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What do you actually pack for a pandemic?
The things I brought with me (both in and out of my luggage)
This is White Guy Confidence, Karen K. Ho’s newsletter about media, life, and how to avoid her mistakes. You either previously subscribed to her TinyLetter or are a new subscriber. If you like it, you can access the online, shareable version (and subscribe) here. Karen is on Twitter @karenkho, and she also has a website. She appreciates your readership.
It is a very different world since the last time I wrote one of these newsletters.
For starters, I am in a different location. About a month ago, I (temporarily) left New York for Toronto. I wrote an essay on why for Bustle. It wasn’t because I was tired of encountering people who wore their shoes inside their apartments or walking into subway stations that smelled like they were sprayed with layers of urine. It wasn’t because the flight was only $66 USD.
Staying in the city would have meant dealing with the high cost of medical treatment when you don’t have insurance in the United States, New York City’s status as a significant hotspot of COVID-19 cases, the U.S. federal government’s disastrous response since January, as well as the growing amounts of racism towards Chinese and Asian people - including direct comments from the President and several Republican lawmakers.
All of those things have become significantly worse since the essay was published. It also covers a lot of what I’ve been thinking the last year in terms of how I saw my life headed, and how COVID-19 quickly changed a lot of that. With the ongoing declines in the media industry and the rising cost of living in New York City, it may have been TV-show levels of cliché to feel like I was finally building a life, a home, and a career there, but it was the truth.
Anyone who has moved a lot knows something is different when you finally start drilling holes in your room to put up art, and you stop thinking about how quickly you could pack up all of my belongings before going somewhere else again. On my birthday this year, I openly declared on Twitter I was willing to move anywhere for a full-time position, but I wasn’t excited about the prospect of leaving my friends, family, boyfriend and rent-stabilized apartment. A large part of me is tired of changing addresses.
My initial plan for the pandemic was to stay in New York and write about how I would help take care of my boyfriend’s elderly parents. I wrote a “Why I’m Leaving” essay because I wanted to help highlight how unnecessary and entirely avoidable it felt. And selfishly, I wanted people to know my decision was difficult and different than the rich New Yorkers who fled to second homes in places like the Hamptons.
Writing the Bustle essay also meant less time to pack and stressing about what items I should bring. These included a small amount of makeup, some fancy creams, a box of thank you cards, a wireless speaker, several journals, tax documents, a Totoro plush my boyfriend gave me for Valentine’s Day, and two pairs of extra shoes. A friend encouraged me to pack light, which meant not enough t-shirts. My luggage still weighed 45 pounds.
I brought along my grief, too. For several weeks, I didn’t have a name for the constant wave of overwhelming emotion that hung over nearly every day starting in late February. I had read dozens of articles about COVID-19 and wrote about the virus for FiveThirtyEight, Chatelaine and The Daily Beast. I felt a heavy sense of dread and helplessness about the lack of testing and medical supplies in the United States. So much of what I read indicated the number of American people who would become seriously sick or die would come as a surprise, just like in China, Italy, and Spain. I tried tweeting about it, which often felt futile, even though it helped put me on the radar of several new editors.
It has been difficult to focus, be productive or sleep normally. The deaths of two people I knew, and the knowledge there wouldn’t be funerals or services due to the pandemic, only added more fatigue. Both of the deaths happened while I was still self-isolating, which meant I couldn’t hug my mother when she cried either.
Even though many media companies were quickly switching to remote work, I was concerned my cross-border move would effectively torpedo my career aspirations. After a burst of additional determination to find something full-time and more secure during my birthday in mid-February, I had applied to several positions and had dozens more open on my laptop. Before New York implemented social distancing measures, my optimism seemed to pay off: I had serious conversations with at least four places about prospective editing and reporting roles.
A few days before my flight, I mentioned my plans to relocate during two phone interviews. One other opportunity seemed too good to be true, and I didn’t want to risk it by announcing my imminent departure. I didn’t know I was leaving the US before a massive wave of layoffs, furloughs, and freelance budget eliminations.
Quartz still hired me to become their global finance and economics reporter and I started last Monday. There was even a press release and a blog post on Talking Biz News. To say I feel lucky and thrilled to join the company during a historic moment is an understatement.
Several people, including my boyfriend, reminded me it wasn’t luck that got me the position. I had to do the work to become qualified, complete graduate school, survive freelancing, and not give up several times. It felt like I made a monkey’s paw kind of wish and benefitted from something that has hurt millions of people. But even with the surreal timing, I am deeply grateful. And I try to remind myself many people wouldn’t feel guilty or second-guess it at all.
The World We Live In Now: About two weeks ago I saw someone describe the act of reading news and updates on Twitter late at night as doomscrolling, realized I had been doing that for years, and started posting regular tweets late at night encouraging other people to stop. On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times included it in an article about new words being used to describe the pandemic.
And while initial theories the pandemic might lead to a baby-boom were quickly shot down, this past week I learned even COVID-19 will not stop an ex (a past fling?) from messaging me on LinkedIn.
This person and I hadn’t exchanged messages in years and the last time he contacted me, I was in grad school, trying not to fail my electives. I tried to indicate I was not interested as best as possible.
If you’ve read this far, I feel like you deserve a reward. In addition to my strong continued recommendation for the sturdy and inexpensive MOFT.us laptop stand, here is a previously unpublished photo of me with a large fish taken out of a frozen lake in Northern Canada. I am holding it during the end of another very difficult year I only survived through the kindness of other people. Life has taught me it is best not to underestimate how much each of us can improve the lives of others.