Can you find peace and contentment within the limitations of a quarantine?
That’s a key issue for many in lockdown as an uncertain summer lapses into a more uncertain fall.
According to some studies, quarantined householders can find happiness at home by balancing social and other digital connections with in-house activities that engage their interests and talents. Some are mastering the challenge of working at home while raising children and mentoring their online schooling.
Others have a slightly different reaction to the new normal. Ask them how they’re doing and be prepared for responses such as “My husband is obsessed with sanitizing everyone and everything” or “My wife is hiding under her pillow” or “Would you mind doing the cooking tonight? I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
Relax, kids. We’re all in this together. True, we’re stuck for the time being in the twilight zone. But hard times can’t last forever. There’s a signpost somewhere up ahead that says “Welcome to the post-pandemic world.” Once we get there, chances are a less anxious and uncertain world awaits us.
And until then? Well, experts say prolonged lockdown breeds the need or urge for being elsewhere. In some cases, it inspires dreams of getaways to faraway places and picturesque retreats. But just how far can eager-to-be-free travelers expect to go with most of the travel industry shut down, COVID-19 an international menace and all of us waiting for an effective vaccine to reopen the world?
Life can be precarious even close to home. A morning walk, golf game or afternoon swim this summer was often complicated, if not compromised, by the unhealthy smoke and ash of California wildfires.
For those leading a mostly indoors life until the virus is vanquished and the nonstop fires are quenched, dreaming of travel at least offers a form of hope. My wife is happily scanning cruise brochures for 2021, some of which involve crossing oceans, inhaling fresh sea air and meeting interesting fellow passengers. I’m eager to go to sea, if and when 2021 brings relief from 2020. Until then, the only traveling I’m doing is around my house. No passport required. No suitcase needed.
Although my surgically corrected knee has healed, I continue to exercise mind and body in my recliner. There, I wiggle my toes, do leg lifts, indulge meditation and contemplation, play word games, read newspapers and endure TV newscasts. It’s a home within my home. An office away from my office.
To make life in a recliner practical, you need to keep your wants conveniently close to hand. Allow me to demonstrate. I have a cupholder on one side with a phone and TV control in it. A cupholder on the other side contains a coffee cup or a glass of iced refreshment. Hinged armrests open to provide the tools of my trade—pens, pencils, paperbacks, note pads, newspaper clippings, writings in progress or stalled, and packaged snacks from cashews to chocolate almonds. Talk about efficiency!
If you’re working in a recliner and need a timeout, turn on the tube to cheer your favorite athletes or boo your least favorite politicians as they engage in unruly debate. I enjoy venturing into the world of classic cinema, especially the hardboiled and hard luck characters of film noir. Forties noir captures a pre-tech world where everyone smokes too many cigarettes, keeps the wrong company, uses dated slang, and makes use of phone booths (remember them?) and other obsolete fixtures of the past. These dated mysteries still have much to tell us about the wayward impulses of human nature.
Noir is a world all its own. Femmes fatales prowl among susceptible males. Hommes fatales take advantage of unsuspecting femmes. Despite the lurid subject matter, the movie code of the day prevails, ensuring that evildoers never win, profanity is silenced and sex blanketed. A challenge for screenwriters of the day, surely, but one addressed in creative ways that make for interesting viewing. The dangerous dames of “The Maltese Falcon,” “Double Indemnity” and “Laura” continue to keep us spellbound.
To keep connection with today’s world, I catch up with TV newscasts and friends bemoaning the odd times in which we live. The strife in the streets. A pandemic that’s snuffed 200,000 American lives. Politicians spending our nation into unpayable debt. Hurricanes of devastating ferocity. Wildfires whose smoke can poison the air and turn a setting sun into a blood red fireball.
What a world! It’s unprecedented in modern history. It’s unimaginable even in science fiction. It makes film noir look charmingly innocent by comparison.
And now for the good news.
A few steps away from where I recline is my vintage Baldwin. When in need of cheer, I tickle the ivories with a bit of nonsense or get serious with a Scott Joplin classic. I may even improvise a ragtime number of my own, keyed to the joys of life in 2020. Neighbors walking their dog sometimes stop dead in their tracks hearing me croon my composition, “I Got Dem Low-Down Lockdown Blues,” a rendition sure to make any dog howl or flee. Sorry about that, Fido. Try the guy up the block. He’s into Chopin.
