Life in the time of Coronavirus


Over the falls

A (not her real initial) and I hadn’t seen each other in-person since February, 2020, when we’d met to see an exhibit of street art and orchids at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.  As was true of many of the things we did in the early months of 2020, A and I had no idea we were living in the Before Times.  Instead, we took for granted our ritual of occasionally meeting halfway between our respective homes to enjoy a walk, art exhibit, or conversation over lunch…until COVID put an end to that.

Over the course of the pandemic, A, a mutual friend, and I have had the requisite Zoom happy hours to celebrate Christmas and each of our birthdays, with gifts shipped ahead of time.  More frequently over this past year, A and I scheduled Saturday night phone calls to keep in touch.  Without the need to stare at a screen, we were free to talk while folding laundry, piecing together a puzzle, or lounging with the dog:  the kind of leisurely conversation that is the antidote to Zoom fatigue.

Now that both A and I are fully vaccinated, we planned to meet yesterday for a walk in central Massachusetts…but when a cold, rainy forecast put a literal damper on those plans, we met in Northampton instead.  Equipped with rain gear and umbrellas, we walked around the Smith College campus, had lunch downtown at Sylvester’s, and went shopping at Thornes Marketplace:  the exact sort of thing we did countless times before the pandemic shut down our social lives.

Yesterday, everything seemed sharper, brighter, and more wondrous.  Repeatedly since J and I attained fully vaccinated status several weeks ago, I’ve had an unbidden and entirely spontaneous realization:  we lived.  While the virus raged, we hunkered down and followed every public health advisory.  We washed our hands, kept our distance, wore our masks, and avoided crowds.  We stayed home and didn’t socialize.  And now that we’re fully vaccinated, we’re enjoying re-entry, trusting the same science that kept us safe to continue to protect us in this next-normal.

So yesterday, when A and I settled in for a late lunch at Sylvester’s, I knew I had to order eggs.  Since J and I stopped going to restaurants in March, 2020, I haven’t had eggs, bacon, waffles, or pancakes:  foods J and I order when we go out for brunch, but don’t cook at home.  The process of re-entry has been a series of re-introductions:  the first time seeing friends again, the first time eating at restaurants again, the first time strolling through a mall and window-shopping again.  Words can’t describe how wonderful it is to enjoy these simple pleasures again.

Fern forest

Years ago, in the Way Before Times, A (not her real initial) noted that half the joy of a vacation is the planning:  the looking forward.  There are guidebooks to peruse and reviews to read and itineraries to plan.  There is the anticipation of future joy–the allure of a dangling carrot giving focus to one’s day– and the excitement of counting down to something special.

Something I eventually identified as being a large part of my personal  quarantine fatigue was the realization that in lockdown, you have nothing to look forward to:  no trips, no dinners with friends, no shows or concerts or sporting events.  It’s not simply that you have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to see, but the sobering fact that you have no plans to make and nothing definite to look forward to.

One of the joys of receiving the first dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine last month was the excitement of having a momentous day to circle on the calendar:  a truly red letter day.  Once you’ve had your first dose, you can count down to your second, and one you’ve had your second, you can count down to that magical day two weeks later when you officially join the ranks of the Fully Vaccinated.

Last week J and I celebrated what we called our Immunity Day with lunch inside an actual restaurant, and this week, the planning for the After Times begins.  

Today I’ll meet a friend for an afternoon walk followed by cocktails and dinner; in a few weeks, I’ll meet another friend for a woodsy walk somewhere in central Massachusetts.  J and I are planning to walk to lunch tomorrow, and in a few weeks, we’re planning to go to the Museum of Fine Arts.  In June, I’ll visit my Mom in Ohio, and plans are currently underway for an afternoon meetup with a handful of my high school friends while I’m in town:  a flurry of social events that would have seemed impossible only a few months ago.

Violets

I don’t normally like to make sweeping generalizations about entire groups of people, but let me speak on the behalf of educators everywhere:  we are more than ready for this academic year to be over.  While much of the world is suffering from pandemic fatigue, take it from me:  right now, educators are suffering from simple fatigue.  

I haven’t been blogging much because pandemic teaching has drained me of every ounce of creative energy.  I’ve been writing in my journal, which is an intentionally low-tech and private space where I can vent, recite a litany of to-do’s, and otherwise be uninspiring.  But these days blogging feels too much like teaching–a task that requires me to have Something To Say and then shape that content into Something Presentable–and most days I simply don’t have the mental bandwidth.

Earlier this semester–probably sometime in March, when I was in dire need of the Spring Break that was cancelled at both of my colleges–I coined a motto that perfectly sums up how teaching during a pandemic feels when you are overwhelmed with grading, struggling to keep up with course prep, and wondering how you’re going to motivate students who are as tired and burned-out as you are:  too many tabs; not enough spoons.

“Too many tabs” refers to the constant multitasking that hybrid teaching entails.  Answering one emailed question from a student might entail checking the course management system, online gradebook, Google Doc assignment guidelines, course calendar, or syllabus.  Holding virtual office hours at one college might be the only uninterrupted time you can find to grade papers or prep courses at the other college, every day being a nonstop cycle of prep-work, reminders, and (of course) grading.  No matter how much time you spent preparing for this semester like no other, nothing can really prepare you for the whirlwind of work that is pandemic teaching.

