Illustration by Angelika Manhart
Corona Chronicles Standard Deviations

A Sense Of A Middle

By Benjamin McKenna

A Beginning

Last week, more than six million Americans filed for unemployment. I put a little extra in my retirement account.

What business do I have writing about the coronavirus?

I feel healthy. My loved ones feel healthy. We’ve all kept our jobs so far. I usually worked from home anyway. I’m writing this from College Park, Maryland, where I’ve been staying for four weeks with my partner. Her roommates are elsewhere, so we have the whole suburban house to ourselves. The fridge is full. I mean, not too full – I don’t think we’re hoarding – but we’ve got enough food. The county has about 2,000 confirmed cases and 50 deaths among a million people. Doesn’t feel like Code Red yet, even though I just upped those numbers while revising this. I think she’s watching TV downstairs, but to be honest, the house is so big I’m not sure. Last night we made a cake with cream-cheese frosting. The window’s open, the birds are chirping, and someone within wafting distance is grilling burgers. What business do I have worrying about the future?

My 88-year-old grandmother, a Dutch Jew, spent two years of the Holocaust hiding in a remote farmhouse. Mostly in one room. Especially when the Germans commandeered the first floor as a local headquarters. Her muscles atrophied. On Monday I’m having a prescription delivered, along with some toothpaste and Oreos. The second package of Oreos was half off. What business do I have complaining about isolation?

I mean, I do have some reason to be concerned. My partner’s sister is a hospital nurse. My grandmother and most of my family are in New York City, where I grew up and still live, my city, my city.

But still. The shame of having it pretty good in a pandemic. What do you do with it?


A Middle

Having some formal structure is supposed to help, they say. In the news. I’m not sure how much I’m supposed to read the news, which I used to do all the time. Checking it now upsets me. But isn’t that like empathy? Or is checking it – with time I don’t have to spend worrying about health or food or rent – a luxury? Maybe that’s another point against me.

OK, I can try a little structure. At least a beginning and a middle, and we’ll see where it goes. Maybe not a whole plot, but I don’t think anyone knows the whole plot yet. No scrolling to the bottom of the “2019-20 coronavirus pandemic” Wikipedia page to see what’ll happen. Trust me, I tried.

I gave some money to charity, of course. That’s too easy. Bought some gift cards. Made an appointment to give blood.

Then cancelled it. It’s hard to voluntarily come within six feet of people, especially Red Cross staff who are going on TV to beg as many people as possible to come within six feet of them. At least in the house I’m pretty sure I don’t have it, and I can stay home essentially as long as I want. Don’t have to go into work with a bandanna tied around my face. Another point. But I want you to know that I used to give blood before this all started. Maybe that’s a point off.

I guess this is essentially a concern about social inequality. Maybe, after this is all over, we’ll realize how close so many people live to the edge, that we’re all in this together, restructure society, etc., etc., etc. I read that in the paper, but it seems unlikely. I’m concerned about inequality in the good times, but not in a way I’d call shame. Another point right there.

Can you write your way to an epiphany? Even if you do, shouldn’t you erase the process part in revision? Or are these weeks all about processing? Is that only true for those of us who can afford it?

This is the closest thing I can give you to an ending: I don’t know. I’m not sure. I’m still thinking. I’m still working. That’s the art critic Jason Farago talking about the painter Gerhard Richter, in early March, when we still talked about other things. Read that in the paper, too.


Benjamin McKenna is a Ph.D. student in mathematics at NYU’s Courant Institute studying probability theory.