COVID risk is manageable enough for me to do all the things I really want to do while remaining enough of a threat for me to skip out on the things I didn’t want to do anyway. Yeah, I understand people are still dying, but on my personal risk map, the levels are near perfect. In August, I passed up tickets to see the Mountain Goats at SPACE because I didn’t want to risk a breakthrough infection when Delta was peaking. We saw the Drive-By Truckers at an outdoor venue in September and I spent the next week two weeks second waiting for every tickle in my throat to morph into something worse. Somehow I stayed healthy; plenty of people didn’t. In recent weeks, my reticence is dropping with the case rates. Here’s what I am doing these days: working out at the gym, hosting indoor play dates, going to book club, going to church, eating in restaurants, getting massages, and going to the doctor. Here’s what I’m not doing: getting my hair done, shopping when I don’t need anything, traveling for work, traveling for the holidays, hosting dinners, going to the dentist, or seeking out crowds. COVID is a lot like religion, it turns out. A convenient excuse to live exactly as you were going to live, a way to justify decisions you were already going to make, and a source of moral high ground to judge anybody who’s doing it differently.
Life’s not exactly back to normal. Yesterday I dropped my daughter off at Sunday School and found myself with nowhere to go because the group I used to meet up with on Sunday mornings is still meeting virtually. They met weekly all through the pandemic and, from what I hear, became closer than ever. I wouldn’t know. I logged in all of twice. As my friend J says, Zoom is for the birds. I’m not about to complain about an hour to myself, though. I thought about settling into the pews early to do some writing and maybe strike up a conversation with church people but I really didn’t want to spend the rest of the morning sweating behind my mask while the radiators worked overtime to heat up the old stone building. Also, truth be told, I wanted to be with people, but didn’t really want to talk to them. I walked out the door, feeling brazen, and into the coffee ship across the street, where I ordered a small drip, parked myself in a seat by the window, and read a magazine mask- and guilt-free.
Last summer, my friend M stopped by for a few hours on her way from Michigan to Iowa. We sat outside in camp chairs, distanced and masked, and she told me what she’d been up to the last few months, which was a lot. Besides quitting her job and moving cross country she was planning a wedding and had gone home for a funeral. She told me about what it was like to fly during lock down. “Nobody wanted to wear masks for that long, so we bought food and took a really long time pretending to eat.” I loved that story. I laughed out loud when she said. It was so honest. And if I was being honest, I could relate. Wasn’t I on my third beverage of the night? Looking for loopholes, taking cues from people around you to see what you can get away with while staying with in the bounds of social acceptability, what could be more human? Acknowledging that the new restrictions were deeply shitty while making an 80% effort to adhere to them was a relief after striving for 100% and perpetually falling short. Yet when I shared my friend’s story with other people, they didn’t get it. To me it was an offering of absurdity and relatability. “That’s horrible,” they said, wagging their fingers. “That’s why I’m not flying. That’s why people keep getting sick.”
My god. Can we not admit that this sucks? Can we not talk about what’s going on without squeezing out every opportunity to shame somebody who made a different choice? Even if it was a morally questionable one? I used to get off on being morally impeccable too, but that way of living is not sustainable, especially if your values are not your own, and the rules keep changing. It’s also unbelievably isolating. You might think you’ve found a pack in the people who hate the same things you do, but they’ll turn on you as soon as you crack. And you will crack, believe me. You’ll find a way to live the way you want to live, and it might meet your standards, but if you’re honest about your motivations somebody else will shake their head.
On Sunday, I wanted a coffee but I also wanted to sit inside with other people without a mask. I reckon plenty of other people did, too. Actually, I know they did, because I saw them, and when I saw them I smiled.
I’m back in the Midwest after an epic eight-day excursion to the desert and I expect that I’ll be processing the experience of seeing my family for the first time in eighteen months for awhile. In the meantime, what I want to say about the trip is this: I’m so glad I waited.
I’m glad I waited until both my husband and I were fully vaccinated. I’m glad I waited until my daughter was done with school. I’m glad I waited until everyone in family who wanted a shot had the opportunity to get one. I’m glad I waited until Arizona fell off the orange list in Chicago’s travel advisory for people traveling stateside. I’m glad I waited until the CDC updated its guidance for vaccinated folks. I’m glad I waited until the country re-opened.
It was almost impossible to say no when my family asked me to fly out back in November to celebrate my dad’s sixtieth, and only slightly less difficult to say no when my sister asked if she could come visit in March. It killed me to watch my daughter turn seven and then eight without hugging her grandparents or playing with her cousins. I missed them all so much I re-visited the decision to raise my own family in Chicago–a decision I once held fast and firm and close to my heart–on a near-daily basis. I may have been a black sheep, but my family always wanted me around, and I hated being stranded on the other side of the country from them. I hated staying put. I hated being stuck at home. I spent every minute of the quarantine gnawing the bars of my self-imposed cage and now that the latch has been lifted, the only thing I can think is that it was worth it.
It was worth waiting so that I could sit with my 88-year-old grandma at her kitchen table instead of outside in the hundred-degree heat. It was worth it so we could huddle together over old family photo albums instead of passing them back and forth between lawn chairs spaced six feet apart. It was worth it so she didn’t have to nod along pretending to hear me while I tried to make myself heard through a mask. It was worth it watching my daughter approach her so tentatively, nervous in the way that kids often are, and lean in anyway for a hug.
It was worth waiting so that when my sister hesitantly asked if I was up for taking the kids to an outdoor pool, I could scream “YES!” before she finished her sentence. It was worth it so I could let all four kids cling onto me like sea monkeys without worrying about germs. It was worth it so we could crash around with our eyes closed playing Marco Polo with strangers. It was worth it so we could line up like sardines waiting for the tube slide and the high dive.
It was worth waiting so that when my brother made reservations in downtown Gilbert, I could go along and enjoy the meal instead of freaking out, forcing him to cancel, or staying home while everyone else dined inside. It was worth it getting dressed up in my dressiest shorts and squeezing around a too-small table to eat too much food with my too-big family.
It was worth waiting so that I could walk around the swap meet in Mesa without passing judgment on the maskless hordes. It was worth it so that instead of boiling over when I walked past the double-wide stall hawking Trump memorabilia, all I did was laugh.
It was worth waiting so that I could flip through records at Zia and play heirloom guitars at Acoustic Vibes without feeling like an asshole, without having to reassure myself “at least I’m shopping local.”
It was worth waiting so that I could say yes to an impromptu invitation to from a dear friend.
It was worth waiting so that I could stay as long as I wanted and stay up as late as I wanted night after night without feeling like I was pushing my luck.
It was worth waiting until the trip back home felt like a reunion instead of a calculated risk.
For all the havoc it wreaked on our lives over the last year and a half, except for the occasional mask in businesses that required them, the pandemic barely registered last week. June in Arizona may be scorching, but the trip wasn’t all sunny. When COVID cropped up in conversation it was for the worst reasons. An old family friend on a ventilator, for more than ten days, improving only incrementally, according to the text updates my mom read out loud throughout the week. She didn’t trust the vaccine. My dad’s colleague also in the hospital, and doing even worse. In his case, it was his wife that was anti-vax. It’s senselessly tragic that they are suffering in the final stages of the disease for no reason at all.
I’m glad I waited long enough to know I’m not contributing to any of that.
Tomorrow, May 14, marks fourteen months since my city’s shelter in place order went into effect. My grandma will turn 88. I will turn 36 a day later and the world I’m being re-birthed into is bigger than the one I was sinking into. The time to start thinking about wrapping up this series is here, if not a bit overdue. I’m not exactly living like a monk anymore. In last few weeks alone I’ve been to my office twice, eaten in a restaurant, taken my family to the aquarium, taken myself to the art museum, shopped at Chicago Music Exchange, hosted a birthday party, attended a birthday party, been to multiple in-person medical appointments, had an energy healing session, taken my daughter to school, enrolled her in summer camp, walked maskless with a friend, stepped inside another friend’s house, and purchased plane tickets to see my family in June. All of it has been eventful, but not in the way that venturing out of my house last year was the height of drama. COVID protocols are only a minor irritation. Other people don’t freak me out. My challenges now are in helping my daughter navigate emotionally charged and socially challenging situations without projecting onto her my own baggage and fears, dealing with my physical and mental health, making time for my marriage, reconnecting with family and friends, taking my career to the next level, and figuring out what I want to write next. In other words, my problems are back to what they were before the virus dropped into our lives.
