Untitled coronavirus post

The family drives back to New Hampshire from Maryland.


It’s been difficult to write the past few weeks. My skills don’t seem up to it. I have written, sure, but it’s mostly crap. Unpublishable.

I have been thinking mostly about my role in all of this beyond to keep myself and my family safe, and it has come down to some kind of writing. But what? I had a fleeting thought that I should be explaining or reporting, journalist style, what was going on. But there are already lots of excellent writers doing that (and getting paid for it!). Then I was thinking I could give the big picture, long-term analysis. That’s what I was thinking eight days ago when I recorded Wake up calls. But then everyone started doing that and frankly those pieces are beginning to read a lot like the practiced bullshit of an ancient Greek oracle.

I wrote a political piece about institutional rot and human goodness which I don’t suspect I’ll ever let see the light of day. Then I wrote something equally bad about what coronavirus has taught me, which in retrospect even recounting that I wrote that headline is a little embarrassing.

A few days ago I started jotting down thoughts journal-style in this document, and labeled it “Untitled Coronavirus Post.” It has no subject, but it is, I hope some kind of honest accounting of what it is like to live in this time and place. Perhaps that is all I can do right now.

So:

A month ago, I was in Mexico with my partner, with plans to be there until April 1st. But within the course of about 48 hours at the end of February the coronavirus story went from being just like all the past flu epidemics, to suddenly becoming an incredibly fast-moving and scary news deluge with, it appeared to me, a completely unpredictable trajectory.

The only thing that was clear to me then was that it was very unclear what the situation would be come April. Though remote, it seemed like there was potentially some possibility that we’d be unable able to get back into the U.S., and if we did, it could come with involuntary quarantine. On the off chance either of those things came to pass, it seemed prudent to switch our tickets and fly back earlier, which is what we did, and what a prescient decision that has turned out to be.

The day before our flight back, on March 2nd, I scheduled a job interview in Washington D.C. for two weeks later, on March 16th, and began to make plans to drive down and see friends the weekend preceding.

But by then news was moving even faster. On Wednesday, March 11th, my kid’s school, the Washington Waldorf School (which will be making another appearance later on), announced that the family of a student had come into contact with a person who later tested positive for coronavirus. Out of an abundance of caution, they would be closing for the next two days, Thursday and Friday, to do a full cleaning.

I called my son’s mom in Montgomery County and told her that I suspected it would be closed much longer. She and I have a good relationship, but we typically don’t talk much except as necessary to discuss the logistics of moving our son back and forth between households. This presented a new challenge: making decisions based on wildly uncertain information and a rapidly evolving news landscape.

At that point, I was taking the virus much more seriously than she was, though the disparity didn’t last long. I urged her to take seriously the possibility of a massive surge in cases, Italy-style, as well as mass school closings that could last months. She was skeptical schools would close at all, especially considering how many parents relied on them for childcare and school lunches.

Two days later, on Friday, the state of Maryland announced it was closing all public schools for two weeks. When I discussed the situation with her again the next day, it was clear we were now on the same page. We discussed asymptomatic transmission, case fatality rates, and the high probability that the country’s hospitals would soon become overwhelmed with the critically ill.

Ah, co-parenting during a pandemic. This is something they don’t talk about in the case law.

That Friday evening, my interview, scheduled for Monday, was moved online. The next morning, my partner and I drove down to D.C. anyway to pick up the kids. The roads were empty. We made the trip in eight hours and ten minutes, the fastest we’d ever driven it, and checked in at the Bethesdan Hotel. Social distancing was trending. Every hour it seemed another state shut down businesses, closed schools, and told its citizens to stay put.

At the hotel, we ordered takeout from the Chinese restaurant on the corner. I picked up the food and a six pack of beer, holding a sanitary wipe in my hand to open all the doors and push all the elevator buttons down and up again. An old climbing friend who I hadn’t seen in years was visiting D.C. that week, and I met her in the lobby in the hotel. We briefly hugged, holding our faces away from each other, and then we sat on the lobby sofa catching up while I drank two bottles of beer from the six pack.

The next morning, Sunday, we picked up my partner’s kids from their dad, and then my son from his mom, and drove everyone back to New Hampshire. We asked them to pack food for the trip so we didn’t have to go into any of the rest stops. We all peed on the side of the road, and when I twice pumped gas I held the gas pump and again pushed the buttons with a sanitary wipe.

It’s hard to think back to my mental state just a little over a week ago. It felt sort of exhilarating to suddenly be forced out of every plan I’d made: Spring break was off, Summer plans were on hold, the trip with my brother hiking through Slovenia was up in the air, and the parenting schedule we’d sorted out for the next six months was now subject to daily news reports.

And that was just the beginning of the beginning.

The next day my son’s school announced it was going to close through the end of Spring break, a full month. On Wednesday, the Washington Waldorf School would begin online class instruction, a concept as foreign to the Waldorf pedagogy as the city of Wuhan once was for Americans.

This is where things really began to get surreal.

Coming up: Waldorf tries to go virtual; arguments about grocery shopping