One long ago night, Rich burst through our front door shouting, “We have to get rid of the living room!”
“Okay,” I said. “Should I get the sledgehammer?”
“No, I mean reconfigure the space. I just heard a talk by Mike Vance, one of the creative geniuses who designed Disneyland. He says living rooms are too formal. What we need is a kitchen for the mind — a space that’s equipped to nurture creativity the way our kitchen is designed to nurture our bodies. Here, help me move this armchair.”
Over the next several hours, we shoved furniture aside and dragged in a microscope, our desktop computer, books about astronomy and natural science, wind-up toys, a life-size statue of a dog, and dozens of other random objects that had been languishing in obscure corners. By the time we were done, the living room looked far less like Pottery Barn and a lot more like 221B Baker Street, a glorious hodgepodge of brain stimulants.
“Now that’s us!” Rich exclaimed in satisfaction.
Ever since that day, we’ve viewed our lodgings (even temporary ones) as kitchens for the mind. And that’s helped keep the conversation lively all these years. But lately I’ve been looking at our domestic arrangements from another angle.
“Winter is coming,” I said to Rich. “Cold, flu, and Covid season. You can bet we’ll be spending a lot more time indoors.”
And we’ll be doing it in California. Normally we’re back in Seville by this time of year, but with the worldwide spike in cases, the worrying state of air travel, and parts of Spain going back into lockdown, we’ve decided to stay put in the Golden State at least until January. It’s not a bad place to “shelter in place” — the gentle phrase Californians prefer because it sounds mellower than such bummer, buzzkill words as “lockdown” or “quarantine.”
“What can we do,” I asked Rich, “to make the house more comforting, more interesting, more us — reflecting the way we live now?”
“Well, Mike Vance used to say that innovation needs to involve all five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell. So whatever we do, let’s keep that as a goal.”
Bearing that in mind, I started reviewing the places in our house where we spend the most time. Could they be tweaked to better fit our new lifestyle?
I wish I could report that our lifestyle includes reading great literature, playing advanced-level chess, and studying Mandarin or quantum physics, but the fact is we are, like most people, watching ridiculous amounts of TV. So we started with that. Rich repositioned our two biggest, comfiest armchairs to get a better angle on the screen and brought in a couple of soft footstools. “Sight, sound, touch – all covered. What about taste and smell?” he asked. “That’s easy,” I said. “Popcorn!”
Our days often revolve around Zoom calls, during which we chat with family and friends, attend lectures and poetry readings, and voice our views in town hall meetings and political roundtables. It took me a while to get the hang of Zoom — not so much the technology, but learning how to feel comfortable and look presentable onscreen.
I set up a fixed spot for Zooming, based on three pro tips.
1) The device’s camera is at eye level (far more flattering!).
2) I sit in an upright chair, so I don’t slouch out of camera range, leaving friends talking to my left ear.
3) The light shines on my face, letting people see me clearly.
I usually have a cup of coffee or glass of wine in hand — completing Mike Vance’s five-sensing requirement.
My sister Kate and her husband are getting a puppy to keep them company, and I have to admit I’m envious. But as one viral tweet puts it, “Really wish we had a dog right now but then I remember that old slogan… a dog is for life, not just for a global pandemic.” If you have a canine companion, you’ll appreciate this news item: “The World Health Organization announced that dogs cannot contract COVID-19. Dogs previously held in quarantine can now be released. To be clear, WHO let the dogs out.”
Rich just wandered past my desk, and I asked him what he finds most helpful in adapting to long stretches at home. “Structure and sacred spaces,” he replied promptly.
“What are your sacred spaces?”
“I know I’m going to get up every morning and spend time there,” he said, gesturing to the landing at the top of the stairs, where he has a small desk, a big armchair, and three sunny windows. “Drinking coffee, easing into the day. That’s sacred to me. Doing yoga in the bedroom — that’s another sacred space for me. My time in the garden. My workbench in the shed. Practicing my ukulele and my Spanish. These all keep me comfortably, solidly anchored in my day. I know I’m exactly where I need to be, doing exactly what I need to do.”
And then he added, “Don’t forget to tell them about the goldfish.”
This is another one we owe to Mike Vance. Shortly after our living room became a kitchen for the mind, we invited friends to dinner, explaining in advance about five-sensing, asking them to tell us about their favorite foods, music, artists, and so on. We then did our best to create a dining experience that touched on all their favorites.
Needless to say they got an earful about Mike Vance. And when they asked what exactly we did with the microscope, Rich mentioned that one of his goldfish had just passed over into the Great Beyond and we’d put it in the freezer, intending to dissect it. By now we were on the second (possibly third) bottle of wine, and the tiny cadaver was soon thawed in the microwave and dissected under the microscope; everyone wanted a look. We were just getting to know this couple, and I remember thinking, “Well, if this doesn't scare them off...!” Incredibly, it didn't, and we became fast friends. There are few bonding experiences quite like a mini autopsy.
“Innovation,” said Mike Vance, “is the creation of the new or the rearranging of the old in a new way.” As you’ve probably noticed, our world keeps rearranging itself. Experts forecast a major coronavirus surge as people head indoors to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas together. Bracing ourselves for Covid-19, the Holiday Edition, Rich and I are rearranging our space and reimagining our lives. We’re expats living in our home country, extroverts who rarely socialize in person, frequent flyers grounded for the duration. We are living into an unknown future — one that may not always be comfortable, but certainly won’t be dull. I foresee plenty of mystery, suspense, and surprising developments. And isn’t that pretty much the definition of adventure? Maybe are lives haven’t changed that much after all.
How are you preparing for pandemic winter? Any tips or concerns to share? Let me know in the comments section below. And hey, good luck out there!
This article is part of my ongoing series of articles on surviving the pandemic, if possible while holding on to some shreds of our sanity and sense of humor.
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I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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