Pandemic Quarterly Report

I’ve had this monster of a blog post queued up on my site for a while, glaring at me from my Drafts folder. If you’re reading this the day I posted it, it’s March 12th: the one-year anniversary of Shit Getting Real! You, citizen of the world, know what I mean.

If you live in Minnesota, your own “wait, we’re really in a pandemic” bellwether moment probably occurred pretty close to mine, though obviously if you live in China or New York or Italy, your epiphany that things were about to actually change was much earlier. My realization possibly came later than most Midwesterners’; I kept holding out hope that somehow we here in flyover terrain were going to dodge it. There were a lot of factors I hadn’t taken into account – the transmissibility, the incompetence of the federal government – but still I find I’m somewhat unable to forgive myself for not seeing any of this coming.

Obviously, there were omens. Minneapolis started seeming eerie in early March, though nobody was yet hoarding toilet paper. The night of the 10th, I went to my friend Anya DeNiro’s reading at the Strike Theater; I remember her delicately disinfecting the mic and wearing full rubber gloves (even if there was still a vocal, unmasked crowd in attendance). Afterward, we went to the bar where Miles worked as a DJ and sound guy for four years. No one was there, but it wasn’t that unusual for a Tuesday. We squeezed into a booth, drank martinis, and talked about writing, trying to convince ourselves that everything was still normal.

(That would be the last time I ever went to LUSH, which I’d visited at least twice monthly for five years: it shut down forever in June. Weird to think of that cavernous dance floor, newly renovated, now just sitting there – all those high leather booths we complained about now covered in dust.)

On Thursday the 12th, I went to meet with students at the tutoring center. All week we’d been Lysoling the tabletops; the room reeked of bleach, but the kids kept showing up, because no matter what happened, they’d still probably have to take the ACT.

Midway through the five hours I was there, my boss sent an email. I remember he worded it in an admirably relaxed manner, but the subtext was: SHUT IT DOWN. SHUT IT ALL DOWN.

So there it was, The Moment.

You had one too, probably — a wild hour in which you grabbed what you needed and shut the door behind you for the last time. Unless, of course, you’re an essential worker who’s been serving people this whole year long, you – like me – had a day in which you drove away, telling yourself that surely sooner or later all of this would be figured out. Two weeks, tops, I said in my emails to students. But til then, we’ll be on Zoom. It’s easy to use if you’re not familiar with the platform!

(I sure wasn’t. My only Zoom prior to March 13th had been a first round of interviews for an academic job posting; I remember sitting and watching my pasted-on smile in the mirrored window, the eyes above it saying I do not like this, this is not at all like being in the same room.)

And then, all at once, I was home. Forever.

I started to realize that I had a real phobia of nights in. Miles and I usually spent ours bopping from readings to events to parties at friends’ houses. Evenings spent home on the couch: what was even the point? What was I doing, just waiting for sleep and then morning?? Like an idiot???

“Three days in, the cats have won,” I posted on Instagram on the 15th, over a picture of Ed and Bernard sitting on Miles’s back as he sprawled facedown on the bed. The subtext: here we are in the formless void, the miasma of our own human dust. 72 hours in.

But twelve months later, the pandemic has not yet killed us (or our forthcoming marriage). We’ve been lucky; we believe we had the virus early on, back in February, when it was circling but no one really knew that it’d hit certain people in Minnesota yet. I was knocked out for twelve days; Miles lost his sense of smell and taste. Since we were idiots, we ended up giving it to many of our friends and family at a housewarming party, but all of them overcame it and (as of yet) no one who was there has come down with it since. Again, we were lucky. Our worst enemy has been boredom.

I’ve come to realize, though, that the pandemic for us has definitely had its phases. Probably yours has too.

Gentle reader, please allow me to narrativize. All dates are approximate, but the experiences themselves sure aren’t.

  1. Livestreams, Night Rollerskating and Tiger King: 3/12 – 5/27

When I feel nostalgia for anything that happened in 2020, this period is it. We were at home and leery of everything and wearing gloves but not masks, and yes, when we went to the store, all the toilet paper shelves were empty. And yes, it was tremendously scary to realize that there was no end in sight. And yes, the worst federal administration in history was not only not helping, but denying that it was even a thing.

But Tiger King was on Netflix, and everyone had opinions!

And Miles, god bless him, had figured out how to DJ from home. He immediately set up a weekly livestream and (of course) figured out how to rope in other lost musicians. “Do you want to do a reading?” he asked, and I was like, dude, who wants to hear literary fiction? Especially in a pandemic? But I did try, intoning a chapter from my book into the mic in our well-lighted Northeast living room.

“Cool!” he said. “Do it again next week!”

Well, I had time, since most of my students had canceled. In between freaking out about money, I began to wonder if maybe people would appreciate sketch comedy instead of ponderous novel chapters. Our friend Madi, who, being a comedian, could no longer perform in person and was similarly at odds, agreed to help. Elizabeth Ghandour, a musician without an audience, also wanted in.

