A couple weeks now into sheltering-in-place (more or less, except when hungry), of acknowledging my membership in a high-risk demographic, and of a somewhat uncharacteristic willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of others, I have begun to grow just a bit weary of the serious reading this pandemic has produced. Meditations on mortality have never been so abundant. Disputes (by their very nature unresolvable in advance) about what policies are best for our society are new every morning. Endless reflections appear about how life will have been changed when the pandemic finally passes. Life is serious, and we are all moved to share our deepest thoughts with others.
But the truth is that not all of us can really grind out deep thoughts day after day. A few in a lifetime is a more reasonable quotient. Many of us are, however, capable of not-so-deep thoughts, and perhaps some of them are worth sharing, if only as a way of forgetting for a moment all those other, more ponderous ideas. Here are some of mine from quarantine:
- It occurs to me that some people are more naturally suited than others to the new restrictions on everyday life. I, for instance, have more or less been practicing “social distancing” my entire life. It is not a hardship simply to wave or nod at those who pass by (from a safe distance) while being free of any obligation to stop and chat. Judy, my wife, regards this as a character defect in me. Perhaps she is right; at any rate, she provides a suitable balance to our marriage.
- I had an email the other day in which the writer noted how hard it is to keep straight what day of the week it is. Judy and I had been commenting on exactly the same thing. I would have thought that the retirement I have enjoyed the last few years might have already prepared me for this, but it doesn’t seem to be the same. There is now little by way of a round of daily tasks. I may need to start scratching dates off on a calendar if this quarantine goes as long as I suspect it may.
- I think I am not alone in feeling that we need some sort of special project to carry out during the weeks or months of quarantine—something we might not have done had circumstances been otherwise. Something that will take a while but can also come to an end. And in my case, something that Judy and I can do together. I know people who have undertaken reading projects of various sorts; we, I believe, have found something better. We have been watching an episode of “I Love Lucy” each day. The program first aired in 1951, when I was five years old. I suppose for some people today their first reaction to watching an episode or two will be that it is politically incorrect. One of the bonuses of being quarantined is that for now I can with a good conscience socially distance myself from such people. My own first reaction to watching these old episodes is to recall what a marvelous comedienne (that’s a female comedian) Lucille Ball was (and on these DVDs still is).
- How good it is to have a Dollar General store within easy striking distance. I confess to never having gone there more than a time or two before this pandemic struck. Now, however, I take advantage of that 8:00–9:00 a.m. hour set aside for those of us in that high-risk demographic. I move swiftly through, getting a few cans of beans, some tuna fish, a couple frozen pizzas, a chocolate-frosted maple cream Easter egg (not sure how well those will sell this year), some dish detergent. No toilet paper today though. One can’t expect to find everything, even at Dollar General. But in ten minutes I’m in and out, having accomplished a good bit.
- For those of us who watch a good bit of sports on TV, this has, of course, been a wasteland. With nothing actually to report on and discuss, the folks at ESPN are clearly out of their depth. “Get Up,” the program hosted in the morning by Greeny (aka Mike Greenberg), is seen now in its true light, as Greeny keeps trying frantically to turn a non-story into something worth talking about. The pathos is tangible. One bright light emerged a week ago, however. PTI (for those not in the know, that is “Pardon the Interruption”) with Tony and Mike returned in late afternoon—now only a 15 rather than 30 minute segment, but still, an oasis in a desert. Apart from that I mostly have to content myself with reruns of “Blue Bloods.”
- One thing that social distancing clearly makes impossible is getting a haircut. Of course, haircuts are not something I worry much about any longer; indeed, I’ve been glad not to bother with a comb for several years now. But one’s hair does eventually curl around the ears and down the neck. So we revived the experience of our poverty-stricken years, and Judy cut my hair. We dug out from the storage room our old set of clippers. It’s a little hard to explain why we’ve bothered to keep them all these years, but now they have come in handy. This is our second set, though it has to be at least thirty-five years old. The first ones we didn’t exactly buy. We got them with S&H Green Stamps about fifty years ago when I was a seminary student. This is the sort of shared memory many married couples no longer have.
- Appointments with various sorts of doctors seems to be a fact of life for older people. Not all of them are really necessary. First on that list would be the required annual Medicare “wellness” exam. (In passing, a world from which the word “wellness” had been stricken would surely be a better world.) That wellness exam is one of the truly offensive experiences in life. Almost a year ago, when I had my last one, the three words I had to remember and be able to repeat fifteen minutes or so later were “village, kitchen, baby.” I passed with flying colors but now, unfortunately, cannot seem to forget them. It is, though, something of a relief to have some appointments cancelled for the time being. Were they really essential, one wonders? It would be much nicer if the doctor could just prescribe my Atenolol without either of us having to bother with an appointment. On this score, the quarantine is not all bad.
- Because Judy has back problems (and surgery more than a decade ago) vacuuming or mopping are for her a bad idea. So under ordinary circumstances—that is to say, when there is no pandemic—we hire a woman to do those chores every other week. Now, though, it falls to me. I don’t actually mind doing it, especially since it offers abundant opportunities for me, when the quality of my work is criticized, to repeat to Judy one of my favorite phrases, “the best is the enemy of the good.” In this case it may even be that the good is the enemy of the mediocre.
I hope I have not, like Prufrock, “measured out my life with coffee spoons.” I know these are not especially deep thoughts, but sometimes that is all one can muster. And I have to say that, after a heavy dose of deep thought, I am often glad to return to PTI.
Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University.