My self-inflicted haircut is crooked. Who cares? I’m invisible while we hunker down “safer at home.”
That’s apart from several video conferences a week, which take me into homes of people I’d normally see only in public, and brings them into mine. Social distancing blurs boundaries to create a kind of intimacy. Who guessed we'd ever watch members of the Paris Ballet dance in their kitchens with toddlers and pets?
Visibility, invisibility, a blessing and a curse. I hate being invisible when a meeting chair ignores my raised hand. I love invisibility in a pre-pandemic crowd where no one notices or cares how I look.
Writers choose how visible to be to their readers. I hope someday to read coronavirus memoirs where the author shines through on every page, alongside histories and analyses where the author disappears. Unless those lines, too, begin to blur.
Obsessive hand washing has adults singing the alphabet song several times a day. If you’re getting sick of ABCs, any song that lasts at least twenty seconds will do.
Or compose your own lyrics to the same 18th-century French melody, as plenty of people have done. The version to which Mozart composed twelve variations (below) translates roughly to “Shall I tell you what upsets me, Mom? Dad wants me to reason like a grown-up, but I prefer sweets over reason.” I’m still trying to pen an English version that fits the tune.
More familiar is “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” first stanza of a poem by Jane Taylor (1783-1824) published in Rhymes for the Nursery in 1806. By the time The Singing Master III paired Taylor’s poem with the old tune 32 years later, other lyrics had been set to it too, including the alphabet and something called “Mark My Alford.” The possibilities are endless. “Bah, bah, black sheep” is similar but shorter. You’d have to sing it twice to get your hands clean.
Ah ! Vous dirai-je maman
Ce qui cause mon tourment?
Papa veut que je raisonne
Comme une grande personne
Moi je dis que les bonbons
Valent mieux que la raison.
Life may return to almost the way it was, with more hand washing and fewer handshakes. Or entire cultures and global power balances may shift. It wouldn’t be the first time.
After bubonic plague devastated Europe, English landowners had fewer peasants to work the same amount of land. Many switched from crops to sheep, which required less labor. The English wool industry led to textiles, the Industrial Revolution, colonization, global naval power, and cultural hegemony that continues to this day. English is the international language.
Smallpox and measles ravaged the Americas when travelers from another hemisphere (like bats in the current pandemic) introduced the viruses to humans who had no prior exposure. Visiting San Antonio in February, I learned how disease and drought drove people into the missions for survival and gave rise to an entirely new, blended culture of Spanish language, Catholic faith, and indigenous foods and customs.
Will the long-term impact of coronavirus be minor or huge? It’s too early for scientists or historians to know.
Uptalk: Speech in which declarative sentences end with a rising pitch.
Of the ways a writer can convey tone in dialogue, few carry as much punch as a question mark at the end of a non-question. You can picture the speaker easily? A wimpy, insecure, superficial airhead who’s either oblivious or hungry for approval? This stereotypical Valley girl usage has spread far beyond the San Fernando Valley of southern California, especially (but not exclusively) among women and the young.
Though widely derided, uptalk can be a mark of strength. It connects speaker with listener, inviting a nod of understanding. People with more authority in a conversation—doctors to patients, supervisors to employees, scientists to laypeople—often use uptalk to reduce distance and soften an otherwise impersonal lecture.
A rising tone in speech, as in music, signals there’s more to follow. Far from showing deference, uptalk flashes a warning: Don’t interrupt me. I’m not done.
Ending a statement with a question mark in written dialogue has pros and cons. Pro: It conjures up a ready image. Con: Like many stereotypes, that image may not hold true.
Having been an expert in your field for decades doesn’t make you adept at the technology to teach online. Broadly speaking, with exceptions of course, those at highest risk from coronavirus by age are the ones least accustomed to electronic communications. Daughters and sons home from school help their faculty parents figure out how to teach in the era of social distancing.
The rest of us have been learning new technologies, too. My sympathies to everyone working from home for the first time, expected to keep up a normal pace of productivity in these abnormal times.
Remote communications also challenge community volunteers, support groups, religious leaders and worshipers, teachers of guitar and yoga. Zoom and its online cousins are expanding my skill set. We can’t visit museums or travel just now, but each day brings unsolicited opportunities to learn and explore.
I didn’t live in Wisconsin yet when then-Senator Gaylord Nelson came up with the suggestion for the first Earth Day, which took place fifty years ago this Wednesday (April 22). Even after I moved here and took frequent walks in Governor Nelson State Park, it took a while to make the connection.
