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Out on a Limb

Updated: Mar 24


On Sunday, The Observer ran a story on a Finnish man who had to cut his tree down. He dressed his two brothers in images of celebration and mourning (a wedding suit, a funeral suit) to express his profound ambivalence about a tree that had brought so much joy and was returning to a state that would bring a necessary renewal. This struck a nerve, because I had left my little worker's apartment in Finland, with its wooded walls from 1918, to return to Columbus to be with the family. And I felt that way about the coronavirus.


First, here's me back with the family:

There is no part of my face that is not covered by dog. If that isn't a protection against COVID-19, nothing is. Sophie is in quarantine too while she waits for a roommate to be tested, and like most people her age has an intuitive understanding of the vectors of connection that multiply and overwhelm, and so takes care of her parents, warning them not to go out as we once warned our children. Teddy has been holed up in Vermont taking the Brewdog cure with his friends, but will be back today. Janette got a tip from her friend in FEMA that Ohio will be shut down today or tomorrow, and showed up at Aldi's just as a food truck was coming in. We're good.


Today, though, I want to be the man on the tree limb wearing the wedding suit. This is as much a cause for rejoicing as it is for despair. Coming back to two months of back issues of the New Yorker and the London Review of Books has been like watching a multiple car crash in reverse: the New Yorker makes silly jokes and the LRB autopsies the Labour Party until suddenly a virologist gets up and says we're all going to die. "We're fucked, we're absolutely fucked," says the wife of August Kleinzahler, and she's talking about the Democratic Primary debate where everyone auditioned for a role as chipmunk.



And now look. Trump is flailing. After 9/11 George Bush received approval ratings in the 90s for showing up in a flight suit and acting like the cheerleader he studied to be in college; after 3/11 Trump looks lost in every sense. He has lost his primary weapon: hate. That sound you heard after his Oval Office address was the sound of Wisconsin and Michigan going blue.


My uncle, long time Director of Research at Roche, says that pollution in Wuhan has disappeared. Environmental issues now seem manageable. In "the largest-scale experiment ever seen," nitrogen dioxide levels are down dramatically. In America, the divisions that gerrymandering has engendered and that Trump has been playing on with such virtuosity are crumbling before a new common enemy, just as Adrian Veidt said they would in his recorded message to President Robert Redford.


I have unleashed a giant squid that will focus humanity's attention back on itself...

America has learned a humility that is a direct consequence of its leader's arrogance: we are angry and ashamed, and long to live in a world where science and data and intelligence still matter. The President has found a war he can't bomb his way out of. Yes, there will be a Worldwide Depression that will decimate the family savings account and send all arts and restaurants and music lessons and bookstores tumbling to the ground. That is bad. But without the Great Depression we would have had Hoover instead of Roosevelt, have had an America unprepared or unwilling to face the Japanese at Pearl Harbor or the Germans in North Africa, and be without Social Security or any of the great building projects of the Works Progress Administration.


This is a great, beautiful country. I was reminded of this returning on Day 22 from Tampere to Helsinki to Heathrow to O'Hare to Cincinnati to Janette's Mini to Olive and Bertie. This was a journey through the front lines, and it was only in O'Hare that things began to look up. Usually the opposite is true: arriving in the U.S. is the worst thing about plane travel. Time and again we've waited in cattle pens while a necessary update shuts down the customs software (never fly January 1 - it's always when they push an update through). Over and over we have wondered at the harshness of the welcome, so clearly designed to disrupt and disturb. But at O'Hare on Thursday the plane disembarked to a long line of tables of people waiting to take our temperature and provide us with carefully xeroxed information relating to our health. In that group of people were firefighters from the local union, health workers, TSA staff with face protection out of Starship Troopers, this last group looking as though they were frightened out of their wits. Looking back at the firefighters, white old men behind their navy blue uniforms, I caught myself thinking "these are the people who voted against their own union. And they are here."


People are looking out for each other again, regardless of political perspective. This is probably just the bleeding heart in me speaking but I saw it in the airport and on the plane. Everywhere I saw acts of kindness. "The system won't let me charge you for your bags," said the woman at the counter who was forbidden to touch my passport. The elderly person who can't get her suitcase up to the overhead bin has multiple offers of assistance. The flight attendant whispers "if you hurry, there's an aisle seat across the way" to the grateful traveler otherwise trapped in the middle seat for eight hours. The restaurant worker confesses that this may be her last day, given the way they are closing things in the terminal, and her eyes light up with genuine gratitude when she is given funds that she will truly need. A student in the security line asks if she can go to the front because she has a plane to catch and we all bellow "let this person through!" She hesitates as if she's about to be blocked from the plastic tray by someone who hasn't got the message and we shout encouragement at her: "Don't be nice!"


The sign on I-71 flashes "We're All In This Together." And we are. Red and blue, coast and rural, pro-this and anti-that. None of that matters. What matters is an RNA strand of 30 kilobases (longer than influenza, longer than Ebola) that can be defeated by soap.


"Coronavirus changes everything," writes Chris Cillizza, and he is half right: it changes everything for the better. There are small pleasures in seeing people like Rand Paul and Harvey Weinstein, two of the most evil men in the universe, contract a disease that has a 1% chance of killing them. That's not what I'm talking about. None of us will be free of this. I have charted a graph of cases in the places where people who matter to me live, and have had to tape two extra sheets of graph paper to the top to take care of the Day 20 spike in Switzerland and the United Kingdom (in Ohio, we are now on Day 13). [Update: it is now four sheets high.]


Graph of COVID-19 Cases since 2.27.20:

Switzerland (red), Finland (blue), Massachusetts (orange), Ohio (green), Missouri (brown), United Kingdom (pink), Quebec (gray), Illinois (light green), and Vermont (light blue)


When my church choir comes to make that postponed recording, we will sing better because we know what we have lost. When we line up as basses we will no longer take each other for granted. When we hear our impeccable organist (Kevin) play a postlude and everyone shouts "Amen" it will not be the perfunctory close to an obligatory part of the week but a celebration of every note. Every opera that you finally got the part for (Christopher), every lead in a musical (Lake), every trip to Broadway (Jeremy), every piece of artwork in a senior show (Janette's students): you will value it more. Every study abroad opportunity from which you were sent home (Cassie), every day in the peace corps (Carolyn), every opportunity you revised for (Max), every title that was so close you could touch it (Liverpool): it will be there for you still. With schools closed and everyone's children home, the world is waking up to the power of teachers. This is a good thing. This is our moment. Just wash your hands

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©2019 by Sebastian Knowles