Scenes From a Pandemic: 61

21 07 2021

This is the final installment of what, since April of 2020, has been our continuing series with The Nation on life as experienced and observed in pandemic times. We are so proud of and grateful to everyone who has contributed, and our thanks go also to everyone at the magazine who every week helped make the series happen, especially Ricky D’Ambrose, Robert Best, Sandy McCroskey, Anna Hiatt; and to Don Guttenplan and Katrina vanden Heuvel, who gave this collaboration a go. We hope you have enjoyed these weekly installments and our Bonuses. If you can, please support us by pressing the Donate button (above) on this site. The pandemic is not finished, but neither are we. (See Bonus.) Thank you all!

by Patricia J. Williams

(photo: Brianna Santellan on Unsplash)

Untethered, or The Year of Living Virtually

New York City

When baseball legend Ted Williams died in 2002, it came to light that he had directed that his body be cryogenically frozen so he and his children would “be able to be together in the future, even if it is only a chance.” At the time, it seemed strange to me, a desire for immortality so intense that one would slow the body’s decomposition to molecular silence, the breath held in wait for the perfect cure.

Global pandemic has helped me better understand that determined longing for biostasis. In mid-March of 2020, friends began to die, and I began to lose my mind. Today, post-vaccination, and nearly 4 million global deaths later, I am slowly waking up, like Rip van Winkle, much more than merely a year older, and not at all the same. I feel as though I have been preserved by a shock of flash-freezing, and I am thawing now—slushy and watery and uncertain in my body.

It was the sensory deprivation I found hardest to bear. Early on in this plague, as my contacts with the outside world had retreated into the numbed realm of the “remote,” I vowed to try to find grace in isolation. I would meditate and listen to what I imagined might be some lost store of poetic inner quiet. Like so many, I was determined to “make the best of it”; I would gussy it up as a writing retreat, a prolonged snow day, a space to hibernate for a bit.

But the sequence of death derailed the project. More people sickened, more friends passed, more relatives of friends, more acquaintances I no longer thought of as “casual” but essential. How are you? became an existential question. I Zoomed, I Skyped, I learned to use Teams. Images of other human beings were delivered in digitized boxes, algorithmic animations with sharp rectangular edges recalling The Hollywood Squares, the flesh tones odd, and no smells of the living. I watched the incense at a Zoomed funeral; I watched the bitter herbs at a Zoomed seder; I watched a bouquet of white roses tossed at the livestream of a Zoomed wedding.

I experienced all of this as fictional, surreal, perhaps because my sense of reality depends on the echo of how a real voice in a real room hits the ear. Or how a happy person smells. Or how a handshake or a hug stimulates the nervous system. Or how looking directly into someone’s eyes reveals small inflections that enhance the meaning of words as they are spoken.

The architecture of Zoom requires that in every encounter I had to watch my own face. It was the material enactment of double consciousness: watching myself as I watched others watching me.

I make my living as a teacher. In a bricks-and-mortar classroom, I rely on the presence of students to read the room, on subtle expressions—a head tilted in questioning, a slouch of boredom, an excited buzzing among ones who’ve made an important connection… On Zoom, their tiny heads were lined up like figures on an Advent calendar. When they wished to speak, their little yellow hands, like cartoon Mickey Mouse mittens, went up and down. Their voices were muted and unmuted, on and off, like a sound faucet. When I divided students into problem-solving subgroups, there was no collegial hum. Using the chat feature, everyone just dropped out of sight, out of sound and existence, a timer at the bottom of the screen blipping down the seconds till they would reappear, bursting to the surface like divers from the deep. (I have a friend who, while his students disappeared into their 15-minute chat-worlds, would hop on his treadmill for a refreshing workout.)

I felt diminished by the disconnection. In order to perform myself, I had to stand within an exoskeleton of myself, a prosthetic, a platform, to translate myself, to project the three-dimensionality one takes for granted intra personas. I felt as though I were manipulating a marionette of myself, trying to get my limbs to work just right, to avoid getting tangled or lost in the strings and buttons, the lighting, the filters. Worst of all, the architecture of Zoom requires that in every encounter I had to watch my own face, sallow and flattened, in a constancy of self-regard. It was the material enactment of double consciousness: watching myself as I watched others watching me.

Yes, it was better than nothing, and we all made do. But a year of such mediation was disembodying in all those literal ways.

