Seattle: notes from a wildfire

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Sunset at the Dunes, before the smoke.

A week ago this past Monday, I was awakened sometime after midnight by the smell of smoke. I was camped near Eel Creek at the Oregon Dunes, taking a little bit of a break from hours in front of my computer and the last hustle of essential tasks before beginning a nine-month sabbatical from my job at the university. It felt like a very strange time to be doing that: as my colleagues on the faculty and staff prepared for a hybridized, partly-open, blended-learning campus, I was preparing to…do something else.

That something else is the Anake program at Wilderness Awareness School, which has also had to make adjustments in response to the pandemic. One of those adjustments was that the program would not take its tracking trip to the Oregon Dunes. I had been there before as part of WAS’s Tracking Intensive a few years ago, and decided to go on my own.

A tracking mystery.

As I made my way down I-5 and then through the Coast Range to the Oregon coast, my navigation app kept popping high-wind warnings at me. After some investigation I’d previously concluded that the range itself would shield me from the worst of the wind. This turned out to be true. What I hadn’t reckoned–what a lot of people hadn’t reckoned–was the effect the unseasonal easterly wind would have on the Pacific Northwest’s increasingly severe fire season.

Past the Dunes, the trail cuts through forest before reaching the sea.

I stayed at the Dunes until Wednesday morning, doing less tracking than I’d planned–the wind and increasing smoke made it difficult–but getting in a hike to the sea, which is about 2.5 miles from the campground I was staying in. I sat on the sand, ate my snack, and watched pelicans, shorebirds, and vultures going about their business as the sky above gradually smeared with yellowish smog. That night, at my campsite, ash fell on me like flurries of snow.

Smoke coming in across the sky as I sat on the beach.

At that moment I was over a hundred miles and a mountain range’s width away from the nearest fire. But, as the rest of the U.S. is discovering this week, smoke spreads. So does fire, and by Wednesday morning I was concerned about how close the fires were getting to major highways. Not only did I not want to be cut off from getting home, I didn’t want to get in the way of people evacuating from the small towns east of I-5, or the firefighters and relief workers coming to their aid.

Return trip on my hike, full of smoke and sand. I half expected Mad Max. Or maybe a sandworm.

The sky was dark orange as I drove through Salem. The pale blue over Portland, where the worst of the smoke hadn’t yet reached, seemed strange. I crossed the Columbia River with a sense of having escaped, and spent a socially distant afternoon in a friend’s yard in Centralia where the smoke was still mild.

Since then, back in Seattle and then out in Duvall to start the program, I’ve mostly been indoors. The air quality in Duvall is somewhat better than in Seattle–higher elevation, more trees, a few light rain showers have made a modest difference. But it’s been bad enough that the first week of an outdoor-oriented program has mostly been conducted online. Much as schools around the country are doing.

Between Salem and Portland, on I-5.

Since I came back I’ve run across commentary, mostly from people who don’t live in this part of the country, about the fire danger to Portland and Seattle. This is not the way to think about this problem. Portland and Seattle are at basically zero risk of being directly affected. It’s the smaller towns, the farms and remote homes situated in what’s called the wildland-urban interface, that are at risk, and these are the human-inhabited places that have burned.

Last year I had the opportunity to meet Washington’s commissioner of public lands, who gave a talk on wildfire in the state. West of the Cascade range we tend to think of fire as an eastside problem. But this, too, isn’t the way to think about it. Fire is less common on the western side, but it does happen. And because it’s less frequent, when it does occur, it’s worse.

Portland and Seattle aren’t in direct danger. Neither, by and large, are the areas to which the wildfire smoke has since spread–across most of the country, really. But this, too, isn’t the way to think about this problem. Waiting until something is literally in our faces, negatively impacting our lives in obvious and tangible ways, is waiting too long.

We’ve already waited too long.

The woods at Wilderness Awareness School, outside Duvall, WA.

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 13

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I’ve been meaning to write something about masks. The difficulty is that the topic has become huge, taking on social and even cultural dimensions of surprising complexity. It’s hard to know where to start.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, one of my go-to resources for guidance has been UpToDate’s entry on COVID-19. UpToDate is a clinical information resource for people working in healthcare settings. Its purpose is to distill research, agency recommendations, and other sources into actionable information and guidelines. It’s a subscription resource (in fact, I purchased a subscription at the behest of the nursing program at my university, which is how I know about it) and normally quite expensive, but the entries on COVID-19 have been made publicly accessible. What it says about mask wearing highlights part of the issue: the medical case for it outside of healthcare settings is indirect.

Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. The only times I leave the house without wearing a mask are when I’m going with my husband to our rural property (where there’s literally no one else around for half a mile in every direction) or when I go running–and in the latter case, it’s easy for me to avoid other people. Otherwise, when going to stores, socially-distanced visits with the handful of people I’ve seen in person since the pandemic began, or to pick up takeout, I put one on. I’ll freely admit they’re annoying to wear. But I find the evidence, while indirect, sufficiently convincing.

At the same time, I do know people who legitimately can’t wear them, for various reasons, and I try not to get into the business of policing other people’s behavior unless they’re being actively threatening or trying to make my life difficult. (Walking up to me and coughing in my face is fucking obnoxious whether you’re wearing a mask or not, you know?) Everything is difficult enough right now.

And admittedly, it’s mostly a non-issue in my neighborhood of Seattle. The only people I see not wearing masks when out and about are people who are vigorously exercising well away from others, much like me. Even when, a few weeks ago, I was in a part of Washington State where folks are, ahem, less convinced that there’s a real need for all these distancing and masking measures, almost everyone was doing them anyway. (The one exception was a woman about ten years my senior in a supermarket, standing just a little too close in line behind me like she was trying to get me, or someone, to start arguing with her. As I’ll elaborate shortly, if so, she wasn’t making the point she thought she was making.)

But then there are the kinds of encounters that, so far, I’ve only read about on the news, or from friends’ posts on social media–in the latter case, a friend who works at a grocery store in my area described a small horde of people showing up to their store en masse and insisting on doing their shopping without masks, despite the store’s policy. (Store management declined to enforce said policy, which doesn’t help matters.) Or incidents like the Walmart shopper in Alaska completely losing his shit over the store’s mask policy, or the Fred Meyer customer here in Washington who pulled a gun on a fellow customer who told him to put on a mask.

I mean, these are weirdly outsized reactions, regardless of whether you think masks help, hinder, or make no difference at all. It’d probably take a team of social scientists to get to the bottom of it all; I’ve seen theories ranging from attitudes towards masks as a signifier of the gaping political chasm in this country, to the reading of masks as villainous or deceptive in European-based cultures generally, but overall I think I agree with this thoughtful Twitter thread on the subject. Because these hostile and even violent reactions seem to be less about wearing a mask oneself, or not, and more about the reminder every time you leave the house that there’s an incredibly contagious pathogen in circulation that can kill you.

Early on in the pandemic I wondered whether there’s something uniquely American about this widespread, occasionally violent denial of what’s happening. It’s not that there aren’t people reacting similarly in other countries, because there are. And perhaps this seems like a mostly American phenomenon to me because, well, I live here, and most of the news I read is about the U.S. But as a country we do seem to have this propensity for believing that whatever we believe in hard enough is so.

And I suppose, if someone is really determined to believe that the pandemic isn’t really happening, or at the very least is overblown, a constant visual reminder otherwise would be upsetting.

It seems ludicrous to point out that that’s not a justification for pointing a gun in someone’s face, but here we are.

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 12

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Some years ago, I made an offhand remark that the dystopia was here, it was just unevenly distributed. (This was a riff on a well-known William Gibson quote about the future.) A friend pointed out that uneven distribution is intrinsic to dystopias. He was right, of course.

As I write this, a few miles away another battle between protesters and Seattle police is unfolding. I’m old enough to remember a time when I wouldn’t have known that until tomorrow morning, unless I’d happened to turn on the evening’s broadcast news. I might be too old to get used to a time when we can know what’s happening as it’s happening, even at a distance.

Or think we can know, anyway. That people’s opinions about what’s happening are informed by their pre-existing beliefs on the one hand, and what they happen to see of events on the other, is more obvious to me than ever. Some of those opinions are astounding. Most troubling to me, though, is the decision to dismiss the question of what’s being protested out of hand based on the actions of the protesters. “Well, if they were peaceful…” this line of observation usually begins, as though that invalidates the entire reason behind the protest. Conversely, a protest turning violent doesn’t automatically validate whatever the protest is about, either–but it certainly gets people’s attention, and when they ask why the protest wasn’t peaceful, it never seems to occur to them that they haven’t noticed the peaceful protest that typically preceded the violence.

I had occasion to watch Fox News for awhile, some weeks back. Literally the entire broadcast was cities on fire. It was actually hard to remember that the Capitol Hill protest zone, which was just a few miles from where I’m sitting in an area that tonight is once again the epicenter of civic protest, was only a few city blocks in size. Friends who live nearby walked through it every day, unconcerned about the dangers that certain news channels and livestreamers insisted were commonplace.

