and 81, about the uncertainties of the history they have lived through. My mother remembers an armed flight my father took to an unknown destination (it turned out to be Laos) while he was in the Marine Corps and things were heating up in Southeast Asia. Dad talked about the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And maybe that can help to pinpoint something we are missing, now. Even my oldest siblings were far too young to duck and cover, but I have always marveled at how schools, parents, and children took the practice seriously. The unparalleled power of a nuclear blast was well known by then. The dangers of radiation were well established. How could otherwise intelligent people convince themselves that a school desk would protect them?
But what duck and cover did was to provide a veneer of control to protect teachers and students from their horrifying powerlessness. It was meant to protect the mental health of kids and adults, more than their persons. The feeling that you are doing something to protect yourself, no matter how farfetched, is crucial to the psyche.
That need for a self-protective ritual is manifesting itself in many ways. For some, the mask has become a talisman to protect from illness, despite most of its efficacy being in stopping the wearer from spreading germs. For others, not wearing a mask has become a sort of rain dance for the return to the old normal. An alarming amount of people believe that rejecting vaccines will protect them.
In this, the reckoning for allowing a vacuum of leadership to form in the country, everyone turns to their own magical thinking. If I disinfect my groceries, it can’t happen to me. If I microwave the mail I will be safe. It can’t hurt me if I have enough toilet paper.
And perhaps some of that is a good thing. Rituals like wearing a mask, washing your hands obsessively, and keeping your distance can serve the dual purpose of making us feel a little more in control and having a public health benefit. Other practices, like my weird fixation on being sure to have a full tank of gas as often as possible (yeah, I know) are irrational, but harmless. And of course, some of these superstitions range from merely dangerous to outright malevolent.
Our own personal rain dances say a lot about us. We should choose them with care.
And of course, we have to reckon with the fact that any and all of those rituals don’t make us really safe (though hand-washing and distance are a great start.) Certainly, none of them can rescue us from the uncertainties that haunt us. So far the only answer to the question what will it be like has been that it will be like not knowing.
I had a professor once who called culture non-genetic DNA. He argued that it is just as determinant as more conventional DNA, regulating our behaviors, thoughts, and ideas. And one of its neat tricks is that it can change much more quickly than standard DNA. When the world changes rapidly and natural selection can’t keep up, cultural changes can help us survive.
I was reminded of this by this article this morning. We humans tend to assume we have a monopoly on culture, but there is more and more understanding that it is found throughout the animal world, and plays a similar role. It made me think of my dog, who wasn’t particularly interested in digging holes in the yard or eating packages until the dog from up the hill kept getting out. He was a bad influence. Together, they created a mini-culture of canine mayhem.
Something found widely throughout the animal world is clearly something that works. Culture is adaptive in both senses of the word.
I think part of what we are grieving now is the sudden upheaval to our culture. Now it is in a state of flux. We aren’t quite sure what things will look like in the future, just that they will look different.
It was already a time to grieve in the United States, and in many other parts of the world, as national cultures have bifurcated. When our political divide started really heating up in the 90s, the term culture war was popular. You still see it in places. And it is apt. It’s not so much that we have evolved different cultures. The US has always hosted a variety of cultures, large and small. It’s that our political cultures now largely revolve around conflict with one another. We’ve lost the overarching American identity that used to encompass our political differences.
In American politics, the culture has become maladaptive.
It can’t be a good sign when an adaptive trait turns on its organism. A national crisis seems like a good bet to reset a national culture, but we don’t seem to be going in that direction.
Will we diverge into one country wearing masks superimposed on a country that is not? In a world where it is already hard to ascertain the truth, will we all become expert liars, our tells hidden under two layers of tightly woven cloth with a piece of furnace filter slipped between? Will you be able to tell which party a politician belongs to by whether he reaches out to shake hands at rallies? How will we reassure one another without physical contact?
Change is hard, and not knowing what we might be changing into is its own kind of agony.
But we can hope for the best. We can hope for a resurgence of compassion that encompasses the other. We can hope for a shift towards unity. We can hope for renewed faith in the usefulness of good science. We can gain a new, visceral understanding of how interconnected we are. We can set a new default of decency. We can use this crisis as a reboot, not just to reprogram our rituals of greeting and popularize fanatical hygiene, but to start again on tackling problems that we cannot overcome alone.
Here’s hoping, anyway.
Signing off. Take care, and take care of each other.