Historical Antecedents of the Quaranteam

My family (my husband, daughter, and I) recently decided to invite another family to be part of our quarantine bubble, or Quaranteam. Texas is sucking mightily at flattening the curve (All Hail the Ravening EconoBeast), and most of us have pulled our kids out of the summer camps that remain, expecting to have a long, hot, boring, socially distant summer. The family we teamed up with is compatible in lots of ways: two kids that my kid went to preschool with, the older of whom is close in age, working from home/staying home parents, and a commitment to minimal exposure to COVID-19 through quarantine, the use of masks, grocery delivery, etc. We’ve hung out a lot over the last few years because it helped wear out our kids and gave us other interesting grownups to talk to and they are fantastic humans. We are politically compatible and share interests in nerd things. I’ve also hung out with both partners individually doing stuff like lunch or gaming. We all get along pretty well. It’s no small feat to find a group of seven humans who can stand each other most of the time. Sometimes our kids get into it, as kids do, but it works pretty well.

It was a huge relief to be near other people when we finally took the plunge. Whatever mental or physical deficiency (probably both) comes from not being able to be with your people was mightily assuaged just by an afternoon of hanging out and letting our kids play. We fist bumped. The kids hugged. Seeing my only child get her first hugs from other kids in forever weeks made me a little verklempt.

So I was explaining it to my therapist, and I kept coming up with this seemingly weird parallel. When I was 17, I moved to San Francisco to go to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I got two degrees and worked while flying around for auditions, so I was there for about seven years in all. I lived there from 1989-1996, during the worst of the AIDS crisis. Nobody close to me died, but people very close to people close to me did. A lot. Sex was dangerous. San Francisco is also a famously sex-positive, kink-friendly city that was an LGBTQ haven in a still homophobic country.

The upside of this is that sex was practiced frequently, enthusiastically, creatively, and very carefully negotiated in advance to ensure minimal risk. Everyone knew someone with HIV. Didn’t matter if you were gay or straight, in a city where those lines were super blurry to begin with, it was common courtesy to 1) disclose your sexual activities with prospective new partners, 2) discuss types of protection (and/or contraception if pregnancy was a possibility), and 3) disclose the last time you were tested or get tested before engaging with a new partner, even a casual one. There was a hotline you could call for free to find out the latest information on transmission and prevention. There was (is) a fantastic store for books, toys, videos, cheap high quality condoms and other protectives that was laid out like a clean well lit book store and not a creepy sex shop. Absent was the furtive, guilty, ignorant behavior often associated with sex, and sadly, still very much present in states where sex-ed is banned or limited to abstinence “education.” Yes those are snarky quotes.

So anyway, here are the weird parallels. We are trying to protect ourselves and our loved ones from a debilitating and potentially fatal disease. This is drastically changing our behavior patterns. When we didn’t understand how HIV was spread (and not spread) abstinence was the only safe option. Just as quarantine is the only safe option when we can no longer control the spread of COVID-19. We still have human needs for connection and proximity, which come into conflict with our desire to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Hence, we deliberately, carefully, negotiate terms of engagement in a way that will hopefully carry minimum risk and maximum gratification. Same/Same. Ish.

The other parallels are much darker. Spread of HIV among heterosexual populations where discussing sex and prevention is taboo is still a problem, especially in places where effective treatment is too expensive or unavailable. Such is the case with COVID-19. But instead of people half way across the world being in danger, it’s us. Our government has utterly failed at controlling the spread of COVID-19, and the ignorance of much of our population, combined with structural inequality that puts low wage workers at much higher risk with little power to control their levels of exposure. Others refuse to believe that a virus is more powerful than they and act as if there is no danger. All of these issues exponentially increase the likelihood of infection for everyone else. In the 90s, if nothing else, we could stop having sex. But we can’t stop breathing, or eating, or working, and those activities or the activities that enable them put us and our loved ones at risk.

So I am happy to have some more people to hang out with and practice safe quarantining (as safe as we can be with an airborne pathogen), but I continue to be concerned about the misinformation and blatant idiocy that is keeping this disease active and dangerous. We are so lucky to have compatible friends and jobs where we can quarantine easily. We are also the recipients of tremendous unearned privilege. As my mental health improves, I wonder how I can compensate for this in some way. For those of you similarly safe – respect safe distance from others. Tip the crap out of delivery people. Speak loudly (and financially) in support of higher wages and safe working conditions for the people keeping our children fed. Don’t forget that the ability to quarantine safely is anything but universal. And just as the AIDS crisis of the 1990s was not the fault of the victims, but of a negligent government, your ability to avoid infection now doesn’t mean that you have done anything special to deserve it.

Everything is weird. With systems theory and some personal theology.

The coronavirus has taken over all our lives, one way or another. I’m extremely fortunate to be able to keep working by teaching from home. My husband works from home. My daughter is also home and doing some schoolwork for the remainder of the semester. So I’m teaching 6 zoom sessions a week, plus meetings, plus doing most of the homeschooling, plus child-rearing and trying to manage her trauma and my own. It is a lot. But I am insanely lucky and privileged.

I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of feels. I’ve been through periods of trauma before. I was in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. I remember the giddy numbness that eventually faded into jumpiness and fear. But I’ve been home by order of our city since the middle of March and the giddiness and dissociation has started to wear off. What’s left behind is sadness and rage.

