Dispatches from a Pandemic: Everything is insane. Everything is normal – How to cope with all the dizzying coronavirus news while still sheltering in place

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It’s one of civilization’s darkest hours, and all I can do to help is the dishes.

Life hunkered down with my family in our cozy suburban gulag is marked by equal parts helplessness and household chores. Each day, the stories and statistics grow more terrifying. And yet, each day is bookended, as always, by picking up after the dogs.

I am not complaining. The fact that I am able to work from home, work out from home, play board games with my wife and kids from home, and even take piano lessons via Zoom from home, is the epitome of white-collar privilege. It’s an embarrassment of routine riches at a time when so many are getting sick, even dying; so many are losing their livelihoods; and so many others — nurses, doctors, and food-delivery workers — put themselves at risk on the front lines.

Everything is insane. Everything is normal. How could both these things be true?

The last time I felt this way was the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, when I stood at the corner of West Houston Street and Sixth Avenue at the intersection of two opposite Manhattans. Looking downtown, I saw a smoldering hellscape where the twin towers no longer stood. But when I craned my neck to face uptown, the view was just as unsettling. Everything looked … normal. An almost ordinary day in New York. How could both these things be true?

In journalism we are drawn, like moths to flaming buildings, to what changes. News is change. But equally important is the negative space of news: that which stubbornly doesn’t change.

The horrors inflicted by the coronavirus are a slow-burn story. Like disgraced politicians, we’ve all resigned to spend more time with our families. And for most of us there is nothing to do but wait for things to inevitably get much worse before they get better.

Parmenides said that “nothing comes from nothing.” Paul Newman said “sometimes nothing is a real cool hand.” How could both these things be true?

Social scientists say a crisis like COVID-19 is a “focusing event,” one that recalibrates public policy and cultural norms. This collective focusing may not happen quickly enough. But it is a focusing event for each of us individually as well.

“Be careful,” my 12-year-old son said to my 73-year-old mother. “I could not live without you.”

I would like to believe this self-quarantine can be a focusing event. An opportunity for self-examination and for getting my priorities in order. Thoreau social distanced at Walden Pond to “transact some private business with the fewest obstacles.” But who can be as thorough a thinker as Thoreau now that we all have the internet for a companion. Who can get anything done at all with two kids attending middle school in our kitchen?

This is not really a focusing event. I literally cannot focus at all. I’ve aged six years hunched over my laptop for these last two weeks to the point where I can no longer see the words on my screen. It’s now clear I need to stop pretending and start wearing the damn reading glasses.

This news cycle similarly destroyed what’s left of my attention span and concentration. I’d like to see Thoreau string a few coherent sentences of deep insight together after six hours of Google hangouts.

My kids have had endless questions about the coronavirus story and have been curious at the opportunity to watch me work. Yes, they really are that bored. When I explained the contours of my day, one of my sons said I sound like the overweight, over-the-hill cop in all the movies who “has a desk job, while the real detectives go out and solve the crimes.” Ouch, but true.

The world turned upside down. It also kept spinning. Both things can be true.

This can be a focusing event. And we can just try to make it through the day. These can be long days of despair — and also opportunities to laugh.

It’s hard to imagine with all the grim news and wild swings of the Dow DJIA, +2.39%, but things will eventually return to something vaguely like normal. Until then, we can all take some comfort knowing there will be plenty of dishes — and dog poop.

Until then, I will do more or less what I did on that morning in 2001: Grab a bagel and start walking toward the smoke.

Well, this time I’ll probably do it without leaving my makeshift desk — and with the reading glasses on.

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