I get that the pandemic isn’t over yet. In the last few weeks that have seen me practically frolicking through town, I’ve also worked mostly from home, attended a virtual conference, pitched new clients on Teams, hosted birthday parties on Zoom, Facetimed with family, texted with friends, supervised my daughter during remote learning, felt awkward talking to people with different COVID risk profiles, been annoyed at people still wearing masks, been pissed at people not wearing masks, searched desperately for reasonable, science-based, non-alarmist guidance about COVID protocols for kids under twelve, fretted about what school will look like for my daughter next year, and zoomed right out of a store when I heard a wet, hacking cough. We’ll be living with COVID aftershocks for a long time, but I’m training myself to stop bracing for them, and to stop second guessing the ways I respond to each new wave. All I can do is what I learned over the last year, which is to make decisions that are consistent with my values and within my capabilities, even if they take me out of lockstep my friends, family, neighbors, and the amorphous crowd of peers and perceived authority figures of whom I used to live in fear.
It’s time to turn my creative mind to other topics. The way this blog goes, I’ll probably have something to say about life in what I hope will be COVID’s end-days the week after I close out the series, sort of the way I, embarrassingly, ironically, keep writing about spirits months after shedding the moniker Sober Mormon. When I started this series, I asked, “how many more identities I will take on and shed before this thing is over?” How much of what I claim to be today will fall by the wayside?” You could say I’ve changed a lot. I would say I’m fundamentally the same person except that I see and move through the world in fundamentally different ways. I also figured out I want to try my hand at fiction. I think it might be a way to tell even more of the truth. I’m sure I’ll be back here, though. I’ve been swearing I’ll stop writing on the internet for almost as long as I’ve been at it.
We crept out of town for spring break without telling anyone last week. We even opted to let the trash rot in our garage for a week over asking our neighbors to take the cans out for us. At first I kept our trip quiet because it seemed so extravagant. Who am I to leave town just because I can? Was there ever a time when vacations were a normal part of life? After I told a few people about our plans and was met with reactions that ranged from underwhelmed to visibly disappointed, I saw that there was another reason to fly under the radar: our spring break extravaganza was actually boring as hell. When got back last weekend, our next door neighbor’s face lit up: “Did you get to see your family?!” When I said no, she sighed and slumped her shoulders along with me. “We drove to Michigan and stayed in a vacation rental in the middle of the woods. We saw no one and did next to nothing. We’re still waiting for everybody to get vaccines.”
I was playing up the simplicity of our trip for drama and virtue points. In truth, it was pleasant and picturesque and exactly what we needed. We rented a two-bedroom cottage with a wood burning fireplace at the edge of a gin clear lake. We took meals in the big eat-in kitchen and played games in front of a picture window with a view of the lake and kept a fire going at all times. There was a touch of adventure, too. We crashed around in the woods and plunged our hands in the cold water to fish out pearly shells and built bonfires in the backyard. My daughter scratched her arm on a piece of rusty metal on the dock and shrieked bloody murder when she almost stepped in a dead mouse exploring a pitch dark outbuilding. One day we even drove into town and went quiet as we passed one red-framed flag after another. We should’ve realized it when we booked the place, but didn’t. We didn’t live in Michigan long enough to get to know the state outside of the college town where we lived, and we left a long time ago. Anyway, we were deep in Trump country.
Howard City was a shit town with a terrific restaurant and we planned to get takeout. We pulled up behind the one other car on the main strip. The “Redneck” bumper sticker jumped out at us first, and then the rest materialized like shapes popping out of a stereogram. “Trump 2020.” “Make America Great Again.” “Beard Lives Matter.” “Let’s park somewhere else,” I told my husband. Was there really a time when differing political opinions weren’t cause for alarm? Or at least unease about my personal safety? You could be forgiven for not remembering if there was. You’d have to go back to before Trump tried to steal the election. Before domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol. Before a Michigan militia attempted to kidnap the governor. If you’re Black, you’d have to go back way before that, back before the beginning of this country. There was a time when I thought anti-Black racism was always coded to sound like a secret, or a joke. That’s how it was the way I grew up: white, suburban, middle class. There are places where and people for whom the hatred was always overt. There are people who have never been safe in small towns.
We didn’t mean to eat in the restaurant. It happened by accident, when we drove into town and realized there was nothing else to do and the wind was whipping us around and we looked in the dining room window and saw there was no one there. It was a weird time to be eating, too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but, like I said, there was nothing to do. It was our first time eating indoors in a restaurant in over a year. When we walked in, there was nobody waiting at the host station. We waited for a long time, watching college basketball play on five different TVs. “This is awkward,” my daughter announced, loudly. I would have been embarrassed, but the host didn’t come for a full five minutes after that and I was pleased that my daughter had used the word correctly. Being able to identify situations that call for a joke is a skill that will serve her well.
In the car on the way to town, my daughter had asked, “What’s a forager?” That was the name of the restaurant where we were eating. “It’s a person that gathers food from nature, kiddo. You know, nuts and berries and plants.” Sitting at a table on the edge of the dining room, my daughter stared at something around a corner and out of my sight. “What’s a forager again, mama?” She didn’t look away from whatever she was staring at. I repeated the definition I’d given her in the car, referencing nuts and berries. “Then, um, what’s that person holding?” I craned my neck around the corner to see what she was looking at. There was a flat metal silhouette of a hunter on the wall next to what looked like the restaurant’s front door. Ah. We had come in the back. That explained the awkward wait. The hunter had a gun slung over one shoulder and an axe hanging low in the other hand. He was absolutely draped in game. There was what looked like a bison on his back, birds in the hand with the axe, and two good-sized fish dangling from the front of the gun. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know my daughter’s had a hard time with death this year, with dead animals inspiring especially great distress. We’re raising her to be an ethical meat eater, though, so she knows where her food comes from. I adjusted the answer I’d given her before. “Oh. I guess he’s foraging for meat.” She didn’t balk, and ordered a burger with bacon and cheese from the adult menu.
We wore masks until the food came. The server brought out a bowl of steaming hot french onion soup first. My husband and I dug in and burned our tongues. My daughter slipped her mask down to try a bite but didn’t love it. “Why is it so scummed over?” she asked, pulling her mask back up until her meal came. I have friends who brag about their kids’ diligence with masking, holding them up as examples to either inspire or shame adults into behaving better, depending on your perspective. Believe me, that’s exactly the kind of self-righteous mom I am, and I’d brag about my kid’s masking too if there was anything to brag about. She hates wearing masks, though. Last year, she whined when I ask her to put one on and begged to take it off after playing hard for a long time. She says it makes it hard to breathe. Often, she simply chose to stay inside over going to the park or going for a walk. That changed when she started going to school in February. Now she puts her mask on as soon as she leaves the house and doesn’t breathe a bad word against them. I think she realized what she was missing and doesn’t want to risk losing it again. Masks are the trade off. I told my neighbor we didn’t see anyone in Michigan, but that’s not entirely true. We saw proprietors and patrons of small businesses and travelers and most of them were unmasked. We should have planned for it but we didn’t. Our love for Michigan is outsized. We see the forests but not the people. Anyway, the people walking around unmasked indoors with casual disregard for our comfort or safety made me see my daughter’s willingness to wear the masks she detests without complaint in a new light. There are ways in which my coddled city kid is tougher than the burly backwoods Michiganders I was afraid to park behind.
Back to the Forager. The waitstaff there were all masked, though our server’s cloth face covering drooped unfortunately below her nose. We reassured herself that she was probably vaccinated. As a restaurant worker, she would have been eligible, and I’d heard that vaccines were easier to come by in Michigan than Illinois. We told ourselves she was not an anti-vaxxer. We told ourselves she was someone who cared. She seemed like she cared about her job, anyway. We were genuinely unworried. We let our daughter take her time finishing her monster burger. While we waited, my husband wrote out a grocery list. He was making biscuits and gravy for breakfast the next day. The list, when it was finished, was pure Michigan, topped off with Clancy’s Fancy Hot Sauce. I’ve always hated the “Pure Michigan” slogan. It conjures up old Sunday School lessons about used gum and white temples and the squirmy feeling I get when adults talk about adolescent sexuality. The revamped “Two Peninsulas, One Pure Michigan” slogan is even grosser. Loving how much it gives me the creeps, he scrawled “Pure Michigan” at the top of the grocery list, except he wrote it in slanty cursive, so it looked like it said, “Purl Michigan.” That gave me an idea. I grabbed the paper and drew a quick sketch of a quintessential lake girl with a flippy ponytail and a mask drooping underneath her nose. We giggled and when our daughter realized why we were laughing I put my finger to my lips and asked her not to say anything about the mask. I didn’t want to hurt our server’s feelings.
When it was time to go, I grabbed my daughter and danced in the empty dining room to the electropop that had been making me shake my shoulders all afternoon. We’d danced our way out of the almost empty beer garden at Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids the day before, too. Our server at the Forager watched us and I think she was smiling.
