Friction and Decay

In a time of COVID-19

Posted by Joe Blankenship on March 21, 2020

The building was almost empty. Every step echoed as I approached the ticket counter of this transportation mausoleum. That is not to say this place was without some antique charm, but that their was an absence of life in the space of the station. My attempt at conversation with the security guard was met with a general malaise and the thud of my bag upon the wooden bench was last notable sound for an hour as I waited. The space itself was quite nice. Vaulted ceilings set with fine decorations held high with Ionic column facades. The Florida humidity had worked long on the plaster and paint which was showing its age. The lovely wooden benches were spread around the polished floor of which the security guard and myself were the sole observers. Then one by one, people started to enter the building. The sounds of luggage wheels, the chatter of people checking-in with the attendants, similar thuds as heard before, and then silence. People staring at smartphones, a look up and around, and then back to their smartphones.

And then coughs...

Like a bevy of deer alerted to the presence of a predator, people snapped to attention and looked for others to validate their concerns. A similar event occurred when the train was delayed coming into the station: looks of anguish and resignation abound.

We as members of a society, as citizens of a state, have increasingly failed to foster communication. Observing these people, I realized that despite the increasing number of communication apps and devices we frequently fail to truly convey meaningful content and then actively listen to one another. In the current moment, COVID-19 is on everyone’s minds, but perhaps this is not the most pressing pandemic we are experiencing. Perhaps it’s this societal sickness, our social quarantine, that will ultimately be our undoing. ~ Joe Blankenship

Boarding the train was standard fare: lines of people just looking to get situated and in their seats. A mother wrangled her child onto the train while an elderly couple slowly edged in front of me to engage with the conductor. I headed to the cafe car to setup for a little work and to get some coffee while the rest of the passengers boarded. Several passengers hovered around for the vendor to serve drinks and food, barely interacting with each other as they were consumed by their singular thoughts. I eventually got my coffee and started to write. Others scattered around me at their tables, eating quietly as they looked upon the moving landscape out their windows.

When the news media uses words, those words have a powerful effect. Despite the many definitions of news, this is in fact the news media’s job: to use words as a way to convey content and its meaning to listeners. The providers of news media often utilize key words so often that they move from efficacy into incredulity, leaving many in states of ambiguous mobilization or social paralysis. This often results in a state of disbelief by listeners which ultimately puts them in real danger. This ability to quickly compress the hype cycle of a given event, further exacerbated by social media outlets, produces a cumulative effect of simulacra-based confusion. This has been the case with the word pandemic and it will be the case in the future without critical change to discourse and its subsequent engagement. ~ Joe Blankenship

There is barely a sound from other passengers. A chat here, a short murmur of amicable note there, cars so sparsely populated that they could be counted with only the fingers on my hands. A mother bargains with her child for good behavior while a conversation in Spanish becomes cacophonous. Not a mention in either of disaster, pandemic, war zone, or other headline-primed phrases. People on this trip seem almost apathetic and oblivious to the state of COVID-19 spread in the US and the world. I head to the cafe car for another coffee, make small talk with the attendant, and return to my seat. The only constant sound is that of the tracks as I close my eyes for a small rest.

It is regarding discourse as problematic that is the crux of these prose. Something as simple as daily communications and discourse seem to debilitate the average person. We fail to actively listen to the news and those around us leaving us unable to engage with the topic at hand and people’s perceptions of those topics. This failure is complicated through our inability to deconstruct narrative, define terms, and transfer scales of meaning into localized heuristics that active listeners use to initiate and perpetuate critical engagement. ~ Joe Blankenship

As the train pulled into the station that evening, barely a person was left onboard. Those of us remaining were at a point of jubilation to finally leave the train. It is perhaps the most talkative I heard passengers throughout the trip, as if we had just survived a mass exodus together and through this communal struggle grew closer as fellow travelers. Talk of evening plans, jobs, and family were frequent as we disembarked. We could actual meet eye-to-eye, laugh and smile, converse and commiserate on a common thread… sadly something that seemed non-existent prior to that moment.

The aforementioned crux is potentially determinant upon the idea of friction and decay. More specifically, an understanding of a given situation depends upon the ability to curate social places of high friction of distance in order to stave off distance decay long enough to garner meaningful, shared, and understandable content. Without spaces and places that condone this mission, we will ultimately allow ourselves to give into our fears of the unknown garnered through our acceptance of ignorance, apathy, and irrationality in times of distress and everyday life. ~ Joe Blankenship

I arrived at my hotel as the evening took hold and greeted the person at the front desk. I was tired without a doubt, but I made the effort to engage and to understand their everyday condition, perspectives, and concerns in a moment of pandemic hysteria. I was surprised and pleased that she led with positives: good health of family and friends with a bonus reduced traffic. We smiled and laughed as we shed our stress of the moment. Parting gestures were given to one another as we settled in for our respective nights.

It is therefore imperative to find a way to share pain and boredom, to puddle in a moment together, in order to move forward, climb out, or get ahead. Such moments of stress, mired in initial discomfort, are achievable alone, but the context of such a solo endeavor will always be social. More often than not, time-space compression via technology complicates our ability to increase friction of distance, to puddle, within a moment. For a broader goal of understanding, we need to rebuild social spaces that rid us of our social quarantine. In modern globalized society, the idea of slowing things down is odious and avoided for its negative connotations. But places of mass transportation and mass communication can become arenas of thought and understanding rather than the isolating and frustrating obstacles that we make them in everyday life. ~ Joe Blankenship

After settling into my room, I headed out into the night for food. Many restaurants and stores had closed early due to a government-imposed curfew, but I was lucky enough to find a grocery store moments before it closed. People scrambled past me for their provisions. The fears surrounding COVID-19 had driven many people to stores and diners, to hoard and shelter, to run and distrust each other. I walked through aisle after aisle of empty shelves; people juggling their children, carts, and face masks while grabbing for what was left. The persistent announcements of store closure only goaded people into more irrational purchases. Staff running around in the waning minutes attempting to sanitize surfaces. Stress-filled eyes met stress-filled eyes as people rush from register to exit, from distress to further unknowns.

In observation of people in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, I could not help but see their chaos, their darkness, their fears of loss. Unless one has been prepared to handle these things, you would have to empathize with their moments of desperation and irrational action. The number of toilet paper hoarding conversations I’ve overheard in the trip above was laughable to a point of questionable mania. However, this moment and disease will pass, lives will be lost, cures will be found, and life will go on as it has time and time again. However, I do not think that COVID-19 is the disease with which we struggle. Perhaps the vaccine we need for our true social sickness are heeding the voices of our neighbors, having the compassion to actively listen to others, and developing ideas that we share with one another in order to become something more than ourselves. The alternative, to hide behind masks and in darkened rooms, to cower in the face of the unknown, is a condition worse than death. ~ Joe Blankenship

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