Tag Archives: coronavirus

On Travel

13 May

Liking travel is among the most generic interests possible. Say you like to “travel” in your dating profile and I will find you basic, only a half-step higher than those who say they value “faith, family, and friends.” Of course you like to travel, but travel is a vehicle for other activities, and if your idea of fun travel means standing in a line at Disney World, it means something very different from clambering up peaks in the Sierras or blissing out at a Mexican beach resort or following an Egyptologist around the ruins of Luxor or sitting at a blackjack table in Vegas or—you get the idea. Travel can take many forms: fast or slow, repeated trips to the same destination or somewhere new every time, or themed trips like quests to knock out all of the national parks or ballparks or theme parks. The mere act tells me nothing about you.

When you say you like to travel, you are really trying to say something else: something about what you value, that you are not closed-minded or narrow person, potentially possessed of certain adventurousness or language skills or general competence in life. It’s also an easy conversation-starter, a likely source of an interesting story that may or may not reveal something interesting about the teller. We travel to say we’ve seen things that other people in our circles have seen (or, even better, have not seen) and make ourselves sound interesting at cocktail parties.

For the most cliched of reasons, we travel to expand our horizons. We go to gawk at beauty: the Grand Canyon, the California coast, the rawness of the Badlands, Lake Superior shores. We go to eat things and meet people, and sometimes we take instrumental travel, like extending a business trip by a day to drink in some local culture. Travel can test us, tell us new things about ourselves, whether we want it to or not. A friend of mine likes to draw a distinction between first-order fun, which is fun that is enjoyable in the moment, and second-order fun, which is not fun in the moment but does appear fun in retrospect. Because travel has a habit of committing itself to one’s memory, it comes to include not only frequent experience in the first category but also plenty in the second. If one is apt to spend one’s time thinking, it may give us some idea of who we are and where we come from, and distance from our mundane day-to-day reality may lead us to see things in new lights, ponder new courses, seek out other new destinations.

Sure, one can also achieve enlightenment in one’s own living room, as is necessary more often than not these days, but newness and difference and sensory overload are far more apt to inspire original thought than the same old drudgery over and over again. I have forgotten the happenings of probably about 350 days of 2018, but the remaining 15 all probably involve sports, travel, or both. Angel’s Landing has a way of lingering in one’s memory. If we’re the sort to record our daily thoughts in some form or another, it is these days that we’ll revisit most often, because the odds of it seeming interesting in retrospect are several orders higher than that of the random Tuesday in April when we went to the gym after work, went home, cooked some dinner, and binged a bit of TV before crashing.

Why this reflection now? Well, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Aside from one drive up to Silver Bay and back, I haven’t gone more than twenty miles since one last work trip up to Aurora two months ago. Even on that venture, we knew it was all going awry: “Everything is going to shit!” one of the younger employees of The Hive, Aurora’s superb coffee shop, declared as she reported for work. One elaborate planned vacation went down the tubes, while I nervously check the latest on my scheduled July destinations for updates on openings and campground regulations. Postponed vacations are among the least sad consequences of the coronavirus, but their loss still diminishes the glow of life.

I am fortunate to live in a picturesque city equipped with enough green space that only in certain locations does it feel uncomfortable to recreate outside, even in the midst of a pandemic. Plenty of other scenic attractions are just a short drive away, and I have no worries of exhausting the list of good hiking destinations for each weekend. Travel, paradoxically, can make one more observant of one’s home: more apt to notice how something compares, how there are interesting details in every little neighborhood or jog of coastline. Those skills come in handy during a pandemic.

Even when not traveling, vicarious travel can help fill the void, if imperfectly. I buy the theory that planning a trip can be as much fun as taking one, especially with the resources now at the disposal of us hyper-planners who take care to nail down our locations in each campground or our cultural destinations in each city we visit and take a twisted pleasure in filling every second of every day with something. The key, then, is making sure we can adapt when expectations and reality do not align. A novice traveler plans everything and expects it all to happen that way; a real traveler sets plans knowing it will all go wrong but still loves it anyway.

Travel can also be metaphorical. Anyone who has been somewhere I’ve called home knows that, once I run out of other decorations, I just paper walls with maps. Maps are symbols, fictional representations of a complex reality, an attempt to capture a few useful aspects for useful human consumption. I like maps because they are attempts to understand a slice of the world, to transport and inspire some imagination without any of the cost or hassles of actual travel, and at their best are a form of art as well. But they also put up some guardrails. They tell us what is important and what is not. Some have edges and blank spaces that invite us to see what they hold, and even if we can now go into street view to see what things look like there, the sensory experience is still far short of reality. A good map invites more questions than it provides answers.

