How We Don’t See It Coming, Then Fail to Understand What’s Happened.
Street names in my small northern California town reflect both its human history — Central, Fire, Park, Railroad — and its natural history — Salix, Redwood, Laurel, Elm, a few tall specimens of which, having survived an arboreal pandemic of the last century, are in leaf. When I started grammar school, these majestic shade trees lined the main streets of my hometown in upstate New York. By the time I began high school, they were gone.
Couldn’t this loss have been prevented? The same fungi-toting bark beetles had spread Dutch elm disease across Asia and Europe 30 years earlier. Just as plant pathologists must have anticipated the blight, some epidemiologists predicted CV-19. Yet here we are. Why don’t we see or pretend we don’t see unfolding catastrophes? In part, it’s wishful thinking — that mix of obstinance and optimism that allows us to deny unwanted change on the horizon.
More germane, why does it take us so long to fully understand the consequences of these events? I was in my 30s, working in California, and briefly home one summer to visit my father, before I grasped how the near eradication of the American elm had altered the character of our downtown and dozens nearby. Maybe it’s simply human nature to process misfortune painfully slowly, as our nature is shaped by the nature of everything else.
In Einstein’s universe, reality is predetermined and timeless, and therefore predictable. But some physicists now theorize a universe that’s not a continuum but a finite system in which information is created as time passes. They posit a reality more like the one we experience where foresight is mostly lacking and hindsight comes ever so gradually. Having lived through Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians downplayed warnings of the coronavirus and Mardi Gras-ed with the usual abandon. Rural towns in the Midwest, seemingly lightyears away from the coastal epicenters of CV-19, minimized warnings for weeks. It could be that we just have to keep going through this stuff.
Hardwired as we so often are to deny worst-case scenarios, we can be equally slow to grasp the depth of personal upheavals — a breakup, an illness — and their immeasurable ramifications, including the positive ones. It’s taken me 20 years to fully accept that a prime-time event in my best friend’s life — which I didn’t see coming or, more truthfully, pretended not to see coming — recast my own life.
Beneath greening boughs on Elm Avenue on my morning walk, after six weeks of sheltering alone, I realize that the word solitary, which described my life before this coronavirus, has taken on deeper meaning. I long for the sunbeams of human touch. At the very least, I want to see an un-pixilated version of my best friend’s face.
In a small act of civil disobedience, my BFF drives 11 miles from her house to mine. We meet on the street and hike to the trail, physical distancing. Gone are the nitpicking and disagreements that have plagued our phone conversations these past weeks. When the occasional car passes, we can’t really hear one another, but it doesn’t matter. We soon ease into the comfort of familiarity: Glenda’s healthy strides and broad shoulders, pink visor, matching tank top, and excruciating puns all make me smile. We love one another, but differently than we once did.
In the spring of 2000, in a room at the Tucson Holiday Inn, as I got ready to join my boyfriend in bed, I found an empty packet of estrogen in the bathroom trash. Despite a sinking feeling in my gut, I ignored it, just as I’d dismissed prior cues that something was amiss with this man I adored. Our lovemaking had recently required Viagra, the sappiest movie would have him in tears, and he’d depilated his chest and forearms.
Up before him the next morning, I followed a Google history on his laptop to websites with URLs like chickswithdicks and boyswillbegirls. Driving south through a desert blooming with prickly pear, ocotillo, and teddy bear cacti, I found the courage to ask about the sleeve of Premarin. Glenn confessed he was becoming Glenda. My first reaction was disbelief, then, as he continued to feminize, embarrassment. I didn’t want to be seen with the woman materializing before my eyes and idealized the man I remembered as Glenn. Shortly before his sexual reassignment surgery, I left him, friends, a career and moved 1,500 miles away.
I traded the Pacific Coast for drylands that hadn’t seen ocean since the Cretaceous period. For a while, I stopped wearing dresses, even cruised women on Match, and came to the conclusion that sexuality is not binary. But these were superficial tactics. Over time, as Glenda emerged a steadier, happier, more outgoing person than Glenn had been, we miraculously found a new shape for our love, and when I moved back to the Bay Area, I fully supported her transition.
Monthly calls became weekly calls, which became weekend hikes we both looked forward to. Only now, in this time of coronavirus when so many of us are taking stock, do I see that, like Glenn, I had turned my life upside down. I became braver, less rigid, and found more joy in everything I did.
It’s wrongheaded to believe that the world we’ll eventually return to after this global timeout will be the world we knew. Even if Wall Street manages to become bullish again, Main Street will be forever changed. Chances are scientists will take years to fully understand this zoonotic event — if that’s even what it is. I want to believe in a silver lining. At the very least, sheltering at home has demanded we learn to spend more time alone while simultaneously waking to the dangers of a self-centered paradigm.
Here on Elm Street, there are fewer cars and more birdsong. Yesterday, a friend sent a video of animals romping in quieted cities — lions lounge on a golf course in South Africa, elephants stroll a boulevard in Thailand, and a flock of sheep occupy a playground in the U.K. Skies are bluer by day, starrier by night. In our relative absence, Earth is catching her breath.
Maybe enough of us will grok that — given our mistreatment of one another and our shared planet — this pandemic was inevitable. If so, it’s possible that the post-CV-19 world will be not just different, but also healthier, happier. Glenda will never be Glenn again, and that’s a good thing. We can’t be who we were.