The Culture of Staying Apart: A COVID-19 Diary
Chippewa Valley writer Patti See documents two weeks of coronavirus-era lifestyle changes
Friends meet my husband and me at Loopy’s High Shores. Bruce offers to make corned beef and cabbage at our house if everyone wears their hazmat suits. We’re still joking. We’re still going out. I eyeball the salad bar — perhaps the worst thing a person could eat. I have a few beers and follow the crowd to the pickled fish and communal soup.
I receive an email about working from home, a drastic measure I never imagined.
We cancel our weekend trip to our daughter’s in Madison. Restaurants and bars are shutting down. “That will never happen here,” I tell Bruce. All day long, I advise students about choosing classes and assure them everything will be back to normal by September. I almost believe it. I haven’t spoken on the phone this much since I was a teenager.
My best friend calls. “Did you hear?” Karen says, “Bars are closing.” My heart races. Is this one of the moments I’ll look back on, years from now — a closure that freaks me out more than any? Bruce and I sit at our counter and celebrate St. Patty’s day. To calm ourselves, we look at photos of babies on Facebook then Google more images of babies. We tear up over the one in 58 million born without a nose. His mother says, “Jack is perfect just the way he is.”
I burst outside and startle geese floating on open water. One gets spooked; the rest follow the crowd and take flight for a few yards then simultaneously land, belly down, as if still on liquid, not this clear sheet of ice. All 15 slide across the frozen lake, then stand up and poop in unison in the most hilarious display of synchronized swimming ever.
My first Skype for business meeting. I don’t know the etiquette, envision it’s a free for all like family gatherings — everyone talking at once. I follow the crowd: mute my microphone, take turns. How ecstatic I am to see other faces.
Somehow this “new normal” takes more energy. Friday night Bruce and I dance in the kitchen to songs on our pandemic playlist: “Make the World Go Away” and “You Ain’t a Goin’ Nowhere.” We think we’re so funny when we add “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” though it’s difficult to dance to.
I spot someone wearing a mask and gloves in public, like an extra from a doomsday film stumbled into my Lake Hallie Aldi. I bake oatmeal cookies, Bruce’s comfort food, and we play cards. Bruce beats me at cribbage, honeymoon whist, and kings-in-the-corners, which I’ve just taught him. He tells me that I look “well lived in.” Could it be my Leinie’s sweatshirt and pajama bottoms, for the second day?
Bruce’s morning begins with, “Alexa: What’s the forecast?” Each night he changes from sweatpants to sleeping pants. I joke that it’s like Groundhog Day. His face is puzzled. “What day is it? Not still February?” I have a meltdown because Bruce eats a piece of chicken skin. I rant about trying to keep him safe, not going out, and he’s filling his veins with chicken fat. Three hours later I apologize. He says sweetly, “I knew it wasn’t really about chicken.”
I reduce my 403B contribution to 50 bucks a month. I bake what Bruce agrees is the best cornbread in the world, and we eat it fresh out of the oven.
Karen comes over to sit in the yard with me, six feet apart. We realize our fire-building technique is exactly the same: Dump everything in a messy pile and light. Our bonfire burns for three hours; we take turns poking it. Bruce waves at us from the deck.
I stay in my pajamas all day and binge watch This is Us, The Valhalla Murders, and The Conners. I sign up to donate platelets at the Red Cross, which makes me feel less like a schlub.
On my lunch break, I take a quick kayak ride up and down Lake Hallie, something I could never do unless I was working remotely.
Bruce and I play 500 Rummy by “Southside Rules” developed when I was a kid. He kicks my butt.
Two weeks dragged by: a blur of phone calls, pants without zippers, meal planning, and card playing. We are still “safer at home” with no end in sight, which I try not to dwell upon. This morning I hear the throaty pterodactyl-like trill of a Great Blue Heron — my favorite bird — which followed the crowd from southern Florida to Lake Hallie. It’s spring. No matter what.
Patti See is a writer and poet who lives in Lake Hallie.