I just found out that I was definitely exposed to COVID-19.
So, yeah, that happened.
Might have exposed my husband and two other people.
Sitting with that knowledge for a moment.
I’m the only person who was exposed that day who hasn’t been sick for the last two weeks. That’s why I was the last to find out. Also, the test results just came back. It takes a while to even get the test, much less have it processed.
Can’t blame them
That’s what this is about, really. How do you feel the full range of feelings about something truly awful, while knowing there is nobody to blame?
Well, not my friends, colleagues, or neighbors anyway. Only a psychopath or a malignant narcissist would deliberately infect someone with a lethal pathogen.
Emotionally there are so many ways to deal with world events, with the unfair sickness or death of anyone you know, with your own incipient demise. I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot of them.
Denial - everyone on Nextdoor who keeps complaining that the whole world is “overreacting” - to something with a worldwide kill rate of 19%? This thing is killing more people than botulism. Come on, folks, get it together.
Anger - like that matters to a microbe
Disgust - see the neologism ‘COVIDIOT’
Fear - remind me to tell you about my coronavirus-themed night terrors
Sadness - this is where I have been over the past week, choosing what outfit I want for my memorial and crying over photos of separated families every day, and that was *before* I found out I was exposed
Embarrassment at being the kind of trainwreck who couldn’t see the future and who thought that following social distancing recommendations would be good enough
HEY, what gives? I followed all the rules to the letter, so why am I being punished?
The problem of suffering is a challenging one, a stumbling block that disrupts many philosophy students and spiritual thinkers. It’s related to the problem of evil, although of course we understand that evil and suffering are not the same thing, right?
Epicurus had basically this to say on the subject:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Interesting point, not exactly the final answer. The tricky thing here is assuming that any kind of suffering is evil, whereas it seems transparently obvious to me that not everything that happens is... about us. A coronavirus, one of many, pops into existence, and it just so happens to cause illness and occasionally death to humans. Was this *on purpose*? Or was it just something that happens?
There’s no real law about stuff that makes humans sick. Technically there could be several competing pandemics circulating at the same time. We’re not all suddenly immune to measles just because this dog-toy looking round piece of junk showed up. Yeah, I said it, you look like a dog ball, nobody wants you, get out of here Covid and go crawl back up Batman’s... *ahem* sorry about that.
If there is a hurricane and people die, is it evil? How about it if happens in the middle of the ocean and only some fish die, is it evil?
How about if it happens on the planet Jupiter and no sentient beings were within four hundred million miles, is it evil then? Really really big storm?
Getting hung up on the problem of evil is basically saying that no human should ever suffer anything. But why? Says who?
I have trained myself to ask myself, because my biggest flaw is that I am violently prone to self-pity, Why *shouldn’t* I suffer?
Not like I’m asking for it or anything, but if anyone... why *not* me?
My neighbors across the street many years ago? One got meningitis, one had a quadruple bypass, one got brain cancer, and the other got to be caretaker for the whole lot of them for several years. These were nice people, so what the heck? Why did all of that land on one house?
A friend of mine? Her house burned down while her husband was being treated for prostate cancer, right after he got laid off from his job. Nice people. Why them and not me?
Or... you, for that matter? No offense, just for illustrative purposes...
I tend to hear these types of stories because I’m a sympathetic listener (and a bit of a gossip) and because I have the sort of gloomy disposition that records the dark stuff and saves it for later.
As a good Stoic, I consider the prospect of suffering before it happens: premeditatio malorum. As a medievalist I think about the prospect of dying a lot, memento mori, and the reason they did it is because they had a lot more experience with epidemic illness than we do. As a yogini I do my savasana, “corpse pose,” and I’ve done a certain amount of Buddhist meditation on the subject, marasati, as well.
In a way it’s been almost soothing for me, to assume that I know the manner of my death. I’ve been sick in bed before, I’ve had nasty respiratory infections and coughed up blood, I can visualize this. I can construct a counterfactual that helps me cope, such as, At least it wasn’t a shark after all, or, Thank goodness I won’t be taken by a serial killer, or, I’m so glad it wasn’t a fire. I’ve found this strangely satisfying, although of course I could just as easily go in a massive earthquake tonight.
I have no reason to expect or demand safe conduct through this world.
Nobody ever promised that we would carry our mortal bodies around for eternity - or if they did, wouldn’t we all be taking better care of ourselves? Especially our teeth? Wouldn’t we have been wearing more sunblock all this time? Of course we know that our time will come one day.
I used to pray that I would die like a Stoic, without whining or crying WHY ME? Now I pray that when I go, I go alone, and that I’m not responsible for taking 400 other people with me. At least let my conscience be clean and clear, knowing I tried my best to protect others and obey quarantine rules. Let us make it through this as best we can.
Working at home is a whole different thing when suddenly you find yourself with coworkers. I used to contentedly wander around the house in my underwear, swigging San Pellegrino from the liter-size bottle, and writing whenever and wherever I wanted. Now there’s this cute bearded stranger doing who-knows-what across three monitors. It’s quite distracting.
(He’s not really a stranger; it’s just that the beard makes him look like a completely different person).
Imagine the swap from his perspective. One day he has his own private office with a door, and suddenly he has to share his workspace with two ladies who talk to themselves, both of whom are bipeds and one of whom has feathers. It’s a lot to fit into 650 square feet.
The way we’re adapting and sharing space is to simply indulge in separate mornings.
