Thursday, March 11, 2021

Before and After

Before humans were predators, we were prey.

We are big, slow, soft animals utterly devoid of sharp teeth, claws, or any particular natural defenses other than a stubborn willingness to fight back against whatever tries to eat us – a willingness that separates us not at all from ducks. We’ve figured out how to become apex predators these days, of course, but for much of our evolutionary history we were on the other side of that equation.

And prey knows when it is being stalked.

A year ago today I was still at work – my last normal day in the office. I had students coming in for advising sessions. I taught my class, which ironically enough was a remote-delivery class that I had been teaching in that format since 2012. It was unusual then. Lauren was still in Europe on her foreign exchange trip. Oliver was home for spring break but looking forward to going back to Small Liberal Arts College for the rest of his semester. Kim was commuting to Madison three or four days a week for one of her many jobs.

The day just felt off somehow, like you should be looking back over your shoulder at something that might be gaining on you.

Unless you were hiding under a rock you could see the news reports piling up. The horror stories that were coming out of Italy. The exponential growth in COVID cases that the US was starting to experience. The utter despair of knowing that there would be no effective response to any of this from der Sturmtrumper or his minions, enablers, lackeys or cronies – that we as Americans were pretty much going to be left on our own.

You could see it coming. Everyone could.

“Why does today feel like the ‘before’ picture in some future textbook?” I asked on social media that day.

I should have bought a lottery ticket.

Forty-eight hours later it had all changed. We were working remotely. Shops, restaurants, and pretty much everything else were shut down. Classes were canceled, for us and for Oliver, and Madison was no longer an option. Lauren was yanked out of Europe and shipped back the US where Kim picked up her at a chaotic O’Hare Airport, which meant we were officially quarantined for two weeks – for us going into lockdown in April meant having more mobility rather than less.

It’s been a year now, and whatever version of normalcy we return to will in some ways be different from the one we left.

We have actual adults in power now, a direct result of just how badly the previous administration botched the American response to the pandemic. Like the Great Depression, the shock of the pandemic may have at least temporarily discredited the idea that the job of government is to let people starve so that the rich can get richer. Even most Trump voters approve of Biden’s relief bill, which makes its utter lack of support from the GOP rather disheartening but so it goes.

We’ve been teaching remotely for a year, and while most students and faculty are eager to get back into classrooms it has to be said that some are not, and I expect that remote classes and advising will remain a viable, if auxiliary, piece of education.

How many workers are going to go back to their offices is another question. Not all. Maybe not even most. 2020 was the year that we discovered how many of those meetings really could have been emails.

But ultimately the important things will go back to what they were. We will be able to visit people without worrying about killing them with plague. There will be meals. Celebrations. Hugs. We will be able to travel, and gather, and just do.


It’s been a long year, and that feeling that the world was about to change has never quite left. Because it has changed.

It will continue to do so.

What the ‘after’ photo in that textbook will look like is an interesting question.

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