Oh, sure, there are plenty of adjectives – horrifying, dumbfounded, abject, shocking – to describe our feelings during this long year. Nouns too: dismay, fear, relief, uncertainty. We have nothing but our old words to label the new, so it makes fractionally more sense. We’ve invented a couple of weird little words like Covidiot or “social distancing” – awkward, right? But I’m finding this year particularly hard to sum up.
It might be the most inspected year, the one with the most minute-by-minute attention. Or the year that elevated the tiniest of pleasures. It might be the saltiest one – far more tears than average. Sometimes I hopefully think of it as the most shared year, since (admit it or no) we are living something unparalleled, together.
It’s weird that a year described best by superlatives, at the same time defies description. I’m looking for an adjective that jumps out at us with poky spikes and latches onto our lungs. A descriptor that covers “collectively avoiding a noxious hitchhiker with the unquantified potential to kill or to install grave and long-term health problems, wrapped in a sweaty and treacherous partisan white supremacist political melée characterized primarily by ignoring facts in favor of everyone out-trolling everyone else.”
It was a year that took up residence inside us, just like we hunkered down in our homes. It was a year that was scrubbed and sanitized but never felt completely clean. An awestruck, gobsmacked year. A disrupted, disruptive year, a touchless year, a Zoom year, a nap year, a binge year, a long and longing year. A worried year, a meditative year. A year of screens between us and each other, between us and the world.
A year that absolutely was not, because we could not and did not. And at the same time a year that was all weight and import, all substance, all hands on deck, a boat roiling and plunging through waves with competing and incompetent captains who nevertheless had no effect on the sea or our seat upon it. It was, as a friend put it on Facebook a couple of days ago, “este eternísimo a la vez que inexistente año”: this year, at once eternal and non-existent.
It’s been a year, anyway
I returned from Bangladesh on March 6th, 2020. I was happy to have a few weeks of work to keep me safe, while this coronavirus thing blew over. Traveling on the 6th was no fun, even in the open-air Business Lounge in Dubai or Istanbul or wherever I was. I calmed myself by asserting that no one in the airport that day had “it”. A timely delusion. (There was lots of that this year.)
Within days the world had hung out its “SHUT” sign. The meme-makers had gone crazy. We all wondered how we’d survived to date, considering how often we touched our faces. A kid in Seattle (@AviSchiffman) built a webscraping tool. It shows how many people around the world are infected (118,764,956 as of today), how many were dead (2,634,386).
NPR pulled one particular day – today, March 11th, also my dear Momma’s birthday – when it all broke loose. When the WHO declared a pandemic, Tom and Rita were diagnosed in Australia, Fauci told Congress the worst was yet to come, cruise ships floated without harbor like living petri dishes, the stock market plunged, and the NBA cancelled its season. Here’s NPR’s tribute to us for what we’ve come through, so far.
If you’d asked me, hypothetically, what the world would come together to save in an urgent global crisis, I would NOT have said, “Oh, yeah, sure, we’ll bubble the hockey matches and the baseball teams and the football and soccer games and keep them safe so they can continue…” What were we afraid of? The sports-fiend population rising up as one from their barcaloungers (like?) a worldwide horde of zombies, cut off from their sustenance? That wouldn’t have been one of my priorities, for sure. I’m wondering, What else might we have spent those particular billions on?
The frenzied handwashing, the frenzied housecleaning. Fearing going outdoors. Seeing everyone in masks, and someone without a mask became the outlier. Distancing ourselves from others and – gasp! – seeing them distance themselves from us. Watching people from my window, people who surely weren’t distancing themselves enough. Exercising in the house, on the balcony, up and down the hill just below us. Reading about the Tunisian factory workers opting to live at the plant, to keep making PPE. Learning what PPE was. Listening to the news like it was a lifeline, and feeling much much worse after hearing it. Cursing the asterisk president harder than ever before.
