The new COVID-era etiquette

Only solitude is 100 percent safe

By Caitlin Kelly

Canadians have just had their Thanksgiving and Americans are already geared up for Hallowe’en and their Thanksgiving, let alone other holidays and the (large) family gatherings usually expected and anticipated.

Not us.

Jose’s parents are long gone, his nearest sister lives a four-hour drive away and my only close relative, my 91-year-old father, is in Canada, where my American husband is banned and I face a 14-day quarantine. I haven’t seen him in more than a year and haven’t crossed that border since late September 2019, when it was no big deal.

Every social gathering — let alone professional — is now so fraught with menace and fear, caution and basic human desperation for a damn hug!

This week we are joining two friends, outdoors (bringing a blanket!) for a two-person birthday celebration at a Manhattan restaurant. This weekend, we’re meeting three people, also outdoors, for lunch.

The grilling!

Who will wear a mask and when and for how long?

Who have they met with and how recently and under what circumstances?

Do we trust their friends — who we have never met?

We live in downstate New York, where daytime temperatures are still in the 60s or 70s but night-time plunging to the 40s, hardly a comfortable temperature for sitting anywhere for very long.

It’s wearying.

Our family’s first and only grandchildren are twins born in D.C. in May — and my father still hasn’t seen them. Nor have I, since my half-brother refuses all contact after a 13-year estrangement.

Millions of people have now lost loved ones to COVID and never had the chance to say good-bye.

Forget weddings and other groups….the latest NY crisis was the result of (!?) a Sweet 16 party, after a wedding in Maine had the same effect.

Our local church is now, finally, open again physically, with an indoor service (limited, it’s a small space) and outdoors at 4pm on the lawn. What I miss more than anything is belting out my favorite hymns…now a dangerous thing to do.

Yes, it’s hard and lonely to never see anyone.

Yes, it’s annoying and difficult to negotiate these times, especially with government “guidance” that shifts daily.

Needs must.

Has COVID changed your priorities?

By Caitlin Kelly

No one would ever dare suggest that a lethal virus is a good thing.

No one could have imagined that more than 200,000 Americans would already have died — and many more now suffer serious long-term effects.

But I’ve started to notice some changes in how we think and behave that, oddly and maybe shockingly, feel better for some of us — while hurting others! — than how we all lived, unquestioningly, before.

Shared and public places are much less crowded

Thousands of small businesses have closed. Disney laid off 28,000 employees and airline staff, from cleaners to veteran pilots, are out of work.

So it’s not kind to be happy about that. But if you, like me, loathe crowds of all sorts, even before they were potentially life-threatening, this is a huge relief. Our town YMCA recently finally re-opened and the pool has four lanes, open now only one swimmer at a time. (Normally, five, which I would find really uncomfortable. Having someone tap my foot to pass? NO.)

Since my beloved spin class is long gone, I’ve started doing three pool visits a week and sometimes have it all to myself. I would never have experienced our old, overcrowded Y as luxurious — but this is.

I miss such fun, silly, spontaneous moments — like meeting Canadian comedian Mike Myers at a Canadian consulate event in Manhattan

We’re being very , very selective about our relationships


In normal life, we tend to include a lot of people — face to face or through social media — who we may not especially like or admire. It’s a sort of social lubrication, necessary to get things done smoothly and efficiently, even when it’s basically pretty insincere.

In a time of terrible political division, with millions refusing to wear masks it’s really not a wise use of our limited energy to argue with anyone anywhere.

We need every ounce of it for ourselves and families and pets and true loved ones. This is a good thing! Conserve energy.

Now, certainly, seeing anyone in person means de facto assuming risk — even if you’re both masked or outdoors and well-spaced. Is this relationship worth it now?

Why?

Fewer relationships can also make for deeper emotional connection

I’ve noticed this. By the time I make a phone date or set aside time to be with someone face to face, why make chitchat? I’ve never been a fan of it, anyway, and now, with COVID’s sudden and invisible lethality/mortality so much closer to all of us, it’s no time for performative intimacy.

