Life in the time of Coronavirus


Babson Globe in winter

This week is the first week of the semester at Babson College, and last night I dreamt I had to teach my classes from a hotel room.

In the alternate universe that is dreamtime, there was no pandemic, no masks, and no need for social distancing, but for some reason the college announced I couldn’t teach on-campus or from home. Instead, my “remote” classes were booked in a hotel room where J and I stayed overnight. Because the room had been booked at the last minute, neither one of us had any luggage, and I didn’t have a laptop, so I had to keep checking my phone for emails from students asking where we were supposed to meet.

Although the class was billed as “remote,” it was actually a face-to-face session, so at the scheduled time my students and a guest speaker (writer Walter Mosley, who wrote an essay I assigned last semester) somehow piled into my hotel room, which by then had morphed into a suite containing an odd assortment of furniture, none of which was conducive to an actual class session. Fortunately, Mosley had a laptop and was able to show slides during his talk, and I was reduced to “teaching” from bed, first in a babydoll nightgown, and later in a pair of flannel pajamas.

Sidewalk after dark

This morning when I replaced my old planner, I paged through some of my entries from the first few months of 2020, when the year was new and we had no idea what the future held.

Last January, friends and I met in Northampton to celebrate my birthday, and last February I met a friend for lunch and a walk at Tower Hill Botanic Garden: two outings I took for granted at the time but seem unimaginably exotic now. Right before my birthday last year, I went to the Zen Center on a Sunday morning then walked to Harvard Square to drink hot chocolate and write in my journal at Burdick’s Cafe, and a few days later, I went to a postcard-writing meetup in Chelmsford: the last two times I set foot in a cafe.

Every year, I make more or less the same goals for the New Year, renewing my intention to write in my journal daily, blog three times a week, and go to the Zen Center and a museum at least once a month. Although I’ve been journaling throughout the pandemic, I haven’t blogged much: with so much of life happening virtually these days, I’ve looked for any excuse to unplug. And with both the Zen Center and many museums closed, those two goals are officially on hold.

Last year started innocently enough then turned weird in March. I’m hoping that as more people have access to one of several COVID-19 vaccines, life will return to some semblance of normal-ish by the end of this year: not life as it was, but a life that allows outings and gatherings and other planner-worthy activities.

Maintain proper distance

I submitted the last of my Fall semester grades yesterday afternoon, then I immediately took a nap, overwhelmed by the cumulative exhaustion of the past four months.

This has been a remarkable semester, for sure, and only now in retrospect can I appreciate how utterly exhausting it’s been. Teaching in-person college classes during a pandemic means you’re always on alert, running down a mental checklist of COVID protocols, and that’s not even counting the teaching tasks of a normal semester, when “all” you have to do is prepare classes, give lectures, lead discussions, answer questions, respond to emails, participate in meetings, and grade papers.

During this crazy COVID semester, I regularly monitored my health, taught in multiple modalities (often simultaneously), and prepared myself to switch pedagogical approaches suddenly if conditions changed (as of course they did). I learned how tiring it is to lecture in a mask, asking myself at the end of every on-campus teaching day “Is my throat sore because I have COVID or because I spent the day shouting?” When you teach in-person classes during a pandemic, part of your attention is always attuned to your surroundings: are your in-person students wearing their masks and keeping proper distance? Are any windows that can be opened actually open? Are your hands clean, and what have you recently touched that might not be clean?

Teaching in-person during a pandemic is nerve-wracking enough, but teaching a hybrid class offers additional challenges. Can my online students hear me, and can I hear them? Did I remember to start, pause, and re-start the class recording at all the proper times so absent students can watch the class later? Has anyone posted a question in the chat, or raised a virtual hand, or waved their actual hand in front of the camera (assuming it is on) to get my attention? If I put my remote students into breakout rooms while working with my in-person students, can I simultaneously attend to conversations in the room and the clock counting down to my remote students’ return?

Now that the semester is over, I realize the weight of worry I’ve been carrying the past four months. Are my students okay? How are they doing emotionally, physically, and (yes) academically? Are they safe, healthy, and physically able to come to class in-person or online? Can they find the classroom, the Zoom link, the weekly online module, the relevant discussion forum? Can they find and figure out how to submit this week’s assignment?