I know people who are chipper when they first wake up. In fact, my little parrot Noelle is one of them. She greets the day by making kissy noises and calling out “Whew!” Me? I’m more like one of those lawnmowers that won’t start until its cord is pulled several times. I doubt I’ve ever done anything good or interesting before 10:00 AM in my entire life.
My husband, on the other hand, is an extreme lark. Starting his workday at 7:00 AM is something of a prosocial compromise.
Some of you are saying, Ah, but you don’t have kids. Anymore, true, we don’t. Most people our age do not have little children at home. If there are two adults in the home, there’s a simple tradeoff, which is that one of you takes mornings and the other takes evenings. If neither of you is much good in the morning, then one can do baths and story time while the other gets clothes and breakfast prepped the night before. Or flip a coin.
What always surprises me is how so many households will allow for a culture in which someone or everyone is cranky all the time. Someone resents someone else for relaxing or enjoying any kind of peace and quiet. Someone tries to take a nap or sleep late, and someone else comes in and shouts at them and forces them to get out of bed. It’s awful. Personally I won’t stand for it.
Now that we’re all stuck indoors together and trying not to drive each other nuts, isn’t it time to let sleeping dogs lie? Or at least let sleeping people sleep?
I’ve built the culture of my household around High Quality Leisure Time. Reason: so that *I* get my share! I want to be able to take naps, therefore I must support others in their right to take naps. I want to be able to read quietly, therefore I must not distract others when they want to read quietly. I have things to do, therefore I need to accommodate others when they also have things to do.
Separate mornings are such a great way to do this!
We started this practice early in our marriage. My husband asked that I not get up with him on weekday mornings, because it would make him want to hang out and talk to me. He has always had his morning routine down to the minute, one of those proverbial “set your clock by him” guys. Even one minute of “good morning sweetie” and he’d have to recalibrate.
This is fine by me, since I’d prefer to sleep until 9 AM every day. Fortunately for me, almost everything I do is clock-free and virtually all my appointments are in the evenings.
It doesn’t really make sense for us to get up at the same time. There’s no need. We’d get in each other’s way, since we only have one bathroom and our place is so small we can’t even be in the kitchen at the same time. This is what I tell myself on the rare occasions it occurs to me that I’m spoiling myself by sleeping in.
Two hours of quiet time at the beginning of the day are worth four hours later on, when the phone starts ringing and all the meeting invitations start popping up.
Not everyone has a job. For instance, my auntie just reminded us that she has been retired for eleven years. She earned it! Just because you’re not reviewing engineering drawings or filing a patent doesn’t mean you can’t make use of separate mornings. It’s fair to have two hours to yourself, to read or stare out the window or doze off or whatever you like.
Honestly I think that everyone should be free to exert privacy on demand. Sometimes you just need a little breathing room, and that’s fine.
It’s a pretty common reaction to feel frustrated with someone else for having more fun than you are, for relaxing when you are not or for being able to concentrate deeply when you can’t. I blame the individual for this. If someone else is relaxing, then sit down and relax. If someone else is doing focused work, then you can do yours. If what is disrupting you is a power imbalance, such as unequal division of caregiving or household tasks, then it is your responsibility to advocate for yourself, set boundaries, and negotiate.
If an extreme lark and an extreme night owl can negotiate a schedule that they can both survive, then I think anyone can negotiate anything.
The nice thing about the separate mornings is how well it works. I offered to hang out in the bedroom longer, if he wanted more helmet time to focus, and he said he was always excited when I came out. It makes him happy to know that I am peacefully sleeping while he works. Though probably not as happy as it makes me to not have to wake up at 5:30 AM.
Mornings might not be the time to divide your living space. For others, it might work better to have a break in the middle of the day, or to go to bed separately. Some people need more sleep than others, and that is not a moral crime, it’s a simple fact of biology and neurochemistry. Why fight it? Accept it, appreciate it, and find a way to use it to create some privacy and peace of mind, both for yourself and for everyone else in your household.
“The Afterlife tastes like chocolate chip cookies.” What does this mean? I don’t know. I woke up with it in my head after a dream a couple of weeks ago.
“He’s going to kill more people than Stalin.” What does this mean? He who? I don’t know. I got that from a dream too.
I can say, as an historian, that there remains no consensus on the final tally nearly 90 years later. If someone had asked me as a trivia question, I would have said “about six million.” It turns out that I may have remembered only one of several categories that need to be disambiguated. How many people died under Stalin? Well, that depends; do you mean specifically in the Gulag, do you count executions, or are you including famine?
How many people are going to die of COVID-19, all told?
That depends largely on the compliance of the vast majority of humans, excepting those currently in Antarctica or on the ISS. They can probably rebel away as long as they keep the doors closed. Actually, come to think of it, pretending that you are in either of those locations might be a great idea right about now. Maybe print out a picture of a rocket porthole and tape it on the wall. Or a blizzard. For that I guess you could just use a plain unruled sheet of paper...
Where I live, people are complying very poorly, which is to say, enough of them are aiming in the direction of extreme personal autonomy that it will continue to amplify our mortality statistics for weeks. Since we were given orders to Stay at Home, I have seen:
A young woman bicycling around playing music off her bike rack
People flying kites
A shirtless young man vigorously using the pull-up bar on the neighborhood walking trail
A group of young people playing croquet
A father bringing his preschooler to a play area festooned with hundreds of yards of caution tape, examining each piece of equipment, and then playing on the only piece that didn’t have tape
All within arm’s reach of other people, outdoors, in public
An argument sprang up on our local Nextdoor. Someone had posted a photo of a young man who broke the law by climbing over a barricade to work out at a park that had been formally closed due to quarantine. (Shirtless. Same guy I saw a few days earlier?) Almost immediately, someone commented that this was public shaming and we had no right to judge because we didn’t know why this guy was doing this.
