Fire and Ice

Most people in our modern world consider a cooking device an important part of a household.  Many of us are also over-committed.  These two elements came together last week when our kitchen stove (“range,” I’m finding out, is the correct term) burned out.  We could tell when we bought our house two years ago that the previous owners had likely not replaced any appliances.  The refrigerator died our first year.  Now, in our second, the stove—excuse me, range—went.  Given that it’s turned cooler around here, a good hot meal in the evening has been a welcome relief, but with no stove how do you cook it?  This happened on a Tuesday.  My wife and I compared calendars.  The closest evening we could both get out to look for replacements was Friday.  Of course, once you shell out the money you also have to wait for delivery and installation.  It looked like at least a week without home-cooked food.  Grocery shopping, of course, had been on Monday.

It occurred to me how utterly dependent we are on our big appliances.  The refrigerator died just before a holiday weekend in pre-covid days, so we were on our way out of town when it happened.  A lot of food had to be wasted.  It took about four days before a new one could be delivered, and we had to cut short our trip to be here in time for the installers.  Food.  Unless you’re living on granola bars and trail mix you need to keep it cold or keep it hot.  Our ranges and refrigerators do the heavy lifting for us.  Our ancestors stuck things in the cellar to keep cool and chopped wood to keep what is properly called a “stove” hot in the kitchen.  It was pretty much a full-time job just to survive.  Now nightly Zoom meetings make any interruption of online connectivity difficult.

Weekends, given the circumstances, are gems.  They are the only time we can get things done.  Days are eaten up by ever-expanding work by people desperate to keep their jobs in a tanking economy.  Supply chains, interrupted by the virus, meant that a delivery of a new range would only happen in January.  Going without food until the new year steered us toward a DIY appliance repair solution.  I never thought I’d be sticking my head in an oven, but here I was, with a new part ordered from Amazon and the confidence of the friendly people on YouTube telling me I could do it.  Taking days instead of months, we were cooking again by Sunday, and I just might’ve learned something along the way.

Remembering Cautiously

Memorial Day has a special poignancy when thousands of people are needlessly dying from a disease.  As the unofficial kick-off to summer, the holiday also marks the loosening of restrictions (most likely prematurely) and we can only wonder how many more will die when our usual carelessness resumes.  I’m not alone, I suspect, in hoping that this crisis will have brought some permanent changes, such as thinking about others.  It’s almost impossible to hope that such consciousness will rise to the level of government, of course, but if we the roots of the grass care for one another won’t that care naturally grow to a national level?  Americans have long loved the myth of rugged individualism.  There may have been a day when that was plausible, but we are now so interconnected that anyone considered successful has become so only because of considerable support of others.

This holiday is all about remembering.  Unfortunately remembering our war dead hasn’t done much to prevent wars.  If they’re not the acting out of our fears (as every belligerence since World War II seems to have been) then what are they?  Phobias of communists, terrorists, and assorted “others” lead us into mass killing, often for economic gain.  What if we were to put those vast military resources toward fighting a deadly disease?  What if we had a national will to take care of our people rather than to enrich ourselves?  Wouldn’t we be all the richer for it?  Instead we face more needless deaths, more people to remember on the next Memorial Day.  Maybe the sun will be shining then.

Those of us non-essential workers who’ve nevertheless been working remotely these past two-and-a-half months have a day off today.  Many will want to gather, but we know it’s not really a good idea.  We know the way infection works.  We have no battle plan against COVID-19.  We’re chomping at the bit for economic vitality, forgetting that those who are on the front lines are continuing to get sick.  It’s strange to have a holiday under such circumstances.  The warmer weather invites us outdoors while the plague drives us inside.  There’s a place for bravery, but when bravado masks itself with foolishness there will be a price to pay.  It’s Memorial Day and we can honor our dead by not rushing to join them with unreflective premature relaxing of safety measures.  Let’s stay safe this holiday by remembering what we’ve learned.

Straining Andromeda

As corona-life settles into just the way things are, I pulled out my copy of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.  I read this in high school, and, judging from the state of my copy I originally found it in the book bin at Goodwill.  I actually didn’t remember how the book ended, but some of the scenes—particularly the bizarre suicides that the virus first initiates—stayed with me.  I really felt no compunction to read it again until our daily reality was one of infection, protection, and fear.  In other words, the time was right.  I can say that I found Crichton’s confident prose a bit overblown at times, especially given the resolution of the crisis, which I will not give away here.  Some of the rest of you may want pandemic-themed reading, after all.

