Friday, March 12, 2021

March 12: one year of COVID-19

The date will vary from person to person, but for almost everyone in the world, the world changed drastically sometime between March 9 and 13, 2020. WIRED says March 11. For me, it was one day later, which was one year ago today.

There was, of course, buildup to March 12.

I don’t remember when I first encountered the word “COVID,” which is not surprising, because you rarely know at first glance what is going to stick around and be significant. But mostly likely it crossed my radar the day it was announced, 2/11/20.

On 2/28, at a restaurant in Los Angeles, and at a time when “restaurants” and “travel” were unassailable parts of regular life for many, a friend asked me what I was doing to prepare. 

I actually asked “Prepare for what?”

He said the virus. I said “Nothing.” He (or rather his bewildered wife) said he’d been overstocking up on essentials. Like his wife, I thought that was extreme, but I generally trust my friends’ judgment to be sounder than mine, so when I got home, I bought more than the usual amount of water and (guilty) toilet paper. 

That was the start and end of my preparation.

On 3/10, I emailed several Michigan schools I was scheduled to speak at the following week: “Is there any talk of your schools/district closing because of the virus? As of now, I’m still prepared to come, but if closing is an imminent possibility there, then ASAP we should discuss rescheduling.”

That night, I spoke to teens (including my own) at a synagogue event, before which we ate—with an empty seat between us. The head of youth programming called it “social distancing.” That was the first time I’d heard the term.

The next day, one of the Michigan schools replied: “As of now we are planning to be in session, but our county is closely monitoring the situation. We will contact immediately if we hear plans of closing. For now, let’s stick to the plan, unless you need to adjust plans on your end.”

Then I flew to Ohio without knowing—or considering—that this would be my last in-person school visit for more than a year (and counting). 

I did take a precaution. I wore my thin running gloves on the flight. I felt a bit silly, but let my belief in science overrule my self-consciousness. I don’t remember noticing many others also gloved and, of course, no one was wearing a mask.

That night, I went to multiple local stores to buy wipes, and even in rural Ohio, where the alarm bells were not as loud, the shelves were already picked clean. 

My wife and I had invited friends to our house for my birthday that weekend, but I erred on the side of caution and called it off. One of my friends said that was ridiculous—“we can just bring hand sanitizer.” Three other friends thought it was sensible. 

At the 3/12 visit at Champion Middle School in Warren, Ohio, I politely declined handshakes (and I’d already switched from high-fives to fist bumps years earlier). For the book signing, I asked that the kids stay on the other side of the table from where I sat. Some adults may have thought these actions were standoffish or hysterical. 

I always savor my time on stage and my interaction with audiences. Looking back, I wish I knew I should savor 3/12 on a whole other level while it was happening.

That afternoon at the hotel, I got the email some friends around the country had already posted about: school closing. My kids’ district would be on hold for the next two weeks.

Two weeks sounded like a long time. How quaint, now.

That’s when it got real for me.

Optimistically and also foolishly, I followed this revelation by emailing my high school class to announce the 30th reunion several of us had been planning for October. I acknowledged the virus in the first line, but the assumption was it would be long gone by summer, let alone fall. Only slightly surprisingly, not one of my 225+ classmates replied to the email. (Hopefully, the reunion will be rescheduled for this fall.)

I woke up to emails from schools in Michigan and probably elsewhere saying they, too, were closing effective immediately. Thus began a frantic hourslong odyssey to change or cancel a slew of school visit/conference flights, rental cars, and hotels. A Delta Air Lines recording said the wait time would be more than six hours. The customer service reps I did reach were already frazzled, understandably so. And it was only just beginning.

Soon I would be indefinitely postponing speaking engagements in Delaware, Connecticut, California, Oregon, New York, North Carolina, Taiwan. Not to mention trips to local friends’ houses, the library, the comic book store.

I told my wife I didn’t think it was a good idea for our kids to hang out with other kids for the time being. She’s usually the more cautious about such things, and she thought I was overreacting. For the time being.

Soon more than two weeks’ worth of our kids’ precious rites of passage would be canceled or transformed. They were reborn as Generation R (Resilient). 

At the airport, before flying home, I posed with my favorite flier: Superman. His invulnerability sure would come in handy for what was looming. Though that was impossible, he embodies something else that was within our grasp: hope. 

I asked the gate agent for a seat that was not next to anyone else. She said “You already have one”—without asking for my seat number or even looking at the screen.

Everyone was given an island seat. No request needed.

My hometown airport didn’t seem less crowded until I got to rideshare pickup area, which is usually mobbed but that night was almost empty.

I got up in (or stayed up till, don’t remember) the middle of the night to try to reach some of the travel-related companies whose phone lines were down earlier that day, and that way I got through.

In the coming days, weeks, months, we’d all have to find a way to get through. 

The next day was my 48th birthday and the unofficial start of everyone’s first pandemic.

I did errands. I did what would be the first of scores of Zooms—a virtual birthday party. Soon there would be virtual happy hours, mini-reunions, keynotes, bar mitzvahs, seders, shivas, fundraisers, meetings, doctor’s appointments, and more. I knew I didn’t have to wear pants for them, but we all have our coping mechanisms to maintain a connection to life as we knew it.

On 3/15, we told our kids we wouldn’t be gathering with others for a while. They already sensed that, and they accepted it without resistance. 

Upon the public recommendation of my friend Raina Telgemeier, I began a “coronavirus journal” on 3/16—only four days but also a lifetime since my Zero Hour date of 3/12. As of this writing, that journal is 46 pages in Word. Some of the memories shared here come from there. Many of the memories are for another moment.

Some of the memories are universally understood even when unspoken. The virus vernacular became the world’s script. The ultimate ensemble with heartbreaking twists on an unprecedented scale. The greatest of the great equalizers (not to be confused with the great equity-izer, which doesn’t yet exist).

The lives lost. 

The living heartbroken.

The stress intensified. The education interrupted. The jobs jettisoned. The future questioned. The priorities reexamined. The creativity challenged. The pollution reduced. The traffic absent. The outdoors rediscovered. The family dinners unrushed. The alarm unset. The game nights. The (home) movie nights. The movie days. The hair clippers, patio heater, bidet. The living-room-cum-ballet-studio. The vacant-school-parking-lot-cum-soccer-practice-for-one. The go-go-go gone gone gone. 

The very very bad punctuated, with no predictability or consistency, by pockets of good. The worst of virology countered by the best of humanity.

There will be no happy ending to COVID-19. Technically, there will be no concrete ending, either. But there will be an end to the new variant of life that started on 3/12. We will always remember the scares and carry the scars but we will no longer be confused and confined. 

COVID-19 forced us all into a new kind of virtual reality. What comes next will also be new for us, but new on our own terms to the best of our ability. Though hardship will remain, and in some cases grow, we will be a different kind of free than anyone in our lifetimes has ever been. We will see toothy smiles again. We will catch up on hugs.

We will return to the stage. 

No comments: