(or: How I Spent My Winter / Spring / Summer / Fall Vacation)
According to an app I’ve got that counts the days, Thursday, January 7, 2021 was the 300th day of the condition I’ve been describing as #HomeAlone. As the day dawned, I thought to compile an account for myself for those ten months. It took longer than I expected.
Maybe it’s enough to say that, 300 days into a global pandemic, I am still among the living. There are more than 350,000 Americans who cannot say the same. It will likely be closer to half a million before it’s safe to go out again. I shudder to think that it could be substantially more than that before it’s really safe.
We have been through a full cycle of seasons with Covid now. It started in the winter of 2020 , wore on through the spring, the summer and the fall, and now here we are in the winter of 2021. The Four Seasons of Covid. There will likely be two, maybe three or even four more.
The last public event I attended was a tribute concert for David Olney (Spotify link) – the evening of Monday, March 9 at the Belcourt theater in Nashville. As the crowd waited outside for the doors to open, there was some casual recognition that all was not right in the world, but there were no masks. Actual precautions didn’t begin until I dropped in on a friend after the concert and had my first experience of “social distancing.”
I worked my job at the Apple store in Green Hills on Tuesday and Wednesday, March 10 and 11 – which was the day the World Health Organization declared that the novel Corona virus had become a Global Pandemic. What I recall of those two days is that most of my customer interactions were normal and familiar. But I second guessed myself after shaking hands a couple of times, and by the end of the second day was resorting to hand waves and fist bumps.
The next two days – Thursday and Friday – I was not scheduled to work in the store.
I watched a fair amount of TeeVee, read online accounts, and tried to make sense or the invisible train wreck that was barreling toward us. I tried to separate useful information from the bubbling brew of hysteria, but nevertheless managed to work myself into quite a lather over whether or not I should return for my next scheduled shift on Saturday. I spent much of those two days composing a wordy email to my managers, trying to explain that because I am so fucking old, I am in the “high risk” mortality bracket, and begging some kind of special dispensation with regard to my schedule.
Instead of sending that tasty word-salad email, I just called the store and said “I’m a little concerned about coming to work today.” A few hours later the woman who runs the whole operation called back and said “OK, we will take you off the schedule – and find someway to keep paying you until you can come back.”
As I told my therapist at the time, that moment felt so much like the first time somebody expressed unconditional support that it nearly brought me to tears (actually, skip the “nearly.”).
The next day all the Apple stores in America closed. That was 300 days ago. And I have been using the hashtag #HomeAlone ever since.
Those next few weeks and months were a mix of – oh god, how I hate to use this word – uncertainty, anxiety, and confusion as the whole world basically shut down, went into panic mode and started running out of toilet paper.
I had started using a grocery delivery service a couple of months earlier, when it dawned on me that for a modest surcharge I could get somebody else to wander the aisles at Publix on my behalf, giving me that much additional time each week to stare at this blank screen and wander instead amid the brambles that pass for coherent thoughts in my head.
Once I’d entered “I’m not leaving the house” mode, I came to rely even more heavily on such services. Thankfully, I already had more than enough toilet paper for the one person in the house who needs it once a day, but I might have started over-stocking on certain other staples. I still have a freezer in the basement that is somewhat full of skinless chicken breasts, hamburger patties, bread, frozen dinners, etc. And I still get deliveries of fresh milk, orange juice, and eggs every week. And Oreos. Oreos have become my Quarantine Comfort food.
I really didn’t do much but eat for the first few months. I got fat on Wheat Thins and cheese in the afternoons and a honkin’ bowl of Purity Cookies and Cream that I scarfed down with some late-night comedy show around 10 or 10:30 every evening. From March to July I went from 173 pounds and jeans that were already a bit tight in the waist to 184 pounds – and the next size-up jeans.
And I tried to be creative and productive. Or, more correctly, I thought about it a lot.