Meditation and reflection can help ease the constraints of sheltering and set you on imaginative journeys, beyond the limitations of lockdown. Fantasy travel has also taken wing in today’s marketplace. There are reports from across the Pacific of unusual flights serving stir-crazy customers eager for escape. No landings are scheduled on these three or four-hour round trips that eliminate the need for luggage, hotel reservations or on-arrival quarantine. You simply spend a few hours in the sky and pretend you’re actually traveling, complete with pre-flight waiting lines, security protocols and cramped seats.
Business is booming for these “flights to nowhere”. When Australia’s Qantas Airlines offered a seven-hour, low-altitude flight over some of the country’s landmarks and back, all 134 tickets were gone within ten minutes, including business seats at $2700 a pop.
I kept those aimless excursions in mind, hoping one would sooner or later turn up at a fraction of the cost. None did. Except in my dreams. When that happened, I found myself wandering in a dingy airport where tickets to nowhere where sold cheaply to anyone who didn’t mind going nowhere.
“Where’s the plane going?” I asked the flight clerk, just to make sure I had the right information.
“Nowhere in particular,” he answered, as if I should have known better than to inquire.
“When do we return?”
“You mean if?”
“Is there any doubt about it?”
“It’s your dream, buddy. Plot it yourself.”
I looked about the noirish terminal, wondering if I should take a raincheck, transfer to a cruise ship or simply wake up. The place was crowded with desperate refugees, all hoping to escape the tyranny of lockdown and willing to pay an exorbitant price for the privilege.
I emptied my pockets and found them full of play money, bearing the images of Dr. Phil and Oprah. I was waved down a corridor, up a flight of metal stairs, seated in a claustrophobic cabin and given the usual safety lecture by the usual bored flight attendant. I forgot my misgivings. I was going somewhere, wherever that was, lured by the prospect of escape.
I was hoping for friendly blue skies rather than the smoke, haze and ash of unfriendly ones. But where was my imagination leading me? Surely if I was having a travel dream, I could chart a destination of my own choosing. A bit of island-hopping, perhaps? A tea plantation on the slopes of the Himalayas? What about a sidewalk table at Le Maurice in Paris or (more in keeping with my actual budget) a table at Sam’s Café for the ham-and-eggs special?
I tried to focus, but someone kept interrupting my thinking. That someone was a garrulous lady who overflowed the middle seat and never stopped talking or imbibing cocktails. The rambling story of her life was unending. It included complete commentaries on the personal lives, careers and misfortunes of her six daughters (Maureen, Emmanuelle, Claire, Isabella, Abby and Violet).
I kept ringing for a flight attendant to get me out of my seat and transfer me to one where I could find relief from my headache, but the attendant was nowhere. My distress calls went unanswered. I would gladly have used an exit door to escape, but lacked the necessary parachute.
Another kind of escape became a priority in my mind when the plane began acting oddly, shuddering and tipping. My seat partner ascribed it to stormy weather and assured me it would pass. Then red lights began to flash and flight attendants scurried back to their stations like frightened mice.
“This your pilot speaking,” a voice boomed throughout the cabin, ordering us to replace our trays (though nothing had been served), fasten our seat belts and prepare for a bumpy landing.
“Bumpy?” I asked. “Is he telling us we might crash? What kind of escape is that?”
“Relax, it’s nothing, just one of those wind currents or air pockets,” the lady assured me as I squirmed in my seat. “You can’t prepare for something like that. Anyhow, if push ever comes to shove, we can do like the lady told us in the safety instructions—use our seat cushions as flotation devices.”
“No, we can’t.”
“And why not, may I ask?”
“We’re not over water.”
“It doesn’t make any difference. I can swim without a floatation device. And my guess is that our pilot will be making for water in order to ensure a soft landing. Once down, he’ll personally help all of us out, make sure no one is left behind, settle us all in cozy rubber rafts and hand out the champagne.”
Nothing, it seemed, could diminish the lady’s faith in the pilot and confidence in our survival.
“Well, good luck finding water. It’s so dark out there he can’t possibly see where he’s going.”
“No problem! It’s all done by instruments anyhow. He’ll get a bearing for a bay or a harbor and set her down gently, keep the nose up and skim the surface until we come to a gentle stop.”
“I don’t think you can head a plane anywhere if the plane is out of control.”
