COVID Blues: Notes from the Underground

Many of you are sick of reading about the coronavirus. Honestly, I don’t want to write about it. Still, I feel obliged to contribute something to the conversation.

Don’t worry. I won’t use phrases such as “in these troubling times,” nor will I insert any other ominous adjective. (I’m looking at you “uncertain.”) No, I’ve seen enough of those in my inbox. Your Endless Garden Bar is a thing of beauty, Ruby Tuesday, but if I am going to risk getting takeout, I’ll be patronizing a local mom and pop instead of a global chain, thank you.

Nor will I offer any speculation about the “new normal.” I know what “normal” is right now, and I don’t love it. Wondering if our urban areas will change drastically, if large corporations will squash all local retailers, if we’ll all wind up getting everything delivered from here on out, if we’ll ever shake hands again … I’ll leave that up to thinkpieces in The Atlantic. I will say that I hope hugging will be kosher in the near future. If I don’t get a chance to wrap my arms around my mama again soon, I’m going to lose it. #ProudMamasBoy #ComeAtMe

I also will avoid any dire, apocalyptic talk or discussion about the horrendous nature of this virus. I realize doing so is probably a point of privilege. I’ve read the horror stories of death, suffocating, unable to hold a loved one’s hand, and it’s all too awful for me to process. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel a great swell of sorrow and empathy for those affected. It’s just that, again, that’s been written time and again.

What I do want to ponder is the effect these days of stay-at-home have had on me personally. Maybe readers can relate; maybe it’s unique to me. However, with so much time to sit around and do nothing but be alone with my thoughts, for my own gratification if nothing else, I feel I should spill some metaphorical ink on the topic.

While reiterating that I know how fortunate I am–we have enough in the bank that I can get a heaping helping of groceries and remain isolated for weeks, not to mention I am one of the lucky ones who is able to work from home and keep a steady paycheck–that doesn’t mean this hasn’t taken a toll.

My job entails a lot of socialization. At least weekly, there is some function or another that I feel compelled to attend, not just because I want to be seen by the administration, but also because I genuinely enjoy the lectures, awards ceremonies, athletic events, film screenings, etc. My colleagues and I had a standing Friday afternoon happy hour engagement at Wildwood Tavern: $2.50 draft beer, veggie pizza, and conversation. I spent hours locked away in my office, surrounded by my dusty tomes of knowledge, working on a manuscript or an article or a conference presentation. Speaking of, I was all set to go to Ontario in July to talk about, of all things, ophiomorphic (snakelike) demons in the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer because I have the greatest job on earth.

sarah_michelle_gellar_charisma_carpenter_buffy_20th_anniversary_photos_embed.jpg.0df6731f0a745c3aafc757cc9e66d56e
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB) TV Series 1997-2003. Shown from left: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Charisma Carpenter. Photo credit 20th Century Fox/Mutant Enemy.

I was on campus 10-12 hours a day, often trekking there on weekends. My work was never done. One publication or round of edits complete, move on to the next lesson plan, set of grades, proposal. I didn’t take anything home.

Home was where I went for a few hours each night to eat dinner, snuggle my wife and dogs, have a nightcap, sleep, shower, and head out the next morning. I like to keep my work space and play space separate.

You can see where all this is going.

Self-isolation is not easy for me. I miss my friends, my students, my books, my research, my dive bar, my public library, my university library. Yet I’d just as soon not die.

I wasn’t sure I could adjust. And it took a while. Thankfully, I had to convert half a semester for five separate classes into an online-only mode of instruction. That required a bit of dedication. I decided to hold online office hours via Google Hangout, in case my students still needed me. Very few took advantage. Mostly I sat on my porch, drinking coffee, and watching myself reflected back in the camera. Spring Break rolled around, and on the academic front, everything was up and basically running itself aside from a little grading and answering of emails.

Then the boredom really set in.

The first few weeks, I thought about how I was going to murder my Goodreads Reading Challenge for 2020. I started Love in the Time of Cholera, but it felt too close to current situations. I opted for some hardboiled neo-noir, burning through Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series. I finished them over a month ago and haven’t picked up a book since. I’m 12 books behind on my reading challenge.

Maybe I could rekindle my passion for cooking, I thought. And, boy did I. The first Monday of quarantine we had crab omelettes. Lunch was sun-dried tomatoes, red onions, spinach, and olives on toasted ciabatta bread. Dinner was a lemon-basil swordfish steak with a Caesar salad, baked potato, and steamed broccoli. One day last week, I was digging through the cupboard in an earnest search for breakfast. An hour later I sat down with a dozen fried shrimp, curly fries, a piece of Cuban bread and a small wedge of sharp cheddar cheese. Before my wife could open her mouth, I simply said, “What’s it matter? There are no rules, and we’re going to die anyway.”