Digital versions of maps both expand and constrict our understanding of what they capture. We can zoom in and out endlessly, toggle on and off features that interest us much more easily than on the analog kind. But digital maps are also a crutch, a replacement for situational awareness if one chooses to rely on them for directions, and I am not infrequently stunned by the complete inability of people in my generation to know where anything is without first looking it up. Even for a rigid planner, travel is at its best when it allows for sensory awareness, the ability to drink in the entirety of our surroundings and react to them, to become one with them instead of flailing one’s way through them. Virtual reality can’t come close to that.

Travel for leisure is, effectively, a modern invention. Sure, Herodotus and Marco Polo went on epic journeys, but most of their ilk had ulterior motives, not discovery for its own sake. The very notion that there were new lands out there to discover was somewhat foreign for the medieval mind. Yuval Noah Harari calls Amerigo Vespucci, the man who got a few continents named after him, “the first modern man,” as he was the first explorer who had the courage to say he didn’t know where he was. He wasn’t in the East Indies; he’d found something entirely new, and the maps that followed his travels contained blank spaces for the first time. That willingness to admit uncertainty and go out and try to figure it out, so natural to us moderns, was a radical notion that emerged from the Renaissance, and while it is certainly tied up in all of the imperial and colonial adventures that followed, it is hard not to see it as a stunning human achievement.

For us late moderns, it’s become fashionable to doubt the idea of travel and discovery as something transformative: between technology and the relative ease with which one can (in normal times) penetrate every corner of the globe, it’s easy to presume we have no great discoveries left. We’ve reached the logical extent in the frontier theory of American history, and are now consigned to decadence and ennui. Travel has become a source of Instagram photos, a form of conspicuous consumption and privilege, subtle and not so subtle. Why deal with all the hassle?

Roger Cohen thinks we can still find that edge in our travels, though, and I tend to agree, and hope this virus will remind a few more people of the power of getting lost. Some of us are just plagued by wanderlust, hungry for new answers even though we know the new ones will probably just invite yet more questions and set us off down a spiral of discovery that Vespucci and his contemporaries kicked off over 500 years ago. This is a feature, not a bug: the quest is endless, and that hunger for discovery can continue to be a fountain of the creative thought we need to avoid tautological lives. May we soon be free to travel again, even if it means fewer crowded stadiums or bazaars and more idle strolls down cobblestone streets or nights in lonely tents. There is still more to see.

Living History on Empty Streets

3 May

“Duluth is a bit off-center, both literally and figuratively—something most Duluthians don’t seem to mind at all. After all, this is the city whose skyway system runs partially underground, where the West End is located in the city’s geographic center, and whose annual Christmas City of the North parade is held a week before Thanksgiving. Duluth may be a little bit off-center, but part of what makes Duluth Duluth is that here, true north isn’t always where you’d expect it to be.”

-Tony Dierckins, Duluth: An Urban Biography

Sheltering in place gives a devotee to a city even more time to learn it intimately. I read Tony Dierckins’ new biography of the city, which fits the bill of a pre-founding-to-present history that I pined for on this blog some while back. The Biography really only left me hungry for more: it clocks in at just under 170 pages and could easily have been double that length if it were to thoroughly explore structural forces and the lives of prominent figures beyond a series of mayors and those who crossed their paths. Still, the Biography was welcome step beyond Tony’s previous fun vignettes and collections, most of which peter out somewhere in the middle of the 20th century. Granted, Duluth’s history becomes somewhat less romantic in that stretch; the great turn-of-the-century wealth faded, the growth stalled, and the architecture wandered away from an eclectic opulence to something much more mundane. Still, the Biography is a reminder that this city’s history has always been one of awkward lurches, of rises and falls, and a quest for some sort of stability in the aftermath.

Dierckins, citing Arthur W. Baum, likens Duluth to a stumbling prizefighter. (I would have used a hockey analogy, but this one will certainly do.) This city has been battered and bloodied by history: shock after economic shock, a lynch mob that killed its diversity, leadership both bold and questionable. Only rarely has Duluth seemed in control of its own fate, as when its early residents dug the shipping canal (a much more professional and mundane process than some local legends would have you believe), or when late 20th century leadership slowly turned the city back toward first Lake Superior and later the St. Louis River as centerpieces. So often Duluth’s fortunes depend on the whims of others, or no human at all: distant creditors, the American steel industry, the shifts in transportation that came with the interstate highway system. As the coronavirus now ravages the city’s economy, we embark on yet another lurch.