We’re being very clear and direct about what we need and expect of one another

I have a friend of many years, a fellow Canadian who runs her own successful business, and who has invited us many times this year to their country house. Much as I appreciate her generosity, I just won’t go and keep saying so.

I finally wrote her a very blunt — not angry — email explaining why: she interacts, for her work, with a lot of people. Many of them are very wealthy and rich New Yorkers (like many wealthy people) do what they please. So I don’t trust their choices, which may affect my friend and me and my husband.

Luckily, Jose and I are fine…This is him earlier in 2020 photographing the Pulitzers at Columbia University in New York City

Lousy relationships and marriages are under an intense new microscope when we have nowhere to flee

There are few experiences more miserable than being confined to (small) quarters for months on end with someone you really don’t like or love.

Here’s a New York Times essay about Coronavirus divorce:

In regular times, we’re always in motion, we’re always hustling, we’re always consuming, striving, climbing, struggling to get from A to B. And if you are unhappy with your relationships or your marriage, there’s a thousand ways to distract yourself: travel, work, socializing. I’m told that some people golf.

Now, all of a sudden, everyone has to be still. There’s no place to go but inward.

We’re all seriously re-examining our choices, whether about where we work, who we work with/for and how (hard) and where we really want to live now

This is huge.

City dwellers are fleeing to suburban or rural areas, desperate for outdoor physical space and the ability to distance from others. On my recent four-day visit to small-town Pennsylvania — about a 90 minute drive from Manhattan — every real estate listing I read said “pending” and a local told me her realtor friend was working 70-hour weeks.

American life — with no unions, low wages and a relentless capitalist drumbeat of DO MORE FASTER NOW — is typically really exhausting. The pandemic is now forcing millions to think, behave, work and relate differently, and for many months yet to come, whether managers or workers or the self-employed.

Some are planning to leave the United States.

Yes, it’s really hurting some people — mothers of small children especially are at their wits’ end, (one crying on-air on a recent national TV show after being fired by a boss who said “Figure it out” while managing a one year old and four year old at home.)

If nothing good comes of this massive upheaval, maybe it’s some long overdue change.

How has the pandemic changed you?

By Caitlin Kelly

I can’t recall a year recently — maybe the crash of 2008, 9/11 — that has so radically and permanently changed our world, and how we experience it.

I was an adult for both of these and both affected me deeply, as it did for millions of others, even those who did not lose a loved one to 9/11. I’ve never gone down to the memorial in Manhattan. I have enough memories of it.

This terrible and relentless year has shifted so much of how we think and behave and what we expect from government and one another.

Here’s some of how it’s changed me:

I’m more fearful.

I hate that! I’ve always prided myself on being bold and up for new adventure. But when everyone around you can be an invisible vector of disease? Not so much.

I have to calculate risk every single day, not just on rare occasions.

We live in New York state, where the current infection rate is a reassuring one percent. But for how long? I have eaten inside a restaurant a few times, with tables far apart and people masked when not eating. But a recent meal, even far from the table of eight, left me worried after they sang Happy Birthday, since singing spreads virus. Now I have to hope their celebration won’t sicken me.

I’m short-tempered and tired

Who isn’t?!

We don’t even have to home school children, but we are two self-employed workers sharing an apartment with no office space. Constant mask-wearing drives me mad, even while I do it and know it’s necessary. I’m sick to death of the political incompetence and lies that has killed 200,000 Americans and the fools who worship the man who made it happen.

If you haven’t read it, this is a smart analysis of how we feel and why.

An excerpt:

It was, as I’d soon describe in an emotional post in a social media group of professional colleagues, an “anxiety-tainted depression mixed with ennui that I can’t kick,” along with a complete inability to concentrate. I spoke with my therapist, tweaked medication dosages, went outside daily for fresh air and sunlight, tried to force myself to do some physical activity, and even gave myself permission to mope for a few weeks. We were in a pandemic, after all, and I had already accepted in March that life would not be “normal” for at least a year or two. But I still couldn’t work, couldn’t focus, hadn’t adjusted. Shouldn’t I be used to this by now?

