Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
April 4: I was catching up on some TV last night and there was a commercial that ended with the words “We care. We are here for you” over a black background at the end. I’m pretty sure the commercial was produced before the pandemic began and the message was recently appended at the end in order to acknowledge awareness of what’s going on. All of the ads I see online lately offer up a similar sentiment, regardless of what the product or the brand is. Driving around town, all the billboards are for carryout and delivery restaurants. Most of the restaurants I drive by have professionally-created banners and signage announcing that they are open, that they deliver, or that they offer carryout. Some of them also have some sign version of the “we care” sentiment. The PA system in the grocery stores now feature, alternatively, cheery voices promoting pandemic-appropriate products and solemn voices talking about the need for shoppers to keep their distance from one another. There are slick-looking decals on the floor marking where people should stand when standing in line.
I’m struck by how quickly we’ve gone from hastily printed-out 8.5×11″ “sorry we’re closed” or “practice social distancing” or “carryout only” signs to professionally-produced signage and commercial messaging. It makes me wonder about the people in production studios and print shops developing and creating all of this messaging. About who they are and where they are and how their jobs have changed.
I’m mostly struck by how permanent this is all starting to feel.
We belong to a wine club that’s run out of a restaurant. We get a couple of bottles and a couple of tastings each month. The tastings are closed and the restaurant, like all the other restaurants, is carryout only, but you can still go pick up your bottles, so we did that today. Mostly as an excuse to get out of the house. We got there a bit before it opened so we went to the Target nearby to see if they had any of the stuff we haven’t been able to find for my parents at the grocery store. We got lucky: dishwasher soap, which has been hard to find, and toilet paper. Allison picked up a bunch of greeting cards to send to people. Like I said a few days ago, she’s just better at human connection than I am.
It was good to find the things we needed, but the shopping protocols are even stricter as of today than they have been. There’s a limit to how many people can be in the store at once now so there’s a person with a click-counter just inside the door. It wasn’t crowded so we didn’t have to wait, but it was weird for the most common and cliche suburban activity — the Saturday Target run — to be as regimented as all of that. We left Target, picked up our wine and headed toward my parents’ house to drop off the dishwasher soap.
During the drive Allison talked about how uncomfortable it all felt. I’ve done all the shopping since this began so I suppose I’ve eased into this a bit more slowly. In some ways I’m sort of getting used to it. She hadn’t been to any stores since early March, though, so it was new to her. She said that when we left the house this morning she was happy to be going out and doing something but, after experiencing our strange new commercial world, she wished we had just stayed at home. She said it just feels more normal there. I know what she means.
It all reminds me of when Anna was born. Carleen and I spent months preparing. Painting the nursery, buying the gear, taking the parenting classes and doing everything we could to get ready. And, as far as all of those specific things, sure, we were ready. It was all harrowing for a time, but we knew how to feed Anna and change her diapers and give her a bath and, 16 years in and counting, keep her alive. What we weren’t prepared for was coming home from the hospital and having the house just feel . . . different. Uncomfortable. As if it were suddenly not our own. The house hadn’t changed, of course. We had. We were seeing everything with new eyes and feeling everything with new emotions which we did not yet understand and which we would not be able to process for some time.
Something like that is what I’m feeling now, only in reverse. In December 2003 going to the store or stopping in a restaurant for carryout provided a few brief moments of normality that restored some emotional gravity and allowed us to feel a part of the world again before returning to our suddenly strange house. Now it’s the rest of the world that feels alien.
Allison changed and left for the barn after we got home. I did the one thing that I know will always make me feel better: I cleaned.
Cleaning and organizing calms and soothes me in ways that most leisure activity does not. A lot of it has to do with my simply feeling better and happier in a neat and organized space. Clutter unsettles me. That mind palace I often retreat to that I described a couple of weeks ago is a minimalist space for a reason. I just feel better and function better when my environment is clean and composed.
Back when I actually had extra money after paying bills I employed a cleaning service for a time. I didn’t like it, actually, and I would’ve stopped it long before now even if I could still afford it because the actual physical act of cleaning is something I enjoy. It’s even something I need.
I have a very hard time turning my brain off most of the time. I love writing and often call it my favorite hobby, but it does the opposite of distracting me from things that are bothering me. To the contrary, it causes me to engage with them instead. There’s a time for that, but it wasn’t today. For various reasons I read way fewer books than I used to. Writing all day requires a lot of newspaper/website/magazine reading and my eyes are just too tired for books most evenings. Even if they weren’t, my attention span for anything but books I really, really want to read has waned. I watch some TV but, again, it has so be something I’ve actively and specifically sought out. I can’t just turn the TV on and see what’s on. Exercise helps, but a treadmill workout is only 30-45 minutes and I wasn’t in the mood for a long walk outside today. No, if I want to just zone out I need to scrub a kitchen or a bathroom or vacuum or do laundry or something.
So that’s what I did. I opened every window in the house and let the fresh spring air blow in, put on a super long Spotify playlist, and dug in. I started with the kitchen, scrubbing the stovetop and moving everything that normally sits on the counters and cleaning all the way to the back corners no one ever sees. I moved on to the bathrooms. I threw towels and bathmats into a hot wash and then cleaned and disinfected the shower, the toilet, the sinks and the countertop like it was my job. I dusted and vacuumed the living room and then I vacuumed the stairs.
As all that was going on I had a couple pounds of well-seasoned chicken thighs in the crockpot. When I finished cleaning they were almost ready to be pulled apart for the enchiladas I was making for dinner. I gave them a few minutes more while I showered and shaved, came down, cracked a beer, made the sauce, grated the cheese, and rolled them up. Allison texted that she was about ready to head home from the barn not long after I finished and I put them in the oven.
An immaculate house. A lovely smell coming from the kitchen. My wife on her way home to share a nice meal and a nice evening with me. The world, as it did when I brought Anna home from the hospital, feels not like our own, but my home does tonight.