The word “parasocial” occurs to me as I survey this year of lost-minded time. Parasociality is a one-sided relationship with another who exists at a distance—most often a celebrity. The relation is not only one-sided but illusory, an attributed sense of intimacy or proximity, such as a crush on a pop star, or the daydream of an imaginary friend. Parasociality is the projection one places on someone who does not reciprocate, or who may not even know you exist. I am co-opting the word, I suppose—it’s a technical term in media studies—but there is something powerful about the idea of life imagined as living among others, while without them in reality. In that way, a year on Zoom was sometimes like talking to the dead. Some days navigating the geography of our miniature screen-world was like floating through gardens of computer-generated ghosts. Sealed in my home office, I would toss a bottle of my ideas into that imaginary sea, trusting that it would find shore, and be released like a religious revelation upon the screens of extant others. A clutching neediness sustained my reaching out to partial people through this ritual Zoom communion. I call them “partial people”; I mean people who exist somewhere in the present tense but whom I could apprehend only as bumblebees captured in a jar; wings beating against the glass, they buzzed with the threat and the promise to break through as real.

As the days grew darker, as the economy spiraled downward, as the political scene grew more disordered, I too grew scattered, anxious, sad. I bought a stationary bike. I wore masks and plastic gloves to collect the mail. I studied the instructive dictates of astronauts, and hermits, and Oprah Winfrey. I forced myself out of bed in the morning, I updated my will, made wish lists and to-do lists—things that are supposed to inspire a sense of purpose. I counted my many blessings. I wrote down what I had eaten, and what I should be eating. Too much Twitter was in my head to think, to feel, so I switched off all electronics for five hours a day.

Of course, it’s impossible to turn off the world entirely; the sounds of catastrophe leaked through the walls. Ambulances streaked through the streets; I wore earplugs to dull the overhead thwumping of medical helicopters. As the months rolled by, medical helicopters were joined by police helicopters, and chanting filled the streets. The National Guard materialized, and personnel carriers mustered round the city.

To the extent that there is the promise of vaccination, at least for now, I am aware of how much my watery, pulsing interior rejoices at having survived to see this moment.

Last June, I hung a picture of Nelson Mandela’s stone room of a prison, where he passed some 25 years in solitary confinement. If he could do it, maybe I would make it to whatever future lay beyond. In September, I added a portrait of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And after January 6, I completed the gallery with a drawing I made of a bright happy balloon that was well-tethered to a stake in the ground. This was in response to a dream that I was a balloon that had lost its mooring. A child had let go of my string, and I was being carried away by a strong, angry wind—blowing away from everything I knew, disappearing higher and higher into a dense fog, the sky around me a grey and endless opacity. I woke up with the need to draw myself down to solid ground.

The whole world will need a lot of mooring post-pandemic. I fear that one of the costs of sustained parasociality is inability to come back down to earth, to stop and listen to what real others are really saying. Perhaps the perpetual state of emergency has unhinged us all. Awakening into a changed world, I am wobbly and in need of repair. I fear the wobbliness of others—particularly the great and growing numbers of lives given over to slushy accumulated moral panic. The pandemic has been a horrendous rupture of time, a trauma requiring reinvention of purpose. We will need some link between the fear-pod of deadliness and the redemptive reassurance of regeneration.

The threat of contagion is far from over; the virus mutates and disperses itself inequitably through the lacunae of bad public policies and cultivated fears. But to the extent that there is the promise of vaccination, at least for now, I am aware of how much my watery, pulsing interior rejoices at having survived to see this moment. I open my door early each morning. I look up at the dawn sky and remember how big and how beautiful and how unimaginable the world truly is. I taste the air. I set the table and reheat the uneaten dinner that has been waiting for you, my friends; I have missed you all. I settle anew into an embodiment of vulnerable exposures, pain points, and joy, a body absolutely certain that she, this lover of life, this I, this infinite ontography, will carry on and on and on without end.

Patricia J. Williams, a regular contributor to The Nation, is University Distinguished Professor of Law and Humanities, and director of Law, Technology and Ethics Initiatives at Northeastern University. She was a guest speaker at Kopkind in 2000 and 2009. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on July 14, 2021.

Bonus: We’re Having a Party…

Save the Dates: August 27-29.

Kopkind has not been like the parrot tulip above, wide open with our usual activities, but at summer’s end (a few days after Andy’s birthday, traditionally a high time at Tree Frog Farm) we’re having a festival of free outdoor events in celebration of life, wonder, meaningful work, social solidarity and carrying on. Here’s what’s planned:

  • What We Don’t Talk About: Sex and the Mess of Life, a talk by JoAnn Wypijewski, in coordination with Everyone’s Books, on her “daring essay collection…thrilling and cathartic” (TLS), just out in paperback.
  • Potluck barbecue at Tree Frog Farm!
  • Film screening of The Faithful: The King, the Pope and the Princess, a fantastic new documentary on pop icons, fandom and memory“ruminative, haunting, and strange” (Boston Globe) — with filmmaker and Kopkind/CID Film Camp alum Annie Berman.

More information, precise details, coming soon!

Scenes From a Pandemic: 60

12 07 2021

by Mary Lewis

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

The author’s honey-roasted salmon (photo: Becky Rinehart)

The Art of the Meal

Martinsburg, West Virginia

Laughter, good conversation and by all means good food nourish the soul. I learned everything about that, along with setting a lovely table and entertaining, from my mother and paternal grandmother. In adult life, I maintain this passion for effervescence at the dinner table whether in an intimate setting or among large groups of 100-plus.

Of course, not everyone loves to cook, and pandemic times have raised a series of questions and contrasts. Are people grabbing anything simply to eat, or have they embraced culinary invention? Do families take their plates and dine at separate workspaces? No talking, only texting? The eternal optimist, I want to believe many folks took advantage of these times to try something, anything, creative and soulful.

I realize it’s not so easy. My friend Satish recently texted me a picture of boiled confetti new potatoes in a bowl, asking, “Do these look done?” They looked beautiful (though slightly overcooked). “How long will they last?” he queried quite seriously.

Satish is a doctor. He, his wife, Sujaya, and I have become quite close over our shared love for our hometown Buffalo Bills, food, flowers, flowing conversation and politics. When he fretted about the potatoes, Sujaya was stuck in India; she’d gone to be with her ailing mother but then, though vaccinated, she tested positive for Covid and was, with the rest of the country, on lockdown. Satish was stuck for a very different reason, namely, what to prepare for dinner as Sujaya’s one-month absence stretched to two.  

The whole dining experience had become a distant snapshot in time—the social aspect of exchanging ideas or simply enjoying food dissolving with his darling far away. His attempts to line up weekly meals from his freezer and refrigerator, good in theory, became difficult to coordinate with his fluctuating hospital schedule. Food frustration was building for my friend. 

The potato quandary spurred regular phone conversations between us about what to cook—usually while I was concocting dinner myself, oftentimes toasting fennel seed, coriander, cumin, turmeric; or a Mediterranean blend of basil, oregano, rosemary, sage; whatever struck my mood and would coordinate with what my pantry or refrigerator held. Legumes figured prominently; garlic, onion, shallots, scallions, played supporting roles. To me this is just habit: the aromas alone are fantastic, and welcoming. “What’s cooking?” I’m often asked by neighbors out on their exercise walks. Toasting spices, roasting nuts, were not Satish’s strong suit, though he liked and missed them terribly. Ham, sauerkraut and potatoes were more like it. My suggestion once of a quick sauté of kale from his garden met with laughter, as Satish could only imagine yet another pan to clean. Plus, he’d be reminded of how Sujaya prepared kale using spices and nuts. One night as we chatted, I was making a marinade for salmon. Satish perked up; he wanted the recipe.

Voila! This one is also good for chicken, tempeh or pork tenderloin. The marinade keeps in the refrigerator. Quantities can be multiplied as needed.

Honey-Roasted Salmon

• 2-4 salmon fillets or 1 piece (I prefer skin-on unless serving a large group)

• 6 Tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce

• 4 Tbsp. rice vinegar (seasoned or plain)

• 3 squeezes honey (adjust according to taste)

• 2 cloves garlic, minced

• 2-4 scallions, chopped, white & green parts

• 1-2 Tbsp. fresh ginger, minced (or 1/4 – 1/2 tsp. powdered ginger)

• 2 additional scallions, sliced, for garnish 

• 1-2 lemons, cut in wedges, for garnish 

Combine soy, vinegar, honey, garlic, ginger and scallions in a glass jar and shake. Place salmon in glass or ceramic dish. Pierce with fork. Spoon marinade to cover salmon, reserving remainder in the jar for later. Marinate 30 minutes. 

• Preheat oven to 450-500, moving rack to upper position.

• Prepare baking sheet with foil (easy cleanup) and spray with grill spray.

• Place salmon, skin side down, on baking sheet.

• Roast 10 minutes (for moist, luscious texture).

• Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes; remove skin.

Toss some peppery lettuce like arugula (or baby kale, an assortment of spring greens) with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Plate that, and top with fish. Using a clean spoon, sprinkle the reserved marinade from jar over the salmon and greens. Garnish with lemon wedges and scallions.

Accompany with Satish’s boiled potatoes, or with black japonica rice with mango, diced red onion, EVO, the zest and juice of fresh lime and orange, salt and pepper and chopped cilantro. Experiment!