We stopped for firewood and groceries before going back to the lake house. I waited in the car with our daughter, knowing we didn’t have any more risk points to spend, if we ever had them in the first place. When my husband got back in the car he said, “I hope I got everything. I left the grocery list at the restaurant.” I thought about our server turning over the paper and recognizing seeing herself in the lake girl with the droopy mask. I thought about how she would have seen our Illinois address when she ran the credit card. For the first time all day, I wondered, Are we the assholes?
It’s a good joke to end this post on that note, but I don’t really think it’s true. We live in a liberal bubble, but we never tried to insulate ourselves here. We have a way of seeing the world that’s influenced by where we live but we don’t pretend it’s the only way to live. We try to venture out with respect and live our values wherever we are. I never fail to think of ways we could do it better, but that doesn’t mean we’re not doing our best. We’re trying, you know?
This week I realized that people acknowledge the anniversary of the pandemic on different days: the day the WHO declared a pandemic, the day the US descended into a state of emergency, the day your town imposed stay-at-home orders, assuming you were ever subject to the them, the day the kids came home from school or, if it was spring break, the day they didn’t go back. The multiplicity of anniversaries is one more marker of the the pandemic’s differentiating effect. It his us at different times, in different ways, and to different degrees. The variances aren’t insignificant. They are overwhelming in their unfairness. My household will be acknowledging one year of sheltering in place with ice cream, because that’s what we stayed up late eating when we needed something that felt soft and good. Other households will be offering prayers over their dead.
Today marks the anniversary of the last time I took my daughter to church. We were there for choir practice. I sat in the back and listened to a friend whose wife is a teacher whisper that their district was having meetings where they were saying they were getting ready to close. A Catholic school on the Northshore had already shuttered, but this was the first I’d heard about public schools. I wasn’t worried, though. Their district was different than ours. Smaller. Wealthier. Whiter. I made my eyes big at her and, against medical advice, put my hands on my face. “Oh no. I’m so sorry.” She had a son in first grade and a preschooler at home. “I can’t imagine that will happen in Evanston, though. People don’t have the resources. All that childcare.”
On the way out of the church, my daughter stopped in front of a person-sized poster standing in the foyer. There was a picture of a cell phone and on the screen it said “God calling.” My daughter ran over to the poster and put her hand on the big green button. “Aw, good girl, you’re picking up.” “She doesn’t really have a choice,” our pastor pointed out from where she was standing nearby. There were two buttons on the phone, and both were green.
Today is also the anniversary of the last time we ate inside a restaurant. My daughter and I went out every week after choir practice. It was our decadent tradition, but it wasn’t sitting right with me. I knew people were panic-buying hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and I’d been reading about something called “social distancing” in the news the last few days, but I wasn’t really sure what it meant. I texted my husband.
Me: “Is it a good idea to take D to a restaurant tonight? Maybe we should just get takeout.”
Him: “We can’t change our whole lives.”
I took my daughter to Tsim Sha Tsu for hot pot and picked a table in the corner, away from the other guests. The dining room was tiny, but making the effort made me feel responsible. Was this social distancing? The other thing I’d been hearing a lot about was racist discrimination against Asians. A lot of it was coming from the mouth of our then-President, but it was also playing out in the streets. It seemed more important to keep eat inside a Chinese restaurant than to change my mind about eating inside a Chinese restaurant.
A year ago today I was in the shadows but not in the dark. I knew some, but not enough, and I didn’t know what to do with what I knew.
A year ago I was weeks away from covering my face and months away from buying proper masks for me and my daughter.
A year ago I was slammed at work.
A year ago I was in the best physical shape of my life.
A year ago I was spending my nights writing my life story because it wouldn’t stop screaming at me and I knew I needed to write it down or it would destroy me from the inside out.
A year ago I was in the middle of Lent. I think I gave up Instagram.
This year I gave up giving things up.
The pandemic took too much.
A year ago tomorrow I left work early to hunt down groceries and couldn’t find any. That’s when the pandemic became real; when I thought we might not eat. We ordered local takeout twice a week for a year and I traded meals and loaves of bread with my friends from Taiwan and Korea but that didn’t stop the restaurants from closing down or the violent hate crimes against Asians.
