“Do you mind if I call you?”
It was a simple text, but last Saturday, before most of North America was told to stay inside and only a few days after we learned what social distancing was, it hit me pretty hard. I don’t really call my friends that often — we text, or use WhatsApp, or respond to one another’s Instagram stories. Increasingly Telegram, too. But now we call.
The change happened quickly, as if people were breathless and needed to refill their lungs with the spoken word. Friends I haven’t spoken to in months, years even, wanted to meet my daughter over Skype, or Duo. Like they may never get another chance.
In the absence of physical touch, we make do with sound, with screens, and with smiles.
I can’t really describe the unease of the last week’s daily routine without manifesting a knot in my stomach: wake up, check the numbers. Get the kid breakfast and try to put on a happy face. Make coffee, start work, and recreate a semblance of normalcy. But nothing is normal right now, is it? We’re all stuck, pretending that, even sequestered at home, we’re still progressing towards the same goals. The reality, though, is that we’re just trying to wait this out.
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So we do what’s natural: we talk. In the absence of physical closeness, we establish the next-best-thing. We text, we write emails, we check in on Instagram or Facebook, but most of all, we call. We try to recreate what we’ve lost in the only way we know how, and we do it naturally, without really thinking about it.
I’ve really struggled to balance my masochistic need to know every small detail of how things are going wrong with the desire to free myself from the maelstrom, to disconnect and try to focus on the people I do have near me, my wife and daughter. (And my dog, who is a Very Good Pup.) But the need to reach out is strong, and it’s relentless, and despite my predilection for interiority, I can’t help but want to be around other people. So I call.
I’ve also been listening to a lot of podcasts, both about the COVID-19 pandemic and about literally anything but, depending on my mood. The comfort of conversation in my ear has been gratifying, from my morning dog walks with The Daily to whatever brilliant album Dissect is, well, dissecting at the time. I try to listen to every Reply All (and if you haven’t listened to episode 158, do it right now) and This American Life, and the latest season of Invisibilia has been incredible.
One of the prevailing pieces of wisdom going around the internet is not to waste the time you have. Take this downtime and make the best of it, they say. If you can’t work, learn a new skill; if you’re stuck at home without the amenities you take for granted every day, find — even build — alternatives. There is well meaning in these epithets, the same tone that sells millions of airport books with F*ck in the title, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for ignoring the imploration to dig up hidden nuggets of productivity from the excrement of this very bad situation.
I’m scared, and I’m certainly not scared to admit it. I’m worried about the health of my family, of my friends, of the economy and, not a little melodramatically, the very fabric of our shared society. I don’t think it’s alarmist to say that this is unprecedented, and that, like few other events in our lives, we’re all going to remember what we were doing, or not doing, when the virus hit. The main difference is that this time there’s the internet, and a shelter-in-place order, and no finish line.
You don’t need to write a novel or learn how to cook while in quarantine. You just need to take care of yourself.