Lucian M. Ashworth By: Lucian M. Ashworth
Professor
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20 May 2020 : "I hope you are keeping well"

It seems every work related email begins with a single line asking how I am doing, and if I am well. I always reply with a variant of 'fine, and you?' It almost seems rude now to write an email without adding the 'hope you are doing well under these difficult circumstances' salutation.

... but how am I doing? Although I am asked this question on a regular basis via email or online meeting, I have not really given myself or my correspondents a proper answer.

Well, there is no doubt I write from a position of privilege. My spouse and I have full time jobs (a relatively recent condition), my children are all teenagers (ditto), we have great wifi, almost up to date technology, reasonable personal space, and food on the table. If this pandemic had struck before I was 31, when my earnings and lifestyle were more precarious, it would have been a different matter. Come to think of it, life would have been very different if it had struck just five years ago when the children were that much younger and we were on one income. Ten years ago and the children would have taken up most of our time with less money to spare. This is an apocalypse that favours the old and established over the young and precarious.

There is also an odd guilty relief that might be equally generational. In a recent BBC interview the Black Mirror co-creator Charlie Brooker talked about the free-floating anxiety of growing up under the threat of nuclear war in the 1980s. He admitted to a certain sense of relief at now facing the real challenge of COVID-19. I knew what he meant. Having been brought up under the threat of nuclear war, followed by the precarious under-employment of the early years of full-blown neoliberalism, and then once I was settled having that replaced by a new sense of dread linked to global heating, there was relief in having to deal with a concrete crisis.

Yet, there are still two forms of free-floating anxiety to deal with. One is second hand. I know from my spouse's work that very real people in this very wealthy country (Canada) are suffering. Adults are being reduced to tears by their circumstances. Even in our bubble we cannot drown out the very real pain that may be experienced a matter of only a few doors down from where we are. At a global level the disparities are even greater, and via Zoom my sister reminds me of the racial bias behind the numbers. The other is how our local economy and the University I work for will survive the post-pandemic downturn. While I can rationally tell myself that my position is secure, the lived experience of 1980s precarity still haunts me.

Apart from that, I have a routine. Up before 8am, then a short 30 second commute to work (picking up a tea in the kitchen on the way). A little research work. Younger child woken up after 9 in time to prepare for school Zooms. A lunchtime 20-minute walk (avoiding other walkers) with my spouse if the weather is nice, and then back to read student theses. Perhaps a Zoom meeting of my own with the faculty union exec, department members, or students. Say hi to older child when they finally emerge from their room. Once a week pick up groceries. Clean up the kitchen. Some preparatory reading. Finish up a few admin emails, and then a 'how was your day?' chat with the family before dinner. After dinner, a quiet night in.

In the BBC 1970s comedy series Porridge, set in a prison, one of the older prisoners advises a younger newbie on how to survive life inside. When they came to the end of the day the older prisoner would say should we go out or have a quiet night in? How about a quiet night in?

Two months ago when this started I used to get tired very quickly, and sleep was disturbed. It has all settled down now. I was even able to take time off to do Romeo and Juliet with the younger child (a bit of preparation for next year's English lit class that included watching Zeffirelli's 1968 film version).

Work is heavier now since 'the Event'. Emergency remote teaching has still left a legacy of incomplete grades and students needing help. Redesigning remote delivery courses for September is going to be time consuming, so that's the summer months accounted for. I even agreed to be interim Head of Department from June. Zoom meetings are way more exhausting than face-to-face for some reason. Research deadlines may have become more forgiving, but they are still there. Then there is the 'shouldn't I be getting more research done with all this time at home?' guilt. At least I have discovered how to sign my name on pdf forms using a touch screen.

While supplies get through, grocery store shelves are beginning to show the strain. More exotic items have begun to disappear, and demand for certain items seems to exceed supply (Newfoundland is an island that produces less than a quarter of its food locally). Parks are open again, but only for through-traffic. Spring reveals all the maintenance we need to do on the garden and the exterior of the house. At least there will be flowers soon. Two months down...

... but we were luckier than most. At least we got a taster crisis two months before. In January St. John's had a snow storm (nicknamed Snowmaggedon) that locked us in our homes for a two week state of emergency.

Security studies friends quite rightly remind us that war analogies are not appropriate to a pandemic... Except, I sometimes feel like I am living in a medieval city under siege. Well, a besiged city with good wifi and Zoom meetings.

I think we'll have another quiet night in after dinner.

 

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