26 March 2020

Plagues, Apocalypses, and Other Banalities

There aren't bodies or soldiers patrolling Manhattan's streets with mouths full of Copenhagen, but life under social-distancing/shelter-in-place/self-seclusion gets a little weird. I haven't left my building in three or four days and haven't traveled outside of a one-mile line in weeks. My interactions are limited to those I have online and with whoever is delivering my groceries.  I don't mind the solitude, but it's a strange going for a long time without seeing other humans. Not good or bad, just strange. I can hear my neighbors, hear the hiss of the few cars still on the road, but I never see them. Some people go for walks or get fresh air, but I choose not to.

I am not anxious or depressed. I'm not in denial, by any means: I think it will get much, much worse and I find some comfort in that. It allows me to focus on the things that are in front of me. It removes, as my dear, late friend Fred Dusel once said of his terminal cancer, the calculus of decision-making.

What I find intolerable isn't living under quarantine, but rather living under the weight of other people's assumptions. It hadn't occurred to me until recently that most people are optimists, believing in a tidy model of the universe where things always regress to the mean and  follow a predictable ebb and flow that they can model. They never really get that fat-tail, multi-sigma events (so-called "Black Swan" events that, according to standard statistical models should be so mathematically impossible as to be invisible) not only happen with observable frequency, but have effects that are incredibly unpredictable (and in this case quite destructive) with second and third order effects that are similarly unpredictable.

These are the forces that move history. They are not linear. It's significant that SARS-CoV-2 "jumped" from an animal (likely a bat) to a human: history moves in jumps.

The assumptions are that things will "go back to normal," that the pumped-up stock market is somehow a barometer of the American economy, that unemployment's all-time-high rate is simply going to be resolved by "opening the economy" by Easter. It's what I used to call the problem of inductive reasoning. Now I just call it stupidity, because when those models fail – as they are failing now – to continue to abide and operate by them doesn't just stall progress, it actually makes things worse. There is no reason to believe any of those things, no evidence that suggests that they are true except the same pretty narratives of exceptionalism that said they could never happen in the first place; that Americans "won't be scared by a virus," because that, somehow, would be letting it "win."

Hope is not my drug of choice. I like seeing things, even if I don't like what I am seeing.

People outside of friction-laden, hyperconnected megalopolises like NYC aren't seeing how bad it is. Whereas we've had an explosion of COVID-19 cases, other places are seeing them trickle in. For a lot of people, NYC might as well be on another planet: it exists less as a city than an idea, a spectacle. We were hit by a tsunami. Their pain may come in storms.

The only thing to do, as far as I am concerned, is to try to live with as much dignity as possible, which precludes dying with a tube shoved down my throat and smothered in a dirty ventilator. It also precludes tolerating imbecility or spending more time than necessary to indulge my personal catharsis so for now, that will be all.