Sunday, March 22, 2020

Staying home

{Anonymous art seen today on my block.}

I woke up this morning trying to remember whose was the last hand I shook. It was probably in the last days of February. It would also represent the last physical contact I've had with anyone other than rocketlass.

Today was the first day it felt at all eerie. Walking Jenkins, I arrived at Foster Avenue to . . . nothing. As someone who grew up in the country, I'm still, all these years later, pleasantly surprised by how quiet city Sundays can be. Even in Tokyo, out for an early run, I've found solitude. But this was different. Foster is always tough to cross with a dog, almost no matter the hour. But it was ours today to idle across at will. I was reminded, by their absence, of some of the images from James Schuyler's "An East Window on Elizabeth Street":
Across an interstice 
trundle and trot trucks, cabs, cars,
station-bound fat dressy women
In the distance, I spied runners, on opposite sides of the street, both heading towards the lake, towards the sun. Schuyler again, from his still-bustling city:
The furthest-off people are tiny as fine seed
but not at all bug-like. A pinprick of blue
plainly is a child running
Otherwise the street belonged to us, and the spring-bright cardinal singing from the very top of a bare tree, and the woodpecker diligently breakfasting, unseen, on another.

I watched an episode of Columbo last week and found myself tensing at the proximity of the characters during a dinner party. We are a malleable species. We make adjustments, and take them more deeply within ourselves than we realize, with incredible, perhaps even frightening, speed.

Everyone—and by everyone I mean, as we so often do, a small group of people I interact with online—is turning to Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year. Neither a work of history nor of journalism, though it draws from both wells, it uses the story of an outbreak of plague in 1664 to prepare readers for a potential future outbreak. We live in a different time, in largely different ways, but there are notes that resonate. Here is Defoe on how people respond to the threat of having their houses shut up, with them trapped inside, a virtually certain death sentence, which was prescribed by the authorities when members of a household were discovered to be infected:
It would fill a little Volume to set down the Arts us'd by the People of such Houses, to shut the Eyes of the Watchmen, who were employ'd, to deceive them, and to escape, or break out from them.
Thus far, in our plague, there seems to be less of that, and more of outright defiance, of pretending that youth or money or, quite simply, one's own essential position as the center of the universe, will protect one.

Defoe's opening calls to mind the early part of this year, up to the first days three weeks ago when we started seriously discussing at my office the possibility of having to send everyone home to work. At that point, though we knew intellectually that there was a threat, that information was hard to turn into suitable levels of fear or concern—everything still felt distant.
It was about the Beginning of September 1664, that I, among the Rest of my Neighbours, heard in ordinary Discourse, that the Plague was return'd again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Roterdam, whither they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant among some Goods, which were brought home by their Turkey Fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It matter'd not, from whence it come; but all agreed, it was come into Holland again. 

We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv'd to see pracstis'd since. But such things as these were gather'd from the letters of Merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now. But it seems that the Government had a true Account of it, and several Counsels were held about Ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private.
That last bit is familiar enough to sting.

If you've not read Journal of a Plague Year, the episode of the Backlisted podcast that focuses on it is a good starting point.

Thus far, my life hasn't changed dramatically. That's largely a mark of intertwined privilege and luck. Rocketlass and I both have jobs that can be done remotely, and neither of us works in a sector of the economy that's an immediate casualty. Like everyone, we're at risk from the larger catastrophe (to say nothing of the virus itself), but for now the only effect is that we're at home.

Our society has never been quite sure how to think about work relationships. With rare exceptions, they're not exactly friendships—but in a good workplace, they're also not not friendships. You care about these people and their lives. You appreciate their abilities and their character. You look forward to their insights, and their jokes. In a crowd of strangers, they glow like a lighthouse, guiding you to comfort and safety

At the core of the relationship, for most of us, is the simple dailiness of it. Every day, you're going to see these people, and—most of the time—you're going to see them in a situation where everything is nice and clear. You know what you're supposed to do, you know what they're supposed to do, and you'll do a lot of it together. Most of the time, that's a distinct comfort.

As I left the office a week ago, unsure when I'd go back, I did a mental count: Nine people in the Books Division had been there when I started, including three in my department. Nine people whom I have seen more or less every day, barring two-week stretches of vacation here and there, since 1999.

When Silicon Valley tells people they should bring "their whole selves" to work, they're trying to take advantage of people. You should never take your whole self to work. Work isn't buying your whole self. The realms should be separate. But that doesn't mean you can't be yourself at work. I'm largely the same person at the office as I am at home—marginally less sweary, but that's about it. As a colleague and a boss, I'm pretty transparent: I am who I seem to be.

