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:

Rewatching Robin of Sherwood

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Being a middle-aged Gen Xer, I still own a pretty large quantity of CDs. A couple of months ago I started going through them, ripping the ones I still liked, keeping some with music that isn’t widely available and might be difficult to replace, and disposing of the rest. One of the albums that I came across while doing this was Clannad’s Robin of Sherwood soundtrack CD.

If you’re a fantasy nerd of a certain age, you’re probably familiar with both this band, and this show. The latter, a British TV production from the early 80s (the hairstyles instantly give this away) was notable even at the time for incorporating both historical references from the original legend (insofar as the “original legend” is discoverable), and a wealth of mysticism and magic that lent the story a suitably medieval theological dimension. It’s also the origin of the since-common inclusion of a Muslim character among the Merry Men.

I hadn’t watched¬†Robin of Sherwood in at least thirty years, but listening to the music again was an instant nostalgia trip ticket. This show, it turns out, influenced me in a few profound ways, leaving me with an interest in archery, a propensity for having mystical experiences in forests, and a deep and abiding suspicion of power, be it political, religious, or corporate. I went looking for a streaming service offering the show, and found it on Amazon Prime.

I found myself surprised at how well it’s held up. Much about it, from the hairstyles, to the writing, to the casting, is so very early 1980s. Mullets abound, there are no major women characters aside from Marion, the soundtrack is heavy on the synthesizers, and Rocky Horror Picture Show fans will recognize a very familiar face in the show’s third season. (For that matter, Nickolas Grace still reminds me a great deal of Tim Curry.) And yet thematically, it’s timeless: there is no final defeat of evil, the struggle against oppression and the abuse of power is neverending–a theme that has renewed relevance in our present moment. At the end of the second season, the Sheriff of Nottingham articulates this theme explicitly: “Just when I’d begun to believe it was all over. How stupid of me. It’s not over. It’ll never be over”–even as the successor of the rebel he killed is being chosen. In making the Hooded Man a title, a role, rather than the name of a specific individual, Robin of Sherwood advanced the argument that anyone, potentially, could do what Robin Hood does, even if relatively few of us do.

I’m not going to delve deeply into summaries–the excellent Sword, Table, Antlers blog does that handily, and is worth a read either in conjunction with or following a viewing of the show–but in rewatching the series I’m struck not only by how well Robin of Sherwood holds up, but by its argument concerning the corrupting influence of power. That power corrupts isn’t a new observation, of course, and it makes sense that a show about Robin Hood would embrace it as a theme. But it’s remarkable how consistent it is. Even the arguable “good guys” among the nobility–the Earl of Huntingdon, Sir Richard of Leaford–turn first to the preservation of power and position when threatened, rather than toward justice. Which makes Herne’s choice of the first Robin Hood’s successor, a change necessitated by Michael Praed’s departure from the show at the end of its second season, all the more interesting: Herne chooses a nobleman to take his place. That Jason Connery’s Robin spends much of the rest of the show worrying about whether he measures up to the ideals set by a man he never actually met, a peasant with remarkably modern ideas about personal autonomy and freedom, is in a way a development of the show’s critique of power. Those with temporal power and authority in Robin of Sherwood are rarely shown as having earned the right to it; in contrast, a young man who never had cause to worry about whether he’d merited the privilege he’d been born to spends a lot of time worrying about whether he’s merited the leadership of a band of peasants living in the woods.

Maybe a little too much time. Robin Hood, the folk hero, is attractive in part because he never doubts his cause, though he may doubt whether he has the fortitude to meet it. For neither of the show’s two Robins is giving up ever an option, once they’ve accepted the call. But Robin of Sherwood makes clear that their cause is never going to be entirely won; likewise, it will never be entirely lost, and therefore those who take it up are never at liberty to abandon it, for in doing so they do the oppressor’s work for him. And, much like the Hooded Man, there’s always another oppressor coming on the heels of the one you’ve just defeated.