In two days we’ll mourn a full year of in-person education, lost. The pandemic came to Evanston and it came for our public schools, resources or not. When people assured me my daughter would be fine because of all that we have–an at-home parent, a steady internet connection and extra tablet, time to invest in helping her learn–I nodded and said, “You’re right.” When things started to break down at home and people suggested we just pull her out for a year, to even out the achievement gap, I rolled my eyes kept but my mouth shut. I wasn’t sticking her in front of a screen all day for the education. I wrote that off as lost a long time ago. Virtual school was the only interaction with other kids my daughter was having. The system was non-functional, but she’d be non-functional without it. When people came for the superintendent for saying he would take an equitable approach to reopening by prioritizing marginalized students, I defended the policy. It’s fair. It’s just. It’s the right thing to do. Privately, I was terrified there wouldn’t be enough space for my kid. When we got the email before winter break that she hadn’t made the cut to go back, I was terrified we wouldn’t make it through the rest of the year. I don’t know what I thought would happen, just that things had gotten so bad, I didn’t know how we would keep going. I emailed the principal. “I know it’s not just about us. I know other people need this more. But if there is space after all the other priority flags have been considered, will you also the mental health impacts of prolonged social isolation on children with no siblings, no extended family, no pod?” When the time came to go back to school on an impossible hybrid schedule (two hours and twenty minutes a day, four times a week), enough families pulled out and a spot opened up for my daughter.
A year in, I know more. I know better. But I still don’t think I’m doing anything right.
I can’t believe it lasted this long. Not the pandemic in general, I’m not talking about that. I’m not talking about the public health restrictions. I feel every one of the 233 days since my town ordered us to shelter-in-place. What I can’t believe is that it took me this long to work up enough feeling about masks to take to my blog with a petty politicized invective. Is this even a COVID diary if I don’t defend my masking choices by slamming someone else’s? I mask up in accordance with local mandate, which means I wear one in public indoor spaces and outside when I can’t maintain six feet of distance between myself and others. I haven’t written about this because it is eminently reasonable and thus utterly boring.
I’ve had thoughts about masks, of course, but they haven’t been all that interesting. I’ve had opinions about masks, obviously, but they haven’t been especially charged. In the spring I wondered why so many runners bothered with pulling a neck gaiter up over their noses when they are made of sweat wicking material specifically designed to pull water droplets through and out. Later, I felt validated when I saw the (misleading) reports about that study that supposedly showed that neck gaiters are worse than no mask at all but also sad when I saw people use those articles to shame parents who put their kids in gaiters because they were the only masks their kids would keep on. In the summer I felt frustrated trying to find and buy masks after holding off on buying them all spring because I thought they were in short supply. Later, I felt embarrassed and ashamed when I realized that the valved N95s that my husband managed to track down did not filter air going out and were, in fact, worse than no mask at all. I’ve felt like a badass in a bandana but afraid people would judge me for not having a more protective mask. I’ve worried that the cheap masks from Target are too thin. I’ve worried that the stretchy masks from Costco are exacerbating the eczema behind my kid’s ears. I’ve worried about the big wet spot that appears on the front from her constant tonguing of the fabric. I’ve felt cute and political in my ankara print mask from Akese Stylelines and also worried that I was appropriating. I’ve worried that basically all the masks gap too much around my jaw because it turns out that I have a small face on the front of my large head. I’ve flipped out when I catch my daughter outside without her mask on and tugged it up over her nose when we’re in public. I’ve given my husband the wild eyed look with palms turned up in the air that means “. . . MASK???? . . .” when he steps into the common area in front of our townhouse without one.
With all my trying to get it right, I’ve had a hard time getting worked up over whether and how other people mask. Would I prefer people to wear masks in semi-crowded public spaces? Sure. But the way I see it is, I don’t have to be in those spaces. I don’t have to run on the lakefront trail. I don’t have to walk downtown. I don’t have to go to the apple orchard or the coffee shop. When I choose to venture out of my bubble I assume the risk of running into someone who interprets the guidance differently than I do or left their mask at home or just doesn’t care.
