THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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Habit draws my eyes to the clock radio on the bedside table. I reach out to turn off the soft rock song before it can latch itself to my brain for the day, but then I remember: there is no alarm. I didn’t set one last night — just as I didn’t set one the night before, and I won’t set one tonight. The only thing compelling me to wake up is my body, which is clearly immune to the irony that it used to yearn for sleep-ins when it couldn’t have them, and now refuses to indulge in them when it can.
I get out of bed, peek behind the blind and get slapped in the face by sunlight. What day is it? Wednesday — no, it’s Thursday. It’s getting harder to keep the days straight. The weather is perfect for a hike with the kids, or maybe a bike ride around the lake, followed by a beery lunch at the pub. I indulge in these and similar notions while showering, knowing full well that today won’t include anything of the sort. I scrub my shaggy face with shampoo — at least I don’t have to shave.
I scroll through the latest news stories. Spain’s numbers seem to be levelling off, but things aren’t looking good in the States. There’s a lot of cross-state bickering about ventilators and N95 masks, the usual onslaught of Trump reports, stories about stories from other news sources, and so on. Here in Canada, the papers are maintaining their attention on Ontario and Quebec, where the curve is far from flattened. I feel a sense of pride for the low-lying line illustrating the number of cases in BC. I allow myself a moment of optimism. Maybe things will get back to normal in May.
My wife makes bacon and eggs. The girls and I battle for the bacon — a rare treat in our household. After breakfast, the older of our two girls checks the website of the local art gallery to get the guidelines for today’s challenge. To date, they’ve made paper hearts in support of local healthcare workers, taken photos to show the power of perspective, sketched their pets, made posters using cut-outs from old magazines — taping everything to the window to lend imagery to the notion that we’re all in this together.
Today’s task highlights the importance of maintaining social closeness despite physical distancing: they need to make a postcard for a loved one who lives in a separate household, and then email a scan of the postcard to the person. The girls decide to send postcards to all their grandparents. As the table disappears beneath the clutter of art supplies, I turn on the dishwasher. Didn’t I just put a load through yesterday?
I sit down on the couch and turn on my work laptop. I start up Moodle — the interface used by the college that I work at — and read the latest comments posted by my students. In English 100, we’re discussing the importance of physicality in writing; in 219, the various tenets of the personal essay; in 151, the aims, methods and impacts of Tim O’Brien’s short story collection The Things They Carried.
I’m impressed by many of the comments — although I’m worried about the handful of students who have simply disappeared from the courses despite my ongoing efforts to draw them back to the fold by spamming them with email messages. My appeals have oscillated between words of encouragement and gentle-but-firm reminders about the impact of participation and attendance on their final grade.
I get lost in my responses to the comments. It takes a couple of hours to express ideas that I could convey in half a class under normal circumstances. When I finally emerge from the forums, I feel tired, and then I feel guilty for feeling this way. Remote teaching is supposed to be easier. No commuting. No getting up in front of thirty sets of eyes and delivering content in a way that keeps those eyes off their phone. No classroom management. No post-class queues of students with questions about assignments. So why does the work seem so tiring? Maybe I’m doing it wrong.
I’m hungry. My daily step count is probably still at double digits, and I feel like I haven’t eaten for days. While chowing down on a bun-wich that could rival the work of any Subway sandwich artist, my wife turns on CBC Radio One — her go-to source for the latest news and commentary. A woman is giving tips for how to get the most out of working from home. She uses the words compartmentalising and goal-setting, reminding listeners to take things slowly and to go easy on themselves.
My wife wonders aloud where the girls are. They’ve been quiet for too long. We both know the answer without saying it. They’re on the tablets. Where else would they be? We both agree that we need to start hiding the devices — at least for parts of the day — but neither of us makes a move to get up from the table. We decide to give them a few more minutes. Does this qualify as going easy on ourselves?