This is a pretty harsh lesson, really. It’s tempting, when a great victory for justice or for human rights is won, to believe that the work is done, that everyone will see that the cause was right all along, and that no reasonable person could ever possibly seek to undo it. But the Sheriff of Nottingham says it: it’s never over, neither for the powerful who almost can’t help but use their power to oppress and subjugate, nor for those who would resist and break that power. And if the Sheriff himself should fall–the cliffhanger upon which the show ended suggested this as a distinct possibility–another one would be appointed to take his place. None of the characters who looked like possible replacements for Grace’s Robert de Rainault, either temporarily or permanently, looked like improvements. The structure that grants them their power and the means of exercising it grinds on.

Cheesy as it sometimes is–the dialogue lands with all the grace of a lead weight at times,¬† there are certain plot developments particularly in the show’s third and final season that I heartily wish had been edited out, to say nothing of those mullets–Robin of Sherwood has some real moments of profundity and insight that take it beyond mere escapism. One of them occurs in the episode “Lord of the Trees,” a personal favorite not least because of this moment: the outlaws have captured the Sheriff’s henchman, Guy of Gisburne, and Robin is having an argument with Will Scarlet about whether to kill him. Robin insists that if they kill Gisburne in cold blood, they’re no better than he is. Scarlet, who frequently serves as Robin’s foil, replies, “Well, what makes you think we are?” pointing out all the soldiers and men-at-arms they’ve killed. (The show is actually remarkably violent, something I missed entirely when watching it as a kid because it shows almost no blood, or any of the other physical consequences of getting hit with medieval weapons.) It’s a bit of a lampshade, but also raises a valid point: many of those soldiers are likely conscripts, with about as much choice in their lives as the serfs Robin and his friends are working to set free.

It’s unfortunate that Robin of Sherwood only lasted three seasons, because it raised questions and advanced themes that really could have stood for further development, including the question implicit in Scarlet’s inquiry of when a cause is worth killing for, and who merits being killed. The show’s mystical and mythical dimensions are simultaneously integral to its presentation of the Robin Hood legend, and left frustratingly unexplored. (Herne himself is much less of a presence in the third season; so is the show’s predominant Christian recurring character, Abbot Hugo.) The political context of the period is well researched and roots the story in concrete details that balance its mysticism and provide as much gritty realism as the outlaws’ peasant garb and the living conditions of the village serfs. (Why are the poor so heavily taxed? Because the Crusades were expensive.) But when the show’s third season gives us a Robin who turns his back on aristocratic power and privilege to fight for justice at the side of the oppressed, it doesn’t have enough time to fully explore the possibilities of such an unusual decision. (Batman can turn back into Bruce Wayne whenever he pleases. Robin Hood is always Robin Hood.) And while Robin of Sherwood shows us two very different Robin Hoods, its cyclical take on story, on power, on the figure of Robin himself, implies that there have been more than two. How many Hooded Men have come to the forest, to be Herne’s son and to do his bidding? How many old men have worn Herne’s antlers and delivered his pronouncements and blessings? Around 1980 the idea that Herne was a manifestation of a very old European pre-Christian god Horned God had a great deal of currency. Just how long has the story of Robin Hood been going on? And when will it end?

Never, the Sheriff of Nottingham says. Maybe that’s an inspiration for our time, as well as a message.

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 7

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Last week, the writer Mary Anne Mohanraj posted a poem that I feel captures something specific about our current moment: the fractured and disjointed way that many of us are experiencing this time. (The link goes to Facebook but the post is public.) Despite how quickly the coronavirus has spread, it feels like a slow disaster. Compared to an earthquake, or a terrorist attack, or even a hurricane, COVID-19 has unfolded with glacial speed. It’s also invisible, unless you’re on the front lines: a healthcare worker scrambling for PPE and ventilators, a grocery store clerk sanitizing the cash register station after each transaction, a schoolteacher getting a crash course in teaching online. And there is no specific endpoint: somewhat lost in the day to day is the understanding that stay-home orders, quarantines, and other social distancing measures are delaying tactics. They do not contain, cure, or prevent.

