Thursday, April 30, 2020

Well, shit...what now?

I'll never forget where I was when I learned of Covid-19. Because I'm a news junkie, it was right at the beginning of this mess, on or about January 20 (not sure of the exact date, but hey, give me a break; that was like three or four years ago...). I was lying on my couch idly watching TV, and, just as idly, reached across to the coffee table for my phone to do an entirely routine headlines sweep. There was a breaking news alert on the CNN app, announcing that the virus had been discovered on American soil, and the text color of the alert was red, which usually means something of heightened urgency.

For a long time, I've complained about the mainstream news media exaggerating stories, or simply making a "story" out of nothing at all in an effort to fill a daunting 24-hour news cycle, and this particular alert could easily have been dismissed. But this wasn't "Polar Vortex!", or "Hurricane Watch!"  This wasn't an unwarranted headline about a bear taking the plunge in someone's hot tub outside of Denver, a kitten being cute in Sioux Falls, or Twitter outrage over some celebrity misspeak, and it had nothing to do with Donald Trump, whose toxic presence in the White House (both laughable and gross) I've become pretty numb to. "Coronavirus" was some kind of contagion, whose discovery on American soil was considered serious enough by a major, mainstream news outlet to warrant red-colored text.  I took notice.

But only long enough to picture how bad it could get. With a certain cinematic splendor, yet an undeniably queasy feeling in my gut, all the worst-case scenarios fired off in my mind. I envisioned a disruption of daily life. I saw people getting sick and dying, hospitals inundated, cops overwhelmed by panic shopping and political upheaval fed by the inevitable misinformation and confusion, the military having to be called in as supply lines were cut. This, followed by the disintegration of society, the military splintering into new factions given immediately to warring for power, even as their ranks (and the general populace) continued dying from the new superbug that arrived on American soil with its very own brightly-colored news alert.

On account of that red-colored text, I really did imagine all this...for about 60 seconds. But because I knew nothing about what had been going on in China since December, I also could not help but picture myself sitting in a movie theater, eating popcorn and Sour Patch Kids and watching it happen on the big screen, waiting for The Rock to step in and save the day. It was potentially serious, clearly, but also didn't seem possible outside the confines of Hollywood...and it probably wasn't that serious anyway. I saw red text alerts all the time, I reasoned (or thought I did), because that's how the news media operates in this country. The sky is always falling, or so we are led to believe so they can keep viewers and sell lots of advertising for Cadillac, Budweiser and Verizon. And so, with those unnerving but unrealistic scenes resigned to the back burner of my mind, I put my phone back on the coffee table, and returned to watching The Office. I'd been binge-watching for weeks, back in the good old days when the show's removal from Netflix come January 1 of next year still felt like a big deal.

From that day on, the word coronavirus started its slow but steady leak into the headlines: more updates and bigger text (larger shades of red), with a steadily growing list of related stories each week throughout February. Still, I kept watching The Office, not at all comfortable with Donald Trump being the one we were counting on to deal with this new emerging story, but battle hardened from being uncomfortable with the way he's dealt with everything in three years, which is poorly, and still safe in my belief that it wouldn't be as bad as all that, because nothing ever is.

Moreover, I couldn't help hearing chatter from others, about the media overblowing the situation and how the common flu kills tens of thousands of people every year, and how this new thing was just like the flu. Yes, Trump and much of Washington were saying this and shouldn't have been, but so were a lot of people in my midst, people I knew and trusted, and not all conservatives. Some were non-political, or Democrats, just "people", totally downplaying the story, downplaying the risk.

Then March came in like a lion, and everyone's old life ended on a dime. And now, although it hasn't played out quite as apocalyptic as I imagined (thank God...and so far....), it still sucks. There's a lot of pain, a lot suffering, a lot of death all around, and like many others, I take forever to fall asleep at night sometimes, wake up the next morning and have to remember, with that little jolt of psychological deflation, like air rushing from a balloon, that this is really happening. This is not a drill, this is real world, and The Rock doesn't have any answers. It's like waking up remembering again and again that you've broken up with someone, or worse, a loved one has passed away, or in this case, remembering that today someone COULD - and will - pass away.

Or that you could.

Which is, of course, the real heavy, here. We are all vulnerable, each and every one of us. Some more than others, but nobody not at all. And a lifetime's worth of temperance and relative caution in everything, playing it safe, doing good, making the "right" choices, means nothing, nor does all your money. The well-to-do have an easier time sheltering in place for an extended period, but the virus is out there prowling the verdant yards of posh neighborhoods, just as it loiters on the trash-strewn street corners of poor neighborhoods. And while there are various means of protecting yourself, whether you get it, and how it's going to affect you, seems to be an anguished game of Russian roulette.

Living under my state's stay-at-home order, I trundle zombie-like through my days now, my hair growing long and shaggy, which wouldn't have mattered 20 years ago, but these days just accentuates the age on my face and my bald spot. I'm too young to die, but too old for shaggy hair.

I'm still working. I should be thankful for this, and at the end of the day, I am. It provides a reason to get out of the house, a certain key mindfulness to have a job to do (not to mention a paycheck). I'm also thankful that my work does not place me on the front lines of this pandemic, and that I don't live in a hot spot (although a "hot spot" could pop up anywhere, any time, whenever too many people decide they're going to ignore stay-at-home orders). At the same time, I'm very grateful that so many are on the front lines, grateful for the heroes tending to the victims through this protracted, and for most of us unprecedented, nightmare.

But I'm also dismayed that I have to work. I work in food service, and our particular business was designated "essential", so we keep soldiering on. We've taken precautions, developed a protocol for the sanitization and social distancing of our lobby and our kitchen, but there is only so much you can do, and the worst is knowing there is only so much you can do. We come into contact with customers and customers' money every day. And on that point, I've noticed a greater percentage of them paying with cash lately. Before all of this, almost nobody paid with cash. Cash was quickly becoming obsolete in a world where you could by-pass even your debit card and just pay through your phone. Now, for at least half, if not more, of the transactions, I watch customers open their wallets and sift through a big wad of paper bills to pay for their food, like it's April 1986. That can only mean a lot of people are pulling their money out of banks, which is never a good thing.

To make matters worse, I was not happy in my career before this mess, was considering a precipitous change right when it happened. I've since been tempted to quit anyway, take my chances with my finances rather than my life. Being stuck at home is a drag, and not having steady income is an obvious danger, but being miserable at your job is bad enough. When you're miserable and feel threatened by something you can't see but know is there, it becomes an unmanageable burden.  Your job may be relatively safe, but that safety is not guaranteed anymore. The invisible enemy is just that: invisible, but undeniably there, and highly contagious. Every time you step out and go to a place where there are other people who have been other places where there were other people, you are essentially twirling the cylinder of that revolver, and putting the end of the barrel right under your chin. So when an abundance of misery gets paired with a diminished sense of basic safety in troubled times like these, at some point, an unpleasantly pointless job just doesn't matter anymore, at least not for me. Although I'm more stuck now than ever. With tens of millions of Americans out of work, it's not a good time to be making any precipitous moves.

But maybe I should make one anyway, because the sad truth is, the people who work for me have been excruciatingly slow taking this pandemic seriously. They're mostly kids, teenagers or young adults, so they're working with the handicap of immaturity and ignorance right off, and that, combined with the mixed message they were receiving from the government early on, means they just can't shake thinking of the risk in abstract terms: Covid-19 is someone's else threat, an old person's disease (even though doubtless every single one of them has at least one loved one considered an "old person"), and it's not that serious....right?

