The walk home from the diner on the Day of Exposure gathered dread with each step, and my emotions felt deeply incongruous with the beautiful day. The juxtaposition rang like an echo of the ominous dread that tinted the air on that beautiful tuesday morning, September 11th, 2001. Surely there have been many days in the nearly two decades between these moments where the sun has been this bright and the sky this blue, but these two have been recorded in my mind as oversaturated blue blue skies etched with caustic fear into something that hangs somewhere between hyperreal and surreality.
In the history of art, the introduction of the Camera Obscuras in the 16th century transformed the quality of images captured by painters. There was a sudden leap in realism as this technology employed a pinhole projection of a brightly lit outdoor scene on the wall of a dark enclosed room, that could be essentially traced to mark position and relationships between objects. This method created an image that was brightest at the center, with progressive lack of focus and light toward the edges. The image was projected inverted (flipped both left/right and upside down), making it hard to make sense of on the one hand, but easier to trace accurately without the brain filtering the image with ideas or symbols.
The images created with Camera Obscura techniques tend to have a similar light quality, a mixture of overexposure and under an indistinct and detached shroud of darkness. This can likely be explained by the bright light required for adequate projection, and the strangeness of reading/painting the colorful projection in the dark. It feels like an apt metaphor for the way this world feels right now, oversaturated information filtering in through various pinholes often distorted, upside down, backwards, easy to misinterpret, and shrouded in the darkness of pandemic anxiety.
Inside this box of our apartment, with information filtering in through various fiber optic channels, we have sprouted greens in the windows, share the air with only each other and the cat, and I am bumbling forward with my effort to create art. Part vivarium, part camera obscuras; life observed, lived, cherished, and mourned in the shroud of darkness and uncertainty of this time.
Prior to the pandemic we had purchased an N95 mask with replacement filters for upcoming international travel. Last week I made a second mask that fits the replacement filter from an old bandana, some fusible interfacing, and velcro. Yesterday I braved the grocery store with it and gloves. I was shocked at how many people were clearly ignoring all social distancing practices, and had to figure out some evasive maneuvering to deal with people who kept encroaching. Most maddening were people who were in the store, coughing with no attempt to cover their face at all--I don’t care if it’s just a little cough from the dry air, cover your damn mouth! There were no eggs, no rice, no flour or sugar, no frozen veggies… produce was hit or miss, but I got most of what we need for the next couple of weeks.
Initially, it sounded like the stay at home orders were going to last 14 days. This always felt overly optimistic. We were encouraged to get exercise and continue going for walks and such close to home. On March 21st we went for our longest walk, to a park up the street to play Pokemon Go. It felt good to be out and about, the weather was beautiful, and it made things feel a little more Normal.
As we walked home, we stopped in at a diner we love in hopes of getting some milk shakes as we’d been unable to get ice cream at stores since the madness began. Restaurants have become take-out only, which is a very strange feeling in a diner that usually has a wait time to be seated. There was one other customer ahead of us, and while we waited to place our order as far back as we could in the cramped entryway, I began to notice that she seemed ill: she was pale and waxy looking, coughed right in the face of the waitress who was only about 18” in front of her, then proceeded to sniffle and wipe at her nose with her hand before reaching for the pen to sign for her order. It was all I could do to maintain my composure as I started to have a combination of anxiety attack and anger at the lack of hygiene or respect for others. She stepped towards the door to wait for her food, leaving little space for us as we took our turn to approach the waitress. As it turned out, they didn’t even have milkshakes available for us, and so we left empty handed. The customer failed to move aside in any way, forcing us to brush past her on our way out the narrow exit. As I began to finally express my level of concern for our potential exposure, Faith started to understand how upset I was.
It was hard to sort out what I was feeling, as I realized the likelihood that this woman just had allergies or a cold, and also tried to have some compassion for all of the things I didn’t know about her--perhaps she was quite ill, but lived alone and had no one to help her cook and she was just trying to pick up some food to get through the best she could. This attempt at compassionate thinking didn’t quiet my anger at her lack of consideration for others, as she failed to cover her cough or even turn away from the waitress who was there to serve her. As someone who had been recently laid off from my food service job I felt at once grateful for being off work and out of that kind of direct exposure and solidarity for the waitress who faced that kind of disrespect.
