Quarantine V

The New Normal
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(photo by Tom Steinmetz)

The Long Emergency will be chiefly characterized as a “time out” from technology. It could plunge us into a dark age of superstition. My guess is that we will lose a lot of knowledge and skill. But I also believe the human race desperately needs this “time out.”

–Howard Kunstler in a 2011 interview

So Friends… How’s your “time out” going? Anyone metamorphosed into a butterfly yet? Figured out how to stop climate change in the next few weeks? Anyone lost their ever-lovin’ mind? Burned somebody’s house down?

What the hell is going on with us? Honestly?

The pressure-cooker to which we voluntarily retreated when the plague landed on this continent is genuinely still a thing here in New York. Last week, our mayor made some big promises about “Stage Three” of the return-to-normal plan commencing on July Sixth (yesterday, for those whose calendars have been reduced to hash marks on their walls). I genuinely don’t know if anyone stuck to that plan; it would have entailed reopening a lot of public spaces, and relaxing a lot of epidemic guidelines.

Reports on the premature celebration de Blasio planned to foist on us have dwindled into silence; COVID-19 strut onto the greater American stage like a diva with something to prove. (Having “made it here,” I guess, it’s time to “make it everywhere.”)

Throughout spring, New York followed Seattle’s screwy cannonball into the deep, finding ourselves with an exponentially growing disaster at hand. The sheer numbers we were wading through? Horrific. That president and his smug cronies shrugged us clearly communicating that we were losers who should expect no help from them.

We began developing an intimacy with the plague. Before long, that isolated state became insanely normalized, which isolated us all the more. We walked a high wire above fatalism, preening the dumb jaded vanity of being novel, and a not-so-secret fear in our marrow that sounds insane to admit now.

But the virus wouldn’t stay localized for long, we knew. I looked Florida in the eye, then turned and told my partner, “That is going to be nothing but death a few months from now.” The combination of an elderly population and an economy handcuffed to tourism and psychosis wasn’t promising; the Absolute Freedumb decision to throw spring breakers raw meat around the whole perimeter of the state was horrifying. What on earth could possibly stop the plague from doing its worst? Weren’t they paying attention to what was happening to us?

Oh well. The timing of this second epidemiological uptick has seriously favored New York, at least. Just days before the dumbass façade of Stage Three would have set New York’s gears more or less going again, exposing too many of us to the plague all over again, crisis struck—everywhere. A somber echo of our own recent experience, one some of us would truly like to forget. But we cannot adore this. We have been rightly reminded the danger has never left—so we have barely avoided repeating our own recent, devastating history.

As is so often the case, one person’s fortune came at the price of another’s. New York’s reminder of this virus’ lethality didn’t hot home until the infections, deaths, trauma, and naked fear that had devastated us manifested in other states across the country. Unfortunately, the repercussions will not be reserved for “coronavirus truthers” and assholes of their like, but will be indiscriminate, perhaps even putting you at risk, Dear Reader.

But even if no one I know personally is threatened, no matter how deal-breakingly partisan a nation we be, it would be completely inhuman to inconceivable to gloat over the conspiracy theorists and their like under these circumstances. However, this awful fallout makes it devastatingly clear that the current president’s narcissism, ignorance, and corruption actually can and do hurt all of us–even his most ardent supporters.

As quarantine stretched on and on, it began to seem likely that the plague would indelibly change our way of life. Part of me wanted to believe a Powerful Positive Outcome could arise from the ashes. It seemed, for the first time in a while, that our better angels might win: The (genuinely) stable and sane Dr. Fauci managed to avoid being dismissed for a surprisingly long time, and until a few days ago, the people in this and other neighborhoods around the city took a brilliant cue from Italia: As a whole, we cheered, barked, clapped, laughed, and played music out our open windows every evening at 7pm, in as pure-hearted a community action as any I’ve witnessed. To thank the healthcare and city workers who, without pause or complaint, were risking themselves daily for all our sakes—and to give each other heart.

It would appear I began to equate the Best of us with the Rest of us; I took a rare (for me) opportunity to play optimist at various vantage points during quarantine: What if our COVID isolation experiences actually afford people the opportunity to reflect on our culture as a whole, and to better appreciate humankind–and our place in the world–in general? What if we genuinely grow because of this??

Of course, my pessimistic nature asserted itself periodically, and my contemplative quarantine journey took its share of pessimistic turns, too: What if this break from routine life has just given the Bad Guys another opening to hack away at our civil liberties, to double down on their already-blatant corruption? What if we’re just at the beginning of the Worst of Times??

It should have been obvious that the answer would be closer to both. Trying times provide humanity with opportunities to be great. It’s struggle that forges character and asks heroism of us. How bizarre is it, then, that for the most part, the Enormous Sacrifice we’ve been asked to make is simply to be still. To sit on the edge of our beds on the rim of this Goldilocks planet and simply be.

This is not a nation at peace with itself, however. The longer we sit still, the more we are forced to observe that which we prefer to ignore. Inescapably, some Americans poured their attention into–noticed–the sour canker at the center of our national identity, and began to simmer. And simmer.

And some looked at that same void and started to lose the thin veneer of civilization they were accustomed to wearing. They spat like alley cats, their faces distorted with the violence of their hatred. They pulled their beloved weapons close, stroking the metal skin, imagining they’d finally have the chance to use them. Soon enough.

Howard Kunstler is an exceptional, prescient writer whose books are chiefly centered on urban planning. I’ve read several, and not only are they wonderfully considered and composed, they also completely changed the way I look at the world around me. Must-read.

Tell it like it is.

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