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Lightplay 09 – The Strangest Summer

Featuring guest epidemiologist Erin Graves Quansah
and guest poet Hunter Gagnon

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Hello, dear reader. I hope and pray that this letter finds you in good health and spirits.

It’s late August, and things are touch and go. The post office is run by saboteurs. The hills are aflame, and the convicts aren’t available to cut firebreaks for $1/hour because the jails are too rife with COVID-19. The policemen who killed Breonna Taylor are still at large. 

And yet life goes on. The strange peace of shelter-in-place is over, replaced by a new normal that is just as busy but with so many fewer opportunities for communion and release. I find the days slightly uncanny.

Sometimes, my answer is to look away from what’s happening, to focus on the task at hand. Writing my essay. Teaching my students. Baking bread. For much of this spring, that’s what this newsletter focused on, too. 

But the wider world is always just beyond the kitchen window.

This installment of Lightplay features two voices that can help us make sense of that world—especially COVID, which continues to spread across our nation and planet, as much as we may wish it wouldn’t.

  • The first is Erin Graves Quansah’s guest column, “An Epidemiologist’s Advice as Our Plague Years Drags On.” It’s a great and sobering reminder that we don’t know what comes next.
  • The second is a guest poem from Hunter Gagnon titled “Quarantine Poem 166 the virus lands.”

I’m so excited to be publishing these two pieces and sharing them with you.

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Before we get to Erin’s column, I want to relate how it came into being.

One evening in early February, I spent almost two hours in a Walgreens in the suburbs west of Chicago, waiting for photos to print. It was dark and cold outside; inside, the fluorescent lights burned with the neurotic intensity of our young millennium. And behind the counter, a printer slowly disgorged sheets of glossy paper. Ever so slowly.

What could have been an ordeal was redeemed by the presence of my friends Ben and Erin. To kill time, we talked and perused the beer aisle. We spent half an hour inspecting the novelty toy section: oversize hard rubber bouncy balls, super-stretchy sacs of fluid with flashing purple LEDs at the center, a basket full of distressingly labile fake bananas. We tried to make each other laugh.

Shared boredom seems harder to come by now than before. I think it’s mainly because of my entertainment phone, though it’s probably also due just to getting older and getting to choose how I spend my time. I don’t prioritize long, boring hang-outs in the Walgreens.

But maybe I should. One of the best things about spending that much unstructured time with friends is that you end up talking about all sorts of things. Which is how, on February 9, 2020, I ended up asking my epidemiologist friend about a distant epidemic.

“Erin,” I said. “What do you think about this virus that has China locked down? Do you think it will make it over to the U.S.?”

“It’s already here,” she said. “There have been multiple cases, and it’s unlikely they’re catching all of them.”

“But now that flights are shut down, we can probably keep it out, right?”

“I don’t think there’s any way to stop it now. It’s probably already spreading in the U.S. We just don’t know where.” She shook her head and laughed. “It’s not good.”

I sucked my teeth and agreed that it sounded bad. What else was there to say in response to such a bad forecast? I didn’t know what to do with this information.

We moved on to talking about other things. And when we went our separate ways again—Erin back to Toronto, me to L.A.—I just kept living my life like normal. It was more than a month later, when the whole state of California locked down, that I remembered Erin’s prediction. She had been as right as right can be.

All of which is to say that last week, when I heard Erin again warning about what she thought was likely to happen, my ears perked up. Who could the second and third waves hit hardest? Why do we have to keep our guard up? It seemed important enough that I asked her to write up her thoughts so that she could share them with you, the readers of this newsletter. And I’m so happy that she accepted the challenge. Please enjoy this great guest column. I hope that it’s useful to you.

An Epidemiologist’s Advice as Our Plague Years Drags On
by Erin Graves Quansah

I’m an epidemiologist, specializing in maternal and child health, with some expertise in big data and administrative data analytics, all topped off with a few years of public health work. What got me into this work was a microbiology undergrad degree and a morbid fascination with the weirdest and least known bacteria and viruses in this world. For Christmas one year during high school, I asked for and received a 500 page book by Laurie Garrett called The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance.