Returning to a project that has been lurking on the back burners for a couple of years, I finished reading and voice-transcribing all of the letters that my parents wrote to each other in 1943 – the year between when they met and when they were married in January of 1944. Most of that time future-father Harvey was deployed to a weather station in Greenland (you’d be surprised how vital weather information from the arctic circle was to the aviation war effort in Europe). He and my future-mother Ellen exchanged the sort of letters that war-time love stories are made of.
Now I am sitting on the material and re-reading the letters, and my intention drifts between two opposites: first, I entertain the notion the idea that I have to do something with material, find a way to put it into the world. But, when I’m stuck for just how exactly to do that I also drift to the simpler notion that having read his letters, having spent more time “in the presence of my father” than I did in the few years were both alive (and I was barely sentient) … is enough.
And I tried to spend some time playing and even recording some videos, that the most I was able to make of that intent was a clip of a George Harrison / Beatles solo:
In the meantime, my part-time job peddling gizmos for “The Trillion Dollar Fruit Stand” has gone through several iterations since that day I called and said I didn’t think it was safe for me to work at a store in a mall. I will always be grateful to my employer for that moment when they told me to “stay home and we’ll figure out a way to keep you on the payroll.”
Then all the stores closed and suddenly Apple had thousands of employees that could not go to work. To its credit, the company never furloughed any of its employees, but the work we’ve had to do over the past 9 months has been a bit of a roller coaster, alternating between “busy” and actual work.
In the first few months, we did a lot of internal training, studying online manuals and guides to keep our knowledge and skills sharp in the event we returned to the store. Then, when George Floyd was cop-murdered and we had to be reminded anew that Black Lives Matter (such a low bar!), the focus shifted to a program of “Diversity and Inclusion” which continues to be a focus of the company to this day.
When the musical Hamilton came out on Disney+ in July, we were in the midst of those discussions, and, given my general interest in all things American History, I dug into the actual characters’ back-stories and discovered that not only the Southerners but all of the central characters in the musical were complicit in the “peculiar institution” of slavery. One of the actual creative highlights of the summer was compiling a Keynote presentation with those stories and converting it to a YouTube video.
Apple tried to reopen my store in the spring. In anticipation of the reopening, I went to the store for a few hours in June. It was weird driving into town for the first time in months, seeing how little traffic there was, having to deliberately remind myself of the route that I take from Pegram to Green Hills: “Oh yeah, I get off the Interstate here… I turn here… wait, where the hell is everybody? Oh, look, plenty of places to park.”
And then walking into the Mall, and seeing who was or was not wearing a mask, and discovering how irritated I get whenever I see somebody with a mask that doesn’t cover their nose. I’m writing this 7 months later and that still grates on me.
At the store, we underwent several hours of special training re: how we would work with masks and social distancing. Then the reopening date was pushed back once… twice… and when it was canceled the third time, they didn’t even bother to reschedule. The store was closed all summer.
In July, they started setting us all up to work from home, sending us specially configured equipment and running us through yet another training program. I have worked several different roles in the six months since I started taking calls at home. The latest role has proven more challenging. There are several times a day when I wonder “why do I have to do this?” Still, it’s better than having nothing specific to do.
I am genuinely grateful for the benefits like health insurance (even though I am old enough to qualify for Medicare), and weekly Covid tests. And I have to admit that that those bi-weekly pay checks are all that stand between all the crap that Amazon delivers to my door every day and having to eat cat food.
Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, I amused myself with almost daily “Life is Better With The Top Down” drives in my Mustang along the curvy backroads of this part of Tennessee on the outskirts of Nashville that I like to call “West Bumfuque.” I love downshifting and stepping on the gas coming out of the curves. Since there are no passing lanes, my idea of an “an achievement” in those days was going the whole 15 or 20 mile route without getting stuck behind a slower car in front of me.
Then I remember how scared I was in those first few months to just to stop for gas. One of the info-nuggets that circulated during the early Days of Covid was the idea that the virus could be transmitted through physical surfaces like a gas-pump handle. I took to the practice of carrying rubber gloves with me when I went to the gas station. I panicked slightly one time when I left the store after paying and opened the door with my bare left hand instead of my gloved right.