Uh, the “honey, this isn’t what it looks like” argument doesn’t really fly when someone is dressed in workout clothes and doing pull-ups. Like, what the heck else could he be doing, looking for his contact lens? Donating blood?
What we have is a failure to understand the premise of the categorical imperative.
What if everyone did this? (Whatever it is)
Anything you do, has to be okay for everyone to do.
You endorse it as something that could be a rule for everyone in the world, all the time.
It’s the right thing because it is right in itself, not because it gives you a warm feeling, improves your reputation, you can write it off on your taxes, etc.
‘Categorical’ means always, as opposed to a “hypothetical” imperative. Like, hypothetically, if I donated blood I might meet cute nurses in the bloodmobile, and that might motivate me, but that motivation might not work on others.
‘Imperative’ means that it’s something we must do. It matters. For instance, it’s imperative to stop human trafficking.
Obviously it’s an imperative to stop a pandemic, even if hypothetically it might kill someone who once got away with murder.
The selfish people who are refusing to comply with basic social distancing and hygiene are doing more than being selfish, which is well within the range of ordinary human behavior. They are putting others at risk. They are doing it because they refuse to pay attention, to read, or to think harder. This is why I’m spending so much time on this abstruse philosophical concept, to help people explain morality to those questioners and rebels who aren’t getting it.
This is how I have been explaining the categorical imperative to children for years:
“If you brush your teeth, you’re saying that everyone should brush their teeth.” *nod*
“If you’re nice to animals, you’re saying that everyone should be nice to animals.” *nod*
“If you yell at people, you’re saying that other people should yell at you.” *blink*
What selfish people are saying with their actions when they break quarantine is basically, I am willing to take a risk that endangers almost every living human being. Breaking the rules isn’t just breaking rules now. It’s potentially infecting people who won’t even know it for as long as two weeks.
So that guy uses the pull-up bar, thinking it doesn’t matter because he is the only one to be that clever. What he doesn’t know is that there are 25 other guys using it as well, each one thinking the same thing. Coronavirus may be able to survive on metal surfaces for several days. Same with the playground equipment. Not only is a single user potentially contaminating the area and directly spreading a fatal and highly contagious disease, but his very presence is undermining the entire idea of social distancing.
The most dangerous diseases that we spread to one another are pseudoscience, toxic skepticism, and callous disregard for others.
People don’t always take something seriously until it happens to them, or to someone close enough to them in their social group. Texting and driving is a perfect example. Everyone does it even though they obviously know it’s both wrong and a bad idea. I think the most extreme toxic skeptics won’t take COVID-19 seriously until one of their close friends or family members dies from it. Or when they themselves are getting a ventilator hose down their throat.
You know me, and that means you are three degrees of separation away from three people who have tested positive. One of them died. Most people probably won’t be motivated by an anecdote like this. It’s just statistics until it happens to you.
Okay, now for the part that I am asking you to show to others. This is a list of links that I have been checking regularly. (I won’t lie; I check them several times a day). Ask them to scroll down to the trend lines and PAY ATTENTION.
COVID-19 coronavirus cases and deaths, US
COVID-19 coronavirus cases and deaths, global
Coronavirus cases, US map
Coronavirus cases, world map
Sorry I’m late. A situation came up that I had to resolve. You see, my husband just asserted that Skittles are a type of gummy candy and I had to deal with it personally. I had my phone in my hand, ready to ask the manufacturer on Twitter, when he finally capitulated.
Then we both laughed really hard and hugged it out.
We counted it up, and he is on Day 21 of self-isolation already. Remember when we thought we might have been exposed at the beginning of the month? Turns out we were lucky. The week he stayed home was the week we might actually have been exposed by someone who has since tested positive.
The situation changes when you start to hear of people within one or two degrees of separation who are sick... or who have already succumbed.
One degree of separation: Someone you know
Two degrees of separation: Someone they know
Stanley Milgram’s 1967 experiment leading to the “6 Handshakes” rule was confirmed by Microsoft in 2008. The idea is that everyone “knows someone who knows someone” who can eventually carry a message to basically anyone on Earth. A case could be made that with social media, the distance is much shorter, as almost anyone can send a message to any organization or celebrity who has an account. (Or whose agent has an account).
If I’d tweeted @Skittles, the official brand account, asking them to resolve my “argument” with my husband, there’s a good chance I would have gotten a response. Possibly a public response. It’s funny, right? Maybe they’d even send us some merch.
We could use some humor right about now.
I feel extremely fortunate to be isolated with someone I like. World affairs have nudged us just that little bit closer. We’re putting in more effort to be considerate and thoughtful, to set up little surprises for each other, to demonstrate affection.
We’ve realized that touch is the new luxury.
We used to have a joke that one of the best reasons to be married and monogamous was incurable STIs. Every now and then, one or the other of us would see a headline about some emerging sexually transmitted gross-out, and we would show each other, followed by one of our tag lines.
“Oh, darling, let’s stay married... forever”
This is even more true for COVID-19, where standing within six feet of someone is the new cheating.
“You touched the same doorknob as WHO?!?”
When the news started getting thick and viscous, we were still venturing out in public, though we had already stocked up on siege supplies. We would run across someone we knew, and they would rush over to bump elbows with theatrical glee. I was impressed that this bizarre social innovation had spread so quickly.
Ideas - memes and jokes - can spread around the globe in a day. Crazy to think that we are all united by this, our ability to internalize new dance moves, gestures, or catch phrases and use them as social currency.
I’m with it, I’m in the game, I get it
I got it
(You thought I was going to say that I just lost the game, didn’t you?)
It’s more important now than ever that we focus on what unites us, because it’s so easy for a single individual to break the new social contract. I’ve seen at least three cases in the news already of a person aggressively coughing on someone - or something, like $35,000 worth of groceries - and what is the point of that?
To feel powerful in the face of fear? To fight the invisible?
There are two sides to the pendulum, with individualism on one side and community on the other. The perfect medium is for each person to balance self-interest with regard for others, to find self-actualization in a way that contributes to the greater good. It’s good for all of us when any one of us is happy and doing well, right?
This is one of the main differences between America and other places in the world. We value extreme autonomy. I DO WHAT I WANT. This is why we’re perpetually fascinated with serial killers and so many of our movies and TV shows involve a murder. Other parts of the world place a higher value on their shared culture, or the family unit. The pendulum swings back and forth, between ME and US, and we didn’t really have much farther to swing on the selfish end.
We can’t hug it out anymore, either.
I think there will eventually be a thing, like a huggable robot toy, that sends virtual hugs. Say it’s a stuffed sloth with actuators inside. You can hug yours and have it send a hug to mine, and it can awkwardly pat my back.
I’d be one of the first customers, because I’m a FREE HUGS person.
Last week I was on a group video call with one of my Free Hugs friends. I saw her face, I heard her voice, and I could feel the ghost of a memory. She is the best hugger. I told her once, “I just can’t resist you!” She was sharing how hard it’s been to be isolated at home, since she lives alone, and I would have done anything to reach through the screen and hug her from 2000 miles away.
Sometimes I just sit and think of all my friends and what they are like as huggers, and I remember the last time we gave each other a big squeeze. Sometimes it’s been years and years, but I still remember.
I remember you.
We’ll get it back. One day, we’ll be able to mix and mingle freely again. I’ve been thinking of that day, of the first weeks after we’re free to touch each other socially, of the cries of joy that will rise up as friends run to each other and lift each other off their feet.
I’ve missed you so much!
I hope we carry this with us, this longing for social contact. I hope we always remember how much we need each other. I hope we can keep reminding ourselves, even as the current moment makes us testy and irritable... I hope we can remind ourselves to be kind and caring, to hug it out if we’re lucky enough to have someone TO hug.
C’mere, you. Aww.
Empty shelves two weeks in. Our grocery situation here in Southern California is gradually improving, but there are still large blank sections in even the best-stocked stores. If your situation is like ours, you’ve already been putting together some pretty ad hoc meals. For those who have never experienced food insecurity before, this is probably stressful, until you learn to accept it and get creative.
I’ve been here before, and this is my advice. Eat the weird stuff first.
My husband and I ventured out on a supply run this weekend. We went to a grocery store about a quarter mile from our apartment. There was plenty of produce... but almost nothing else. It basically had: some dog food, wine, honey, maple syrup, one can of pumpkin, Maine lobster juice, and a single bottle of raspberry pomegranate açaí cultured goat milk kefir.
They did have disinfectant wipes when you walked in, though!
What struck me about that bottle of kefir was that someone had obviously bought the rest of the bottles off the shelf at $8 each.
I’m a weird-groceries person, which I think the popular name for that is “foodie.” I’ve always enjoyed trying new things. In fact this is part of how I hooked my husband. He’s from a semi-rural area and his town had no fast food, much less anything more exotic than spaghetti. I took him to a Nepalese restaurant, introduced him to Vietnamese cuisine, and by the time I got him into an Ethiopian place the ring was on my hand. I feel very fortunate that we are both intrigued by novelty, especially now.
That’s how we’re framing this. It’s a grand culinary experiment and the prize is: dinner.
There are no picky eaters in my family. It’s a cultural thing for us. I can share a few of our family guidelines, if you’re not always getting buy-in with what’s available that night.
If we didn’t like something, we would tell each other, “Just wash it down.” Usually with milk.
“How do you know you don’t like it until you try it? It might be your new favorite.”
“Three more bites.”
All of these ideas are helpful for the hungry backpacker. Food discipline is fundamental for any expedition. If you eat everything in your pack, guess what. You’d better be good at foraging and hope that everything you recognize is currently in season or you’re going to wind up like that guy in Into the Wild. Start with portion control or you simply can’t go as far or have as much fun.
One time our car broke down on the way to camp. We had been planning to stop at the little general store in town before the turnoff. All we had was whatever was in the bottom of my dad’s pack. Because my dad is a genius at improvising and because we had been trained to eat whatever was on offer, we did okay. Trout for dinner and... instant-mashed-potato/whole wheat pancakes with trail mix for breakfast. Delicious? Infamously no. Enough to fill our bellies until we got home? Yup.
This is a wacky time to be hunting for provisions, when it’s easier to find expensive luxury goods like swordfish, oysters, chocolate, kale chips, and organic raspberries than it is to find beans, rice, or tortillas. At least for now. It’s almost precisely the opposite of what everyone had during WWII rationing.
This is why I say, eat the weird stuff first. Whatever you have that’s been hanging around in your fridge, freezer, and cabinets since... since when exactly? Certainly anything you know you did not buy in 2020 should go first.
I work with hoarders, and almost every single one of my people is a food hoarder. Some of them do it by accident, such as the households that have a full wet bar even though none of them drink alcohol, or the ones who keep finding ketchup packets mixed in with their mail. There will be things like jars of gifted jam, cake mix for a potential special occasion, or other holiday foods like a single can of cranberry sauce.
My friends who cook play a home version of Iron Chef. Pretend it’s that.
The idea is to take something like that can of cranberry sauce, and think of ways to use it, then build around it. Divergent thinking, brainstorming. Creativity. Gamification. Because the alternative is to eat through all the default stuff and then find yourself with a bunch of random ingredients that, try as one might, can’t be fitted into an appetizing meal.
I have a game that I call Freezer Surprise. It’s a little inside joke amongst our closest friends. Normally I like to go by the book and follow recipes meticulously, because that’s how I learn new cuisines. The first time I ever had risotto was after making it from a cookbook with no photos. When I do Freezer Surprise, I’m improvising with whatever I happen to have on hand. One night I made this absolutely insane pot pie with some leftover roasted vegetables, homemade vegan sausage crumbles, and a dab of gravy that had been in the freezer since Thanksgiving. It was outrageously good... and I have no idea how to ever repeat it.
Freezer Surprise is a great game for confident cooks, but probably not for the beginner. When I started learning to cook, I could ruin literally anything, from instant macaroni to frozen pizza. I even made an inedible peach pie.
Fortunately, one thing that we do have in lavish abundance is advice. We can look up hundreds of millions of recipes on the internet, and we can even use recipe generators based on whatever specific ingredients we type in. We can ask our friends, What would you make with this? We can let our mealtimes bring us together. We can even turn on our cameras and cook and dine together. Kinda.
What I gained from my experience with long-term food insecurity was an immense, endless gratitude for basic weekday dinners. I have the ability to eat anything without complaint. I know how to make dozens of variations of inexpensive meals. I’m a frugal shopper, alway have been. I never thought I’d need those skills again. Turns out it’s like eating a bicycle; you never forget how.
What do you have on hand right now, and what do you wish you had? It’s time to take inventory and learn how to repurpose stuff and get creative.
One of the reasons that people go out on panic buying sprees is that they don’t have a solid grasp on what they need or how long their supplies will last. We’ve already seen instances where people went to Costco to buy up everything they could see… then changed their minds, tried to return it, and got sent away. This can be a real problem for people who spend all their liquid cash and still fail to buy things that they would have actually used.
Learning basic inventory standards and practices can help with this.
My first inventory job was at a 7-Eleven. I was assigned the cereal aisle, because there was a big markup on that product category and not much turnover. Once a week I would go down one side and up the other with a clipboard in my hand, tallying how many of each item were in stock. Then I would make an executive decision on what to replace and what not to. If something like Cool Ranch Froot Loops sat on the shelf for eight months, maybe we didn’t need any more.
The basic concepts that I learned, over the two months I spent on that job, could be mastered by any ambitious 8-year-old:
Shelf by category. Put all the matching stuff together. All the beverages go in one section, then divide by alcohol vs. non-alcoholic, then by brand, then by flavor, etc.
Face outward. A big part of our job was to continually move products to the front edge of the shelf and adjust them so that the labels lined up.
Standard Rotation. Put the oldest stuff in the front and use it up first.
Another thing we did all day, every day, was to wipe down the counters. People were constantly spilling everything from nacho cheese to pickle relish to coffee and malt liquor. This is where many of us develop the keen eye for splotches and smears.
When I went on to work with people who live in squalor, it amazed me how quickly everything can turn to chaos without those few constant daily habits. My people don’t generally have daily tidying habits, partly because they don’t see things in categories. This is why they may not notice that they have 55 cans of green beans in the cupboard, five pounds of black bananas on the dining table, but nothing to make for dinner.
Some of my people have a lot of everything. Others have a lot of certain types of things, but none of other categories. As an example, one person might have cases upon cases of canned foods, soda, laundry detergent, etc. stacked up in the garage due to compulsive accumulation. Another might have a lot of books or craft supplies, but very few clothes or groceries, because they are deeply interested in a hobby but absent-minded about self-care. Some people are just low in situational awareness, and their surroundings tend to blur in their mind, so that they don’t really notice what’s around them. That’s called ‘clutter blindness.’
Taking inventory, or trying to do a little bit, is a great way to start to pick up these skills of sorting things into categories.
We can skip entire categories of stuff right now, as we take inventory, because we’re really focused on just a few things:
When we take inventory of the food, we want to start with the stuff that goes bad quickly. Bananas and avocados are top on that list, and canned foods are last.
Start with what is out on counters, the dining table, the top of the fridge, and anywhere else in the house where someone might be storing food. Throw away anything that is too scary to eat, so that any mold or insects don’t spread to the fresh food.
Next, look in the fridge. It’s a good idea to throw away anything that is spoiled in there, too, partly so it doesn’t affect any more of your groceries and partly to make space when you need it.
If the freezer needs to be defrosted, this would be a good time to do that.
There might be stuff in your supplies that was put there by someone else, like a guest or former roommate, and you know you are not going to use it. Throw it away or, if it’s still edible and sealed, pass it on to someone else.
You might have stuff that you bought and didn’t like. Get rid of that, too. Don’t feel guilty. Space is at a premium now and you don’t have to apologize for prioritizing.
Usually there will be containers that only have a tiny amount of something, like a teaspoon of jam. Focus on using up these foods first, so you can get rid of the containers and make room for fresh food. There may also be several open containers of the same thing, like juice or mustard. Check the expiration dates, throw out any that are suspicious, and then use them up one at a time.
