The Perfect Vision Plague Diaries #1

Comrade citizen! Stop touching your face!

Notes on the general state of the neighborhood, the family, and the masses in the time of the virus.

Disclaimer: I really had no idea I was going to go so long, or into so many things. I just wanted to start keeping track of the situation here during our (so far) low grade social quarantine. Things are odd enough out there that having an informal record of it might wind up looking like a good idea. It’s just that jumping into it a couple-few weeks late is requiring some backpedaling. And in any case, as I mention below, things only ramped up to Twilight Zone levels of alarm and theatrics in the last week or so.

The year is 2020, and for not much reason other than that, I’m calling it the Perfect Vision Plague (You know my feelings on naming things).  Also, shortened to PVP, it carries the same acronym as Player vs. Player, which seems so fitting in a time of policing each other’s personal hygiene habits, that it’s like earning a new merit badge in the Cynicism Scouts.

Here’s where we stand now:

King County Coronavirus updates, March 15

Public Health – Seattle & King County is reporting the following confirmed cases and deaths due to COVID-19 through 11:59 p.m. on 3/14/20

  • 420 confirmed cases (up 32 from yesterday)
  • 37 confirmed deaths (up 2 from yesterday)

…………

We’ll just call last weekend, March 14 and 15, “day 1.” It was the first weekend since the news of the outbreak that we really knew where we stood in terms of daily routine. There was no more wondering which schools were going to close and which rogue private schools would hold out – all schools were now officially closed by government decree until at least April 27th. The admonition to stay home from work was strong enough that going to the office on Monday (today) would likely brand you a nonperson among some of your peers. In short, this was the first weekend in which we all officially had The Fear.

Back on Feb 29th, Governor Inslee issued the first proclamation of a particularly worrisome variety  – the kind that sends people, evidently, into fits of involuntary toilet paper hoarding. This was the declaration of a state of emergency for Washington state. It’s probably the best marker for the start of the panic around here, the beginning of the journey into an unlikely blend of camaraderie and McCarthyism. Here’s the synopsis, from the Governor’s announcement of the early gravity of things here in Washington, where things, you know, virus-wise,  are (or at least were, I can’t keep up) worse than anywhere else in the country:

The nation’s first case of COVID-19 was found in a Snohomish County man in January. He had traveled to Wuhan, China and has now recovered. On Feb. 28, the state Department of Health announced two additional cases – a King County woman who had recently traveled to South Korea, and a Snohomish County teenager with no travel history. Both are recovering at home and remain in home isolation.

Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? And overall we were still fairly casual about things. Nothing had been shut down, and even though the toilet paper and hand sanitizer were already becoming unicorns, life was business as usual. The one place to find amplified histrionics and a deluge of virus-related reactionism was, oddly enough, the comment sections of every website. They were neatly stratified into two narrow categories (how strange, I know):

  1. We have a flu season every year that kills tens of thousands! This one isn’t even that lethal. It’s stupid to get worked up over this when we don’t even bat an eye the rest of the time.
  2. SHUT IT ALL DOWN YESTERDAY.

Both categories were experts, backed by science (I type that word with a small ‘s’ and I feel like an atheist lower-casing ‘God.’ That’s the respect your savior gets from me!).

The notification/warning phase was followed by a very rapid sequence of mandated closures and prohibitions, such that by now the grocery stores are one of the few businesses still allowed to operate normally. Yesterday, March 15th, came the most recent order, and the one that says more than anything so far that we’re simply not gonna screw around here anymore:

Inslee statement on statewide shutdown of restaurants, bars and limits on size of gatherings

And that’s where we stand today. The restaurants, bars, and gyms are closed – the gyms! – and most everything else. The aforementioned grocery stores, as well as pharmacies, remain open. Someone in the comments of the West Seattle Blog asked about the pot shops, and I immediately had visions of dirty college kids passing pipes around tapestry-laden rooms, coughing, sweating, and laughing. They’d be scrubbing the mouthpiece with sanitary wipes between hits, and finding out how hard it is to light the bowl when you’re holding the tube between your elbows. Social distancing requires the use of a 6ft. bong.

So how is humanity keeping itself busy? Well, in a move that surprised nobody, certain names for the virus became racist this week, according to the people who used those names last week (and if carving out time for character assasssination during a pandemic isn’t your clue that we might be a little too dependent on racism as a tool of socio-politcal exepdiency, then please, voluntarily and aggressively self-quarantine well after the “all-clear” is issued). I could make a list of things that are closed and canceled, but the links are pretty useful, and unless this crisis ends up deleting the internet, I think the info is safe (he said with a very “hold my beer” kind of feeling in his gut). Here’s the Governor’s coronavirus page, it appears pretty comprehensive and easy to follow, and it’ll have your state-level updates (until the capital is overrun by looters and Inslee is forced into the Olympia underground, eating rats cooked over fires of slow-burning hand sanitizer) (The Republicans will blame his liberal policies for the rats being there at all)(The Democrats will note, loudly, that there is a burn ban in effect)(The actual residents of Olympia will be going back out for sushi by then)

A thing or two about what I think when I take in this whole situation:

About people, about the great and general us:

I have conflicting feelings here, and I resist the urge to grab a very broad brush of cynicism, plunge it into a tub of mistrust, and start stroking away. All the hoarding makes a lot of us scoff – while of course wondering if we should be getting ours while we still can. And a lot of people are using this opportunity to exercise a (let’s face it, poorly suppressed at the best of times) proclivity for telling their neighbors how to live. There’s a feeling, a gestalt, of unease, uncertainty, and a kind of ineffable difference to human experience, as if we’re all walking around inside of our own doppelgangers, suddenly left-handed.

We do love a good tragedy, but only insofar as we can claim proximity to it. Involvement. I can think of a few things in my lifetime that are “where-were-you-when” events. Those turning points – moments of profound social, political, and cultural significance that people try to stamp by talking about what they were doing when it happened. There was the Berlin Wall coming down, The Space Shuttle Challenger exploding after takeoff, and 9/11. There might be more, but a longer list dilutes the significance. Almost none of us had any real proximity to those events, fewer still were actually involved at all, and yet all we want to do is link ourselves to them in any way we can, usually by talking at length about what we were doing when it happened. I’m honestly not sure what we hope to gain from that.  God only knows if it’s a psychological impulse to appeal for even the thinnest sympathy wherever we can get it, or if it’s as simple as a desire to feel more important than we know very deeply that we are. Whatever it is, it has always felt particularly empty to me. Selfish, too, but I repeat myself.

And that’s why the toilet paper is gone.

But we’re good, too. People are helping each other out in any way they can. It’s very hard at a time when physical distance is mandated. This has been instructive in revealing just how much, in spite of all the complaints about the way technology keeps us apart, we depend on close interaction. We pass things hand-to-hand, we hug, shake hands, pat shoulders and backs, pick things up for people when they drop them. We pass food around by hand, and I recall Morocco – eating all those meals with my host family and all my friends, tearing bread for each other, using it to scoop food from the large shared dish in the center of the table. I rarely touched a fork. They’re in the time of the virus, too, and they’ll be having to do things very differently now.

There are a lot of efforts underway to feed the high numbers of children who depend to varying degrees on school lunches. There are some very low-income people who need those meals and will struggle without them, and I hear that all Seattle Public Schools will have meals available for pickup for every SPS student who wants one. Also, the restaurants are closed for dine-in business, but they are turning themselves into full-service takeout vendors. And while this will seem a little too first-world for some people, restaurant availability diminishes the need for stockpiled food at home, while helping to maintain the extremely important sense of normalcy that keeps us all from turning on each other. This is good humanity. It’s why I get the feeling that we’re at a point when real catastrophe will be very hard to come by. We have ways to make things work, and people to do it. If things get really, apocalyptically bad, it won’t be because of a virus or a super-weapon or “the big one.” We are more than capable of helping each other through these things. If it really does go all the way pear-shaped on us, it will be because of us, panicking to the point of hijacking Amazon delivery drivers on the road and, yes, hoarding all the toilet paper.

