Letters from privilege

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time on social media recently – as, I think, have we all – and I’ve noticed a lot of family-oriented posts from my colleagues with family. Which makes sense: family is important.

But I’m also thinking about how family is going to make a difference in what everyone can produce right now.

I’m a disaster scientist: this means that not only am I expected to do the general academic productivity thing, but that right now, while we’re all in quarantine, might be one of the defining moments of the careers of every cohort with me in the Disaster Research Center. The ability to engage with research right now is going to be massively important. But it’s going to vary, for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with dedication or interest.

So first, a preview of the way my life is regularly organized, with the help of my roommates and adviser:

  • I live with several people. Sometimes this bugs me, because I’m an only child and apparently that never goes away, but it means that my bills are low because they’re shared.
  • I have an involved adviser, which makes everything about my academic career more straightforward and less nervewracking
  • I have guaranteed funding
  • My adviser is mostly retired, and my funding comes from an outside grant: office politics are utterly irrelevant to my life if I want them to be
  • I live about a mile from campus, near a shuttle route: commuting under regular circumstances is a non-issue
    • Not just that, Tristan drops me off in the mornings
  • Tristan does the laundry. All of it. Every Sunday they’re in town. It’s predictable and I don’t have to think about it ever.
  • Alexis does most of the grocery shopping
  • Alexis also does most of the cooking
  • Tristan and Alexis are both brilliant and writers and willing to read my essays and give feedback really quickly
  • Duncan keeps the kitchen clean and cleans the living room once a week
  • The cats and bearded dragons technically belong to the Carrs, so they do all the animal care except when I refill their water fountain

I’m not saying this to brag, though I know it can come off that way: my life is pretty much optimally structured for me to do well academically. That’s on purpose! My brain is sometimes extremely terrible (for which I have medication and a full spectrum light), and so for times I have to fight my brain, not having to fight my environment really helps. The tremendous people in my life have entered into a conspiracy of ease.

This means that, during regular times, I’m moderately productive and definitely overinvolved.

During this period of isolation? All of that list is going to matter more. Additionally:

  • We have a number of computers such that everyone has their own, even with my current technology adventures
  • There are no children in the house. Children are important, and they’re quite literally the future, but no one has to care for them or look after their health or educate them while school is shut down. This is the biggest gap people have been talking about, that I’ve seen, and no one in this house is engaged in the work and noise of helping the development of a whole person.
  • Tristan is working the regular amount, because data centers are essential services.
  • Nick is working more than usual, because Target’s flex crew does online orders. Apparently he’s getting hazard pay and unlimited overtime. So this, too, means both quiet and work orientation in everyone’s attitude.
  • My contract continues to pay me.
  • I’ve worked from home before. For years. I’m used to the scheduling and the changes in mindset and the ways I need to orient myself.
  • My family is all fairly far away and mostly either taken care of or not in a circumstance I can help with anyway.

I spent about 8 hours yesterday coding data for my new Covid-19 related side project. Tristan hung out in my room and wrote and we listened to a podcast, then Tristan helped with preliminary sorting of some of the data when I clutched my face and screamed at the realization that after starting the day at 235 emails and processing 50 or so to end up at 232 emails (I appreciate all the data people are sending me, I just also am slightly overwhelmed).

I know this data, and some of the other stuff I’m working on, are probably going to lead to publications. But I’m also intensely aware of just how much privilege and deliberate ordering of my life and assistance from other people have gone into my ability to be productive. And I firmly believe that people caring for children or family members right now and people dealing with financial or environmental uncertainties due to the various shutdowns shouldn’t face any kind of career slowdown because their circumstances are different and they had other things to do than write. But I don’t know how well the academy will accommodate this.

I hope it does it well. A conspiracy of ease should not be a requirement of academia in general.

Letters from Redesign

The featured photo holds the books, some of which were my dad’s when he was a kid, that are a major reason the cats were not allowed in my room. Another reason was my ultimately futile desire for work clothes not covered in cat hair.