From that background I’ve been watching this pandemic unfold—and these are my thoughts. I started paying attention when the first strange cases of a pneumonia-like illness were rumored in the Wuhan region of China, followed the controversy over the reported number of cases, and then felt dread (/panic) as it started to spread across the world. It’s been crazy to witness all of the opportunities where it looked like we were about to get this under control, only to see it slip through our fingers and onto the next stage.  That said, it’s hard to know if that’s really the case or if we’re just dealing with a pathogen that’s perfectly suited to evade our world-wide public health infrastructure. 

So what’s my advice?

The most important thing to learn from this once-in-a-generation (hopefully) infectious disease pandemic is a healthy respect for the differences and intersections between population-wide and individual health. With infectious disease—more than with most other risks—the health of the individual depends so much on the actions and health of the population. The choices we as individuals make can have such a huge impact on the health (and potentially life) of every person we interact with. This is why it’s so important to parse out what each of us, as individuals, can do to keep ourselves as safe and healthy as possible: it’s the main thing that will keep the people around us safe and healthy, too.

There are a few things that we can each do to keep ourselves as safe as possible while maintaining our lives and our health. As we open up and get back to our lives, it’s important that we not let our guard down. We need to keep in mind the basics of social distancing, wearing a mask and managing our risk of exposure as we go about our lives. You may want to spend time having drinks or a meal inside at a restaurant, but it’s not a great idea. If you do, you should probably then avoid being in close contact with your older parents, grandparents, and other immunocompromised friends and family until you’re sure you don’t have COVID. (By getting a negative result on a test or letting fourteen days pass with no symptoms). We should all keep in mind what ‘risky’ behavior we may have engaged in during the last two weeks and try to inform others we may be around so that they can gauge their own comfort with the perceived level of risk.

Unfortunately, the mental health toll, economic damage, and damage from untreated chronic conditions resulting from this pandemic are likely to be more devastating even than the toll of COVID itself. This is part of why governments are relaxing their stay-at-home orders. For example, in the province of Ontario, where I currently live, we’re in ‘Stage 3’ of opening up, which means that almost everything you would normally do is now allowed, although in most cases a mask is required to be worn indoors. But this isn’t because it’s ‘safe’ to do these things. In my view it’s because we now have in place the hospital capacity, the ventilators and the public health staff to track and trace cases, such that we think we can contain infections and limit the impact of the sick on the health care system. And this is in Canada, where daily new cases are under 500 per day. The risk is exponentially greater in the U.S., where daily new cases are around 50,000. In both countries, you still run the risk of contracting COVID by going out and doing the normal parts of daily life that we were warned against when we first entered lockdown. This is why we need to keep our guard up.

In evaluating risk, I’ve found the following infographic from the Texas Medical Association helpful.

There’s one more thing that it’s important to remember. Viruses mutate, and pandemics have historically always come in waves. Depending on where in the world you are, we’re somewhere between the first and second waves of COVID.  In our most recent historic example—and there’s some evidence this is happening with this virus as well—later waves of a pandemic tend to be dominated by virus strains that have accumulated mutations to more effectively target younger, healthier, and more able-bodied people. This means that as the pandemic goes on, those who seemed immune to or felt unconcerned with the early waves may well end up bearing the brunt of later and, in many cases, more deadly waves.

None of this is certain, but without any existing information about how this virus will play out, we have to work with the best imperfect and partially matched historic information we have at our disposal. 

In the words of British Columbia’s chief public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry: Be kind, be calm and be safe.

It’s hard now to remember how back in March we were all bargaining. Oh, I thought, this might last another three weeks. Later, This will be over in a few months. Back then, the novel coronavirus’s invisibility almost invited wishful thinking like this. Oh, summer child. 

