Sustainability: on preserving, and self-preservation, and planning for the future

Hey, folks.

Happy Monday. (checks: yep! Monday!)

How are you holding up in The New Normal? Is it starting to feel a little more routine? A little less like everything is incomprehensible and strange?

As a former minimum-wage earner, delivery driver, grocery store employee, health care worker, I’d also like to take a moment to honor the people doing those jobs today, the underpaid front-line soldiers in this millennium’s first paradigmatic convulsion. Maybe, given all the time and reason for introspection many of us seem to have currently, a few more people will be coming around to the idea of universal income, health care for all, and a living wage in the next decade or so.

I know, it seems glib to think of happy outcomes when tens of thousands of people are dying around the globe, when I sit, typing this, at one of the current hotspots of the epidemic in North America, when my own local hospital administrators have to launch Mission:Impossible-style capers to get PPE… but events like this do make people take stock. Consider what they’re doing that they could be doing better.

Zoonotic pathogens, such as this one, are a direct outgrowth of climate change. (Here, let me Google that for you.) What we have seen over the past three months is that our unsustainable way of life is not inevitable: we have seen blue skies, a massive reduction in traffic fatalities, a more relaxed pace of living as fewer people commute three hours to jobs that don’t pay them enough to live where they work but mysteriously do not allow them to work from home.

People are planting victory gardens and switching to cotton dish towels instead of paper towels, and those are small wins, frankly.

(We’ve also seen enormous economic impacts on those same front-line infrastructure and service workers we’ve suddenly discovered we cannot live without but were never willing to pay a living wage, and I don’t mean to diminish that, but bear with me for a moment.)

Previous massive periods of privation and hardship—the Great War and the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, WWII—have in many cases resulted in resurgent economies and increased civil rights and freedoms in their wake, as people take a look at their prior assumptions and patterns and are forced to reinvent them. That doesn’t mean that the punctuation of the equilibrium is fun, or that the lives lost are somehow not each a tragedy. It does mean that when the arc of history is already bending, it’s not unreasonable to grab hold and give it that little extra yank towards justice.

Right now, of course, here in America our alleged leader is attempting to pass the buck to anyone and everyone, including the World Health Organization and your Aunt Masie.

I find myself thinking of this song a lot. As poets of the apocalypse go, you could do worse than Stephen Sondheim.

We all need to be the Witch, for a while. Because as I said before, the boys will not be home by Christmas. This is the new normal, and with adjustments and variations and adaptations, we’re going to be coping the Covid-19 pandemic for several years.

Well, we coped with WWII for several years. My queer community coped with the AIDS pandemic for more than a decade before it became a mainstream and normalized and treatable illness, and not the boogeyman. (You may be excused for forgetting that this is not the first pandemic in modern times: the one that colored my childhood so strongly was largely elided then and only now is the history of it becoming mainstream knowledge.)

So how do you cope?

Well, you cope by making your life as normal as possible. And as comfortable as possible, frankly, and as safe as possible. You’re playing chicken with the odds, and you have to make your own risk assessments and decide what you can and cannot deal with risking. And what you can and cannot deal with risking for your family, while still keeping them sane and fed and so forth.

If you are at home, working or not, it’s good to make your space as pleasant as you can. I’m fortunate for the first time in my life to have a yard of my own and it’s full, after four springs here, of the daffodils I’ve been sticking in the ground every chance I get. I’m going outside and picking a few every day to add to an enormous bouquet on the table.

Vacuuming is good. Washing the floor and counters. Cleaning the catbox. (Oh, hai, catbox. We have four cats and five catboxes. Somewhere there is always a dirty catbox.)

Establishing healthy habits despite the upheaval is key. I’m trying to eat vegetables and go for runs. I can still visit the horse, which is a sanity saver, although going to the barn is the same kind of fraught as visiting any place without household members. Don’t touch your face, don’t touch your face, don’t touch…

Our dryer is dying: the heating element has burned out and the dryer is quite old (it came with the house and its twin washer died last year, so we’re not surprised.) This means that right now I am tumbling each load about three times, British-style, to dry it, because our yard is not ideal for putting up a laundry line and I don’t want delivery people in the house right now to bring us a new dryer.

It’s a tiny little hardship. I have my own dryer! I don’t have to go to the laundromat. And I’m making plans for the future: maybe in a month or two, when Massachusetts is past peak, we can feel safe in replacing the dryer.

It’s Patriots Day here in Massachusetts, which is a local holiday, and—if it were not a plague year—it would be Boston Marathon day. There is no Boston Marathon today. It’s postponed to the fall, and honestly I am not sure it will happen then. Maybe, maybe.

