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For the sake of argument

There was an argument about keeping libraries open.  Kids who didn’t have computers at home could do their schoolwork.  People could use the computers to look for jobs or apply for unemployment.  This led to arguments about putting library workers at risk.  And whether you could apply for unemployment or do your schoolwork on a cell phone.  Which led to arguments about whether everybody has a cell phone. Or almost everybody.  But was it a smart phone?  And what about wi-fi?  And haven’t you heard about the digital divide?  And then it got insulting.  As it does.  Pretty soon people are throwing things.

This was all on Facebook, of course.  I’m trying to include Facebook in my social distancing regime – no more than six minutes, once or twice a day. But it’s tough.  It’s like the comment threads in the New York Times.  I tell myself not to look, but then I can’t help it.  Predictable and unilluminating, but so unsatisfyingly addictive.  ("If only Bernie..." "How could anybody have voted for..." "You libtards will never learn..."  "Just wait until November..." "No open borders..." "But... her emails!")  For years we’ve been using “virus” to describe how things move through the internet.  Now we discover how apt the metaphor is.  Insidious infection of the mind.  Symptoms include: Inventing spurious arguments to fling balefully at people we’ve never met, but who have opinions that are different from our own.  Imagining monsters because of one thoughtless remark, weapons at the ready.  Squabbling over who owes what to whom, which of us are the righteous and who are despicable.

I put the phone down and pick up the book I’ve been trying to read.  Don Quixote.  I left off just as the beautiful Dorotea is telling her #metoo story.  Distrustful at first of Don Fernando’s passionate promises of marriage and everlasting bliss, she argues with herself, finally persuades herself that he’s telling the truth and it’ll be a match she never would have imagined possible.  She gives herself to him.  Next thing you know, having satisfied his passion, he’s gone off to marry Lucinda, who then threatens to kill herself at the altar because she’s still in love with Cardenio.  Cardenio, not realizing her devotion, thinks he’s been betrayed and has been wailing out his misfortunes and misery.  Then, at the urging of the priest and the barber (hang in there with me), Dorotea pretends to be the Princess Micomiconia in order to trick Quixote into going back home, once he’s eviscerated the wineskin that he believes is the giant who’s been threatening her.  Wine all over the floor, Don Quixote triumphant.

I haven’t read Quixote since college.  The only reason I picked it up a week or so ago is that I'd been writing about some of the books that have been totems for me.  I mean the actual individual physical volumes that have come my way through the years, that have meaning for me as the objects they are as much as for the words they contain.  This one is a 1947 edition that I found in a used bookstore in Milwaukee many years ago.  Illustrated by Salvador Dali.  I even remembered where it was among the greatly disordered bookshelves that line half the walls of our house.  Browsed the marvelous drawings and colored plates and decided to give it a read.

I’ve been spending an hour or two a day with it (when I can pull myself from the screens).  It’s so weirdly contemporary.  I can’t decide if I’m encouraged by that (civilization has survived the loss of its illusions before) or just depressed (have we learned nothing in 400 years?). 

It’s not all that different from Facebook.  The tilting at windmills.  Fantasizing wineskins into lascivious giants.  Alternate facts.  Characters trapped in their delusions.  And then getting into fights that resolve nothing and leave the protagonists with aching heads.  Whose truth will prevail?  Is that a princess or a peasant?  A warrior or a fool?  At least there’s not a comment thread.


As things shift

As retired introverts, Lynn and I have made a lifestyle out of social distancing.  So our days' routines haven't changed much.  Even though we're both in the house, we're scarcely within six feet of each other until suppertime anyway.  I'm mostly in my study.  I go down to fix my lunch about the time she takes Jemma for a walk.  By the time she fixes something for herself, I'm heading back upstairs.  We've been doing this for years.  Only come evening, after whichever of us has made dinner, do we sit within reach of each other and have our first long conversations of the day.  That much feels normal.

But there are fewer reasons to leave the house now.  No physical therapy appointments, no trips to the pool.  No book club for Lynn.  My follow-up visit from cataract surgery was considered essential so I went for that, having my temperature taken by the masked people at the door to the clinic, filling out the form that testified that I didn't have a sore throat or a bad cough and hadn't been hanging out with anybody who'd been exposed.  As far as I know.

Afterwards, I stopped at the grocery store, where one of the staff was wiping down the handles of the shopping carts before every use.  The place was busy, but not crowded.  There were some stretches of empty shelves -- bread, frozen entrées, jars of pasta sauce.  A trio of middle-aged women were partially blocking the end of one aisle, chattering away.  Miss Manners suggests that one might say, in a commiserating tone, "It is hard to stay six feet apart, isn't it?"  The staff are as friendly and helpful as ever, looking only slightly haunted.

What I’m missing most are the weekly family dinners with Marian and Josie.  They'd just come back from a big Cheer competition two weeks ago, when all of the seriousness hit Alabama.   We thought it best to limit contact for a bit.  We're all still symptom free, though, so maybe we can have them over some time soon.

Since we're not doing our usual weekly restaurant trip, I had dinner delivered to them a few nights ago and did the same for us last night.  I've been tipping about 40%.  I worry about the people in the restaurant and bar business.  The margins are so small, the savings non-existent.  Our favorite pub decided not to do curbside, so I bought a bunch of gift certificates, hoping it'll help them bridge to re-opening.  Amanda Shires is doing a daily live show from the barn she shares with Jason Isbell.   She uses the occasion to raise money for MusiCares, so I made a contribution there.  I'm trying to donate a little something somewhere every couple of days.  The need is overwhelming.

Grocery clerks are now considered essential. It took this for us to realize that? Does this mean we're going to restructure the economy so that they get a living wage?  Sick leave?  Health benefits?  I'm not optimistic. 

Solnit has an essay in the NYT asking what kind of country we’ll make as we work our way out of this.  She writes about past crises and the changes they wrought.  Will we become more authoritarian or more humane?   There are strong impulses pulling in each direction.  Do we go with fear or compassion?