I was ratcheting up the ‘choosing a school’ project, but then coronavirus hit. A flu-like disease in the same family as SARS emerged in a wet market in Wuhan, China and spread throughout that region. There aren’t vaccines or treatments for it.
China shut down Wuhan’s province, Hubei. But the disease called COVID-19 spread quickly. It’s a worldwide pandemic now. Things are shutting down.
For posterity’s sake I want to describe everyday life now to remember what it was like for us when our social structure met it’s match.
It was spring break last week when I got the email: West Chester University moved all its classes online. Students were told to not come back, to move out of their dorms, to stay home. I’d be teaching my classes online.
My workplace shutting down made feel disturbed. Shelly developed a cough, even more unnerving. She’s fine, but still.
As the week progressed a birthday party we were planning for her was approaching on Friday, March 13th. We agonized over whether to have it. Close friends of ours are also pregnant.
We ultimately decided to keep the party. We wouldn’t let the panic get us. But then restaurants, libraries, whole sports leagues started closing. We heard about flattening the curve. Social distancing. The healthcare system’s capacity.
I sent out an email saying “we’re still on!” No one responded to the group, but texts started coming in. People were nervous. They were going to stay home. About an hour before the part was set to start–and after I’d gone food shopping and was about to cook–we cancelled. We felt ‘better’.
I’d heard from friends that the grocery stories were getting freaky. People lining up. Shelves getting empty. A friend at Trader Joe’s reported on Thursday March 12 that they’d sold $261,000 by the end of day. The previous record for a Thursday was $160,000.
I went to an Arabic supermarket, first because we were making mediterranean food, but second because I wanted to see if it was the same there. It was fine. A few more people than usual, but nothing out of the ordinary. The clerk at the front was laughing with women buying meat for the week.
The line at our local food coop was long, many of the chips were gone (and the bananas looked scarce), but it wasn’t too bad. Our housemates go shopping and don’t report not finding what they need.
On Sunday I opened the fridge and saw an uncharacteristic jar of apple sauce. I said something about it. Kevin was eating lunch in the kitchen and said “I guess I did a bit of panic shopping. I just saw it and bought it. But I never buy apple sauce.”
I admit, when I see the shelf that has our bread and grains getting more empty I get worried. When I cooked house lunch on Friday March 13 I wondered whether I should save a block of tofu, cook two blocks rather than three. I only cooked two and saved the other, just in case.
Social distancing means staying at home. When I got the news campus shut down, I knew I’d be hanging around the house rather than going out. I thought of a passage from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. There’s a British officer in a German prison camp. He insists on shaving every morning, doing exercises, and dressing well. He says it’s imperative to keep up the routines or descend into squalor.
So I make some routines. I’m generally in a better mood when I jog in the morning, so I jog. I shower after I jog. I wash my hair. I make a smoothie of banana, frozen fruit, oats, peanut butter, and water. Then I work on the computer for a few hours. I edit my students’ dissertations (they’re getting ready to defend in a couple weeks–the defenses will be done online now). I’m writing my tenure application. When I finish drafting that, I’ll edit my book on Althusser and education.
But I also binge on the news. Specifically, my anxiety about the pandemic has translated into a fixation on finance capital: stock markets, interest rates, the Federal Reserve, bond markets. I refresh MarketWatch compulsively, watching the numbers go down and up (mostly down). If Occupy Wall Street taught me anything, it was to pay attention to these things, have a theory about what’s happening, and plan interventions accordingly. I read business news to figure out what’s happening and then write short Facebook posts about it.
I only write on Facebook in a crisis. The last time I did it this regularly was when Trump got elected.
But my addiction to news is more extensive. I check several platforms. I check Slack for new thoughts and links by people I organize with I’m in three slack channels: one for Philly DSA, Build DSA, and the Bernie Sanders campaign channel. I check Twitter for takes, articles, updates. (I’ve mostly cultivated a style on twitter for education policy, law, and socialism. It’s been harder to get my head in that game given the crisis.) I check Naked Capitalism for morning links and the 2pm roundup. I watch Democracy Now. I watch Rising. I check Google News. I check Drudge Report. When the markets close in the US I check Reuters international business news to see about foreign trading. I do this as I’m working, as I’m eating, in the evening, when I wake up.