Perception of time is elastic. If it’s dependent on anything, it’s dependent on how much we, the observers, perceive to be happening. Right before both COVID-19 cases and social and governmental responses to them started proliferating, I’d been watching an episode of The Magicians where two of the characters were imprisoned in a doorless, windowless room with no means of escape. (Ironically, one of them was a time traveler.) It doesn’t take them long (heh) to lose track of how long they’ve been there; nothing in the room ever changes, so they have nothing to measure the passage of time by.

A few weeks later, I started seeing and hearing a lot of comments about how the month had lasted for years, about how we’re still in the same year that the movie version of Cats was released, about how we were only ninety days into 2020. The first detected case of COVID-19 in the United States was announced on January 21st. Two days before, I had thrown my husband a birthday party. Both of those things seem like they happened longer ago than they actually did. So much has happened in the intervening time–despite the relatively slow speed at which this emergency has unfurled–that more time must have passed for them to happen in.

But Mohanraj’s poem isn’t just about that. I’m one of those whose life has been relatively undisrupted. While I know several people at this point who’ve had coronavirus, none of them have died, and all are recovered or recovering. I still have a job, though it’s one I’m doing from home now, and the day to day responsibilities of that job haven’t changed much. We don’t have children, and our cats are largely undisturbed by having two humans at home all day instead of one.

I mention this to contextualize my observation that I’m able to forget what’s going on for, oh, whole minutes at a time. Except for a reduction in air traffic (I live near the Sea-Tac flight path), things don’t look much different when I look out the window. Unless I go to the grocery store (one-way aisles, six-foot tape markers on the floor) or the park (caution tape around all the playground equipment, and a warning sign), I can fool myself into believing that everything is the same as it was before.

And that, I think, is part of the jagged experience of time that Mohanraj relates in her poem. Some parts of life do on as before, but to a different extent for different people. Those moments of ordinariness, be they brief or lengthy, are fractured by the proliferating emergency, even as systemic inertia tries to compensate. Going to the grocery store becomes a fraught errand. The governor declares special health insurance and unemployment benefits, but accessing them becomes a Kafkian exercise. School is virtual only until the end of March. No, the end of April. No, June.

The lack of an end date adds to this sense of time at once stretching out and rushing past. We don’t know how long this is going to go on, or what the end looks like. What is “the end”? When hospital capacity and the number of new cases requiring medical intervention balance out, and restrictions are relaxed even knowing that more people will get sick? When there’s an effective treatment? When there’s a vaccine? When the number of cases, the number of deaths, reach some unknowable quantification? How do we know when that is, when even the best data we have is at best incomplete?

There may be people who know the answers to these questions, but the largely uncharted nature of this pandemic adds to this disorientation of time. Like Mohanraj’s poem concludes, all of us are waiting.

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 6

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I went for a walk today.

I’d been meaning to for about a week. I kept putting it off, because I’ve been really busy, and I was trying to pick a time when there wouldn’t be a lot of other people around, and I’ve been staying indoors generally. There’s some evidence that all this physical distancing we’ve been doing in Washington State is having a positive effect, which for most of us means staying inside unless we absolutely have to go out. The governor’s briefing today emphasized the importance of continuing to do what we’ve been doing. I have a lot of cynicism around politics and politicians (growing up in D.C. can do that) but I happen to think that Inslee’s right on this one.

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An encouraging neighborhood message.

I’m also an extrovert who recharges my batteries by being outside. And it was a typical Seattle March day today, which means we got two hailstorms, occasional bouts of pounding rain punctuated by sun breaks, and a stiff wind out of the south that made me wish for a heavier scarf. I set out for the city park about half a mile down the street.

It wasn’t quite eerie. The spookiest my neighborhood has ever been was during the last time the Seahawks played in the Super Bowl. There was no one around. No cars on the streets, nobody walking their dogs, the only people I saw the whole time were a group of kids playing ball in the street. They were in no danger from crossing traffic. There wasn’t any.

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Taped-off play equipment, Westcrest Park

Today, you could almost believe nothing unusual was going on. There was traffic, even at about the volumes you’d expect for the time of day, though that’s probably because I live near the other way out of West Seattle that doesn’t involve taking the bridge, which is, uh, suddenly out of commission. There weren’t many people walking around, but even Seattleites don’t go for leisurely strolls in a driving rain. The traffic on I-5 was way lighter than usual, and the planes heading for Sea-Tac were spaced further apart. That was about it.

