Saturday, May 9, 2020
May 9-10, 2020: American Epidemics: Covid-19
[As I draft this series in late March, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to devastate the United States and the world. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of prior epidemics, leading up to a weekend post that I’ll wait to draft until we know more about where things stand in early May.]
On two very different sides to life in a pandemic, and the central questions that remain frustratingly unanswered.
For me, the hardest part of the day-to-day over these last two months (ie, of the experience of everyday life in this altered moment, rather than the horrific effects and extremes that the pandemic has likewise brought) has been the absence of in-person conversation. Indeed, the only people in my life with whom I’ve had in-person conversations over the last 8 weeks have been my sons and their Mom; all my other conversations have been through online messages or over Zoom, FaceTime, or the phone. [Of course I’ve exchanged brief thoughts with delivery folks, supermarket employees, and the like, but while those have been pleasant they’re not the same as conversations with friends and loved ones, or in classrooms.] I’m certainly grateful for what those technologies have meant (and well aware of how much more isolated things would have been and be without them), including for the kinds of educational realities I’ll discuss in my end-of-semester series next week. But I’ve never understood more clearly, nor felt more viscerally, the value of face-to-face conversations more than I now do in their thoroughgoing absence. To put it simply, there’s a fundamental shared humanity that, much as I value online conversations of all kinds, we feel and express more fully and potently when we are with others. I miss those moments deeply.
At the same time (literally), these locked down weeks have required us to find new ways to occupy our days, and one of them has yielded surprising and meaningful benefits for me. I’ve been taking daily long walks (accompanied by my sons when they’re with me, solo when they’re not) around my relatively new (this time around) town of Needham, Massachusetts; the boys have spent much of their young lives in Needham, but I lived in Waltham from 2013 to 2019 and moved back here last summer. Back when the boys were young I used to walk with them in the stroller quite a bit, but that was around the residential neighborhood we lived in then; my new apartment is in a different part of town, much closer to the downtown area. Or so I thought, but on the course of my walks around the neighborhood I’ve realized that this part of Needham also features strikingly wooded, swampy, and even agricultural areas. All of them have made for very pleasing vistas on my walks, but they’ve also—and for this AmericanStudier most significantly—changed quite a bit my perspective on this town and community that I thought I knew well. I thought of Needham as entirely suburban, in contrast to both more urban neighboring towns (like Newton) and more rural ones (like Dover). But it’s got a more rural side than I realized, and now I’m determined both to explore those areas more fully and to help the boys better appreciate that side to their hometown.
So that’s a bit of where I’ve been over these eight locked-down weeks. As for where we go from here, well, that’s the question, isn’t it? As I draft this piece, I’ve been reading both about states reopening or planning to soon (like my home state of Virginia, which currently plans to begin reopening on May 15th) and about the Trump administration’s private prediction of 3000 deaths a day as of June 1st. I know cognitive dissonance is our new default state of existence in May 2020, but how can I be reading both of those things at the same time? It’s one thing not to know what the situation will be in July or September or November—like all of us, I for damn sure do not know, and have gradually (if intermittently) made my peace with such profound uncertainty about the future. But for the present to be so profoundly uncertain and contested in even its most basic realities is both an amplification and deepening yet an extreme explosion of the way things have long felt here in Trump’s America. What has happened? What is happening now? What will happen next? For an analytical person, and an AmericanStudier to boot, the first two questions have always felt crucially important, on their own terms and for our ability to address and answer the third. But I suppose learning to live with the absence of any clear answers to them—and most especially to “what is happening now?”—is yet another effect of life under COVID-19.
Reflections on a very different semester start Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other thoughts on this epidemic or any prior ones?