Two societal changes of the late 1960s gave Nelson the idea. One was increasing environmental awareness, heightened by the Cuyahoga River fire and the Santa Barbara oil spill. The other was student anti-war protests, which showed the power of demonstrations to influence public policy.
I walked at Governor Nelson a couple of weeks ago, before our state parks had to close because crowding undercut social distancing. We can’t take our out-of-doors for granted. Hope you can find a place with six-foot-wide trails to pass other walkers safely, where you can still enjoy the spring and celebrate half a century of Earth Day.
In December 1973, amid gasoline shortages and global recession, Wisconsin Congressman Harold Froelich warned, “The U.S. may face a shortage of toilet paper within a few months. . . . It is a problem that will potentially touch every American.” After Tonight Show host Johnny Carson mentioned it in a joke, panicked shoppers stocked up. The shelves stood empty for weeks.
Of course people haven’t always had TP. They used whatever was at hand: leaves, moss, rags. Later pages from old newspapers, the Sears Roebuck catalog, or the Old Farmer’s Almanac served the purpose. Mass production of a medicated product began in the 1850s, and Scott introduced perforated rolls in 1890. But who wanted to buy a novelty to replace what they’d been using for free?
What made TP indispensable was indoor plumbing with flush toilets. The age-old remedies would clog the pipes.
Brian Gersten, whose 11-minute documentary The Great Toilet Paper Scare premiered at the Big Sky Film Festival in February, writes his initial goal “was simply to make a film about a bizarre and forgotten piece of history that people would ideally find funny and entertaining. I think my goal now is for people to use the film as a mirror of sorts. A fun-house mirror perhaps.”
Among the season’s many cancellations was a friend’s planned family vacation at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Before their intended departure, I misunderstood him to say they would sleep in the only surviving wigwam east of the Mississippi.
Huh? The small bark winter houses of the eastern and midwestern woodlands weren’t exactly durable. Wisconsin has several replicas. If an authentic original survived, I can’t imagine tourists being allowed to sleep there. West of the Mississippi, tepees, hogans, and pueblos were more common.
Kentucky’s mis-named Wigwam Motel* is on the National Register of Historic Places, as are its two surviving siblings in Arizona and California. They’re remnants of 1930s and ’40s pseudo-Indian kitsch, akin to cigar-store Indians and now-controversial sports team names and mascots.
Preserve traces of our imperfect past, or expunge it out of respect? Souvenir war bonnets, Confederate statues, anti-Semitism in Shakespeare, gendered adventures in Peter Pan: There’s no one easy answer. Museums, classrooms, and historical parks hold thoughtful spaces to preserve and respect. I hope the Wigwam Motel stays in business, with a conspicuous historical marker near the entrance to put the kitsch in context.
* Image: The "wigwams" look more like tepees.
Whatever we think we know about this pandemic is out of date. The number of Americans with confirmed coronavirus topped 100,000 in March. Before they showed symptoms, many of them infected others, who in turn infected more. Each confirmation might mean at least half a dozen infections not yet visible, growing exponentially.
Gaze into the night sky. Your perception of the nearest visible star is obsolete. Its light began the long journey toward Earth more than four years ago.
Isn’t much of life like that? Writers chase a publishing fad only to see it pass before their work sees print. The child I last saw two years ago is no longer the child I thought I knew. Stock bubbles crash from everyone trying to cash in on yesterday’s hot tip.
I admit to having been among the skeptics who once thought coronavirus worries overblown. The numbers were tiny compared to flu. I was wrong. My data was out of date—and always will be. Barring core beliefs and eternal truths, all we can know with any approach to certainty has already passed.
In The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov, each human on Solaria stays far from everyone else. To see or be seen in person is disgusting and obscene. Instead, attended by robots, humans “view” one another remotely through holograms.
I thought of Solaria when my branch bank closed its face-to-face drive-up window in favor of video screens and pneumatic tubes, presumably for security. I think of it now as we talk to neighbors via devices instead of walking across the lawn.
One character in The Naked Sun eventually escapes to a saner, more nurturing planet. Our escape shouldn’t require leaving Earth, but there’s another possibility. How long would it take for our psyches to adapt, elevating physical closeness from risky or imprudent to a lasting cultural taboo?
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.