Where was I? Oh yeah. The pandemic.

I’m not sure we’re in a dystopia, at least not yet, though as my earlier paragraph intimated, that depends on where you’re standing. My uncertainty is an indicator of my privilege. But we’re certainly in a long emergency, possibly even a slow apocalypse. We’re not really built for those. Sudden disasters are shocking, horrific, but humanity’s capacity for cohesive action in response to them is generally pretty good–inspiring, even. What we’re less good at is responding when the horrific becomes the everyday. While the boiling frog fable isn’t actually true, it’s not a bad metaphor for what happens to us when the emergency becomes normal. Case numbers are rising, and more importantly, so are hospitalizations and deaths. But everyone’s too exhausted to care.

People are putting their bodies on the line in protest of police abuse of power…and there’s a pandemic. The newest iteration of the civil rights movement shows signs of shifting the massive edifice of systemic racism…and there’s a pandemic. My primary ballot arrived in the mail…and there’s a pandemic. Last week a friend’s apartment building caught fire, has been condemned, and I spent five hours yesterday helping them move out…and there’s a pandemic. My husband and I are having a dispute with a neighbor…and there’s a pandemic. Fall semester is coming at all of us who work in education like an oncoming train…and there’s most definitely a pandemic, and the national strategy concerning the juxtaposition of these two things appears to be to leave everyone to work out what to do for themselves. The pandemic simultaneously recedes into the background, and makes everything else harder, sharper, more fraught.

When we get back to normal, I keep hearing.

Normal’s not something we’re going to get back to. Whatever normal is in the future, it’s going to look pretty different from last March.

New publication: Retellings of the Inland Seas

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I’ve mentioned this project a few times, and it’s now available: the anthology Retellings of the Inland Seas, including my short story “The Sea of Stars.”

Like a lot of folks reading this, I suspect, I read a lot of Greek mythology as a child; D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths initially, Bullfinch and Hamilton later on. (Percy Jackson is a bit after my time, though if I had kids I’d probably be reading more of those, too.) As an adult I’ve sustained an interest in ancient Greek myth, religion, and history, going so far as to read a fair bit of scholarly material, though I wouldn’t swear to understanding all of it. Despite a lot less attention (not to mention funding) in academia than it used to get, Classics as a field of study has seen something of a resurgence in the last twenty years. There’s some really interesting work out there–including the nascent field of Classical Receptions, the study of how we of later eras receive–understand, interpret, re-imagine–these ancient cultures.

So of course when the call for stories came out I was excited. I’d read the previous Feral Astrogators installments, and the opportunity to create a story drawing on an ancient culture that has profound meaning for me was too good to pass up. I also appreciated the depth and respect called for by the remit. Greek mythology in particular is often treated with a superficiality that tends to smooth over its complexity and cultural richness. I don’t claim to have approached this story from the deep knowledge of a scholar, or better still a person born in the Mediterranean in the present day. But I think, I hope, that I did a pretty decent job.

I also really enjoyed taking a science fictional approach specifically. I write a lot of fantasy, but most of the stories I’ve published have been science fiction, and “The Sea of Stars” is too. You’ll see. And while I didn’t consciously base it on the Odyssey, that story in particular was one of those formative-years readings that certainly influenced the final product. The story, after all, is about mariners and traveling, and getting lost and getting stranded, and the strange things that can happen while you’re trying to survive. I suspect Odysseus could relate.

Anyway, you can order the anthology here, and I hope you enjoy it.

cover art for Retellings of the Inland Seas

New publication: From the Bayou to the Abyss

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I first read Hellblazer back in college, which was longer ago than I care to admit. While I haven’t read absolutely everything in which John Constantine has appeared, I’m enough of a fan that I was absolutely delighted to have an opportunity to contribute to a new collection of essays: From Bayou to Abyss from Sequart. I’ve always had an interest in the esoteric and occult traditions that underlie much of the magic of Hellblazer, though there are lots of people out there with way more expertise than I (including the creator of John Constantine). Delving into some of that historical esotericism was a lot of fun, and you can read the results, along with a number of other great essays, in the book.

Cover art, by Leah Mangue

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 11

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Oh yeah, we’re still having a pandemic.

