Social Distancing

Reading is one of the many things one can during social distancing.

I read the news today. Oh boy, that was an awful decision.

What started in a food market in a city most have never heard of is now, according to the World Health Organization, a pandemic — “pan” meaning “all;” “demos” meaning “people.”

Yesterday, Brazos County officials announced they had discovered our first local case of novel coronavirus. Several hours later, College Station’s mayor issued a formal Declaration of Disaster. Following that, Texas A&M officials announced that the rest of the semester, including finals, will be completed online.

Best not to think about such things all at once. Day by day, that’s the mantra. For the last handful of years, my friends and I have made a Dec. 31 toast: that the upcoming 365 days will be less exciting than those which preceded it. We have been disappointed every time.

We were disappointed early this year. I ask: Does anyone remember that, not three months ago, we were frantic because the president’s casual assassination of an Iranian official nearly launched us into WWIII? You had forgotten, hadn’t you? Me too, and I wrote about it. What’s worse, we’re only midway through March. That’s plenty of time for the pandemic to be brought under control and for something more traumatic to happen. (Jesus, I am not looking forward to that alien invasion in December.)

BREAKING NEWS: The House and Senate are prepared to pass a stimulus bill for the cratering American economy. It is unclear what to make of Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell working together as if they were (get this) colleagues with far more in common than they’d care to admit. Donald Trump is beginning to act (dare I say it?) presidential.

No, I dare not say it. This situation is not my Operating Systems class. There will be no curve. But I will say this: Our president is a man who said he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone without losing any voters. He is a man who has said women will let him “grab them by the p—sy.” He is a man who, like King Lear before him, raged against nature until nature raged back. This is the man who has shown a noted improvement in demeanor in the last 24 hours. One wonders: What does he know that has brought his ego to heel?

Oh boy. Best not to dwell on the unknowable. And it’s best not to drown in the news.

Besides, there are perks to being in self-isolation. My apartment has never been cleaner. I now know exactly how long 20 seconds is without having to count. Operating Systems, a course I failed twice when I was an undergraduate, has now moved online.

But most importantly, I now have time to catch up on all those TV shows my friends have been hounding me to watch. No, reader, I hadn’t seen “Parks and Rec” before. Yes, it is delightful. Question: is it possible for Ron Swanson to be your spirit animal — misappropriating Native American culture seems appropriate here — if you’ve never voted for a Republican?

I open Facebook and see a meme on social media, reminding everyone to check-in on their extraverted friends. Laughing, I send a message to a woman I’ve known for about 10 years. In that time she has gotten married and now has a four-year-old boy. He sometimes calls me “Uncle Josh.”

“How are you doing?” I ask.

“Not well!” she says. “I have a cough that won’t go away, and this is leaving me stuck inside!”

“Do you think it’s just a cough, or have you come down with the plague?”

“I don't know since no one is being tested!”

“Luckily you aren’t in the danger zone,” I say, referring to the fact that she is only in her 30s.

“I had a mild fever for a while too.”

“Any upper respiratory issues?

“Oh yeah.”

Oh boy. My friend volunteers for a local campaign as a canvasser, going door to door, day by day, spreading the good word. Health professionals have reported cases in her county. Canvassing is the exact opposite of self-isolation, a condition in which my extroverted friend now finds herself slowly being tortured. I give her my condolences and tell her to let me know if she needs anything. We both know that there isn’t much to be done.

Introvert though I am, I need to get out of the house. I’ve suddenly become aware of how loud my refrigerator is, and it is giving me a headache. It is night time, and I drive through the Bryan-College Station area flipping between The Beatles and an NPR podcast recorded before the coronavirus was on America’s radar. Terry Gross is interviewing Claire Daines about the final season of Homeland.

As I drive, I pass a bar on an empty street in which people are loudly celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. I’d facepalm, but one shouldn’t touch their face. And while I do have enough self-awareness to know that columnists don’t have the authority to lecture people about smugness, if I could offer one piece of advice, it would be this: be smart about it. Go eat some Chinese food and wash it down with a Corona, if you must. Now is not the time to be cavalier.

Only after an hour in my car do I come home, now relaxed. News-junkie that I am, I can’t help but check one last time before bed.

Oh boy. The Washington Post has issued several breaking news alerts: All U.S. states are reporting cases. Public officials have shut down San Francisco. America’s death toll is now over 100. No one knows when this will end.

Such is the cost of doing business on planet earth.

Ashes to ashes.

Dust to dust.

Day by day.

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