I don’t actually believe in jinxes, but watching WWII movies as a kid, I soon figured out that any soldier who said “When this is all over, I’m going to buy a farm…” soon became the next casualty. This made such an indelible impression on my young psyche that since then I've never tempted fate during a crisis by talking about “when all this is over.” But then, during a recent Zoom gathering, a friend said, “Boy, you must really be missing your dive bars.” And just for a moment, I let myself recall all the fun Rich and I’d had visiting the world’s loonier taverns; maybe someday… Then another friend sent me the Quarantine Diary I published last week, with the entry “Day 9 – I put liquor bottles in every room. Tonight, I’m getting all dressed up and going bar hopping.”
“Bingo,” I said to Rich. “We are doing that one.”
So Tuesday night, we got all dressed up and went bar hopping around our apartment.
Rich transformed the living room into a dive bar (an American expression describing a funky, downscale bar with local character and tacky charm). I was grateful he refrained from pouring beer on the carpet to create the usual stickiness and fragrance; otherwise the setting was classic, colored lights, rubber chicken, and all.
After sharing a beer there, we each had a glass of wine in my office, which I’d remade into San Francisco’s famous Tonga Room, where he’d once taken me on a date. Their theme is tropical kitsch, with a pool in the middle where musicians play on a barge while “rain” falls from the ceiling. Sadly my shower nozzle didn’t reach far enough to recreate the downpour, but I found a YouTube video of the bar and played “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to set the mood.
Our final stop was The Cave, which Rich set up much like the forts we’d constructed as kids, from table cloths draped over furniture, except now he included a video fireplace and rum.
“One thing about the quarantine,” said Rich, sipping his rum thoughtfully. “I really appreciate stuff I used to take for granted. Maybe I needed a bit of shaking up. It’s like that time all those years ago — you remember? — when I went out for a haircut and got all the way across town to the barber shop and realized couldn’t remember a thing about that walk.” He’d been so shocked to find himself on automatic pilot that soon thereafter he proposed the first of our three-month train trips. It certainly did the trick; when we got back, we saw the city with fresh eyes. “I’ll never again take for granted the pleasure of walking in Seville,” he said now.
“Or getting a haircut,” I added. My last salon appointment had been cancelled due to the lockdown, and the last forty-odd days hasn’t improved matters.
One of the great things about getting older is that I am a bit better at managing my own hair and considerably less worried about how it defines me in the eyes of the world. In fact, I find people in my age bracket, while we’re obviously not pleased at being on the front lines of medical risk, often cope with quarantine better than younger folks. It helps that we’re not juggling remote jobs and homeschooling kids. Beyond that, as the New York Times reported, many older Americans thrive in lockdown, modelling strength and resilience, “skilled at being alone, not fearful about their career prospects, emotionally more experienced at managing the great disruption of everyday life that is affecting everyone.”
“It’s easier for you,” a young friend said during a Zoom call. “You’ve been through this sort of thing before.” Afterwards I said to Rich, “We have? I wonder how old she thinks we are. Old enough to have lived through the 1918 pandemic? The Black Death? Asteroids killing off the dinosaurs?” While I missed out on those exciting times, I remember plenty of other shockers, such as the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the attacks of 9/11. In the weeks after the Twin Towers fell, I happened to catch a radio program in which young reporters interviewed people in their eighties and nineties, seeking perspective about how to handle the unimaginable.
One woman cut directly to the real issue on the reporter’s mind. “Don’t worry,” she told him kindly. “You’ll do just fine.”
Now, nearly two decades later, I find myself saying much the same thing.
Time teaches us we are capable of surviving more than we ever imagined. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Speaking of horrors, last month, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick (and others) said that the elderly should be willing to die to help the economy. Really? Because even from a mercenary perspective that’s a non-starter; an enormous number of movers and shakers are over sixty, including 90% of the world’s billionaires and 63% of Americas millionaires. Eliminating a host of powerful people over a short timeframe would send companies and global economies into freefall. And let’s face it, putting any government in charge of making judgements about which categories of human beings deserve to live is a very slippery slope. Especially when it’s a category everyone's going to find themselves in one day — possibly in twenty or thirty years, when the world is being run by kids who were homeschooled during quarantine by day-drinking parents.