But I see you cocking your head and making the very concerned face of a cable news celebrity politicizing a crisis and asking “Andy, how are things for you, personally, and that dear family of yours? With all this worry over your health, and also my need for your sage guidance, I cannot sustain a full 20 seconds of hand washing.”

Here’s a weekend recap:

We ate together a lot. It was great. I know people like to hold up the “eating together as a family” ideal as the gold standard in knowing the difference between the Cleavers and the Mansons, but that’s ridiculous. It is definitely very nice to eat together (when nobody is being moody or there’s nothing unsettling or contentious to talk about, and everyone likes what has been cooked, and nobody has anything at all to complain incessantly about) but we simply don’t get to do it very often. Two or three times a week at best. There’s too much work and soccer and piano and swimming and basketball, so we eat far fewer homecooked meals than most people falsely claim to have at their homes. And yet we’re a very good and strong family. Which is why, when we did get to eat together several times over the weekend, it went well.

We also had a baking competition, boys against girls, in which we each tried to make the best Cookie Monster cake. It was a spectacular way to forget all the viral anxiety. It also resulted in two delicious cakes that sanitation requirements forbade us to offer to the neighbors, so we’re enjoying a little dessert several times a day.

Cookie_Monsters
Choose your winner, leave your vote in the comments

I went to the store a couple of times. I’m going to admit as confidently as I know how that I did buy toilet paper. We were down to one package (8 rolls?) at home, so I can credibly say that it was a good time to buy it anyway, but the decision was at least 40% panic. I mean, what if I was the one guy who was too stupid to do it? WHAT WOULD MY FAMILY THINK OF ME. I bought 12 rolls of the weird stuff that was left on the shelf at Target because nobody wanted it. 12 rolls is not a lot. It is not hoarding. I would buy 12 rolls at any normal trip to the store. But it is an odd feeling, purchasing the toilet paper that even hoarding food-stampers won’t touch, when everyone is watching you. “Holy crap, that guy’s desperate.”

Then I went to a different store and they had name brand, super-soft toilet paper on the shelf, so I bought an 8-pack. Now we’re hoarding, kids.

(My wife just came down to tell me that the county in California where her friend lives has made it a misdemeanor to leave your house. We haven’t verified this or looked at the details, and this seems drastic for even those Orwellian pea-brains in that state, so don’t hold me to it. A very quick and shallow google search yields nothing)

We walked in and around Lincoln Park three times over the weekend. Twice with the kids. They hate it and always grumble terrifically when we tell them that it must be done. Still, once we get out and moving they acquiesce to their captivity and have a nice enough time. My son is 9 years old and all it takes is a football or a surprise punch in the gut to make him forget that he’s angry. He’s like a dog that way – sometimes just opening the door to the outside world gets him running around out there with his nose in the air.

Lincoln park
Picture not taken this weekend, in case you were wondering where all the people are.

There were a lot of people at the park, which was nice to see. The weather was sunny but cold and windy. Usually that wind will keep people inside, but it was obvious that what we all really needed, even after just a few days of stress and worry, was to get the hell outside. Air, trees, water, the sounds of the ferries and seagulls, the stiff lashing of the wind on your cheeks – it’s a big reset button. It lightens you, physically, in both color and weight, wiping away a grimy darkness that had settled on you like coaldust while you shuffled around a shuttered house, scrubbing the skin from your hands with 90% alcohol concoctions.

This has gone long. I’ll talk a bit about school and the kids tomorrow, as well as whatever else might come up in this ever developing situation. For the record, my early prediction for the Societal Freeze brought about by the Perfect Vison Plague is that here in the United States it will be over much sooner than we think. We will have overreacted in effective ways, and we will look back on this whole thing as a job well done.

Not the Italians, though. They’re gonna be pissed off for generations.

 

In the Time of the Virus We’re Not Sick, but…

One of the more common themes of life as a human, at least as I look back over things, is not knowing what to do, think, feel, or say. All the more true in this time of the incipient plague. Like earthquakes, winning the lottery, and getting published, I’ve got that undeniable sense that it will most definitely “never happen to me.” (He said in an election year.) And as the man in the song says:

“the agony and the irony, they’re killing me.”

