one million pencils



For those of you who are here in Berkeley, please tell me what you are doing to pass the time now that we’re basically under lockdown. For those of you who are not, and are enjoying breathable air elsewhere, here are the updates--

Things that have been cancelled:

  • The Big Game. Nobody was bummed, and nobody was surprised. I hear a lot of the other athletic practices were still going on Thursday, but at least symbolically now athletics is on the same page.

  • Tonight’s performance of Pixel, one of the Cal Performances shows that I was most anticipating (in part because we were going to have a student party after that was fully catered by Suya). I saw a show there last Thursday, before anybody was majorly concerned about any of the fires, and even then I could see the smoke in the air through the stage lights.

  • Pretty much anything related to campus--clubs, practices, meetings... Administration took a while to get around to it, but last night they called off classes finally, and I’m anticipating that Monday might be a similar deal.

  • Goodwill towards Carol Christ, after her insistence that classes remain open because her preferred air quality meter said it was a few points below 200. This was apparently a big deal on the meme page, which I wouldn’t know about because I accidentally blocked all of my social media (which is a story for later). Someone was sending around a petition for her resignation and I’m not sure how much traction it’s getting, but I guess that we all need something to get worked up about.

Things that have not been cancelled:

  • The squirrels. I’m worried about them.

  • School Spirit. The Campanile was bright blue, Sather Gate is sporting its blue and gold Christmas lights which makes the air around them glow electric, and Wheeler Hall has its illuminated columns. The advisory sign that sits in front of the Campanile and reminds us to not carry backpacks to football games is saying “Go Bears!”, but I don’t feel like going anywhere.

  • The magic of Christmas. Telegraph has brought out its lamp pole decorations, and I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but nowhere feels less like Christmas to me than Telegraph Avenue. I feel like this year in particular though people are really throwing themselves into the holidays because there are so many upsetting things going on, and I respect that.

  • Robberies. Today I got two Nixel warnings of robberies within seven minutes of each other, so I guess that we can’t catch a break or a breath now.

Things that have gotten worse:

  • The smoked salmon flavor in my lungs.

  • Traffic to websites tracking the Air Quality Index--I can’t access many of the official ones anymore so I’ve just been using my app, but as of me writing this it’s around 250 in Berkeley, 300 in Pleasanton (my home, which I get to return to soon for Thanksgiving), and was up to the 470s in other parts of California. For reference, most people don’t advise going outside for anything above 100, and the scale really only goes up to 500. Beyond that it’s just Guaranteed Evil. They say that a week or two of living in smoke like this is the equivalent of smoking a cigarette every day for a year, and nobody is really sure what to expect.

  • Cabin fever, which seems to be proportionate to the humidity of my room. It’s freezing because the same sheet of warm air that’s trapping all the smoke in the Bay is also keeping the temperature really low, so everything is just kind of clammy and grimy feeling. That could just be what my friends call a “Meg Problem” though.

Things that are causing us anxiety:

  • We’ve been informed in a few PSA’s that the N95 masks cause more damage than they solve. If they’re improperly sealed then the wearer isn’t protected on top of inhaling a lot of their own carbon dioxide. So a lot of people on the streets here either don’t know, don’t care, are actually good at wearing the masks, or are doing it anyways for the comfort of it. I’m not really sure what they want from us anymore.

  • I’m beginning to think that a lot of the advice that we’re getting is about as useful as “duck and cover”. I guess the air in my apartment is better than the stuff outside, but my windows don’t keep out the weed smell from the next door parking lot on regular days, so they’re definitely not keeping out four days worth of smoke. And my walls are thin enough that I can hear all of the people coughing next door and below me when I’m trying to fall asleep. I don’t know any better places to go, though.

  • The general hellscape outside. It’s perversely beautiful sometimes, in the way that it turns the trees blue and erases the hills and frames the Campanile against an amber sky and carmine sun, but it’s also everywhere, and especially in my lungs.

I’m done with most of my homework and ahead on most of my assignments, so besides the thrill of braving the air as I walk to meet a friend, there hasn’t been much to do. This was made much worse by me installing the Cold Turkey app for my mac last week. I meant to block youtube and reddit until my finals were finished, but I didn’t realize that it came preloaded with 65 other sites that it also blocked, so I basically have even less social media now.

Something about the magnitude of these blocks, even if they are sites that I rarely visit and that I can still access fine through my phone, is making me feel like I’m starved of endorphins. I’ve been trying to fill the void by opening my email every 30 minutes, checking my real mail, my spam mailboxes, keeping up with the news, even reading the 10 New Yorkers that I’ve accumulated--

I tried turning to food to replace the thrill that I used to feel when opening the Pokemon Go, Research Group subreddit, but the only snack that I currently have is almonds, and I’ve bonded with them in a weird way over the past few days. They’ve almost comforting now. Still healthy and flavorless and difficult to swallow, but oddly addictive.

Outside it’s eerie and quiet and gray and there are so few things to do. The campus feels dead and there aren’t many homeless people on the streets. Every day the sky turns pink and the sun turns red and then it disappears before it even touches the horizon.

I think that my view of things are probably more apocalyptic than most people right now. And  there are greater things to be upset about: there are at least 74 people dead from the fires and over 1000 people missing, and those numbers are going anywhere but down. I guess that personally I’ve been having a difficult time because it’s impossible to not think about this, with the smoke everywhere and not enough distractions.

And this all on top of politics and climate change (all of the studies saying that we’re running out of time)--it’s been a difficult week. Right now it’s novel to spend a weekend so isolated, but it’s also a taste of the future, which is going to be acrid with more smoke. Last fall I thought that the wildfires in Napa were an exception (I haven’t lived in this state for very long); this fall I’m trying to not think about the fact that this might become an annual thing.

I’m sorry that this whole post has been kind of a bummer, and so long. I’ll try to make it up somehow. I hope that everyone is doing well, and that by Thanksgiving (enjoy some cold turkey with me) we’ll all be able to be thankful for clean air again.

Meg Shriber