Maybe it’s just fatigue after nearly a year, but I am less reluctant now to enter public spaces, like the convenience store that purveys a salad that I eat for lunch a couple of times each week. Or I’ll run in-and-out of the J-Alexander’s on White Bridge to get one of their chicken Caesar salads – with an extra serving or their dressing that I use over the rest or the week. The last time I made such a guerrilla strike, I looked at the people seated at tables and wondered, “what’s the matter with these people?” Not that I’m being judgmental or anything…
In the absence of meaningful production, I have consumed.
On Netflix, I binged on: The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit, Away, Waco, Ricky Gervais’ After Life, the lavish alt-history Hollywood, and the too-close-to-home religious quandaries of Unorthodox. I watched the final season of The Good Place and indulged in the fantasy series Cursed and The Witcher and the first season of The Umbrella Academy. I tried Sex Education and Season 2 of “Dead To Me” and gave up on both after a couple of episodes.
In the realm or feature films, I put aside my differences with Aaron Sorkin enough to enjoy his take on The Trial of the Chicago 7, was grossed out but only slightly amused by Borat’s Subsequent Moviefilm (there were moments when I thought the title was actually the most clever thing about the whole film), and was painfully disappointed by Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day – even as I relished every moment that Gal Godot was onscreen.
It wasn’t all fluffy entertainment. Oh, no, I availed myself to all kinds of educational programming, too. I cringed at the pedophile stories of Jeffrey Epstein, (at the same time I wondered “why don’t I have a private island in the Bahamas?”) and was touched by a documentary about the Challenger space shuttle. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the legendary Argentine Formula 1 driver Juan Manuel Fangio, traced the origins of the technology we use today to a company called General Magic, communed with The Band in Once We Were Brothers, returned to the roots of folk/rock in the hills of Laurel Canyon, and relived my adolescence with a couple of Beatles documentaries.
My favorite indulgence has been the classic 80s comedy, Cheers. Oh, for the simpler times when the antics of Sam and Diane diverted us from the fact of Ronald Reagan gutting the country and handing the carcass over to the oligarchs.
From Amazon and Starz I watched Seasons 4 and 5 of Outlander. On Apple TV+ I watched Defending Jacob. On Hulu I watched Cate Blanchett pretend to be Phyllis Schlafly killing the Equal Rights Amendment in Mrs. America. As Amy Coney Barret was being confirmed to the Supreme Court I watched The Handmaid’s Tale. From HBO I witnessed The Plot Against America,” tried to make sense or David Byrne’s American Utopia and relived the two seasons of Rome looking for cinematic antecedents to what is happening in America now.
Damn, that seems like a LOT of television. The truth is I typically watch just an hour or so each night – but jeezus, we’re talking more than 300 nights here!
My definition of “bingeing” means that I watch a whole series one-episode-at-a-time over consecutive nights. I can only think of a couple of occasions when watched multiple episodes in a single sitting, like New Years weekend when I watched three episodes of Bridgerton two nights in a row so that I could get back to Peaky Blinders during the week – though that ‘binge’ was interrupted by the Series Finale of The Republic, staged live at the Capitol Building in Washington on January 6.
It hasn’t all been television. I’ve read more books in the past 10 months than I probably read in the ten years before that.
Watching the HBO series about The Plot Against America put me on a brief Phillip Roth bender, first re-reading that cornerstone of my youth, Portnoy’s Complaint and then The Great American Novel, a story about an alternative baseball universe. By then we were well into the summer of no baseball, and I substituted with more books: I re-read Shoeless Joe (and watched the movie version, Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams). Then I re-read the Roy Campanella biography that I first read in the 4th grade, which introduced me to the themes of racism and integration that made me a closet Dodgers fan (the rest of my family and friends were all devoted to the damn Yankees). I read a stunning biography of Mickey Mantle entitled The Last Boy and David Halberstam’s richly detailed account of October 1964.