At the end of this COVID semester, I wonder whether I answered students’ questions, calmed their fears, or even taught them anything about the subject of the class. Did all the carefully crafted assignments, checklists, modules, and videos actually work, or were they a monumental waste of both time and bandwidth? However this semester went, the crazy fact remains: after a few days off to clear my head, I’ll begin preparing for January, when we’ll do it all over again.

Windblown

This morning I wrote my monthly letter to myself, a habit I started in January 2019 when I turned 50. Sometime around the beginning of each month, I write a letter to my Next Year’s Self: twelve paper time capsules that give me an excuse to use pretty stationery and stickers for a person I know will appreciate them. In the past I’ve relied upon my blog and photo archive to remind myself how things were going this time last year, but a letter is more intimate: a handwritten thing for an audience of one.

This time last year, J and I went to Wachusett Reservoir for Dam Day. It was a brisk and beautiful day to be outside, and after walking across the dam, we had lunch at the Clinton Bar & Grille, a restaurant we’d gone to two other times: once after we’d gone to the Museum of Russian Icons, and once after going to Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

That day a year ago feels like a lifetime away: a day from a bygone era. Everything from the Before Times has his kind of hazy veneer: remember when we went to events with crowds of people and ate inside restaurants alongside other diners? But that year-ago October day also seems dim and distant because it wasn’t long after my Dad’s death, and everything from that whole season–Autumn, 2019–is muffled and distorted, like memories from a span of time when I lived underwater.

Last year, I called Fall 2019 the “Semester from Hell” given all I was juggling: teaching six classes, struggling to keep ahead with a course I had newly designed while learning a new-to-me learning management system, and trying to navigate the alien world of grief. Now in retrospect, I know the Semester from Hell was gently preparing me for 2020, when we keep trying to find our sea-legs in an uncertain world where we continually have to walk (and work) on water.

In the early days of the pandemic, we fixed our sights on the end, imagining a return to normal as being clearly on the horizon. Now we know we will be here at sea for the foreseeable future, adrift in a place where we can’t see the continent we left nor the one we are sailing toward. Here at sea, where all we know is the rock and swell of the present moment, I write letters to a Future Self whose situation I won’t even pretend to predict.

Codman frogs

It’s the start of the third week of the semester at Framingham State and the fourth week of the semester at Babson College. I’m teaching hybrid classes at both colleges, so instead of commuting four days a week, I teach at Babson on Wednesdays, Framingham State on Thursdays, and online the other days.

For much of the summer, I alternated between anxieties: on the one hand, I worried about the health risks of teaching in-person; on the other, I worried about keeping my job. Now that the semester is officially underway, I’m calmer and less anxious than I have been at any time during the pandemic. Instead of fixating on the many things outside my control, I am busy paying attention to the things within my power.

These days I spend an inordinate amount of time fiddling with the classroom technology that allows me to teach students in the room and students who are logged in from home. When the technology works, it is awesome and amazing; when it doesn’t (which is often), I wonder whether I’m effectively reaching anyone, anywhere.

Despite the glitches, though, I find myself wondering whether I’ll go back to conventional teaching ever again. Teaching half-time in-person forces me to prioritize what we do in class, with me in the room, versus what we can do more effectively online, at each student’s own speed. In retrospect, the amount of time I used to spend giving real-time lectures on writing–a skill that must be practiced to be perfected–seems unnecessary and counter-productive. I would have been better served meeting with students individually or in small groups.

This much I know: I will never have a conventional attendance policy again. I no longer have any desire to force sick students to come to class when there are perfectly viable ways they can participate remotely. One of the things I’m curious to see this term is whether we all stay healthier than usual. Will having morning classes one day a week rather than two mean my students this semester will be less sleep-deprived? Will there be less sickness–fewer cases of colds and flu–now that we’re washing our hands, wearing masks, and staying six feet apart?

I’ve always said that teaching in a college classroom is like working in a germ-infested Petri dish: by the fifth week of a normal semester, everyone is sick with an infectious malaise that gets passed around and around ‘til Thanksgiving, when students go home, rest up, then return to campus with a fresh set of germs to share.

