It is nearly impossible to avoid thinking about power during an election year. Politicians with varying degrees of talent engage in years of pageantry as they try to convince the most people that they are the best candidate to assume the American presidency. They try to convince us that they can use the power of that position appropriately. And when they are elected, we hope they can fulfill at least some of the promises they make. We hold this hope despite an abundance of evidence that none of those promises will be kept.
We live in a democracy or, at least, that is what we tell ourselves. In a democracy, we have the power of our vote. We are individuals, but we have a say in who represents us at the city, state, and national levels. It’s hard, however, to believe in the power of the vote when a presidential candidate wins the most votes but still loses the election. It is hard to believe in the power of the vote, when time and again, a singular demographic is elevated to the detriment of far better candidates.
As 2020 began, the election was all anyone was talking about because so much is at stake in November. Donald Trump serving a second term is not a viable option even though it is improbably likely. And then a pandemic reshaped our lives in an instant. One university closed and then all of the universities closed. Schools moved online. People began tele-commuting when it was at all possible. All of a sudden, the election didn’t seem to matter while also mattering more than ever.
One day life was normal and the very next, people throughout the world were isolated, worried about everything, watching the news, trying to stay safe, trying to stay healthy. We have no real sense of when we will be able to return to the rhythms of our regular lives. There is a danger out there and it is one we cannot see or smell, taste or touch. We are utterly powerless and vulnerable and terrified together but apart.
For the past few weeks, there has been a tightness in my chest, fingers grasping at my throat. It is a terrible sensation that rarely goes away. I try to organize my worries and fears into those that are manageable and those that are too overwhelming. I worry about whether or not I will work again. I worry about my parents who are just over 70, and my mom who is in treatment for lung cancer and how vulnerable they are in a state where most people their age are behaving cavalierly, gallivanting about as if they are indestructible. I worry about how many people have been left with too few resources in a time of great need and how we are all being failed by the federal government. In a moment of desperation, I e-mailed my shrink and asked for a prescription to make all this worry stop and in a moment of kindness, he gave me one. Now, I look forward to the calm that tiny little pill offers. I worry about what will happen when the prescription runs out.
My fiancée and I are hunkered down in Los Angeles where we are “safer at home.” I know I am lucky. I have a roof over my head. I have my health. I have some savings. My partner still has her job. She and I actually like each other and we get along well. We’ve taken up bicycling. Until this week, I had not been on a bike in more than thirty years. Mounting and dismounting is precarious. I cook and bake every day, the recipes becoming more and more elaborate. My fiancée is gardening. Each day there are new bursts of color in the yard. There is no more traffic. The 405, a freeway normally packed with cars crawling along, is hauntingly empty. The smog is gone and the sky is crystal clear. During the day, I hear birds singing sweet songs. At night I see the stars, impossibly bright and shining. Dystopias always imagine the end of the world as dark and desolate. We should have had bigger imaginations.
At least once a day I am convinced I have the ‘rona. I hold my breath for twenty seconds because I read some nonsense online about how that’s an informal way to test for the virus. I know this is not true, and still, I hold my breath. All the handwashing we are told to do has my hands sore and dry. I slather them in lotion but then I interact with the outside world and have to wash my hands all over again. Sometimes, I stare out the front window at neighbors walking themselves, their pets, their children. My neighbors had a cocktail party of sorts, everyone sitting in their lawn chairs on the driveway, six feet apart. Going out for provisions has become quite the thrilling affair, something to look forward to, something that is nonetheless fraught. Things I have been unable to find with any sort of consistency: hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, bottled water, toilet paper, butter, flour, yeast, thermometers but still, the grocery stores in my neighborhood are reasonably well stocked and orderly. We stand in line to enter, six feet apart and try to maintain respectful distances around one another as we reach for fresh tomatoes and radicchio and a significant quantity of alcohol.
Anytime I see other people, I marvel at how all the rules for how we should dress and appear in public no longer exist. It’s chaos. I see people in pajamas, outlandishly mismatched clothes, wild hair, puffy slippers, ugly boots. “This,” I think, “is how we would always look if we didn’t care what other people think.” I am an introvert and something of a loner or, I thought I was. The days are endless. There is so much time that demands to be filled.
In Las Vegas, officials made a homeless shelter in a parking lot, drawing thick white lines six feet apart so as to facilitate social distancing. There are 150,000 hotel rooms in Las Vegas, most of them now empty. Officials had the power to make a human choice and they did not.
I want to stay informed but cable news is nearly unbearable. Newscasters repeat the same three or four new developments, while highlighting the ever-increasing numbers of people with the coronavirus, and the ever- increasing number of people who have succumbed to it. On her nightly MSNBC show, Rachel Maddow displays a tightly controlled and eloquent rage and incredulity at how terrible things are. It is unexpectedly refreshing to see a journalist acknowledge that something is very wrong and that there are not two sides to consider. I read newspaper articles about the staggering numbers of people with the virus, the lack of resources, the lack of adequate testing, the senseless loss and suffering — entire families, infants, parents, the old and the young, no one is immune. I want to stay informed, but I am overwhelmed by how powerless we all are in the face of all that is happening. We are not nearly as strong as we imagine ourselves to be.
In the past few weeks, we have learned that multi-billion-dollar corporations don’t have enough money to withstand even a week or two without revenue. Companies like Subway and Cheesecake Factory and Mattress Firm let their landlords know that come April 1 they weren’t going to pay their rent. They are firing or furloughing employees. They are saying the sky is falling and for once, that might be true. Regular folks, however, are somehow supposed to be able to pay their rent or mortgages and other bills even though unemployment is at a historic high and the global economy has come to an abrupt halt.
Every company I have ever done business with has sent me a lengthy email about how they are monitoring and/or dealing with the “COVID-19 situation.” They are all anxious. They are all prepared to act. They are taking things day by day, hour by hour. They are making difficult decisions. They are valuing their customers safety. They are looking forward to getting past this calamity. It is depressing that corporations think we want to hear from them during a crisis, that we might be comforted in knowing the store where we once bought a t-shirt has a plan for a pandemic.
When major sports leagues around the world indefinitely suspended their seasons, I knew we would be quarantined for a very long time. Sensible mayors and governors offer horizons for the end of the isolation, tolerable increments of weeks instead of what will likely be months. The isolation would potentially be shortened if the federal government issued a national stay at home order but when they have the opportunity to make the right decision, they make the wrong one.
Because the current American president is a disgrace, an incompetent, idiotic buffoon, the country is unmoored. Each day, he holds an interminable press conference and brags about his “ratings” and lies about the progress being made to deal with the pandemic and puts lives in danger with nonsensical ambitions like filling churches around the country on Easter Sunday. He is only concerned with his boundless ego and the economy but only insofar as he can continue to accumulate wealth. He does these things because he can, because he is the most powerful man in the world. He is a constant reminder that power, in the hands of the incapable, is a dangerous and grotesque thing.
My federal student loan servicer withdrew my monthly payment right on schedule. I was a bit stunned though I shouldn’t have been. When I called my bank for something I could not manage via their website or app, the message said that hold times were between four and six hours. Every website I visit has a disclaimer about wait times to speak with a customer service representative are very, very long, so long that you probably shouldn’t even bother with calling. Everything is coming apart at the seams, absolutely everything.
Social media, too, is nearly unbearable. There is no air to breathe. People have become epidemiologists and other assorted experts, seemingly overnight. There is a zeal for sensational information as if we will the worst into existence we will no longer have to bear the anticipation of it. There is an exhaustive amount of scolding in all directions with people, admonishing this behavior and that, telling us what we should or should not do, how we should or should not spend our time, how we should or should not spend our money. People assume that as a writer, I am writing entire books each day, when the truth is that I have barely tapped out a few pages here and there. I want to write and for once I have the time to write and I certainly have things to say but when I sit at my computer all I can think is, “Will any of what I have to say even matter when this is all over?”
Doctors and nurses and other medical professionals are risking their lives to treat people who have been afflicted by the novel coronavirus. They are doing so with inadequate resources because of the president’s egregiously mismanaged pandemic response. Grocery store employees and delivery drivers and a whole slew of other hardworking people are also risking their lives to provide a great many services that have always been essential but are now finally being recognized as such. Workers at companies like Amazon and Whole Foods and Instacart are striking for very basic necessities like personal protective equipment, hazard pay, and paid sick leave. There is power in collective effort but it is a disgrace that such power needs to be wielded to receive the bare minimum.
After days of negotiation, Congress passed a stimulus bill that, as per usual, does more for corporations than it does for the American people. Most adults will receive one-time $1200 checks. That money will help people buy groceries or pay a few bills, but it will be a drop in the bucket of what most families will need to get through this pandemic. I am not sure what is more frightening — that our elected leaders think a one-time payment is enough or that they know it is not enough but are more interested in political maneuvering and holding on to their power than they are in crafting a relief bill that will actually help people survive the next several months if not years.
Most of us are wondering when life will get back to normal but normal is what brought us to such a precarious place. Nothing should ever be the same again and while that is an unnerving prospect, it may also be our saving grace.