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My last official duty station in the Army was Fort Bragg. The same place it had been for much of my career. But most of the last few months I actually spent in the military happened at a place half a country - and a whole world - away.
I was assigned to a Military Transition Team (MiTT). The role of the team was to embed with the Iraqi military and help train them in how to fight and win a war, and build a stable country. I went to Fort Riley, Kansas for what was supposed to be 6 months of training for a mission that was expected to be another 12-18 months in Iraq.
Well, I say I was at Fort Riley. Technically my fellow trainees and I lived and trained at a facility to the east of Fort Riley called Camp Funston. Camp Funston was ironically named. There was not much fun there. Or anywhere in Kansas so far as I could tell We trained 12-14 hours a day and when we were off work there wasn’t really anywhere to go. The closest town was Manhattan, known jokingly to the locals as the “little apple.” Manhattan is the home of Kansas State University. And not much else. We could drink, which I did. A lot. Some guys worked out, some played video games. There was one particularly intense nightly poker game that always pulled a few regulars. Mostly I just watched The Sopranos on my portable DVD player and read.
I read a lot about the history of Fort Riley and Camp Funston. The camp had been built in 1917 as a training post for the troops heading to Europe for World War I. Some 50,000 US soldiers would eventually train and deploy from Camp Funston. Much of their training occurred in the very same wood framed barracks where I now lived and trained.
In March of 1918, a few soldiers at Camp Funston came down with what medics at first assumed was the common cold or some other kind of basic bug that always seems to pop up when people live in close quarters for extended periods of time. Then troops started dying. Eventually doctors would realize that they were dealing with a highly contagious and highly virulent strain of the influenza virus. Years later epidemiologists would identify it as a strain of H1N1. The flu that broke out among the soldiers at Camp Funston would eventually spread around the world, infecting half a billion people and killing between 15 and 50 million in one of the most deadly pandemics in world history.
While it would popularly be known as the “Spanish flu,” many researchers believe that the virus actually originated in Kansas. Camp Funston to be precise. Whether the flu originated on the Kansas prairie or not, what is certain is the role Camp Funston played in its dissemination worldwide. Soldiers infected with the flu left Kansas and traveled across the US and then embarked for points all over the European continent.
The Army and the government of the United States suppressed information about the outbreak, with the help of media giants like William Randolph Hearst. The government and media did not want to distract the country from the war effort. Germany, France, and Great Britain would follow suit. In fact the only country that reported what was happening with the flu was Spain. Spain had stayed neutral in the war, and had no reason to hide the truth. Their transparency gave rise to the impression that Spain was the only country dealing with outbreaks. Thus, the Spanish flu.
In reality, the virus was spread throughout Europe by US soldiers from Camp Funston, Kansas. The worldwide pandemic of 1918 should actually be called the Funston flu.
Almost exactly 102 years from the first reported cases of illness at Camp Funston, and 13 years after I ate and trained and slept in those same barracks, our family went on lockdown because of another global pandemic. On Friday March 13, 2020 Liz took the day off from school. Barb and I spent the day at the doctor with a very sick Justin. And when we got home the state was officially on lockdown. And our family has been on lockdown since. This week marks 5 months.
For the first 3 months, our lockdown was aggressive. I was the only person to leave the house, and I only did that to make weekly runs to the grocery store and Costco for what we called “pandemic shopping.” Since then we have relaxed somewhat. Barb joins me at the store when she can. Justin and I have been to the pool a few times, and we go on nature walks at the library and the outdoor areas of the Museum of Life and Science in Durham. We wear masks. We keep our distance. We wash our hands.
But most of our life is lived at home. We do takeout from our favorite Mexican restaurant. Once, we drove out into the county for Maple View ice cream. But mostly, life is lived in familiar walls. Three have been weeks that have passed where we have only seen each other. We have had a few driveway visits. The occasional Zoom. Mostly, just us. Familiar spaces. Familiar people. Completely different world.
It has been hard and surreal at times. Especially when we see and hear of so many people who aren’t approaching this with the same seriousness. We do it because we have to. Both Barbara and Justin have underlying conditions that elevate their risk. If Matthew gets the virus *before* he reports to basic, then the Air Force could nullify his contract. The last 18 months of waiting and preparation would be gone.
It’s been a long 5 months. For all of us. In our house, and in yours too if I had to guess. So what have I learned from lockdown? What does all this mean? Here are my 5 Lessons from a Lockdown.
Lockdown Lesson #1
Change is hard.
Human beings are creatures of habit. We like for things to stay the same. One of the things that always used to amaze me about the Army was how quickly people could create routine and familiarity, even in the most difficult of circumstances. We could be at a field site for 3 days, and soldiers would already have their corner of the tent set up like home. And when we would leave, there would be grumbling because people had to tear down their “hooch.”
The world is unpredictable and random. We all seek to find routines and spaces that help make things feel a little less chaotic.
Lockdown has both disrupted and accelerated that. We have all had to learn new routines, new ways of being and seeing, and new ways of relating to one another. At the same time, these new ways of doing business occur in our most familiar and predictable space - our home. So we are faced with a barrage of change, and also a constant sameness. I think that is one of the reasons that time feels so weird and elastic right now. There are days that are months long. There are days when I wake up, look around and realize that it is midnight already.
We are undergoing seismic shifts in work, school, family life, politics and culture. Every 24 hour news cycle has enough news for 24 years. Every day at work or school is some new challenge or difficulty. Change bombards us.
And, at the same time, we sit in the same chair day after day. We see the same faces. We are in rooms that do not change, looking out of familiar windows at familiar scenes. Sharing life and space with the people we know and love the best.
Everything is changing. Everything is the same.
Change is hard. And it is hard under the very best of circumstances.
Change right now is a new challenge entirely.
Lockdown Lesson #2
Necessity is the mother of invention.
A lot of things are deeply challenging right now. We are working and interacting in ways that are different. And - again - change is hard. It is forcing us to rethink even our most basic assumptions, individually and collectively. And that has led to some pretty innovative ways of handling some of the challenges.
Take school as an example. Like many collective activities in a time of pandemic, there is no good way to solve all of the problems that are created. Sending kids to school puts them, and everyone they come into contact with, at risk. It is simply not safe.
But keeping kids at home create a whole different set of challenges that must be dealt with. What about kids in home where both parents work? What about parents who work out of the home as essential employees? What about homes without the necessary technology? What about the kids that are food insecure? These are just a few of the problems that have to be considered.
This is where the creativity borne of necessity kicks in. Parents have come together to create parenting “pods” where kids rotate from one home to another among small groups of parents who all agree to follow certain guidelines. This ensures that the burden of caring and teaching is more equitably shared, and that everyone gets a break. Volunteer organizations, churches, and non-profits have come together to help feed kids in our community. The school system adjusted staff to different roles to ensure that as many people that wanted to keep working could, and that kids would get the food and technology they needed. People are volunteering their time and talent.
Just like after a hurricane or other natural disaster, we see people coming together and thinking of ways that they can help one another. One of my favorite sayings is that adversity introduces us to ourselves. Hard times show us who we really are. And one of the things that this time has shown us is that while there are a vocal minority who are clueless, crass, uninformed and mean-spirited, there are many more of us who are kind, and well intentioned, and trying to make things better. That doesn’t mean that we are perfect or that every idea works. It does mean that we are trying.
Because we have to try. We won’t survive this unless we work together and create something new and creative. The old playbook won’t work.
Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.
Lockdown Lesson #3
Hard times are never equally hard.
One of the defining moments of my adult life was Hurricane Katrina.
I had voted for George W. Bush. More than voted. I voted for him enthusiastically. I truly believed in his vision of compassionate conservativism. After 9/11, I was grateful that he was President. I believed in his ability to lead. I believed in the people who surrounded him in the administration. Then came the decision to push into Iraq. Then came my deployments to Afghanistan and then Iraq. The infusion of reality into my rose-colored vision.
And my whole outlook began to change. And I started reading more. And hearing my friends of color describe their lived experiences. And hearing my LGBTQ friends talk about their lives. And I began to realize the world was not as I had been told it was, and it was not how I had believed it to be.
And that came into sharp relief when the scenes from New Orleans after Katrina began to emerge. When I talked to my good friends and former troops who were deployed to New Orleans to help with the relief efforts. The things they saw.
When the levees broke, the devastation was almost beyond measure. Throughout New Orleans entire neighborhoods were submerged. However the French Quarter and other tony, mostly white neighborhoods (like Touro and the Garden District) escaped much of the damage so visible in places like the lower 9th ward. These white neighborhoods had been built on higher ground, far away from the levees. They stayed dry.
White privilege and structural advantage existed bodily and financially in New Orleans. It also existed geographically. Those with advantage were in places and spaces that made them safer, and reinforced advantage. So when the hard time came - and Katrina was a hard damn time - the people that paid the price were those at the margins. And the farther on the margin, the harder the time.
We see the same pattern repeating now. The virus has disproportionately affected BIPOC communities. The industries most affected by the economic devastation of lockdown have been those driven by largely minority and immigrant workforces - restaurants, meat packing plants, industrial agriculture. Now the impacts will affect schools, the place where the greatest concentration of professional women work. No matter where you look, the hard times of the present are harder for those who can least afford it.
And the dynamic will only be accelerated by the stunning incompetence of this president and his Congressional enablers.
Hard times are never equally hard.
This is a truth we must acknowledge, and never for one minute accept.
Lockdown Lesson #4
Our relationship to place is complicated.
Where we spend our time is important. If you had said this to me on say, March 1st, I would have agreed with you. But I doubt I would have thought about it very deeply or seriously. I would have just nodded and been like “yeah, true.”
The last 5 months have made me actually slow down and think more about where I spend time. Mainly because I don’t have much of a choice anymore. There are lots of places and spaces - some of which I dearly love - that I *can’t* go right now.