And so I set out to soak up Duluth’s living, breathing history, my mental record of this moment in time. I go for a run—with the sporadic hike on an off day—every day for a month and a half, and never aimed to take the same route twice. At first there was no real rhyme or reason to my wanderings, but once I realized I’d covered all but a handful of Duluth neighborhoods, I decided to knock out the rest over the span of a week and a half. I checked off the last one this morning when I plowed up Vinland Street to Bayview Heights this morning, just far enough to catch a glimpse of the promised land of Proctor across Boundary Avenue. I’m not one to track my distance religiously as I run, nor to lose myself in music or a podcast: I’m just here to run, and to drink in the world around me with my eyes.

In my adventures I find a few more off-center quirks, like the intersection of Main Street and Central Avenue tucked in next to the paper mill deep on the west side. The top of the hill, somehow, is just one monstrous swamp, enlivened by a springtime frog chorus; a few boys in Piedmont splash through the muck in pursuit of the peepers. Duluth is a college town without college neighborhoods, a tourist town whose great landmark came about thanks to some grumpy residents of a sandbar who were peeved their city built the channel that was the source of all its early wealth. One of our showpiece parks is named for an explorer who never came within a thousand miles of the place. As the wind blows, so goes my comfort, at turns frigid or sweaty, guided by a tailwind or slowed by a blast from straight ahead.

Early Superiorites derided Duluthians as cliff-dwellers, and I could see why as I shot up and down the Point of Rocks at the center of the city. I relish the punishment of the runs that just go straight up into Kenwood or the top of the hill in Woodland or up to Lincoln Middle or that nameless bit of the Hillside by the old Summit School. Even a run along the seemingly more level northeast-to-southwest axis offers up an aggressive climb over the Point of Rocks and a more subtle but equally draining rise up to the ridge at about 24th Avenue East. (It’s easier to see now why Duluth’s old money chose this bit of land to throw up its enduring monuments.) When I moved back to Duluth a few years ago, I noticed a change in my leg muscles as my then-sporadic running routine adjusted to constant slopes.

“Duluth is turning into Chicago,” someone groused to me over the phone recently as he griped about crime and undesirables. I cringed at the lack of perspective and the racial undertones, and in mild defensiveness as a Duluthian with Chicago roots. Still, my runs remind me of what a divided city Duluth can be. I witness a drug deal off Portland Square, while a woman in Endion goes through a tearful break-up on the sidewalk over the phone. A kid on the west side tries to hide his cigarette from passersby as he supervises a younger sibling in the yard. In one of the more modest corners of Duluth Heights, a teenager storms out of a house amid loud shouts, and a neighbor edges down his driveway as he looks on in worry. The coronavirus strain is evident everywhere, but most obvious in places where people have little space to escape from the others in their lives, or where they rely on tenuous networks to prop themselves up. Crises like this strain the threads of our social fabric, and the thicker the weave, the better.

Jane Jacobs’ world is in a coma: all social life is now intentional. Downtown takes on a new bleakness without its weekday street life, middling as it may be. Lincoln Park is as dead as it was fifteen years ago, the virus bringing a sad reversion to a lifeless state in which I only pass two other people on the streets, both of whom may live on the streets. Around Denfeld I brush up against a certain charm, a bit dated but comfortable, pride still evident in most quarters, a sense that we’ll be back to normal before long. Old corner stores, most now turned to small houses, lurk here and there, give a sense of past commerce might have been. Fairmount and Irving inspire different reactions as I cruise through them in a sunny snow squall: a corner of the world aging away, lost to time, or at least any seeming need to keep up with it. Part of me is sympathetic, but the rules of the real estate game are rather less forgiving.

I oversimplify. Morgan Park, that fascinating time capsule, spawns new life in a giant townhome project rising into being on the site of its former school. Down the street, a kid blasts away at puck after hockey puck, and calls out a forlorn, human-contact-craving greeting as I pass. Whatever Gary’s giant trailer park may be, it is not old or tired, and that neighborhood’s industrious residents keep adding new features to the public land next to Stowe school. On the day I head down Highway 23 clear out to Chambers Grove Park, the westernmost tip of the westernmost city on the Great Lakes, a diverse, socially-distanced smattering of people explores the site of Duluth’s earliest settlement here at the base of the dalles of the St. Louis.

The classic narrative pits Duluth’s divides in a battle of east versus west, but anyone who knows the city well knows it’s more complicated. The real dividing line, if there is one, is east of center, maybe starting at Chester Creek and fully turning over at 21st Avenue East. But even that is an oversimplification. Duluth is a city of pockets, of unexpected streets of dodge their ways up hills that I’m still finding after years and years of exploration. I find blocks in my native Lakeside I never knew existed, serene riverfront homes in the far west, new twists in Kenwood, and come across a little of everything up in the Heights. A pocket of Piedmont has more McMansions than I knew Duluth could hold, this neighborhood much more divided between new construction and stellar views on the south side of its eponymous avenue and aging bungalows on the north side than I ever knew. Nothing is uniform.

