Serious Navel-gazing Follows

Warning: serious navel-gazing follows. Everyone who has to go in to work at essential jobs at the moment, putting themselves at risk, and also everyone who was laid off and is worried about finding work, really just everyone, please feel free to skip this.


I’m six weeks into shelter-in-place. That’s a bit longer than most people around me. I had gone to a convention in the Bay Area the first weekend in March, where people had just started avoiding hugs and handshakes. I came back with a cough, and decided it was safer to not put my students at risk, so I taught from home that week.

That was a bad week for me, and the next was too. I was really not okay. I almost shouted at Kevin a few times, until he realized just how stressed I was, and basically took over the household so that I could focus on…I wasn’t sure what, exactly. Freaking out. Trying to read as much as I could about coronavirus at that moment, trying to figure out what to do next.

I was recently talking to a friend, and I was surprised by how calm he was about all this; he said something about how the pandemic hadn’t really affected him that directly, and I was honestly sort of shocked and a little angry, as Covid-19 has completely swallowed my life for the last six weeks. I’m only just starting to get a little equilibrium again, I think.

Part of it is that I became aware of the disease early. I have friends in Italy and Spain, mostly people from the SF community, so I was seeing the doctors’ candid and frightening reports weeks before most people around me. I had to fight through my own denial and incredulity, but by the end of that first week of March, I had become convinced of the severity of what was coming, and was feeling utterly panicked about it.

Panicked in a kind of strange way. I didn’t think I was particularly at risk, or Kevin and the kids. I knew that my sisters and many other healthcare workers in my family and close friend group would be at increased risk, but at that point, I still assumed they’d have decent protective gear, so would probably be okay.

(That seems so naive, in retrospect; once I realized that they’d actually be at increased risk due to lack of PPE, that low-level familial panic got added in. But moving on, because what I’m trying to talk about here isn’t really about my family.)

My panic was more societal. I knew that all around me were people who didn’t understand what was going on, who hadn’t been exposed to the same information I had. And so they were moving very slowly. That week, it felt like I was vibrating at the speed of light, and everyone around me was trudging through molasses. With their eyes shut.

I was reading about bodies overflowing the morgues in Italy. I was assuming our schools would close, our libraries would close, everything that could close would close — but no one I knew here was talking that way.

And I didn’t know whether I should be saying something. That’s a part that seems tremendously weird, in retrospect, that I hesitated so much to say anything. I had this inchoate worry that I might ‘spread panic,’ and that spreading panic could do real damage. Certainly history is full of examples of people panicking and causing more damage and death than necessary. Frightened people don’t act rationally, and sometimes that leads to added misery.

All the healthcare folks I was talking to seemed concerned about letting out too much information, and they knew better than I did, surely. Didn’t they? Maybe not. I’m reminded of my own cancer treatment, and how…I don’t know if it’s paternalistic, exactly, or patronizing, but there was definitely a sense with many of my doctors that they were trying to control the flow of information to me.

With the best of intentions, I think — based on all their experience of treating patients, they tried to give me only the amount of info that they thought I needed and could process well at any given moment. It made me furious, when I realized what they were doing, and for me, personally, I don’t think it helped. I would’ve done better knowing it all, from the beginning. I’m not a healthcare worker, so I don’t know if that applies more widely than to just me; I don’t have the experience to even try to tell.

But I do know teaching. I know that the old method of teaching was much more closed; the way I was trained and the way I try to teach is much more transparent, assuming the student is capable of actively engaging in their own learning process. I think giving students full information on the process is generally for the better.

So should I have tried to spread the word earlier? Thrown away any worry about spreading panic, and just focused on getting accurate information out? Looking back, I can see that if we’d shut things down a week earlier, we would have saved a lot of lives. A *lot*. Intervening at that point would have flattened the curve significantly. It’s heartbreaking, looking at those graphs.

Of course, I don’t know that I could’ve done anything, really. That’s part of what was so intensely frustrating in that moment — not only was I not sure *what* I should be doing, I didn’t know exactly *how* to accomplish it. I have a little megaphone on social media, but I’m hardly a celebrity. I’m not in the news media either.

In that first week after I came back from the Bay Area, I think you can probably find a Facebook post or two from me, quietly freaking out about coronavirus, and trying to figure out how I could spread the word faster. Could I work with someone to develop a good graphical meme or two? Did I know any celebrities who could help get the word out?

Should I have called Gaiman and Martin and Scalzi and Jemisin, forwarded them everything I knew, and begged them to help? They probably know more famous people than I do. What about political contacts — did I know anyone who knew senators, governors? Probably. Should I have just tweeted at random famous people?

I just wasn’t certain enough of…well, anything. Not certain enough of the disease, and not certain enough of myself. There was a certain amount of imposter syndrome happening — who was I to think I knew what we ought to do? I did know, a week earlier than most around me. But I wasn’t absolutely positive of that.

I was still in denial too. That’s clear in how I hesitated about shutting down our own library — I moved quickly to assure the director that as a board member, I supported whatever he decided, and that staff would still be paid if we closed. That’s something. But I didn’t urge him to close, and probably I should have. I didn’t call up the other board members and see if they agreed with me, or see if I could persuade them. I hesitated, thinking weird thoughts about ‘is it my place to do this? is it appropriate?’ In the end, I wasn’t that proactive.

