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Coronavirus, Kelly Clarkson, Coffee, and Me

Updated: Apr 14

Itto Outini drinking coffee from a very, very, very large thermos
Itto Outini drinking coffee from a very, very, very large thermos

COVID-19 has affected us all. Despite the oft-repeated claim that “we’re all in this together,” the virus has affected each of us in very different ways — and despite the even-more-repeated claim that things are “back to normal” now, it continues to affect us every day.

I’ve been relatively lucky. Though I fell ill in December of 2019, most likely an early case of COVID, and still experience breathing issues and occasional brain fogs, I’ve gained more from the pandemic than I’ve lost. If online work hadn’t been normalized, I doubt I’d have accessed a fraction of the opportunities I’ve profited from in the last three years. For this, I’m grateful. I’m now supporting myself and my family by working from home, and that’s thanks, in large part, to COVID-19.

Many people with disabilities have reaped similar benefits from working remotely. At the same time, though, we’ve had to bear exceptional burdens, from the threat the virus poses to the chronically ill, to the physical care and assistance that people have lost due to social distancing and quarantines, to the communication barriers that masks have presented for people who are Deaf and hard of hearing. I’ve written about these various impacts elsewhere. I’m not going to rehash them here.

Instead, I want to share a story about something more mundane — because mundane things matter, too. This is the story of Coronavirus, Kelly Clarkson, coffee, and me.

I’ve been a fan of pop music for years, but to this day, I’ve still never been to a pop concert. I’d never been to any sort of concert before last year, for that matter. I’d planned to go to one in spring of 2020, though. Kelly Clarkson was scheduled to play in Las Vegas, and my best friend Amy, who knows I love her music, bought us tickets for my birthday.

I’d just recovered from a major surgery and the aforementioned illness and successfully defended my MA thesis. I was ready to party. I’ve always made time to celebrate accomplishments, even when I didn’t have money for food. Even when I was homeless. When I was awarded the Fulbright, I had no furniture in my apartment, but I scraped together just enough to get myself a cake and flowers. Looking forward to these little celebrations keeps me going through the hard times, just as pop songs keep me going.

Because mundane things matter, too.

Like many pop stars, Kelly Clarkson speaks to me with her fast-paced songs that encapsulate emotions I can’t always put into words. One of my all-time favorites is “You Can’t Win.” This song explores why pleasing everybody is impossible and grants us implicit permission to be ourselves no matter what our critics say (especially when they’re ideologically motivated). Out of context, the lyrics might sound negative, but sung by Clarkson, they’re positive and energizing. This song always reminds me that in order to thrive, I must break the trap of others’ expectations, bypass the temptations of cynicism, and build my own values and meaning — not just once, but many times a day for the rest of my life.

In the weeks leading up to the concert, I dreamed of little else besides meeting my idol, telling her how much her music meant to me, and taking a picture together. Anticipation had softened the blows to my physical health and the stress of my impending thesis defense. I ate, drank, and breathed Kelly Clarkson. I kept myself going that way.

It’s an understatement to say that I was caught off guard when Amy called to suggest that we cancel our trip because we had a layover in California, and California was getting hit hard by something called Coronavirus. There had been whispers about this virus in the background, but I’d had a lot going on and paid it little mind, dismissing it as a social media phenomenon. Now it threatened to deprive me of a hard-earned celebration.

It’ll come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I didn’t take no for an answer. I can be stubborn, for better or worse, so when Amy suggested we cancel our trip, I told her, “You cancel if you want, but I’m still going!”

Being a good friend, she politely changed the subject to coffee, another of my favorite things. Even when I didn’t have a coffee maker or money to spend at a coffee shop, I sustained myself by drinking coffee grounds stirred straight into cold water. “Let’s go out for lattes on Sunday,” Amy suggested. I was angry, but I’ll never say no to a latte. I agreed.

A few days later, Coronavirus dealt me another blow. All across the US, cities started locking down, businesses shuttered their doors, and friends and families cancelled plans. There was no Kelly Clarkson, and now there were no lattes, either.

Of course, I was furious. Who was this Coronavirus to disrupt my plans and deprive me of coffee?

Little did I know that this was only the beginning.

A few more days passed, and then a resident in the house where I was staying developed flu-like symptoms, and we all started wearing masks and gloves. House rules required that we wear them in the public rooms, including the kitchen. Being totally blind, I rely on my hands and my nose to make coffee, but now I could no longer feel or smell anything. One morning, I ventured downstairs to the kitchen, brewed myself a cup of coffee, added what I thought was milk, and returned to my room — but after removing my mask, I discovered that the “milk” had been apple cider vinegar all along.

Another morning, it was orange juice.

I still drank the coffee, of course, but not without some disappointment. The fact that I was now a coffee pioneer, with copyright to several new mixed drink recipes, offered little consolation.

For weeks, I continued to hope and believe that the world’s obsession with the virus would pass, leaving me in peace with my beloved coffee. Alas, this dream was not to be. COVID-19 is still with us, and so is the havoc it’s wreaked on our lives in ways both large and small. Many of us have learned to adapt and evolve, but the virus adapts and evolves even faster. Milk and coffee have become available to me again, but I still haven’t been to a Kelly Clarkson concert.

It’s been nearly three years since the pandemic started, and almost as long since I sent a rough draft of this piece to an editor at a well-respected magazine. Her response, I remember, was indignation. “This virus is serious!” she cried when we spoke on the phone. “People are getting sick, people are dying, and you’re upset over your coffee? You need to take this more seriously!”

With all due respect to that editor, I know what it means to lose loved ones. I’ve been lucky with COVID, but I lost my whole family before I turned eighteen. I was blinded by a family member. I spent six years homeless. Even as I write this blog, I’m processing the news of the death of a friend, a story we’ll share when the time comes. I’ve survived all these trials and more thanks to so-called mundane things: time with friends, pop music, coffee, and small celebrations. These things were accessible to me when nothing else was, and COVID-19 made them less accessible, not just for me, but for millions of people all over the world. The consequences of those losses need to be acknowledged, too.

A cancelled concert ticket won’t kill you, of course. Neither will an empty mug, a bitter note of citrus or vinegar, a morning spent at home instead of with a friend. Nevertheless, these little things impose a cost, and you never know who can and can’t afford to pay.

I’m sharing this story because journalists too often fixate on big things — case counts, death tolls, and what this politician said, and what that politician should’ve said, and so on — and thereby miss the most important stories: the ones that takes place at the human level; that determine who has access, and to what; that make the biggest, longest-lasting difference in the end. I believe these are the stories we need to work harder to tell.

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