After taking inventory of the food we have on hand, we check our supplies of any medications, including prescriptions, pain relievers, ointments, saline solution, or anything else we might need in the next couple of months. We also want to take care to throw out expired medication, because it can undergo chemical changes over time that make it ineffective or dangerous.
Then we check our inventory of soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, and anything else we need to feel clean. This is the time to look at all those shampoo bottles with only a quarter cup left. Shampoo that nobody likes is still perfectly good for washing hands or cleaning other things, like a muddy bike.
The reason we take inventory is so that we can delay shopping trips, save money, and take note of stuff that nobody in the household will use. We focus on buying only what we need and like, and then using it while it is still fresh.
If we’re confident that we have enough food, soap, and other essentials, we can then focus on taking inventory of other things, like books and hobby supplies, reminding ourselves to spend at least a little time relaxing.
For those of us who have ever been flat broke, busted, or dirt poor, now is our time! We get to turn all that old trauma and heartache into helpful information for our communities! Watch this space, because I’m going to use my self-isolation time over the next few weeks to share everything I know about turning nothing into something.
Let’s start with alternative sources of acquiring work, creating job opportunities, and solving problems without money.
First, there are thousands of fresh new job opportunities right now. Someone is going to have to build all those ventilators! Everyone I know in construction, engineering, and tech has more work on their hands than they can handle.
Some businesses are offering loyalty programs. Our gym is offering special-access workshops for “after this is over.” Other businesses are selling gift certificates. There are adjacent opportunities here; for instance, if I worked in a salon I would offer consulting for all my clients who are now on camera all day.
For some of us, the problem is one that I refer to as the Fish Cannery. An old friend of mine and her boyfriend used to work in an Alaskan fish cannery for a few months every year. They would get tons of overtime and work seven days a week. The bad news was, they couldn’t shower or wash their clothes most days, and they went to bed with rank hair every night. The good news was, room and board were included, there was nowhere to go and nothing to buy, so they just racked up money. Then the boyfriend would live on the beach in Mexico for six months and surf all day.
Those of us currently doing Fish Cannery are working mega overtime. We have money but no supplies and no free time to do much of anything else. Like fix things.
Keep this in mind if anyone or everyone in your household is out of work.
Crisis has a cream pie in each hand, one to feed you and one to grind into your face. The trick in times of scarcity is to take the pie in the face and scrape a little into a jar to save for later.
If I were out of work right now, I would sit down with a pad of paper and a pencil, and I would do two things.
Right now, we’re adding the constraint that this chore should not involve physical contact with another person.
One of the worst things about scarcity mindset is that it tends to convince us that we’re worthless, helpless, and hopeless. THAT IS A LIE. If you’re an able-bodied person right now, you’re better off than anyone in a ventilator, so quit the pity party and start ideating.
I’m going to do this ideation for you, right here, right now! I’m dividing the list into digital and physical, as in, things you can do on a phone or computer vs. things you would do with, like, tools.
You and client can wave at each other through the window, they leave the job outside, you do the work and they Venmo you. Or leave you trade items like TP, groceries, or whatever you have arranged.
Fix bicycles. Or small engine repair, like sewing machines, if you know how.
Home repair. I think it would be legit to do something like unclog a drain, if the family shut the door and stayed isolated in a room until you left.
Roto-tilling and putting in a Victory Garden. Also maintaining it. Most people who have a big yard don’t actually know how to grow vegetables. So they’re stuck on a three-hour conference call safe indoors, and you’re growing food for the neighborhood, safe outdoors.
Teaching. If you have specialized skills in anything from IT to canning, someone may be willing to pay you, or trade you, to get online with them and share your knowledge. Sure, they can watch videos online, but they probably already tried that before they called you.
Consulting. For example, what do businesses need in order to go paperless? I know for an absolute fact that some people are still being forced to commute into their offices because management has no clue how to do business virtually. PEOPLE ARE GOING TO DIE because of reluctance to learn these skills.
Entertainment. We have the entire internet to entertain us, and people are already climbing the walls with boredom. Offer something live and unpredictable, especially if it’s child-focused and educational.
These are just a few ideas. I certainly hope that it will be easy to add all the glaringly obvious opportunities I’ve missed.
Now I’m going to do a little futurism and offer some forecasts.
This thing isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. H1N1 lasted for a year back in 1918. We are currently just beginning a process of incredible transition. The world of 2023 is going to look very different than it does today. We’re going to need all hands on deck to make it happen.
I think most entertainment will become either audio-only, animated, AR/VR, or gaming because it will be a while before sports or Hollywood are doing anything in person. I think people will quickly adapt to remote personal training, education, and commerce. I think there will be more opportunities than ever to make and package food, manufacture products that can’t be shipped overseas, and make deliveries. Space, robotics, drones, medical equipment, security, and PPE (face masks, gloves, etc) are going to continue to expand. Pent-up demand for clothes, toiletries, and basic housewares will build until we finally get the all-clear. There will be jobs that don’t currently exist and money to be earned.
Do you know someone who has been unemployed since rocks were soft? I’m thinking that even that person will be able to find work soon. Even if it’s you! You can read, cantcha? So why not? We’re in a new world now, and I don’t think even a criminal background, lack of credentials, or being non-neurotypical is going to be as much of an obstacle.
One thing that poor people and wealthy people have in common is that they both think in terms of “multiple streams of income.” The only people who rely on one job or one salary are middle-class people. It’s time to learn new ways of thinking and new skills. We all need to work together to dream a new world into existence, and we’d better start acting fast.
