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 25: There was a TV movie that came out when I was nine years-old called “Special Bulletin.” The premise: a terrorist group brings a homemade atomic bomb into the Charleston, South Carolina harbor aboard a tugboat and threatens to blow it up if their demands — complete U.S. disarmament — are not met. The whole movie was shot on videotape, not film, and was portrayed as a live newscast. In the end the bomb explodes, devastating the city. They cop out a bit by saying most of the city evacuated and it killed “only” 2,000, but that felt tacked-on, perhaps by network executives. The thing played out like mass horror and death and it scared the living fuck out of me. Even reading the synopsis of it just now, 37 years later, I (a) remember even the smallest details; and (b) feel profoundly uneasy. I have no idea why my parents let me watch it.
In addition to spiking an already growing anxiety I had about nuclear war, “Special Bulletin” made me wonder what, exactly, would happen if, short of nuclear war, a single American city was destroyed by a nuclear weapon in a terrorist attack or in an accident. I wondered how, beyond its initial death and destruction, it would impact everyday life elsewhere around the country and around the world. It’s a thought that has come and gone throughout my life. Sometimes, as in the wake of 9/11, the thought was at the forefront. Other times it’s been something I go months or even years without thinking too much about.
What’s happening now is certainly nothing like that in form, and comparisons between a pandemic and an isolated nuclear accident or attack aren’t particularly apt for a host of reasons. But CDC worst-case estimates of deaths due to the pandemic are something like 1.7 million, and some people say the CDC is underestimating. That’s nuclear-scale destruction or more so. And when I imagine the second-order effects of my “Special Bulletin” scenario — how the country would react, what it would mean for our national psyche, our way of life and, yes, even our economy — I can’t help but think that what’s going on these days and what will happen in the coming months might match it or even exceed it in the aggregate, even if there is not a single moment of death and terror.
A bomb going off in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina would be a calamity of historic proportions, but — and let’s be honest about it — how would it change life in Los Angeles in a concrete way? Would hundreds of millions of people be thrust into fear and anxiety that they or their loved ones might be next? Would they be forced to isolate and disrupt their daily lives? Would millions lose their jobs? Meanwhile, hardly anyone in the country will go untouched by the pandemic, either because they will get sick and possibly die themselves, because they will lose someone close to them, have someone they know lose someone close to them or become one of the many psychological or economic casualties of the pandemic’s secondary effects. The death and destruction will not be as instantaneous or immediately and visibly traumatic, but in the end, there will be just as many if not more funerals and it will personally touch so many more.
The pandemic, like the Spanish Flu before it, will not make the sort of cultural impact that wars, disasters, or imaginary TV-movie-inspired scenarios do. But it will leave a broad, deep and multifaceted legacy that will be felt for generations. A legacy with which I don’t think we are even beginning to truly reckon.
My kids both have a full slate of class assignments as they’re home from school. Online learning with actual, verifiable deadlines. In form, the assignments seem to be pretty academically rigorous and hew pretty closely to things they’d be doing in school, but in volume things are a lot lighter. They have a couple hours worth of work to do a day, no mandatory lectures or class time, and thus way more free time than usual. Which is to say, it shouldn’t be hard for them to finish their work.
I got an email from my son’s geometry teacher this morning, however, revealing that he had only turned in one of three assignments so far. That upset me for obvious reasons, but the fact that he didn’t do the assignments was actually third on the list of things that upset me.
Second on the list was the fact that he lied to me when I asked him if he had done all of his work. That, actually, would almost always be first on this list but it wasn’t this time. No, first on the list was the fact that the teacher’s email was not written as a straightforward reminder or even a gentle scolding for work not done. To the contrary, it was couched in worry. As in, she was genuinely concerned about Carlo. Concerned that maybe he or someone in his family was not healthy. She was truly inquiring as to whether things were OK at home. An interim reminder email — just to him, not to me — had gone unanswered by him, making it worse.
I explained to Carlo that everyone has so much to be stressed about right now without us giving them more to be stressed about. Teachers’ lives are just as uprooted as everyone else’s, and they are being asked to do things now that they never expected that they’d have to do. We have to acknowledge that. We have to acknowledge that everyone is struggling right now to some extent and we have to try harder to meet everyone halfway. More than halfway if we can. We can’t leave people hanging or uncertain, even in the smallest ways.
I hope he took what I told him to heart. I hope everyone takes that notion to heart.
This keeps happening:
As a friend said, “This is what happens when you reduce the entire identity of a nation to an economy backed by a military.” Whatever it is, the ghouls who have turned this into a talking point and anyone who buys into should be ostracized from society.
The most perverse part of this is that these people are increasingly couching this sentiment in the same terms one might talk about the “sacrifice” of the World War II era. Some have said that specifically. Nowhere in all of this do they seem to acknowledge that the primary sacrifice of the World War II era on the home front, as opposed to soldiers dying in actual battle, was the willing sacrifice of material goods for the greater good. There was rationing. There were shortages. They lasted many years, people were expected to endure them, and they did. This push for the elderly to die is premised on the alleged need to return to our typical material consumption patterns as soon as possible. For people to pay the ultimate price so we can go to the mall or take in a Lakers game.
Someone more humane and thoughtful than Brit fucking Hume is Nick Cave. An artist I’ve long loved and admired and who has a periodic newsletter called the Red Hand Files in which he shares frequently wonderful and profound insights. From today’s entry:
A friend called our new world ‘a ghost ship’ — and maybe she is right. She has recently lost someone dear to her and recognises acutely the premonitory feeling of a world about to be shattered — and that we will need to put ourselves back together again, not only personally, but societally. In time we will be given the opportunity to either contract around the old version of ourselves and our world — insular, self-interested and tribalistic — or understand the connectedness and commonality of all humans, everywhere. In isolation, we will be presented with our essence — of what we are personally and what we are as a society. We will be asked to decide what we want to preserve about our world and ourselves, and what we want to discard.
To be sure, Cave says that time is later — he wrote this as a windup to bashing that awful celebrity “Imagine” video I talked about last week — and that, for now, it’s about survival and doing what needs to be done to get through this crisis. Even so, I am glad that someone is thinking beyond themselves and their wallet at the moment. I’m especially glad it is someone who, unfortunately, knows first-hand about untimely loss and tragedy. Listen to people who know of what they speak. Not blithering idiots who call themselves Christians but who are literally asking us to sacrifice people’s lives on the altar of Mammon.
I took another long walk tonight. My third in four days. This one was five and a half miles. It was much warmer today, springlike and sunny, so there were a lot more people out than there have been of late. A lot more people than there are even on nice days in the spring and summer, actually. A lot of walkers. Joggers. People riding bikes. And not just the usual types with nice workout gear and stuff. A lot of them were clearly people who don’t get out like this much. Entire families walking together. Middle aged couples who broke out the old three-speeds they haven’t ridden in years. I even passed by a house with hopscotch squares laid out in chalk on the sidewalk.
I mentally squinted and it sort of felt like what I imagine 1955 was like. I mentally squinted and it almost felt like we’ll make it through this if we get enough warm sunny days.