Living in a state that responded to COVID with strict public health measures, it can be easy to judge the rest of the country. When my family camped in Michigan this summer, we drove out to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park for a day at the beach. When we got out of the car I immediately thought, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” The beach was crammed and nobody was wearing masks. We considered leaving, but we’d driven a long way, and wanted to try to make it work. Our friends, who have mastered the art of staying calm in stressful situations, found a shady patch of grass up on a hill away from the crowds and spread out a few blankets and we spent a happy afternoon playing frisbee in the sand and swimming in the lake, which was rocky, frigid, and mostly empty. Before that, though, when we were walking up and down the beach looking for a spot, I wore a mask, and I wore a mask when I took my daughter to the bathroom and made her tie a bandana around her face, too. On our way back from the bathroom, two park employees stopped to thank us. “We’ve seen over five hundred people over the course of two days and only five in masks,” is what they said. Well that made me feel pretty virtuous, and I felt damn near holy when the cashier at the camp store thanked me for complying with the “mask, please” sign hanging on the door after dealing with another customer who had gotten grumpy after being asked to leave. The afterglow dissipated when the friends we were camping with–Michiganders, but the kind who wear masks, not the kind who plot to kidnap their governor–pointed out that all those hundreds of people at the beach weren’t out of bounds with the law or a single park rule. If the park wanted people to wear masks on park grounds, it should make people wear masks on park grounds. If it wanted to cap admissions, it should start counting and kicking people out. But the National Parks don’t require masks and, at the time, Michigan didn’t either.
I heard from a friend that lives in a college town that students aren’t getting tested when they have COVID symptoms because they don’t want to be responsible for their friends, roommates, classmates, and teammates having to quarantine. I know, I know, college students are so stupid and short-sighted, right? Generation Z, the worst. But here’s another take: why are we asking eighteen-year-olds to make these decisions and then getting mad when they act like their frontal cortex isn’t fully developed? It’s not entirely different from the absurdity of asking essential workers who get sick to choose between a paycheck and protecting the health of the public and expecting that the vast majority of them won’t choose to feed their own families. These are not decisions people should have to make on their own.
I’m not willing to hold citizens accountable for failures of leadership. Do I think it’s dumb dumb dumb to run around Target without a mask on? Of course I do, but if you’re in a state or a city that permits it, I understand how a person might think it’s okay. That’s not to say my approach to masking is solely grounded in what’s legal. I wore a mask when we camped with my family in Michigan and when we went apple picking in McHenry County last week. I like to think I’d wear one if I lived in a state where it wasn’t required, but the truth is, I have no idea. It’s easy to be out of step with the people around you for an afternoon or a week. It’s harder to be vigilant over the long haul, especially when the people around you seem to be having more fun and not getting sick.
If I lived in another state, or worked in a job that required me to interface with the public, I might have a less charitable view. It must be infuriating to be doing your part to get cases down and see people flaunting their disregard for other people. It must be genuinely scary to be forced to deal with people who post a direct threat to the health of you and your loved ones. Earlier this week, I was talking to my sister who lives in Trumpland. We were on the phone and I was walking around my neighborhood. It was a cold, cloudy day and I saw maybe five people in ninety minutes. I gave them all a wide berth, as I always do when I’m not wearing a mask. My sister was telling me about people who refuse to wear masks to church. She was frustrated, and rightfully so. I was in the middle of telling her how different it is where I live when a man stuck his head out of a storefront I was walking by and screamed, “Put your mask on!” Well, damn. I guess different isn’t always better.
I didn’t respond because I was absorbed in my phone call, and I was glad I didn’t because there’s no easy comeback to that kind of calling out. I’ve known there are people in my town who think you should don a mask every time you step outside. I know it because I’ve watched them go at it in all caps on the local groups on Facebook and Nextdoor before I got off those apps for mental health. In this man’s mind, and probably a lot of people’s minds, he was right. He was the good person, expressing the righteous view. I was complying with our (relatively strict!) local ordinance, I was outside with nobody else around (he opened his door just to yell at me!), but he was the only one wearing a mask in a pandemic.
I had a hard time shaking the encounter. It made me angry, frankly. I’m comfortable with the approach I’ve taken to masking. It’s legal and reasonable and, I think, respectful of others. I thought I was okay with the fact that people disagree with me, but apparently my okayness was more in theory than practice. The truth is I want people to approve of my choices. Of course, that’s functionally impossible when it comes to an issue as polarizing as COVID in a country as polarized as the United States. If I lived in my parents’ America the mask I wear most of the time would invite a suspicious side eye or worse. In my town, the mask I leave in my pocket on a life-saving mid-day walk around my quiet neighborhood invites open condemnation. This makes me want to hate both states and both sides, but I know this is a failure of leadership, too. People shouldn’t have to bear a disproportionate shares of the burden of protecting the public health based on where they live and their tendencies toward perfectionism.
