Epochs

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.” — St. Augustine

Friend Jenn is an ER doctor. At the beginning of March, when it was clear the coronavirus would ravage the country and the richest nation in the world couldn’t supply enough N95 masks for its hospital workers, she and the other docs slid their masks into brown paper bags at the end of their shifts and wrote the dates on those bags. The masks could sit for five days — the estimated time for virus to die off — before cleaning and re-using them, if necessary.

“The other day I was marking my paper bag and I remembered writing March 3,” she said. “Now suddenly I’m writing November dates.”

Was this the longest year, or the shortest year? First the toilet paper ran out at Costco. Then I rushed off a New York subway two stops early because I was too scared to cough while Chinese — back then, only Wuhan was locked down and the anti-Asian racism raged. Then yellow caution tape went up around the playgrounds and masks went up on our faces. I picked up Eva from school, and it still hasn’t reopened. Friends started gardens, and sourdough. In June, I started wearing a Christmas sweatshirt that said, “Merry Merry Merry” to try and cheer myself up. QR codes came back, for menus at restaurants only open in what used to be their parking lots. We attended drive-by birthday parades. And Zoom weddings. The three-year-old showed me how to mute and un-mute her Zooms. We got to know the parks and the running trails and everything that could happen outside. I smized as much as I could.

I’m still wearing that Christmas sweatshirt, only, it’s actually Christmastime now.

Time’s elasticity has never mystified me more. The Groundhog Day-ness of our routines, the complete lack of travel, the death of serendipity, surprise and strangers … did it stretch time or compress it?

Neurologists say novelty enhances memory, and while 2020 was devoid of the “novelty” we used to plan for — vacations, milestones, the gatherings where you’d meet novel new people, we got surprises we didn’t want: a public health crisis, economic crisis and social crisis. A presidential election, while resolved, has permanently damaged our already fraught American democracy. Being hyper-alert and anxious all the time would, reasonably, stretch time in the way trauma does. And relationally, I feel as if I’ve known my COVID19 trench friends and “foxhole crushes” for 80 percent of my adult life, despite really only deepening our friendships over the grueling months of the plague.

We wanted the election to hurry up and come so we could be put out of our uncertainty. We wanted this year to hurry up and end. And suddenly it’s almost over and I’m sitting here thinking, WTF happened to this entire year? What have I done with myself, if anything?

Psychologists study the “trip home effect,” an illusion in which we feel like the drive back from a destination is shorter, even when it’s the same distance. The common explanation was that familiarity undergirded that feeling — you recognize the landmarks on the way back, and you’re devoid of the original uncertainty of that drive. A more recent study points at expectation as the reason why the drive home seems shorter:  “Initial optimism made the trip out feel longer than expected … pessimism starting back makes the trip home feel shorter.”

Or, it’s about distraction: You’re more focused on a target when you’re going somewhere for the first time, but when you’re coming home, you’re more easily distracted, making the trip seem shorter.

In pondering the elasticity of time this year, and how the trip home effect might relate, I stumbled on perhaps the bigger, more philosophical question: Is life in a pandemic trying to get to a destination, or trying to get home?

What To Read During A Pandemic

Since the 2016 Trump election, I have made it a priority to read at least 52 books a year, and have kept up that pace during the tumultuous years since. I find it a balm to bury myself in a book and do some “deep reading,” as Ezra Klein calls it, and am better for it. I see new frameworks and systems, find myself connecting concepts to life or work, and in general, reading expands me and I love it.

This year is different. (The word “different” is doing a LOT of work there.) I am trying to write a book of my own, which is not going well for all the reasons you can expect. And I find it hard to concentrate long enough to read well. Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been impressive creative work coming out this year. So I’ll recommend a few periodicals that resonated with me and might stay with you, too.

Essay: “When the World Went Away, We Made a New One” by Leslie Jamison
(And her NY Review of Books piece on the early days of quarantine while suffering through the virus, single parenting her toddler, is also deeply resonant)

Poetry: The Blue House by Tomas Transtomer

Testimony: 1964 Testimony by Fannie Lou Hamer before the Credentials Committee, Democratic National Convention.

Longform News: The Truth is Paywalled but the Lies are Free, by Nathan J. Robinson

I Wrote Everywhere, Man

(A fuller, edited version of this post appears on npr.org)

The letters addressed and ready for delivery. My first letters were affixed with Santa stamps because that’s all I had left.