“Why do you think you should be used to this by now? We’re all beginners at this,” Masten told me. “This is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s expecting a lot to think we’d be managing this really well.”

My social circle has shrunk

It’s minuscule. Gone are the friendly quick moments of banter in our apartment hallways and laundry room, at the grocery store or gym. I speak to a small handful of people by phone and restrict my access to others. We hosted a couple a few weeks ago for the first time in six months — on our balcony, with a breeze. When winter forces us all indoors again, I dread the isolation.

I don’t make plans for the future beyond a week or two

This is deeply unsettling. But who can?

My greatest pleasure is usually travel. Not now.

I went away for four days — planned to be six — to an inn in Pennsylvania but left early, bored and restless and alienated by Trump signs for miles.

When every encounter now carries physical risk, the reward had better be amazing! But because of COVID, so many experiences are smaller or diminished and altered in ways that are just annoying, that, for me, sap the joy and spontaneity out of the whole endeavor.

I’m even more reliant on my husband than ever.

When we’re now able to see so few people, our marriage has to be a source of daily sustenance in ways it never has. We’ve been together 20 years and really enjoy one another’s company. But it’s a lot to expect of one other tired, cranky human being!

Routines matter much more than they once did.

When the world is in such daily and mismanaged chaos — floods, fires, hurricanes, daily political malfeasance, racism, violence — even the simplest routines become deeply grounding and comforting. For me, it’s everything from two newspapers a day, in print, to Netflix binges at night or my 4:00 p.m. pot of tea. This is not a good time to feel untethered.

How has it changed you?

A few days away, alone

By Caitlin Kelly

The last time I was away from home alone was early March, almost seven months.

It’s a real luxury to leave home, to have a working vehicle and the spare time and income to travel, but the challenges of two people working full-time from a one bedroom apartment — as so many are now doing! — are tiring.

I needed some solitude.

I decided to head to small-town Pennsylvania on the recommendation of a friend, staying at a small hotel with a handsome Arts & Crafts design and a large, lovely garden. I had planned to stay seven nights, but decided to leave early, which surprised me.

It was a rougher part of the world than I generally prefer — tattoo parlors and shooting ranges. There just wasn’t much to do, although I loved my morning routine of reading in the garden for a few hours every day, catching up on months of the many unread magazines I lugged with me.

But the main reason?

It’s Trump country.

I did enjoy a break.

The inn was welcoming and their meals delicious.

I drove country roads in warm fall sunshine and enjoyed rolling hills and lush green farms, weathered barns and old mills.

But the vast majority of lawn signs — and signs posted on barns and other buildings — were overwhelmingly for Trump, a man I despise, who has destroyed many of the things I value, including 200,000 American lives lost to COVID.

I despair every day he remains in office.

So every sign I saw supporting him made me feel ill and alien, surrounded by people who don’t care about any of the things I care most about.

I didn’t have conversations about it. I don’t go looking for trouble!

But it’s been a useful and important reminder of the largely Democratic bubble I live in. I knew that before leaving home.

What I didn’t realize is how viscerally sick seeing so much support for him would make me feel.

It’s a constant subject of conversation now — what will we do if he wins again?

I spoke to an immigration attorney recently and learned that I can get a re-entry permit to leave the U.S. for two years and keep my green card. That’s welcome news, but it doesn’t solve the problem of my husband’s work, based physically in New Jersey.

And another four years of Trump?

I don’t think the United States will survive.

What does your passport mean to you?

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

As Covid has slammed shut many borders, especially to Americans — boldly accustomed to ready, sometimes grateful access to other countries — it’s an interesting time to look at one’s passport, and national identity with fresh eyes.

From an EU website:

UNWTO estimated that US tourists spent €119 billion ($139,712,545,000) on international travel (excluding international transport) in 2017, showing an increase of €8 billion on 2016.

