One of the effects of our weird zombie spring has been the disordering of time.
Surely you’ve heard, and perhaps said yourself, that it’s now unusually difficult to remember what day it is. But the effects go far beyond that, and they can be really disorienting.
This may be especially true, oddly enough, in Ohio.
A friend sent me a note soon after I moved here. It pointed out that Ohio was the place where you might use your furnace, your air conditioner, and your furnace again, all in the same day. She was right. To live here you already need to be paying special attention to what season it is.
The first mention in this space of some new virus that originated in China was on February 6, in a column about some simple things people can do to reduce the spread of viruses. At that time, the real concern was seasonal influenza, which kills thousands of people each year and which this year had caused the closing of some public schools in southeastern Ohio.
That was little more than three months ago. In some ways it seems like years and in other ways like the day before yesterday. Like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, we have come unstuck in time. Some things have been s-l-o-w-e-d to an agonizing pace, while others have been blindingly accelerated. It was just last week, or maybe it was in early March, that I was asked outside of Lowe’s in Athens how I was doing. “Staying upwind of everything,” was my reply, at the time a joke.
The J.C. Penney company, for instance, has been on the ropes for years. That purveyor of men’s and boys’ white cotton briefs, and I guess some other stuff, too, has long been teetering on the edge of the abyss. During the current crisis it went over the edge and it’s now tumbling into the chasm. Likewise J. Crew and Neiman-Marcus, the high-end clothing and department store respectively.
I think that in retrospection we’ll see that these companies, and others, weren’t killed by the pandemic, but their demise may have come a little quicker because of it. Or maybe neither of those things happened and it just seems quicker because we’re noticing more during our zombie spring.
Living out in the woods and heading to town only a time or two a week, I shouldn’t be and really haven’t been much affected in any physical way by the recent changes in our community. We’re told to socially distance, but out here people socially distance anyway. In the not-quite-two-years since I was retired, kicking and screaming, as the photographer for The Athens NEWS, there have been periods of several days when I saw no other humans. I’m not complaining – that’s just how it unrolled. We’re a little bit isolated out in the country.
Which I mention because despite that fact, we’re affected, too. Every television or radio news broadcast has carried only one story: panic, and panic now. If everybody is saying it, it must be right, right?
The effect here at first was the elimination of any sense of leisure. This led to some fine results. My entire firewood supply for next winter had been cut, split, and stacked, with two barrels of kindling, too, by the first week in May. This has never happened before; it has never come close to happening before. I say that it happened, but I am the one who did it, no passive voice involved.
It’s this spring that I learned the important scientific fact that 50 percent of tomato seeds packaged for use in 2007 still germinate. They don’t seem to grow very fast, but – oh, wait, we’re looking at time differently now.
Last week I dragged out and repaired the pressure washer that I hadn’t used for more than a decade. I wanted to blast the accumulated goop and poop out of the barn’s gutters (which I also hadn’t done for a while; the last time, in fact, was the day the enterprising bank robber put fake bombs outside local post offices to distract the police, which makes it July 29, 2008). That the thing worked was surprising. Watching the mud fly out of the gutters was exciting.
All of which ought to be entirely pleasant, but it’s now imbued with a kind of antsy-ness. Maybe you’ve noticed it: a vague urgency that seems to have permeated most everything. The results are excellent, but they don’t feel excellent.
The puzzle is how unsatisfying it is. The projects get checked off some dim mental list of things that need to get done before . . . before what? Maybe before time returns to normal?
In the weeks leading up to this spring, we all were in a kind of rhythm. We weren’t necessarily all in the same rhythm, but there was a pulse to our individual lives, like the clacking of the rail joints on a train. It soothed us.
Now it’s gotten disrupted, and we don’t know whether our normal placid existence or this current untethered one is the better response to reality. We’ve seen dozens of apocalyptic movies and rested happily in the belief that we’d do just fine if it ever happened to us. Now we’re not so sure.
It has manifested itself in strange, subtle, and unsettling ways. I’ve had colleagues change or leave jobs, things they’d mentioned for years. Heavens, it has caused me to do the things that I should have been doing all along!
But what is this “it” of which I speak? I have no idea, whether it’s the threat of this virus that has seized our waking (and sometimes sleeping) thoughts, or whether the virus is merely the catalyst for something else, some kind of existential reordering that we’d have shuffled into, sooner or later, anyway.
When – if? – we emerge from this zombie spring, I think it will leave us much changed. The trick is trying to make sure the change is for the better.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at email@example.com.