This recipe has been a favorite among Kopkind “campers” in Vermont, where, until the pandemic, I had lovingly prepared summer meals since 2011. I think of myself as Kopkind’s culinary artist, but the art of the meal involves more than the balance of flavors, nutrients and visual pleasures. It has to do with the truest meaning of sustenance, a holding up of what’s needed to be fully alive. Andy Kopkind, The Nation’s brilliant political writer from the 1980s and early ’90s for whom Kopkind is a living memorial, could whip up a fragrant pesto as deftly as he delivered a canny pun in print. His kitchen table swirled with lively conversation, amusing banter; ideas were born there, for stories and projects.

Deep in the pandemic, when friends or family texted me photos of a dish they’d just made, I recalled the pictures and menus pasted in scrapbooks Andy and his partner, John Scagliotti, had made; the handwritten recipes left by their friends, some, like Alexander Cockburn’s chicken bastilla, complete with drawings; the digital images of dinners prepared by Dave Hall or me and memorialized by new generations of guests engaged in the political life of their communities.

From a Tree Frog scrapbook (original photo: John Scagliotti; page photo: Christopher Dawes)
From Tree Frog recipe book (photo: Christopher Dawes)

I will miss Vermont again this year, and look forward to summer 2022. Here, the fog is lifting as we begin to enjoy life again, whatever form that takes. Sujaya is back. Her surprise arrival relieved Satish of his dilemma over her homecoming dinner: bucatelli and meatballs? goat curry? 

As vaccinations progress, I am more hopeful. I liken our re-emergence to the arrival of Brood X, the cicadas that lived underground for 17 years and appeared in profusion in our town square in May. Each of us cracks our pandemic shell individually, at our own pace, and also together, quite similar to cicadas shedding their exoskeletons. Imagine if humans had the cicadas’ lifecycle. “Cicadas,” my amateur entomologist brother texted, “are here to eat, sing and find love during their short lives.” As we cautiously embrace what we hope is the post-pandemic era, find bits of joy through laughter, loved ones and all that can come from the deeply human art of cooking and sharing food. Bon Appétit!

Mary Lewis is closely involved in the political and social life of the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. As noted above, she has nourished Kopkinders with beautiful meals since 2011.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on July 7, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Summertime … — a Picture Gallery

Since the subject this week is food, and it’s summer, our thoughts run to all the summers, the tastes and talk, the people and radical relaxation, that have made the magic at Tree Frog Farm. Here, some photos of summers past, as we look forward! (All photos of the scrapbook pages were taken by Christopher Dawes. Thank you, Chris!)

“Something delicious to eat!…” (photo: Alexander Cockburn)
Birthday feast (photo: John Scagliotti)
Mary Lewis presents lunch, Kopkind, August 2019 (photo: Susi Walsh)
Dave Hall presents shrimp! August 2017 (photo: Susi Walsh)
Cheers from Film Camp, Kopkind, August 2017
A dip at Green River and now on to dinner! Kopkind, July 2018 (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)
Gregg DeChirico and Andy with fish from Weatherhead Hollow Pond (photo: John Scagliotti)
Angela Ards and Darnell Moore, pre-dinner games, Kopkind, July 2015 (photo: Taté Walker)
Make a wish, August (photo: John Scagliotti)
La dolce vita, Carla Murphy, Kopkind, July 2018 (photo: JoAnn Wypijewski)

Next week will feature the last installment of the Kopkind/Nation series, “Scenes From a Pandemic.” If you have been enjoying the series and would like to support Kopkind’s work of bringing people together for seminars, workshops, free public lectures, movies and more for summer 2022 and beyond, please click the DONATE button at the top of this site. Thank you!

Scenes From a Pandemic: 59

5 07 2021

by Bri M.

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

(photos: Prerna Sampat)

Maybe We Shouldn’t Go Back to Normal

Los Angeles

I have never been normal. As a black, disabled, trans person, my life exists on the margins of society. So when I hear people talking about “getting back to normal” I want to ask, What exactly are we expecting to return to as things continue to open up? Understandably, so many of us want to return to some semblance of what once was before the pandemic started. Normal, however, has always been a perilous reality for me. 

Normal birthed me, yet normal actively wants to extinguish me. My day-to-day life before the pandemic was marred by inaccessibility: a series of doctor’s appointments, unending piles of bills, the complex map of phone numbers to services I desperately needed. In New York City, where I used to reside, navigating life was extremely difficult. Many times I would stand at the bottom of a series of subway stairs, feeling frozen at the thought of not only the impending physical pain I would experience but the many layers of oppression I had to shoulder to get to where I needed to go. The stress of it all led me to move across the country to Los Angeles.    