As I was planning my wedding, I asked the readers of my old book blog what would be their pick for the absolute worst book to read on one’s honeymoon. I got a lot of darkly humorous responses. I took the advice not to pack them with my trousseau, but out of curiosity I did read a few later. I’d have to say the winner was Revolutionary Road. A close second was The Shining, and wouldn’t that top the list of books not to read during quarantine?
In a similar spirit, I offer here a sampling of Books Not to Read Right Now. They are all great and well deserving of a read, but let’s just maybe save them for a brighter day, shall we?
The Stand. The most light-hearted of these selections, this book might be worth reading, as many chapters are quite practical. Let’s also be glad we aren’t dealing with Captain Tripps.
The Siege. ...of Leningrad. Only read this if your pantry and freezer are full and you’ve just eaten an extra-large stuffed crust pizza.
Room. A young mom entertains a small child in a single room using only the craft supplies she has on hand.
The Hot Zone. If you really want to understand the concept of contagion or zoonotic disease, here ya go. From today’s perspective, it has a somewhat happy ending, which my roommates and I did not know when we were trading this book back and forth in 1994.
Rats, Lice, and History. Another nonfiction book that wants to scare us with something (bubonic plague) that was much more contagious and a much bigger threat in its time than it is now.
The Coming Plague. If you’re disgruntled about top-level responses to COVID-19, have I got a little something for you. Publication date: 1994
The book that caught my attention was called Rats, Lice, and History. It sat on the shelf at eye level where I used to sit and study in the public library. I thought the title was hilarious. After a few years, it occurred to me that I could check it out and read it. To my surprise, it was not a dense scholarly tome but rather an engaging piece of darkly comic commercial nonfiction.
The premise: Epidemiology has a huge impact on history and human culture.
By that we mean the spread of contagious diseases. You know, like now.
I’ve been getting worried notes from friends and I thought I might as well share my perspective as an historian with a long-standing fascination with epidemics. It’s pretty bleak, I won’t lie, but humanity has bounced back from mass plagues many times.
Justinian plague - and now we have the internet
Black Death - and now we have, well, now we have streptomycin
Spanish Flu (actually from Kansas) 1918 - and now we have a Mars rover
Did you know that leprosy and bubonic plague are endemic? These contagions were absolutely terrifying in the past, and they are still here as pathogens, so what happened?
As usual, a number of things: increased knowledge, better sanitation, better nutrition, antibiotics... and simply the fact that we are descended from the survivors. Two hundred years from now, our progeny probably won’t even know what COVID-19 was. For them it will be weak sauce.
What about today, though?
I’m sorry to say that we have plenty of evidence available from living memory. (‘Living memory’ means that someone is alive right now who can tell you about something from direct personal experience).
At worst, an epidemic, just like a war, leaves a deep and dark stain on history. Every person loses at least one person from their closest circle, and sometimes an entire family can be taken out in days. Burials become a serious logistical problem. Supply chains collapse and it becomes very difficult to find food or any other material goods.
Britain did austerity for eight years after the end of WWII.
In the Nineteenth Century, tuberculosis was responsible for something like 30% of all mortality. (Depending on where and when). It mainly hit people in their youth, 15-44. That doesn’t include all the other contagious diseases like smallpox or measles. For most of human history, chances of a baby living to age 7 were so poor that a lot of cultures didn’t bother naming their kids until they were toddlers.
In many ways, we in the Twenty-First Century are wildly, unfathomably lucky. Not only did we survive infancy, but our lifespan is double what it would have been in the Victorian era. DOUBLE!
Nobody wants to hear perspective on forced gratitude, though, in general and especially not when everyone is in grave danger. History doesn’t really matter on the individual level. Your personal risk of dying from something is either zero or 100%.
Now for the interesting news.
Okay, an argument could be made that the Justinian plague plunged Europe into the Dark Ages (500 words, due Friday, cite your sources). Remember, readers of these words are not only literate but benefiting from the existence of the internet. We made it through.
Extra credit question: What made the Dark Ages dark?
There is another argument that the Black Death was what finally ended feudalism.
So many people died that labor became scarce. Survivors could negotiate for legal rights, higher pay, and better working conditions. Aristocrats who didn’t like it could either come to the table or start doing their own scutwork. Serfs up.
Here we are again. Service workers are either being barred from going to work, or required to go in even at mortal risk. We depend on them and we also give them the least rewards, such as access to health care, paid sick time, or financial security in old age.
That’s, ah, probably going to change.
Broad social currents are really only observable in hindsight. We can guess at what future humans will think about our era, if they think about us at all, but we can’t really know unless we’re there to experience it ourselves.
I can say right now, though, that Boccaccio would have recognized the blindingly foolish behavior of everyone who went out to go buckwild the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s what people do. They run amok like a bunch of morons, rioting, fornicating in the streets, getting falling-down drunk, running around naked. The wheels always fall off the party bus.
Again, though... we survive this stuff. Humans are resilient. Culture is too. Stoic philosophy, for instance, has been in constant use for millennia. (It’s what works in harsh times).
What am I expecting to see in my little household?
Ugh, I don’t even want to tell you, but I promised. It’s BS to wait until after the fact to say that you saw something coming. Future predictions are almost always completely wrong, nay, ludicrously wrong. Maybe it’s good luck to put my concerns into print?
Rationing (i.e. one per customer), including food, medical supplies, and other material goods
Total unavailability of certain categories of product
A thriving black market
People waiting in line all day for something like a single loaf of bread
Economic, um... opportunities? 😬
On the other hand, I also expect to see incredible resilience and feats of courage. Times of crisis are often the making of the greatest among us. There’s a strong correlation, for instance, between major achievement and people who lost a parent in childhood. Crisis deals out trauma with one hand and builds strong families and leaders with the other. Grit, resilience, and thrift could be ours.