It’s not quite in the headlines the way it was just a little over a week ago, pushed aside by another emergency, one arguably more dangerous, and certainly of longer duration. Many of those marching in the streets are newly aware of just how pervasive police brutality is. Many have known for a long time, but haven’t known what to do about it, or have been waiting for someone else to do it first. And many have been marching for years.

I was living in Seattle in 1999, and working downtown when people flooded the streets in protest of the WTO. There have been many street protests in Seattle since then. This city has a long history of them, though it’s a history many seemed to be unaware of when they posted jokes about how Seattle riots–by politely waiting for the crosswalk signal–after the last time the Seahawks won the Super Bowl.

Seattle doesn’t riot, not very often. But protest? Oh, yes. And while the murder of George Floyd was the spark that ignited this protest, Seattle has plenty of grievances of its own where the police are concerned. The police department has been under a consent decree from the Justice Department since 2012. Just last month, SPD filed a motion to terminate the decree. In light of the last week, and the over 14,000 complaints filed against the department, the motion has been withdrawn. Those complaints are about behaviors and tactics that aren’t new. I’m always hesitant to say that things will be different this time, mostly because the older I get, the less true that seems to be. And yet, it might. Not just because people in Seattle generally seem to be well disposed toward the protests and the reasons for them, whether they’re out marching in the streets or not. But because that same support is showing up across the country, and not just in major cities. I’ve seen accounts of Black Lives Matter protests in towns that I’d never have expected to.

And…we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. One of the many unknowns about COVID-19 is just how readily it spreads among people outdoors. Not much, evidence seems to indicate…but does that change when you have hundreds, maybe thousands of people all jammed close together? Even if they’re wearing masks? What if they get tear gassed?

We might very well find out. Several states eased restrictions around Memorial Day. Close to two weeks later, it looks like cases might be starting to spike in those areas.

I hope that we don’t have a spike in cases here. If we do, I hope it stays within levels that hospitals and healthcare providers can handle. Either way, I’m not criticizing the protesters, who are seeking to address an emergency that’s been going on a lot longer than COVID-19. I just wish they didn’t have to.

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 10

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Yesterday I hit a wall.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I work for a university. Like most universities, mine transitioned to online learning earlier this term. In fact, we were one of the first in the region to do so, exercising a previously devised pandemic response plan. I heard afterward that other institutions in the region asked to borrow it. From my perspective, the transition was remarkably smooth, though I wasn’t teaching courses that I had to scramble to move online, nor was I part of the amazing instructional technology team helping make that happen. Nor was I student who was somehow expected to keep focusing in all of this. As I’ve said before, my job changed remarkably little. I was just doing it from my dining room table instead of my office. The biggest shifts were consulting with students by video, rather than in person, and finding workarounds when a student needed a book, since our building was closed.

This week, the semester ended. Under normal circumstances, we extend the library’s hours toward the semester’s end, for study groups and research–although our most used material is online, our students have told us that a space where they can work without other distractions is something they value. The library is the highest-traffic building on campus, second only to the dining hall. Now it’s empty except for a skeleton IT crew and, occasionally, a library staffer going in to empty the book drop.

Still, even without the physical cues of the term coming to an end, yesterday something in me decided that I was Done. It wasn’t particularly dramatic; I just realized that instead of responding to work e-mails, or working on my budget allocation project, I was literally staring at a Facebook page that I didn’t remember opening.

Work is one of my coping mechanisms, so it’s not surprising that I’ve been head-down in it since March. I haven’t been ignoring the pandemic–in my own small way, I’ve been trying to counter misinformation about it, and have found a whole new level of respect for epidemiology–but I’ve been working long hours, exercising, getting the garden going. I knew this wasn’t sustainable, that it really was as much a coping mechanism as needing to get stuff done, because any work that required creativity, invention, or the sort of focused daydreaming that is how a lot of people seem to think academics and artists spend their time, was incredibly difficult. I’m way behind on my writing, for example. I’d take a break here and there, tell myself that I really was going to make Sunday a day of rest (honestly, whether you’re doing it for religious reasons or not, one day not devoted to work is a good idea, especially now), but the to-do list was already there the next day, waiting for me.

Meanwhile, the case numbers keep going up. Meanwhile, the clustering behavior of the pandemic means that some people know many who are sick–and are often sick themselves–while others know none. Meanwhile, a media and a public desperate for concrete information (as a species, humans don’t do well with uncertainty) seize on new research that may or may not have gone through the review process before being released to the public. Meanwhile, individual responses to the pandemic group into political alignments. Meanwhile, the most vulnerable and least well paid among us are stuck on the front lines with inadequate resources. Meanwhile, the administration keeps insisting that it’s no big deal, and if it is, that’s not their fault.

