By Bruce Buschel
Self-quarantining is not a new practice for some of us. I have been in training most of my adult life. I am a writer. With agoraphobic tendencies. Need a witness? My son called from Hawaii last week and greeted me with, “I guess nothing much has changed for you, huh, Pops?”
I don’t want to say that I was ahead of the curve, but in this time of pandemic, what used to be considered social anxiety is now applauded as social distancing. What was derided as reclusive behavior is presently deemed self-discipline. “Shelter in place” can sound like a fellowship to an idyllic artist colony. It’s still hard to believe that the less I do, the more I contribute.
It’s akin to a koan: “What should I do to help?” asked the grasshopper. “Nothing,” said the master.
I understand the enormity of the pandemic, I do, and my fibrillating heart goes out to everyone who … well, to everyone (except one person, whose nose grows every time the camera rolls). I am here to report, not crow about, some collateral benefits to a voluntary home lockdown. First is guiltlessness. Not only do I not feel guilty about not leaving the house, but not leaving the house makes me feel like a good neighbor and upright citizen. I am feeling so good about doing nothing that I fear I might start feeling guilty about not feeling guilty about doing nothing. But not yet. Not flying to Mesa, Arizona, for a friend’s daughter’s wedding this June makes me a better person (who just happens to fear flying). Not visiting my elderly Aunt Thelma upstate on her April Fools birthday shows I am a loving family member. Not going to yoga fills me with energy. And not going to the dump. And not going to King Kullen.
Unlike the aftermath of 9/11, when the best George W. Bush could advise was to shop till you drop, now we know if you shop, you will drop. If you want to be healthy, stay away from the gym. If you want to eat well, avoid your favorite bistro. If you’re dying to go to Italy, don’t. Or you might.
My cup runneth over with ersatz pride, even as I run out of Peet’s House Blend. By merely fretting and keeping my distance from other human beings, I am becoming a better human being. Anti-social activity like this used to earn endless ridicule from folks who urged me to get out of the house. I hear no such beseechments today. I hear the water heater turning on and off. I hear the occasional squirrel scamper across the roof. I hear a FedEx driver knock on my door and skedaddle. I don’t touch any packages for 72 hours. Rain or shine. I am too busy not lifting a finger. I am a soldier on the front lines of fighting this pandemic: on my couch.
There is an arcane word for all this: tapsalteerie. It means topsy-turvy. Finding sanity or solace in this upside-down world is a bit of a trick but well worth the conjuring. After seven decades of doing it wrong and without musical accompaniment, I am thrilled to know how to wash my hands — hello, nails and thumbs! Not crazy about birthdays, I opt for “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Twice. With some Caucasian scat singing: “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, mop-bop-a-do-wop, life is but a dream-do-do-do-do-do.”
With all this time on my sanitized hands, I have straightened up my office, built a birdhouse from leftover cedar shingles, and made a potful of Iacono chicken bone broth, which requires all of 12 hours of simmering and re-topping. Topping Rose used to be a destination. Twelve hours used to be a long time. Tapsalteerie.
If you search for them earnestly, slivers of silver linings appear in the dark and dangerous coronavirus cloud that hovers. Long Epsom salt baths allow you to finish Tommy Orange’s “There, There.” There is time enough to research the minor leagues to prep for the next rotisserie draft. There is Zoom. There is a pile of old New Yorkers. You can enjoy a virtual dinner party without having to consume a friend’s hit-and-miss cooking adventures. No need to shave. No need to sneak in some television at midday; you can openly binge “The New Pope” and feel more Christian for it. Without a steady supply of Talenti gelato, pounds fall away. And there’s plenty of time and space to practice corn-holing in the living room. Wife not thrilled.
I am a better husband, however. With compassion and some rusty open-field tackling skills, I helped my wife kick her Starbucks macchiato addiction. She may be grateful. Not sure. She won’t talk to me. But we clean the house together. I don’t do windows and have only two pre-conditions: Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic” has to blast at full cynical bore, and I vacuum buck naked. It adds a real kick in the pants to real menial tasks, and no risk of surprise visitors or Jehovah’s Witnesses nowadays.
I have time to call old friends and find out how they’re doing. We kibbitz for hours without fear of cutting into precious work time. Just yesterday, an old cohort called from Philadelphia, kvetching about being stir-crazy and near homicidal. How long had he been quarantined? Three days. Three days, man! That reminded me to watch “Woodstock” and recall what social gatherings used to look like.
“Woodstock” was not on the list of 100 movies sent to me by a professor of film studies at CUNY. There was only one movie from this century: “Winter’s Bone,” 2010, which was reviewed as “mirthless,” “harsh,” “cruel” and “realistic.” Not my first choice in the current mirthless, harsh, cruel zeitgeist. But the subtext of the list was clear: If Netflix falters, there will jumpers. If the internet goes down, we all will follow. Enjoy what you have while you have it. Watch Fred and Ginger dance and sing to “Isn’t It A Lovely Day?” during a downpour.
As for the future — what future? Who knows what tomorrow will bring in this perfect storm of imperfections? Stay positive. Stay home. Breathe. And maybe think about the Zen phrase: “Not knowing is most intimate.”