Beyond all that, society needs older people around, if only to say, “Don’t worry, you’ll do just fine” with the authority of experience.
Nobody knows what life will be like in the future, lending a strange, zen-like, live-in-the-present-moment quality to our days. But we’re catching a glimpse of things to come in the Spanish government’s just-released “Plan to Transition to a New Normality.”
Spain’s kids are already allowed to play outside, this weekend adults can walk for exercise, and starting Monday — thanks, St. Martin of Porres, patron saint of hairdressers — beauty salons will open. (Did I hear cheering?) Outdoor bars aren’t far behind. (Yes, I definitely hear cheering!) The plan’s four phases include restrictions, mandatory protections, and warnings that if our curve pops up, all bets are off. But with luck and social distancing, the “new normality” is expected to be a way of life by the end of June.
How will it all work out? Who knows? As the joke says, nobody ever expected 2020 to go viral. And I suspect the year still has a few whopping surprises up its sleeve; personally I’m braced for anything from aliens to zombies. We’ll just have to wait for events to unfold, remembering that, in the words of Yogi Berra, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
What does the new normal look like from your quarantine location? How's your hair holding up? Your wine supply? What have your stopped taking for granted these days? Let me know in the comments below.
More Pandemic Perspectives & Humor
Scofflaws, Naysayers & Coronavirus Myths
In the Pandemic: Desperate Situations, Ingenious Solutions
Why We All Feel Hopelessly Unproductive in Quarantine
Quarantined? Take Mini-Vacations. For Betty White's Sake
Months of Quarantine? OK, If That's What It Takes
Yes, You CAN Stay (Relatively) Sane During Lockdown
One of the most astonishing things about America is that just when you think it has reached the limits of its own excess, that the hullabaloo and brouhaha have escalated to the ultimate crescendo and the tomfoolery has plumbed the lowest depths, it manages to surpass even itself. It’s a living embodiment of the saying, “Well, if you’re going to do something, you might as well go too far.”
This week I’ve been gobsmacked by news reports about Americans gathering to protest the quarantine. Here in Spain, which has the strictest lockdown in Europe, possibly the world, we're all jealous of the freedoms currently enjoyed by those in the US. For the past forty days we’ve been home 24/7 except for short walks to buy essentials like food and medicine. We cannot, as we see Americans doing on TV, visit marijuana dispensaries, gun shops, tattoo parlors, and take-out restaurants; we no longer stroll or drive for pleasure, or gather in public places. If you tried to stage a mass protest, the police would instantly arrest you and slap you with a fine that would make your head spin.
As drastic as all that is, the Spanish quarantine makes sense to me. I am very clear about its survival value when pestilence is abroad in the land. And while Sevillanos certainly do their fair share of grumbling, most are compliant. A quick glance at the past may explain why. During the Great Plague of 1647 to 1652 the city was rife with scoffers, deniers, and corrupt officials, and “quarantine measures were evaded, ignored, unproposed and/or unenforced.” As a result, while 5% of Spaniards perished in the pandemic, in Seville the fatality rate was 25%.
Quarantine wasn’t an attractive option in 1647, before God gave us Netflix and Zoom, and we still struggle with it in 2020. This just arrived from a friend.
My Self-Isolation Quarantine Diary
Day 1 – I Can Do This!! Got enough food and wine to last a month!
Day 2 – Opening my 8th bottle of wine. I fear wine supplies might not last!
Day 3 – Strawberries: Some have 210 seeds, some have 235 seeds. Who knew??
Day 4 – 8:00pm. Removed my Day Pajamas and put on my Night Pajamas.
Day 5 – Today, I tried to make hand sanitizer. It came out as Jello shots!!
Day 6 – I get to take the garbage out. I’m so excited, I can’t decide what to wear.
Day 7 – Laughing way too much at my own jokes!!
Day 8 – Went to a new restaurant called “The Kitchen.” You have to gather all the ingredients and make your own meal. I have no clue how this place is still in business.
Day 9 – I put liquor bottles in every room. Tonight, I’m getting all dressed up and going bar hopping.
Day 10 – Struck up a conversation with a spider today. Seems nice. He’s a web designer.