But this morning I went downstairs for tea and breakfast and to catch up on ELI goings-on before I started my work day at my desktop, and then found myself deeply reluctant to leave. Not because I didn’t want to start work – the emails I needed to look at for work were piling up, and I try very hard to start my day as close to inbox zero as I can manage, otherwise it stresses me out. I didn’t want to go back upstairs because I’d be alone.

As someone who worked from home for years, doesn’t much like a bunch of noise from other people, and is slightly maddened by living with the most people I’ve ever lived with, this was a deeply weird realization. But knowing there’s another person working near me is something I’ve gotten used to, whether it’s the inevitability of Alexis answering work emails at all hours of the day or everyone else in the grad room working and periodically stopping to chat.

Alexis is the one who suggested the solution: leave my door open, and cats would eventually come.

So I gathered up the books I didn’t want the cats touching and put them in my bedside table, which closes securely. I dusted everything, picking up an amount of cat hair that really shouldn’t be surprising. The yarn that had been stored in the bedside table (not the main yarn stash: this is the stash to be taken to Stitch ‘n’ Bitches to teach people to knit or crochet with because we can just give them the whole skein) went onto the shelf at the end of my bed, because the cats have shown no interest in yarn in general. I put all my clean clothes away rather than just on the chairdrobe, because I still harbor hopes about minimizing cat hair, and left the door open.

This is Jo. She’s not quite sure about this room that she thinks just magically appeared.

Sure enough, Jo, the youngest of Alexis’ three cats, wandered in. She’s curious, exploring, and startled whenever I reach out to pet her, because this is not a room I usually pet her in. But she’s hard at work sniffing things and exploring corners, so I think this is going to work out great.

Letters from (poorly maintained) Quarantine

We were running out of rice. We were running out of rice, completely out of milk, and a little low on butter because the two other stores my roommates had hit up were out. There are five of us, all adults, including a 20-year-old guy and a 22-year-old guy who takes daily 5-10 mile walks. We have a galley kitchen. Stocking up on sufficient food has been a bit of a project.

But I also spent the morning having more computer adventures (now solved; I have a frankendesktop, a police report, and three extra HDMI cables) and Tristan was off for the day, while Alexis is in official office hours and desperately trying to get OISS travel approvals for students with plane tickets tomorrow, so Tristan and I ran errands. Tristan now keeps hand sanitizer in the coin area of the car, which we used liberally after every stop. Walgreens to drop off a written prescription, the comic book store to pick everything up for Alexis because it’s going to close for a while and they wanted to not have holds gathering dust while it’s closed. Then: Costco.

Instead of the usual entrance, they have pallets stacked up to form a hallway where you wait, because they’re limiting the number of people inside at once. Everyone in the line was keeping a wary distance from each other. Conversations were quiet, as if noise itself would carry contagion. A few people in line wore surgical masks and gloves, but not many or most.

I lined up alone, in large part because Tristan hates grocery shopping, but also because Tristan has to go to work: I can work from home, and theoretically can still do statistics at things if I become ill. The final reason is that I was also deeply curious about what Costco would look like: I’ve been hearing about runs on toilet paper, people fighting over the last Lysol wipes, Costcos that are wiped out wastelands. It’s also a bulk store, perfect for stocking up, and one with a supply chain that I think works well as an indicator for how we’ll do when the social climate settles.

There were employees shepherding every part of our entrance, including one person whose entire job was sanitizing shopping carts and setting a few at a time aside directly where incoming shoppers could most easily grab them. Incoming shoppers were also directed to them when allowed in the store, and watched like hawks by other door employees – all of whom were keeping their social distance.

When I went in, all the shelves were full. The shelf with all the bagels was actually more full than I’m used to seeing it, which was nice: I snagged a couple bags of everything bagels, because the nutrition shakes we normally have for breakfast are delayed in their shipment. So I did what amounts to a regular grocery shop at Costco, but skipping most of the produce: we picked up plenty at our scheduled CSA pickup last week, and have another one this week. The farm store when we went was quiet, but I think now more than ever supporting local agriculture is important, and they’re still open and packing CSA shares.

Of course, a regular grocery shop at Costco when you’re almost out of rice involves getting a 20lb bag of it, along with a 3lb jar of minced garlic. Which should be enough to last out our isolation.

And then I washed my hands very, very thoroughly.