At least I had to do a little cooking for that hearty breakfast. This morning it was black coffee, a handful of cheese balls, and a few peanut butter crackers. Tonight’s dinner was a bowl of Honeycomb cereal. And bourbon.

When quarantine began, I was drinking a little more than usual. Now … Never mind. That’s too depressing.

My last blog post was almost a year ago. Amazing how little one keeps up when his job keeps him busy most of his waking hours. Ditto with writing. I haven’t put any fiction down recently. No time like a period of lockdown, eh?

Only here we are almost two months later, and I’m just now trying to make sense of the world through language. I’d like to say I haven’t piddled around fiction, but I totally have. A novel, based on a wild dream I had (probably after fried crab sticks and bourbon half an hour before bed), that I’m sure I would never want anyone to read. Speaking of neo-noir, it’s set in the 70s (maybe), in a fictitious place called Echo City, and centers around a group of ne’er-do-well antiheroes who rob from organized crime organizations until one job goes bad and they run afoul of the Yakuza. There’s a scrappy leader named Chazz, an enormous bruiser named Gravel, the getaway driver Naughty Nate, and Violeta–an undocumented Mexican who also happens to be a ninja. And that’s just the part that isn’t extremely farfetched.

It has, I must admit, given me hours of escapism. Too many hours, I’ll wager, as the word count is approaching 40k, and I’m pretty sure I never, ever want another living soul to read this pile of turds.

TV, you say? Meh. I still watch BBC’s Travel Show, even though every episode now is just about how no one can travel. I had been watching Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings, even if I’m more than a stone’s throw from the Empire State. Afternoons when Trump would come on, I would mute the television. Sometimes I would turn up the volume if I happened to look up and see Dr. Fauci at the podium. I did re-watch all six Sharknados, and they didn’t get any more watchable upon the revisit.

I spent nearly the entirety of Sunday watching the 2019 NCAA Beach Volleyball National Championship. I realize at any moment I could have just Googled the results, but after a few hours, I was invested. Why ruin the surprise? Also, I’m now an expert on beach volleyball. Last year, by far, the best individual player was Tina Graudina (and only a sophomore?) but the most effective duo had to go to the McNamara Twins. I talked about duals, pokeys, digs, and aces until my wife screamed at me to shut up and went into the other room to watch Dr. Phil.

volleyball-in-the-sand
At least I haven’t befriended a volleyball and named it Wilson … yet.

I could talk about that judgmental weekly screen-time update I get on my phone, but, nah … That’s even more depressing than thinking about my alcohol intake.

Thank the gods for music, though, right? I have been able to drop the needle on the turntable and groove to some of my favorite jams. Sadly, however, as with many other types of media, it’s almost impossible not to hear/read/interpret everything through the lens of COVID. (I’ll spare you the lecture on reception theory.)

My all-time favorite singer/songwriter (and if he’s not yours, who damaged your hearing?) Jason Isbell has even been tainted. Last week I was crooning along with him. “Are you living the life you chose/or are you living the life that chose you?” What a great existential question. Instead, I paused. “What do you think, Jason?” I asked my record player. “We’re all living the life that chose us. We’re in bloody quarantine!

My all-time favorite Isbell song is likewise currently ruined. Now when I hear him wailing “Somebody take me home/to those Alabama Pines,” I just think about how I’ve been looking at the same damned Alabama pines from my front porch for two straight months. Somebody take me literally anywhere else.

I can’t even escape it in my sleep. According to the Guardian, many people are experiencing vivid dreams during lockdown. I’m no exception. Some of them are downright lovely, a welcome escape from the drudgery of the waking world. A few weeks ago I dreamed I was in a train station in France. I had a whole bunch of Euros in my pocket, and I could go anywhere I wanted to. As I started looking at the map, thinking of a trip down the Italian peninsula, I suddenly froze. Wait, Italy is silly with corona. What part of Europe isn’t? What’s it like in the Czech Republic? And how did I get to Europe in the middle of a pandemic?

The other night in my dream, I was out and about and people kept brushing against me, bumping into me. Finally, I just screamed, “No one here is practicing social distancing!” Jeez, unconscious, can’t you sublimate just a little? Let me dream about giraffes and–at least according to Freud–work out my castration anxiety in the process. At this point, it seems it would be preferable.

I’ve mowed my lawn … twice nonetheless. It’s ankle-high now. What’s the point? It’s just going to grow again. Besides, I’m out of gas and–despite it being dirt cheap–I’m not terribly keen on touching the filthy pump handle of COVIDity.

I guess I thought that after yesterday’s beach-volleyball binge, I might try to work out my thoughts, write a blog, be minimally productive. Instead, I spent more time taking breaks to search for words in my Word Scramble app than I did actually putting my ideas on the screen. Also, I would absolutely crucify a student who turned in an essay like this, full of pointless rambling with no direction or controlling idea.

Then again, maybe pointlessness is the point. Or maybe it’s just the new normal in these trying times.

 

 

 


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