My life, most days, feels more than a little unreal to me, but I’ve long since gotten used to the feeling. The thing is – and I’ve written about this before – I’ve gotten in the habit of having more than a couple of different lives. They’re not secret identities or anything, they’re just different jobs, different communities in which I play remarkably different roles and, almost necessarily become an almost unrecognizably different person. Friends from my past Silicon Valley Tech identity wouldn’t recognize “Farmer Pablo.” My fellow barnstormer pilots wouldn’t recognize either of them. The Antarctic gang, well, the Antarctic gang all pretty much have multiple personality disorder, but we still enjoy a good game of “Who are you when you’re not on the Ice?”
The upshot of this is that I’ve found myself completely accepting and adaptable – some friends think too adaptable – to changes in my lifestyle. I’m living in a small metal box on a ship for the next month? Cool – where do I do laundry? I’m barnstorming town-to-town in antique airplanes for the next couple of weeks, stinking of avgas and sleeping in cheap motels? Got it – laundry? Tucked away in an ancient stone cottage on the rocky Irish coast for a month? Brilliant – again, the laundry question.
I just drop into these new lives and they become who I am, and it becomes hard to remember that there were other me’s before. Other me’s with other friends, other stories. Sure, stories will come up when we’re sitting under the wing on a blistering hot day in Gulfport Mississippi, or gathered around a table for a pint and a song at Eileen’s, but it so often feels like I’m talking about a movie I once saw.
I have to admit: I like it like that. I recognize that the ability to “life hop” is not only a matter of disposition, but also of rare privilege. Still, most of my friends – in any of my lives – get antsy if they’re away from their “real life” for more than a week or two. Me? I have no idea which, if any of these, are my real life. It’s not like reading a really good book; it’s like being in a really good book.
Which brings me to the pandemic. It’s turned most lives upside down, I know. I’ve written about this before, about how I feel guilty that my life – the one I happened to be in when the roulette ball of chance clattered into place – seemed remarkably unaffected. It felt like just another variation on just another life. I’m still Farmer Pablo for now, we’re just wearing masks, sanitizing everything and keeping six feet from everyone not in our bubble. Piece of cake – not even any questions about laundry.
For me, the greatest evidence of dropping into this new world and forgetting that any others exist is in my reading. I finally, finally read Middlemarch last month, and every time the Garths or Brookes or Vincys came tumbling together in a scene I found myself thinking “Social distancing! Social distancing! You can’t just let a neighbor’s child climb into your lap like that!” Oh yeah. That was then, this is now.
I think it was best put by one of my writer friends who always seems to be able to bring clarity to moments when the rest of us are just muddling along. That’s what she does, she brings clarity. She told me that when she’s in the moment, writing or reading, it’s okay. It’s only when she looks forward or back, and realizes what we’ve all lost – and have yet to lose, that she feels fear in one direction, grief in the other.
I’ve barely left the farm since January. (I think? I know I spent a week in California some time in March, and there was that camping trip early this month, and I drove to Portland to buy a farm truck, but it’s all a sort of blur.) And that’s fine. It’s a good life – hard to think of a better one in these circumstances. My bubble is a group of amazing young farmers with whom I share a spectacular piece of verdant land – woods, pastures, ponds, and mountains looming out our windows every morning. I get up, I write a bit. I fire up the tractor and mow some thistle. I weed the garden, then try, unsuccessfully as always, to get Quickbooks sorted out. Spend a couple of hours poking at the research vessel code, fixing a bug or two, then back outside once it’s cooled off a little. Cook up a pot of dal for dinner and read a little. Swear at Quickbooks a little more, then go to bed. That’s just my life.
It’s only when I pop my head up and remember those other lives that I feel what I have lost. The drive to Portland was surreal, and not for the reason that Portland is generally surreal these days. It was that on the way back, I found myself driving past the Portland airport, and it all rushed back in the way a forgotten dream will when you stumble across a common thread. Airports. They used to be a thing. A major portion of my life. I could navigate a dozen of them on four continents with my eyes closed. They were portals that transported me between lives every month or so and I had, for the better part of this year, completely forgotten that they existed. It was then that the sense of what I had personally lost came rushing in. Seeing my mother, seeing my wife and kids, barnstorming in the P-51, Punta Arenas, Kilcrohane, Alaska. All that was to be, but isn’t.
Mind you, most of these are not gone forever, not yet. My family is all in good health, and Alaska as yet shows no sign of slipping away. But so much of what could have been will not be, and for my own very selfish reasons, I find myself mourning it all.
One of the reasons why this is all very relevant (to me, again) is that I’m about to take my first steps out of this current life since the pandemic settled in on us. For pandemic-related reasons that are both hilarious and sad, the Antarctic icebreaker that I usually work on has driven halfway around the world and is now parked at the Port of Eureka on the north California coast. Rather than being five airports and 24 hours of flying away, the Nathaniel B. Palmer is just a day’s drive down the coast; the Program has asked if I’d be willing to swing by and fix some of the broken software aboard.
And as long as I’m driving down to California, I might as well continue on to Palo Alto to see that wife of mine, and the son who came home for spring break and never left. Except that he needs to drive back to school in Missouri a week after I’d get there, and Devon’s nervous about him driving alone, so… You get the idea. In the coming weeks I’m going to be stepping seriously out of my bubble and driving across eight or nine states. Yes, I’m a bit nervous about this. Both the ship and Cohn Central South seem to have pretty good COVID protocols in place, I’ve always been vaguely compulsive about washing my hands, and I actually like the smell of hand sanitizer. So I think we’re in decent shape. But still, it’s a definite step up in my risk profile.
If nothing else, it’ll probably mean some more frequent blog posts and pretty pictures on Instagram. And as my mother once told me, everything is either a good experience or a good story. I’ll be doing my best to make it both.