Wow. Okay. Corona, you got me.
The last time I wrote something long form, it was on my birthday, March 17, and it was intended to cheer and inspire people to take a look and better themselves. It relied on a metaphor about St. Patrick. It was good writing.
At this point, such words feel ridiculous and almost irresponsible.
I wrote that post almost a month ago, and while it seems like a year has actually elapsed since that day, I cannot remember anything intrinsically rewarding I’ve done.
And it’s not for lack of trying. I have reached out and tried to take Polish lessons again, but when my brain could no longer pull out random phrases in that Slavic language, the one that has impossible phonetics and ridiculous levels of conjugation, I attributed it to stress placed on me by work and by worry. I made progress learning it in the past, and will try again, but was quickly disheartened.
I have pulled out my bass guitar, and spent some time picking up the licks of Fall Out Boy’s “Dance, Dance” and then the jaunty, ska bassline from Goldfinger’s “Superman.” But the thing about bass as an instrument specifically, is that even if you are the type who loves to approach the fun, slap-style bass playing popularized by Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or the running, make-you-rock-on-your-heels-without-knowing-why runs popularized by bands such as Goldfinger, Rancid, Streetlight Manifesto, and others, you need another instrument. What I crave about playing bass is the times when either a pianist or guitarist gets going on a riff, and I find the space in between the notes to create the tone of the music, the vibe that (and I’m trying to find the metaphor here) fits the soul’s intuition of how the song should feel. Long story short, I like to improvise, and it’s hard to improvise when there’s no one else to play with, quarantine or otherwise.
I’ve tried to volunteer online with “mutual aid networks,” which serve the function of sharing goods, resources, and money in crisis, but when I found out that I would be tasked with building out the structure of the network from scratch, I balked. I need to be able to rely on structure right now; I cannot imagine building one.
I have definitely made some strides; I’ve read three books, mostly about baseball and music, the parts of society that interest me.
I’ve worked out, a lot, and lost 3-5lbs, probably from not scarfing giant burgers and 3-5 beers multiple days per week. The weight loss wasn’t a goal by the way, it just happened, and I’m ambivalent about it.
I haven’t learned a new skill. I haven’t made myself much more employable in case of layoffs at my job. I’ve thought about pursuing a front-end web coding bootcamp, and will do that if I find myself laid off. I may pursue an easy and free certification related to my field.
But mostly, I’ve kept my brain busy and survived.
Hell, I’ve even got back on XBOX live, the ultimate time-wasting system.
And the whole while, as a student of history and political science, I’ve had a phrase that Dan Barry, my 11th grade AP US History teacher consistently uttered while prepping us to earn college credits as high school juniors.
He would say, “Every 70-100 years, history repeats itself.”
And it’s easy for my mind to tell the story, to find the parallels that make Mr. Barry’s wisdom seem true.
In 1919, 100 years ago, America and the whole globe fell to destructive force of the Spanish flu, a epidemic that would kill 50 million people. And just like how some severely underinformed and biased people have called today’s viral sensation “The Chinese virus,” that bug was most definitely improperly named as well. The first case of Spanish flu likely originated in a military base in Kansas. I do need to make clear that in absolutely no way will the death toll from Covid-19 approach that of the Spanish Flu, but the bowing of society to an invisible medical menace is so perfectly parallel, we might as well put a bow on it.
The connections continue: five times from 1904 to 1920, a stalwart labor organizer from Indiana named Eugene V. Debs ran for president as a socialist. The socialist movement in the early 20th century emerged from the strife of the Industrial Revolution to earn benefits for factory workers in the Midwest and throughout America. Debs’ major accomplishments were the establishment of the American Railway Union, the Pullman strikes against highly unfair and degrading labor practices within the railway industry (which occurred in my hometown of Chicago), and, of course, being smeared by the press for his beliefs. His activism was derailed when the federal government broke the strike and arrested Debs on trumped-up “mail obstruction” charges.
While Debs’ story is more dramatic than that of Bernie Sanders, I think the strict adherence to solidarity, organization, and favorful benefits to common “unskilled” workers will serve as a obvious throughline for this case of a parallel history. I’d hazard to say that on both occasions, American society was more likely to embrace Debs and Sanders during their eras because of the lack of a powerful socialist Russian enemy. Debs’ movement behan before the Russian Revolution in 1917. As for Sanders, socialist Russia fell apart nearly 30 years before his campaigns. Russia nowadays is a faux-democratic oligarchy run on oil and by an autocrat in Vladimir Putin; it’s not nearly the enemy it once was.
As such, Dan Barry’s words stand. History repeats itself.
Of course, the Great Depression also fits the story arc I’m trying to tell. When I wrote on March 17th, I wanted to inspire people to push forward in spite of circumstance, but I’m fully aware that that is difficult when you are more concerned with making rent and affording food than with bettering yourself or correcting bad habits.
To make it personal, my brother and a close cousin both lost their jobs immediately upon social distancing measures; they will likely be okay, but they both have to question now where they were in life and whether they’d like to wait for society to get back to where it was or if they can try their hand at something else. It’s a tough choice, and luckily for my family, one we are able to make; many individuals who lost their jobs have to make tougher choices.
