Life in a Pandemic

One of the things I’ve noticed about my neighborhood’s reaction to our stay in place orders is that both kids and adults are chalking the sidewalks. It’s the first time anyone has ever done this here and I like the gesture. It reminds me of the sort of collective neighborliness of the Portland City Repair movement.

With time on their hands people are de-cluttering, deciding which objects are important in their lives and which ones are not. One of my neighbors set up a temporary rack to give away clothes.

And our neighborhood’s little library is overflowing with books. Someone even put some rolls of toilet paper and rubber gloves in the box.

At the same time, it’s easy for comfortable people like me to get isolated and out of touch with what many in the world, facing sickness and financial uncertainty, must be going through.

Pope Francis had a reminder tweet for those of us in the comfortable class:

Responding to this crisis responsibly is an act of solidarity with other people, particularly with the elderly. We’re sheltering in place not to protect ourselves but to protect the vulnerable. Many people are also still working, risking their lives and the lives of their families to bring us comfortable folks our food and electricity and treat us if we get sick. Then there’s families with young kids at home wondering how they are going to hold down jobs while providing 24/7 childcare and unexpected homeschooling.

A callous disregard for the elderly (open up soon to save the economy!) shouldn’t be surprising in a culture that values individualism and the cultivation of a personal entrepreneurial self while, at the same time, not providing enough support to people who now can’t work. Insidiously, many who have legitimate concerns about not being able to work also are victims of an ideology that says it’s lazy to accept help. We have plenty of resources in the developed world but we have a system that can’t seem to put things on hold when our survival depends on it.

The elites don’t help matters with cringy responses like this:

And this:

I’ve also noticed a subtle media bias towards coverage of the folks who are comfortably sheltering in place like me. It’s not surprising. Most journalists, writers and podcasters are more likely to be sitting at home so it’s not surprising that we don’t hear as much about what life is like for those who live in fear and uncertainty.

We don’t know what the future holds. There are simply too many variables to know what will happen in the coming months. Will we have another wave infections? Will governments bail out corporations or individuals? Will we have a recession or depression? Will there be a revived interest in urban homesteading or will we go back to shopping and consuming? I’m wary of suggesting a silver lining in this crisis. For many, around the world, it will just be awful.

I’m curious how you, our readers, are doing? Leave a comment and let us know what your situation is and your thoughts about the future.

Random Covid Thoughts

  • Here’s what we all need to do right now: If you can, stay home–not for your own sake but for the health and safety of vulnerable people. Here’s a short paper by Nassim Taleb that explains why.
  • Call people who are alone and have a chat.
  • Worrying about being productive isn’t productive. It’s okay to be anxious. Do the two things above and that’s enough for the day.
  • We need to support, in any way we can, those that have to work right now. If you’re using a delivery service tip generously. And I keep thinking about this essay in The Baffler by Lizzie O’Shea “We Keep You Alive” that debunks the idea that “unskilled” labor is, in fact, unskilled. I’m grateful for food service workers right now.
  • It goes without saying we also need to appreciate and support anyone who works in the medical profession.
  • Some people don’t understand non-linear systems and risk.
  • I’m mad with Charles Eisenstein. Releasing a podcast, at this time, skeptical of the benefits of quarantine in the midst of a pandemic and then going on with a guest to denigrate vaccines is irresponsible. Yes, I’m one of those people who are “triggered” by vaccine and quarantine skepticism. I’m triggered because the stakes are high. Eisenstein’s skepticism (and I mean this in the technical, philosophical meaning of the word) is a symptom of the type of person who spends too much time speaking and writing and not enough time working with their hands. Find some balance brother Charles.
  • An opera fan friend of mine let me know that the Metropolitan Opera has dropped (as the kids say) free Wagner all week. Last year I watched the Ring Cycle on YouTube in its entirety (the amazing Boulez version) and worked it into so many conversations that Kelly begged me to shut up. If you’ve got 15 hours to spare (and most of you do) you can begin with the Met’s version of Das Rheingold today. Note the instructions for how to access them for free. Yes, Wagner was a terrible person. No, he was not a proto-Nazi (the Nazis loved Puccini). The Ring Cycle is a profound meditation on ecology and industrialization and the hope for a better world. The music is breathtaking.
  • Speaking of a better world, the DSA-LA has a Zoom meeting this Saturday
  • I’m noticing that this “urban homestead” lifestyle thing sure is handy right now. Wish I had some citrus growing but I’m grateful for the eggs and avocados.
  • Lastly, I used a sprayer to paint Kelly’s shed interior yesterday. I didn’t pull up the hood on my painting jumpsuit all the way. When I came into the house and looked in the mirror I had gone prematurely gray. Counting my blessings that this is the only problem I have right now.


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.

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.”

Plague Times

There are two images that keep floating around in my head in this time when we genuinely seem to have a worrisome contagion at the door. One is of the 17th century beak masks worn by plague doctors.

The other is the plague infected ship in Werner Herzog’s version of Nosferatu. Thanks to a fascinating website called Vessel Finder, you can track the real life COVID-19 infected plague ship Grand Princess, which is just off the coast of San Francisco.

A very unfortunate ad.

How do we respond to the Coronavirus crisis? Frequent hand washing seems sensible. But should we prepare to hole up in the house? Should we make a panicked run to Costco for a month’s worth of ramen? Should we stop going to public events and spend our hours at home entertaining ourselves with Vessel Finder? Kelly and I have the luxury of quarantining ourselves but most people do not.

While I can’t articulate what I think our response should be I do know one thing, that some folks in the press don’t understand non-linear threats. I’m far from the best person to weigh in on statistics, but there’s a huge difference between a communicable disease like COVID-19, that has the potential of exponential growth, and deaths from heart disease or cancer. For similar reasons I don’t think most people understand the “black swan” threat of climate change. Things can be fine for a long time before suddenly everything we know collapses. As Mike Tyson once put it “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”