Coming Together by Being Apart

Moretto da Brescia, Christ in the Wilderness, 1515–20.

I had planned to write a post today with suggestions on what to do to fill the long hours of quarantine. But the fact is that the waves of anxiety that I’m feeling and that, I suspect, a lot of you are also dealing with make it hard to focus. I’m thankful to have an urgent task: fixing up an old shed in the backyard that could potentially function as a spare bedroom. Carpentry projects normally engage me and make the hours just fly by. But in this crisis I find myself stopping many times in the day and just staring into space or, worse, compulsively checking Twitter or the news. In the evening I either have anxious conversations with friends or look at dumb YouTube videos.

Kelly had to go to San Francisco to take care of a relative. So I’m alone in the house with our dog, cats, chickens and bees. How ironic that this nightmarish new reality should arrive in the middle of Lent to force us all out into a period of collective separation.

I’ve been struggling with that separation. In a crisis our moral instinct tells us to come together. Staying apart feels selfish. It’s counter-intuitive that the best expression of community right now is a lack of community. To keep everyone safe we must self-isolate. We must also convince our friends and relatives who are still in denial that they also must stay at home for the good of all. One bit of solace came from listening to a podcast about the 1918 Spanish Flu. All the struggles we’re going through right now were also dealt with in 1918: social distancing, closed institutions, and difficult decisions for doctors and nurses.

One thing we have now that they didn’t have in 1918 is technology that can bring us together while we’re apart. Our neighborhood has a monthly happy hour every third Friday. Instead of meeting in person we’re going to do a Zoom call later tonight. As journalist Corey Pein pointed out on Twitter yesterday we need to do more work to make peer to peer versions of Zoom possible so we don’t have to rely on one company. One such effort is Matrix, an open sourced, decentralized communication project. Or, perhaps better, we could work on a nationalized communications system like the Minitel system in France that operated from 1980 to 2012. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the features of Facebook without the profit motive?

How are you, our dear readers, coping? What are you doing? Leave a comment with where you live and what things are like. And blessings to all of you in this difficult time.

Plant Vegetables!

I’m trying to put things in perspective this morning. I have a lot of anxiety about family members in denial and my own fears about the response to COVID-19 in this failed state we live in. That said, what we’re going through is nothing compared to what other people in this world have to deal with now in Palestine, Afghanistan, Somalia or Syria to name just a few troubled regions. We have the luxury of sheltering in place rather than the horrors of life as a refugee.

But a run on our supermarkets has me thinking that I need to walk back on one of my worst blog posts, “Homesteading Heresy: On Giving Up Vegetable Gardening,” in which I announced that I was no longer planting vegetables. While we have plenty of avocados and eggs it would be nice to have some greens other than volunteer nasturtium and nettles. I had two seasons of failed vegetable gardening but that should have prompted a redoubled effort rather than the defeatism that I offered. I’ve taken the step of deleting that post. And Kelly planted some vegetables yesterday.

Stay safe and check in on your neighbors. Share your harvest.

We Are in This Together

The past week has been difficult. I feel, every morning, like I’m waking up into a nightmare. Things that I’ve known intellectually and in the abstract since my college days in the late 1980s have become suddenly and horrifying clear.

  • Most people don’t understand the danger of non-linear change in complex systems.
  • The political elite and intelligentsia in this country don’t care about the needs of working people.
  • The mainstream press does not report it manufactures consent.

On the first point I spent part of yesterday attempting to convince people close to me to take COVID-19 seriously with mixed results. People who read this blog, I’m sure, are taking measures to keep their family and communities safe. But we all know people who think COVID-19 is just another flu or, worse, a hoax. I found the video above helpful for understanding the math behind some of the counter-intuitive aspects of a pandemic. Please share if you’ve found a way to communicate the danger and not be seen as a raving lunatic (I’m ashamed to say that I’ve let loose the words “sheeple” and “normies” more than a few times in the past few days).

How to make points two and three less marginal will be the challenge of coming years. Unfortunately, people will die in a country where you have to launch a GoFundMe campaign to pay for your COVID-19 treatment. As Senator Sanders said regarding this crisis, “Now is the time for solidarity. Now is the time to come together with love and compassion for all, including the most vulnerable people in our society.”

Nassim Taleb on Why It’s Better to Panic Early About the Coronavirus

Why should we take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19? It’s not for our sake but for the sake of other people. This is one of the main points of Taleb’s video. If we can slow the spread of this disease we can lesson the impact on vulnerable populations. Personally, I’m unlikely to die from COVID-19 but I could easily pass the virus on to an older person who might. It’s another “Not me. us.” moment.

The other important fact is that the death rate for a highly communicable disease is not static. If our hospital systems are overwhelmed we’ll see an exponential increase in the fatality rate.

The time is now, if you can, to halt travel, to avoid large groups and to get ready. As Taleb says, it would be better to error on the side of caution than to not take this threat seriously.