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.
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March 23: I went grocery shopping for my parents this morning.
I had called them yesterday to tell them that I was going out to do a little shopping myself. They made me a list and gave me their credit card, using our “leave it on the porch/text when I leave” system. I headed out a little before 7am. I wasn’t sure about the store hours as a lot of them have changed, offering an early hour for older people to shop in an effort to limit their interaction with others. When I got to Kroger I discovered that their senior hour was 7-8, so I left. Probably should have checked first. Giant Eagle wasn’t far away and their senior hour was from 6-7 so I went there. My phone said it was 6:55 when I got to the door. I stood there to wait a bit.
“You can come on in, we’re open” a store worker said. She was probably in her late 60s or early 70s.
“No, that’s OK,” I said. I pointed to the sign. “I’ll wait a couple of minutes.” A guy in his 30s had walked up right behind me and said he’d happily wait a minute or two as well.
“We’re not carding anyone,” the worker said. “It’s fine.” She waved her hand, beckoning us into the store. It was turning into a standoff.
The guy in his 30s and I looked at each other. We both walked in. I don’t suppose it made any difference — there were some older people checking out, but the produce section just beyond the entrance was mostly empty. I kept my distance from anyone and just went on with my shopping.
I got the few items I needed, including a six-pack of toilet paper, praise the gods. It was on a portable rack up front with a “limit 1” sign. The rack was empty not long after I got mine, but I’m going go choose to see that as a step toward sanity reemerging.
I texted my dad to tell him I was on my way to his house with his stuff. He heard me pull up and stood behind his glass storm door as I dropped the bags on the porch.
“Did you get everything? He asked.
“No, they were out of Cascade. I have some at home if you need it.”
“No, that’s OK, we’ll be fine for a while.” he said.
“I actually got some toilet paper!” I said, proud of myself.
“Make it last. Use both sides!” he said.
At least he hasn’t lost his sense of humor in all of this.
I went home and began my working day. After writing a couple of articles I read the news and saw that what I was worried about yesterday — an increasing agitation in favor of a return to normality — was coalescing into an official talking point today.
The President said “the cure cannot be worse than the disease itself,” referring to the economic consequences of lockdowns and quarantines. He’s transparently pushing the conversation toward a resumption of a normal economy, whatever the cost.
I get that there are rational reasons to be concerned about the economy — I am concerned myself — but his take on this is not a function of a rational balance of harms presented by fighting the pandemic on the one hand and protecting people’s economic interests on the other. He simply fears that high unemployment and a tanked stock market will harm his reelection chances and his legacy. He’s worried about business and about himself. Those are the only things he has a track record of worrying about.
After taking that in I tweeted something about the concern I have about my parents and vulnerable people like them dying if we do not take anti-pandemic measures seriously. Someone responded to me by reminding me that, “if the economy goes bad, sports bloggers will be among the first to feel it.” I guess that’s supposed to make me change my mind about my parents dying. It’s crazy for anyone not to have their own personal economic well-being as their top priority, apparently.
Not that my feelings on it matter that much. The fact that the president’s general sentiment was voiced by an increasing number of people as the day wore on makes it pretty clear to me that we’re going to quarter or eighth-ass this thing for another week — two, maximum — before we start pretending that everything is fine. Before countless people die needlessly because we, as a country, value money more than people’s lives and consider the deaths of people we don’t know to be mere abstractions. Seventeen days ago a conservative commentator went on CNBC and said that it’d be better to give everyone in the country coronavirus because doing so would kill the same number of people but make it blow over faster and harm the economy less. He was roundly mocked and criticized. Now his is, essentially, The Voice of American Pandemic Policy.
Or maybe it’s even worse than that:
Tx Lt Gov Dan Patrick says grandparents would be willing to die to save the economy for their grandchildren pic.twitter.com/wC3Ngvtsbj
— Andrew Lawrence (@ndrew_lawrence) March 24, 2020
I guess, at bottom, I’m not surprised that we’ve reached the point where people are deciding that millions need to die to save businesses. I will admit, though, that I am surprised that it only took about a week and a half to get there.
I have a friend who went through some marriage problems many, many years ago. We talked a lot back then as his marriage was crumbling about how he could fix it. About how they could fix it. We were both pretty young and pretty optimistic guys back then and to us it was simply a problem to be solved. And it would be solved, we thought. Inevitably. Failure was not an option.
One day he sent me an email in which he described an epiphany he had. I’ve lost it someplace, but the gist of it has always stuck with me:
“You’re watching an old western and the hero in the white hat has his horse shot out from under him. He falls, he rolls, and — oh no! — he goes over the side of a cliff. But wait! He grabs the cliff’s edge with one hand! He’s hanging there. Certain doom below him! Your first thought is, ‘how is he going to get out of this one?’ And you wait to see how, exactly he gets out of this one. Except . . . real life isn’t like that. There is no script. There is no assured happy ending. Sometimes you lose your grip and you fall and you die.”
He and his wife split up and divorced not long after that.
We, by default, center ourselves in our own narratives. We are the main characters of the novel of our lives. The star of the movie. The cowboy hanging off that cliff. And because of that we tend to assume that we will overcome conflicts and triumph in the end. It’s very difficult for us to process it not going that way.
Hell, we can’t even picture it not going that way in a movie. Ever see “No Country for Old Men?” When the putative hero dies midway through after giving a defiant “I’m going to win!” speech? For all of the violence in that movie, the most jarring part of it was that, actually, the hero often doesn’t win and in the end he didn’t even matter. He was just someone who did some stuff and the rest of the story passed him by and went elsewhere.
We think of our civilization in the same terms as we think of heroes in a story. We assume that we live at the pinnacle of human advancement and that ours is a story of final triumph. This is especially true for Americans. If you are a citizen of the global hegemon, it’s almost impossible to think that you can do wrong as a society. You assume that what you’re doing is righteous by default. If it wasn’t, how would you have become the alpha dog in the first place? And if what you’re doing is righteous, everything will turn out OK in the end.
All of which brings me to something one of my oldest friends said to me the other day. She’s a historian. She said this:
“I often think about the Bronze Age Collapse and compare it to the current situation. What I have come to think is that living through a civilization collapse sucks, but sometimes what comes out on the other side is better than what came before. We would not have had Athenian democracy — in the limited sense they used the word — if not for the Bronze Age collapse.
Perhaps the current paradigm of generating wealth for the wealthy through the exploitation of humans and the environment can only change through a complete collapse of the current system, which may come about from a pandemic during a time of irrational leadership. Maybe whatever rises from the ashes will be more equitable and sustainable.
“But boy will it suck to live through it.”
There’s nothing written that says we will win. There’s nothing cast in stone establishing that America is righteous or that it will last, either as we know it or in an absolute sense. We can yank the steering wheel and drive our country into the ditch. We seem pretty intent on doing that, actually.
If we do, the road crew will haul away the wreckage and traffic will resume.