And this isn't just food service, this is fast food, which means workers really don't get paid much, and it's not what they expect to be doing six months from now, much less a year, or five. They don't want to be doing this job, so they don't "do" it to any acceptable degree, ever, even in the best of times.  It may be hard to understand for someone who doesn't do it for a living, but if you happen to be a manager, or a shift leader, in any restaurant setting but especially fast food, charged with having to worry about things like labor percentage and food and packaging costs, and peeking over workers' shoulders to make sure they're preparing everything the same way every time, following the "helper posters" plastering the walls (and always wearing their ugly shirt and hat) - you know what I'm talking about.

I already resented having to babysit them, resented the Sisyphean task of getting them doing the everyday procedural crap the correct way, and was weary from the futility of that fight. In a pandemic, it becomes an odious fucking chore to have to constantly remind them not only to use the measuring scoops and wash their hands between every job (singing the alphabet to themselves as a guide for how long to wash them...although maybe now that recommendation should be revised to singing the Chinese alphabet), but also maintain social distance while keeping on a routine of near continuous spraying down of touchable surfaces with sanitizer, only to catch them - as I do frequently - slacking, breaking the rules that are in place for their protection, and mine. They simply don't get it, and it's annoying.

Moreover, I get a super concentrated daily dose of denial about this pandemic from customers. When I work the counter, there is always more than a few of them who scoff at the sight of our social distancing measures, really scoff out loud, as if they can't believe what we're doing, as if we're overreacting, have in some way fallen for the media's hype.

This is distressing and angering in equal measure, and has resulted in my scrutinizing everyone who comes in now: not just the obvious considerations, like are they sneezing, coughing, sweating, do they look dirty, what's under their nails, but a host of new considerations being driven by indignation, but also, I must admit, just a little bit of paranoia: How seriously is this customer taking the pandemic, I wonder silently as I hand him his change and his food from six feet away.

Is this someone who still thinks this is all overblown, some kind of political hoax?

Is this a customer who blames Covid-19 on that Chinese-American dude walking down the street with his girlfriend?

Is this customer defying the stay-at-home order?

Does this dude know something about himself - the presence of a persistent cough, a fever, shortness of breath - but isn't doing anything about it, either actively not giving a shit, or choosing to stay in denial, or defiance?

Is he picking up food now to take to some secret church service to worship with 50 or 75 other souls, all at once?

Was this one of those individuals thinking it was a good idea to forge ahead with our state primary earlier this month? 

Or one of the individuals congregating on capital steps around the country, squawking about infringement of civil liberties, as though that is at ALL what's going on right now, and isn't in fact as laughably horseshit a grievance as their "war on Christmas"?

Is this the motherfucker who will give me Covid-19 for his reckless actions? And did it just fucking happen? Sure I wash and sanitize my hands after every transaction, no question. My hands are like fucking wadded up balls of ground beef for all the soap and sanitizer I've been raking them with the last month. Is this shithead making all that diligence for naught? Is he endangering us all right now...??? It's in the air, man, we're all supposed to be wearing masks....!!!

That's where my mind goes too frequently. Early in the morning, late in the afternoon, in the middle of a work shift, and often late at night, I meander into panic, because the line between vigilance and panic - prudent caution and obsessive worry - is so painfully thin these days. And watching the news for information, for guidance, doesn't help, not at all. I watch everything: left-wing and right-wing, MSNBC and Fox News, to see what they're covering, and more importantly, how they're covering it, and the results are not encouraging. CNN and MSNBC are more (though not totally) in my political wheelhouse, but they are alarmist, do exaggerate their alarmism (very much along the lines of "Polar Vortex!!" and "Hurricane Watch!!"), and prove on a daily basis, through misleading (or carefully slanted) headlines that often contradict what the story is really about, in addition to constant yammering about the President over things that have been yammered about already, that "Trump Derangement Syndrome" does exist. It just does. No observant individual of any political skin can deny this. CNN....MSNBC...come on, they have their own agenda, are hardly "fair and balanced" much of the time.