“Not enough spoons” refers to Spoon Theory, a way of explaining the finite amount of energy any individual has for the mundane tasks of adulting.  In its original iteration, Spoon Theory referred to the limited energy folks with chronic illness or disability have to navigate the world:  completing Task X, Y, or Z might deplete all one’s spoons for the day.  During this interminable COVID year, educators at all levels–college and K-12 alike–are doing more work than ever, but with significantly fewer spoons.  At the end of any given day, when I look at my paltry pile of accomplishments alongside my looming list of tasks left undone, all I can say is “Sorry, but I’m all out of spoons.”

I can confidently say all educators feel this way because I started this academic year in relatively good shape, better prepared than many to face the challenges of a COVID semester.  I’ve taught online before, and I’m well-versed in online teaching design.  I knew the difference between synchronous and asynchronous modalities, and I understood the pedagogical benefits (and drawbacks) of each.  I already taught project-based classes where students submitted their assignments electronically, and I already used Google Docs to share handouts I could amend on-the-fly.  If anyone was prepared to teach in a hybrid format, it was me…and in retrospect, even I had no idea what I was getting into.

Additionally, I haven’t carried the burdens many of my college and K-12 colleagues have faced this year.  I don’t have kids, so I haven’t been trying to teach while overseeing my children’s remote classes.  I have a laptop and robust wifi at home, so teaching remotely on off-campus days hasn’t been a technological hardship.  I haven’t had to care for elderly or infirm loved ones; I haven’t had to grieve any family members who succumbed to the virus.  Through every day of an academic year filled with uncertainty and upheaval, I’ve had a roof over my head and food on the table.

But still, this has been an exhausting year.  Yesterday, I submitted final grades for one college; this week, I’m teaching the last week of classes at the other.  Spring is always a busy time of year for writing teachers:  at times it feels like you’ll never reach the bottom of your (virtual) paper piles.  But this year has been brutally exhausting, and many of us have been working in isolation, without the collegiality of on-campus colleagues to give us a morale boost.

Every semester feels like a marathon, and this COVID year feels like an ultra-marathon:  a test of endurance coupled with a crisis of faith. Against all odds, we educators have reached the almost-end of a semester where death itself was lurking around every corner, and we sometimes managed to do this with grace and even aplomb.  So as the end of this marathon academic year rapidly approaches, I have only one question:  where’s my fucking medal?

Emerging day lilies

I remember the first time I saw a rose-breasted grosbeak.  I was a teenage birdwatcher in Ohio, and my parents and I were birding in a group somewhere, probably Greenlawn Cemetery.  My Dad spotted a bird he didn’t immediately recognize, and someone else in the group called out the ID:  grosbeak!  

My Dad gave detailed instructions to anyone who wanted to see the bird:  it’s in the pale green tree around two o’clock, about ten feet from the center, on a half-bare branch.  And while folks around me gradually called out “Got it,” and “Beautiful,” I frantically scanned the place where the bird was supposed to be:  nothing!

After several minutes of listening to everyone else Ooh and Ahh over a bird I still couldn’t see, I cried out in a near panic:  “I don’t see it!  I don’t see it!”  My Dad laughed and told me to calm down:  the bird wasn’t going anywhere.  

After a few more minutes of my Dad describing exactly where I needed to look, I finally saw my first-ever rose-breasted grosbeak:  a chunky black-and-white robin-sized bird with a slash of hot pink beneath its throat.  The bird was as beautiful as everyone had said, and just like that, my panic over Not Seeing A Grosbeak turned into satisfaction over another life bird bagged.

These days, getting a COVID vaccine is like spotting a grosbeak.  Everyone around me, it seems, is getting the vaccine and posting jubilant pictures on social media, but I’m not yet old, sick, or essential enough to be eligible.  I know the vaccine isn’t going anywhere–it will still be there when it is eventually, finally, my turn–but in the meantime, I’m fretting in the Not Yet:  the Not Yet Spring, the Not Yet End of this interminable semester, the Not Yet End of the pandemic.  

We live in a world with plenty of grosbeaks, but when your own is hiding, you can worry yourself into a frenzy over what seems so near, but has not yet arrived.

Unplugged

It’s almost 5:00 pm and still light out, but I’m nevertheless feeling the sundowning fatigue that has become so familiar this pandemic year. In the morning, I’m energized and optimistic, looking forward to a productive day; by evening, though, I’m tapped and tired, and my to-do list still looms.

Before the pandemic, I would have soldiered through, milking as much work as possible out of every waking minute, then staying up late (or getting up early) to tackle the rest. But I can no longer do this: I’m too old to pull all-nighters, and worse yet, I’m no longer foolish enough to try. I’ve learned from long experience–52 years inhabiting this body, and nearly 30 years teaching college–that the shortcut of long hours leads to little progress in the long run.