In the early days of the pandemic, as a person with an autoimmune disorder that is treated with immunosuppressants, I feared the worst. If I got Covid, would I end up in a crowded emergency room (a place rife with medical trauma for me)? Would the virus trigger another relapse of my MS? I started quarantining a month before the official lockdown was ordered, feeling lost and confused about how the world was going to prepare for being isolated for an unknown amount of time.

Luckily, I am part of a community of brilliant people who know what it is like to live in isolation, who support one another and actively envision a world where everyone’s needs are accommodated. That’s not to say people weren’t also anxious. On social media, many feared that the needs of disabled people would come last, that we would watch our friends and loved ones die. As that very thing happened, I pleaded with others to do the minimum for our safety: just wear a mask and practice social distancing. Members of the community did the work of alerting people to our struggles, but it often felt as if we were screaming into the ether.   

In December, my partner and I were diagnosed with Covid. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although we meticulously took precautions, others did not. In the late fall and winter, Los Angeles became the US epicenter of the virus. Analysts said people had just got tired of being careful. We watched, incredulous, as the property management company’s electrician entered our apartment without a mask. I ended up with a mild case, and rested as the virus ran its course in my body. My partner was not so fortunate. She had all the typical symptoms: chills, fever, a loss of taste and smell. For days, she was nauseous; she vomited. I remember looking down at her on the bathroom floor one night—seeing my tall, usually vivacious caregiver the smallest she has ever been. For what seemed to be the first time, she was in need of physical support.  

Role reversals with my partner weren’t the only changes that rocked my world. As the virus wracked the country, and corporations and schools began adopting virtual spaces, I felt resentful thinking about the times I was unable to work because I was refused accommodations around my disability. I’ve been without a salaried job for seven years and receive government benefits. I long ago gave up on the idea of being conventionally employed. As with so many disabled people, that hasn’t stopped me from doing cultural work. Knowing that society deems us both dangerous and fraudulent, alternatively weak, needy and unworthy, has emboldened me to flip the script: to tell the rich stories of disabled people of color through my podcast, “Power Not Pity.” When doing that work, I feel I am never truly alone.

Yet the experience of the pandemic leaves me with a bitter question: Would I have been more employable if accessibility had been prioritized in the same way it is today? Virtual spaces are now more easily accessible because they have to be. It only took a pandemic to change the way we conduct accessible communication. It only took a pandemic to realize that our collective survival is wrapped up in societal change. Normal has always been controlled by the systems that keep my communities without the resources that we need to live and thrive. “Going back to normal” would mean going backward. As if on cue, just last week LA County registered its highest daily rate of Covid infection since May.

This pandemic has turned so many facets of my life on its head, and I can never look back and desire what was deemed societally important only a year and a half ago. Being sequestered at home gave me so many chances to be introspective. Like many people during this time, I began coming home to myself. I began to understand my own priorities and values as significant and non-negotiable. I came out as trans during this pandemic. I finally felt open enough to accept the language that described my spirit.  

I find myself bringing my whole self to everything I do more often. The pandemic has upended the meaning of authenticity in my life and has made me reconsider my own resilience in the face of hardship. I used to hide who I was, trying my hardest to fit into the boxes that systems of oppression savagely created. Now, I lead with my identities first. I am a podcaster. I am a disability justice advocate. I am a loyal community member and your favorite hype prince. I am very black and very trans. Every day I wake up and I choose to reimagine and shape what future worlds will look like. I don’t want a new normal; I want a new era.

Bri M. (pronouns: ze/zir) is a podcaster and political agitator with a fierce desire to change the way disabled people are regarded in mass media. As the executive producer of “Power Not Pity,” Bri has contributed to many conversations about disability, race and gender. Ze was the 2019 Stitcher Breakthrough Fellow, a 2019 Werk It! Festival presenter, and was featured at the Afros and Audio Festival 2020. Bri is and will always be a proud Jamaican-American, queer, nonbinary, disabled alien-prince from The Bronx. Ze was a participant in Kopkind’s political camp in 2018.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece orig-inally appeared on The Nation‘s website on June 30, 2021. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and the Nation crew.

Bonus: Mmm…

Kopkind party table (photo: John Scagliotti)

Summer’s here, and the eating’s al fresco! Although we won’t be doing camps again this year ‘out of an abundance of caution’, watch this space for news of a Kopkind events-and-outdoor-barbecue weekend in late August. In the meantime, next up in our pandemic series with The Nation, Mary Lewis, who has been preparing beautiful food for Kopkind campers since 2011, writes about ‘The Art of the Meal’, complete with a fabulous recipe! Check it out at on Wednesday, July 7, and on this site the following Monday, July 12.