"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Transformation Of A Lifelong Progressive–Quarantine, A Bad Marriage, And The Unexpected Consequences Of COVID-19

Bert Levers had always been one for a hug.  He had hugged his wife; he hugged his children, and given today’s more open, permissive, and inclusive society, he hugged men – not just an air kiss, but a true, lingering, heartfelt embrace.  He was so glad that the Fifties when a firm handshake or a pat on the back was all there was to express friendship or simple camaraderie were long past.  Now he could hug whomever, whenever, and although he hesitated at first to be expressive with women and held them at arms length rather than draw them in, he was now quite comfortable with physical contact.

Image result for images intimate hug men and women

In his quieter moments he had to admit that there was a bit more to it than that.  When he embraced Janet Muldour in front of Whole Foods every Saturday morning - a bit awkwardly across her shopping basket and cut flowers – he smelled her soap, her conditioner, her body lotion, and her perfume, and he wanted her.  He was ashamed at this breach of etiquette, a sneaky, horny miscue in the new propriety. He knew he shouldn’t take such sexual pleasure in what had become for most a greeting as desultory as the ‘regular guy’ handshake of his youth.  He vowed to reform, to deny himself this one and only intimacy with women, and to behave.

However, despite his warmth and feeling, Bert was trapped in a bad marriage.  Hugs with his wife which had initially been part of his romance – a prelude to a kiss  – had become distasteful.  Any physical contact with this now tubular, farting, shuffling woman was unconscionable.  His wife would have loved some attention from a man she had loved and stuck with for many decades, but he simply could not bring himself to anything more than an indifferent ‘good night’.  As affectionate as he was with others, nothing more than salutations were possible with his wife.  She was an inconvenient irritant in a life that was otherwise very simple, compassionate, warm, and giving. 

He had never thought that he would find his wife in the bread drawer, but that was exactly where he had left her – a loaf gone stale and slightly moldy; and if it hadn’t been for the insufferable financial and legal difficulties involved, he would have given her to Martha’s Kitchen long ago.

But this is what one does with loaves that have gone bad or meals that have not turned out the way the chef intended – consignment.  There was no way that his growing and now permanent indifference to his wife would interfere with this new wave of generalized intimacy.

Physical closeness was only a bit part of what he felt.  Over the years he had gained in compassion, feeling, and concern for others.  Despite being brought up in a strictly conservative, John Birch, Daughters of the American Revolution home where compassion was a deformation of Christian charity, an anathema, and a contributing factor to the erosion of Hamiltonian values; or because of it, Bert had become a progressive.  He wanted no part of his parents selfish, self-centered, ignorant Nietzschean social philosophy.  Coming of age in the Sixties was fortuitous.  Not only had he personally realized the errors of his parents’ ways, he found himself within a generation of anti-capitalist, compassionate others.

The free-loving, compassionate, forgiving intimacy of the hippies – and not the assaulting political grievances of Mark Rudd and Jerry Rubin – became Bert’s mantra.  It was love that mattered – love for the one you’re with,  for your neighbor,  for the world.  Bert emerged from the Sixties as a committed, although much-maligned member of the Touchy-Feely generation.

Every political movement has its edges – the asymptotic ends of the curve – and the absolute, forgiving, inclusiveness of Bert’s newfound liberalism was indeed where the X and Y axes met.  His wife excluded, everyone in Bert’s thinking and compassionate philosophy had a legitimate place in the world.  There were no winners or losers, no heroes or villains, no ups and downs, no scurrility or grandeur, just life itself in all its wonders.

For years Bert was a proud member of the progressive community, dedicated to reversing climate change, breaking the glass ceiling, redistributing the world’s wealth, opening society to the sexually marginal and dispossessed, and eliminating racism.  He was tireless in his efforts, welcomed all like-minded comers into the big tent, and became a leader of The Movement.

Then came COVID-19, the Corona virus, the pandemic that shut down the world and challenged Bert Levers’ commitment to universal love, compassion and doing good.

Image result for images covid-19

At first, he assumed like everyone that the virus would run its course quickly; then in the face of epidemiological facts realized that the the world might be in it for the long haul.  Judiciousness, care, precautions, and good sense would have to prevail to mitigate the damage.  Bert, who had never ever really forgotten the lessons of his radically conservative upbringing, was surprised if not nonplussed and then angry at government’s arrogation of authority – its shutdowns, lock-downs, and summary neutering of all productive economic and social activity.  For what, exactly?

In any case, Bertie found himself shut in with his wife who had taken COVID-19 more seriously than anyone he had met.  She scoured counter-tops, walls, doorknobs, shower heads, and every surface in their house with a triple-Clorox solution.  She left mail in the mailbox for three days before bringing it in.  She went out only to get the morning papers and then only garbed in full, anti-viral, cloaked regalia. In the house she avoided contact with anything ‘nonessential’ and became a hermit within her own hermitage. She was intolerable.

Anyone trapped for weeks with such a person could not help but be dismally changed.  Whatever universal compassion Bert had had before Corona, and however relegated his wife may have been, he could never be completely immune from such a woman’s own personal virus.  Whatever compassion, universal love, inclusiveness, and progressive tolerance he might have had before quarantine, by the time it was over, it was gone.

You see, enforced isolation has unintended consequences; and although strict ‘stay-at-home’ rules might mitigate the spread of the virus, it exposed fissures in relationships and philosophical commitments that had been ignored for years.

Bert could no longer be with his wife, it turned out; and the decades of mute acceptance of her fungal presence were now, finally and forever, public.   His years of commitment to global unity, to a one-world, multi-cultural utopia had been corroded beyond repair.  What does it matter, he concluded, after listening to his wife’s hammering and banging about Trump's ignorance yet again?  What does she matter, he concluded, and what on God’s earth, does anything matter?

It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to wake Bert Levers up.  He should have known better when his wife began adjusting their portfolio to include low-risk utility bonds; or when she had alternative designs on the kitchen; or when she put everything in trust.  The girl he married had turned into a timorous, unpleasant, unimaginative old lady.   But it was thanks to or because of the pandemic that he did finally wake up – too late as it turned out; for as well or badly they two of them might fare, they were too far gone to leave it all.

And that was the tragedy of COVID-19 – it revealed nasty things that could never be fixed, reversed, or removed.

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