What’s Going On?

We’ve been inside for weeks.

It’s interesting to ponder the sort of blur it has been, not only this pandemic, but also the dynamics of our life for some time now.

There were a few times much earlier on, in the weeks before the WHO pandemic declaration, where the idea of going for a walk on city trails during the day, so long as it was done with caution, this was not so unthinkable. Wearing gloves, glasses, and a ultra-basic dust mask (“better than nothing”, I thought, “much better”), all while keeping our distance from others, it seemed pragmatically adequate at the time. We would really steer clear of people.

We live in the city, and my wife and I had just put some of the finishing touches on collecting a preparedness kit:

  • acetaminophen,
  • dextromethorphan HCL,
  • guaifenesin,
  • an extra bottle of bleach,
  • and so on.

Especially since our water had been shut off several times since moving here, unannounced and lasting for hours on at least one occasion, we made sure to have enough water on hand for each of us to go for a certain period of time.

I arranged a combined grocery order for several households, one that I could pickup without leaving the car, because I wanted to minimize risk in our circles and I just didn’t have any reason to believe the folks in the other households would find it such second-nature to as neurotically hygienic about the processes as I was. I thought it much better (and ultimately more convenient for myself, as I would undoubtedly be involved in the looming possibility of needing to care for an ill person in our circles, shedding the virus and putting unprotected others at grave risk), I thought it much better to just get all the grocery needs for each household handled in one go, using only one of the scarce grocery pickup time slots rather than four or five—also ensuring that other families in the neighborhood would have access to the other time slots that might have been taken up by each individual household acting alone.

Well, the grocery store changed a policy about order modifications and gave no notice—at least, no notice that I was aware of—so our first order was botched. See, I would first place an initial order with only a few items to secure the grocery pickup time slot, and for a certain number of days, I was supposed to be able to modify the order with additional items (i.e., the orders from other households). And on the day that I was to enter the other household’s grocery orders, I found that the system was now locking me out from modifications. The policy had changed overnight.

I couldn’t put the other families out into the fray at that time. I knew government orders were lagging behind the reality, and the risk was greater than people realized. It was then clear to me I would soon be shopping for several households among throngs of people.

Before I started group grocery orders, when we were self-isolating before it became mandatory, even the dust mask felt uneasy those first few times when we would go out for a rare walk in the more open spaces around here. You could feel that it made for discomfort in others, or so it seemed, a kind of gawking resentment of the situation, sometimes combined with dismissive expressions, as though I were the fool for wearing a mask. People were accustomed to Asian folks wearing masks around the city from long before the pandemic, but a white guy? Perhaps it was in my imagination, sometimes. It wasn’t merely imagined all of the time though. The one bittersweet exception to either apparent indifference or haughty disdain, as I went about last-minute errands in that paper mask, was overhearing a child in a parking garage, upon seeing me, exclaim to his mother, “See, he has one!” gesturing and looking up at her as if to say, “Don’t you see, we need masks, Mom!” It saddened me, the hypothetical play of ideas and feeling there, if only because I myself have experienced dismissal of my concerns many times, particularly about safety—for example, on job sites while working with dangerous machinery and precarious earthworks, on virtual job sites working with sensitive data, and back in high school, for example in 2010 when my senior paper and presentation on the various purposes and contemporary downfall of higher education in the United States elicited a sort of response that was not merely dismissive, rather, it had the tone of, “How dare you cut against this grain?” (Incidentally, safety at the table saws has been a concern before as well.)

Anyway, now I don’t go out the door without donning a P95 half-face respirator. I was originally saving the priceless unused filters I had on hand for the unfortunate possibility of caring for someone who was sick in our extended group. But at the time of that first botched grocery order all the households, there was no social distancing at play in the store, no taped lines on the floor or further separation of checkout queues from their usual proximity. And everyone seemed to be there when I drove by to check it out before going, at a time with no lines out the door or enforced maximum customers per square foot, they were toppling over each other with absolutely no one wearing masks except some Asian women and men.

I couldn’t risk getting the bug for various reasons, so I opened up a pack of filters and placed them in the cartridges that would soon eclipse my cheeks, I donned my safety goggles with a sort of eyebrow seal, and I proceeded to shop and deliver for an afternoon. It wasn’t just a simple white dust mask anymore, a flimsy paper mask that might have fooled a few people into thinking it was the real McCoy N95; no, this was going out in the kind of visually striking hazmat gear that elicits the same kind of low-resolution reactionary response in many people as the strictly visual heuristic they associate with “assault weapons”. (Remember, any weapon can be an assault weapon—ornate or brutal though its aesthetics may be.)

To many people I’m sure that, in a word, I looked scary.

Now we’re talking about UFOs, the economy is by all accounts under massively disruptive and dangerous dynamics, and visionary leadership seems almost as lacking as oxygen in orbit.

I really don’t care for this phrase any more, “Now more than ever”, but it is clear that, now more than ever, this “we the people” crowd needs to cultivate its inner capacities not only to discern what is going on “out there” beyond ourselves, but to operate well regardless of necessarily not knowing what is going on out there.

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