I’m doing more computer work for my classes when my wife’s phone starts shimmying across the countertop. It’s a Messenger call from a friend of our youngest. The girl wants to do some quote-unquote face-time. After a brief exchange of small talk — a generous way to describe the mumbled greetings of seven-year-olds — the girl immediately initiates an augmented reality game that requires each of them to move their head back and forth to avoid hazards cascading down their screen. I ask her to take her giggling to another room while I finish my work.
I realise how lucky we are to be able to retreat to a private room. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be quarantined in China. We’re fortunate to have the ability to compartmentalise not only in the figurative sense, as the woman on the radio advised — dividing up the day into little boxes of time — but also in the literal sense. We can divvy up the geography of our home to allow for much-needed privacy and alone time. For many people around the world, this simply isn’t an option.
I feel like a survivor on The Walking Dead, heading out into the world to scavenge for supplies. I load my gear into the car: a plastic bin with straps, gloves, disinfectant wipes, a disposable mask. The roads are surprisingly busy; I try to recall how they were the last time I made the journey downtown. Not as crowded, if my memory serves me correctly. The parking lot at the grocery store is three-quarters full. It appears that my theory about afternoons being the quietest time to go shopping is flawed. Then it hits me: all those Canadians who returned from spring break only to be confined to two weeks of self-quarantine are ‘free’ to return to society today.
I put on the gloves, stuff the mask into my back pocket, pick up the bin and head into the store. Bread, milk, eggs, cheese, sliced veggies in packages, a fruit tray — I place everything in the bin hanging from my forearm, careful not to bring my free hand close to my face. I navigate the aisles with care, dodging and weaving to stay clear of other shoppers. I move briskly, but not quickly; I don’t want to appear in a hurry. I feel slightly self-conscious about the gloves, and I leave the mask in my pocket.
I was living in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak, and I wore a mask every day for weeks on end, not giving it a second thought, because everyone was doing it. Now wearing a mask seems too dramatic somehow — an act of admission that we as a society aren’t yet prepared to undertake. Life has become surreal enough without masks. Perhaps, at some level, we understand that wearing facemasks is a significant step in making the prefix of this descriptor — surreal — become redundant.
I crack a can of beer for a virtual happy hour with buddies. I take my first sip in front of my laptop, conscious of every movement as it gets broadcasted back to me via a tiny square at the edge of the screen. My friends seem equally ill at ease, but we plod forward, getting caught up, trying to talk about anything not related to coronavirus. Despite our best efforts, the conversation keeps circling back to the state of the world. It takes a couple of beers to get past the self-consciousness, and when I sign off an hour or so later, I’m surprised to discover that I’ve actually enjoyed the experience. We make plans to meet for drinks again next week.
We eat dinner in front of the TV, which has become a regular occurrence. We’ve settled into a nightly routine: a half-hour episode of a sitcom during dinner, followed by clean-up, feeding the cats and getting the girls in their PJs, followed by a family movie. Last night was a new release — Jumanji 2 — but tonight we’re dipping into the well for a classic. We’ve narrowed the choices down to Edward Scissorhands and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. I read the summaries to the girls and the debate begins.
We put the girls to bed. Our youngest has regressed in recent days, resuming her previously abandoned war on bedtime. She reinforces her argument for sleeping in our bed with fervent, righteous exclamations of It isn’t a school night! and I don’t have to wake up early! When she finally surrenders her position, depriving us of goodnight kisses by covering her head with her pillow, it’s nearly 9.30, but the frustration that used to result from these kinds of battles doesn’t reappear because my wife and I understand that she has a point. It isn’t a school night, and she doesn’t have to wake up early.
My wife and I go to bed. I pick up the book from the bedside table and start to read. I’m nearly finished the novel — the third or fourth I’ve read since the lockdown began. I try to remember the last time in my life I had time to read a book in a handful of sittings — as opposed to slogging through it over a number of weeks or months. I’d forgotten how rewarding it is to read a book without having to skip back several paragraphs from each folded page to find out what’s going on.
I return the book to the bedside table and turn off the lamp, glancing at the clock’s digits emerging from the darkness. The lockdown has claimed another day, as it will claim tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that — for weeks, months, maybe even years to come. It doesn’t occur to me to set the alarm.
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