Day 11 – Isolation is hard. I swear my fridge just said, “What the hell do you want now?”
Day 12 – I realized why dogs get so excited about something moving outside, going for walks or car rides. I think I just barked at a squirrel.
Day 13 – If you keep a glass of wine in each hand, you can’t accidently touch your face.
Day 14 – Watched the birds fight over a worm. The Cardinals lead the Blue Jays 3–1.
Day 15 – Anybody else feel like they’ve cooked dinner about 395 times this month?
This week my sister-in-law Deb wrote, “What do you do in an Airbnb in Sevilla during lockdown ... well, at Day 38, you carve veggies.” The result? Frankenspud. When I asked where she got the idea, Deb replied, “I just looked at the potato for inspiration. You know, like Michelangelo said, ‘Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.’”
Yes, we all have far too much time on our hands. One of the ways I’m spending my days is doing random bits of research. For instance, did you know the so-called Spanish Influenza actually started in America? Patient Zero was Private Albert Gitchell in Fort Riley, Kansas, who fell ill in March of 1918. As Gitchell’s fellow soldiers carried contagion across the battlefields of Europe, wartime governments suppressed the story, feeling it was bad for morale. Being neutral, Spain had no such compunctions and filled its newspapers with gory details, giving people the false impression it was the epicenter of the pandemic. The Spanish, on equally erroneous evidence, called it “French Flu.”
On the home front, US officials insisted this was ordinary flu, but as death tolls skyrocketed, medical experts finally convinced lawmakers to deal with the public health issue. Milwaukee got the message and jumped on containment early, closing businesses, sending people home, urging them to wear masks; they had the lowest death toll in the nation. Philadelphia, on the other hand, simply advised residents not to spit, cough, or sneeze on each other, then held a long-planned Liberty Loan Parade designed to raise money to cover war costs. I probably don’t need to tell you — although some of the liberty-or-death types may need to hear this — after the mass gathering, cases of the flu spiked horribly, making Philly’s fatality rate the worst in the US, triple that of Milwaukee.
In any pandemic, one of the first casualties is common sense. In 1918 word went around that the flu “didn’t like” the color red. Other “cures” included noxious fumes, sliced onions, quinine, and bloodletting. All of which proved as effective as wearing red. It’s easy to scoff at such foolishness, yet our own health experts have to post warnings not to attempt to ward off COVID-19 by spraying your body with chlorine, eating garlic, avoiding ice cream, or drinking bleach. Snorting cocaine won’t help with the virus either, although it might take your anxiety down a notch.
2020's "infodemic" includes a myth that we may have to trade human lives for faster economic recovery. You’ll be glad to know this is not true. Just this month a study by MIT and the Federal Reserve found that in 1918 “taking care of public health first is precisely what generates a stronger economic rebound later… Indeed, cities that implemented social-distancing and other public health interventions just 10 days earlier than their counterparts saw a 5 percent relative increase in manufacturing employment after the pandemic ended.”
Myths, misconceptions, and conspiracy theories spread faster than the coronavirus. For instance, it’s not true, as Jimmy Kimmel jokingly suggested, that the virus was started by Netflix. Nor is it a government science experiment run amok; it passed to humans naturally in China’s quasi-legal wild animal market, and has nothing to do with 5G technology, GMOs, or a sinister plot by Bill Gates and/or Dr. Anthony Fauci. It’s not a fake. And you can’t make it go away by announcing an end date, as if it were Daylight Savings Time.
Whenever I’m overwhelmed by loony cures, farfetched conspiracy theories, and the furious clamor of those who want the freedom to spread more coronavirus across America, I like to visit reality-based resources such as Snopes, BBC News Reality Check, FactCheck.org, CDC, and WHO. And here’s what I’ve learned.
The science community has figured out that the spread of coronavirus is based solely on two things:
1. How dense the population is
2. How dense the population is
UPDATE! Deb's sister, Cyndie, has carved this wonderful Frida Kahlo parody potato, with licorice eyebrows and a radish rose in her hair. Marvelous! Just had to share it with you all.
I don’t like to brag, but I can’t resist sharing my good news: I am now the proud owner of four surgical masks and six of those cool blue nitrile gloves — all brand new and never worn or washed! I know, thrilling, right? I’ve been sanitizing and patching our old latex gloves for weeks and was down to my very last one, plus a few flimsy, floppy produce gloves Rich brought home from a grocery run.
You can imagine how delighted I was when Rich arrived home bearing his treasures.
“I could have gotten more,” he said, as he emptied his pockets in our Decontamination Zone (formerly known as the front hall). “But it just seemed wrong to take anything beyond what we absolutely need.”
We’ve all read about supply shortages forcing doctors, nurses, and other frontline workers to fashion substitute face shields from random materials like plastic report covers; some healthcare workers, including those in LA County, have been instructed to reuse surgical masks.
Back in the 1990s, when Rich and I were doing volunteer work in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, I was shocked to discover doctors washing out surgical gloves to use over and over again.
I’m even more shocked to find myself doing the same thing now.
Desperate situations require ingenious solutions. At I write this, people all over the world are devising their own unique protection measures, using simple household items, a spirit of resourcefulness, and often, more flair than common sense.
These makeshift masks offer yet more proof, as if any were needed, that we humans are the Earth’s most adaptable species. Five million years ago we were clustered on the savannas of Africa and today we inhabit every climate and terrain on Earth, with six of us living in outer space. Three of those astronauts —Andrew Morgan, Jessica Meir, and Oleg Skripochka — return to Earth tomorrow after 90 days on the International Space Station. I wonder if anyone has told them what’s been going on down here. Do they know they’re going to be stepping out of their spacecraft to discover a shockingly different planet than the one they left? No doubt the debriefing will start with, “The good news is that after 90 days you get to leave the space station's cramped quarters and social isolation …”
One positive effect of the pandemic is that it’s reminding us just how much we owe to science. Remember polio? Smallpox? When was the last time you heard of anybody getting rubella or whooping cough, let alone bubonic plague? Like the astronauts, we rely on scientists to keep us as safe as possible in this hazardous universe. We follow their guidelines for avoiding contagion and reassure one another that it’s just a matter of time before researchers develop a vaccine for COVID-19.
Unfortunately, in recent decades dark money has been funding a campaign to undermine our confidence in science and encourage us to ignore concrete data about problems even more worrying than this pandemic, starting with climate change. Right now the world is applauding our heroic researchers, doctors, nurses, and technicians. I’m hoping we continue to give them the same respect and support in the future when the pandemic is finally under control and we’re dealing with the next global catastrophe.
Science and technology have transformed our lives, especially in the last century. Where would we be without cell phones, antibiotics, or airplanes, to name but a few? And then there’s the really important stuff, like movie wizardry, online games, and social media. Without connectivity, we might never know about extraordinary feats of engineering like this.
Brilliant! As for the following photo, I’m not sure the person who took it was an actual scientist, but the shot would have been impossible if French astronomer Pierre-Jules-César Janssen hadn’t discovered helium back in 1868.
One of the technological advances we’ve all come to know recently is Zoom, the nine-year-old video conferencing service which has skyrocketed in popularity; since March 2 installations of the app have jumped 728% and stock is now valued at $1 billion. Not only do we all now speak of “Zooming” with our family and friends, some of us (and you know who you are) are “Zumping” — that is, dumping their lovers via Zoom. More sinister uses include “Zoombombing” — that is, crashing a Zoom call to cause disruption or chaos, often to spread messages of racism and xenophobia in educational, religious, or business settings. Zoom has overhauled encryption to tighten security with passwords and admission protocols. Still, I suspect some of those who have Zumped in haste may now be claiming it was all a big Zoombombing mistake in hopes of smoothing things over. If anybody uses that excuse with you, they have a lot of 'splaining to do.
If you’re innocently Zooming (or using other video conferencing systems) with friends and family, you may want to take the focus off the pandemic with themed, costumed Festiv(ir)us gatherings or online talent shows known as Coronapaloozas. Or if you’ve been baking lately, you might try creating a cake that looks like something else (here’s a starter how-to video) then astound your fellow Zoomers by casually cutting into it during a session.
