Plague diary, Day 14

As we end the second week since my company went all-virtual, I’ve been thinking a lot about some of my favorite memes about the pandemic—the ones that point out that Generation X, we of latchkey kids, self-parenting, and quiet isolation, as well as songs about “when to stay in” and being “stupid and contagious,” are well poised to survive this crisis. There’s more than a nugget of truth in these, and even though I was never a latchkey kid (thanks, Mom), I was always pretty good at entertaining myself and staying inside.

But there’s a darker truth under these memes. Somewhere in the back of most GenX’s mind is another archetypal narrative about having to be self sufficient indoors for an indefinitely long period of time while civilization ends outside. I’m talking about The Day After.

You can watch the movie on YouTube, but I don’t recommend it, especially right now. Suffice to say that the morning after this movie, which depicts midwestern families sorting through the rubble after a nuclear exchange blankets the entire world with radioactive fallout, was the only time that my thirty-plus-minute school bus ride across town to middle school was ever quiet.

It’s impossible to describe now how our psychology was shaped by the Cold War. Constant headlines about troop movements in Europe on the cover of Newsweek; the Doomsday Clock; saber-rattling from a hawkish president… all of it was in the background. But this movie was somehow more immediate and impactful. We might have done duck-and-cover drills in elementary school, but this movie was the thing that brought it home, particularly its depiction of the young heroine Denise running out of the fallout shelter to a beautiful blue sky… overlooking fields covered with highly radioactive fallout.

Thankfully, our current situation is wildly different in most ways from the world of The Day After. Our world is not going to end; in fact, it’s currently enjoying a respite from the normal air pollution caused by our global economy. And with the Internet unaffected by electromagnetic pulses, we can work, speak to our families, host virtual cocktail parties, even make it seem like we’re at the beach. (Thanks, Zoom and Slack.)

(Side note: I realized yesterday that video chatting on Webex may be forever dead to me, at least for the duration of the crisis. It’s one thing to show up on Zoom for a work meeting; quite another to put your face on Webex, with no virtual background blocking out the environment around your not-very-temporary home office.)

But the important difference with this crisis is the inversion in the danger profile. It’s not fatal for us to venture outside our houses—far from it, though I seem to be unable to make time for a brisk walk most days. But it might be really bad for us to meet another person. We cling to Zoom because it’s our lifeline, the only way for us to safely maintain human contact outside our immediate families.

Still, it’s important to remember, despite our GenX combination of resilience and post-traumatic stress*, that we are in a far, far better place. This pandemic will end. We will be able to greet one another again. And we can buy more toilet paper.

* It was a lot harder to write this than I thought it would be. The fear of nuclear annihilation is still in me all these years later. Scary as it is, I’ll take this future over that Cold War past.

Plague diary, Day 12

This was my impression of yesterday afternoon:

But it was. An early spring snowfall is far from unheard of in New England, but this felt more personal, somehow.

Massachusetts issued the order to stay home and to close the in-person operations of non-essential businesses yesterday. This is essentially where my company has been for the past week-plus, but it’s harder to shift businesses that aren’t already mostly digital to this mode of operation. I worry about the bankruptcies that are likely to follow.

We also got a remote learning plan, sort of, from the Town of Lexington. The main details are clear enough—it starts next Monday, grades will be pass-fail, instructional time will be shorter, and there will be a combination of online and offline activities. What is less clear is how we will keep the kids on track when both their parents are working full time from home.

Plague diary, day 11

Beginning Friday, March 13, we were asked to work from home as a one day trial. The day before, it was announced that Lexington Public Schools would close for two weeks starting Friday, March 13. (They’ve since added another week.) Our work-from-home was subsequently extended for the same two weeks. The only thing bearable about this coincidence is that the schools don’t yet have their act together with respect to distance learning. This means that, so far, I haven’t had to be a teacher at the same time that I’m trying to work from home.

Which is good, because this week my company’s engineers and product managers are trying to do “big room planning” for the next quarter. Traditionally this is done by putting everyone together in a big hotel ballroom and putting up plans on the wall so they can be inspected by walking around. Not gonna happen that way this quarter. We are going to a system of Zoom and hope for the best.

On a related note, Zoom now appears to have become critical national infrastructure, judging from the companies, churches, and virtual cocktail parties that have moved there.

Here in Lexington, physical distancing appears to have translated for most as “work from home,” but there have certainly been other effects. Restaurants are now takeout only. The town shut down all personal care services (haircuts, nail salons, massages, spas) on Friday. The Trader Joe’s in neighboring Arlington Heights was controlling how many people could be in the store at one time, and how close we could stand to each other in the checkout line. (Strips of painter’s tape six feet apart on the aisle near the checkout bore handwritten thanks for our patience and support of keeping everyone healthy.) A week ago the bike path was more crowded than was probably healthy, but at least people have been able to get some fresh air.

This is the second week in a row we’ve done virtual church. We have been broadcasting our services for years on public access TV, and propitiously began live streaming on YouTube two months ago. The combination of YouTube stream plus Apple TV make for a feeling of almost human contact on the 55″ screen in the living room, but it is very clearly not the same. Watching the service, it was clear our pastors missed being with us and seeing our faces as much as we missed them. But virtual communion (described in the service bulletin) helped alleviate some of the pain of separation.

Honestly, my personal worst part of it all so far has been another gout attack. But there are somber notes elsewhere, including the death of a Franciscan friar I knew at the monastery where the Suspicious Cheese Lords have sung so many masses over the years.

Diary of the Plague

It is now day four of my exile from my office, as we (and most of our fellow human beings) are working from home in the face of the novel coronavirus. One thing physical isolation has done for me is to take me on a journey of spiritual isolation, which, as Kathleen Norris will tell you (read Dakota: A Spiritual Journey sometime), is good for the soul. I don’t know if I’m becoming any closer to God, but I am at least motivated to post here for the first time in more than a month, and that’s something.

Last Wednesday we had a company town hall at work. Normally these are given in our crowded office kitchen/meeting room and are standing room only; Thursday the chairs were set six feet apart and we were instructed to join by Zoom if we didn’t get a chair. We quickly learned that we needed a bigger Zoom license to accommodate all the remote viewers, but that was ironed out within a few minutes. When our CEO announced that we would all trial working from home on Friday, someone suggested on our company Slack channel that we should wear our best pajamas. The mood was ebullient, a little like the days that you know a big blizzard is coming.

Now I think the reality is starting to set in. Crowds were horrific at every grocery store over the weekend as people stocked up. We’ve had four days of no school with no distance learning plans, leaving those of us working from home to improvised educational activities while acknowledging that our kids were going to get a lot more screen time than normal. Going outside feels like cheating and like a revelation from God.

Things that seemed sensible on Monday that I no longer feel blasé about: going to the grocery store for some things we were running low on; visiting the liquor store to stock up on wine; trying a new cocktail recipe every night over the weekend.

Now we’re all settling in for the long haul and finding other ways to liven our moods. Everyone at my company discovered the virtual backgrounds feature in Zoom yesterday—we’ve all been on Zoom for two years, having mostly kissed Webex goodbye as a bad memory, but I can only remember a handful of us using the feature. Now it’s everywhere. (I might have to try this one out today. More here.)

I’m not ready to post the relentlessly upbeat mixes that I created for our (postponed) Hackathon, though. The cheer seems inappropriate; plus I keep holding out hope that I’ll have an opportunity to spring them on my surprised audience soon.