Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, though the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
March 22: Today Ohio announced a total shelter-in-place order. A lockdown. Essential services and businesses stay open, but that’s it. I’m glad they did it. It’s the only way to get near this, even if getting ahead of it is too late. I’ve lived in Ohio for almost 30 years and “pride” is not a thing I’ve felt about it often, but I continue to be proud of what our state is trying to do.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has likewise gotten high marks for his handling of the pandemic in his state. New York has been hit harder than any state so far, so he’s really working from deep in a hole. Cuomo has been giving daily briefings notable for their plain, candid statements and straightforward orders and recommendations that health experts say are wise. Not everyone is listening to him — a packed farmer’s market in Brooklyn made the news yesterday, with hundreds of people in close quarters, browsing while sipping coffee — but it’s been a strong performance overall.
Today Cuomo said that the pandemic and our response to it is going to last “four, six, nine months” and that it’s “not a short-term situation.”
Just as I’m happy about what Ohio is doing, I am glad Cuomo is taking this seriously. But I worry that leaders saying and doing what the leaders of Ohio and New York are doing is going to cause a huge backlash. I worry that people — and, more importantly, other leaders — will react negatively to such dire measures in such a dire situation and that they will agitate for a premature return to normality that will needlessly kill people.
I don’t know what to do about that. I just fear that, in the aggregate, we do not care enough about others as a society. That we do not care enough to disrupt our lives or the economy beyond a minimal threshold. Indeed, my worst fears about human nature center on this.
It’s been, what, ten days? Eleven days? And people are already freaking out. People are already asking when things will go back to normal. Soon they will start demanding it. Soon weak leaders — and almost every single one of our leaders have earned that descriptor — will cave in. Or, maybe more likely, they’ll attempt to capitalize on people’s fears and anxieties and will do whatever they can to give the populace an easy, palatable answer. I fear it won’t take the economy cratering, banks and lenders trying to collect, food supplies getting interrupted, or small amounts of unrest popping up. It will merely take the suggestion of those things happening, I fear, before society, in the aggregate, says “that’s enough,” and demands we go back to normal. I fear that there will be no shortage of mayors, governors, congressmen and even the president who will accommodate that demand. I fear that they will relent, or worse, will lie to us about where we are and what we’re facing and that it will cause a spike in sickness and death. People will demand an easy answer and no shortage of politicians will rush to give it to them.
When that happens and we do return to that status quo, thousands — possibly millions depending on what projections you believe — will die. Their deaths won’t be covered like the deaths are being covered now. Those people will die quietly and anonymously as we pivot to election coverage or the “inspirational” return of baseball or football or what have you. The band will play on.
Why wouldn’t it? It’s happened before. Ours is a society that came up with the notion of “acceptable losses” in the event of nuclear war. Ours is a society that has collectively chosen to watch the planet heat up and burn rather than take even minimal steps to prevent it. We will be forced to make a choice, sooner than you think, between being able to eat-in at a Panera and keeping strangers from dying. I predict that we won’t even blink as we reach for the Bacon Turkey Bravo.
I recently started doing two things that are helping me get through all of this more easily. They’re good practices for normal life as well as life in a pandemic. They’re things I should’ve been doing a long time ago, actually, but here we are.
The first: I’ve ratcheted back on my drinking a tad.
This might seem counterintuitive to some people, as stressful times and more fluid schedules tend to encourage, rather than discourage, drinking, but it makes all sorts of sense to me. For one thing, I enjoy a drink — usually evening bourbon, at home — and the last thing I want it to become is some sort of medicine or balm or crutch. It’s a pleasure for me, and if I’m reaching for a drink for purposes other than pleasure, something is going wrong.
For another thing, when times are stressful, the most important thing you can possibly do is get a good night’s sleep. You can’t control the world, but you can control how prepared you are to deal with it, and nothing prepares you better for dealing with the world than being well-rested. I have found, however, that while one evening bourbon is a very enjoyable thing for me, that the second one, a good bit of the time, interferes with my sleep to some degree. I don’t get drunk and I don’t feel hung over or anything — I really am a quiet, stay-at-home, wake up early boring kind of guy — but I don’t dream as deeply or wake up as sharp after that second one, so I’ve cut it out recently. It has paid pretty immediate dividends.
Despite all of the anxiety flowing through the world right now — and despite how much of it I, a guy who tends not to have anxiety issues, has felt — I have slept very well lately. Last night I slept so deeply that I was able to do something I have never been able do: I was actually able to control what happened in a dream. I was looking at a man and I was aware, in the moment, that I was dreaming. I started to make him do what I wanted him to just by thinking it. Wink your right eye. Tip your cap. Smile. Frown. Maybe other people can do this all the time, but I can’t. When I woke up — much later than I usually wake up, even on a Sunday — I felt fully restored. And I felt a deep sense of peace. Maybe that has nothing to do with a 50% reduction in the amount of bourbon I drink, but it’s pretty damn notable and, my God, is it welcome.
The second thing I’m doing: I roast a chicken every Sunday night and make stock and soup on Monday.
We cook at home a lot as it is. We’re not amateurs. But we’ve never been the types to do things like your grandma did. We’re less efficient — more driven by neat recipe ideas and idealistic notions of what good food is than what is always optimal — than we should be. A month or two ago, though, we just felt like roasting a chicken and the next day I just felt like making stock and soup, old-school style. I don’t imagine that food disruptions will become a chronic issue going forward, but there’s something satisfying about getting three or four meals out of a cheap fryer chicken, some root vegetables and some herbs. Between this and my habit of making a giant vat of white bean, black bean, or lentil soup every week and eating them for lunches every day, I almost feel like I’m a quarter-way prepared for a depression if it comes, even if I do not, under any circumstances want it to come.
Yesterday I talked about my long walks. I took one this morning. It was cold, but I layered. It was only four miles, but I’m working back into it. I still managed a decent circuit of my little town. It was a lot emptier than it usually is, even for a Sunday morning. Far fewer cars passed me by than usual as I made my way around. The church parking lots were empty and the Sunday brunch spots were closed. I didn’t make it to any of the graveyards near me, but I still felt like I was walking among the dead.
Putting that Radiohead song in yesterday’s entry inspired me to listen to “Kid A” again as I walked. It’s been a long time since I gave that one a spin. I didn’t care for it when it came out given how much of a departure it was from what they had been doing, but I’ve found a new appreciation for it of late. Vultures circling the dead, you know. Floating out into the ether on sonic textures has a much greater appeal to me now than it did even a few weeks ago. Maybe tomorrow I’ll take a hike to “Amnesiac.”
Walking. Sleeping well. Eating well. Taking care of ourselves. Those are things we can try to do, even if everything else is out of our control.