So yesterday I hit a wall. I think most of us have, or will, sooner or later. Even those of us whose lives have remained relatively stable through all of this. For me, there’s always been a certain comfort in knowing that things were still going on, even if I wasn’t present at them: concerts, civic celebrations, community gatherings. This week, the photos of empty streets and crowded hospital wards are hitting me hard.

And, it’s the end of the semester. Even under normal circumstances, everyone at my place of work–students, faculty, staff, everyone–would have earned a break. A tacit theme running through these posts has been how those of us less directly affected by the pandemic keep going with our lives while also dealing with the fact that this isn’t business as usual, and won’t be for a long time.

That includes taking time, where possible, to recuperate. Today, that’s what I’m going to do.

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 9

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A physician of my acquaintance observed this week that if you’re going to get sick with novel coronavirus, it’s better that it happens later than sooner. The reason is that as time passes, the very large number of epidemiologists, infectious disease researchers, virologists, pharmaceutical researchers, computational biologists, and other researchers and practitioners studying COVID-19 learn more about it. The sheer scale of ongoing research, and sharing of that research, is unprecedented–not only do we have the experts, but we have the means for their expertise to be shared with one another, and with the rest of us out here weathering the pandemic as best we can.

The informational dimension of this pandemic is itself fascinating. I’m just old enough to remember when the Internet was a relatively small bunch of interconnected servers, mostly housed at universities and in government facilities. There was basically no commercial activity taking place, “news” meant a bunch of discussion groups of various topics that might be informed by what people saw on TV or read in the newspaper, and when I worked for Amazon early in its existence, what was weird about it wasn’t that they only sold books back then. It was that the idea of clicking some buttons on a computer screen to buy something was so novel that people regularly called us on the phone attempting to order that way instead, and were astonished that no Amazon storefront existed.

Times change, but it’s not just that. The volume of information we take in every day, just going about our daily lives, is so enormous that we can’t really conceive it. And what makes that a problem is how much of that information is biased, incomplete, deceptively modified or presented, or just outright false.

Over the years there have been a lot of attempts to deal with this. Several have come from my own profession, though the checklists from the early 2000s indicating that information coming from a .gov or .edu site could be trusted without reservation seem beyond quaint these days. More recently, the Center for an Informed Public launched at the University of Washington Information School, the same school where I received my MLIS degree. Their virtual town hall on healthy information practices during the pandemic is worth a look, but the Center, like the rest of my profession, is swimming upstream: when it comes to information, convenience, confirmation bias, and denial are mighty forces against which being a smart person isn’t as much of a defense as one might think. Sometimes being smart just means being better at fooling yourself.

In the library world we like to say that the information landscape has changed from one of relative scarcity to one of overabundance. That’s true, but the problem that has always confronted us remains more or less the same: finding the stuff that’s true, accurate, and reliable. While this used to mean a lot of time and effort just to access resources that might contain the information we sought, now it means combing through an incredible amount of noise to…find resources that might contain the information we seek. The difference is that our chief obstacle isn’t inaccessibility, but distraction.

Here’s what I mean. Pick something to fact check. It doesn’t matter what, though choosing something relatively recent might serve to highlight the problem. A Facebook or Twitter post, maybe. Something about the pandemic–there’s not a lot else out there, right now. And then try to verify or invalidate it, without making use of Factcheck or Snopes or any other site that does the work for you (although, much like Wikipedia, these sites can be valuable sources of references).

I added that last criterion not because there’s anything inherently wrong with Snopes or Factcheck, but because avoiding reliance on them highlights the problem I’m talking about. They’re very convenient, and whether someone believes in them or not often has less to do with their intrinsic reliability and more to do with whether they confirm that someone’s belief or opinion or not.

Verifying and validating information is a slow process. Still. It’s faster than it was in the old days, but once you have the sources to comb through, the rate at which you, the human reader, absorb the information you’re taking in hasn’t changed. If you’re not an expert in the subject matter, the content of, say, a scientific research study can be very difficult. It’s going to take you a lot longer to understand it than it would a reader with expertise similar to the authors’. While I’m generally in favor of scientific information being more accessible, that doesn’t make it more comprehensible. Misinterpretation can be actively dangerous. Look what happened with chloroquine. Disagreement among experts can translate to confusion among the rest of us. We’re seeking certainty and concrete guidelines during a period when there’s little of either to be had.

