COVID-19 No. 14: All the Sleep in the World Can’t Help

ALTHOUGH MY HOUSEHOLD is holding up reasonably well, there have been recent moments of turbulence.

The extension of Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order and a continuance of school closures, both modified by the most dreaded of words — indefinitely — have exacerbated the uncertainty of our circumstances. And uncertainty, for me, at least, can be emotionally troublesome.

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The girls have demonstrated remarkable resilience, but they’re teenagers, and they’ve been forced to deal with a world-shaking catastrophe they had nothing to do with. It is challenging enough for adults to have to pick our way through this minefield. For teens?

It’s amazing they haven’t taken up arms against the generations — mine included — that have dealt them the shittiest of hands, knowing what the cards were and not caring.

During a low period a couple of days ago, one of the girls noted how tired she was.

Maybe try taking a nap? I suggested.

And, boy, did she nail it. This is an exhausting time. The hourly fluidity of the situation is terribly draining. And even if you try to consume it in small doses, the relentless torrent of pandemic-related news gives rise to an ever-present nervousness that buzzes quietly in the background. Keeping the buzz at bay requires mental bandwidth, and expending bandwidth seeps energy. I feel exhausted just about all day long.It’s not the kind of tired that makes you want to sleep, she said.

I am reminded of the chronic pain I endured when a disc in my lower back blew out, coming to rest on a nerve and sending searing sciatic pain screaming down my leg. Keeping the pain at bay so that I could function at the most basic level sucked up bandwidth. It left me tired. But, as my daughter astutely observed, not the kind of tired that sends you to bed in the middle of the afternoon.

In my case, it was the kind that makes you clumsy and forgetful. In her case, it was the kind that jumps you on the pier and casts you adrift, unsure of when or where you’ll make landfall.

Control what you can control, I tell my kids. That counsel has never felt more salient. | DL

COVID-19 No. 13: We Had All Kinds of Time

THIS WAS GOING TO BE another measured, thoughtful post on everyday life during the topsy-turvy times that COVID-19 has dumped on us.

And then I learned, via Twitter a few minutes ago, that Adam Schlesinger died today.

He was just 52, a mere year older than I, and was a cofounder of and songwriter for the unparalleled power pop band Fountains of Wayne. If you know Adam Schlesinger at all, it’s probably from his Oscar-nominated song “That Thing You Do,” from Tom Hanks’s charming film of the same name, and “Stacy’s Mom,” an impossibly catchy tune that still pops up on commercial radio, 17 years after its release.

And that’s a shame, a damn shame, because Schlesinger and Fountains of Wayne were so much more than that.

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“Stacy’s Mom” was a hit, possibly more for its subject than its musicianship, and, again, that’s a damn shame. The album on which it appears, Welcome Interstate Managers, is one of those rare just-about-perfect records, a front-to-back work of sparkling songwriting, exquisite harmonies, and joyfully jangly guitars.

I may be feeling overly sentimental because when R. was much younger, Fountains of Wayne was a staple of our singalongs. Even today, we can sing deeper cuts word-for-word, reveling in their sharp lyrics and disarming accessibility.

Yet FoW’s other stuff is similarly bouncy and thoughtful, much of it thanks to Schlesinger, who went on to win awards for his stage, TV, and film work, and was also part of the wonderfully ethereal band Ivy.

I don’t mourn celebrity passings, with exceptions that can be counted on one hand. There is too much tragedy among us regular folks to devote emotional bandwidth to the rich and famous. But there are those whose talent is snuffed far, far too soon, who deserve my sadness and regret.

Kirsty MacColl was one. Adam Schlesinger is another.

Many feel the same about the playwright Terrence McNally, felled by COVID-19 last week. The influential singer-songwriter John Prine is, as of now, in critically condition. We will lose more in the weeks and months to come, and that’s on top of loved ones, family, friends, and coworkers who will leave us much earlier they ought.

It didn’t have to be this way. It did not.

The bourbon sits inside me

Right now I’m a puppet in its sway

And it may be the whiskey talking

But the whiskey says I miss you every day | DL

COVID-19 No. 12: Tumbleweeds in Place of Tellers

monopolyMORE MUNDANITY RENDERED EXTRAORDINARY and bizarre by everyone’s favorite pandemic:

A trip to the bank.

The final paycheck from my previous job was delivered not via direct deposit but as a slip of paper that arrived in the mail. In ordinary times, that would necessitate a 20-minute lunchtime errand. In these times, it entailed a 5 a.m. alarm and a creepy drive through very dark, mostly deserted streets to the closest branch.

Per guidelines, if I have to be out, I want it to be when I’m least likely to encounter other people. While the introvert in me needs such solitude with regularity, my genial, more social side misses simple human interaction.

Depositing a check at 5:15 in the morning for the sole purpose of not running into anyone. Like I said, extraordinary and bizarre.

This typically banal daily errand didn’t fill me with the existential dread fostered by last week’s grocery-store run, but I was hardly comfortable. As I stood outside and slid my ATM card into the slot to unlock the door, I saw myself reflected in the glass.

Black jacket, black gloves, charcoal baseball cap.

Jesus, I thought. The cops are gonna think I’m robbing the joint.

All went uneventfully, though, and I was home and in the shower before long, trying to shake off the unease that shrouded me over the course of my trip. I’m so ready for the mundane to be mundane again.

I mentioned that the streets were mostly deserted. A handful of cars did pass me. And standing in the middle of a usually well-traveled road was a deer that seemed as startled to see me as I was her. Guess she didn’t get the memo about social distancing. | DL

COVID-19 No. 11: When ‘Shop ’til You Drop’ Has a Whole New Meaning

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BY THE TIME I PARKED MY CAR and walked to the entrance, about a dozen people had gathered, waiting for the store to open. It was early yesterday, just before 7. I don’t usually shop for groceries on Friday morning, but if I have to be out and about, I want to do it when I’ll encounter as few people as possible.

Another pivot in the coronavirus era.

Another dozen or so people gathered behind me. Many wore facemasks. There was little conversation.

I was fortunate to have arrived when I did. The guy who unlocked the door held it open and announced to us, politely but firmly, that only 15 people would be permitted in the store at any one time. I was number 11.

Never has a task so mundane created such anxiety in me.

Even with so few shoppers, I couldn’t help encountering people in aisles or near endcaps. We all tried to adhere to the 6-foot rule as much as we could, but full compliance simply was not possible. I found myself holding my breath often — which, when you’re trying to tamp down your nerves, is about the polar opposite of what you should be doing. I wore gloves, which made handling produce awkward. There was little talking, and I was taken aback to hear a shopper standing at the meat counter say rather loudly to the butcher, “What the fuck else am I gonna do?”

Indeed.

I filled my cart in about half an hour, a record for me when doing the weekly shop. Because of the 15-customer limit, I didn’t have to wait to pay up. I thanked the cashier for being there and told her I hoped people were treating her and her coworkers kindly.

Most were, she said, though there have been a few who, y’know.

Yeah. I know. We all know. Some of those types are the ones who blithely chose to ignore warnings of a clear and present danger, the ones in positions of leadership and power who could have — should have, goddammit — answered the call. They’ll never acknowledge it, but these people have blood on their hands.

Anyway.

I rolled my cart out the door. Eight or ten people stood quietly in line, appropriately distanced. I shared a smile with the person at the front of the line, a gentle-looking woman in her seventies, loaded my bags into the car, and drove home.

I never thought I’d long for a return to crowded stores and long checkout lines. I’ll be happy to stop pivoting so much. | DL

COVID No. 10: Fear and Balanced

DESPITE POPULAR OPINION, I am not ashamed to say that I once was a journalist.

It started in grade school, when my brother and I would squirrel ourselves away in our bedroom, quaff water from our parents’ mugs and say we were drinking coffee, and bang out stories on a manual typewriter. In sixth grade — and I mean, we’re talking four decades ago, but somehow I still remember it — a gifted teacher rallied her students to produce a class newspaper. I was the managing editor.

In college, I submitted a few columns to the weekly paper as a freshman, came on board as a staffer when I was a sophomore, and wrote and reported like mad for the next three years.

And then, a few years out of college, I landed a job as a municipal reporter at a daily, covering local government and school boards and courts and the cops beat. I grew up in that job — learned to talk to anyone, ask them questions that would compel them to open up, take notes on the fly, write 800 clear, concise words on deadline.

And then join my fellow night-owl reporters at a local dive bar, catch some sleep, and get up and do it again.

All of that is by way of saying that I pay attention to the news. Close attention.

But now … I’m distancing myself.

I know it’s important to stay informed. And my job compels me to have a browser tab open to Twitter while I work, so the deluge of information and opinion, some of it legitimate, much of it complete and utter bullshit, pours on, relentless and merciless.

The former reporter in me wants to take all of it in, every story, every column, every inkspot, every pixel.

The father and husband in me, the employee in me, the retirement-account-holder in me, the goddamn citizen in me … that guy needs some space. He — I — has to ration his news consumption.

I don’t need to know every last detail — though I think I might want to.

What I need is to stay informed to a level that allows me to function — without despair, excessive fear, confusion, or anger. And that requires rationing.

As much as I want to know … all of it. | DL

COVID No. 9: I Am Not an Epidemiologist, So Take My Optimism With a Grain of Salt

DON’T ASK ME HOW IT HAPPENED, and please don’t come at me tomorrow to see if it’s still there. But somehow, someway, to paraphrase the great Marshall Crenshaw, I found not simply acceptance today but optimism.

Maybe it was the dawning hope that a major project unexpectedly handed to me at my new job will be seen through successfully; maybe it was hearing R. cheerfully FaceTime with her cousin this afternoon; maybe it was the bracing 2-mile walk I took while it was still dark this morning; maybe it was the sun-soaked stroll around the neighborhood I took just before lunchtime. Whatever it was, the existential threat of the last several weeks just didn’t seem as looming today.

I’m under no illusions that the next several weeks won’t suck. But it’s … several weeks. Not years, not a lifetime. Several weeks of sucking it up, being there for each other, rolling with it. Yes, me and my family, we’re lucky. For now, and hopefully for as long as this lasts, we can do these things. We can afford to do these things. I hope that as a country, one assaulted by a sickness that cares not for race or age or status, we can close ranks and do the right thing by everyone.

I have sadly little confidence our government can do this. And this is not a both-sides-need-to-get-it-together thing; there’s a party that controls half of the Congress and the White House, and unfortunately it’s the party that has patted science, research, data, and evidence on the head and sent it strolling down the garden path while it catered to the shrinking, shriveling demographic of old straight white guys.

My hope is that the united will of the people — because, again, this is an illness that is striking down the high and the low; COVID-19 doesn’t play the us-versus-them game — can win the day.

Blind optimism, perhaps. But I believe there will come a time, a time not so long away, when I will hug my extended family and my dear friends, when I will shake hands with colleagues, when I will sit in the stands with a cold beer and cheer on my beloved Phillies, when I will go to work — actually go to work, not step into the home office and turn on my laptop. I do not envision this time as a dream or as a hope, but as an eventuality.

He said, eyeing a half-full glass. | DL

COVID No. 8: When You Have to See a Man About a Cat

AS MONDAYS GO, today was a doozy in the 215.

A drenching, daylong rain turned our backyard into swampland, and chilly temperatures imparted a nasty rawness that made outdoor activity a dreadful prospect. Schools, it was announced, would be closed for another two weeks — and, my goodness, of course it’s going to be longer than that. The governor put the entire region under a stay-at-home order — no going out unless it’s life-sustainingly necessary.

You really can’t get much more Monday than that.

But there was also a moment that helped reframe things.

This afternoon, I was attending a Zoom meeting in our home office. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw one of the cats slip inside the ajar doorway, and my interior voice said, “Goddammit.”

Oh, have I not mentioned that both of the cats’ litter boxes sit less than 10 feet from where I was perched, laptop open in front of me, WITH VIDEO ENABLED?

I shot a glance at the “You” thumbnail on my screen and breathed a discreet sigh of relief when I saw that nothing below my shoulders was visible in the frame. Still — when you’re trying to be professional in these most business casual of times, hearing the telltale scritch scritch scritch of paws against plastic makes you feel a couple rungs below the guy whose toddler and infant bounded into the room, on camera, as he was delivering punditry on live television.

All the same, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. Life goes on, and we all need to take care of the most urgent of matters, whether we have two legs or four.

We’re all doing our best, all making it up as we go. And, come on, if Sawyer or Shadow were teleconferencing in my bathroom, I wouldn’t let that stop me if nature called. | DL