Even on the east side blocks I’ve now run countless times, there’s more to explore. I suss out the different gradations of Lakeside and Woodland, see which blocks fit my vibe more than others. Still, the relative lack of an edge in the lands beyond Endion is apparent. On a socially distanced walk around Chester Park, a friend and I muse on the east side bubble we inhabited as children, our impression of Duluth as a haven of Subaru-driving cross-country skiers, its most glaring disruptions in the exploits of some hockey players or the antics of some college students up the street. I grew up thinking rich people live in grand old Congdon or London Road estates, not McMansions off cul-de-sacs in swamps over the hill, and my taste will probably always reflect that bias. I’ve come to believe that sensibility is a very Duluth attitude: a little maintenance probably required, but worth the effort, more capable of inspiring genuine loyalty and rootedness, not just the disposable products of a liquid modernity. Taste, intricacy, detail, and maybe some subtlety lurk in these woods.

My runs provide a vivid reminder: this city is old, an age all the more obvious with fewer current residents out and about. Of course in the grand scheme Duluth is young, hundreds of years younger even than so-called cities of the future like San Francisco or Los Angeles. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we live history more here because we have less of the new. Duluth has seen glory and its loss, the narrative arc one needs to tell a good story, and the evidence is all around us if we know where to look for it. Relics of different eras abound: grand old Endion homes converted to apartments, empty thoroughfares like pre-freeway Cody Street, the downtown areas where property values tend to push toward either renovation or demolition to keep the engines going. Duluth’s rebellion against totalizing trends requires upkeep, requires care, requires knowing when something is beyond any further practical use and might be better off just fading back into the hillsides.

Nowhere in Duluth do worlds collide more than on Observation Hill, that steep incline just west of downtown dotted with staircases to nowhere and crumbling foundations, the remains of a past Duluth that sprung up along the Point of Rocks and set some of its first foundations here. My first memories of the city are from atop this hill—my mom lived here, briefly, while my dad tidied up affairs in southern Wisconsin before we moved here for good when I was six—and a quarter century later, it still feels like some realm of mystery for a child to explore. A few incongruous modern homes now lord over parts of this hillside, sharing space with some hardscrabble rowhouses and a smattering of aging urban farmers with Bernie signs still lurking in their yards. Here is Duluth in all its complicated glory, past and future and wealth and poverty all intertwined, all on a stunning perch over the most superior of lakes. Duluth’s budgets may rise and fall, and economic forces it cannot control may drive its prosperity or its struggles, but it will always have that view, and because of that it will always have its allure.

Us Duluth loyalists, however, can’t coast on allure alone. I come back to the prizefighter analogy: we need to learn to scrap again, to believe in a place not just for what it has been but what it can be. I admire the sentiment that we all just get along, and the all-in-this-together solidarity that a pandemic inspires. But Duluth arose not through gentility but by a dose of raw ambition that made such future leisure possible. The coronavirus is as good a reminder as any that we can’t hide from history, that it will come for us all at some point or another, and we can only run for so long. If Duluth is to continue punching above its weight, we children of a city freighted with history should know we have a role to play.

Immersed in a Calling

20 Apr

Contemplation is not readily classified as a belief that one fights for, and attempts to squeeze its value into the language of justice or dignity or basic human rights will fall flat. It is better characterized as an object of love and reverence, and a source of fulfillment. For humanists, contemplation is not a cause. It is a calling.

-Agnes Callard, “What Do the Humanities Do in a Crisis?” in The New Yorker

My latest reading adventure took me through How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, a new book by Scott Newstok, a Rhodes College faculty member, Duluth native, and friend of this blog. In addition to our hometown and some occasional correspondence, it’s become clear that Newstok and I share a lot in how we look at the world, and his new book encapsulates so much of that shared calling.

I do not consider myself an expert in the realm of Shakespeare. Sure, I had the pleasure of playing the title role and donning a sheet with splotches of red paint in a sophomore English class reading of Julius Caesar at Duluth East. In more recent years, I’ve been a sometime attendee of the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota, an annual excuse for some extended family members to get together to eat a lot and drink a lot and enjoy a couple of the Bard’s plays. I’ve developed an appreciation for just how many Shakespearian aphorisms have made their way into our speech today. But I haven’t come close to consuming his collected works.

A deep familiarity with the Bard’s oeuvre is peripheral to How to Think Like Shakespeare, though.The book is not a systematic assessment of education in Shakespeare’s work, nor a thorough overview of Renaissance-era schooling. Instead, it is a defense of a humanistic education, and an ascent into a dialogue down the generations of how best to work one’s way through this thing called life. It is a reminder that expertise and even so-called genius come from discipline, from dedicated work, from immersion in the works of past giants and even occasional outright theft from them. We’re all in this tradition, and the style of the book underscores this on every page. Newstok doesn’t go two paragraphs without citing some great past thinker or literary work, without pulling in one of his friends to show how historical insights all build on one another. He quotes liberally from Shakespeare, of course, but a whole crew of canonical figures insert their insights, from Erasmus to James Baldwin, from Ovid to Hannah Arendt, from Cicero to Bob Dylan. (Newstok is a Duluthian, after all!)

I found myself scrawling down snippets of wisdom from across Newstok’s 14 themed chapters. Of course, I am a sucker for such lines as “if your school says your education has impacted you, ask for a refund—and a laxative,” in an effective early sequence in which Newstok skewers the idea of education as training for jobs that currently exist. But the insights compound on themselves and build to something bigger. Newstok writes of the idea of craft, and the process by which the craftsperson “forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft.” This process, we learn in “Of Imitation,” comes from repetition and careful use of models. Many great writers began by directly re-writing authors they admired, a process replicated across any number of crafts; only by inhabiting existing great writing could they later develop something that measured up to their own idea of greatness. Readers of How to Think Like Shakespeare are immersed in a flow of ideas from very smart people, all of whom together make it hard to claim they don’t have a very strong case.

Newstok’s chapter on place, with its critiques of Descartes’ notion that thinking alone made him who he was, was especially resonant in an age when most education is happening through placeless means. He traces the failed dreams of countless technologies to supplant in-person learning, from correspondence courses to massive open online courses, and shows what a valuable equalizer a classroom can be. Since their dismissal from campuses, privileged college students are free to Zoom in from spare offices in vacation homes while the less affluent sit in shared bedrooms on lousy internet connections in chaotic environments. School, Newstok writes, provides the freedom to think and interact alongside others. The content of communication is what matters, not its medium or speed; computers, to quote Picasso, are “useless,” because “they can only give you answers,” not the underlying questions.

I could go on picking out quotes, but I’ll settle for just telling people to read the book. Its structure proves the point of the Callard quote at the top of this piece. How to Think Like Shakespeare is not the work of an activist militating for his cause but a thinker reveling in his work. Newstok reminds us that this work is, above all, fun, and the calling on display is infectious. People have been attacking the value of the humanities since the humanities came into being (just ask Socrates), but they hold up because again and again. People fall for them and make compelling cases for why we need them in our lives, and again expose the poverty of the belief that a humanistic education is a frivolous luxury. We can wish that more people felt this call, but as Newstok shows, it’s hardly some innate feature. It’s something we cultivate over time, hone and perfect and pass along, and our educations, both formal and informal, decide whether or not we can impose our control on the often-accelerating pace of human life and make it slow down, be masters of our own time instead of letting it master us.

I have a lot of time for contemplation these days. Unlike Callard, I find myself mostly able to pass the humanist test, at least when I am not caught up in lamenting the absence of certain things from my life that would make it more difficult to pass the humanist test. (Solitude, per the Octavio Paz quote in my last post, works well as a temporary condition; it is not healthy as a permanent state.) I am leery of the line “never let a crisis go to waste,” as some people use crises to justify all sorts of nefarious ends, but I’ve been using it in my own internal monologue with some regularity over the past month.

In normal times it’s easy to get caught up in the drift away from thinking about how to think, especially for a rare humanist who, with some notable exceptions, has a day job that offers only occasional brushes up against the academy. (Moreover, coronavirus has cost me the most fertile ground for those exceptional conversations: long, shared car rides with colleagues.) It can be hard to find the time to devote to this activity, day after day. Funnily enough, I’m not any less busy these days: my job still takes up the same amount of my day, at times even more of it; I’ve launched my most aggressive running regimen ever; and an explosion of videochats with friends and family near and far has filled the empty social calendar. But, somehow, the notion that I’m trapped in a crisis-stricken world and ought to make something of it has allowed me to do so.

Sometime about a week ago, the road became ever so slightly clearer. It was a gradual process, one that came in fits and starts and some periods of mental anguish that rank among the less pleasant of my time on earth. I have not achieved nirvana; there are regressions large and small. But, at least in my mind, I am no longer a victim of hard times but an agent capable of using that greatest human capability. It is something I have mustered by knowing that others have traveled this road before, left some signs and guideposts, and any blank spots on the map are adventures to test what we’ve learned, not some fear-inducing void.

Coronavirus Chronicles Continued

5 Apr

[O]n the one hand it is self-awareness, and on the other it is a longing to escape from ourselves. Solitude—the very condition of our lives—appears to us as a test and a purgation, at the conclusion of which our anguish and instability will vanish. At the exit from the labyrinth of solitude we will find reunion (which is repose and happiness), and plenitude, and harmony with the world…Solitude is both a sentence and an expiation. It is a punishment but it is also a promise that our exile will end. All human life is pervaded by this dialectic.

—Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude

To write in the time of coronavirus is to become a chronicler of history, whether or not one aspires to such a lofty title. Journaling has, apparently, exploded in recent weeks; people all over now realize their thoughts on these weeks and months will be of interest to posterity. We detail our tedium, our glimmers of hope, the moments that we know will define a generation. The indelible images: a hospital ship steams past the Statue of Liberty into the New York harbor, a very different beacon of hope; Pope Francis, resplendent in white, before an empty St. Peter’s Square under an ominous, rainy sky. Deadened streets, all commerce at a standstill, silence save from the very welcome pets and children in the background on Zoom meetings.

As with any crisis, coronavirus produces some case studies in uncommon heroism. I now thank grocery store clerks for their work in the way I’ve seen some people thank soldiers for their service. When I do takeout or delivery to support local restaurants, I leave the largest tips I’ve ever left. The body shop down the street has a sign offering a discount for healthcare workers, and I look out at the snowboard bro of a FedEx driver who lives across the way in an entirely new light. While my role is somewhat distant from the front lines, a situation that leaves me feeling an odd remove, some of my colleagues in economic development and local government are putting in yeoman’s hours trying to keep their communities’ businesses afloat. My firm was born at Duluth’s economic nadir in the mid-80s, when northeast Minnesota found itself in need of someone to facilitate recovery processes, and we may get to play that role again in the coming months and years.

In my own mundane quarantined corner, I adjust to a work life of marathon Zoom meetings, which means I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at my own face on a screen. My attire regresses to that of a ten-years-younger version of myself, and after toying with the idea of growing my hair out again, it now seems safe to say it’ll happen unless I decide to get creative with scissors. My work habits take me back to days spent struggling away at term papers in my glorified closet of a bedroom in Burleith. My life is an eternal return. Perhaps the best piece of advice I read over the first three weeks of working from home: wear real pants every day.

I recognize my luck: I can spout off in droll good humor while a third of the country gets furloughed or laid off, has to navigate a convoluted system of unemployment benefits and business support programs that seems designed to maximize confusion. This crisis has only exacerbated the gap between those of us who trade in the knowledge economy (even for those of us who are not in its more lucrative arms), and the people whose jobs are not so easily sustained via screens. Tech skeptic that I am, I’m not sure my class will get off so easily next time crisis hits—or if this one drags out—but for now, we sit pretty, American divides exacerbated once again.

The biggest divide I encounter myself, however, is the one I find between myself and other people. I live alone, and have not had meaningful contact with another human in weeks. Sorry, those of you who feel like you’re cooped up with your families too much: I’ll trade places in a heartbeat. Individual living may help slow the spread of disease, while multigenerational mixing, as the Italians can attest, can cause more harm than good. But the virus, if we needed one, is a reminder that humans are not built to live like this long-term. “Never is a man more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself,” Hannah Arendt wrote in a quote from Cicero attributed to Cato, a bit of wisdom passed down the chain. It’s a sentiment I need right now, because never have I been more by myself than I have been these past few weeks.

“Do you live around here?” one acquaintance calls to me in pleasant surprise as I scoot by on my daily run. “No!” is my cheery reply. I might just run every street in Duluth by the time this is done, or at least all of them on the east side, more easily accessible from my front door. I’ve started tracking my destinations on a calendar, a register of Duluth neighborhoods and other convenient destinations. Even as I run, the signs of a changed world abound. The morning the stay at home order comes out, the streets are eerily dead. I wonder if the young couple I pass sleeping in a running car off Kenwood Avenue are among the newly homeless.

For the most part, though, these runs are my saving grace, a luxury afforded by a blessedly mild Duluth spring. Every few days I scoot past a work colleague or a stray acquaintance, all of us pulled out into various forms of activity as our only release. A profusion of chalk art decorates the streets of Morley Heights and Congdon; in Woodland, kids wish their friends a happy birthday in chalk on the driveway. A few houses throw up impromptu art exhibits in their windows. The Lincoln Park parkway, liberated from traffic, teems with hikers and disc golfers. I idly house-hunt as I cruise the streets, check out lake views and front porches and bay windows, along with those more practical concerns like the quality of the roof and the siding and the garage. Rarely do I feel more alive as when I climb the Hillside in driving sleet; and one evening, I round a bend on the Scenic Highway and gaze down a coastline swathed in a California late afternoon glow, and any weight of the world lifts away into the haze.

