This is Craig Mod, and I was going to send an issue of Roden out at the start of June but …
After twenty-eight months of hiding from the world, of mostly isolating, of not hopping on planes or going out to bars or attending sporting events, after twenty-eight months of hiking alone in the mountains and walking through towns so small they contained only a barber and a kissa, of masking up eighteen hours a day, of shaking no hands, hugging few people, of hosting small dinners, of being a Very Responsible Citizen, I flew to England, had two coffees, a couple fish and chips, and got Covid almost instantly.
Covid was like a kick to the throat. Then a kick to the chest and a hacksaw to the skull. Once exposed, it felt like important parts of my brain were nibbled at by pigeons as I curled up in a ball in a strange land far from home.
I do not like Covid. The pandemic at large? I am more of a fan. I thrived with the isolation, the turning down of all social events, the going virtual for a bunch of stuff that hitherto necessitated onerous travel. I loved the freeing up of my schedule to then double down on opening up my work, of getting books done, planning ever-more audacious walks, writing ever-stranger pop-up newsletters. But Covid the virus? I do not like Covid the virus.
Also, I do not like the vaccines (heretical!), though I admit, they have been useful (sensible), and probably kept me off of a ventilator (fact). And I’ll take more of them in the future if needed. And the tech behind them is admirable and impressive. But, personally, they have also made me sicker than I’ve been at any other point in the last decade. The second vaccine didn’t take away my taste but took away, somehow — bafflingly, horrifically — all ejaculatory pleasure. In a sense it almost felt holy, analgesic, consecrated. The vaccine was a twisted angel, and it had un-blessed my penis. It also put me in bed shaking with a temperature for three days, and for a week made me feel like I had been beaten by a dock worker. But it was that turning my dongle into something akin to a smoke machine that was most bewildering. The thought of going through the rest of life without the chemical rapture of reproduction was curious: Perhaps this would mark my ascendancy into true ascetic monkdom? An ecdysis of fleshy superficialities? I thought, trying to not lose my mind. (It’s since returned to “normal.”) And then the first booster swelled my left armpit up to the size of a grapefruit and made me feel like my brain had been swaddled in gasoline-soaked cotton.
Considering all of this, I suppose it’s no surprise that Covid itself — the live virus coursing through my sloppy veins — slapped me down. Slapped so hard that at one point I couldn’t stand because, when I did, the world spun. Spun as if I was a character in a cartoon hit with an anvil, spun wildly, drunkenly. Trapped in an overpriced London hotel, I had opened the window and went to close it, and simply couldn’t balance myself long enough to get the latch to catch. That was the one time I broke down in tears. I had to ring the front desk: I … I can’t close my window.
So, no, I do not like Covid or the attendant preventative measures against it.
Which leaves me mystified by how heartily the rest of the world seems to have thrown their hands up and declared abject bankruptcy against the virus. Ideally, I guess, we would have snuffed this thing out in 2020 like we did other SARS-esque stuff of the early 2000s? A tall order, sure, but I believe we’re more capable than leadership choices might indicate. Anyway, no. We failed our global marshmallow test. England (Cotswolds and London at least) is fully back to 2019. No masks in sight. No preventative measures. I went to a dozen hotels and saw not a single staff taking precautions. The sanitizer bottles at the entrance to restaurants were largely empty or broken. Those that did work ejected a kind of worst-of sanitizer goo that made you feel like a badger had thrown up on your hands, many with broken spouts — half of the gel would fly off staining your pants.
So it went, me and the virus. I was sick for a solid fourteen days. Around day ten an online GP, troubled by my dizziness, recommended I visit the A&E, which turned into a bit of medical tourism. I steadied myself long enough to cab it to a university hospital, check in, and be seen by a couple doctors and bevy of kind nurses. They were all so lovely, although confusing. One nurse was terrified that I had Covid. She put on something that looked like a garbage bag, a shield, and a mask, as if I were Ebola-positive and was gushing blood out my eyeballs. I asked if she wore a mask on the subway and she looked at me like I was nuts. No, she didn’t. She didn’t wear a mask anywhere. I love British folks, but man they can be puzzling. In the end, the tests showed no neurological issues or blood clots. When it was all done — some six hours or so after arriving — I asked, dumb, traumatized American that I am, So where do I checkout and pay? And the doctor said, Oh, you silly boy, just leave.