Well, not quite it. We’re still doing the social distancing thing. At the park people who weren’t obviously together avoided each other. When I couldn’t avoid passing someone on a sidewalk, we gave each other a wide berth and awkward greetings. The playground equipment was wrapped in caution tape and hung with a warning sign. And, hearteningly, someone had stapled encouraging messages to utility poles all the way down one block on the way to the park.

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Public health department has been on the case.

At the park there’s a Western red cedar tree, one big enough that it has to be centuries old. Western red cedar isn’t true cedar, but it’s a remarkable tree, as a glance at its many uses by the first humans to inhabit this region will show you. For me, at that particular moment, it was shelter from the rain–one of its many remarkable qualities is shedding water in such a way that you can hang out under it in a driving rainstorm and stay dry. And it’s a tree I like to visit when I go to this particular park. Trees that old have a presence to them. I leaned against this one and watched the rain, and the park’s few other visitors, for awhile.

After a time, I felt…calm, in a way I haven’t in days. Not reassured, exactly, or like I’d gotten some deep spiritual message. But the cedar was so very there, so very itself, with no reason whatsoever to be concerned about the thing that has upended all our lives, and will continue to do so for far longer than any of us want to think about right now.

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Western red cedar tree, Westcrest Park.

It wasn’t that I felt that everything would be all right. I don’t have a lot of confidence about that, frankly, though I don’t think that we’re necessarily headed for catastrophe, either. But earlier today, during the time I spend sitting and staring at candles right around dawn, I did get a message:

We’re at a crossroads, right now. From here, every direction is possible–except back.

Meanwhile:

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 5

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The Kubler-Ross stages of grief have never really gelled for me. Despite caveats they come across as something a person progresses through in linear order, which has never been my experience. Not knocking those for whom her model works, it’s just not something that I personally turn to.

That said, I think collective depression is setting in, if my social media is to be believed. For all of the various end dates given for the various separation and social-distancing measures we’re living with right now–April 6th for the governor’s order, April 13th for the libraries, end of the semester for my workplace–my overall sense is that we’re living with something larger and more amorphous, the end of which we can’t see. After all, some states only began seriously contemplating social-distancing measures within the last few days. The response at the federal level has been disorganized, to understate the case rather drastically. And lurking at the edges of more immediate concerns–how long will my job exist? Is there anywhere in this town that has toilet paper?–is the sense of longer-term social changes that we can’t see from here.

Unknowns are scary. I’ve managed to remain somewhat equanimous about them–but perhaps that’s because my own day to day life hasn’t really changed that much. I mean going to the grocery store feels weird and sad now, and we can’t go to a sit down restaurant or a bar, and I haven’t seen a musical performance that wasn’t a livestream in over a month. But I still have a job, we still have income, and day to day things are still mostly the same for us. So maybe my big freakout is still coming.

Meanwhile,

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 4

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Well, as many of us were expecting, last night the Washington state governor issued a stay-home order. This isn’t quite the same thing as shelter in place, which has a fairly specific meaning in earthquake country, but it does mean what a lot of us were already doing: staying home, seeing no one we didn’t already live with (or if we did, from a safe distance), only going out when necessary. In fact, for my husband and I, things probably won’t change too terribly much, especially since we can still go to our camping property if we wish (the closest neighbors are at least a quarter mile away, and we’re not inviting anyone up there for the duration). We’re aware of the privilege at work here: many parks and other recreational lands are being closed. In the absence of anything else to do, a whole lot of people in Washington took to the outdoors last weekend, which was also the first really nice weekend of the year. Hard to keep your distance when everyone else is going to the same place you are. (I’m looking at you, Rattlesnake Ledge.)