Finally, the universities started to close. I think when Harvard announced its closure, that was a tipping point — that seemed to give permission to a lot of other universities to follow suit. Soon after, we closed our library. I had a few bad days when I was so frustrated, so angry, that I honestly wanted to shout at the director and the rest of the board that they weren’t doing enough — but I’m thankful that I managed to keep my mouth shut, because I think I was mostly just incoherently flailing at that point. I didn’t really have any good suggestions for them, beyond shutting it down.

Then the schools closed too. Oak Park was a little ahead of Chicago in most of this — but could have been further ahead still, perhaps. Could have saved a few more lives, perhaps. Once the decision was made to switch to online teaching, the massive workload that entailed for me sort of worked to shut down my sheer gibbering frustration. As long as I was busy and doing something useful, it helped.

Once I figured out I could sew masks, that helped too, and writing up the FAQ about masks, and doing a video on how to sew masks — all of that felt mildly useful. It was something.

And yet. I’ve spent most of the last six weeks fairly miserable about how overall ineffectual I am in this crisis. I ran for office, yes — but for local library board. If I’d run for statewide office, probably I wouldn’t have won, but if I had, maybe I’d have been better positioned to do something that made a serious difference on a broad scale. (Thank GOD Pritzker has done such a decent job as our governor. He’s surprised me. If we had to have a billionaire in the job, at least we got a good one.)

And what if if I go further back — if I’d become a doctor like my parents wanted, I could have been actually useful on the front lines.

It’s useless, of course, wishing you could go back in time thirty years and choose a different career path. And I wouldn’t even really want to do it — I love what I do, writing and teaching, and I’m pretty good at it. I’m not sure I would have made even a decent doctor, much less a good one. (My memory is terrible, for one, worst than most of the population, which is not something you want in a doctor.)

And what if the crisis that came was a different crisis, not a pandemic? An economic crash, a climate crisis, even a war? You can’t predict where the need will be greatest, where you will be of most use, decades from now. That way lies madness.

We already know I have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, right? Which is ego, in large part, which is why all of you should feel free to just ignore this entire post. How arrogant am I, that I feel personally responsible for not doing more to stop the spread of coronavirus in America? Yes, you should feel free to laugh at me right now.

But I bothered to write all this out because I suspect I am not the only one out there feeling wildly ineffectual right now. And I think, six weeks in, that I’ve finally worked myself around to some measure of emotional stability, and I might even have a few useful thoughts to put out there.

Here’s what I have right now:

a) Let go of what you could have done, should have done; it’s not helpful now. Maybe years from now, someone will be doing post-crisis analysis, and it might be helpful to look back then, so we do better next time. Take some notes now, if you like, for that future day. But we’re still in the crisis, and right now, there are more urgent things to focus on.

b) Assess your current skills, your capabilities. If you want to learn to sew and you have the time, great — it’s actually not that hard to learn, and there’s still a real need for fabric masks. Ditto various 3D printed, etc. PPE. But mostly, now is not the time to try to jam several years of learning into a few weeks. Work with what you have.

c) Pick one helpful thing. Okay, I’m terrible at this, I can’t pick just one thing, I end up picking a few, sue me. (Can I point to my ADD diagnosis as an excuse here? I think I can.) But you will generally be more effective if you pick one area of the crisis to focus on, something you’re passionate about, and lend your energies there.

Maybe your issue is keeping indie bookstores alive through this. Maybe it’s getting masks to food service folks. Maybe it’s writing coherent analyses of what’s going on in plain language people can understand. Maybe it’s organizing a mutual aid group and leaving notes on your neighbors’ doors, checking on them. Maybe it’s being the back-end tech help for that same mutual aid group. Maybe it’s blogging how you manage to survive the days and maintain your sanity with two small children in a too-small space. Maybe it’s taking excellent care of your students.

If you can find a way to be helpful, you’ll feel better. And if you have a focused area to spend your time, you’ll be able to see progress faster. Count the number of masks you’ve sewn and donated. Watch the mutual aid FB group grow. Start a YouTube channel and add videos of seed starting or sourdough baking. There is an immense power to the accrual of tiny individual actions, day by day.

d) Finally, live the rest of your life too. Unless you really are in a position of power where you should be spending every waking moment on this (which is true of very few of us), it is not your job to fix this. (That was hard for me to even type. Still working on internalizing that truth, clearly. It is not my job to fix this. I should write that on the wall a thousand times.)

The truth is, when I finally started going back out to the shed again, starting to write, it helped. As I return to writing, to promoting my cookbook, to reading for pleasure, I can feel my balance returning. For a little while, it felt pointless to do anything that wasn’t coronavirus-related. I think that’s wrong.

We need to take care of the rest of our lives too. And the truth is, although this is a crisis, we’re not actually in the midst of a war zone, with bombs falling on us, and everything changed irrevocably. For most of us, the world will continue much as it was, in a little while, and we will do better if we work and live with that in mind. (And if we use this opportunity to reshape society into a kinder shape after the crisis is over, even better.)


That’s it, really. That’s what I’ve finally come back around to, six weeks in. I’m feeling mostly like myself again, even if it is myself-in-the-midst-of-global-crisis.

I’m sure that I will still have moments, hours, even days of being knocked off-kilter, because we are living through an unprecedented moment of communal trauma, and that is going to have its effects.

But this is what makes me feel somewhat coherent again, finally. Having a few helpful things I’m working on, things I’m reasonably skilled at, and that can do some measurable good. And doing my own writing, my own work, as well.

Time to put aside the what-ifs and might-have-beens.


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