Watching the numbers climb. Hearing about relatives in the hospital in their pairs. Couples that had survived long lives together, only to be split up by an ugly microscopic piñata. Charts and projections and denials. Warned off of buying masks. Yeah, toilet paper shortages. Everything shortages.
The over-ratedness of the in-home gym
Keeping up some sort of physical something comes naturally to Ramon. I was too embarrassed to be a total slug in front of him – even though sometimes my innerds (my inner nerd?) told me to. We ran up and down a nearby hill, made an obstacle course in the apartment, planked, burpeed, stepped, boogied, yogaed, push-upped, sit-upped, and Pilated. We could fill a (singularly disgusting) hot tub with the sweat spilled here at Chez Ramon-n-Keri in the past year. FYI, marble floors ain’t no good for crumbly old knees.
Those first weeks – one year ago, one global pandemic ago – were distressing. They were a shock treatment into a new reality, zotzing us into an evolutionary change: pandemic brain. In Tunisia, a country of ten million, a lockdown really means something. It was not uncommon to walk fifteen minutes to the market without seeing a single car or pedestrian. Mysteriously there would be a line of people to enter, standing in painted, distanced circles. Each time, the store had less and less of the regular stuff we wanted to buy – flour, butter, eggs, coffee, bleach. I bought the occasional cake mix and then googled it into a batch of cookies.
The feeling was post-apocalyptic. There was no noise. The spring sounds of birds and the clear view of the opposite coast seemed as foreign as if we’d suddenly moved to the country. Remember that old commercial for $1.99 Arby’s sandwiches?
Panic, combined with dullness. A third rail of worry riding underneath us. Fine till a headache materializes, mine or that of a family member or loved one. My RBF turned toward the world, waiting for the dropping shoes. Dipping into the news gingerly, like there might be a scorpion in there. Some days, finding the scorpion.
Tunisia was accidentally a great place to ride this out
Tunisia did better than many places in those early weeks-turned-months. Ramadan – something like late April to late May last year – was suddenly a godsend, keeping people indoors. Our covid case numbers held very steady, especially compared to the U.S. We all watched New York spinning into hell, and tried to bite back the shock of what we saw from the nursing homes. Then we all also had our own corners of the country we were monitoring. It spiked in Illinois, then Missouri started to take off – how would Dad get groceries, and books? Alaska looked safer for a while, but my sister was testing people and reported one of the first cases; my niece worked in a doctor’s office, too, and my brother was still flying to a remote site for work. Everyone important to me seemed at high risk.
Then somehow our butthead president back home in the US of A inspired armed rebellion against the mere mention of the virus, against any measure to adapt to it and try to keep people safe. I am still so angry at them for following their reprehensible leader into the gaping hole of “everything’s fine.” They haven’t stopped being stupid and following him, so how could disgust abate? That group and their dipshit daddy fight the world by not feeling shame. They’d kill half a million people to keep their illusions firmly in place, and then they lecture everyone about a fetus. I don’t imagine any of them will own up to the part they and their recalcitrant idiot played. I will refrain from hoping their refusal to wear masks is borne to its logical conclusion.
Instead, I will jump to a Bernie meme, which is much more fun and positive.
The first wave broke over us only in late summer in Tunisia. Case numbers started to get truly out of hand, the hospitals started to fill, and then the morgues. Lockdown returned at the “hardcore” level but we were more ready, the stores were more ready. The threat seemed at least “known” in a way it hadn’t been in March and April. Still, hastily adopted sanitary measures – and no little paranoia and OCD – are hard to abandon, like leaving behind a safety blanket. Even weight gain, like the Freshman 15 thirty years ago, seems like a logical defensive posture. I want to hug again, and I’m hella unworried about how squishy I might feel to my huggees.
We just keep taking walks
There was no shortage of advice on how to stay sane. Doing something physical truly helped, and continues to help, and will always help. I don’t know why I have to keep re-learning this lesson, but I do. Someday it will stick. But I’m pretty sure taking pictures of cats in La Marsa saved me (along with copious love from my Honey Biscuit.)