On the other hand, Fox News...and the people who watch it...those people protesting the stay-at-home orders with so much equally alarmist denial and misinformation at the's pretty rough to try to take in, hard to accept, that their willful disregard for science and what the experts have to say is so splashily visible and unrelenting. The debate about when to re-open society (and I fully understand we have to at some point) is shaping up to be more stressful and divisive than the virus itself, and painfully, painfully liberal/conservative. I guess that should come as no surprise, but such deep political division is definitely not part of the road to recovery. It never is, even when times are merely garden variety bad. Certainly not now.

So what's left, then, to do in a world that seems to have started unraveling like the skin off a hard-struck baseball? I write. I read. I sit and ponder my own mortality. I panic. I get pissed, and discouraged, and downright depressed, and take a nap. Then I do it all over again. I guess in terms of actually having to stay put, my life hasn't really changed too much. It wasn't exactly an old Juicy Fruit commercial before, I was mostly a homebody. Except now I have to stay put, and while I do not agree with the protestors, this quarantine business cannot go on indefinitely.  I did do a lot of walking and fishing before all this, and there's no reason I can't do those things again this summer, but I might not want to. Unless we stop the spread of this virus to a demonstrable degree, or a therapy becomes available to make it less of a terror (and I'm actually optimistic that will happen eventually), I won't be as inclined to go out. I wear a face mask now when I'm out in public, because it just seems prudent, and offers a certain low-level reassurance (until they reveal that it's completely ineffective for protecting both yourself and the people around you..:-/ ), but I hate wearing it. Not because I'm self-conscious; there are too many other people, of all ages, wearing a mask in public now, even though it isn't mandatory where I live, and certainly not because I don't think there's any need to, but because it's a distressing infringement of what I believe to be one of our most fundamental liberties as individuals: to present our face to the world, and have everyone else's face presented to us. Having to wear a mask is repugnant, nothing less than dehumanizing.

There is one good thing to come out of this, assuming I survive (and again, no guarantee...every new day that dawns I could - conceivably - be dead two weeks on...). This upheaval has brought me to a pinnacle of self-awareness, about my vulnerabilities, indeed my mortality, and how my age relates.  I've come to realize that I have a finite amount of time, and I don't mean in the larger philosophical sense, how "life is short" for all of us.

I mean me, specifically. I have a completely foreseeable amount of time left in this world, 30 years tops, but really 20, if I'm lucky, before everything starts to slow up and I have to start living with restrictions, coronavirus or not. Up until this point, the future was always kind of open-ended and vast and tantalizingly vague, waiting to be written. In January, I was thinking about a career change, and still thinking I had all the time in the world to make it happen, to kick back and watch where the road less traveled led.

But staying at home has left me with plenty of time to realize, with sharp clarity, that I'm almost 50, and about to enter that period in life when something could happen any time. I'm already there, really, should already be taking my health seriously, changing my diet, getting regular checkups, watching for symptoms of things, because symptoms of things can be the sign of - or turn into something - serious. I have started some of that, and some people deal with health concerns all their lives, so yes, I've been lucky up until now.  But from this point forward, it will prove to be less and less about luck. All the myriad facets of decline associated with aging, start becoming eventual from here on out.

If I get through this, I'm not wasting another minute. I'm going to cut my hair, ceremoniously rid myself of this tragic mane, while ridding myself of the things in my life that are even more tragic, things I've been needlessly holding onto...prejudices, grudges, indignations I custom-fit to my world view, which now feel like a suit with no room in the seat or the shoulders.  I'm going to take a look around, take a deep precious breath, and start living my life to the fullest. Whether we have to live life in a new normal, or some unforeseen miracle allows us to reclaim (some semblance of) old normal, it's going to be a new normal for me. I'm going to go about the days I have left as though every second counts and I could be dead within two weeks.

Because, of course, it does. And I could. Pandemic or no pandemic.