Notes From a Pandemic: September 18th, 2020

by Miles Raymer

Greetings, dear friends of the present and curious citizens of the future.

It’s still dark out as I type these words, but a few minutes ago I heard a sound I’ve been longing for since June: raindrops pattering on the roof above my head. It’s probably just a momentary shower, but it’s the first earnest rain of the wet season, and that means something––especially this year. In a region beset by wildfires, skies tinted orange-red and made dark with ash and smoke, a spot of rain feels like a gift from the God I don’t believe in. Wherever and whenever you are, I hope you’re safer, happier, and healthier than people in the Pacific Northwest right now.

In early August, I lost my job––an abrupt and unexpected event. Even though it ended sooner than I would have liked, I’m glad to have that phase of my life firmly behind me now. I’m grateful for the extra time off and am enjoying the online statistics course I’m taking as a prerequisite for HSU’s Counseling Master’s Program. Being in a formal educational environment is lovely and it’s great to have schoolwork as a distraction from the world’s chaos. Also, I had an article published by Science and Philosophy on Medium, which was exciting.

On the COVID front, Humboldt’s threat status has been downgraded since my last journal. The County is still confirming a steady stream of cases, but for the moment we seem to have the virus under control. Our family is preparing for fall and winter by making a few adjustments to our safety protocols. We’re going to start socializing indoors with a very small group of our closest friends and family members, taking all reasonable precautions and limiting interactions to roughly once a week or less. A week or two ago I started thinking seriously about what it would be like to go 4-6 months without being able to socialize indoors with anyone other than my wife and mother, and concluded that the cost-benefit analysis pointed in favor of accepting a slightly increased risk of COVID exposure in exchange for intersubjective stimulation and emotional sanity. I imagine that people all over the world are making similar calculations, at least in the northern hemisphere where summer’s on the wane.

This was a somewhat difficult discussion to have with my 71-year-old mother, who also lives in my home. I had to acknowledge that I was being selfish in a way that affected her directly, but also be firm about my needs as this nasty year comes to a close. After some challenging but ultimately productive discussions, we were able to carve out an acceptable set of ground rules for our family and the people we plan to spend time with indoors over the coming months. As always, we’ll stay informed and change our strategy if it seems like the risks pass a point of collective tolerability.

Another complicating factor is that my wife, who is a teacher at a local junior high, will be going back to school starting October 5th. The School Board made this decision last night. We watched the meeting, and I was again impressed with the variety of opinions expressed, as well as with the environment of civility and tolerance that prevailed. Given that several local schools have been operating for weeks now without becoming significant disease vectors, it seems reasonable to cautiously open up in a way that will alleviate the pressure on hardworking families that are struggling to get by with their children doing distance learning. We would have preferred one of the hybrid models rather than having all the kids on campus at the same time, but all things considered we respect the Board’s unanimous decision and look forward to making this work as best we can. If you have a teacher or school administrator in your life who is going through some version of this process, please take a moment to thank them for their work and dedication to our nation’s young people.

2020 keeps heaping tragedy upon tragedy. I am grateful that none of them has yet affected my family or friends very seriously, but even so I am experiencing a strange sort of fatigue, a creeping exhaustion of the mechanism in my body that whispers danger. First my energy was sapped by the COVID-caused current of stress that’s cornered and coerced me since March, and now images and inhalations of these infernal fires are scorching whatever’s left. I’m tempted to wax poetic about how at least it can’t get any worse, but there’s an election in November. 2020 may yet make another assault on our hopes for a 2021 that doesn’t include quite so much suffering.

In moments like this it’s good to remember that we ourselves are a kind of fire, a chemical reaction consuming fuel and ejecting gas and heat in exchange for a selfish and ephemeral brightness. Julio Cortázar put it this way:

Who will cure us of the dull fire…how shall we cleanse ourselves of the sweet burning that comes after, that nest in us forever allied with time and memory, with sticky things that hold us here on this side, and which will burn sweetly in us until we have been left in ashes? How much better…to burn like this without surcease, to bear the inner burning coming on like fruit’s quick ripening, to be the pulse of a bonfire in this thicket of endless stone, walking through the nights of our life, obedient as our blood in its blind circuit. (Hopscotch, 383)

Indulging a metaphorical affinity for fire does nothing to bring back the lives and homes laid to waste, but it may help us become more accepting of disaster. As refugees from entropy, the great destroyer and void-bringer, we share a kindred connection with fire. And like kin, we sometimes hate and kill each other.

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To be an American right now is to feel increasingly embittered and embattled, anxiously awaiting the next cruel catastrophe. Looking on as biological, socioeconomic, and environmental forces ravage our nation’s already-vicious political landscape, we are right to be scared. Peter Turchin comments on the interconnectedness of these natural dynamics:

Every episode of internal warfare develops like an epidemic or a forest fire. In the beginning of the conflict, each act of violence triggers chains of revenge and counter-revenge. With time, participants lose all restraint, atrocities become common, and conflict escalates in an accelerating explosive fashion. After the initial explosion, however, violence drags on and on, for years and sometimes even for decades. (War and Peace and War, 243)

Given Turchin’s frightening record of prediction, it’s a safe bet that we’re headed for additional stability shocks in the near future. This is all the more intimidating in our era of accelerating climate change. The good news is that periods like the one we’re entering generally don’t last long:

Sooner or later most people begin to yearn for the return of stability and an end to fighting. The most psychopathic and violent leaders get killed off or lose their supporters. Violence, like an epidemic or a forest fire, “burns out.” (War and Peace and War, 243)

This should should motivate us to buckle up, tackle our problems head on, and do our best to minimize the damage as we power through the next decade or two. It’s not going to be pretty or easy, but we can make it. How we all choose to live and survive matters now. Well, okay, it doesn’t really. But it might! Turchin explains:

Micro actions, by most people most of the time, have no effect whatsoever on the behavior of the system as a whole––they are completely dampened out at the macro level. But sometimes an individual acts in a place and at a time where the macrosystem is extremely sensitive to small perturbations. Then a little act of a little individual can trigger an avalanche of consequences, and result in a complete change of the course of events. The childhood rhyme “For want of a nail” illustrates this idea perfectly.

This is an optimistic conclusion, because it suggests that not all individual action is doomed to be futile at the macro level of social systems. There is no excuse in not trying to be good, because even if most of such actions would probably dissipate without any lasting effect, once in a while a small action will have a large effect. (War and Peace and War, 319-20)

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins this evening at sundown. I will be celebrating life and renewal with my loved ones, and I wish the same for you regardless of your cultural background or geographic location. There are powerful pressures always controlling our lives, many of which we can neither see nor comprehend. Take a moment to breathe and appreciate what you can see, what you can comprehend, what you can love.

Until next time, be well, and good luck.

Global: 30,241,377 confirmed cases, 947,266 deaths

United States: 6,681,251 confirmed cases, 197,763 deaths

California: 775,750 confirmed cases, 14,817 deaths

Humboldt County: 482 confirmed cases, 6 deaths