Aside, that is, from one thing: At the office, managing a staff of twenty-eight, I am an extrovert. And I'm good at it. I'm there for my staff and my colleagues, and part of my job is, and always has been, going back to my retail beginnings, performing in that way. I like it. But it takes it out of me, and on the weekends I'm quiet. I have friends whom I love, but I tend to spend most of my off hours quietly, reading, playing piano, running, watching movies.

The stay-at-home order, therefore, represents no major rupture for me. I'm fortunate enough to have space, and a wife, and pets, and a tendency to live this way already. How are the true extroverts dealing with it?

I have long read Thomas a Kempis, not for his religion, but for his focus on quiet and solitude. He's apt:
The man who has not diligently practiced holy repentance is not worthy of heavenly consolations. If you want to experience this repentance in your heart, go to your room and shut out the din of the world, as it is written: commune with your own hearts on your beds and be silent. Retire to your room and there you will preserve what you usually lose by leaving it.

If you keep to your room you will find delight in it, but if you only visit it, it becomes irksome and annoying. If, at the time of your conversion, you had accustomed yourself to stay in your room and remain there, it would now be your good friend and a source of great pleasure to you.

"Enter into your room, and shut out the clamor of the world."

In part because of those general preferences, the crisis hasn't quite hit me emotionally yet. It's still mostly about logistics: How do we do this, how do we deal with this, how do we recover from it? Fears are mostly focused on the economic damage; somehow the human damage, perhaps unreasonably, is still hard to process. I'm fortunate to not know anyone who has been diagnosed, and to be healthy myself, thus far. And while I know all but nothing about medicine, I do have an educated layman's knowledge of business, the economy, and government, so I find myself thinking about the economy and tools for recovery. It's sobering. Even America—the richest society in the history of the world, one that, because of its role as the world's banker, can simply print money as needed—is going to have a hard time recovering. The prospects for the less well-off parts of the world are terrifying. We'll need a New Deal–level US recovery program, and a Marshall Plan on steroids if we want to help the rest of the world. And I worry about our ability, and willingness, to do either.

Regardless, we will come out changed. My city, your city, they'll never be the same. It feels simultaneously melodramatic and apt to quote Sir Edward Grey's remark on the eve of World War I:
The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime
As I walked this morning past shuttered stores and restaurants and bars and wonder which will be around to re-open, I found myself thinking of some lines from Jana Prikryl's "To Tell of Bodies Changed"
A painter once squared himself against a difficult question
and said no one could just create
a landscape,
but isn't it true
that expectation builds a neighborhood
and there is nowhere else that you can live.
What are my expectations, now? What will my neighborhood be?

Then there's the actual virus, and the fear of catching it (or having those we love catch it). Knowing its general latency period, it feels as if there's a stopwatch ticking in the background, counting down the days since we last interacted with possibly infected strangers. Every twinge in the throat, every flash of headache, every urge to cough . . . is it beginning? It's a special kind of horror, one that is wholly new to my life, and that I, at least, can only deal with by trying desperately to ignore it.

It keeps bringing to mind, not anything obvious like "The Masque of the Red Death," but rather my favorite J. G. Ballard story, "Escapement." A brief, potent story, it tells of a man who, while sitting with his wife one evening, realizes slowly that he's slipped into a time loop, wherein a section of time fifteen minutes long keeps repeating itself. Yet even as he begins to grasp this, his wife remains uncomprehending. The loop plays itself out—Ballard does something interesting where it tightens on itself until the kink straightens out, essentially—but then his wife, watching TV, says, "Why do they keep on doing that? . . . They've done it twice already." "No," he replies," I don't think they have."

It takes the husband a minute, but it clicks. She's slipped into it, and he's not going to be able to retain his knowledge of what's happening. And here, the end, is the bit I keep thinking of, as I wonder whether we're about to slip into something unpleasant:
""Darling," I said, putting my arm around her. "Hold tight."
"What do you mean?"
"This is the merry-go-round. And you're driving."

For now, though, I'm well and it's morning and it's quiet. The actions available to me to mitigate this disaster are few, and I'm taking them. I hope you are, too, and that you're well.

Sun helps. Pets help. Poetry helps. Specifically James Schuyler:
The day
offers so much, holds
so little or is it
simply you who
asking too much take
too little? It is
merely morning
so always marvelously
gratuitous and undemanding,
freighted with messages
and meaning
Stay well, friends. I don't know what the other side of this will look like, but I do know that I want to see you there.

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