This perception of potential exposure made the abstract fear very personal. I was surprised that I felt angry that such a simple thing as trying to get a milkshake and support a local diner could have nullified all of the precautions we had taken to date. When we got home, we decided to call my dad to discuss what his medical opinion was of our potential risk and what steps we should be taking to protect ourselves moving forward.
We both anticipated this call would ease our concerns, and instead he confirmed that there has been a shift in understanding of COVID-19 to believe it can remain airborne for up to 3 hours, and that it was not necessary to have direct droplet or surface contact as we had previously understood. We went over best procedures for outings, agreed that masks were in fact advisable, that clothing worn outside should be immediately removed and laundered in hot water, to wash hands first, to shower and wash with attention to all exposed portions including hair. We ended the call with an escalated level of anxiety about future outings. As we observed the many people in our neighborhood not observing the social distancing guidelines we decided to move to indoor workouts.
We began to really accept that the stay at home order would not be ending soon, and that we should spend some energy on rearranging our space to best accommodate this new reality. With Faith’s work from home desk lacking the ergonomic adaptations she had at the office, I offered to salvage materials from the shipping crate my Dragon arrived in to build a standing desk accessory.
A week after our walk, I spent the day on our tiny balcony using hand tools to cut plywood and two by fours down to size and assemble the desk. Despite being a good 15 yards from the sidewalk and on the second floor, I opted to wear my face mask. This felt like overkill until a gentleman walked by smoking and even with the mask I got a face full of secondhand smoke. I pretty immediately realized that that meant I was inhaling air that had been in his lungs, and that I could be as exposed to the air anyone was breathing unmasked as they strolled by even if I couldn’t detect it.
As we adjusted to life at home, we quickly learned who is boss at home: Saturn. This cat, whom I love dearly, and who has been with me through so much, runs this house. She has decided that her particular method for handling the stress of quarantine is to demand to be fed at random intervals each night. At least twice each night between 12:30am and 5:30am she yowls outside the bedroom door until I give in. If I take too long, she will find any unsecured object weighing less than she does, on any surface high enough to cause a crash and push it off.
She has also decided that now is the time to hone her skill as a picky eater, and flat out reject flavors of wet food that have been in steady rotation for years. I have taken to getting jars of baby food as back up--occasionally if I add it like gravy to her bowl I can change her mind. More often, she just laps up the Gerber Chicken and rice and then throws something off the counter to announce that she will not be fooled.
These are strange times. Over the past few weeks we have watched a virus map the trajectory of human connectedness. Its rapid spread has been tracked on color coded maps that have bloomed in exponential fractals connecting, at last count, 172 countries on six continents. As the virus spreads, threatening global health systems, governments across the globe are issuing stay at home orders and in the midst of the pandemic proof of global interconnection we are finding ways to cope with suddenly living in relative isolation.
I vacillate between feeling as though I need to know as much as possible in order to have some sense of control and trying to shut everything out while I pretend that we’re just home and the world is fine. I’m an introverted homebody who doesn’t know how to be bored. I have a lot of projects to work on and things to keep me occupied, and bonus: Faith is working from home now so I get extra time with the person I love.
I was temporarily (but indefinitely) laid off when the cafe where I work closed due to COVID-19. I have been trying for a week to get through to apply for unemployment, but the influx in claims has overwhelmed the system. I feel fortunate that this is not immediately catastrophic for me, but am nonetheless anxious to get it sorted out. Our small simple life has just gotten smaller, now contained by the walls of our apartment unless it is absolutely necessary to go out.
Part therapy, part something to do, part social commentary: this is our Quarantine story, written as it unfolds. This is a picture of our tiny, encapsulated life in this uncertain and unprecedented time. My hope is to honestly capture and chronicle the challenges, fears, humor, joys, and beauty of my experience.