But this is not a normal semester–and most people say that as if it were a bad thing. Yes, it’s sad that the virus-spreading activities of the “normal college experience” have been cancelled or curtailed this semester. But what if this particular cloud of contagion has an unexpectedly salubrious side-effect?

I would happily say goodbye to the infectious practices of past semesters. There used to be a badge of honor bestowed upon students who came to class sick–what dedication!–or who boasted about multiple all-nighters–what diligence! But why should growing your brain be a danger to your physical health? What if one side-effect of the COVID crisis were a paradigm shift where caring for one’s own (and one’s neighbors’) physical health were as important as making the grade?

Quiet classroom

This week, after more than 150 days of assiduously avoiding stores, restaurants, and other Indoor Spaces, I went to both Framingham State and Babson College for demonstrations of new classroom technology that will allow me to teach in-person and remote students simultaneously in the Fall. One thing that has died in the Age of Corona is a strict attendance policy. This semester, instead of punishing students who are absent, I will all but beg them to STAY HOME and PARTICIPATE REMOTELY if they are sick or exhibiting even the mildest of symptoms.

As I prepare to teach in-person in a few weeks, I’ve decided that teaching during a pandemic is like riding a bike in heavy traffic. When I am in the safety of my car, I am terrified to see cyclists zipping around traffic on busy roads. From the relative safety of my car, cyclists seem terrifyingly vulnerable with their bare, unprotected flesh.

But when I lived in Boston in graduate school and regularly rode a bike down Mass Ave and other busy roads, I wasn’t paralyzed by fear: to the contrary, I remember being hyper-aware of both my bike and body as they existed in time and space. Recognizing that I couldn’t control or even predict the movements of the cars around me, I meticulously managed the narrow pocket of space immediately surrounding my person.

When you ride a bike on heavily trafficked roads, you quickly learn how small a space you can squeeze through, and you learn the limits of your own maneuverability. You become intimately honed to your inner sense of how close is too close, as if your entire body bristled with antennae attuned to your surroundings. Cars and trucks and random pedestrians can zip and collide around you, but you move with an implicitly surety that you’ll stay safe as long as you are moving within your own Protective Pocket, defensive bike-riding subsuming all of your concentration.

Yes, cyclists get hit and die on busy roads, but when you are actually biking, you aren’t thinking of the risk. Instead, worry is something that drivers like me do whenever I see cyclists riding down streets that I regularly rode down when I was younger.

So after months of staying home and worrying from a distance about my eventual return to the classroom, I was surprised at how natural it felt to be back on campus this week: like riding a bike, teaching is a skill you don’t easily forget. While moving through two different college campuses this week, I was ever-mindful of my personal precautions–my mask, my bottle of hand sanitizer, my perennial sense of how close or far away the people around me were. Just as I couldn’t control the cars around me when I was a grad student riding a bike in Boston, I can’t control a global pandemic. What I focus on instead is staying safe in my own personal bubble.

Masked

Today J and I drove down Beacon Street into Boston. It was the first time we’d been in the city since March 1, when we saw Bobby McFerrin perform at Symphony Hall: our last normal outing during the Before Time, before we went into quarantine on March 14.

David Ortiz Bridge

It was strange to drive from Newton into Brookline then Boston after so many months at home. As we passed Boston College, we didn’t see a soul, and at Cleveland Circle, we saw teams playing softball while wearing masks, as if that was how the sport was supposed to be played. As we drove through Kenmore Square and into the Back Bay, we marveled at empty parking spots–plenty of street parking in a town where parking is always at a premium.

Lansdowne Street

We’d driven into Boston to see the new Black Lives Matter mural outside Fenway Park, so after turning around in the Back Bay, we drove back to Kenmore Square, parked on Beacon Street near Boston University, and walked toward Fenway. In a city of pedestrians, we had the streets and sidewalks largely to ourselves–yes, there were other walkers, but not near the number we’d normally see, and nearly all of them masked.

Open year round

It was outside Fenway Park where things started to feel weird. We’ve been avoiding places where we might encounter large groups of people, but there were no crowds around Fenway, and in pre-pandemic times, there were always crowds around the Park: throngs of baseball fans on game days, and throngs of sightseers every other day. The relative absence of people was odd, eerie, and preternaturally unsettling.

