“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Wooster, Ohio” by Daniel Bourne


In the slow motion crash of this pandemic, what finally spurred me to write something down was this spam mail I just received from Orange, a local cell phone provider in Poland, telling me how easy doładowanie (adding minutes) to my cell phone is in this time of social distancing.  I used this service while I was in Poland last year, but have no recollection of giving them my email address.  Usually, I would buy 5 or 10 złoty every few days in a local kiosk to keep my cell phone connectivity sputtering along.

It’s a message from another world, but also from this planet as well.   Now I’m hunkered down in more or less rural Ohio, in the southwest corner of the northeast corner of the state, in the countryside a couple of miles beyond where the sidewalks end. Life here is more or less spread out to begin with, and we are lucky and guilty about this luck because the danger still seems far away.

But last weekend I made a desperate trip back to Pittsburgh with my son to pack up the rest of his things he had abandoned in the dorm.  I confess.  To me it was like returning to a burning house to get just one more thing—though I was afraid of what I couldn’t see rather than any blinding smoke.  Underneath it all, however, I guess I was worried about choking, or touching some surface in the dorm or breathing in that one bit of air that would invite the vampire in.  I’m above sixty, with a tinge of asthma. Even slight colds frequently head south and set up camp inside my bronchial tubes.

It’s both paranoia and prudence, but I feel I got my son out of there just in time.  Now, just yesterday, I read there are cars driving through the Pittsburgh Zoo parking lot, their passengers getting tested for the virus.  A thousand tests with seven percent positive.  So far there are only four cases of COVID-19 reported here in Wayne County.  Of course, there’s no pre-emptive testing going on here, either.  I’m sure there are a lot of people in this Republican neck of the woods who think the pandemic is still a hoax or at least a big-city problem.

But it certainly is a hitch in our path towards globalism.  The Day the Earth Stood Still in redux, for humans if not for viruses.  It is amazing how quickly it all changed.  A society constantly on the move, traveling extensively around Concord, to use Thoreau’s term or jetting from one continent to another.  And now we are physically separating and “sheltering in place” as we continue to become digitally herded ever closer and closer together.  Airplanes, subways, cruise ships, stadiums and classrooms all empty out while our bandwidth bottlenecks.

Again, though, we’re in a quiet zone, the rumbles heard from afar off, but not really.  A niece is a nurse in Philadelphia, two young preschoolers at home while she has been asked to leave her role as an oncology nurse to work on front lines battling the virus. Another niece lives in Chicago, working from home but still in a landscape increasingly under fire.  A friend of mine since high school, in his sixties as well, is an ER warrior nurse in the city of Chicago itself.  So far, so good with him.

When we watch TV, we learn that Trump wants to call this the Chinese virus because they tried to cover up the contagion. But didn’t he initially want to minimalize the coronavirus and to claim any publicity about it was another impeachment hoax?  Maybe a re-naming should be done in honor of our Gaslighter-in-Chief.

But I digress.  Here is a snapshot of yesterday.  Carter on Zoom, taking his classes in Spanish and Immersive Media while my wife, who worked at a preschool until it closed, films a short video on Flipgrid of herself picking some branches of bright yellow forsythia blossoms.  It’s part of a project her fellow teachers are doing to keep in touch with their little charges, offering them some ideas to spark play in the hopes of easing the cabin fever, of widening the walls of these little kids’ homes, just now becoming aware of a world that—as they take their first steps outward—seems instead to close in around them.

Meanwhile, techno-dinosaur that I am, I’m trying to switch my Nature and Environmental Writing course from the classroom and real field trips to email and attachments.  Edward Abbey in the Apocalypse.  Returning to their homes from Vermont or Massachusetts to California, most of my students seem to be taking this in stride.  Others though are barely keeping in touch, and I worry.  I feel sorry for all these kids, not just my students but others right now having to make instant adjustments, translating from one space to another.  Some of them must re-immerse themselves without warning into old identities, old pronouns. New wine in old bags.

And with all the Zoom and Moodle, I wonder what the long-term consequences for in-person teaching will be.  Ready or not, these colleges and universities are switching to long-distance learning, but what is now innovative and lifesaving might after any return to normalcy just help out the bean counters.  More courses taught on-line to more students by an increasing number of part-time instructors without either the very salary or benefits their students might be taking these courses to achieve.  I am reminded of an old friend who taught five composition classes each semester at different institutions.  His office was the back seat of his car, with dozens of two-page essays in teetering piles.  My wife came up with the label for such exploitation – that he was a migrant worker of the mind.   And I fear this future of increased disenfranchisement even more so now, here in this momentous campaign of distance learning.  And once again I feel so lucky to be cushioned from that upcoming crash as well.  Tenured—and in my last year of teaching.

But the old dangers still remain.  I live on the edge of the largest Amish/Mennonite community in the world.  On my way to get Carter a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a horse and buggy on a side road, waiting to cross U.S. 250.  I could see the signs that something was about to happen.  The horse was skitterish, its hooves digging into the pavement and its muscles jerking.  it was going to cross the road whether the reins were tightened backwards on its neck or not.

And if I’d have been looking at my phone or fiddling with the heater, I wouldn’t have seen both horse and buggy come right out into the road.  But I saw it. I slowed down. Life went on. At least for me. At least for now.

-–March 28, 2020

Postscript: As of April 16, the declared number of Covid-19 cases in Wayne County (where Wooster is located) had increased from four to sixty-six, with ten people dead of the virus.

Bourne photo, ulica LaStadia Gdansk[1]Daniel Bourne’s books of poetry include The Household Gods and Where No One Spoke the Language. His poems have appeared in Field, Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, Boulevard, Guernica, Salmagundi, Shenandoah, Yale Review, Prairie Schooner, Plume, Pleiades, Conduit, Michigan Quarterly Review, and others. He teaches in English and Environmental Studies at The College of Wooster, where he is the editor of Artful Dodge. Since 1980 he has also lived in Poland, including 1985-87 on a Fulbright for the translation of younger Polish poets and in 2018 and 2019 for more translation work on an anthology of Polish poets of the Baltic Coast.  His translations of the poetry of Artur Nowaczewski appeared in ACM.