The smoke was what did it. Through six months of isolation, through moving and home renovation and three kids signed on every morning to three simultaneous state-mandated Zoom sessions, through 114-degree days and and 104-degree fevers, through any number of disappointments large and small, I had managed to stay calm. Sad and sorry, but calm. But then came the smoke.
We live on the border of Pasadena and Altadena, within the evacuation warning zone for the Bobcat Fire. We are not in any danger from the fire itself, but the air quality here is terrible, regularly peaking above 450 AQI.
Last Thursday, we taped all the windows shut, shoved towels under the doors, and turned our air purifier to full blast. We brought inside Arthur’s pet rabbits, Sweet Potato and Tumbleweed, wedging their hutch into the downstairs bathroom where it completely blocked our access to the shower. And we didn’t go outside. Not for days and days.
Even with all these precautions, our lungs still ached and our eyes burned. I stood outside for a few minutes on Tuesday morning, waiting for Zac to jumpstart the van after its battery died, and for the rest of the day I felt as though I had smoked a pack of cigarettes, a shallow acrid pressure with an edge of buzzy watchfulness. The kids became more and more agitated the longer they were cooped up (the rabbits, too). They were constantly underfoot, clumsy, wheedling, petulant. Already their world had been made so small—no family, no friends, no school — and now they weren’t even allowed to open a window.
Even our vision was curtailed. FIrst we could no longer see the mountains, then we lost the foothills and the distant trees, then we could barely see across the street. At night I’d sit on the sofa, every room sealed like up a tomb, smelling the quick, agitated odor of the trapped rabbits and worrying pointlessly if their urine-soaked bedding was ruining our new bathroom floor.
For me, the feeling of being unable to breathe is tied up with claustrophobia. Despite having experienced bouts of claustrophobia for decades, it was only a few years ago that I put that label to it, when finally it dawned on me at last that the reason I got panic attacks whenever I went camping is that I can’t bear to be in a sleeping bag. I didn’t consider myself a claustrophobe because I’m not bothered by many common triggers, like elevators and closets. Instead I panic at being wrapped up in layers of clothing or bedsheets. I do not mind small spaces per se; I mind being entangled.
I considered my claustrophobia quite separate from my depression. For one thing, it’s of much less consequence to my daily life, more a quirk than a serious condition. Then too, it’s of much more recent vintage. My earliest memory of feeling that panicked entanglement was in junior high, when friends wrapped me up in a blanket burrito at a slumber party. Depression is present in my first memories, the thread that knits them all together.
The smoke made me feel both claustrophobic and depressed. Claustrophobic because I was trapped in my house with my breathing constricted, depressed for reasons too numerous and obvious to list. Stuck in the house this week, I came to understand my depression as a form of claustrophobia. I felt trapped with myself, tangled up in my own thoughts.
This week I was also researching the 1918 flu pandemic, for a piece I’m writing about COVID and Halloween. I read dozens of newspapers from October of that year from all over the country, covering what did and didn’t happen that Halloween. The discussions were the same ones we’re having today, a mixture of complaining and scolding and skepticism, even down to bickering between health departments and local governments over what constitutes a “large” crowd or an “essential” service.
During my research, I also stumbled upon an interesting fact about candy. Starting in the late 1800s, almost a hundred years before trick or treating candy panics, Americans became convinced that children’s candy was poisoned. Poisoned candy was blamed first for meningitis, then later, for polio. The worst candy was the cheapest, of course, the penny candies favored by poor and immigrant children.
The furor around polio and poisoned candy was strikingly similar to the trick or treating panic which began in the 1960s. Both coalesced around anxiety about children’s agency as consumers, and a perverse obsession with tainted innocence, imperiled (middle-class, white) children, and the dangers of fun. Both blamed mothers and both engendered technological “solutions” (“hygienic wrapping” in the one case, X-ray machines in the other). And like the later panic, the polio panic persisted in the popular imagination even after large-scale investigations concluded it wasn’t real. According to Dr. Samira Kawash in her paper “The Candy Prophylactic: Danger, Disease, and Children’s Candy Around 1916,” “it was frequently the case that doctors would arrive on the scene of ‘‘candy poisoning’’ to discover bad milk, escaping gas, contaminated water, or some other more prosaic cause of illness or injury,” yet the candy rumors continued.
It was all there: the classism and racism, the panic and perversion, the championing of personal responsibility over systemic reform. It is disheartening to see how little we’ve learned, how much our imaginations remain constrained by our country’s preoccupations and prejudices. It can feel like we are trapped in history, unable to shake ourselves free.
This week I also read the descriptions of many Halloween parties from 1918 (including many that were altered or curtailed in response to the pandemic). From the Baltimore Afro-American, the most prominent Black newspaper in Baltimore at the time, I read about Mrs. John Proctor, a member of a social group called the Tuesday Evening Nine, who threw a small private Halloween party with “salads, sandwiches, olives, pickels, cake, wines, nuts, mints and coffee.” The centerpiece was “a large pumpkin with yellow and black satin streamers leading to each place, with favors.” The Los Angeles Times reported that the quarantined students of the Occidental College Student Army Training Corps performed a series of Halloween musical acts and vaudeville routines “on a specially-constructed outdoor ‘anti-influenza’ platform.” Another Black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, reported that Provident Hospital in Chicago hosted a small party for their overworked nurses: “it was quite an evening for the girls, who have been busy day and night for the past three weeks attending the sick who had ‘flu’ and other ailments.” The party ended with the surprise announcement that one of their nurses, Miss Hernanda Wetherall, was engaged to be married over the holidays.
Reading about the details of Halloween parties from 1918, I didn’t feel trapped in history. Instead, I felt connected, by a thread of sympathy stretched across a hundred years, to Miss Wetherall’s surprise engagement and Mrs. Proctor’s pumpkin centerpiece. I felt not entangled but woven into a web wide and flexible enough to support us all and still allow for breathing room. My view, which had recently been limited to about ¾ of a city block, opened up. It was, to use a cliche, a breath of fresh air.
You Can Find Me
I have a piece coming out in Catapult on Halloween, about this year’s holiday and the pandemic.
Also, I wrote up a bit of service journalism especially for parents, 23 Ways To Celebrate Halloween At Home This Year. Pass it along!
Naturally after reading her paper, I purchased Samira Kawash’s book, Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure. I also picked up two other books, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney; and Set the Night on Fire: LA in the Sixties, by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener.
This article by Max Read on social media as a manifestation of the death drive is maybe the best thing I’ve ever read about social media. (Well, no, this is the best thing.)
If you’re not already following Aubrey Clayton on Twitter, get on that. There you’ll find links to his recent articles on probability and how it relates to COVID testing and the U.S. carceral system, among many other things. If you’re not on Twitter, his writing can also be found on his website. His book Bernoulli’s Fallacy: The Story of a 300-year-old Mathematical Mistake and the Threat it Poses to Modern Science will be published next spring.
And above all, please read Kelly Davis and Dawn Godbolt on the long, terrible history of forced sterilization of Black, Indigenous, poor, disabled, and other “undesirable” women in America. Then when you’re done reading, write to your representatives demanding an investigation of the forced sterilization of women in ICE detention centers.
The Fine Print
I have a Ko-Fi page that allows readers to send me small payments to support this newsletter and my writing in general. Remember, every dollar you send is A Vote For Halloween.