In a Basement During a Pandemic
Eleven days ago, they suspended the NBA season.
It was a gun shot; as abrupt as pulling a plug from the wall. Lights out, the games are done, suspended for the near future. In the same way the initial snare hit on “Like a Rolling Stone” felt like the rearrangement of an entire generation’s music, one simple sentence — “The NBA Season is Suspended” — threw the entire concept of spectator-driven professional sports into question.
- “End of the World” — Worriers
- “4 American Dollars” — U.S. Girls
- “Lift” — Katie Gately
- “Fried Neck Bones and Some Home Fries” — Dan the Automator
- “Come See Me Live” — Mato Wayuhi
- ”Insinuation” – Folk Implosion
- “The Greatest Own in Legal History” — Stephen Malkmus
- “Life in Vain” — Built to Spill
- “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” — X
- “Libra” — Aoife Nessa Frances
- “On the Smooth Tip” — Sweet Tee
- “Shadows On the Sun” — Brother Ali
- “(Drawing) Rings Around the World” — Super Furry Animals
- “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” — Billy Bragg & Wilco (w/ Natalie Merchant)
- “Stop and Think” — The Trammps
On NBA Twitter, it arrived with the kind of shock we’d seen just two months earlier, when we found out Kobe Bryant had died. The same slow-trickle-turned-sudden-onslaught, the same heart pounding, the same grief. There was shock, and a lot of hand-wringing, and a lot of blame.
All I felt was a sudden drop in my stomach. Because at that point, I wasn’t thinking about the NBA anymore. I had no doubts that this wasn’t a suspension. This was a cancellation. And it’s because shit was going to get a lot worse.
For me, it was the day everything felt real; it was the day that I understood the amount of trouble we might be in.
My mind tends to over-exaggerate crises; while I’m largely trusting with unlocked doors and petty issues, larger scale trauma manifests as apocalypse. Every negative news story is an affront to my safety, and with that comes sweeping anxiety and sickness. I read that toilet paper is gone and I imagine scenes from a dystopian novel. I read that hospitals are at risk and I imagine everyone I love is three months from dying.
For the first few days, I was afraid to hug my kids. My mostly ignored Twitter account became a portal into the horrors of other countries. I read through them all, and then I hit refresh. I see — and am at times buoyed — by the points of optimism, but then I scroll back to the top in time to see the next horror unfold.
My hands are raw from aggressive hand washing — both an effect of increased diligence and a symptom of my aversion to hand lotion. I’ve felt exhausted for two weeks; my eyes red, my nerves shot.
Except that none of this sounds weird anymore. None of this sounds abnormal, because it’s what I see mirrored from the outside. These are scenes from a dystopian novel. People I love are at risk of dying.
For most of us, this is the most serious thing we’ve ever encountered: one part war, one part biological trauma, except this time it’s on our shores. It took me a few days to remember that it wasn’t about my own health — and, to be fair, if one of us in this house has some level of COVID–19 we’re all going to end up with it — but about the health of those at risk, and this helped me feel comfortable in close contact with my family again. I warmed a bit, knowing I was doing my part to keep others at risk.
But that anxiety hasn’t gone away. It’s everywhere. I’ve stopped sleeping the full night through. I wake up with phantom symptoms, with that same uneasy pit in my stomach.
I’m not saying these things out loud because I want sympathy, or for some friend to tell me that “I’m fine, it’s going to be okay.”
I’m saying this because it feels good to say it out loud. The most comforting things I’ve read in the past week are all tied to one thing: understanding that I am behaving naturally. That this is a normal reaction to a pandemic.
That any other way of behaving might be, you know. Kind of weird.
On Thursday, there was a snowstorm. A whiteout.
I was in a stable place, and I was ready to run some socially distant errands before we hunkered down for what might be a longer weekend. I picked up some records, grabbed my chair and some resources from work, and snagged some take out. I figured I wouldn’t be doing much more of it in the coming months.
As it got later, it got harder to see. What had been a little mist had become a full out flurry of slushy snow. I felt more at risk — both because I was out in the world, at a respective distance but still feeling reckless, and because the roads had become more slippery. It was as if a blizzard was trying to admonish me for taking the chance. As if it was sending me back home to shelter in place.
With the exception of family walks, I haven’t gone back out since.
Everyone handles grief and anxiety in different ways. In this particular situation, I find myself vacillating between despair and optimism multiple times per day.
The despair comes when I remind myself of the risk we’re currently butting up against. Not just the risk of sickness — like the risk my parents and grandparents and compromised friends face — but also the risk of economic disaster. The risk of furlough or suspension. The risk of the impending catastrophic failure of our healthcare system. This despair makes my stomach turn, in the same way as when our basement flooded, or when a tree went through our roof during the last tornado. It turns because things are out of my hands. My patience wanes and my anxiety attacks; my life is at the whim of some outside force that I can no longer control.
The optimism comes when I detach. When I look for some gaps in the clouds. Those moments of optimism are more rare, but they’re cleansing. They’re a kind of soap, washing away the lipid layer of despair.
These moments of optimism remind me also to be as patient as I can be. I’ve spoken frankly with my kids. They both know when I’m scared. But I make great pains to show that I’m also happy. That I recognize there’s a togetherness that we don’t usually find. They know that there are people in our city — in every city — fighting for their businesses, and eventually, some will be fighting for their lives.
I remind them that these times are bringing out the worst in some people. And it’s bringing out the best in others.
I didn’t want to write about a pandemic, because everyone’s already done that. Down here in the basement — in the new HOME OFFICE — eleven days into understanding the seriousness of this entire pile of garbage, I’ve now learned more about working from home and social distancing and exponential pandemic growth and the economic ramifications of mass closures to KNOW 110 PERCENT FOR CERTAIN there’s nothing I can add. I know that there’s little y’all can gather from my very special pandemic journey that will help you in the future.
But here, as we’re approaching something close to a monoculture for the first time in decades, as we all push against the same forces and coalesce online to commiserate, I know that none of these things are for public consumption. We aren’t recording Facebook Live videos for our friends; we’re not writing articles about the most affordable standing desks so that we can provide usable information.
We’re doing it for ourselves. We don’t really know what else to do.
I’m going to keep making mixtapes. They’re not going to be themed. They won’t be sad. They won’t be angry or based on the apocalypse. They’re just going to be little chunks of time. An hour that gives me a bit of distraction. The thing I’ve always done. That was normal for a while, and I think it still can be.
Though, if you did get this far and want a bit of a serious personal thought, I can offer this: don’t tell me this is the new normal.
For a while, that was a fun thing to hear — a way way to euphemistically brush off the weirdness of the last week. But now … now I have little patience for the idea of a new normal.
None of this is normal. The level of unpreparedness is definitely not normal, and the logical ineptitude this country has found itself in with regard to providing basic needs is the furthest thing from normal.
So fuck this “new normal.” If you don’t mind, I think I’m going to stay afraid. I’m going to continue recognizing that we broke normal a long time ago, and this isn’t fixing it. And I think that’s okay. It keeps me honest. Keeps me working. Keeps me from feeling like I’m hiding or blowing this all off.
Being afraid is normal. Accepting this pandemic as “something we’ll work through” is not. We’re long past the days of overreaction, and there’s going to be a lot more hurting before there’s any real healing. I will remember this, and I urge you do too. Remember this fear, and remember where it came from. Take action so it doesn’t happen again. And, in the meantime, stay safe. Roll with the punches.
Most importantly, never accept that this is normal.