All of the above is why I haven’t said much about the pandemic itself, the infectious agent that’s causing it, or the social and political dimensions of it all. Plenty of people more knowledgeable than I am about these things have plenty to say about all of that already. So do plenty of people who are less knowledgeable, for that matter.

I do understand that deep desire for certainty, for being able to go back to normal (whatever that means, and without regard for whether that’s something that will ever happen), even if I disagree strongly with some of the ways that it’s manifesting. I’m no exception; I deal with things by working, and since early March I’ve been working a lot.

But if we’re not at the pandemic’s forefront, if we’re not among the researchers trying to understand as much as possible about this virus, to find ways to treat it, mitigate it, and prevent it, the least we can do is not add to the noise.

Sources I like:

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 8

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We’d been in social distance mode here in Washington State for maybe a couple of weeks when West Seattle got another piece of bad news: our bridge is broken. In the ensuing days and weeks it’s become clear that the damage is unlikely to be repairable, and the bridge will probably have to be replaced.

I think the last time I drove over it was to go into West Seattle Junction to pick up some dry cleaning. What a normal, ordinary thing to do, right? The West Seattle Bridge leads directly to the Junction, and is one of the most heavily traveled roadways in the city. So the timing of this emergency closure could be worse. As it is, it’s bad enough: an area of the city with close to 80,000 residents now has two drawbridges, of very limited vehicle capacity (one of them is only allowing freight, emergency vehicles, and buses), to get across the Duwamish River. Even though a big chunk of the neighborhood (collection of neighborhoods, really, but nobody outside of West Seattle ever realizes that) is working remotely right now, commute-hour traffic jams have already been pretty epic. Since even the worst-case scenario will probably have social distancing relaxed before the bridge situation is resolved, it’s going to get even worse.

I’m not going to get into whether SDOT is responding appropriately so far; plenty of people have had plenty to say about that already, from varying levels of expertise (the number of armchair engineers in West Seattle is truly impressive, I must say) and varying depths of analysis. But there’s a real cost in terms of human resilience. People are starting to crack. And so is the bridge.

I’ve mentioned before the weird things that the pandemic is doing to people’s perception of time: it unrolls more slowly than other disasters, but the changes it’s made in people’s lives have happened at such a speed that it’s bizarre to me to think that I was a residential writing retreat on the Olympic Peninsula just six weeks ago. This, together with the uncertainty over how long it’ll last, and no wonder people are getting a little stir-crazy.

I haven’t been to a grocery store in a couple of weeks. My husband goes more frequently. We avoid going together because it makes sense to us that only one person at a time should risk exposure, plus it’s harder for other people to maintain distance from us if we’re both walking around together. But we’ve both observed the increase in ambient stress levels. Anywhere that people normally congregate–around here it’s mostly grocery stores and parks–there’s this tension between people trying to follow guidelines, people ignoring guidelines, and a lot of people existing somewhere in between. It makes it easier to stay home, to be honest, though that’s because we’re two people living in a pretty sizable house. (And two cats, but they’re chill.) Staying home makes it easier to pretend, for a little while at least, that everything is normal. Earlier this evening I sat in my backyard, watching the last of the twilight fade from the tops of the cottonwood trees behind our house. The freeway noise, the occasional sounds of conversation from neighboring yards, even the cottonwoods and maples leafing out and the small noises of urban wildlife in the undergrowth, added to the illusion of normality.

We hear “back to normal” a lot. When things get back to normal. When things get back to normal, we’ll be able to make changes, like paying grocery workers more or having deeper stocks of PPE supplies. When things get back to normal, we can have a reckoning of the administration’s response. When things get back to normal, we can talk about how to move forward. My question whenever someone says something like this is: why wait? Why think that things will get back to normal, whatever that means?

Thinking otherwise means acknowledging the possibility of a stranger future than I think a lot of us want to contemplate. Speaking for myself personally, my life pre-pandemic was pretty good, so I can understand the desire to get back to it. But it also wasn’t very good, for a lot of people, and the pandemic has exacerbated and highlighted some of the ways that things haven’t been great in America for awhile now. All the same, it was at least familiar, and we’re all now dealing collectively with a long, drawn-out unfamiliarity, the end of which we still can’t see.

I don’t know what the answer to either problem–the pandemic or the bridge–is going to be. What actually happens is probably going to take longer, be more complicated, and cost more than anybody wants, in either case. Some days, I manage to dredge up some optimism that we’ll figure it out, either one, before it collapses.

Other days, not so much.

Meanwhile: