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Dispatch from Home: Waiting for the Next Thing

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Snapshot of dubious quality by Scott Dickensheets

Stuffed owls, tiny hands, enigmatic bric-a-brac — the things that comfort me while working from home in Pandemic America.

What must look like panic-buying to others is just shopping for us — seven people live in this house, ages 2 up to me. Plus three dogs and two cats. That’s a lot of domestic choreography, and we need a rock-solid supply chain to keep it going. Money, too, of course. And, importantly, an ambient upbeatness that’s the necessary emotional operating system if so many people are going to live within arm’s length without going bonkers. This is only day one of the governor’s 30-day shutdown, but goodbye to some of that.

So the situation is fluid, but here in Quarantine Zone Dickensheets, we’re doing our best to practice the nonchalance advised by poet Kaveh Akbar: “The unexpected / happens, then what? The next thing.” The next thing, as I write this, is breakfast for the grandkids, mischief for the animals, and my minute-by-minute monitoring of the toilet paper supply. Don’t think for a minute I won’t kick the cat out of the litter box if things get dire. My wife is upstairs, setting up her work-from-home station and trying to balm the concerns of her supervisees. My son is at work, his job deemed essential, even though the medication he takes is an immunosuppressant. I hope he doesn’t touch anything.

My wife just texted: “Should we meet for lunch?” “If we can find someplace convenient to both of us,” I replied. We have a lovely date at Chez Our Kitchen.

Clearly, we’re modeling normalcy as best we can at a time when the governor is always speaking gravely on TV. We want, you know, to keep the kids from worrying.

Sometimes I wish they could return the favor. I was up at 2:30 last night, mind racing — in anxious circles, sadly, not at all productive but unturn-off-able. Every moment is pleated with unease, now and then reaching operatic, worst-case-scenario crescendos. I think everyone envisions it being like The Walking Dead, a friend texted just now. Haha, I lie. (Not kidding, I got an email today titled “COVID-19 and Cannibalism.”) I was out front a few minutes ago, considering the possibilities of barbed wire, but, other than the neighborhood hooligans shooting hoops, I saw no chaos in the streets. Then again, it’s day one. If my Google news alerts don’t read like the Book of Revelations on day 25, maybe I’ll relax.

Now the kids are making cupcakes. Actually, this helps. Family stops by, and we trade end-times shopping tips (go just before closing when they’ve begun restocking). An elderly relative texts that she’s in the hospital with shortness of breath, but we think — we hope — that it’s just a panic attack. The texture of our lives right now lies in that use of just.

Disease reminds you of just how porous you are, how permeable these watery meat-sack bodies are. Our most basic actions — touching, breathing — are a disease’s path inside us. No matter how tough our hides, we’re wide open to the world. Now were seeing that’s as true on the macro level as the microbial, as the society we’ve built is revealed, headline by headline, to be unthinkably fragile. Our systems are as vulnerable as our bodies. The TV images of the shut-down Strip, and the awful, necrotizing reality it portends, both in the immediate term (thousands out of work) and the long (a state budget in tatters for years) — I can’t even. I want to say something wise and cutting about late capitalism being the ultimate “underlying condition” (COVID-19’s rampage was enabled by our modern systems of globalized connection), but at the moment all I have energy for is this house-made artisanal cupcake and my thoughts about the next thing.

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