 

Over half of US citizens’ outbound travel is to neighboring countries, making up the top two destinations.
The entire top ten of outbound travel from the US is comprised of

  1. Canada

  2. Mexico Followed by

  3. United Kingdom

  4. Dominican Republic

  5. France

  6. Italy

  7. Germany

  8. Jamaica

  9. China

  10. Spain

 

But a passport isn’t just an essential for international travel. It’s a portable symbol of your country and its values, from the images printed on its pages, to the cultural baggage we carry with us as well.

 

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Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market — and a red-coated Mountie

 

Here’s an essay from The Atlantic about what it’s like now to hold an American one, my husband’s.

An excerpt, written by a man with an Indian passport:

 

An American passport, until recently, could bring you anywhere with minimal need to worry about visas and border checks. But this is the world of immigration that Americans must now familiarize themselves with. Before the pandemic, more than 100 countries were willing to admit Americans; now, by one count, fewer than three dozen countries want you. What you have done matters little; instead, your movements are limited by factors outside of your control, and your passport locks doors rather than opening them.

I spent my university days in London envious of friends with “good passports” who could hop on a train to France or cross the Irish Sea to Dublin without any notice. My vacations, by contrast, had to be meticulously laid out. I visited consulates with flights booked, hotels reserved, itineraries planned, and travel insurance paid for, worried that I would nevertheless be rejected. On one occasion, my girlfriend and I flew from Jordan to Beirut, where colleagues had airily assured me I could get a visa on arrival. When we landed, however, immigration officials told me my colleagues were mistaken, and those rules did not apply to Indians. I was put on a flight back to Amman while my girlfriend, with her British passport, collected our bags.

Even these stories are ones of privilege: holidays undone by byzantine, hazily interpreted visa rules; reporting assignments turned down because travel could not be arranged as quickly as it could be for colleagues with British or American passports. Others have, of course, suffered far more difficult and painful experiences—an array of migrants must endure complicated refugee and asylum processes, and even those who travel for tourism or study must dig deeper into their savings than I must to pay steep application fees.

 

 

And here’s one about holding a Canadian passport, from The Literary Review of Canada,  as I do.

 

An excerpt:

The document is elegant. No one can dispute that. The deep navy blue of its slightly pebbled cover, the understated gilt imprint of the royal arms of Canada, which somehow looks faded even when new — the passport is a classic. Its cover may be harder, more durable, the pages inside more decorated than when I was a boy, but, in the hand, its familiarity is heavy, anchoring. A passport is a little book printed for a single situation, the condition of being between countries. To hold it is to be going from home to elsewhere or from elsewhere to home. Over time, the booklet assumes the association of distance and belonging, of leaving and returning. This year that association, often subtle, like a half-remembered smell from childhood, clarified itself in the atmosphere of trauma that overtook the world. This was the year when we remembered what it means to hold a Canadian passport…The passport gave me the sensation of homecoming, familiarity, the knowledge of my physical safety, an assumption of care that has become less and less easy to take for granted in a sickening world. To have a passport, to have papers is a blessing we could ignore before COVID-19 but not after. I would be lying if I did not acknowledge a positive presence, too, a connection with a people. I was grateful to be among Canadians…I was grateful for strong institutions. I was glad to return to a country where the administrative state is maintained and supported, not just by politicians but by ordinary people.

 

It’s an odd experience to live in one country, as I do, while still using the passport of another. This sometimes prompts surprise or a question from an American customs/border official.

But that slim blue object carries more weight for me than its physical size. If nothing else, it’s a comforting bit of my first home and, depending how the U.S. elections go this year, still offers me an escape some Americans now deeply envy.

A COVID-19 alphabet

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By Caitlin Kelly

 

A is for Appalled

How can millions be infected and so many dead?

B is for Bravery

Just read some of the tweets and threads on #medtwitter and they will break your heart. Healthcare workers are exhausted, traumatized, grieving — and trying to save lives, even for the selfish fools who couldn’t be bothered being responsible. Also, every worker in a customer-facing job.