The sadness is for all the pain people are experiencing. For the people dying without their loved ones and their loved ones not being able to be there for the dying. I’ve been at a deathbed, and it is a traumatic but also sacred experience. I’m sad for the health care providers, caught in a tug of war between public servants and a financially and morally bankrupt industry and a toxic, dysfunctional government. So many have already died. All of this makes me deeply sad.

The rage is about the sheer idiocy that is pervading our government, and the idiocy of the people who are protesting or flouting basic safety measures that don’t go nearly far enough. I write and think about systems theories, a lot. I wrote this piece about systems theory and the environment and human limitations almost two years ago. I’ve been thinking about it.

The thing that has always gotten me isn’t the cruelty that is so obviously from a place of trauma and fear. I don’t approve of cruelty and believe it should be stopped whenever possible, but I understand how trauma can turn into psychotic projection, and how society creates an environment for it.

What gets me is the casual cruelty and dismissal that is so common and mundane. I can wrap my head around someone telling a fat person they should kill themselves because the source of their pain is so obvious. It’s abusive and not helpful or generative, but it’s a clear demonstration of projected trauma. I have a much, much harder time with this binary, cause and effect, self-centered, casual cruelty that causes people to rearrange reality so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable. Right now I see it everywhere and it’s making me miserable and angry.

Austin’s mayor got ahead of the curve (for Texas) and put in place rules for social distancing and shutting down non-essential services. We have had relatively few deaths for a population of a million. Cases are rising faster now, however, because it seems that many people can’t understand the basic trajectory of a contagious untreatable disease. You get it. You spread it to others before you get symptoms. They spread it to others before they get symptoms. People die.

I have some theories about this blindness. Particularly because the people protesting and calling health measures fascism are mostly my age or older and white.

White people are totally centered by American society. We grow up seeing people who look like us achieving the pinnacle of success in every field and sector of society. When we suffer, it’s tragic. When the other (black, latinx, disabled, gay, etc) suffers it must be because they have done something to make it happen.

This is a grossly distorted view of reality. Humans are not the primary system on this planet and our little genetic differences in appearance matter not at all to organisms like viruses and bacteria. Our constructions of societies and languages and countries and tribes matter not at all. And we are not the most intelligent system. The earth is. The earth is a system that is vastly more complex and intelligent than people on our very best day. Intelligent doesn’t mean conscious. And I am starting to doubt how important consciousness is to our survival as a species after all, since we seem to be using it to rationalize doing really, really stupid shit.

We are tiny organisms that are part of a much, much larger ecosystem. Population control via disease is a basic tool in nature’s toolbox. As many scientists have said, it was only a matter of time.

But white men (and women) have been living in an imaginary world where we are the masters of nature and our primacy in society is due to some assumed superiority of mind or spirit. And suddenly, we can’t escape the reality that we are very, very small in the scheme of things. We are helpless in the face of this virus, and we have a very small, very disruptive set of things we can do in the short term to keep from dying off in the millions.

White people can’t deal with this basic existential reality because we have been raised on exceptionalism. We breathe it, eat it, see it constantly in media ane art, and are constantly reminded that we are uniquely connected to the best of what humanity has achieved by our whiteness. So now there are protests and conspiracy theories (I particularly love the one about Bill Gates engineering the virus – because of course, it has to be a white man wreaking havoc on our species – it can’t be a non-sentient hyper-intelligent system we have no control over).

So faced with the existential terror of a death we cannot project or blame on someone other we create fantasy worlds where the virus is a hoax and people are not dying by the thousands every day and our president isn’t lying and stealing supplies from destitute hospitals full of workers who are dying while trying to save our lives. Where governors and mayors who are trying to save lives are actually Nazis trying to steal our personal liberty (whatever the hell that is) and where going to church won’t result in countless deaths over months as community spread creeps through our communities.

I don’t know how to cope with this. There is no Schadenfreude if these morons get sick, because by the time they do they will have infected hundreds of innocent people who are just trying to survive. They will orphan their kids. They will kill their parents. All because they can’t handle being small. This virus reminds us that we are tiny. I believe in God, and I believe that I am loved by God. But I don’t believe God loves me more than they love the ants I have killed by pest control or the Arctic animals losing their habitats. God doesn’t love me more than the black families who can’t get decent health care because of racism and exposure to toxic chemicals and stupid white people who refuse to pay attention to scientists. I am not loved more than the ant, or the person with darker skin than me, or the undocumented immigrant, or the endangered species. My God is the Universe, and they don’t play favorites with humanity.

I’ve been yelled at online by multiple people in the last few weeks who say I’m a terrible teacher because I question authority and that z-paks cure the virus and that black people are high-risk because they make bad decisions and our mayor is actually Hitler because face masks. And then I see the same bullshit said from the podium of the white house and from national news and retweeted over and over again. And I think, huh. If having consciousness means we can distort reality to the point that we do nature’s job for her and reduce our species’ population by millions, is consciousness really a sign of advanced evolution (or God’s favor), or is it a failsafe for Nature? Are the limitations of our ability to understand that we are not actually the center of God’s creation what will keep us from destroying it? That is terrifying and sad.

My daughter understands how community spread works and she’s 10. My students, on the cusp of adulthood, are arguing with their parents and grandparents about staying home while finishing natural science degrees from one of the best universities in the country. It’s not getting through.

I’m out of thoughts. I hope that somehow people come to terms with our smallness and start doing everything we can to slow the spread of this disease so we can make better decisions about how to live as a species on this planet in the future. But for now, I’m just sad. Here is a song that helps me connect to my sadness and to my kinship with all those suffering right now: