covid operations

I know you are all exhausted. In between coordinating communications for the graduate labor union at UW and trying to keep track of rapidly changing campus policies, I took a walk this afternoon and remembered that I’ve been preparing for this for years. During the summer after my first year in graduate school, I was so depressed for about two months that I barely changed clothes. I didn’t leave the house much, except to buy groceries and move my car twice a week for street sweeping. I did, however, read a lot of high fantasy and learn how to make ravioli from scratch. Maybe this time I’ll finally work on my Spanish. Possibilities abound for creating routine.

I like living alone, though I wonder about the mental toll of it. I’d guess a lot of the world is wondering about it right now.

Today I tried to convince myself I was in a coffee shop by brewing a cup, wearing my headphones even though I live alone, and working from my couch (which is not like a coffee shop but at least is not my desk, a notoriously unproductive zone). In the afternoon, San Francisco announced a “shelter in place” policy: no one can go out except for essential trips. The police will enforce the restrictions. On campus, instructors were asked to copy department administrators on initial post-closure emails to their students to make sure they’re staying in communication. I can’t decide whether this comes from a place of legitimate concern or authoritarian encroachment—the need for control in times of uncertainty creeping up on our activities and our webcams.

I think I am less anxious than I was four days ago. My brain seems to take up less space. Then I go to the bathroom, see that I’ve used half a roll of toilet paper since yesterday, and remember that I have anxious bowels. When I was in high school I would get what are called “abdominal migraines,” which feel about as good as you’d expect. It wasn’t pointed out to me until recently that frequent trips to the toilet could be a manifestation of anxiety and not simply excessive hydration (or maybe I excessively hydrate when I’m anxious, and everything else is further downstream).

We understand anxiety so poorly. We’re taught so little about how it manifests. Once I had a panic attack on a crowded train with no outward symptoms. No one noticed. Last year I went to the dentist with tooth pain, and my dentist asked me if I was stressed. “Clenching is common when stressed, and it hurts,” she said. I think she was right. I hadn’t thought about that at all.

My insurance won’t cover virtual therapy, so for pandemic processing purposes I’ve returned to verbose journaling. I worry about the following (and here I’m making space for me, intentionally; I’m also worried about intellectual property for graduate instructors and how anyone is supposed to write their dissertation when they have a kid pulling at their sleeve and whether my immunocompromised friends have enough food, but I will set that aside for the next 20 minutes):

  • I am supposed to go to DC this summer to finish interviews for one of the core chapters of my dissertation. I am a skilled interviewer in person; I am shit over Skype or the phone. I can and will make do, provided anyone is actually available to talk and not running around panicking, but I’m worried about poorer data quality as a result. The work I do—talking with bureaucrats and staffers about their views on white supremacist violence—is difficult at the best of times. This is not the best of times.
  • I have a good sense of when I need to be done somewhere, or done with something, and I need to be done with graduate school. I’m worried about the job market in the fall, if faculty lines are cut when administrators mistakenly interpret the scrambling of the next several weeks as evidence that online instruction is easy and deserves significant expansion, or simply if university budgets take a hit due to the costs of supporting students facing reduced work hours or heightened childcare costs. (Side note: I would support this, if it were to happen. Universities are not generally caring institutions.) I’m not nearly as wedded to an academic job as I once was, but there is still an image in my head of a liberal arts campus, like where I was a student, where I can teach bright students and write what I want to write. But I won’t take an extra year. It might be merited, even encouraged. But I won’t.
  • I have to move in August. Touring apartments is profoundly irresponsible right now (though I know of at least one management company scheduling tours—stop!!!!!!!!). This could go on for months. I don’t know what to do.

I have turned today, as I often do, to Sara Ahmed. I think we connect to each other, when we haven’t shared experiences directly with others, through the articulation of experiences we hope they might also have had. She writes: ” … think also of what is required: the political labor of having to insist that what we are describing is not just what we are thinking or feeling.” And so I want to encourage talking about what we are going through, no matter how depressing or discouraging or mundane, because communication is how we make things real. How we know that our concerns are more than just our own. How we build community and resilience when we need them most.

So I’ll strive to continue to share, even the things that don’t seem “professional” because that’s a construct we’ve come up with to whiten and masculinize workspaces. I hope you will share as well, when you can and when you are comfortable. I think I’ll learn a lot of things over this period—maybe, finally, Spanish! But I think most of what I’ll learn will be from you.

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