And I did a lot of that reading sitting out on the deck behind my house, looking up as hummingbirds came to light on the feeders above my head.
Back on Netflix, I watched the documentary The Social Dilemma … and fretted over the ungodly amounts of time I spend on Facebook. The movie explores the damage that algorithmically-driven digital platforms are doing to society, but I can see the equal carnage they also do to my own brain – withering my thought process and attention span. As I stare at my empty white screen and try to fill it with my own creative expression, the pauses in that feeble output are too-easily interrupted by the instant switch to another window and another tumble down the bottomless rabbit hole of doomscrolling.
Even more so than before the pandemic, Facebook has woven inexorably into the fabric of my life. Here in the Covid bunker, Facebook (I don’t use Twitter and Instagram only slightly) offers a steady illusion of social contact and stimulation, and in its virtual way fills the vacuum that forms from not being able to see people or do things in the real world.
It’s hard to separate the good that Facebook sometimes does for us as individuals from the evil it has wrought upon our culture. Of particular note, via Facebook I recently recently struck up a correspondence with a dear friend from junior high school I hadn’t really spoken to for several years. And a group page keeps me connected with my neighborhood out here in West Bumfuque. We all agree that we should leave our Christmas lights up at least until the arrival of Daylight Savings Time on March 14, as our way of warding of the darkness of this Covid winter.
I made a half-hearted attempt to excise Facebook from my life in the fall, but as the election approached I found that I could not turn away. I feel the same way about Facebook that I felt about Scotch and vodka before I quit drinking – but I’ve been saying that for years now. My life is powerless and unmanageable and I need some kind of 12-step program. In the meantime, It’s the easiest place to go when I feel the need to unload some snark and irony. No wonder I don’t get anything done.
The other questionable habit I seem to have adopted – probably before the pandemic but, again, more so during – is the reliance on text messaging in lieu of actual conversation.
I don’t know at what point in my life I began to devalue phone calls. I think back to when I was a teenager (in a previous millennium) and the telephone was the lifeline. It was some kind of big deal to call a girl and just talk to her. Now, it seems I prefer the asynchronous nature of text messaging, the excusability of dead air: “Go ahead and send me a text; I’ll answer it when it’s convenient or I think of something clever.”
Add to that the pandemic-induced reliance on FaceTime, Zoom and Webex to maintain some semblance of contact with the outside world.
Marshall McLuhan said that new means of communication rewire our brains and restructure the way we process the world around us. I don’t think we take into account the amount of hidden effort that goes in to the way we have been forced to communicate this year, dealing with everybody in our lives in disembodied postage stamps on a screen. Everybody is a ‘talking head’ now, some well lit and composed, others dark blobs slipping off the bottom of the frame. It takes an unseen extra effort to cope with all of this virtual reality.
Here’s a perfect illustration of what I mean by the ‘unseen work’ all this Zooming entails. This a screenshot of a recent session with my therapist, who I have not seen in person for nearly a year. Note the direction she is looking. I call this the “parallax paradox.” She thinks she is looking ‘at’ me, but she is lookin at my image on a screen to her right; her camera is off somewhere to her left. So I just spent more than an hour sharing the most intimate details of my life with a woman who for that entire time never once “looked” me straight in the eye. And don’t even start me on the composition – her chin bouncing off the bottom of the frame, the upper third of which is her ceiling. How is a conversation like this – when we don’t have any control over where the eye rests – not extra work?
Back in the fall I think I discovered what all this forced seclusion, isolation and screen time is actually doing to me.
The realization came at the end of an 8-hour shift spent fielding calls from mostly annoyed customers, trying to explain why they could not go to a store to buy the thing they needed right now. The effect was amplified during the holidays, when a lot of people were trying to buy things in time for Christmas, and what with the supply chain being compromised, a big part of my job had become telling them that was not gonna happen.
At the end of one long day, a woman I’d had a couple of ‘virtual dates’ and done a lot of texting with started to text me up, and I was just not interested. I’d been staring at a screen all day. I’d been talking to strangers all day. I was exhausted.