As a stay at home parent, I spent a lot of time.... well, at home. Justin and I went out a lot too. Every day in fact. We would go to the library, or the kid’s museum, or to the bookstore, or to his preschool which was conveniently co-located at church - where we all were at least twice a week, and where I was almost every day. He and I went grocery shopping together and ran errands together. He came along to the other kid’s orthodontist and dental visits. All this was intentional. Part of what we wanted to do for Justin was expose him to lots of different people and places and environments. Let him experience new things.
Covid brought all that to a near complete halt.
I am still a stay at home parent. Only now, we really are staying *at home.* And my story is not unique. Friends have stopped going to the office. Our church is a ghost town, sitting empty and quiet on MLK, along with the schools where I have volunteered so much of my time and passion.
It turns out that there were a lot of spaces and places that we thought were important in the beforetimes that really aren’t. Worker productivity hasn’t collapsed since many people started working from home. Very very few of us are pining for going to big trade conventions, or travel for work. Our lives are sufficiently digital to make some aspects of our geography meaningless. Barb’s job doesn’t really care if she is in Chapel Hill or Kathmandu. She has close teammates that live from Colorado to Columbia. Where we work has proved far less important than the work we do.
At the same time, there is a sense of palpable loss. I miss the places Justin and I used to go. I miss the people we saw there. I miss my favorite chair in the family parlor at church, where I could sit and look out the window and write while Justin played and learned downstairs in a class full of energetic preschoolers. I miss the quiet light of the library.
And I wonder. When will they come back? Will they come back?
Place, like time, has become complicated on lockdown. On one hand, I realize how tenuously our ties have been to things like our offices and our daily commutes. How few of us, it turns out, really needed to be driving an hour to work every day. How many of us really *needed* to put on ties, or bras, or even pants, to do what we do? At the same time, there is a tangible loss of connection to place. An unmooring from spaces. And this will have impacts long after this virus recedes.
Because our relationship to place is complicated. Maybe it always has been. Maybe I just slowed down enough to notice it.
Lockdown Lesson #5
The future begins today.
Nothing lasts forever. After an incredibly challenging and, in many respects, earth shattering two and a half years, the global pandemic of 1918-20 gradually eased. As many as 100 million died worldwide. Europe was in shambles after a horrific war. The Russian czar had been overthrown by communists, setting up another century of conflict. And it all started when some US Army troops in Kansas ate some pork from a pig with H1N1.
Despite all that hurt, loss, and conflict, the crisis ended eventually. Nothing lasts forever.
So it will be with coronavirus too. There is a lot that has to happen still. We are closer to the beginning than the end, and there is much work left to do. But this *will* all end some day. Then we will face the task of figuring out what life looks like then. We will have to chart our individual and collective futures based on what we have learned about ourselves and the world during this pandemic.
And THIS work - planning for the future - starts right now. The future begins today.
How will we restructure our lives, our routines, our institutions? Things will not go back to the way they were before. We have all been changed by this time. And the changes continue. Some changes we can predict or anticipate. Many we can’t. What is certain is that things will change - they have changed - they are changing - and there will be no “reset” or return to “normal,” if there ever was such a thing to begin with. There is no more normal. That’s gone. Now is the time to think about what our new normal can be.
While I was in the Army, Barbara was a stay at home mom and volunteer. One of her volunteer roles was as a Master Trainer for Army Family Team Building, a service wide initiative that focused on helping train Army families in life skills. AFTB taught classes on how to be a better couple, how to be better parents, and how to navigate the Army system. Those of you who know her know how good Barbara was at this. She was a highly sought after and respected presenter and speaker.
One of the talks she gave frequently was on how couples should negotiate reunions. You have all seen the tearful videos of dramatic reunions. And that moment - when you see each other again after months or even a year apart - is beautiful. And it turns into work almost immediately.
See, while the soldier was deployed, things change. The spouse at home has been living the life of a single parent. They have paid the bills and fixed the sink and combed the hair. Many of them did so while working their own full-time job. The kids have gotten used to the parent that is there. Some rules may have changed. New routines have emerged. Kids have gotten older. I knew guys that came home to babies they met for the first time, or toddlers that could walk or talk. Teenagers that sprouted hair and hormones.
And life didn’t stand still for the soldier either. They have been in dangerous places doing scary things, and it may have changed their worldview or personality. Nothing stays the same.
It is in many ways like the life we are ALL living now.
Then you come back together. Then you have to readjust to a new life, with new changes and new relationships among people who are in many ways new. Barb would always start off this training by asking what the plan was when the soldier came home. Invariably the answer would be some version of “we’ll figure it out.” “I know that is how we want it to work,” Barb would say, “but that’s not usually how it works.” She would then go on to explain the need for a plan. You have to talk with your family BEFORE the reunion. You have to know each other’s feelings and hopes and expectations before that joyful day of reunion.
So it is now, too. We have to be ready for what comes next. What does your best world look like? What changes do you want to make for yourself, your family, your community, your world? We have to start thinking about the answers to those questions right now.
The future begins today. All of its promise exists in this moment. And this moment is all we have. This moment is everything.
What does the world after ... all this ... look like? Imagine it now. And in the work of imagination is the reality of creation. We can set our intention. We can be ready for whatever comes next. Together.
The future begins today.
As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I encourage you to become a subscriber.
See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.