Jessie’s Dollhouse was born.

It went from a half hour of loosely-collected material (I read short stories, Madi read a speech piece they had written in high school, we chatted live onscreen for a while) to – by the end of May – a full two-hour parody of A Prairie Home Companion with a segment called The News from My Fucking Living Room. We set Madi up with a table and random kitchen implements to create sound effects and / or teach us how to walk like animals. Elizabeth provided musical accompaniment. I listened to a lot of recordings of Garrison Keillor and inhabited my alternate-universe self, Jessica Feeler, a winsome host who kept alluding to the fact that she didn’t grope people, not anymore.

Afterward – because they’d re-blacktopped the road outside our house and we still had Kat’s blue suede rollerskates, which I’d borrowed for an elementary-school play I’d helped a group of kids write but never ended up performing – we took turns learning to twirl circles in the street.

2. Police Murder, Civil Unrest, and Hamilton: 5/28 – 7/30 (ish)

“They killed someone else, and it’s bad,” Miles said.

He’d woken up earlier than me, and he’d watched the full nine minutes of the video of Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck. (To this day, I haven’t; Miles is basically my Werner Herzog listening to that tape of Grizzly Man getting eaten.) He was pale, thinking of his dad, who’d been badly hurt by police in California in 2018; I was thinking of Philando Castile, murdered by Jeronimo Janez in front of his girlfriend and her kid but never receiving justice. Nine minutes, everyone around them screaming at Chauvin to get off, while Floyd died.

“Hold on,” we said, looking at the map on the Star Tribune article. “Isn’t that right by Madi?”

It sure was: Cup Foods, the site of the killing, was a block and a half away from their house. We met them and Eric in the front yard; masked, we twitched nervously as a growing crowd walked past. They had a nice collection of medical supplies and bottled water out already. We spray-painted our signs and went to Cup, not up the street where people were, but up the alley — it was odd, too odd, to be in such a large group. How much we’d already changed after three months inside.

We clustered by a fence and watched the speakers, joined the chants. The crowd began to move, heading away from Cup Foods and east – hundreds if not thousands of people, families with kids in strollers, people our age, people in their seventies, everyone’s faces grim and horrified. I realized at once that I had no idea where Madi was, and then suddenly did – they were way up on the roof across from Cup Foods, a gangly figure tying a sign to the top of the building and leaning fearlessly over its edge to take photographs.

Miles and I left when the sun started to set and the rain started to fall. Madi and Eric stayed, and they’ve been there for months now. Eric’s bought a house in the autonomous zone; Madi (among everything else they do) helps run the community meetings, and persuaded me to come be a note-taker at several of them. I wish I’d gone to more. Every time I went last summer, leaving my pandemic home-hole and tying on my mask and walking into George Floyd Square past its ever-changing murals and deposits of flower-condolences from all around the world and barbecue smoke and chalked list of names, Phil’s front and center, it was a new experience.

Northeast, our home, was largely untouched by the unrest, though one night we drove with our friend Keke through the neighborhood and definitely saw people mid-loot of the gas station. It wasn’t so for other people – we messaged our group chat via video one night, and Andrew checked in from his upper-floor apartment above the Midtown Global Market. He panned around; the ground below both of his windows was full of fire, like he was Saruman and the Ents had come to destroy Isengard. “Come stay with us!” we cried, and he was like, dude, how do you propose I get there, exactly? Take an Uber?

How strange it was, though, to feel our dull little state at the center of a global movement. On nights we were at home, we watched Hamilton, over and over. It felt familiar, all these people discussing fervently how to create a new and better world. “I want to be in the room where it happens,” Michelle and I sang to each other, biking home through an abandoned city from boarding up our friends’ art gallery, the sky above us blue, clear and bright, the air fragrant with smoke and pollen.

3. The Bad Place: summer-fall

I’ve written about this before; I won’t do it again. I don’t know how to say it right. I don’t know if there is a right way to say – hey, I was in this tragedy that wasn’t about me, but which has affected me nonetheless. I want to do it without making it about me, but I don’t know if there is a way.

But in late August, right as we were packing up our things to move from Minneapolis to Miles’s family farm (our landlords had sold our house, again, and we were tired of it, and I worked from home, and Miles can make art anywhere, and so we figured why not go live somewhere that wouldn’t kick us out for a while), I went to meet my brother at the park, and instead wound up watching a child drown in the river. We tried to help. We failed. We were there for the incident and the aftermath, but we got to walk away.

I realized I’d spent the year lying to children.

I’d told my students that coronavirus? It’d blow over like Ebola. I’d said to the elementary-schoolers – of course we will put on your play! I’d said to high-schoolers: of course your test will happen, of course it won’t be canceled, of course it matters what you get on the ACT amidst all this. And I told the drowned boy’s sister, wailing on the bank, that he would be saved, when in reality he was leaving her forever.

