Life in the time of Coronavirus


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.

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.

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