C is for Compassion

Without it, we’re all as good as dead.

D is for Death

The numbers are staggering. When will it end?

E is for Expectation

Gone. We all live in a weird timeless moment now. Whatever we might have expected of 2020 — beyond this — is gone, maybe for good.

F is for Fear

Some is healthy and protective, making us socially distance and wear masks and wash hands and too much is paralyzing. Yet who, paying attention, isn’t fearful now?

G is for Generosity

For those who have been able to donate time, energy and money to those in need. To the incredibly kind healthcare workers who have crossed the country to give of their time and skills to those hospitals already overwhelmed.

H is for Health

If you have it still, you are very very lucky.

I is for Imagination

We must keep imagining a future that is less miserable than where we are right now. Without that, we are lost.

J is for Joy

Whatever moments you have, now, savor them fully.

K is for KitKats

The morning treat savored by Jeopardy host Alex Trebek. (See, made you smile!)

L is for Love

This pandemic has laid bare who loves and why. Those who truly love others are showing it in their behavior and choices.

M is for Mothers

Heroes now, more than ever, forced into handling work and kids and home-schooling.

N is for Nonsense

The garbage being touted as “news” and “cures” and “solutions.”

O is for Optimism

Yes, we need that as well.

P is for Political Incompetence

Need I say more?

Q is for Queen Elizabeth’s address to us all

Made on April 5, 2020:

“If we remain united and resolute, we will overcome. it…Those that come after us will say that the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self discipline, of quiet good-humored resolve and fellow feeling still characterize this country…We will succeed and that success will belong to all of us…We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.”

R is for Resolve

See above.

S is for Staying Safe

Do whatever it takes. Do whatever you can. Every day. We help others by being safe.

T is for Time

At some point — when? — this will be in the past. It will be remembered as a time of massive upheaval and unemployment, of fear and contagion and political division. Until then, here we are. Tick tock. Tick tock.

U is for Unwinding

If you’re fortunate enough to be healthy and solvent, this is also, for some, a time of unwinding from the daily dramas, wearying and expensive commutes and rushrushrush of “normal life.”

V is for Vanity

Not now! Many of us have gone months without a haircut or new clothes or any form of traditional vanity. Some of us have gotten very good at home-made haircuts.

W is for Work

Without it, we are lost. Millions are facing a future without a job. Now what?

X is for Xanadu

If only we could escape…this was once the place.

Y is for Yelling

Do it! This is a time of endless stress and grief and fear and a good shout is cathartic as hell.

Z is for Zoom

Of course!

 

 

Soldiering on

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By Caitlin Kelly

One of my favorite films is Dr. Zhivago, with an unforgettable scene of a long line of exhausted, worn-out soldiers trudging forward.

To “soldier on” means to keep going, doing something that’s difficult, not giving up when you’re tired and discouraged and just fed up.

(It’s also a non-profit group dedicated to ending homelessness for veterans.)

It’s now been five months since COVID began to dominate our lives — with more than 137,000 Americans dead, thousands more soon to join them.

It’s been a long time to readjust, albeit immediately, to a world we never wanted: terrified of catching a disease that, if it doesn’t kill you, can radically damage your health for years to come. A world where parents, somehow, have had to school their own children or supervise their online learning in addition to earning an income in a full-time job.

And there’s no end in sight.

I live in New York, now one of the few states that flattened the curve because we listened early to the directions of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Is it fun to isolate?

To stay home most of the time?

To avoid all social gatherings?

To postpone medical, dental and grooming appointments?

Let alone to miss culture-in-person — dance,  music, museums theater, movies.

Hell, no!

And the single greatest problem with being a soldier right now is the stunning lack of leadership, of a general with a clue, with a strategy and tactics. We’re fighting the virus with very few weapons — masks, social distancing, ventilators, proning, remdesivir — and losing what feels like an endless battle.

Still.

I often deeply wish that the veterans of WWII were not so old, the few left alive, to share more widely and consistently the shared sense of sacrifice and solidarity that somehow got them through it all.