Nothing wrong with a little sustenance
I have always loved to eat and I have always hated cooking. It stressed me out, particularly if anyone else was going to eat it. If it was just for me, I made it a non-event. Either I ate cereal or popcorn, or I made one of two recipes in a big batch. 2020 made me realize where all my money had been going: to eating out. I love eating different stuff, well-prepared, with friends. Two of my DC besties – Ali and Shane – nurtured this fanaticism, over about a decade of Friday nights exploring hole-in-the-wall eateries.
I’m here to tell you – and no one is more shocked than I am – that one’s own hands can actually make some of those dishes. Maybe not perfect, maybe without all the proper Korean or Filipino or Mexican or Turkish ingredients, but still: Food, comma, good. I made Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners – tradition “plus”, I’d call them – and cookies and tarts and potato latkes and homemade pasta and creme brûlée and tomato sauce and bean stews and bowls and bowls of hummus.
I found some joy, some added pounds, and some motivation to get out and search for stuff to cook with. Ramon might at times have been a little baffled by all this. And, he ate a lot later than either of us might have liked. But I learned how to feed me, and to feed us, in The Style To Which I Had Become Accustomed While Previously Hemorrhaging Money Eating Out.
Eating does tend to improve my mood, and brothers and sisters, I needed it. I’m pretty good at spiralling, or “ruminating” as my psychologist called it. Why don’t we ever ruminate over great things, or spiral into control?
It feels like everything has changed
Maybe it hasn’t – maybe it’s pretty much like it was before, but with masks. Inequality is about to burble over with minority groups and women suffering the brunt of economic losses, a warming planet still holds the ultimate dangers over our heads, racism continues to reign in private hearts and public institutions, the president looks fearful about busting up the filibuster, the troglodytes supporting T-rump are trying to kibosh voting in 43 of the 50 states, the dystopia goes on raging online. Once we get some vaccines, maybe tickle the underside of herd immunity, will this all be a wee blip in our memories?
I can’t answer but I’ve still got hope, for what that’s worth. After 9/11, researchers and aviation mechanics took the catastrophe and turned it into knowledge that kept a lot more planes afloat and safe. Maybe we’re going to get a bump from this crisis in our knowledge about contagion, public response, protecting economies, vaccines. I have to believe we’re going to be better about picking our elected officials, including ones who are not afraid of the demographic changes the country has been undergoing for decades, and who can draw a Congressional district line without drinking a quart of vodka first:
Who’s that cooking?
Well, if nothing else, I can say for sure that I’ve changed. Sometimes I hardly recognize myself. Certainly the Keri-in-the-Kitchen you see here never existed before coronavirus. I grew herbs, cherry tomatoes, and “microgreens”: wish Mom were here to see the cooking and gardening. But not this: I’ve stopped dyeing my hair, with the old color still rocking the southern third of my head. It’s like I’m wearing a bonfire upside-down on my head, the ash at the top instead of the bottom. I kind of like the flame look. And I realized I don’t have to keep dyeing my hair some brown color or whatever – I have every option in the world, suddenly. Also, without lockdown, would I ever have found these cool white streaks coming out of my temples?
I feel ten years older than I did at this time last year, not one. I feel more vulnerable and my knees are definitely… problematic. But I’m grounded – I’ve never really had that before. My French is better and I’ve found a lot of gems in my neighborhood.
I was able to pay my bills, but lost a year of saving for retirement. I know what’s important but I’m less sure I can do it all and be with all the people I want to be with. I’m a way better cook, but I have a couple extra pounds I don’t need and will struggle to lose. I love harder, more right on the surface, and cry too much (which is saying something, since I was always a fair waterworks).
I appreciate Ramon far more than I did before. And I’m happy with myself for letting my guard down with him, for bending where before I would break, and for listening better.