Whatever that digression was about…

I’m being a little cleaner, more sanitary (what a word) than before, but that doesn’t amount to much. I’m more worried than before, but again…

I do wish that we would go back to calling it a plague. I like what Merriam Webster gives me online; this introduction to misery and despair:

plague
noun
\ ˈplāg \
Definition of plague
(Entry 1 of 2)
1a : a disastrous evil or affliction : calamity
b : a destructively numerous influx or multiplication of a noxious animal : infestation a plague of locusts
2a : an epidemic disease causing a high rate of mortality : pestilence
b : a virulent contagious febrile disease that is caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) and that occurs in bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic forms
— called also black death
3a : a cause of irritation : nuisance
b : a sudden unwelcome outbreak a plague of burglaries

2b sounds suitably scientific, and that’s what we’re all after these days. That’s why we don’t call it a plague. We call it a what?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

We call it an epidemic. Now that’s science-y! Our saviors can do something about that! Scientists: the people who settle disputes in an indisputable manner, who answer questions with unquestionable answers, and are never to be doubted (except when it comes to food and biological sex; then suddenly they’re a bunch of Keystone Khemists who have no business telling us anything). Test tubes, beakers, swabs, and acronyms! An epidemic doesn’t stand a chance.

But then 2b dons its plague doctor mask, and descends upon us with the “black death.”

In which we think of Artifacts and potential Evocations - Onyx Path Forums

Call it the black death instead of an epidemic and things seem pretty hopeless, don’t they? I mean, just add it to definition 1a up there: “Evil.” “Calamity.” We don’t have labs for evil and calamity, much less black death.  We do have art, though:

Church Records Could Identify an Ancient Roman Plague - The Atlantic
Jules-Élie Delaunay’s “Plague in Rome” (1869)

And there’s literature, from Defoe to Camus, and a little work you may have heard of that’s called, in some circles, The Bible ((science has declared a hyperlink to be unnecessary in the case of The Bible (A little joke that I’m now recognizing has substantial depth to be explored, depending on your sleep and electrolyte levels this soon after DST clock changing)).

All of which is to say that I don’t know what I am saying, or what I want to say, or how to thnk or feel about it all. We have a germaphobe in the house already, so there hasn’t been much of an uptick in the previously sensible sanitation habits (though between me and the kids, our germaphobe hardly stands a chance).  And I find myself reading King County Health reports very selectively, for the information that helps me to not be concerned – all the dying people are old, they all came from the same care center, etc. There’s not much of a reason to give it any thought at all, as long as I do it like that.

I barely remember the swine flu or the bird flu, which are much cooler names, BTW, than Coronavirus, but there’s probably something worth examining in a society’s tendencies when naming it’s disasters – do we shoot for sensationalism? Gravitas? Humo(u)r? (our ancestors would certainly have much to say about the humors in the time of a plague).  I do know that we fancy ourselves a very intellectual culture and society here in the US, and “unseriousness” is frowned very seriously upon – he said, yet again, in an election year.

And I have to say, though I’m sure it’s just coming from the macabre child that will not release its hold on my soul, that I envy a society that called its affliction something so dour, dire, and distraught as “The Black Death.” That’s beautiful. Succinct. I don’t think we’d ever do that. I already note how unwilling people are to joke about this outbreak, and resistance to humor is another mark of a society that overvalues intellectualism amidst a dearth of it. Comedians are brilliant, and geniuses tell huge jokes. But mediocrity (and we are mediocre, on average – definitions and all that) – mediocrity poses and postures, and adopts a serious tone, because it adapts poorly to things that stray too far from the line it clings to. Mediocrity hides best when it moves least, and there’s nothing more stagnant than humorlessness.

I had no idea I was going to go there. But here I am, talking about fear and humorlessness in the time of plague, and in an election year, blah blah. Of course it’s somewhat overserious of me to draw that comparison at all, which fact brings swimming back to me what the man said in the song, and what I already laid out above:

“the agony and the irony, they’re killing me.”

Especially the irony.