The enemy, Nazism and genocide, was clear(er) then and the fight, however long and expensive and bloody, was one most people agreed was essential to win, no matter the personal sacrifices. It was a matter of pride, then, to share the sacrifice, to know what you were doing to help really mattered and your colleagues, friends, family and neighbors largely agreed.

Not to whine that a mask contravenes your liberty — just like blackout curtains or rationing once did as well.

Today, somehow, a lethal virus is still not as clear an enemy — and thousands refuse to believe it even exists, like the 30-year-old whose last regretful words were: “I thought it was a hoax.”

 

But soldier on we must.

American rage, multi-layered

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

Have you ever had a pousse-café?

It’s a drink that contains two to seven layers of alcohol, added by weight, to create a colorful array of stripes in one glass.

 

America’s rage is a pousse-café, with so, so many layers.

 

People are being tear-gassed and shot by police with rubber bullets.

Protestors, including professional journalists, have been targeted by police and permanently blinded.

Stores have been attacked and destroyed and looted, from mass market Target to luxury brands like Chanel.

Some Americans are appalled, astonished, gobsmacked.

Not me.

Not millions.

 

 

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A classic image, taken by the late photographer Bernie Boston

 

 

There are so many layers to American rage now:

— the endless lethal parade of African Americans who are shot and killed by police (ooops, wrong apartment!) or hunted down by gun-happy civilians, and here are only a tiny few of them: George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery…

— the daily fears this has created, for generations, that simply being black, going for a walk, walking too fast or in the “wrong” neighborhood or wearing a hoodie or even birding in Central Park, is an invitation, as it is, for some people to wield their white privilege and entitlement and choose to endanger or end others’ lives.

— the “talk” every black parent has to have with their children, especially teen males, about how to walk through their lives on eggshells because so many others will choose to see their basic existence in the same spaces as a threat.

— the income inequality that has kept so many Americans at such deep disadvantage in a nation whose comforting myth is “just work harder!”

— the extraordinary costs of attending even a public university or college, acquiring massive debt that dogs graduates for decades, even as they drift into poorly-paid jobs that make it impossible to repay those loans, and loans that — unlike any other — cannot be discharged by declaring bankruptcy.

— health disparities that have killed many more people of color thanks to COVID-19 because POC have underlying health conditions (“co-morbidities” in medspeak) that left their bodies more vulnerable, like obesity, asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure.

— 100,000 Americans — with many more to come — already dead of COVID-19.

— a Federal minimum wage of $7.25 that has not been raised since 2009; only 29 of 50 states have made theirs higher, more than $11/hour.

— extortionate costs for health insurance.

— the loss of millions of jobs.

— the loss for millions of their health insurance coverage — because that’s how many Americans get the only coverage they can afford, when their employer picks up some of its cost (i..e. benefits.)

— widespread police brutality, even blinding permanently some protestors, including journalists

— a deep, abiding despair at the lack of political leadership, and shocking passivity on all sides, to address any of this.

 

It’s a drink that tastes very, very bitter.

 

Looking forward…

By Caitlin Kelly

 

We’re all living in the subjunctive now.

From Wikipedia (for Spanish):

The subjunctive is used to express desires, doubts, the unknown, the abstract, and emotions.

 

Americans, especially, are a nation accustomed — beyond those in the worst poverty — to a specific sort of aggressive optimism, the “American dream” that life will, through lots of hard work, get better.

A pandemic killing thousands every day has shredded this.

 

How can anyone look ahead with optimism?

How can anyone plan?

How can we make rational decisions without reliable information?

Can we stay healthy?

For how long?

 

It’s a challenge to keep moving ahead when you have no idea if you’ll get your job back or your health insurance or if your children will be back at school or college or university.

German schoolchildren are back in their classrooms.

My French friends are celebrating the end of “le confinement” — while a feckless America lurches deeper into recession and chaos and morons carrying guns storm a…Subway sandwich shop.

How are you coping with this uncertainty?