Changing enviroments

from Makeshift HomE Office Transformations to climate change

I met Kelly during an online conference. We were both interested in online tools and platforms for past, present and future historical research. She lives in Worcester, MA, in the United States, homeschooling her two sons, who are 6 and 9 years old. As a Program Manager for Climate Stories Project, which is a climate change communication project recording and sharing climate oral history interviews. A conversation about homeschooling, the presidential election, potatoes, geese interviews and kitchen makeshift ‘offices’:

Pandemic Academic: What marked the starting point of the pandemic for you personally?

It seems that several things happened all at once: a friend who watches my two boys

twice a week so I could work stopped being able to watch them (her partner is a doctor, so she knew how bad it would be – he basically told her that it was dangerous for her to come to our house because he worked in the emergency room at the local hospital and he dealt with many covid patients. She basically didn’t want to risk infecting us.). My husband works in Boston (with a 1.5 hour commute by train each way) and he was really lucky that his work, almost immediately when the pandemic started, allowed everyone to work from home. Also, the small local cafe and bookstore where I would go to get work done (I was writing book reviews for online publications at that time, and I also led the bookstore’s monthly fiction book group) had to shut down. So all of these things happened almost all at the same time at the beginning of April 2020, everything stopped and suddenly everyone was at home together all the time. It was stressful because there was nowhere to escape. I’m a very private person, introverted, and having people, even my family, suddenly around all the time and not being able to just get away to somewhere quiet where I could be alone has been stressful. I mean, we have been very lucky and very privileged that this was my main worry. We didn’t worry about money or housing, thank goodness. I worried that my husband or I would get sick, especially in the beginning when no one knew much about the virus. And then, if we got sick how would the kids take it, would they get sick?

I also distinctly remember talking and texting with a good friend who lives outside the
U.S. It was the very beginning of the pandemic, and I was at the grocery store and there were a lot of shortages – the potatoes were all gone, the freezer section was almost completely empty, the snacks, like chips and pretzels were non-existent, meat was also all gone. I overheard another shopper say that a store employee told her, “There’s no more chicken. There won’t be anymore for a while.” It was just so absurd, all of these shortages caused by the pandemic (although logistically it made perfect sense), and for some reason it hit me all at once that this was something huge that was happening. And I started just giggling and I felt so bad, because it really wasn’t funny. I called my friend just to have someone to vent to. We compared notes in the beginning, what it was like here vs. what it was like where he was. It’s kind of interesting to go back through our text messages to see what was happening at certain points in the spring of 2020.

PA: How would you describe your own pandemic chronology? Were there different

I think there were. There was the first phase – like I just described, where everything just stopped. And I remember, this was before the strict lockdowns and the mask mandates, going to the grocery store, trying to pick a time that wouldn’t be too busy, and maybe 25-30% of people were wearing masks at this point. Some had bandanas, others were wearing the dust masks you can get for home renovations. It was very strange going to get groceries and putting on the mask to go inside. Actually, the first time I wore a mask it was one of these home renovation-type masks. We just happened to have one at home, we didn’t have any other type of masks yet. And there were reports of shortages for masks and PPE for hospitals that really, really needed them. I didn’t even really know where to buy a mask, a disposable mask, and if I did you kind of wondered if you were taking them aways from nurses and doctors who really needed them. I did try to sew my own mask once out of one of my sons old t-shirts; in the
beginning there were all kinds of “make your own mask” tutorials online. The one I made had gray stripes and a blue lobster on it – I liked the way it looked, the design. But it didn’t really work, I’m not very good at sewing. Eventually, I bought a lot of masks – it took a while to find some that fit right and were comfortable.

That was the spring of 2020. Not knowing much and all of the speculation was really hard. And then there was all of the information and disinformation coming from the government, from Trump. I didn’t put much stock in what was being said by him. I mean, some of it was quite comical – morbidly funny, literally. It would’ve been much funnier if it wasn’t people’s lives that were being lost. I think at first, in the spring of 2020 there was more of a feeling that everyone is in this crisis together. But it wasn’t universal, and it didn’t last very long. There seemed to be a lot of blame going around and anti-Asian rhetoric and discrimination. It was awful, because I could see how the untrue and discriminatory things that were being said by officials within the government were directly and negatively impacting people’s lives. I think a lot of the lack of solidarity and respect for people’s health and well being stemmed from the horrible things coming out of the White House. It was embarrassing, as an American, and it was heartbreaking and terrifying to witness other people, even some family members, believe the former president and just scoff at or totally disregard safety precautions or cast blame for the virus on other people who had nothing to do with it.

Summer was a little bit better because Covid cases fell and people could be outside more. But I personally still practiced social distancing and wore masks in public. A lot of people did, at this point I think it was only the really sort of conservative, conspiracy theorists who didn’t wear masks in public – but I live in Massachusetts which is fairly liberal politically, so I didn’t personally see too many people like this. When I went for walks around the neighborhood outside I didn’t wear a mask, but I took one along with me and I would put it on if there were other people out walking. There usually were. I saw people who lived in the neighborhood that I had never seen before, just because they were all home now. And I was also struck by the cars, there were so many cars always parked on the street and in people’s driveways because they weren’t going out anywhere, they were always at home. There was less traffic in general because no one was driving. The friend who watches my kids was able to come back during the summer months. We, the adults, always wore masks when she came over, but the kids didn’t
have to. It was so nice to have another adult to talk to and interact with in person. I think, honestly, my life and routine didn’t really change all that much. I was already homeschooling the kids (we started in 2017 when my oldest son was in Kindergarten) so homeschooling wasn’t new to me. We weren’t able to go out and do trips to the museum or library or parks though – that was tough. At one point, I was talking with a friend who has three kids. And her kids were in public school but once Covid happened they were doing virtual school at home. I remember her saying that she didn’t really know what she was doing, or how she was going to make this work. And I told her that it was 100% normal to feel like that – I mean, she, and so many other people, were forced into the situation of homeschooling, it was not a choice that she made, she didn’t have time to prepare for it, but it was what had to be done. I think parents and caregivers who were basically forced to do homeschooling had a really difficult time, more difficult than people who were already homeschooling. It was a choice was able to make for my kids, but now there was no choice involved and there were all the other stresses of a pandemic on top of this. I’m glad I wasn’t forced into homeschooling, for sure. But my boys took it all so well, the lockdowns, I was kind of surprised that it wasn’t a bigger thing for them. I joke that they handled lockdowns better than us grown-ups!

The biggest change for me was that I actually went back to university for my second master’s degree in Fall 2020. My first masters degree was in Medieval History. Now, I’m studying Library and Information Science, archives specifically. So, I hadn’t taken a university course in almost ten years and now I’m starting again in the middle of a pandemic. It was fine though. The course already has a big online component, so it was easy for the university to make everything completely online. The online format is ok, I did well with it, but I don’t feel like I really know any of my classmates. It’s hard to get involved and get to know people in a remote format like this.

PA: What were the most important challenges during the pandemic for you?

Finding time and space to work. With my whole family at home all of the time and I wasn’t able to go anywhere else to work, like to a cafe or the library, it was hard to work. We live in a pretty small house, it’s only about 900 square feet (85 sq. m.), and there’s no office space or extra room, so I have my computer and all of my papers just kind of spread out on the kitchen table. The kitchen table became my “office” but it was right in the middle of everything, so I was constantly being interrupted, and I hardly ever got any work done until after the kids went to sleep at night. There were many nights when I was working until 1 or 2 in the morning.

PA: How has the pandemic affected your work? Has it changed your methodologies? How
has it shaped your project?

I actually started my Library Science degree in the middle of the pandemic. I also started working on Climate Stories Project around the same time – September and October 2020. I think it’s interesting to think about how the pandemic changed my methodologies and work with Climate Stories. I’m a historian, but this project is the first time I’ve ever done oral history, so I kind of was learning how to do oral history (I also took an oral history course at my university in Fall 2020) which traditionally is done face-to-face in close proximity, yet suddenly, because of the pandemic this type of interaction wasn’t possible. So I think it worked out well because I kind of got into the project at this time in the fall when the weather was still nice, and I was able to do a few in-person interviews outside and socially distanced (we wore masks and sat six feet away – I remember in my first interview we were at a local park and there was a flock of geese that just hung out right in front of us during the interview, so there were all of these loud honking geese throughout the interview audio). So, I was able to do a few in-person interviews, but then
I also did most of my interviews remotely using Zoom to record. I’m glad I’ve been able to
experience both in-person and remote interviewing. I know everyone is sick of Zoom and not being able to meet in person, but I really think that it has opened up great opportunities for connections that might not have happened
otherwise. I mean, even this Pandemic Academic interview – I don’t think this would have happened without the pandemic forcing everything online. I don’t think we would have met at the Convergences Conference, because, although I would have loved to, I can’t afford to travel to Toronto to present. So, in many ways, and this is again a very privileged opinion, I’m glad for the greater virtual connections that have been possible for me. It has allowed me to reach out to more people to interview and to share my project with which has been really exciting.

PA: What have you learned from this experience for the future? How do you think the
future will look? How do you think others are perceiving the future after this pandemic?

For me, personally, I keep thinking about the similarities of how the pandemic is affecting us in the relatively affluent parts of the world, and how climate change is affecting us and will affect us in the future. I think the Covid-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call that there are some things that humans have very little control over, like nature (which includes pandemics, natural disasters, and larger climate change issues). I think the really sad thing is that rich countries, and rich individuals or people with better access to resources, will be more able to
weather these types of challenges in the future. We’ve seen it with the pandemic where, in general, wealthier states have more sort of wiggle room to spend money to mitigate disaster. While poorer states don’t even have the option. Not that money will fix everything, or even anything, but I think it allows for comfort, being comfortable in a way, during a disaster for a longer period. I think this also leads to people from wealthier nations who maybe aren’t as affected by these things being able to say, “Well, this issue (whatever it is: the pandemic, or climate change, or whatever) isn’t affecting me, it’s not affecting my life, so why should I care? Why should I change anything or inconvenience myself?” But I think, or I hope, the pandemic was a bit of a wake-up call in that all the money in the world ultimately can’t protect you if you get seriously ill or if your house is consumed in a wildfire. Especially in rich, affluent countries, we have to make changes – difficult changes and systemic changes – to how we operate. The pandemic has illustrated that we are all interconnected, humans, animals, the natural environment and when one element suffers so do all of the others. And, I mean, the world is really suffering right now. I just hope that people can see these connections, and have seen these connections over the past year and a half, and that we don’t go back to business as usual. We can’t go back to business as usual, you know? It just doesn’t work.

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