Something I had forgotten, and since this is near the beginning I don’t mind giving it away, is that the Andromeda Strain was brought to earth by military intentions to develop new biological weapons.  Although the death toll is nowhere near what that of COVID-19 has been, the potential lethality of the strain is what keeps the compressed five-day story tense.  That tension makes for quick reading, and it seems pretty clear that some of the ideas here have been used for other pandemic story-lines.  I’ll write about one of them later this week.  The extraterrestrial life form of Andromeda is cause for discussion in the novel, but the explanation is never clarified.  Crichton’s later novels improve on this score.

A clear point in the novel is that the government, although aware of and complicit in the experiment, lacked the foresight to successfully see it through.  Governments are only human, after all, and can function effectively only when those with superior abilities are in charge.  Looking out for oneself and exploiting others are not superior abilities.  We can see the result of this with our own, nonfictional pandemic.  Still, the novel does raise the specter of dabbling in things we don’t fully understand and can’t, in any real sense, control.  The thread of the plan being military in origin isn’t fully seen through, but it does raise the larger question of morals.  Some of us go through ethical training for our jobs.  Some of us have it often.  It’s obvious, however, that the real deficiency of governments tends to be their lack of ethics.  In this current day and age that qualifies you for the sobriquet of evangelical Christian.  And now we have our own strain to deal with.

New Habits

We are a family of readers.  Still, during the pandemic things change.  Not only is my wife working from home, my daughter is also here, doing the same.  This seemed to be the most logical thing, given that her housemates weren’t working from home, and who needs pointless potential exposure?  What became clear to all of us is that pandemic normal was actually close to our normal normal.  I mean, I don’t get out as much on weekends now, but other than the panic, Monday through Friday are pretty much the same as always.  Awake obscenely early.  Start work before sunrise.  Finish work, eat supper, go to bed.  The real change has been on my reading habits.

When things are “normal” (if that word can ever apply to me), during the time my wife drives home from work, I read.  I also read in the morning and before going to bed, but that latter doesn’t last long if I’m tired.  Now, however, we’re all here and after work is over family time begins.  I don’t begrudge this for a nanosecond, but it does affect my reading habits.  You see, self-isolation has been a way of life for me long before the pandemic began.  Not necessarily because I wanted it this way, but I have always tried to preserve time for books.  I don’t have the reading time of a professor, so I have to carve it out of personal time.  In situations like this even bibliophiles have to admit that people are more important than books.  Still, with only essential businesses open, and Amazon delivering only essential items, books have fallen between the cracks.  Some of us consider them essential.

My daughter said the other day that not being able to buy books was worrying.  Indeed it is.  We’re pretty well stocked here for reading material.  I’ve got plenty of books I want to read, but I lack the time.  Also, one of my reading challenges specifies the particular types of books I need to target, including recent ones.  How am I to get them?  Our local library is closed.  As are the bookstores.  It’s beginning to feel like an episode of The Twilight Zone—being isolated but not having access to new books.  At work they’re suggesting which television shows to binge watch during the long hours of enforced alone time.  Me, I standing in front of my bookshelves staring in wonder and indecision.  Pandemic or no pandemic, it is time to read.

The Essentials

The current crisis, in my mind, dates to Thursday, March 12.  That particular day, at least in my socially distant location, the pandemic became a panic.  Decisions were made to have employees work remotely.  Zoom or Skype meetings were substituted for the face-to-face variety.  Church services were cancelled.  There was a run on toilet paper.  This final aspect has me really vexed.  Why toilet paper?  Experts say if we kept to our usual buying habits there would be plenty for everyone, but the survivalist mentality kicked in and people began hoarding.  If the apocalypse was coming, they wanted to go down fighting with clean underwear on.  We were in Ithaca the next day to see my daughter.  We ordered out from a local restaurant.  When we got home we found a role of new toilet paper in the top of the bag.

According to my amateur dating technique, we’ve been in this state for 13 days now.  Toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels are nowhere to be found.  I looked on Amazon.  They can get you toilet paper, but you’ll need to wait until May.  Why?  Ironically, because it’s being shipped from China.  Yes, the nation where the pandemic erupted has toilet paper aplenty.  Here in the greatest [sic] nation in the world, there’s none to be found.  What does this tell us about a country that self-identifies as “Christian”?  Whatever happened to “if someone demands your coat, give them your shirt also”?  Or perhaps more to the point, “turn the other cheek”?  How has a nation of Bible believers responded to a crisis?  By becoming selfish.  By stockpiling toilet paper.

I’ve spent a lot of time camping.  I’m fairly comfortable with the ways of nature.  Like most other people I prefer a nice, private restroom with all the accoutrements, but if bears can do it in the woods, why can’t we?  I have my Boy Scout guide right here.  But it suggests using toilet paper.  If books could be ordered, I suspect How To Poop [this is the family friendly version] in the Woods would be a current bestseller.  Trump says he wants everyone back to work by Easter, but the toilet paper ordered from Asia won’t even be here by then.  And will offices have access to some secret stash that only those who buy in bulk can find?  Hoarding makes any crisis worse, but this particular one seems especially mean spirited.  It makes me realize just how great America has been made.

All Been Ready

As the pandemic stretches on and getting things in stores—or even from Amazon—isn’t assured, my thoughts go back to Larry Norman.  Specifically to his song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”  Made famous for many by its use in the 1972 rapture film A Thief in the Night, the song recounts the state of those “left behind” when a piece of bread could be exchanged for a bag of gold.  The lyrics are haunting in their sincerity.  Here in Pennsylvania, as in neighboring New York, non-essential businesses have closed, per order of the governors.  Periodic forays to the grocery store show the empty shelves of panic buying.  Norman’s song rings in my ears.  Only this isn’t a biblical plague.  We’re just acting like it.

No doubt technology has been of great use in keeping us aware.  I do wonder, however, at how panics seem to come more quickly now.  Slowing down manufacturing will have a knock-on effect for things down the road, of course.  Right now we’re all wondering how we’re going to get through yet another day just sitting in the house.  Meanwhile the lawn is beginning to grow and I’m going to have to get out there with the push mower soon.  I’d been planning on shopping for a better one this year, but plans seem to have suddenly pooled at my feet.  What is essential travel anyway?  Does it count a trip to the big box hardware store to buy a reel mower?  Should I even bother about the lawn when there’s no toilet paper within a fifty-mile radius?  I wish we’d all been ready.

The funny thing about all this is how it makes us focus on the here and now.  While we’re waiting for things to “get back to normal” we’re being told nobody knows how long this might last and we should plan to hunker down for some time.  The International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (being held in Australia this year) was cancelled.  Many of us in the discipline have had our lives revolving around the Annual Meeting in November for all of our adulthood.  If that meeting’s cancelled how will we even know when Thanksgiving comes?  Can it even come without the crowds at the Macy’s parade?  Best not to look too far ahead, I guess.  The rapture is a fictional construct, but the effects of a pandemic are eerily similar.  I do wish all of us had been ready.

Travel Ban

I’m not at home.  I know in the current crisis that sounds like heresy, but I can honestly say that getting out of the usual routine where COVID-19 is all you hear about feels right.  More and more organizations are instituting work from home policies—many of them mandatory.  I’ve worked from home for going on two years now.  You need to get out a bit.  I know travel isn’t recommended, but I’m really not afraid to die.  Besides, I put a box of latex gloves in the car and when we stopped for a restroom break, wore them until they could be safely removed.  Exposed surfaces in the rest area were being continually wiped down.  Don’t get me wrong—for an introvert like me working at home is fine.  It’s just the idea of feeling like this virus is some zombie apocalypse happening just outside my door that I needed to dispel.

When I told a friend I was no longer going to be commuting on a regular basis he said if it were him he’d only ever buy sweatpants again.  Now that my reality is life with my wife being the only person I regularly see, I’m beginning to realize just how much our clothes purchases are for impressing others.  My haberdashery is akin to that of Henry David Thoreau; I wear clothes until they’re no longer functional.  They can be badly out of date but they still work.  The fashion industry is built on pride.  To put it in the words of my old friend Qohelet, vanity.  We want others to see what we’re wearing.  If we’re still donning last year’s gay apparel we’re not playing the game.  Never mind those of us whose wardrobes could be carbon-dated.  The pandemic can be revealing.

So I’m away from home for what is really the first time in months.  I had to stop in the grocery store for a few things.  Only one person I saw was wearing a mask, but I was wearing prophylactics, so who’s going to cast the first stone?  Many shelves were bare.  The CDC has become our new gospel provider.  I’m limiting my outside exposure.  Driving door to door, greeting no-one along the way (that actually is the gospel, but substitute the walking for the driving part).  I know when this weekend’s over I’ll be back to my cloistered existence as the rest of the world tries to get used to the loneliness of the sweatpants crowd.  If you’re one of them take it from me—the rest of the world is still out there.