That’s when I put a name on the condition that defines the past few months.
I have been living in an “Isolation Feedback Loop.” Simply stated: I am alone, and, yes. I am lonely. Now leave me alone.
As I sit here finishing this opus on Day 306, I do think that the most valuable, lasting thing I have managed to do in all this time is stay healthy. Which is to say… alive.
Or as Fran Lebowitz put it it, “I think I’ve been excellent at not getting COVID –because I have not gotten it.”
Staying alive has mostly meant staying alone. It’s just me and my books and my screens and my journals and Buster the Demon Cat, who showed up over Memorial Day weekend thanks to a (mostly) Facebook friend (see, there’s that whole Facebook conundrum again…).
Buster is my near constant companion, following me all over the house as I make my daily commutes from the bedroom to the kitchen to the office to the living room.
While friends and acquaintances have turned this year into a period of extraordinary output – writing books, writing and recording songs and posting an infinite stream of Facebook Live and videos on YouTube – the only thing I have done with any consistency is make photos of Buster and put them on Instagram and Facebook. When my grandkids ask, “Grandpa, what did you do during the pandemic?” I’ll just say “I put cat pictures on the Internet.”
Oh, wait.. I don’t have any grandkids – even though I turned 70 back in November. I marked that occasion by buying the first new bicycle I’ve had since I was a teenager.
In the summer I instituted a routine I call “Analog Sundays” – when I put down the gizmos for a few hours, listen to vinyl records and read the print edition of the New York Times.
I spent an autumn week at the edge of a lake in the Ozarks, mostly reading and journaling. I brought my guitar with me but only took it out once. Well, OK, twice.
Honestly, it hasn’t been all solitude. I’ve had a few lunches – outside, on sunny autumn days – gone for a couple of hikes in the park with friends, continued a years-long tradition of weekly coffees with a friend that have now become FaceTime visits because its too cold to sit outside at Starbucks.
I’ve spoken to neighbors that I hadn’t spoken to since my divorce two years ago because they were closer to my ex-wife than I (I got the house but she got the neighbors) And, speaking of my domicile, I see my housekeeper every other Tuesday. I can’t imagine the squalor I’d be living in were it not for her.
But I can count the total number hugs I have had since March on the fingers of one hand. Maybe it’s enough that I get to snuggle with the cat (when she’s not trying to gnaw on me).
At the end of July, my Wheat-Thins-and-Ice-Cream-Quarantine-Diet peaked the scale at almost 185 lbs, and even the expanded-waist jeans I was wearing were starting to bind. That’s when I decided to try an “Interim Fasting” regimen that I learned about – where else? – on Facebook. In my case, “fasting” mostly means I stopped eating those honking bowls of ice-cream every night at 10:30
But that (and calorie counting) was enough: This morning I weighed in at less than 160lbs, probably the first time my weight has had a “150-handle” since I was in my 20s or 30s. Not bad for 70. Another couple of pounds and I’ll be releasing my Inner Adonis.
There’s more – like the online course I took on The Future of Constitutional Democracy that I took in the fall – but, jeezus: I started to write this on Thursday, January 7. That was day 300 since I went into this lockdown / isolation feedback loop on March 13. I’m finishing it up on January 13 and I’ve already taken more than 4,000 words to account all the nothing I’ve been doing for the past 10 months.
A few weeks ago, I posted a photo suggesting that after the plagues of the 14th and 15th centuries came the Renaissance and Enlightenment of the 16th and 17th centuries. While the Enlightenment was probably more a result of technological innovations (the printing press) than the resolution of a public health crisis, I’d like to think that the analogy is still apt – that something new and entirely better will emerge from this protracted period of hibernation.
My mission now is to simply remain alive until it’s my turn to get “the jab” (as the Brits call it.) As the prospect of a vaccination looms over the horizon, I’d like to think that my thoughts are turning to whatever new world awaits.
In the meantime, I am ever mindful of the the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”
But this is fucking ridiculous.