I’ve since recovered and the rest of Europe was amazing (or as amazing as it could have been in my ~50% energy post-Covid state). I attended two weddings and, with my copious antibodies, inhaled the breath of hundreds of people without once pondering disease. That felt nice, but also stupid. You can’t help but think we should have and could have “beaten” this thing without slamming our collective faces into a wall.
Now, back in Japan, it’s a bit of a trip, a time machine. 95% of folks are still masking up outside, this despite the surging heat. The past week has been a “Real Feel” of 40°C. That’s mid-August weather, not end of June weather. June heat records have been broken. And while it feels a bit nuts, a bit neurotic or pathological to strap on a mask outside (I don’t FWIW; and official government guidance is you don’t have to), what it means is almost everyone masks up inside. Since, I mean, it’s already on your face.
Per-capita Covid deaths in Japan are some of the lowest in the world. Life is almost “entirely normal” and has been normal for a while. People are out and about living. Maybe 10% of my friends have had Covid here. (Compared to 90%? in the U.S. / Europe). My intro graph at the top may make it sound like we had significantly compromised our lives in Japan, but Japan never “locked down.” No cops checked documents if you strayed from home (like in Australia, for example). I traveled extensively in-country by rail. I saw people I love. I just didn’t go see Paul McCartney at Tokyo Dome with 30,000 others. Personally, it feels like very little was “sacrificed” to achieve a literal healthy response to the pandemic.
I’ve gone out into the world and witnessed the total embrace of Covid, the abject dismissal of it as “a little cold.” I got Covid. It kicked my healthy butt. (And I share that butt kicking above to help folks for whom it’s tough feel a little less nuts.) For more people than you may think, it’s not “a little cold.” And the thought of having Covid be seasonal leaves little joy in this heart, and portends a pattern of continuous pain for many around the world.
My reaction to having gotten and gotten over Covid isn’t, Great! Everyone should just get it done with. But rather: Wow, how do we do better to keep fewer people from having to be exposed? And: I’d prefer to not get that again, thanks.
I don’t know what the “correct” solution is. But the trip made me grateful I had been in Japan for the last two and a half years. Returning made me feel that more acutely than ever. In many ways Japan feels sane. Not perfect, just sane. The din of politicized general health is (largely) nonexistent. Life is simply being lived. Bodily autonomy is (largely) respected while maintaining group awareness. Empathy exists. Folks care. Deaths are low. Masking is easy. I’m happy to do it — on public transportation, certainly — whenever needed. And yet, a small island of Covid caution doesn’t carry much weight in a world that’s “done.”
The romantic ideal of travel is to leave as one version of yourself and return another, changed, “better” of yourself. This trip changed me, but not in the ways you might classically expect. I’ve returned suspicious of travel, more confused than ever about why so many people travel. Unsure if most travel of the last few decades makes sense, or has ever made sense or justified the cost. It feels like some consumerist, un-curious notion of travel was seeded long ago and, like a zombie fungus, has mind controlled everyone to four specific canals in Venice. To a single painting at the Louvre. To three streets and a square in Manhattan. To a few rickety back alleys around Gion. An eminently photogenic set of torii in Kyoto. There is no adventure — and probably little growth vis-à-vis the very definition of the word itself (though I admit this gets judgey very quickly; but you know what I mean) — in this kind of travel, but there is cost.
Broken penises, dizziness, isolation, emergency rooms in strange lands. I’ll be thinking about cost — first and second order costs (of which the pandemic itself is one) — the next time I’m set to fly internationally. It’s expensive, so expensive, in so many complex ways. For twenty-eight months I avoided Covid. Then I went abroad and got it almost instantly. That’s not to say the trip wasn’t “worth” it, but it was worth far less than I might have estimated ten years ago. In the end, it was largely — and to a degree, sadly — what I expected out there: Kind of a mess.
Thus concludes the bizarro Covid Edition of Roden. I promise, more book / photography / film chatter next time. It just felt remiss not to add my Covid experience to the collective ledger. (Hopefully this isn’t too dour!!) Thanks for following along and, truly, do what you can to help each other out there. It’s not that difficult.