Humans are a very clever species. We never cease developing new skills and inner resources in response to evolving circumstances. Our ancestors survived for millions of years, outliving all sorts of other bright primates, largely because of an astonishing ability to adapt to change. As Dr. Rick Potts, who runs the Human Origins Program at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC., explains, “Going from upright walking, the first tools, changes in our body, the invention of fire, the increase in brain size and then the invention of specialized tools and ultimately the ability to take a story of something you saw outside and bring it inside a cave and paint it — all of these things represent a ratcheting up of adaptability in our lineage.”
That’s why I’m confident that we can adapt to life in lockdown, even as it keeps getting extended. Astronauts, explorers like Earnest Shackleton, aviator Amelia Earhart, navigators such as Columbus and Magellan, and countless others learned that cramped quarters and social isolation can be endured for a long time in a good cause. And there’s no better cause than saving human lives. Just ask any of these heroes.
Stay strong, stay considerate, and above all, stay home, my friends! And let me know how you are holding on to your sanity, entertaining yourself, and adapting to the new lifestyle of our global village.
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If anyone is rejoicing at the arrival of the coronavirus, it’s the Spanish dogs. We humans are on absolute lockdown, allowed out only for strict necessities, and subject to fines, even jail time, for noncompliance. But with a canine on the end of a leash, you can roam freely, so locals are sharing their dogs with neighbors in a daily rotation. Every dog in the city is basking in its newfound popularity and buff physique — although they’re also pretty exhausted, paw-weary, and ready to go on strike unless they get more treats to keep up their strength.
In New York, a foster dog is the latest quarantine accessory, right up there with hand sanitizer and masks. City animal shelters have depleted their entire supply of canines as people realize it will be more fun to shelter in place with a furry friend for comfort and companionship. Dogs are a blessing, but also a responsibility. In Hong Kong, two dogs tested positive for COVID-19, launching a flurry of creative homemade protective gear.
Officials are not recommending protective gear for pets, so don't worry if yours are seen on the street clad only in their birthday suits. Scientists reassure us there are no documented cases of animal-to-human transmission, and it’s possible the virus is now adapted exclusively to our physiology. You can keep cuddling Fido and Fluffy, who are probably thrilled to have you around 24/7. “This morning I saw a neighbor talking to her cat,” a friend emailed me this week. “It was obvious she thought her cat understood her. I came into my house, told my dog..... we laughed a lot.”
By week whatever-this-is of quarantine, many of us have an entirely new appreciation of frivolity. Most of us went into lockdown with grand thoughts about using the time productively, perhaps perfecting our Spanish, mastering the ukulele, and/or reading the world’s longest novel (which for the record is the thirty-volume Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus by Madeleine de Scudéry published in 1649 – 1654.). When the pandemic hit, I was deep into writing a book about our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, and at the news we were soon to be housebound I thought, “Great, I can finish the book in no time!” You know how much I’ve written? Not one word.
And that’s OK. Because I’ve finally realized that the universe hasn’t given me a sabbatical for accomplishing projects, it’s thrown me a staggering challenge requiring every scrap of my strength and resourcefulness. Look at the spot we’re in. Our lives have been disrupted on every level. The entire planet has been invaded by a deadly hostile force we can’t see or contain or counteract effectively. Our future is uncertain. We are weighed down with constant unwelcome news. My routine activities include disinfecting all groceries and their packaging, sanitizing my hands and shopping cart, and re-arranging my entrance hall into an ever more efficient decontamination chamber.
Is it any wonder I can’t find time to read a 30-volume novel?
A grief counselor once told me that in the face of profound loss (such as a loved one, a job, a home, or a way of life) our bodies react physically in ways we don’t always expect. We feel tired, eat too little or too much, can’t concentrate, lose sleep, lack creativity, find ourselves losing track of … what was I saying? And because these are bodily reactions, we can’t solve the problem with our intellect or willpower.
“Grief is bigger than us. It’s bigger than our efforts to manage it,” said Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, in a TED presentation on the pandemic. Grief, like life itself, is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. We must fully experience all the stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — before it begins to loosen its grip on us. What makes today’s grief unique is that we’re going through it collectively, and everyone on the planet wants to talk about it, all the time.
Like so many people, I spend hours every day connecting with friends on social media, looking at memes, and reading emails like this.