It’s strange how even a city as big as Seattle (smaller and less densely populated than many though it is) can feel so empty. It’s not because nobody’s here, but because almost everyone is in their homes. Or at Alki Beach. I made a necessary grocery store run this morning, and it felt like that alternate-reality episode in Buffy the Vampire Slayer where Buffy never came to Sunnydale and the vampires rule the town–with the according decrease in mortal population. There were people in the store, but not many, and we mostly avoided each other. The guy at the meat counter asked how it was going. “Hanging in there,” I said. “Yeah, me too,” he replied. Both of us sounded rueful.

I’ve been titling these entries Seattle, but the truth is I haven’t been out of my immediate neighborhood in over a week, except to get some takeout from the Junction one night to give my husband a break from cooking. The neighborhood I live in is one of many in this town that consists mostly of single-family houses, with a couple of arterials featuring small apartment buildings. There’s a lot of renovation and construction going on, so a lot of those buildings are vacant, and the work on them seems to have dwindled to the occasional. It adds to the empty feeling.

I have a lot to do. It makes things easier. I’m still working, supporting library services and, proximally, faculty teaching online courses, some of them for the first time ever. I’ve been using the time I’ve saved by not commuting to get more exercise, which keeps me from climbing the walls. I have more time to write and to practice music. My music teacher is conducting lessons over Facetime. It’s not ideal, but it’ll do, at least for now.

There are a few things I believe, based on the reading I’ve done and my own assessment of our current situation. One is that the worst is yet to come. We’re going to have a lot more cases. We might well overwhelm our hospitals, avoiding which has been part of the point of this entire social distancing exercise. I’ve seen a few indications that it’s helping, some, in Seattle at least. But the danger is still there.

Another thing I believe is that we’re all going to get tired of this long before the necessity of doing it goes away. My household is lucky enough to have employment and a financial cushion that’s thinner than it was last week, but still at least exists. A lot of people are out of work. And I’d wager most of us, even the introverts, are increasingly stressed by having to stay mostly indoors, not see anyone in person we don’t live with, and be unable to go to a show or attend services or go to class in an actual classroom. I’m not even talking about the economic cost–more about the social one, really. Humans aren’t made for this, and a lot of us are feeling it.

In my younger days, before I turned into a morning person, I used to go for long walks at night. Seattle when I first moved here went to bed kind of early, though not as early as the small town where I’d gone to college. I could go out for a walk at night on Capitol Hill, now the center of the city’s bar scene–at least, until last week–and not see another soul. And yet the city felt alive, because I knew there were people all around me, in the houses and apartments, and the city’s other residents–the coyotes and the raccoons and the rats–going about their own lives.

It feels different now. Not dead. But different. That’s another thing I believe: this is going to change us, and we don’t yet know how.

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 3

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Today I read an article about how well Generation X is weathering the whole stay-at-home, social-isolation, gotta-entertain-yourself thing. I confess, my very first reaction was to roll my eyes, which is of course a very Gen X thing to do. The article had a lot of stuff about resilience and making do, and I just don’t think that those characteristics are exclusive to my generation. My day job is at a university, and I’ve worked there long enough to work with students who were Millennials and Gen Z, as long as we’re making generationally arbitrary distinctions. There’s plenty of resilience and making-do among folks who didn’t grow up as latchkey kids.

There’s another difference that I’ve noticed, though, and it’s one that I’ve only seen brought up a few times. It came to my mind when my brother and I had our first COVID-19 discussion with our parents. Well, they said, we were around for polio, and measles, and mumps, and the flu, and so on. They seemed to see this as an argument for not being alarmed.

I’m not one for freaking out, personally (though I did once have a panic attack in the middle of Heathrow Airport), but to say that I’m alarmed, worried, anxious about COVID-19 would certainly be accurate. And I couldn’t help noticing the pandemic they didn’t mention, and it’s the one that I, my brother, and our entire generation grew up with. I’m talking, of course, about AIDS.

When I think about it, it’s still astonishing to me to have HIV+ friends my own age and younger who can, through careful management, expect to live out relatively normal lives. PrEP even reduces your risk of catching it in the first place. In 1987, the year that I first heard about HIV in 8th grade health class, the reigning assumption was that if you got infected with the virus, you would develop the full-blown disease sooner or later–and once that happened, you would die.