On the first day, I wrote to folks in Santa Ana CA, Austin, St. Louis, Flushing NY, Spokane Valley and Tucson. On the next day I wrote to an 11-year old who was born in Plano, where I grew up. I wrote to a USPS letter carrier from Minnesota who requested a letter for himself. By the time I was finished writing letters to any random social media follower of mine requested one, I wrote fifty letters to people I’d never met, addressed to recipients in almost every US state, excepting Alaska and the Dakotas.

When they requested letters, people mentioned little bits about themselves: That they live in my old stomping grounds (Austin, or St. Louis). They mentioned their cats, or kids, or dogs. They mentioned listening to me when I broadcasted from Seoul. They mostly asked if it was too late to request a letter.

It surprised me how many people wanted a random letter from a stranger, but they were clearly as eager to connect as I was, during this disorienting global pandemic and what’s amounted to a national state of emergency. At least three of the letter requesters were my longtime friends. They can call me anytime, but wanted a letter all the same.

Our lives are upended and uncontrollable, yet contained by the walls of our homes. So when I wrote, I asked how they were doing in isolation. Were they scared and uncertain, like me? How did they fill their days? Find joy? I asked many people what they learned about themselves during this difficult period.

I am someone who is “very online,” so it’s much easier to bang out a tweet that reaches far more than one person at a time. Or I could have simply sent personalized emails to everyone who asked. But sitting down to compose a letter by hand, address an envelope and stamp it came with extra intention. It felt like a way to show an old-fashioned kind of caring, without costing more than a stamp.

Ultimately we’re stripped to our most primal longings to survive these days, and survival for humans means connection and communion where we can find it. Especially when my generation is the loneliest — a quarter of millennials said in a YouGov survey that they have no acquaintances, 22 percent reported having no close friends. And that was before this crisis hit.

It made personalizing these letters important to me. I wanted to be explicit in signaling the letters came from a real human, not a bot. When I ran out of my personal stationery, I found my four-year-old daughter Isa’s doodles in a notebook and wrote my letters on those pages.

When I ran out of my personal stationery, I tried to maintain a personal touch by writing on pages of kid doodles.

I didn’t share quotes or poems or parables, as I sometimes do when I send cards or letters to friends. Instead I wrote about the rhythms and happenings of my days. I wrote about Isa singing full-throated the entire time she was on the back of a tandem bike with her dad. I wrote about how happy my neighbors are to see each other and how we delight in shouted conversations from across the street. I wrote about how lonely I feel, even though I’m quarantined in a house full of the loudness of small children.

And how writing these letters filled up my emotional tank, even though we didn’t know one another.

A letter than got to the other side, complete with the Santa stamp

I never expected replies. The satisfaction for me was in writing to people and knowing they’d receive something weird and rare. But the replies ended up being the best part. When the recipients got them in the mail, some of them didn’t wait to write back by hand. They sent me direct messages on social media with photos of themselves and the letters now in their possession.

Oscar in Santa Ana said, “Handwritten anything is so special these days.” Robert in Austin quipped, “I got your note today in the mail and my wife was like, ‘Someone named Elise wrote you from California 🤨’ and I was like ‘Oh [expletive], do I have a secret lover I don’t know about?'”

He went on to tell me how he and his wife were three days out from the arrival of their baby, and that they were on their way to pick up Texas BBQ-Asian fusion takeout.

In the following weeks, Howard sent a letter by mail with a photo of the new baby and a personalized koozie with his phone number on it. He said he read a book once in which the author asked, “What if we really loved our neighbor as ourselves?” The author put his phone number in the back of the book. Howard was inspired and emulated the move with his number on the koozie to “make myself available to people and the world feel smaller.”

In addition to the tweeted and texted photos, I received dozens of handwritten replies. They came from Eldersburg, Md. And Kirkland, Wash. Tucson. Flushing, N.Y. Kearney, Mo. Fort Collins, Colo.

People wrote me about leaning into their hobbies and how they’re spending their time — starting gardens, going on daily walks and sewing masks to donate to hospitals. Some of the replies were typed and printed out, with a Post-it note appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.”

I got dozens of handwritten replies. Some of them were typed and printed out, with a post-it appended: “I ended up having so much to say, I typed it.” One couple from Arizona sent me, along with their letter, two national park brochures of the parks they live near, to help with my homeschooling of my children. A high school freshman wrote me back, sharing her love of playing guitar, singing and acting, but admitting no one at school even knows because “high school is hard. There’s so much pressure to have a high social status.”