“Just be careful because people are going crazy from being in lockdown. Actually I’ve talked about this with the microwave and toaster while drinking coffee, and we all agreed that things are getting bad. I didn’t mention anything to the washing machine as she puts a different spin on everything ... and certainly not to the fridge as he is acting cold and distant. In the end the iron straightened me out as she said everything will be fine — no situation is too pressing. The vacuum was very unsympathetic ... told me to just suck it up, but the fan was more optimistic and hoped it would all soon blow over! The toilet looked a bit flushed when I asked its opinion and didn’t say anything, but the door knob told me to get a grip. The front door said I was unhinged and so the curtains told me to ... yes, you guessed it ... pull myself together.”
I can’t believe I’m typing these words, but I believe that anonymous author’s curtains have a point. Because in spite of everything, we are somehow managing to pull ourselves together. We’re dealing with our grief, our cabin fever, and the barrage of terrifying headlines. Our homes, street wear, and shopping habits have been revamped to meet antiviral hygiene standards we would have considered impossible even a month ago. We’ve mastered Zoom and various other technology to keep in touch with those we love. Every day we manage to get out of bed and draw on depths of strength, compassion, and resourcefulness we never knew we possessed.
“Resilience is our shared genetic and psychological inheritance,” Elizabeth Gilbert said. “We are each and every one of us — no matter how anxious you feel you are, no matter how riddled by fear you feel — every single one of us is the genetic survivor of hundreds of thousands of years of survivors. Each one of us came from a line of people who made the next correct intuitive move, survived incredibly difficult things, and were able to pass their genes on.” That’s a comfortingly solid collective heritage to have at our backs.
At the end of every day, the weary dogs of Seville gather with their humans on balconies and rooftops all over the city for the nightly applause in honor of the healthcare workers. The valiant efforts of these heroes, and of everyone who supports the effort by staying home, are beginning to turn the tide. The slight flattening of Spain’s curve is offering us all a glimmer of cautious optimism. Each night, the applause and shouting gets a trifle louder and more boisterous, and sometimes the dogs join in the chorus. No doubt they’re howling, “Hey, enough already. Let’s end this thing so I can get some rest!”
Stay strong, stay considerate, and stay home, my friends! How are you surviving the emotional roller coaster of quarantine? What are you doing to lift up your spirits?
“I’ve seen a lot of people posting about how Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton came up with some of their greatest ideas while quarantined under the Plague,” said late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. That’s a pretty high bar, he noted, but never fear, modern-day folks in isolation are rising to the challenge. And then he played this.
“You see,” said Jimmy Kimmel. “Times of crisis really do produce works of great art.”
Need further proof? Look at the responses to the Getty Museum’s challenge to recreate favorite paintings using stuff found around the house.
With one third of the world’s population on lockdown — or, as my California friends put it more cozily, “sheltering in place” — there’s an immense pool of talent with too much time on their hands, and the biggest, most bored global audience in history. It’s a match made in entertainment heaven. I’m sure that if John, Paul, George, and Ringo were in lockdown together they’d be producing stuff like this.
Dare I say it? Genius!
Meanwhile, Rich and I held our first Festiv(ir)us, an online party with themed costumes — in this case, attire from a favorite country. Undaunted by sparse resources (stuck in a rental condo, no stores open) Kathryn and Pete came onscreen gorgeously attired as ancient Greeks in bedsheets: flat for her, fitted for him — or as we soon dubbed them, relaxed fit and slim fit, like jeans. Rich went all out, inventing our own nation, Blogvonia, with a suitably eccentric dress code.
Festiv(ir)us is wide open to goofy ideas and wacky themes, but there is one ironclad rule: no talking about the pandemic. Because right now we all need to take mini-vacations that let us mentally disconnect from the catastrophic events raging across the globe.
The key is finding activities that are so absorbing they transport us to another state of consciousness, freeing us from everyday worries and cares. I wish I could report I’m achieving this altered state through zen meditation, but the truth is I’m mostly immersing myself in books, movies, and TV shows. Many people are testing their wits with challenges such as sudoku or the famous Nine Dots Puzzle, which back in the 1970s inspired the catchphrase “thinking outside the box.”