But something about this recession is different; to this econ novice, it is not caused by overspeculation as during the tech bubble in the 1990’s or by complicated financial entrenchment and easy, predatory credit like the housing crisis in 2008.
It may be similar to the Great Depression, in the sense that the market seemed to be doing no wrong and there was funding available for every line of business. It may be true that there is an excess of housing and there seems to be a lack of regulation on specific parts of the financial industry.
It might be similar to the contraction under Carter in 1979 that had to do with the price of oil and problems in the Middle East; a major factor underlying this particular recession is that Russia and Saudi Arabia bid the cost of oil down to historically unprecedented levels as demand for travel and, by proxy, demand for oil evaporated. Therefore, in present time, major parts of the American economy produced less wealth. Medium to small oil companies focused on extraction and drilling have gone belly up, and major companies like BP and Amoco have written off billions off dollars in losses, essentially throwing their hands up and saying “Whelp, we lost that one.”
What’s strangest, to me, about this economic situation is that it’s caused primarily by a restriction placed on a specific section of the economy: people working in hospitality, restaurants, travel, airlines, and other industries are simply not allowed to work. And everyone else is not allowed to spend money to pay the rents of those people whose jobs are now off-limits. The phrase economists would use to quantify this change and sound smart is “a lack of liquidity in the economy.” Cash is simply not changing hands.
Enter 16 million unemployed people in two weeks. Watch all previous unemployment records shatter; the first week’s 6 point something million unemployment applications shattered the previous single-week record by a multiple of 11x.
It’s wholly unprecedented. While I can ruminate on the parallels of the Spanish Flu with Coronavirus, and while Eugene V. Debs and Bernie Sanders can appear as kindred spirits, there’s absolutely nothing to which to compare this economic situation.
An unprecedented amount of people lost jobs in a staggeringly short amount of time. But, strangely, their unemployment might have an expiration date. As the social distancing measures are relaxed, some service industry workers might quickly be able to go back to their establishments. Cash may start flowing again, and things may return to normal by fall.
Italics intentional. This is likely wishful thinking–restaurants will fold due to holes in business interruption insurance plans and entertainment venues will not rebook shows until they are sure the potential audience feels safe and complexes from Disney World to Dave and Buster’s will attempt to operate on skeleton staffs, trying to generate revenue to mitigating losses associated with what will be at least two full months of absolutely nothing.
But more likely, in a society held together by the right to peaceably assemble, as dictated by the First Amendment, a pall will descend around hanging out in large groups. Out will come droves of newly homeless or temporarily displaced people. The stock market itself may rebound, but the dent in inflation that typically brings down prices on consumer goods may not extend to the cost of rent without activism in the streets or government intervention. There may be rent strikes and and protests to demand changes to the way society is structured.
I’d like to say that there’s an expiration date on this crisis, and there may well be, as the stock market had a very, very strong week, I think the best since rebounding from the Great Depression in the 1930’s. But the stock market doesn’t reflect the lives of most non-salaried workers, a.k.a. average Americans, so I have to say that when these crisis happen, they restructure society. Even without reform, the recovery typically takes 2-3 years to return the lost jobs, liquidity, etc, and while we are seeing benefits, such as pushes for vote-by-mail elections and the suspension of student loan payments or evictions, it will take a long, long while before many Americans are made whole again.
(Update: my time I got around to editing this for typos, the major hotel chain Marriott, with the largest network of branches in the country, has announced it will look for ways to avoid falling into breach of contract related to its debt to assets ratio, which could be a precursor to a credit downgrade. TL:DR: This is not going to be a short ride.)
So, I’m going to stop and say: don’t worry about learning a language, or skills, or perfecting a talent.
Just survive. Get by day-to-day, understand the new normal. Try to keep your job while keeping your sanity, knowing that the second is more important than the first.
Try to understand the past, the times of Debs’ and increasingly strong unionism, and understand how those movements helped create minimum wages and the 9-5 work day and weekends, and maybe try to petition your politicians or just talk to your friends about the changes you’d like to see in your work scenario or how your community is structured.
I, for one, think that the empty factories throughout Chicago and the rest of the Midwest should immediately be turned into a supply chain for emergency medical equipment, revitalizing hard-hit communities and insulating the US from one of the major problems of the crisis–that the richest country in the world somehow does not have enough medical equipment–but that’s just me.
Try to keep moving forward, sure, but do so in a way that is kind to yourself and allows room for confusion, error, anger, wasted time, stupidity, boredom, sadness, panic, frustration–whatever you need to do to get to the next day.
Tell your friends, family, and loved ones how you feel about them. Be kind to them and reach out to support them.
And, while you are sitting inside understanding what’s happening, what you can do to take care of yourself, and how you fit into the arc of history, this particular repeat episode of the narrative of the world, know that it’s okay just to be you, to pick up and get by.
Because these are not conditions people thrive in.
But I pray that they are temporary.
That they are not the new normal