A lot of letters included wishes for what comes out of this crisis. The one consistent hope was that the slower pace, deeper intention and attention we’re paying to each other can continue in the next phase of our living history.

So many of the feelings my pen pals shared with me mirrored my own. I wrote to them originally to process my fears and anxieties during this time. In the end, the respondents helped me remember the clarifying thing about this pandemic — that we’re all part of one community of humans. For the duration of this crucible, and beyond, we should celebrate that which makes us most human: perspective, surprise and connection. Letters to strangers — and from strangers — can satisfy all three.

Robert in Austin, who received my letter and wrote back to share the news he and his wife were having a baby in three days

The Week We Thought Kim Jong Un Died

North Korean state media showed images of leader Kim Jong Un appearing at a fertilizer factory ribbon-cutting today, 20 days after he was last seen in public. During his “disappearance” we learned he was maybe in “grave condition” (CNN), possibly “braindead” (Weibo chats and MSNBC) or fully dead, and/or maybe just avoiding COVID19 by holing up in Wonsan, his resort town. The night the news spread about his “grave condition,” I was putting the kids down for the night and both spouse and I sprung into action to try and figure out what was up, instinctively. Neither of us had any responsibility over North Korea coverage anymore but raced to figure things out as if we had an audience to satisfy. Chasing down KJU rumors — what a weird thing one’s mind and body learns to do automatically.

Now he’s apparently back or resurrected. Suddenly April 2020 is behind us.

I read today an idea about the passage of time that really resonated, from Ann Friedman:

“Apparently when everyone’s routine disappears and gets remade at the same time, weird things happen to our collective sense of momentum. Novel experiences slow down our perception of time (aka March), while repetition speeds it up (ahem, April).”

THAT EXPLAINS IT!

To catch up: I spent a lot of the month writing letters and then receiving letters, from strangers who only knew me from Twitter and DM-ed me their addresses. I can’t wait to blog about that nourishing, connective experience. It filled my tank when I needed it the most.

What else can I say? Everything feels fraught and chaotic. I feel lonely and despairing a lot, despite the small children shouting and jumping on me all the time. I binge-watched Normal People the TV series (based on a book I devoured last year) and cried every episode. Last night I zoned out in the frozen food aisle, breathing faintly into my mask and staring at taquitos for too long. I’m trying to remember compassion, compassion, compassion, including for myself.

As for family, we are all grateful and privileged and so lucky to be living well enough to enjoy the sunshine of Southern California, to have each other to dine with and feel with and fight with and push against. We are all, collectively, in our cocoons, in the midst of a grand metamorphosis. I don’t know what world we’ll emerge into, but we’ll be wholly changed. We certainly won’t be caterpillars anymore.

George Saunders’ Heartwarming Email To His Students During This Anxious Time

The writer Cheryl Strayed has a new podcast with The New York Times, Sugar Calling. It debuted maybe a week ago, but who knows, because I can’t feel time anymore. Anyway, today I listened to an episode featuring her mentor, the prolific and talented writer George Saunders. His collection, Tenth of December, is one of my all-time favorite books, and I like to re-read his commencement speech, “Congratulations By The Way,” for a pick me up.

In the podcast episode, he shares a letter he wrote to his graduate students at Syracuse during this terrifying time. It felt so affirming and nourishing to hear it, just as I’ve been really hitting the wall with this kind of contained lifestyle. Here it is, but not in its entirety.

“Dear S.U. writers —

Geez, what a hard and depressing and scary time, so much suffering and anxiety everywhere. I saw this bee happily buzzing around a flower yesterday and felt like, “Moron! If you only knew.”

But it also occurs to me that this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds. This has never happened before here — at least not since 1918. We are, and especially you are, the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterwards. What new forms might you invent to fictionalize an event like this, where all of the drama is happening in private, essentially? Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important.

Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us about something crazy that happened in 1960. What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this. And what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you’re paying now and what records you keep, also, I think with how open you can keep your heart. I’m trying to practice feeling something like, ah, so this is happening now. Or hmm, so this, too, is part of life on Earth — did not know that, universe. Thanks so much, stinker. And then I real quick tried to pretend I didn’t just call the universe a stinker.