That’s the hard thing, isn’t it? That maybe, maybe. But learning to live with that uncertainty is key to staying sane and becoming productive again. It’s always with us, is the thing. We can always die in a car accident, get hit by a falling meteor, be trapped in a cataclysmic natural disaster. We only think we have plans. What we actually have are contingencies, based on the expectation that things will go on pretty much as they always have.

Now we have proof that they won’t, and we don’t know when things will change again. They will not go back to the way they were, and I think many of us can look at the way things were, at this point—if we’re being honest with ourselves—and think, “Maybe that was a bad relationship. Maybe I will do things differently now. Maybe we should do things differently now.”

There are the deniers, of course. The “So what if Grandma dies?” crowd. The alleged president and his very, very, very short attention span and need for constant ego-tourism.

But there;s a lot of us thinking “Okay, that was unsustainable after all, and I was so caught up in it I didn’t realize.”

So it’s okay to plan contingencies, but this is a situation where it’s best to acknowledge that we don’t know when things will change again. When right now, a lot of people are suffering, or sick, and we have to do what we can to alleviate that. When we have to take care of ourselves and our loves ones, in the present day, in a sustainable fashion, because we will be doing things this way for the foreseeable future.

So we have to make that okay. We have to take care of ourselves, which… probably means fewer sugary quarantine baking projects for me, and rationing those cocktails, currently.

And we have to take care of each other, because if this pandemic is making anything apparent to those paying attention, it’s how interconnected we all are. The choices I make affect everyone I come into contact with (everybody in my “bubble,” to use the delightful New Zealand term, and can I just say Good Job New Zealand.) as well as people I might not come into contact with but who share some spaces with me. For example: my barn has instituted social distancing rules and assigned horse care times, so only one horse owner or “set” of horse owners (i.e., household/bubble) can be there at a time. But if I don’t sterilize my hands when I get there, and I bring in germs from myself, or a gas pump, or from picking up milk…

…I am responsible for the health of seven or eight other people, in other words, even if I don’t speak to them for the next two years.

Sondheim’s got a song for that situation, too, as it happens.

I’m also going to recommend a podcast here, today’s episode of The New York TimesThe Daily, not because of the very clear and no-punches-pulled description of how we need to live for a while, but also for the reminder that out of times of crisis come clarity. backlash can be positive, when people look at a social situation and realize that it’s intolerable after all. The backlash from the last two pandemics brought us increased rights for queer people and for women; maybe this one will result in universal healthcare, an acknowledgement that childcare and domestic labor are massive social and economic contributions, and… I dunno… living wages for essential workers?

(It turns out that we needed the journalists, pizza delivery folks, and telephone sanitizers after all. All those Wall Street types? Huh, they’re pretty useless except for generating churn.)

One thing I find comforting is putting up food, which is not just taking summer’s and autumn’s bounty, as it were, and turning it into preserves, filling up the cupboard with quince jelly and strawberry jam, filling up the freezer with peaches and sweet corn. (I highly recommend this hobby, though, if it’s something that appeals to you. We are definitely getting through those peaches and that sweet corn, currently, and it’s cutting down on trips to the dreaded grocery store where there isn’t any frozen food anyway.)

I talked a little bit about yogurt in a previous newsletter, and I thought I’d mention, on the theme of self-preservation, that there are a lot of other ways to preserve food for a few extra days, weeks, months. Especially in this time of incredibly random grocery availability, this can be useful. Maybe there were no bananas last week, and this week the only fruit is those small bananas repurposed from the restaurant trade.

That’s fine, we’re resourceful. We can work with that.

Quick pickles are great, for example: slice up veggies that might be on their last legs, put in jar, cover with a boiling solution of 50/50 vinegar (white or cider or rice) and water, with salt an sugar to taste. Stick those in the fridge and they’re ready to eat in an hour… and they keep for an extra week or two. You can pickle an astounding number of things this way: carrots, radishes, onions, peppers… (Because in a normal year Scott and I travel so much, often before we go away I pickle everything left in the fridge and then we eat it as relish for a month when we get back.)

Lots of fresh veggies can be frozen at home, especially if you dunk them in boiling water first to blanch them. Even soft greens, such as lettuce, that you might normally eat raw, can be frozen and used in soups. Bananas freeze well, if you peel them, and frozen bananas are fine in smoothies or banana bread. Cooked meat can be portioned and frozen in silicon, plastic, or tupperware. Or old deli containers. Cover it with liquid, such as chicken stock or marinara, to prevent freezer burn.

I’m actually contemplating making some of those lactic acid fermented pickles Japanese pickles you bury in a tray of bran, since I seem for some reason to have a big bag of bran here.

What can I say? They had it at the store.

Stay safe out there, fellow humans.