In early 1980, when I was in the seventh grade, I was assigned a project in my Social Studies class with Mrs. Woodard to write a report about a country. I and a partner were assigned Afghanistan. Putting aside that this was during just about the crappiest period during the crappiest year of my K-12 career, after my best friend had dumped me for more popular kids, this project stands out as one that I found particularly challenging. It wasn’t the topic–I loved finding out about different countries (and still do). I did just fine on the parts that involved describing the geography, the flag, the language spoken, the population, and the major industries. It was the government part that stymied me. On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Of course, none of the books and encyclopedias I read mentioned this, but I knew because I read about it in the news. I also knew that this fact had very much changed the way government worked in the country, but by how much, I had no way of finding out. I ended up describing Soviet communism, and got dinged for it. But there was no way that I, knowing the current reality did not mention what was printed in books, could write a report describing the current government as if nothing had happened.
I am remembering this now because that same feeling–the desire to talk of the present, not the way things were even just a few weeks ago–has been interfering a little with my enjoyment of anything that purports to take place in the current era. For instance, I regularly read several advice columns, which are written weeks ahead of publication, and I find myself shaking my head at the old-fashioned problems described there. The same thing goes for comic strips and TV shows and movies–I am finding it impossible to enjoy anything set in the present, because that present isn’t the present any more, and that makes them ring false to me. I am doing much better with things set in the past or in fantasy universes, although I’ve had some heartbreaking pangs of nostalgia for shows set in pasts I can remember. But I am avoiding like the plague (pun intended) anything about zombie apocalypses or killer diseases–not that I ever really liked these things anyway. They’ve become too close to reality TV–and I loathe reality TV.
What I am seeking out are things like Our Plague Year, which has alternated between stories told by Night Vale creator Joseph Fink and his friends, and calls from listeners describing their lives–even when the stories are a little scary. We don’t like to talk publicly about being anxious and scared, about the deep desire to just rewind back a year ago, or even two months ago, when we all thought we had a plan for the next few months, or years. But we’re all there, even the idiots who are not taking it seriously–there is a certain kind of personality that copes with this crisis by shaking its fist and daring the virus to bring it. We all have our ways of coping–luckily, mine don’t put other people in danger. Luckily, mine do not involve drinking or spending money or overeating. Luckily, I have no elderly parents to worry about, or children home from school. Not so luckily, the result is that I spend all of my worries on the world. I don’t want to jinx the future by planning for it.
The issue is, of course, is that we are not going to fully understand this present until it’s in the past. At some point in the future, we’ll be able to step back and make meaning of everything. At some point, perhaps there will be a future that’s no longer around a bend in the world.
(That was supposed to be “road,” not “world”, but I’m keeping it that way.)