When I deprive myself of sleep, I get sick–and when I get sick, I stay sick for weeks, even a simple cold triggering an avalanche of asthmatic complications. During this COVID year, I can’t afford to get sick. From the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve realized my top priority isn’t my job or my students or my to-do list; it’s my health. In the pit of my stomach, I know that if I get COVID, it won’t end well, so I must avoid infection at all costs.

Since late-afternoon-into-evening is when my energy, productivity, and morale lag, I’ve learned this past year how important it is to stop working when my body says “no more.” Because hybrid teaching forces me to spend more time than usual at my computer as I prep classes, check discussion forums, and Zoom with students, I’ve come to cherish the time I spend unplugged, reading print books, writing snail-mail letters, or writing by hand in my journal.

My laptop and Internet connection have been my tether to the outside world this past year, but my books, notebooks, stationery, and stamps have been my lifeline.

Grate

February is hard. Years ago, I repeated Jo(e)’s claim that February is the longest month, and she is exactly right. Come February, the novelty of winter has long worn off. The snow is cleared from streets and sidewalks after each storm, but it piles and ossifies in yards and corners. Our dog pen is as slick as a rink, with weeks of snow trampled and saturated with last week’s sleet, then frozen hard: snow covering ice layered atop treachery.

The daily winter drill is now familiar and mundane. The piling on of coats and hats and gloves, then the pulling on of boots: it takes so much effort to take the trash to the curb, the dog to the pen, one’s own self to the car. Along with any obligation, there are these extra intervening steps: almost inconceivable are those summer days when stepping outside was as simple as slipping on sandals.

By February, winter has grown old, a tired routine that wears thin. And this year, we are in the February of the pandemic: a crisis that has lingered so long, it seems almost unremarkable. Last March, the governor declared a state of emergency, back when the pandemic was newly emergent. Nearly a year later, I no longer know if any given day is an emergency or merely life as we now know it. After nearly a year of being vigilant for viruses, our perpetual state of high alert is almost mind-numbing: an old ordinary that dulls more than sharpens.

In the early days of the pandemic, J and I kept a calendar count of our stay-at-home days. A quarantine is defined as forty days of isolation, but now we’re approaching a full year of deprivation: not socializing in-person with friends, not eating in restaurants, not shopping inside stores, not traveling or attending events. J and I no longer count our stay-at-home days; instead, we’re counting down until late April, when we hope to be eligible for the COVID vaccine–the closest thing to Spring we can hope for in these interminable pandemic days.

Miniature snowperson

Several weeks ago, while waiting to check-in on campus for my weekly COVID-19 test, I saw a teaching colleague leaving after taking her own test. I called her name, we exchanged pleasantries from a safe distance, and she left: the kind of passing interaction we used to have frequently in the Before Times. Only afterward did I realize it was the first time I’d seen a teaching colleague in person in nearly a year.

When colleges across the country went virtual last March (and again when colleges re-opened in various hybrid formats this past Fall), parents and pundits alike wondered how the pandemic would impact the social lives of students. Would 18- to 21-year-olds be deprived of the Typical College Experience in an era where masks, social distancing, and frequent COVID tests are the norm? Nowhere in this conversation did anyone ask what it would be like for college instructors teaching in the Age of Coronavirus. How exactly would college professors cultivate collegiality in the absence of in-person colleagues?

At both of the colleges where I teach, department chairs and other administrators have tried to maintain a semblance of bureaucratic normalcy with department meetings, committee work, and conversational coffee hours happening online. But gone are the days of running into your colleagues in the copy room, chatting around the department water cooler, or mingling in the hallways.

At both of the colleges where I teach, students are finding ways to interact and socialize: I see scattered groups of masked students walking across campus or gathering at a safe distance in classrooms and common areas, where the furniture is marked to indicate where students can and cannot sit. What I don’t see while walking to and from class, however, are other professors. Many of my colleagues are teaching remotely this semester, and my colleagues who teach hybrid classes behave as I do, zipping in to teach their classes and then immediately heading home to minimize the exposure risk of being on-campus.

This means I’ve gone almost an entire year without seeing my professional peers in person. When I’m on campus, the only folks I regularly see are my undergraduate students; apart from the maintenance staff who come into my classroom to sanitize the desks between classes or the nurses who staff the COVID testing center, I rarely see people my own age on campus. Both of my department chairs are working remotely, both of my department administrative assistants are working remotely, and the instructors who occupy the offices around mine are (like me) seldom around.

Now that I’ve noted this phenomenon, I am realizing how odd and disorienting it is. Walking to and from class, I feel like a relic: a Significantly Older Person whose experience of campus is distinctly different from the young folks around me. While my students are looking to make friends and socialize despite the virus, I’m mindful that as a middle-aged asthmatic, I’m far less likely to bounce back from infection than my youthful students are. For my students, COVID is an inconvenient social interruption: for me, COVID is something that could seriously incapacitate or kill me.

So while my on-campus students are surrounded by people their own age, the pandemic has done something that none of my professional accomplishments has ever been able to achieve: it’s made me peerless, a person who is literally without peer.

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.

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