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

Monday, May 4, 2020

Quarantined, Sequestered, And Locked Down–Seeing Everyone Close Up And Wondering

Corona has completely disrupted social, economic, religious and financial life.  Husbands and wives are for the first time in decades forced to live with each other 24/7 – no teas, bridge clubs, volunteering; no zinc bars, oysters, and beer.  Lockdown has meant locked in and  inescapable.  The scars, bruises, slights, and indifferences of long marriages have suddenly and unexpectedly resurfaced.  There may be couples  which have become closer if not more intimate over the long haul of sequestration, but for most the worn patches, frayed collars, and long-closeted resentments of long marriages show up in weeks.

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It was never meant to be this way.  In olden days husbands and wives led separate lives – he digging the wells, repairing the fences, tending to the back forty; she tending to the wash, the cooking, and the children.  They crawled under the covers at night, made love if not too tired, woke to a day just like all the rest. They were a couple but never emotionally coupled – married out of convenience, reproductive out of nature and economy, dying separately without remorse or grief, remarried in another productive economic union, and dying again.

In normal marriages of today the same routine is repeated although with more control and determination.  Couples do not always choose to have children, social security is provided by government and careful private investment, and old age is less a lonely sanctuary than a vigorous, productive one; but married life is still a relatively independent affair.  Neither than nor now are married couples joined at the hip.

Corona has changed all that. Husbands and wives are thrown together.  While infidelities  have been temporarily archived; and while the grosser questions of ambition, corporate greed, or feminist resolution put on hold, the formerly insignificant bits – the ones that really irritate but which were never very evident in a normal, active, multi-variant life – are everywhere.  Not only toilet seats left up or down, hairs in the sink, dirty dishes left on the counter, trash un-dumped, but more serious behavior.  A wife or husband  once happily on the periphery has become an intruder.  What to do with her?

In the recent past, husbands had easy retreats - a quick trip to Bamako for an assignation with Mme. Touré, beautiful Peulh wife of the Minister of Finance, on the outs with the present government, soon to be supernumerary , and always in Timbuktu or Segou on official business; a sojourn with Usha Ismail, Hollywood-ready, Bollywood-sought Pakistani manager of the chic shop at the Delhi Oberoi; a dalliance with Berthe Rasmussen First Secretary of the Danish Embassy in Colombo – but Corona had changed all that.  Husbands were locked down and celibate.  Sex with longstanding partners, although still possible was unappetizing, and solitary sex, adolescent and immature, returned.

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These sexual inconveniences were nothing, however, compared to the discombobulation of life itself.  Isolation, remove from easy social contacts, friends, and even family, was nothing short of existential. Once the trappings of a successful life were reduced to Zoom, FaceTime, and incidental contacts on social media, what were they worth?  The board meetings in suit tops and pajama bottoms, bad coffee, and irritable children were revealing. ‘Real’ meetings with mahogany, old Victorian silver, 25th floor overlooks, and sushi, markers of a stable, productive life, were gone.  Mediated and artificially convened virtual meetings were never taken seriously, and there more there were, the more silly, childish, play acting they seemed to be.

Many parents felt obliged to home-school their children while on lockdown; but their children, used to the organization, order, and discipline of the schoolroom never gave their parents any peace; and parents whose math competence was quickly far surpassed by their children, gave up on Algebra II, Geometry, and Calculus.  Studied, practiced, experienced home-schooling might be a reasonable solution to Corona-truancy for some, but for most, it was a waste of time.  Corona offered an opportunity for parents to connect with their growing, maturing children, but most didn’t even see it coming.   They were ill-equipped and too conservative to reject the idea of Corona-era ‘school replacement’ and begin real, intimate, personal teaching and learning.  The enforced months-long lockdown, a chance for a special, once-in-a-lifetime experience with offspring, was wasted.

Worst of all was the existential crisis of being isolated, locked down.  This was not a life of voluntary sequestration in the Carthusian monasteries of the French Alps  - a life of Spartan seclusion, abstinence, perpetual prayer, and spiritual devotion. It was a life of deprivation and enforced isolation, all the more penitential because it was a life deprived while memories of engagement, sex, and pleasure were right there and accessible.  One had to ask, ‘Who am I?…What am I doing here?…What is my life really all about…?” There was no avoiding it.  Corona, for all its unpleasant and largely unnecessary lockdown of normal. sexual, engaged life, has forced an accountability.

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Were all these social accoutrements – zinc oyster bars, vacations in Rimini, skiing at Gstaad, summers on the Vineyard, paramours in Pakistan, Chad, and Borneo, nouvelle cuisine a la San Francisco and Alice Waters really worth it? Worth anything for that matter? Did longevity in marriage really count for that much, and worth  many Ushas, Berthes, and Fatimatas? Does social rectitude, harmony,and  belonging matter at all? Is a life of purpose – commitment, causes, dedication - any better than la dolce vita?

Some of us locked down, eating endless dinners of pasta, beans, eggs, and BBQ, waking at the same time to the same unchanging, dispiriting routine, only want it to end.  Others wonder if life is really as routine, predictable, dull, and inevitable as seen under Corona, then what?

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Some of us, once the Corona crisis has passed, will rush back to Bamako, Delhi, and Colombo.   Others, thankful that they have been spared will give prayer and remembrance to survival, and will remain existentially unchanged and unmoved.

The Corona lockdown has been long and punitive. Some have been able to value the incarceration. Cinq-a-septs will be all the more exciting and satisfying because of it.  Thousands of others, however, will have lived through months of emotional penury with nothing at all to show for it.

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