I did a piece once where I went to live incognito in a homeless camp in Fresno for a week. Very intense, but the best thing I heard in there was from this older guy from Guatemala, who was always saying, “Everything is always keep changing.” Truer words were never spoken. It’s only when we expect solidity, non-change, that we get taken by surprise. And we always expect solidity, no matter how well we know better.

Well, this is all sounding a little preachy, and let me confess that I’m not taking my own advice — at all. It’s all happening so fast. Paula has what we are hoping is just a bad cold, and I’m doing a lot of inept caregiving. Our dogs can feel that something weird is going on — no walk? Again?

But I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world is like a sleeping tiger, and we tend to live our lives there on its back. We’re much smaller than the tiger, obviously. We’re like Barbies and Kens on the back of a tiger. Now and then, that tiger wakes up, and that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up when someone we love dies or someone breaks our heart or there’s a pandemic. But this is far from the first time that tiger has come awake. He she has been doing it since the beginning of time and will never stop doing it. And always, there have been writers to observe it and later make some sort of sense of it — or at least bear witness to it.

It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer too, especially if she can bear witness with love and humor and, despite it all, some fondness for the world, just as it is manifesting — warts and all.

All of this to say, there’s still work to be done, and now more than ever. “

Hear Saunders read the whole thing, and talk with Strayed, in the episode.

Life in Lockdown, The First Sunday

A dispatch from coronavirus social distancing, once in an indefinite series

Fortuitous that the family got me a kitten for my birthday because now I have a new lap buddy for all this time at home.

I have never before in my life eaten so much cheese. I stocked up before the store shelves went empty and now just working my way down through the stash, at rapid speed.

Matty absconded with the two older daughters earlier today and entertained them all day, so we were able to divide and conquer without cannibalizing one another.

The baby of the family, two-year-old Luna, learned how to use the Amazon Echo and has been making Alexa play her go-to jams of “Juice” by Lizzo, “Call Me Maybe” and some sort of “Say Cheese” kid song on repeat. I tried to get her into Radiohead and she indulged me for half of “High and Dry” before calling it quits.

Have been intimidated and would feel guilty about trying to go to Costco for one last run before these stores inevitably shut down, and am instead already bumming toilet paper rolls off my better prepared mom friends who can spare.

Update: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti just announced that LA is shutting down at midnight. Retail businesses, bars, clubs, gyms and fitness centers will all close until March 31, at least. Banks, grocers and pharmacies stay open. Restaurants will be available for takeout only.

New York in a Time of Coronavirus

I covered MERS, which was killing some 10 percent of people who got it, when it spread to South Korea in 2015. The scare led to a run on medical products and face masks, hospitals became overtaxed and the government took a big credibility hit for not reporting numbers transparently over the first few days. But life as we knew it continued apace. For some reason the fact I had a new baby that MERS summer doesn’t register at all; I guess we were completely unconcerned that random strangers were touching and holding newborn Isa all the time? Weird, now that I’m looking back on it with a different perspective.

In late January, when my ancestral home region of Wuhan became the epicenter of what’s now called SARS2 or COVID-19, it became clear to those of us who cover China that this outbreak could be not only deadly but widespread; that life as we knew it in Asia would slow or change dramatically. I didn’t know the seemingly logarithmic spread of this new, still mysterious virus would affect the entire globe as it has.

In a time of globalism (and as is always true for epidemics), nation-state borders mean nothing. Following its initial bungling of this outbreak, China’s unprecedented lockdowns of entire cities bought time for the rest of the world to prepare. The US appeared to have done nothing with the extra weeks and now it’s too late. By the end of last year, ennui about how digital life disconnected us IRL set in collectively. Now coronavirus is forcing life in 2020 to become one of further and deeper social isolation. I imagine this will be the case for another few months, at least.

I flew to New York yesterday on a plane where everyone had his or her own row. Surprisingly few people wear masks around the Western world, so the only reason I wore one was to protect others from my nagging cough. Coughing-while-Asian is quite problematic and even scary in the swirl of COVID19 xenophobia.

By the time I landed, a British health minister was infected. New York announced its first “containment area,” and the National Guard moved in to help. We made a point last night to eat at Chinese storefronts, where foot traffic has so slowed that restaurants have had to close.

My workplace and so many others implemented work-from-home plans, a dreaded situation in a period in my life that’s been chock full of dreaded situations. I fear it’s only going to exacerbate my existing feeling of alienation and sadness. I want my mom … but she won’t get on a plane, for obvious reasons.

Less road traffic, and less foot traffic, than normal