But after I work on the computer for 4-5 hours I make myself stand up and work on a project around the house. This helps me get out of the anxiety of the pandemic. On Saturday March 14, I installed a lattice on the base of the front porch. I cut the lattice to size using a jigsaw, screwed planks into the brick base-columns under our porch, secured the lattice to them, and put a frame on the top, painting it white. On Sunday March 15, I repaired and readied a tiled sign that says our house number and then hung it up. I fixed some broken pieces of the sign, cut excess wood off the edges, painted the remaining edges red, then put a screw into the brick above our mailbox and hung the sign. I have a list of other projects: clean up the backyard, fix the first floor bathroom faucet, sand and paint a wall in the living room, paint spots in our bedroom, tidy up the basement.
After a project, it’s usually time for a snack or dinner. Cooking and cleaning is more vivid as a ritual.
During all this Shelly is writing, grading, reading, or napping. She’s late in the third trimester, which means discomfort. I see what she needs. I bring her seltzer or rub her hands or back or just keep her company. I try to make sure I’m in a good enough mood to make her chuckle, distract her from the discomfort of the whole situation. We’re a good team. I love her, she loves me. She says she’s glad we’re together during all this.
Luckily our house is wonderful. It’s an 1890 victorian with three floors, a porch and a small backyard. We’ve got an affordable mortgage on it. We have old furniture from grandparents, paintings done by family members, ourselves, friends, or that we’ve acquired. We’ve got houseplants near all the big windows. The windows let in a lot of light. There’s old wood. We’ve got a dining room table (another hand me down) and multiple dining room chairs we’ve refurbished. Our housemates are lovely. Our dog Sappho is a calm, funny, absurd companion. Our cat Tibien is also serene, silky, but skittish friend.
Luckily we’re employed. Luckily we have healthcare. Luckily we’re not in huge amounts of debt. Luckily our family and friends are pretty healthy. Luckily none or few of us have been incarcerated, subject to the courts, police, immigration officials. Luckily we face little discrimination. Luckily we have savings and parents with savings. Luckily we have relationships with those parents. Luckily they never assaulted us or abused us. Luckily we have a car we own outright. Luckily there’s a heater and air conditioning in the house. Luckily we can get these things fixed if they break. Luckily we’re not dying deaths of despair, we’re not addicted to anything that’ll destroy us quickly. Luckily we go to therapists. Luckily we hear the birds chirp and the breeze glides over us and it feels nice.
Speaking of which: the weather, oddly, has been beautiful. Yesterday as I was working on the porch, the sun was radiant and warm. The air was cool though, like early spring. Sparrows, squirrels, crows. Our tree is budding its red buds and the breeze loosens them so they fall onto the sidewalk below.
And almost half the neighbors on our block were out, enjoying the weather. One neighbor read in a hammock. Another sat playing cards with their young daughter. Another hacked away at a stump in his backyard. Yet another cleaned up the brush overgrown on the public space near our semi cul-de-sac.
The rhythm of everyone together on the block felt like another epoch. I kept thinking it felt very 19th century: life around the house, less rush to accommodate the division of labor in firms or workplaces. Everyone was dealing with the pandemic nervousness, though: my neighbor’s daughter’s school is closed. We’re working from home. The pandemic is there in the sunlight.
When friends come to visit we shake our elbows at one another like little chicken wings, rather than hug or high five. We sit six feet apart. The beginning of conversations goes to the pandemic: What’ve you seen? What’ve you read? Isn’t this weird? It’s crazy, right? How long do you think it’ll be? Our government’s response is terrible, did you see what Trump said?
If we’re in a good enough mood the conversation can move to other topics, but I’ve found it hard to get past the nervous feeling in my stomach. I’ve never seen the social structure shut down like this.
It’s funny: I’m a marxist that thinks a lot about what social structure is and how it maintains its continuity over time. Studying education is about reproduction of the structure. The topic sounds weird and odd to most people in regular life. But what I’m seeing now is a social structure unable to maintain its continuity. The pandemic shuts things down. #CancelEverything. I keep thinking about it in terms of the base-superstructure model. The state’s repressive and ideological forces reconfigure. Some of them stop (mass culture) and others intensify (state surveillance). The dominant mode of production takes center stage for once, rather than staying under the radar: Will the grocery stores keep up inventory? Who’s making what? How will we pay for things? Can people get what they need? What’s up with the stock market?
Never felt contingency like this before.