Your local mask dealer

Lansdowne Street was open to pedestrians, with tables set up for people to eat outside–and there was indeed a handful of people enjoying a sunny summer day while dining al fresco. But there were no vendors hawking baseball programs, no gravel-voiced ticket scalpers, no jugglers or caricature artists or stilt-walkers. There was a lone vendor selling sausages from a cart who asked almost apologetically if we wanted a cold beverage, and after initially demurring, we turned around, said yes, and tipped him $7 for a $3 soda: the least we could do.

Lansdowne Street

That is when we heard the crack of a bat and the roar of canned crowd noise from inside the park as an announcer intoned the next player at the plate. It was game day in an age with no fans in the stands, players competing for a TV audience and a handful of cardboard cutouts while the streets outside were nearly empty.

Yaz

Walking up Lansdowne Street hearing the sounds of a game played to an empty ballpark, I remembered all the times J and I have gone to games at Fenway Park, cheering ourselves hoarse in the outfield bleachers before streaming down the stairways and flooding into the street with thousands of other fans. The empty streets around Fenway felt simultaneously apocalyptic and surreally normal: on the one hand, so many COVID dead; on the other, the allure of spectator sports and casual outdoor dining.

Google tells me that Fenway Park held 37,731 fans in the Before Times, when living souls packed the stands. Google also tells me that as of today, 162,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Do the math: that’s more than four Fenways of fans who have been struck, flied, or forced out, game over. What have we as a nation done to mourn these, our presumably beloved dead? Instead of mourning or even pausing, we’ve instead rushed to reopen for the sake of the economy, for the sake of our sanity, for the sake of denial in an amnesiac age.

Black Lives Matter

“Black Lives Matter,” that mural outside Fenway says…but what about the lives of all those lost grandmothers, grandfathers, aunties, uncles, and elders? What have we done to remember and mourn in our rush to return to normal as if none of this–including the lives and deaths of all those lost souls–had ever happened?

Welcome to Fenway Park

During the early days of the pandemic, we often told ourselves that we were all in this together, but now we each navigate these strange days on our own: some of us still sheltering at home, others venturing out and congregating. I remember the first Red Sox game J and I went to after the Boston Marathon bombing: it was both scary and reassuring to be outside in the sun with other fans, game day being a soothing ritual that brought us all together into the reassuring embrace of an anonymous crowd.

Retired

These days, though, crowds are places of contagion, and we steer clear of strangers whose faces are shrouded behind bandanas, gaiters, and masks of all kinds, all of us struggling to get back to normal in a time that is anything but. Who haunts the streets around Fenway Park on a sunny August day: are they the ghosts of those we’ve lost, or our memories of game days past?

Flicker feather

During a normal summer, I procrastinate teaching prep until the end of August, when the start of the semester looms large. This summer, however, I don’t have that luxury. Preparing to teach during a pandemic means re-working everything from the ground up: classes that worked just fine in a normal classroom setting won’t work as well in a hybrid format, so I’m revisiting and revising all of my courses, trying to make them pandemic-proof.

I don’t know exactly what my hybrid classes will look like in the fall: until I get classroom assignments, I can’t visualize what it will look like to have students sitting in assigned seats six feet apart at desks that can’t be moved. What I do know, however, is that my classes will have to be flexible: accessible to students in class or at home, and able to continue when I or any of my students have to quarantine.

In the spring, my colleagues and I moved our in-person classes online without much lead time. Now, I have a summer to prepare my wholly-remote literature class and my hybrid writing classes. The latter classes are the bigger puzzle: I know how to teach wholly online, and I’ve taught one hybrid class where we spent in-class time doing small group work. But teaching in a socially distanced classroom where some students are in the room and others are remote is a whole other animal, and I’ve been spending more time than ever this summer meeting with teaching colleagues and attending professional development workshops, trying to figure it all out.

