In coming years, when they write the narrative histories of the 2020 pandemic — those paperweight-level volumes that reconstruct these strange days in painstaking and vivid detail — the past week in American life will be a particularly curious moment to unpack. It was unlike what came before, and almost certainly unlike what is still ahead.
On social media and in real life, Americans fought fervent pitched battles about getting back to their lives — when, where and under what conditions. Mostly, these battles were verbal. Sometimes, they got physical.
Job numbers confirmed what everyone already suspected: the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression. The face mask evolved from a piece of protective equipment into a political litmus test.
The coronavirus itself hit the White House just as conspiracy-theory fervor abruptly hit its stride. Mortality numbers were questioned, and a slick and misleading video, “Plandemic,” left some Americans scratching their heads and wondering.
As the storied halls of the nation’s highest court became virtual, in the background of one oral argument you could distinctly hear what sounded like a toilet flushing. On Saturday, in parts of the Northeast, there was snow — in the first week of May.
And finally, naturally, the “murder hornets” arrived on American shores to great and misguided fanfare. Minuscule threat though they are, they claimed an instant spot as the ideal metaphor for what everyone has been thinking: Hasn’t there been enough already?
These events are not all related, no matter what the apocalypticians might tell us. And yet somehow they feel of a piece. Right now, Americans are the insects, caught in amber, suspended for an uncertain moment between the isolation of a national shutdown and the revving up of a much-disputed return.
Old political polarities are setting in, smoothly superimposing themselves upon the new circumstances as the country finds itself beset not only by uncertainty about the virus but — now — by uncertainty about the uncertainty as well.
“We are living through something truly unprecedented, and a lot of things about it don’t make sense,” Lifehacker’s senior health editor, Beth Skwarecki, wrote in a fact check about the “Plandemic” video Friday.
“We’re hungry for anything that can make this moment in our lives feel a little bit less weird,” she said.
But the utter weirdness of this part of the COVID-19 storyline is its own distinct kind of crazy, where the road map has run out and the next page of the script is blank.
All those Hollywood productions, those movies and video games about huge cataclysms that challenge humanity? Whether they’re about zombies or aliens or asteroids or nuclear Armageddons, they don’t usually tell you about this part.
They chronicle the arrival of the threat and the things it does, the destruction it causes. And sometimes they spend time on the parts about humanity rebuilding itself.
But they don’t linger much on the part after the first wave of events, when things might look normal but aren’t yet. When people peek their heads out of their houses and wonder if anyone’s actually still writing that script — and what it’s going to say. When rational Americans, confronted with untenable circumstances, start to question everything in front of them.
Part of the problem, of course, is that those very circumstances have left many millions of people stuck in their homes with a lot of opportunity to contemplate their lot — and contemplate, and contemplate, and contemplate. Thanks to all the isolation, time feels out of joint in American life — just as those who lived through this in China said in January and February, just as fellow humans in Italy and Spain said in March.
Normal life, after all, has its inflection points, its ways to clearly mark the advancing of the clock — the spikes in the EKG of existence that reassure us that the heart of the world is still beating.
Workdays themselves provide one arc, as does the week that points toward the weekend. Holidays and visits with friends break up the routine. Sports seasons begin, blossom and end. There is something you have just done, something you’re doing, something you’re going to do. Life isn’t all just one thing in one place, as it has been for so many people over so many weeks.
The American system — the federal government doing some things, the states doing others, local officials doing still others — is a multilayered approach to governing. That helps protects 320 million people from too many monolithic solutions.
Yet all those layers can produce confusion, too — lots of people giving lots of orders and coming up with lots of (sometimes divergent) solutions. That is particularly confusing during these in-between moments, when the already muddy path forward is almost quicksand, when the road forks in multiple directions and a fog is setting in.
Of course, the very existence of an in-between moment suggests two bookends. The first has already been laid down — and, for the fortunate, lived through. The second lies ahead. Will it provide clarity? That depends on this uniquely curious moment, and where it leads.
“We’re still here,” a grocery clerk north of Pittsburgh told a customer last week. “Not sure where ‘here’ is anymore, but here we are.”
Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted.