Oh, hi. Hi! How’s it going? How are you these days?
I am making some choices. I didn’t call back my sister, with whom I actively wanted to speak. I decided that the best way to handle texts from people was to just read them and nod but not indicate any response that they could see, and then leave my phone under a pile of homemade face masks. According to the activity tracker on my phone, I am dead.
I skipped several Zoom meetings. I sat through one required Zoom meeting as a blacked-out and muted box. I slept through one early evening videoconference with old friends about whose lives I am very curious, because I was quite busy being fully dressed and asleep. (Technically, “fully dressed” = sweatpants that in normal times I would only wear as pajamas and an unraveling t-shirt under a flour-dusted hoodie, so the difference between being dressed for work/life and in sleepwear was/is kind of null.)
Accounting for part of this behavior is that I have recently started experiencing something like aphasia, and also that now, with nine weeks of social distancing under my belt, I have forgotten how to interact in real time with other people who don’t already live with me. I feel stunned and unprepared in the presence of anyone other than my immediate family members. I feel like a 13-year-old boy who has been plucked from a McDonald’s drive-thru after soccer practice and asked to provide color commentary on a Pride Parade on live tv.
Additionally, listening rather than talking seems key right now. I was in a grocery store, wearing gardening gloves, a parka, and a mask made out of a bright pink t-shirt, and even in a state of high alert it took me several minutes to notice the red taped arrows indicating one-way aisles, and to latch onto the meaning of the recording playing on a loop.
It was Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the RI Department of Health, asking shoppers to travel one way and to keep two shopping carts’ worth of distance between themselves and others. This info fully registered as a pair of unmasked young lovers came a-sauntering toward me, going the “wrong way,” in the baking needs aisle so they could mill around the disposable pan section and trail their fingers over every single cooking implement therein. Dr. Alexander-Scott went on to suggest consolidating shopping trips, and perhaps going so far as making a list to ensure that one’s shopping trip is useful and productive. Ever think of that, fuckos? Hey, you stupid lolloping infectious morons! WRITE DOWN WHAT FOOD YOU NEED AND STOP WALKING IN CIRCLES! One and done! Once per aisle! And please put some cloth over your slobbery lips! Sneeze into your arm, then walk right out the door and into oncoming traffic or the nearest cold river! For the love of God! Go IN ONE DIRECTION and GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!
Additionally, I think grief is the culture medium for reticence.
My son is approaching this time with something of a similar spirit but in a more forthright manner:
My husband, you could sort of say, is having a great time. He recently won a contest of wills with a robin. The robin selected one of our outdoor lights as an ideal nest and stuffed the glass canister with grass.
My husband would remove the grass, the robin would return and perch on a nearby railing with more nest materials in its mouth, wait for him to leave the area, and then stuff more grass in the light fixture and fluff it all up while we looked on from the kitchen. One of us (him) would stand there fuming the whole time.
My husband bested the robin by just putting the cap back on the light, which hadn’t been on it because we use the socket as a power source for string lights. If we had all put on camo gear and threateningly waved assault rifles at the robin but not put the cap back on the light, would that have worked instead? Would we have been satisfied? Who’s to say? Me. Me! I can say. Containment. Containment, y’all. Cover the large hole that lets the bird and its dirty grass into your lantern. Make an adjustment you didn’t feel like making until the persistent bird, which has no political views, and its dirty, potentially fire-causing dry grass and all its pooping, came to set up shop at your place.
I am having a more peacefully watchful situation with two trees and a raspberry patch. We planted a northern maple a couple of years ago, and I have been waiting for it to leaf out for a couple of weeks. When I stand by the window nearest the tree I look like this :
I have also been watching the tree outside the window of my child-size desk slowly bloom, and checking in on a container of raspberry canes.
I am also consuming quite a bit of television and otherwise finding small tasks that involve handheld power tools. I installed a door sweep a year after buying it with the kind of brassy triumphalism most people would reserve for winning a presidential debate or running a marathon eight months after quitting smoking. I installed a screen door while wearing very old running shorts and the dumpiest shirt there ever was and now I stand before it, breathing the fresh air in deep gulps in a very ostentatious way.
With just the vaguest idea of how my friends or extended family are doing, I am spending a lot of time thinking about fictional characters, as well as real people as presented by the producers of reality television, specifically, the early seasons of Top Chef. I am not the one choosing to watch Top Chef, but I keep sitting down and watching it. The early seasons, like season five, involved the kind of misery-triggering shenanigans of reality shows like Get Married to this Douche after a Straight-Up Battle Royale, All You Spokesmodels or Snakes all Over Your Face at a Great Height. Is that what those shows are called? Are those the right names? Anyway. Nowadays, in season 15, Top Chef seems to have taken a cue from The Great British Baking Show and its emphasis on love, human sympathy, and achievement. Season five and thereabouts seem to have been produced by vulpine second-tier sadists from high school. Padma Lakshmi is like, “You have 30 minutes to conceive of, shop for, and prepare an amuse bouche that embodies the idea of coercion for the chef who fired you from your first restaurant job. The winner will receive $10,000, furnished by Healthy Choice, and the chance to sexually humiliate the person the runner-up loves the most in this world.”
It’s a mood. And one to resist, and though now that zero-sum not-here-to-make-friends tone may seem dated for reality tv competition shows, we do now have people publicly bragging about not caring if other humans live or die if stay-at-home orders prevent them from getting haircuts or sub sandwiches.
To try to get some perspective, I checked to see how many US military personnel died as a result of the Vietnam War. In the 52-year span between 1956 and 2008, according to the National Archives Military Records, the death toll among those who served in Vietnam was 58,220. That number, unless I’m misreading the document, includes, in addition to combat deaths, illnesses, accidents, suicides and other causes of death over more than half a century. In the past few months, according to the Coronavirus Dashboard, 87,303 Americans have died from Covid-19. The CDC puts the number at 83,947. Either way, American deaths represent 27-28% of the worldwide Covid death toll.
For a while, I couldn’t stop checking the numbers in China, and then in Italy. Now I’m focusing on American deaths because I am trying to get a handle on how many deaths some Americans seem to be eager to absorb, or write off. And to confront the idea that making a living is better than living. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick made headlines for saying, “there are more important things than living,” and then clarified that he’d be willing to die to save the country for his children and grandchildren. But now doctors are seeing kids with a multi-system inflammatory disorder that is apparently connected to COVID-19, and they are dying from it.
It is a challenge for me to understand preferring death to a severe recession or depression, especially since income inequality has been growing since the 1980s, and most Americans already live in conditions that seem like they would only arise in wealthy country during a depression. My parents grew up during the Great Depression, and my father told me stories about how men would walk around on the streets, dressed for work but with no job, aimlessly, and how eerie it was. But those men were not ghosts and oddly, life expectancy rose.
Numbers bring me no closer to clarity, despite the usefulness of data. Now is a good time for humanities majors, I think. Trot them out. Or no, keep them in. Plus they may be very drunk or longwinded. I am longwinded, but just deleted eight paragraphs and a weird video I made because, like everything else here, they were not helpful. I am sorry that I have nothing to offer, and yet I offer it at great length.