Another great psychological getaway, at least for me, is cooking. I have learned the hard way that if I let my mind wander to the latest harrowing headlines, it’s all too easy to leave the honey out of the Healthy, Moist Banana Bread or put the World’s Best Irish Soda Bread into an oven set on broil rather than bake. Now I take care to give kitchen tasks my complete attention. I am not about to risk botching a recipe and having to throw out precious ingredients I won’t be able to replace until the next scheduled shopping expedition.
Here in Spain, where people are taking the virus very seriously, most of us shop once a week, less often if possible. Grocery shopping day is an occasion, celebrated with a lunch of fresh fish, usually something simple such as Five-Ingredient Pesto Salmon; I prepare extra to put in a salad or Buttermilk Salmon Chowder for future meals. The next day we dine on poultry, such as my Chicken Marbella or Rich’s Foolproof Maple-Dijon Chicken Thighs. And when we’ve enjoyed every bit of the leftovers, we move on to vegetarian meals such as last night’s Cozy Autumn Wild Rice Soup. I like to think of it as Meatless Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
Eating well reminds us to celebrate life’s small pleasures. It takes our minds off our anxieties for at least a few moments while we savor the first, glorious bites and utter a blissful “Mmmmm.” Let’s face it, if we’re going to hold on to whatever shreds of sanity we have left, we all need those kinds of respites, however brief. And (while we’re being totally honest) we also need respites from our quarantine companions.
“You’ve got to write something about space rules,” a harassed friend said to me during a phone call last week. “How do you negotiate them? You and Rich spend months on the road together. How do you make it work?”
I thought back to 2013 when we set out on our first three-month railway journey. We'd spent the early weeks establishing guidelines for organizing our time, occupying cramped quarters, and navigating differences. NASA astronaut Anne McClain, who knows a lot about sharing space, emphasizes that it starts with communication. “Talk so you are clearly understood,” she advises. “Actively listen, pick up on non-verbal cues…Talk about your intentions before taking action.” Sound advice.
Even without NASA training, Rich and I learned early on that we had to be absolutely clear with each other about space. Despite our undying love and eternal friendship, we each need to be alone with our thoughts and our computers for hours every day. As a writer, I find this as essential as breathing, and I respect the fact that just about everyone has an online life to pursue — preferably without constant interruptions.
Rich and I set aside specific blocks of time in the morning and afternoon for solitary pursuits. On our travels, such as our recent five-month journey, we agreed to leave each other in peace even when sitting next to each other in a tiny hotel room. In lockdown, with a whole apartment at our disposal, I retreat to my office, and Rich ensconces himself at his desk by the living room window. These are our sanctuaries, and we make it a practice to ask permission to interrupt one another if we need to pop in and check on, say, when we’re scheduled to Zoom with friends.
In addition to computer time, there’s a daily schedule for sharing my small, inexpensive stair step machine, replacing our daily hours of walking with hours of exercise in front of the TV. I’ve been watching the news and the third season of Stranger Things, and to be honest it’s not always easy to tell them apart.
Mini-vacations, space rules, and daily routines are vital, but I believe the real secret to surviving the lockdown is kindness. Like the the kids in Stranger Things, we’re all terrified of a monster that’s turned our world upside down. If there was ever a time to cut our companions some slack, it’s now.
Nobody ever said quarantine was going to be easy, and it doesn’t help that the end date keeps getting pushed back. So how can we stay motivated over the long haul?
“I'm doing this for Betty White,” commented long-term reader Shéa last week. “Because I'm not going to be the person who passes it to someone who passes it to Betty White.” We all live within six degrees of separation from one another, including the iconic 98-year-old actress. You’ll be glad to hear that as of this writing, she is safe in home quarantine and showing no symptoms of the virus. I’ve taped a picture of Betty to my bookcase as a reminder that it’s my job to keep her that way.
Stay home and stay safe, my friends! Let me know how you're surviving the challenges of quarantine. What are you cooking? Are you finding ways to exercise your body and your creativity? What can we do to take care of one another — and ourselves? Were you able to solve the Nine Dots Puzzle? Here's one solution.
You can see what they mean by "outside the box thinking"!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and currently visiting my home state of California.
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