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.
The Alphabet Song
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.
When This Is Over
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.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.