Before my next article appears my wife and I will have marked two years since we went into self-imposed quarantine. Doing so was completely rational. Pandemics have been with us for millennia. Hundreds of millions died before governments discovered that quarantine works in preventing the spread of disease. The word ‘quarantine’ derives from the 40 days (quarenta giorni in Italian) that Mediterranean cities isolated travelers during the Black Death before allowing entry.
But our 21st century quarantine exceeded 40 days almost tenfold – with a couple of brief excursions – and even now we are not sure if it’s really over. Humans rarely find themselves in isolation for such a lengthy time. For many of us, this period of isolation annoyed but often amused.
Shortly after quarantine began my wife and I noticed that our dreams had become more vivid with a larger cast of characters and more complicated plot lines. On more than one occasion I awoke thinking that I was still playing a role in the plot of my dream.
Fortunately, my work lent itself to moving online almost immediately. I had known of Skype and Facetime before but now I discovered a whole new universe with Zoom, WhatsApp, Signal, Teams, Webex, Ring Central, and Streamyard, among others. My attendance at two or three panels a week hosted by Washington DC think tanks spiraled into two or three virtual ‘webinars’ a day. I also discovered that I got much less out of them once I lost the opportunity to talk to other attendees. Looking at a screen full of a gallery of disconnected faces in little boxes (or sometimes just a box with a name) conveyed nothing. I also learned to multitask, for example, exercising or playing solitaire while I watched.
Virtual webinars, however, had their moments. On one occasion for example, a distinguished retired lady Ambassador lost her audience when her brand new pet kitten leaped on top of her head. I admired her aplomb; she never broke stride speaking while groping for the kitten.
We discovered that video conferencing presents unexpected sartorial challenges. At the beginning we all wanted to replicate the seriousness of our previous in-person lives. But standards began to drop as we realized no one else could see what we were wearing below the breastbone. We took liberties but it did not always work out as expected. I am still trying to track down and delete every electronic copy of a picture taken of me wearing an elegant blazer, a striped tie and a shirt with cufflinks over running shorts and tennis shoes.
The ‘mute’ button presented great challenges. At every meeting some number of participants failed to ‘unmute’ when they started talking. Others failed to mute when they should have.
We also discovered a great deal about the internal appearance of homes. We learned to ‘stage’ our rooms like real estate agents impressing prospective buyers. Zoom has a neat feature known as ‘virtual background’ which visually converted my attic office into the stacks at the Library of Congress. Not handled properly, however, Zoom’s ‘virtual background’ can cause parts of your anatomy to disappear into the stacks.
Immovable desktop computers presented special challenges. After several months of quarantine, my eyes hurt. After I described my symptoms to my eye doctor he asked, “Do you zoom on a desktop computer?” He explained that the human eye can only focus at two discreet distances for long periods, less than twelve inches and beyond twenty feet. The human eyes cannot focus at two feet – the average setback for a desktop. He prescribed special ‘glasses for computers’ that focus the eyes at two feet. The optometrist confirmed that she saw eyeglass prescriptions for computers as often as two or three times a week! (By the way, they work.)
I discovered that the attention span of an eight-year-old boy (my grandson) was far shorter on virtual platforms, even those (supposedly) designed for children. I have yet to master the art of offering treats or other bribes over Facetime or WhatsApp.
Ordinary shopping during COVID annoyed us and the closure of several favorite retail stores saddened us. We soon succumbed to the siren song of home delivery. This led to a certain degree of domestic distress. I am prepared to pay more rather than help Amazon become a monopoly. My wife is not. I blinked first. Eating out, our favorite form of entertainment, ceased; ordering Sunday lunch via curbside pickup from our favorite Greek restaurant soon lost its luster.
In March of 2021 and after two shots of Moderna vaccine, my wife and I prepared to leave for London to visit our two daughters and our grandson. As the departure day approached, we were suddenly struck with an attack of separation anxiety. Our house had cocooned us for the previous year, in comfort and security. Now we were suddenly venturing into the unknown outside the house. We almost cancelled the trip.
On a more serious note, we discovered that the pandemic mostly improved the material wellbeing of upper-middle class American families. No need to spend time and money commuting, eating downtown, buying new clothes for the office or the evening. But incomes remained the same. We read about the suffering of the hotel and restaurant staff, the drivers, the movie and parking attendants who lost their jobs, but we don’t have real conversations with them. They lost loved ones to COVID in bigger numbers than we did. We got bored with masks and quarantining; they would have starved without government help. Now we hear people condemning them as parasitic wastrels too lazy to work. Maybe they woke up to the fact that their previous jobs were lousy.