Can’t trade them in for bread or toilet paper, but hey.
The other good news is that it looks like surviving childhood illness and/or famine may actually contribute to greater longevity. There are a record number of centenarians alive today, and they all survived some rough decades, including the Great Depression of the 1930s.
It could be that a month from now, we’re all laughing off what was a very scary first quarter of 2020. Or, it could be that this is just the beginning of a major watershed, after which everything will be totally transformed. We are in the middle of the Place of Uncertainty. Those who do not understand history will be condemned to repeat it. When we are prepared to learn our lessons, though, we can move forward quite rapidly.
The last few days have felt like 87 years, am I right? I’ve been doing what I usually do when I’m in the Place of Uncertainty, which is to gather as much information as I can. What I’m picking up right now is chilling me to my very bones. There is misinformation and highly dubious behavior everywhere right now.
What do we do about it?
Last week I found myself in the position of thought leader. We were having an emergency meeting, and I discovered, to my astonishment, that I was the best-informed person on the call. How does this even happen when nobody really knows anything?
I scrolled through my blog, trying to remember which day I posted that “We Prepped for Coronavirus.” (March 3) We... actually bought our supplies at the end of February?? Has it been that long already? It seemed simple and obvious for anyone who reads the news to be aware that the trend line wasn’t going in the right direction. Time to mitigate risk.
“Up and to the right, up and to the right” for INVESTMENTS, not epidemiology
As I started hearing from more of my friends and colleagues, and reading more reports on Nextdoor, and even scrolling through Facebook (which I haven’t done in several years), I started to realize that what is standard operating procedure in my household is actually very fringe behavior for our culture.
Start with deep background, supplement with updates from trusted sources and subject matter experts, apply critical thinking skills, and run scenarios with favored sounding boards.
Isn’t that how other people react to current events?
I’m writing about the problem of fake virus news in this way because a bulleted list of conspiracy theories and actual facts NEVER WORKS. That kind of thing palpably does not work on the people who need it. I’m writing for the benefit of my fellow thought leaders, because the designated “smart person” in your circle of friends is probably you, yes, YOU, the one who is reading this.
You have to look them right in the eye and talk them through their pseudoscience, piece by piece. Praxis. One at a time, patiently and with all the lovingkindness you would show to anyone you care about, if you knew they had only months to live.
I live in a bubble, not just of privilege but of highly educated and brilliant people. A bunch of people in my social group have PhDs and a couple of my dearest friends are actual professors in STEM fields. The smart people are staying home, partly because their employers sent them and mostly because they know higher-level math. They look at the data and nod and trust the experts.
Ah, but I also know people with advanced degrees who are *not* getting with the program.
I was talking one such friend who was trying to convince me that we have nothing to worry about, because there were “only about 320 cases” in “all of California! The entire state!”
All the blood drained from my face. The last I heard, it was... six.
I’ve heard several people repeat the idea that “it will go away when the weather gets better” because “warm temperatures kill it” when they are missing the obvious, which is that the inside of a person is almost always significantly higher than that.
Only about a dozen people in my acquaintance seem to understand the concept of social distancing, or how viruses spread. “For those of us who need a break from ‘social distancing...’”
I love you, and you know that’s not how that works, right?
Do you understand that you could be contagious for two weeks before you even felt any symptoms? And that’s why we have community spread?
PRETEND YOU HAVE CHICKEN POX
People have been panic-buying at the grocery store in our neighborhood. Store hours have been cut back. People are showing up at 5:45 AM every morning and standing in line for over an hour so they can stream in and buy toilet paper. Which is fine, but... People are bringing their entire families into the store and cramming themselves into these tight lines. Panicking their way into the exact opposite of what they should be doing. Can’t one parent go and have everyone self-isolate at home? Or at least wait in the car?
The way people are reacting is like they are preparing for a cross between a hurricane, a terrorist attack, and... werewolves.
Quick, buy bottled water before the storm hits land... NO
We have to keep shopping and going out or the microbes will win... NO
We have to stay together, hold my hand, we’re going in... NO
Y’all been watching the wrong horror movies
It breaks my heart to know how many families have already been impacted by this thing, and how it’s spreading farther because so few people are as educated about basic public health concepts as they are about, say, helping a dog that has been left locked in a car in hot weather.
We do gradually learn, as a species. It’s fairly rare for people to die in structure fires now, for instance, when it used to be a constant problem in the Victorian era. This is because we have worked very hard on institutional inputs like smoke detectors, fire drills, crash bars, EXIT signs, and fire codes. Same thing with airplane crash fatalities. Little by little, every time a disaster happens, people take notes and start trying to avoid it ever happening again.
At least we have the scientific understanding of germ theory. That was not obvious to past humans, not by any means. The first thing the medievals did during the Black Death was to cull domestic cats, not realizing that the vector was actually... rats and mice. Oops.
The silver lining to this pandemic is that it has everyone talking and taking it seriously. Pop culture is eventually able to absorb new ideas, like “stop the shooter” and “don’t let the terrorist take over the plane” and “don’t leave a dog in a hot car.” We start adjusting to new social norms. We aren’t there yet with basic public health concepts, like how viruses spread, but we’re, um, going to learn it now. On the fast track.
Please won’t you help me by using your social capital with your friends and family, and making sure they understand what is going on?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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