The Epidemiological Paranoia Edition of the Eager Mondays Newsletter
Dr. Andy's first newsletter on Substack
Welcome to my first Eager Mondays newsletter on Substack!
Some things just can’t be done anymore. The restaurants reopened for indoor dining for a while, but most of us stayed outside, enjoying the warm summer and autumn evenings. Now winter seems almost upon us, and we are barred from entering restaurants where we used to huddle.
The furniture that used to invite us in to an eatery is stacked in the corner, as if the floor were being prepared for a thorough mopping, like so many of the touchable surfaces in our lives. These days, some restaurants block the entranceway with a table where we used to sit and eat, the other tables just waiting, seemingly as lonely as the wishful diners. Like a Dutch door (called a half-door in Ireland) that was once used to let the light in without inviting in the local livestock and poultry, these barriers let us only wistfully see into a restaurant, recalling where we used to converse unhurriedly with friends. We may not enter.
Now entire restaurants function as mere antechambers outside the kitchen, a place where staff loaf until the next customer shows up for takeout. They wish they had more to do. As Helen Hayes once said, "If you rest, you rust." Even the tables outside the Tex-Mex restaurant that my son Jukie and I use to incentivize our long walks offer little comfort: every other one tells us THIS TABLE IS NOT IN USE. I fear more such signs will not be affixed outside the restaurants themselves.
Like the restaurants of Davis, California, the college town where I live and work (from home), the public busses are running, but empty. Soon they may both be running on empty, as well. With our widespread use of Zoom, bike commuuting, and farmers markets, the citizens of Davis will fare better during this crisis than those who fill big cities or who have long commutes to in-person jobs. As citizens, we fear the carpool, and so many of us would not dare step upon a bus or a subway car. This pandemic may change public transportation forever. As yesterday’s New York Times article by Christina Goldbaum and Will Wright put it, “Across the United States, public transportation systems are confronting an extraordinary financial crisis set off by the pandemic, which has starved transit agencies of huge amounts of revenue and threatens to cripple service for years.”
Meanwhile, we participate in simulacra of interaction, waving goodbye at the end of a Zoom conversation, shrugging a hello to a neighbor from 20 feet away, and watching others interact on TV, noting how closely the different characters on our binge-watched Netflix shows converse, living as they do in a world of casual hugs and handshakes. Every time Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit reaches across the chess table to shake hands with a grandmaster from Kentucky or Moscow, I want to yell “Don’t do it!” One can imagine a dystopian science fiction novel, or our America in 2022, where people wear their Covid non-infection documents pinned to their lapels, informing others that they have recently tested negative, or that they were willing to be vaccinated. As our hospitals continue to fill up, and then overflow, clearly we have more to fear than fear itself.
Two of my closest local friends are sick right now, but not, it has been understood, or confirmed, with Covid-19. One of them was Door-Dashed a container of soup by a friend. He says his throat feels like that of Smaug right after incinerating a local lake town. The other wrote this on Facebook last night: “A cold is nothing compared to what folks are dealing with. Briefly terrified, then got results and now just guilty about being in position to get anything and thinking about folks having to deal with COVID and losing loved ones— no more chances taken. I’ll do a socially distant outside thing without being part of any food/drink handoffs, etc., but back to my semi off grid for life again.”
While we miss the “grid,” I appreciate those people in my circles who are so careful that they “just guilty about being in position to get anything.” Concerned for our health, we distrust the entire world, seeing it as the equivalent of the Mark Watney’s Martian rock-scape, as an Erin Brockovich unregulated superfund site, or as a 1960s Las Vegas casino second-hand smokefest that is hosting one of Beth Harmon’s chess opens. Unsafe environments, all.
William S. Burroughs once said, “Panic is the sudden realization that everything around you is alive.” That might be amended today as the sudden realization that everything and everyone around you may be infected. Different people cast the blame in different directions, whether it be Donald Trump, horseshoe bats, spring-breaking college students who don’t heed CDC warnings, the people of Wuhan, or that guy at Costco who wears his mask under his nose. The politically paranoid are concerned about what our leaders and other conspirators are hiding, while epidemiologically paranoid people are worried about what their neighbors are sharing too freely. As Philip K. Dick puts it in his novel A Scanner Darkly, “Strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then.”
In such a time, we call upon our inner resources and, perhaps in a mediated fashion, our family and friends. Some of us pursue creative projects, as I do. My distant friend the author Joyce Maynard once said “Telling my stories has allowed me to feel less alone in the world.” Me, I host Pub Quizzes, now online via Patreon. When it comes to Pub Quiz fun, I agree with the poet John Ciardi: “Every game ever invented by mankind is a way of making things hard for the fun of it!” As someone who inspires, guides, and then assesses students for a living, I might describe teaching the same way.
If you check out the weekly quiz that I send out to subscribers on Mondays, playing it remotely may give you some short-term respite from the thoughts of isolation and healthy paranoia that informs this uncertain time in what is nevertheless a beautiful world.
Stay healthy, and I will be in touch next week.
P.S. Here are three questions from last week’s quiz:
Batman. What actor has portrayed Batman/Bruce Wayne in the most live-action Batman movies, at four?
Science. Dawsonia, the tallest moss in the world, can grow to what height in inches? Is it 2 inches, 20 inches, 200 inches, or 2000 inches?
Books and Authors. What American Nobel Prize winner said, “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”