That day on the bank of the river, I was weirdly calm and rational, though not rational enough to reach him with a branch.

But all summer? In patches? I’d been panicking.

The anxiety attacks I was experiencing are the number one reason I think we did actually have the virus before it was cool: a new anxiety disorder is a known consequence, a Long Covid symptom. I’d never felt anything like them. When they hit, the world zoomed and my hands went far away. My heart rattled, my breath grew strange; I lost all color and started to sweat. I’d think, they won’t happen, not today, and then they would. I’d feel like I was going to explode and pass out, but never did.

They might have been a symptom of a disease, but they were also a pretty logical reaction to everything happening in the world – everything I’d told myself I was making it through just fine. I was overworking myself, frantic with the impulse to hoard cash in case society collapsed. I was feeling like I wasn’t doing enough, not about any of the horrible things.

And then came that day at the river when I really did not quite do enough, and that was it: we got out of town, our cars packed tight with as much as we could fit, the cats mewling in the piles around me.

As we left Northeast for the last time, I turned a corner and a giant pile of cat food cans collapsed all over my lap, and I pulled over around the corner from our former house and just – didn’t panic, not quite, but laughed, laughed in this hysterical way I’d also never heard come out of myself before, either.

4. Ed’s Place, Pet Hoarding, and Groundhog Day: 9/5 – now

Here on the farm, I’ve written a lot: a whole novel by hand (it’s called Dryad and I like it quite a bit), multiple essays, and some short stories, even. One of them is called “The Forever Present” – it features a woman and her husband who have absconded to a farm in the middle of a formless void. They spend their evenings with their four cats, murdering Time, who is personified as a whiny and deeply annoying man. They are both aware of their luck and, also, not.

I am surprised to find that I have become comfortable – or more so – with boredom. Every morning is the same: I wake (to the whining of our dog or the circular meows of our cats), I let them out, I make coffee, and then I go upstairs to one of my two offices to do morning pages. Sometimes the dog joins, sitting at my feet in a rare restive state. I make a list. I work on the novel or go grocery shopping at the Marshall Aldi (Miles and I can now be in and out and $120 poorer in around 30 minutes). Then I meet with kids over Zoom, coaching them through their college essays or their standardized test prep, because yes, a year into pandemic, they still have to do all of that.

At night, we don’t always watch TV – a change from last March, when it was all we did. We have dinner; I sit on the couch that all the pets covet, swaddled in a half-peaceable nest of them, reading thrillers on my Kindle app. We video-chat friends. And then we go to bed, and we do it all over again.

There are some minor variations. Miles has built us a small bar out of a former corncrib. We call it Ed’s Place, after the most dominant cat, who does not enjoy being there but runs it nonetheless. It has a woodstove and a VCR. Sometimes friends from the city get tested and come out and occupy it with us on the weekends; Elizabeth and Christine and I did our first livestream from it a few weeks ago, and I was amazed, watching the recording, to see how cozy it all looked, a little NPR tiny desk in our backyard. Last night, we trained the dog to fetch wood from the pile outside and drop it by the fire. It’s pretty good in there.

I have developed a lot of coping mechanisms; I’ve got time. Some of them aren’t healthy – the Reddit scrolling, the wine. Others, however, are: I have a yoga room, now, and I take Vitamin D and GABA, and I dose myself with CBD, and I am relieved to find that the panic attacks aren’t in me anymore. When I feel the edge of one, I am now able to breathe through it and remind myself that I’ve gotten through this before and can do it again.

It’s a good now, this stream of nows. I know I’ll long for it, maybe, in the future – now that the vaccine is coming and society might not collapse the way I thought it would last year.

We’re surprised to find that we may decide to stay here. It’s not what we had in the city, that string of parties and events; it’s quieter, more controlled, and a little bit more the grown-up version of us.

If the virus had never developed, obviously life would be better: many more people would be alive, and the rest of us would not have had this year of ever-present stress, the consequences of which are yet to be determined. But we personally would never have come here; we’d never have met the two new cats, Kelly and Zeke, who wandered up after harvest, and we wouldn’t have Campion the husky puppy, and we wouldn’t know how much we were quite capable of handling, in that we are alive and have found a measure of happiness amidst it all.

We’re getting married in September, come what may. We’re making plans for the farmland, tentative ones – we’ve seen how our friends from the city like being here, how Madi and Eric, for instance, leave the square and sit for an afternoon on the couch, enjoying the quiet. I’ve bought a dumb Peloton-lite bike, and it turns out cardio is very good for me, which is not something I ever knew before.

In this chrysalis of a year, we’ve been changing even as we’ve stayed home, and we’re pleasantly surprised that we rather like what we’ve become.

I hope that if you’ve read this far, you too will come out okay. I miss you all, but we’ll be back.

Ba da da da da, da da da da dayyyayaya da da dah da dah dah daaaaaaaaaaaa

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