What a month to start a blog about the end times! Good Lord. Did the President really ask for “the white stuff” live on television the other night? (He did.) I’ve tried to stay reasonable in the face of the Great Scourge of Wuhan, but it’s amazing the tunnel vision one gets in a crisis. I caught myself perusing sold-out thermometers on Amazon Prime at 2 AM this morning and had to force myself to get up and go watch a Charlie Kaufman movie to successfully derail the velocity of my brain’s obsessive thinking.
Knowing that my brain is my own worst enemy, I’ve been consoling myself with recollections of other forces majeure I’ve successfully lived through. I had my first earthquake experience at four years old. I can still see the plaster cracking in our living room wall like a lightning bolt was going through it. I’ve been in two more earthquakes since. One was fairly subtle. The other one woke me from a dead sleep, pitched all my books out of their shelves, and knocked me out of bed so violently that to this day, every night when I go to bed, I put a fresh pair of drawers on so I’ll look adorable when the rescuers dig my body out from the rubble.
I would prefer the world not to end in an earthquake, personally. Not my favorite.
Forest fires. Lived through a pair of those. Not great! But like earthquakes, they tend to flare up suddenly and dramatically so there isn’t much time for dread. I remember waking one morning and thinking it was awfully early for my neighbors to be burning trash. Then I opened my blinds and it looked like San Francisco outside. Pretty awful preview of the dystopian hellscape that’s on tap if world leaders keep ignoring Greta Thunberg.
So in terms of Apocalyptic Shit, the only thing that really comes close to coronavirus hysteria, in my opinion, is hurricane hysteria. I learned about this when I lived for a few years in the South Atlantic. Hurricanes are not like other natural disasters. They don’t just pop up and spontaneously ruin your day. The tiniest ill wind blows off the western shores of Africa, its mood worsens over the open ocean, it gains fury and speed, and then it torments everyone in the tropics as it wobbles from side to side, like a hysterical bank robber who’s Not Afraid To Use This Gun, for a solid week before it either makes landfall or just gives you really fantastic surfing.
There’s no middle ground with hurricanes, and I’ve been thinking of the hurricanes a lot lately, because much like coronavirus, modern satellite technology gives you the harrowing ability to watch them inch closer to you, day by day, while you slowly drive yourself insane binge buying flashlights and granola bars and hoarding toilet paper, as if you’ll be able to take even one peaceful dump when it’s raining sideways.
You can’t expedite your date with destiny. Like Hunter S. Thompson said about acid, hurricanes find you when they’re ready. And so will coronavirus. You have to wait, for days, and then the shit blows in, and then you have to wait some more while it damages your property, and then you have to wait until it’s safe to go outside and put your patio furniture back together.
I’ve been thinking of the NOAA hurricane tracker as I watch the Johns Hopkins virtual coronavirus map slowly populate with more and more documented cases. It’s just outside my city limits now; I hear the hoofbeats of the lone riders of the pandemic approaching. I made the mistake of wandering onto a COVID-19 Reddit thread the other day. Nothing good was happening there: people took turns scaring the shit out of each other with anecdotes about how unprepared their regional hospitals were, sharing outrageous lists of supplies they’d hoarded, fomenting anxiety with rumors of impending layoffs, and trading gripes about idiots they knew who were still insisting on taking cruises.
And that’s when I realized I’d forgotten one critical thing. As a lifelong sufferer of mild OCD, I have literally all the supplies I need to turn my kitchen into a functional operating room, but for some reason, I never bought a thermometer. Now, thermometers are sold out everywhere.
Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.
I’ve felt this obsession before, I thought. Hurricane Brain. The distracting need to prep too damn much. The belief that the one thing I hadn’t prepared for would be my undoing. The endless, obsessive clicking, over and over and over, on the refresh button of the page that’s tracking the slow motion descent of The Big Thing On Radar.
Oddly, though, while this kind of anxiety is positively toxic, and while coronavirus is a real thing that people should take intelligent precautions in mitigating, I don’t fear the world will end with this pandemic, just as I didn’t fear the world would truly end in a big gullywasher either. In both cases, the fear I feel is ultimately not about things ending, but about enduring prolonged stress and disruption. I mean, if you really get down to it, that’s the root of pretty much any anxiety disorder: “I know I can live through this, but must I?”
(Pema Chodron says that life is literally just a cycle of things falling apart and then things coming back together so that they can fall apart again. And she’s right.)
Now that I’m smoking on it…there was one time when I genuinely worried the world might end. Some years back, a doomsday prophet had gotten significant media traction predicting the end of the world because he’d tied his prophecy to a few other prognosticated doomsday scenarios that had more or less come true in the days leading up to moment he predicted The Ultimate Shit would go down. He was just mysterious enough about it to handily circumnavigate the “ye shall know not the day nor the hour” evangelical crowd, and even CNN had a ticker running as if they, too, were hedging their bets.
I didn’t want to admit to anybody that this was actually bothering me. My anxiety disorder, on the other hand, was very stoked about the possibility of its ultimate fear being realized. “Lean in,” it whispered. “Feel alllll those feelings. It’s happening. None of this means anything. It’s all going to end and you’ve only won one literary prize and you never finished your novel. You failure! Ha!”
So I decided to have a last meal. I went down the road to the Star Market, and bought my favorite guilty pleasure snack: chicken salad and Hint of Lime chips (try it and thank me later). Completing the compulsive behavior caused me to forget the time and as I stood in the checkout line, a man walked up behind me with a case of Shiner and said, “Well, we made it.”
“The world was supposed to end three minutes ago. Either it didn’t, or the rapture happened and you and I don’t get to go.”
I smiled at him, felt my insides lift with relief, and squeezed my Tostitos.
And that’s the story of how I survived the end of the world.
I’ll survive this, too. I insist upon it.