I take a vacation that gives me glimpses of the whole world, which means I sleep in my sleeping bag on the spare futon in a second bedroom whose walls are papered in maps. This exotic locale is less a bedroom than a dark, wide hallway to a back door that happens to have a closet, but for one long weekend, it will do. This room has become my refuge now that my living room is part of my office suite: every evening I retreat here for at least a little while with a book or this laptop to inhabit a world away from any of those thoughts. I need just a little more space to endure this easily.

I travel vicariously, learn of the chance meeting between two cyclists crossing Asia, and of the party of rafters on the Colorado who left a world with no coronavirus fears and came back to it when they emerged. I travel away from thoughts of where I would’ve been on my planned vacation by now, away from wondering if a backpacking trip in July will still hold up. The social distancing paradox: if we flatten the curve successfully, the restrictions may go on for longer, the terror of overwhelmed hospitals and pop-up morgues replaced by a low-grade, endless dread, a fitting new normal if we truly are in an age of decadence.

One thing I am not, thankfully, is bored, except perhaps when the Zoom meetings drag on for too long. I will never lack things to read or write. I won’t pretend the coronavirus has led to any great writing projects—there’s a challenge, perhaps—but I have been able to noodle out some mindless stuff, and make a real dent in the pile of books. (The latest addition: an advance copy of a new book by a reader of this blog!) Hearteningly, sales of classic literature have exploded over the past month. We are still indeed all readers, a reminder that deteriorating attention spans are not some congenital defect but an entirely correctable drift forced upon us by our thoughtless consumption of certain forms of media that are ill-attuned to human focus.

Technology has made this misery infinitely easier to bear. Even two years ago, my office would have been hopelessly lost, lacking laptops or file-sharing opportunities. Still, the shortcomings of that world become more and more glaring with each passing day, and my hope is that, instead of accelerating the move to more online existence as some forecasters have predicted, coronavirus will remind us that screens have their shortcomings. Deprivation can lead us to place new value on certain forms of human interaction, better appreciate why it is we go to concerts or sporting events or festivals or bars or even just hang out with large groups of friends or family. I don’t know when I’ll be able to do any of those things, but may we never take them for granted again.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

21 Mar

My sixth-grade teacher pulled down the United States map. “This is New York, and this is Washington,” she told the class, on what could only have been our second or third week of middle school. “Not to take anything away from any of the other cities, but they’re probably the two most important cities in the country.” Airplanes had hit several buildings in them, she explained, and our lives were about to change.

I was eleven, and it was my first brush with a global crisis. Even for a hyper-aware kid, one who has a strong enough memory to still retain snippets of news clips about Bosnian Serbs while I played with toys on the floor at three or four at our house in Wisconsin, this was the first time the world had come close to me. Roger Angell’s snippet from the New Yorker that week, discovered years later, still rings true. No longer was history something that happened somewhere else.

But was it really, though? In New York, maybe; for an 11-year-old in northern Minnesota, life mostly just went on. Airport lines got longer (not that I can really remember what came before), and I recall a few some stray episodes of hysteria from others around me; 9/11 certainly informed my geopolitical conscience, but not my day-to-day life in any way. After that, there were snippets, mild crises of inconvenience that were mostly just cause for a little shared fun, like the Snowpocalypse that shut down Washington, D.C. my sophomore year, or the stray brush with a hurricane two years later. Any northern Minnesotan is accustomed to the occasional weather-driven shutdown, a snowstorm that pins us down and then brings out a burst of communal activity as we all shovel out together and then get on with our lives. The most recent, this past November’s snowstorm that ruined my Thanksgiving travel plans, is about as extreme as it’s been. I hardly expect much sympathy.

The arrival of the coronavirus, then, is my first direct brush with any sort of collective national crisis. A holding pattern of dread takes hold. Our sprawling and convoluted healthcare apparatus strains to its limits, and in Washington, at least some people seem to grasp the gravity of the moment and look to escape their regular state of sclerosis. But there’s nothing you or I can do besides wash our hands and lock ourselves in our homes. Perhaps the dread has less to do with the virus itself than the sudden reality of that sense of urgency that I preach to myself every week but have always forgotten by Thursday afternoon. We don’t know what we have until we lose it.

If this is to be my generation’s sacrifice, the postponement of a planned vacation down the East Coast next month is a small burden to bear compared to so many who came before, to say nothing of the scores who are now out of work. Still, it’s hard not to dwell, at least a bit: quarantine takes from me so many of the things that give me joy on this earth, sports and travel and dinner parties and game nights and the freedom to rove and revel and delight in the new. It threatens to leave me with more of the things that do not: devotion to screens, an already bad trend exacerbated; phone calls, which I irrationally hate; correspondence that slowly loses meaning over distance. I am among the world’s most incompetent introverts; or, perhaps, to borrow a phrase from a friend, maybe this sliding scale of introversion and extroversion isn’t worth much to us at all. I live for people, and I will interact with precious few of them in a meaningful way over the coming weeks, maybe months.

I’m still left with a few creature comforts in my 740-square-foot cell. I can see if TV has produced anything good since I stopped paying attention to it a few years ago, and I can delve into a stack of books I have at hand. Being stuck at home may force me to cook, an undertaking I always enjoy but am terrible at making time to do. I have a stash of booze and am learning the merits of the virtual happy hour. I may just have timed my entry into the homebuyers’ market perfectly. My athletic pursuits these days are of a solitary sort, and unless we go into total lockdown, I can still enjoy a good run or hike or ski if the snow should return. Color me torn: should I be pleased this has all come about during Duluth’s least pleasant season, a hope of full enjoyment of the summer ahead, or does staring out windows at drab grayness and fresh dustings just make it all worse? Excuse me while I go pop some more Vitamin D.

I become a creature of habit. Get up at the same time every morning, though I have no commute; just read things until eight, then log in and start my day. Meander the apartment and work in different positions. My normal work-related frustrations feel trivial now, especially for one whose job can go along with relatively little disruption. My tea water comes from a kettle instead of a water cooler and the coffee table holds less mess than my desk, and the company is poorer, too. But I can still plow through and learn how to manage a meeting on Zoom. Run, or at least walk, about the neighborhood after it’s time to sign off. If the routine gets stale, try something new, a midday break, maybe just a drive around for the sake of driving around. I switch it up: park in Denfeld and struggle up hills in Lincoln Park one day, head out to Stoney Point later in the week and scoot up to Knife River and back, take a moment to lose my eyes in the deep aquamarine of a Superior lake.

I tour my city at a safe distance to see how it’s coping. Runners and dog-walkers seem more eager to share a greeting, a glimpse of normalcy. Someone could run a good sociological experiment visiting the various Super Ones across town to see what different neighborhoods choose to horde. Downtown Duluth is dead now, though the people who stand on the corners and fight loudly with one another are somehow still there when I raid my office for a second monitor. I guess it’s reassuring that the Duluthians least likely to heed public health warnings are also among the least likely to interact with people who are jetting off to the global cities that have been the points of embarkation for this virus; I’m not sure if our status as an out of the way city might spare us the worst of this or leave us waiting for the damn thing to show up for another month after other places have recovered and moved on.

My reading choice for the first week of confinement has been Joan Didion, an apt muse for an era of societal reckoning, a literary voice infused with a quiet despair who nevertheless dispenses with the easy nihilisms of her era. She undermines the premises of unlimited freedom, whether Californian American Dreamers or a hippie generation and its offshoots in open rebellion against it, all while pushing to it herself with her omniscience. She’s striving toward something as a writer, some unseen truth behind the veneers, some logic that she, with her authorial power, can bring to bear on a world that would otherwise resist it. It is a Sisyphean task.

To be a witness to quarantine is to be a witness to the deeper chambers of one’s own mind. The process takes its toll: for all her blasé scrutiny of her world, Didion struggled mightily with her mental health. My own peaks and valleys are not so severe, though the topography seems a bit more accentuated from this single vantage point I now enjoy from my apartment windows. It’s harder to leave bed when the commute is just ten feet; harder to communicate with people who don’t always express themselves well in writing. I wake with a start at 3 AM one night and struggle from there, endure inconsistent heat and the croak of a lone crow and some inconsequential hockey revelation coupled with some weird childhood dream, a labyrinth of thought whose exit is hidden but still there for me. I retreat to my fictions to lull myself back toward peace.

Crises force us to find new founts of creativity, new ways to take stock of where we are. I was waiting for a bit of deliverance in Georgetown and Savannah and Key West; instead, I may have to find it right here in an apartment I’d thought I’d outgrown. I don’t know what my world will look like after the coronavirus, but I will take one bit of sage advice from those who have seen real disruption before: some things won’t ever be the same. As for what that new beginning looks like, well, that is a story I still have to write.