The hardest part of living in a pandemic for me — setting aside the constant reminders of an ever rising death toll — is the inability to accept that this is now normal. We are just going to lose a year of our lives. 1% of our time alive just was zapped away by some weird combination of biology and human fallacy — by asshole packets of ribonucleic acid damn good at embedding themselves to replicate in our vascular systems.
I have lived my adult life happily with free rein of the planet and the physical spaces it provides for exploration. One year ago today, I was in Tayrona National Natural Park on the coast of the Caribbean in northern Colombia.
But even more ordinary places I have explored: I have gone to book stores just to browse the shelves and find a book I probably will merely store on my book shelf instead. I have sat in coffee shops just for a change of scenery for my work. Ece and I once checked off just about every tourist attraction in Prague in three days, so we rode the train to a random neighborhood just to see what that area was like. We ate goulash at some random tavern that didn’t have English menus, which all the tourist trap restaurants we had visited the previous few days had provided without even asking first. When we climbed from the underground station, there was a playground with a bunch of screaming Czech children who had seemingly conquered the playground as their own.
Walking past empty playgrounds over the past six months has made me want to cry. Of course, there are thousands of empty playgrounds in this country in normal times, but not in my neighborhood in Fremont. Most of my neighbors are recent immigrants from India, and most have young children. Immigrant parents take their kids to playgrounds. Our nightly walks take us past Warm Springs Community Park. It has a nice playground with a soft padded ground and huge rock for climbing.
Above I quantified this era as a mere 1% of our lives. It is important to remember that for a young child, a year is a substantial fraction of their total existence. To them, this has been more like 25%. Thinking of children who are too young to understand what is going on but old enough to be sad that they cannot play with friends induces a helpless tragic feeling. Millions of toddlers are growing into free thinking children without playing tug of war over a toy they are about to lose interest in anyway. To the winner went a few seconds of mouth-to-toy action and to the loser a few unnecessary tears. Now, they go on walks with their parents and see other families walking about trying to keep a sense of routine while maintaining distance.
These days children are scolded for having the natural curiosity to touch another human. I have never taken a child psychology class, but I have made enough silly faces at babies in restaurants — to positive effect — to know they get something from locking eyes with other humans. The children at that stage now get masked faces and shame for not maintaining social distance. They get scooped up if they run — arms out for balance — toward another person.
I watched this very thing in the park today. I was taking the dog for a day-time walk. It was hot and sunny, so we rested under a large tree. There were a handful of families with children at the park. It has several big trees with ample shade, and there were a few families lounging in the shade. The children ranged from infant to toddler, maybe four at the oldest. One group appeared to be a pair of new parents and their infant along with another couple who were the new family’s friends. It seemed likely that the friends had never gotten to meet the newborn from closer than six feet. That was their displacement while I was strolling by.
There were no interactions between groups who were seated roughly 50 feet apart. A couple walked into the shady areas and looked for a free patch that was not too close. Nearest me, a boy was jumping on, over, and around the picnic his parents and grandmother were enjoying. In another year he’d be running freely at the playground mere yards away. Instead he was destroying his family’s picnic. Meanwhile, my dog was going nuts over a colony of gophers that live in the park. He had given up hope that I might let him off his leash to go attack them (no chance) and had resigned to lying defeated in the grass and whining a high-pitched cry. This caught the attention of the boy, who then wanted to come meet my dog. Instead, his parents and I shared, telepathically, the tragic line of cordial acknowledgement of one another, the situation, the pandemic, the deep and depressing sadness that the young boy was learning to walk and then run in. He was on to jumping now, and he couldn’t do it on the playground, which they decided to come to anyway, out of a sad sense of what could be. We had that conversation — telepathically — in a few seconds, and I was overcome by it and began to write this all down.
Finally, he had enough of the picnic and started to run. His grandmother chased him down and they went on a walk around the playground pictured above. The boy jumped up on that concrete ledge and ran. He jumped down and continued running toward a middle aged couple walking on the adjacent sidewalk. He was scooped up before he got within 20 feet.
The last time I talked to my niece a couple weeks ago she asked why I had not come to visit this summer. I told her because it was unsafe. This was a lie. Well, it probably is unsafe, but I was not likely to be coming this year regardlessly given my plan (since ruined) to spend all of my available paid time off traveling to Turkey and Switzerland. This conversation was on speaker phone with my mom present as well. My mom jumped in and reminded her how it is unsafe to be near strangers because we do not know if they have been wearing their mask. She reminded her granddaughter of social distancing, which clearly meant something to my five year old niece.
She knows what social distancing is, but she doesn’t understand the physical distance between her and me. That phone call was two weeks ago; after it, I had a hard time bringing myself to call again to wish her a happy birthday last weekend.
I did not.
I still do not know why I decided to add emotional distance to the list.
Probably because this year is a lost cause.
At least I have my dog.