Now it seems obvious that fantasies about how this will all end soon are in fact exactly the thing that prevents us as a society from tackling the thing head on. But less noted is that these fantasies also keep many of us from making, in the meantime, good temporary workarounds. Only once we acknowledge our new reality does it become possible to fashion distanced and/or digital versions of some of our favorite activities.

I had a great experience of this the first weekend of August, when I attended the first-ever digital Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. I had played a small part in planning it—I designed the program, and my partner, Lisa Locascio, is the conference’s Executive Director—but I had no idea that the online conference would be such a success.

There was a lot that made it great, from some standout afternoon talks to the uniformly excellent evening readings. My favorite part was the morning workshop. I was in the speculative fiction workshop, which was led by Kij Johnson. She’s one of my favorite writers (if you haven’t yet read her story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees, you’re in for a treat). But it’s never a sure thing that a great writer will be a great teacher. In Johnson’s case, she was. I took pages and pages of notes on her theories of how fiction works, how science fiction works, how scenes work. I wrote long letters to my workshopmates and listened closely when they critiqued my story. And it hardly seemed impeded at all by the fact that we were meeting over Zoom.

One of the delights of this workshop was that one of my classmates was the great and strange writer Hunter Gagnon. Hunter is a student of philosophy and ancient literature who draws on those sources to make peculiar fictions and haunting poems. He’s also himself a great teacher, which I know because the last few years we have taught poetry as part of the same program at Dana Gray Elementary School.

When I was putting together this special edition of the newsletter, I remembered that Hunter has been writing and widely publishing a series of poems about this strangest of summers. (Find more at his website, I wrote and asked if he had a brilliant but unpublished poem that I could run here. He sent the following one along.

Quarantine poem #166 the virus lands
by Hunter Gagnon

13,284,292 confirmed 577,843 deaths
7,373,782 recovered
3,428,553 US, July, the vision
             of these virus lands, cities like broken shells
flattened in a bright wave
the no mercy of God and his flashing blue light, his
                              mist, his vision of names
          tossed around
             Fort Bragg, Somersworth, the Portlands, the mythical
        at voice, no don’t misunderstand me my friend in the
        fire red chair not the voice as a category an abstract
        of content, but
                     Life voice, in the virus lands, mumbling out
                     in the teachers better kill themselves lands
                     in the get over your anger maybe then you’ll get
                     what they have no reason to give
These mosquito dog lands and risen rivers after turquoise morning thunder lands
These desert town lands of gas pumps and lightning rods
We live here
             with our reviled
             unhappy mumbling
             by vision
             by beauty
             by God’s blue light
                       gravel wash voices, our
                       goose weed crumb voices
this bullet-crowned ghost of swallowing, this talk for us of who we are
this talk they build and give to us
                                       in screen blue light, elevated
                 for chairs, cushioned
                                             and lawn
    in July, in
                  America, fourteenth, 2020 11pm

That’s about it for this special, late-summer edition of Lightplay. It’s time for me to give my attention to the raven standing on the branch next to me.

But before we part ways I think I should acknowledge that I’ve finally named my newsletter. It’s called Lightplay. One word. There’s no deep secret meaning behind it. Things need names, that’s all. Nonetheless, I hope it evokes for you something of the way light can play against a cardinal’s feathers, or through a rainshower, or off the moon.

Till next time, I wish you good health, good spirits, safety from the fires, and a free moment to spend outside, looking at the other birds. Stay safe.

23 August 2020

Land Acknowledgment: I want to acknowledge the land from which I am sending this as the traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi Nations, and the Illinois Confederacy: the Peoria and Kaskaskia Nations. Many other nations including the Myaamia, Wea, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Thakiwaki, Meskwaki, Kiikaapoi, and Mascouten peoples also call this region home. Indigenous people continue to live in this area and celebrate their traditional teachings and lifeways. I want to express my gratitude as a guest and to thank the original and current stewards of this land. (Adapted from the Newberry Museum land acknowledgment, which was drafted in partnership with the Chicago American Indian Center.)