All of this helps explain why time is flying faster than ever this summer: already, it is almost August, which every teacher knows marks the Almost End of Summer. Although I’ve been religiously spending time in the mornings outside reading on the patio and have continued to write in my journal daily, blogging and more “serious” writing have fallen by the wayside. I know that once the semester starts, life will get busy, fast, and I’ve tried to cherish every moment of this summer’s working staycation.

Waiting room

Today I had a mammogram that had originally been scheduled for May, when nonessential medical procedures were postponed. It was the first time I’d ventured into a medical building since before the pandemic, and like every other aspect of life in the age of Corona, the old routines are distinctly different now.

There were three burly security guards at the entrance of the medical facility, all masked. Immediately inside was a screening station where you had to answer medical questions before picking up a disposable mask and a bright green GUEST decal that indicated you’d passed the health screening.

I didn’t feel comfortable taking an elevator even though signs indicated only one or two passengers were allowed at a time; instead, I took the stairs to my appointment on the fifth floor. In the hallways, drinking fountains were barricaded “out of an abundance of caution,” and decals on the floor indicated where to stand and wait for the receptionist to check you in.

In the waiting room, three chairs were spaced with wide empty space between them. There were no magazines or tables: nothing that could be touched and need to be disinfected. After my name was called, the mammographer took me directly into the exam room: gone was the extra step of disrobing in a partitioned changing room where you could leave your clothes in a locker. Again, having a separate changing room created too many surfaces to disinfect.

Instead, the mammographer left me alone in the exam room–just me, the massive mammography machine, and a lone chair–to disrobe and change into a gown she’d left for me: just one gown instead of the piles of small, medium, and large ones you’d normally choose from in the changing room.

Mammography is a high-touch procedure: it simply cannot be done while observing social distance. There is a lot of manipulating as the mammographer positions your breast on the glass plates of the mammography machine, and the two of you are in close contact–like dance partners, intertwined–for the minute or two it takes for her to arrange your arms and shoulders out of the imaging plane: turn your face this way, turn your torso that way, lean your shoulder here, point your feet and backside there.

The mammographer steps behind a plexiglass shield when she takes the actual images, telling you when to breathe and when to hold your breath, and during the procedure you are literally hugging the imaging equipment, your hands gripping the same hand-holds as every other woman who has gone before you. For this reason, the mammographer wiped down the machine before my procedure, explaining that she cleans the equipment after each patient leaves and again within sight of the next patient, a redundancy I appreciated.

When the procedure was done, I waited briefly for the results in case the radiologist wanted more images. Again, I waited in the exam room itself–one less space to sanitize–trying not to think about how many other women before me had sat and exhaled in the same chair in the same enclosed room.

I would never say that mammography is a tender procedure: mammographers manipulate your body in ways that would be manhandling in any other context, and the machine itself smashes and irradiates tissue that is particularly sensitive to pressure. But as my mammographer twisted my body into place, telling me to turn my face directly toward hers, I found myself holding my breath to save her from the tender intimacy of my (masked) exhalation.

Capt. William Smith's house

This time last year, I took myself to an author talk with Elizabeth Gilbert in Harvard Square. This year, all author talks are virtual, and I can’t remember the last time I was in Harvard Square. When will it feel safe to go into a crowd again–to mingle with strangers? The rush of community–the thrill you feel walking down a crowded street or congregating with other readers, sports fans, or theater-goers–is something the virus has stolen from us, at least for now.

Today J and I went walking at Minute Man National Historic Park. J had never walked down the Battle Road there, and it has been a long time since I’ve been walking there: a year or so, or more? This time, I was mindful of the space between us and other walkers, joggers, and cyclists, and I carefully noted whether each passerby was or wasn’t wearing a mask. Strangers in the time of COVID-19 have become something dangerous or at least suspect: a new form of stranger danger.

On our way back to our car, J and I saw a large family posing for a group photo, one of the family members taking a photo of all the rest. In the Before Time, we might have stopped and offered to take a picture of all of them, together: the kind of thing Friendly Strangers used to do. Instead, I quickly calculated the potential risk in my head: the risk of stopping, the risk of drawing near enough to offer help, and the risk of touching and taking a photo with someone else’s phone.

The risk was too great, so we walked on. It will be a while, I think, before being a friendly stranger feels safe again.

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