A lot of people died. A lot of people still do.

When you’re thirteen years old and just starting to think that sex might be a thing you might like to do someday–not necessarily anytime soon, at least if you were me back then, but at some point–learning that sex can kill you is a hell of a thing. It wasn’t until the mid to late 1990s that therapies were introduced with real efficacy in keeping HIV+ patients healthy and prolonging life, and even today those therapies aren’t available to all. I had graduated from college by then. Middle school through college is an eternity at that age, and I think a lot of us who grew up then continue to operate on the tacit assumption, embedded in our psyches, that diseases can emerge for which there’s no effective treatment. (There is still no cure for AIDS, which kills hundreds of thousands of people every year.) This is especially true for those of us who lost friends, lovers, family members, even cultural icons–AIDS’s effect in the arts in particular was devastating.

COVID-19 isn’t HIV, of course. It’s a lot easier to catch; conversely, most of the people who catch it don’t die. In that sense it is a lot more similar to, for instance, the influenza pandemic of 1918, to which it’s frequently compared. But there’s not a lot of people still alive who were around back then, and I’ll wager none of those few remember it. My parents certainly remember AIDS, but they don’t mention it. My point is, if pandemics shape not only society but individuals, and how those individuals respond to similar emergencies in the future, then maybe one reason Gen X is responding the way we are is through a sense of having been here before: a new disease, that we don’t know much about, for which there might never be an effective treatment, that can kill us.

Seattle: notes from a pandemic: 2

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People are fraying.

Yesterday I got the word that my workplace would finally, actually close. I work in a university library and while campus essential services remain open, it was decided yesterday to shut the library. I’d already been working remotely for a week, along with most of my co-workers. But some staff have to be physically present to make a library run, and that puts them at risk.

I had to run down to campus to pick up a remote-enabled laptop and a few other things, since we now don’t know when we’ll be open again. Traffic was, unsurprisingly, a lot lighter than usual. I still got stuck in a jam due to a crash near my usual exit. But more alarmingly, I saw far more aggressive driving than usual.

I’ve been a freeway commuter for 15 years, and during that time I’ve seen traffic volumes increase as more people move to the Seattle area, with concomitant increases in people just doing stupid shit on the roads. Last fall I got to witness a car that had been weaving in and out of traffic moments earlier strike another vehicle, flip over, and block two lanes of southbound I-5 right near the I-90 interchange.

But this is different. You can tell more about someone’s emotional state by how they’re driving than you might think, especially if they’re stressed, angry, in pain, grieving, or some combination of all of those. There’s a lot of freaking out going on, even if people aren’t running in circles and screaming the way they do in disaster movies.

I’ve mostly been staying home. I still have a job to do (and, as my friends in food service, tourism, entertainment, and the metastasized gig economy keep getting laid off or even fired, I’m feeling both lucky to still be employed and wondering how much longer people are going to be paying for private higher education, which is after all very expensive) and various ongoing household and creative projects. But my husband’s been going out in the mornings for coffee and incidentals. The increase in visible stress among the workers at our grocery store has been noticeable, he says, just from yesterday. They have customers taking out their stress on them–and then they have the stress of being front-line workers in a pandemic who interact with hundreds, maybe thousands of people a day.

Be kind to your grocery workers, is what I’m saying. Even if they’re cranky. Especially if they’re cranky. They’re having a hard time, and they aren’t getting paid enough.

Humans are, to my general observation, actually pretty good in a crisis. A few years ago I saw the musical Come from Away, which is about flights diverted to Newfoundland on September 11, 2001. But one of the notable things about that story is that it takes place over the course of a week. In the short term, the people of Gander are generous, opening their homes and their stores to take care of thousands of stranded travelers. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t be equally generous over the longer term. But a long emergency requires a kind of stamina that’s distinct from an immediate crisis. Humans aren’t made for constant stress; it can and does have significant and sometimes lifelong effects on mental and physical health. I’m already seeing all sorts of self-care tips and the like popping up on social media, and some of those can certainly be helpful, but…

It’s a hard time here, right now, even though the sun is shining. It’s going to get harder.