Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Autumn and Reckoning
In late September, I took a one-week vacation. Which is to say, I took several days off from my client work, and I did a lot of biking around to different New York City parks. I contacted a few friends I hadn't seen in a super long time and we met and talked (distanced, masked except for short periods while someone was eating -- and I kept my mask on while my friends were eating, and vice versa) in parks in Queens and Brooklyn. Or I sat on a bench and sketched while listening to a podcast, or I lay down on a picnic blanket (a staff gift from when I worked at Wikimedia) and I read. (I've just started Laurie J. Marks's Elemental Logic fantasy quartet and I like it a lot.) The weather was dry and crisp-to-warm and I had a very nice time. It was amazing to see and chat with multiple non-Leonard people in a week. By Friday afternoon my brain felt freshly full in a way that reminded me of going to in-person conferences.
I had read guidance on COVID-19 transmission and how to prevent it, and I reasoned (and my friends did too, of course) that it was safe enough to do this. On Saturday a few days ago I repeated this and went to Brooklyn to see two other friends this way.
Recently the plateau of safety has been eroding. The case count in New York City is trending up. Just now I checked New York City's COVID-19 milestones/goals page and the New York Times's NYC COVID case count tracker. New cases started rising in September and are still going up. The NYT reports: "Over the past week, there have been an average of 553 cases per day, an increase of 59 percent from the average two weeks earlier."
I talked with Leonard briefly. Given the stats, we ought to cut down on the risky things we're doing. But .... there's nearly nothing to cut.
I recognize that anyone can say "we have been cautious" and you have no way of checking their actual discipline level against your standards without fairly extensive surveillance and logging, but perhaps these broad strokes help you assess our assiduity. There's a growing consensus that it's key to reduce exposure to aerosol transmission -- but we were already wearing cloth masks at all times outside the apartment, avoiding crowds and unmasked people, and avoiding indoors spaces as much as possible (our local corner shop for 5 minutes once a week or so; the in-building laundromat, early in the morning, about every 5 weeks; in-and-out of the local post office to check my PO Box every few weeks). We've bought an air purifier. We have not eaten in a restaurant, indoors or outdoors, since March.
But there is one thing I can cut. This "seeing friends" thing, even though it's always outdoors. I can be stricter if I see friends -- stricter on distance (more like 10 feet, and using a measuring tape to make sure), no eating (and thus no mask removal), shorter durations. And I could limit the number of households I see to just one, going into a proper pod. Or we could just dial it all the way down to zero. Figuring that out.
I have been trying out different ways to motivate myself to exercise, and I found "you get to see a friend!" pretty motivating for the bike rides (sometimes about 90-120 minutes each way). And I got to see my friends and talk with them, learn new stuff, explore things through that digressive figuring-things-out kind of conversation. I know researchers for ages have been looking into in-person conversation and how to make online stuff a better simulacrum of it, and a zillion more people became citizen scientists in this field this year, especially in work and education. My experience right now is: there exists no replacement for in-person socializing, for me, that gives me all the same stuff that I value, that I think I need.
My sadness at losing this is just one of the many sadnesses of this pandemic. It's a small one, comparatively. But it's there.
It's autumn here, a season of transformation and of reckoning with the growing darkness. In many faith traditions, sometime soon we'll get to the rituals about bringing the sun back. I suppose that's something we're doing already, donning our masks, waving at our friends instead of hugging, stewarding our own little flames.