If I can’t make everybody happy, I at least want people to understand my choices, the way I try to do for them. My therapist asked me what I would have liked to say to the man who had yelled at me if I hadn’t been on the phone, and the best I could come up with was an annoyed “ugh” combined with pointed gestures up and around at all the fresh air and many feet of distance between us. It wouldn’t have been satisfying, though. It wouldn’t have communicated a fraction of what I wanted to say. What I want people to know is that I read the federal, state, and local guidelines and try to follow them. What I want people to know is that my daughter won’t go back to school before the end of the calendar year and probably not before the end of the school year. What I want people to know is that I haven’t seen my family in almost a year and probably won’t see them for another full year after that. What I want people to know is that I haven’t set foot in another person’s home or eaten in a restaurant or worshipped in public or worked in an office or worked out in a gym or shopped for groceries in person or flown on a plane or done all kinds of things that have been technically allowed for a long time (at least until my town reinstated restrictions last week). What I want people to know is that I’m doing my part to stop community spread. What I want is a stamp of approval from the progressive community whose validation I value and whose judgment fear. What I want is a verdict in my favor: I am not the asshole. The alternative is too upsetting to contemplate–is it possible that everything I’ve done is not enough?–until I spy the failure of leadership. If following every applicable law, regulation, and order is not enough, we need new guidance and somebody besides the loudest lady on Facebook to enforce it.
I know there’s an easier way to get what I want than writing this screed that will mainly be read by my out-of-state family. I could just wear a mask, like, all the time. Am I an asshole if I acknowledge here that masks work to stop the virus from spreading but they are also highly effective as a virtue signal? Once I ran a little ways down the lakefront trail after it opened back up in the city until I got to a sign that said “Please wear face coverings.” I stopped and pulled the stretchy headband I’d been using to keep the sweat out of my eyes over my mouth. Running with a mask is terribly unpleasant so I turned around and ran back to the street, pushing the headband back up as soon as I got off the trail, but not before I snapped a picture of myself making a peace sign with my face all covered up.
I wrote most of this post last week, when I was simmering in judgment, resentment, and anger. I was mad at the guy who yelled at me. I was mad about people in my community passing around that viral Facebook post from a mom who said she was “over” hearing people complain about how much their kids had lost during the pandemic. I was mad at every house with a “We’re in this together sign” hanging in the window. When I saw those houses, I fumed. “We’re not in shit together. All I know the fuck about you is that you live in a million dollar house and aren’t afraid to stake out safe political positions with your yard signs. You don’t know I exist.”
In twelve step recovery they say that resentments will kill us faster than a drink, but I didn’t hate that agitated state. Anger, in doses, is easier to live with than depression. Anger is fire. Depression is a heavy bog. Anger is something to talk about. Depression is a closed mouth. Anger moves up and out. Depression is here to stay. Anger is. Depression is a lack. Anger is dangerous–I might hurt someone I know, or someone I don’t. Depression is dangerous too, except it only hurts me. I should have tried rage ages ago. Honestly, I’d like a little credit for the fact that I didn’t.
I’ve mostly cooled off now. Halloween was a gorgeous sunny, blustery day and my neighborhood were perfectly wonderful. Shockingly, the city let people trick-or-treat. I took my daughter out with a few friends, masked and socially distanced. Lots of families turned their porch lights off and celebrated at home but the people that opted to participate in a community Halloween pulled out all stops to make the night safe and festive with homemade staircase candy chutes, jury-rigged pulley systems, elaborate tables, Mardi Gras-style balcony drops, treats delivered by fishing net and lacrosse stick and pushed across a shuffleboard table, and candy-lined fences and graveyards. A few houses used chalk and tape to mark socially-distanced paths up to the porches, but they didn’t need to. Kids know the drill now and when they forgot, their parents screamed it for the neighbors’ benefit: “OLIVER/CHARLOTTE/LIAM/OLIVIA! BACK UP! WAIT YOUR TURN! GIVE THEM SPACE!” I had to scream at my kid a few times, too. “HOLD UP! SAY THANK YOU! GO STAND OVER THERE IF YOU WANT TO EAT A PIECE OF CANDY!”
There was one time I wanted to scream and didn’t. At the end of the night another family started riding up on us. I looked back, startled and annoyed. It was a weirdly attractive couple, a mom and dad with three kids, one in a stroller but two definitely school-aged. None of them were wearing masks. It took everything I had not to scream in their faces, “PUT YOUR MASK ON!”