“It just feels that way. There’s nothing to be alarmed about. The pilot may even be giving us a little excitement for our money, testing our courage and resilience.”
“Testing our what?”
“It can help break up the monotony of flight—unless you prefer a headset?”
“I knew I shouldn’t have come on board,” I said. “You can’t trust a flight without a plan.”
“Turbulence is nothing to worry about. If it was a real emergency, the oxygen masks would drop.”
“They would, if we were going up. We’re heading the other way.”
“He’s descending to a new level for a smoother flight. Once he reaches that, it’s smooth going. You can breathe a sigh of relief, applaud his command of the air and buy me a cocktail.”
“Do you see the red lights flashing? Do you see the flight attendants burying their faces in their hands? Can you hear our fellow passengers agitating and praying? Does that tell you anything?”
“Yes. They’re over-reacting. The pilot will be on speaker any moment to tell us he’s descending in order to level off and proceed with the flight to—-wherever we’re going.”
“I don’t think he’s managing very well. My guess is he’s overwhelmed—or passed out.”
“Well, as my dear old Aunt Mildred used to say, never let your troubles complicate a cocktail.”
“We’re losing it. Maybe dear old auntie gave you a prayer to postpone the inevitable?”
“Cheers!” she said, lifting her glass. ”I’m not worried in the least. My thoughts are actually about my adorable dog Waldo. He always seems to be on the verge of telling me something I ought to know, something I need to know but don’t know that I need to know, which makes me wonder if dogs have a sixth sense that kicks in whenever we—“
“This is a fine time to be wondering what dogs may or may not know!”
“Well, be that as it may, I must confess my thoughts are also of a very charming man I met by chance some years ago when the two of us were traveling in the lovely old European town of—”
“Don’t say another word. You’ll ruin your reputation.”
“We were far from home and lonely. We had little money, but it didn’t matter. We ate well and cheaply, and we drank well and cheaply, and we danced well and warmly, and then—”
“We’re plunging to our doom and all you can think of is your dog and your once upon-a-time lover?”
“Such a lovely man. I wonder whatever happened to him.”
“Has it occurred to you that people are going to be wondering the same about us?”
“Have some faith in the pilot. He knows what he’s doing.”
“The plane tells me otherwise.”
“We’ll land safely, with a gentle bump or splash, and then we’ll drink a toast to our—”
“Oh, wake up, will you! Our pilot is on mute and we’ve bought a one-way ticket to oblivion.”
“This your pilot speaking,” a confident voice boomed from one end of the cabin to the other.
“There now, what did I tell you!” my partner cried jubilantly. ”All is well. Now would you care to join me in toasting our survival? Do you prefer strawberry kiwi or cucumber watermelon?”
“This is your pilot speaking and wishing you all farewell,” the voice announced. ”I’m working at home today. Have a happy no-return and thanks for choosing Termination Airlines for your final flight.”
And then I woke.
I couldn’t get back to sleep. Not after that plane ride to hell. Not after that human talk-a-thon in the middle seat. The problem now was how to return to sleep and serenity without further flights of fancy.
Never mind counting sheep, counting backwards from one hundred, or trying to remember what I was trying to forget. It wasn’t happening.
I was wide awake in the dark and filled with the energy of renewal at the wrong hour. The human capacity for renewal is a wonderful thing unless it comes at a time when you don’t want to be renewed.
Sleeplessness is a common complaint in these troublesome days of political strife, judicial strife, racial strife, economic strife, and every other kind of strife you can imagine. It can keep you awake until dawn.
But I had a plan. On those deplorable occasions when insomnia sneaks into my bed, I respond to the attack with a counter-attack. I get out of bed, advance quietly to the living room, position myself comfortably in my highly adjustable recliner and turn on the ultimate sedative: television.
Whether you are visiting the late, late-late or later-later show, the cure works well unless you take more than a passing interest in commercials and products pitched by celebrities, actors trying to achieve celebrityhood and cartoon characters.
When I tuned in, a housewife was laying down the law and setting her spouse straight about who’s in charge and in command of the household.
“George, dear, may I remind you that marriage is a relationship in which one is always right and the other is the husband? Now be a good boy and bring me America’s leading brand of low-calorie dressing.”
It’s another world after midnight, an anything-goes world in the wee hours. There it is on your screen and you can’t help but stare. You become its unwilling prisoner, subjecting yourself to advertising that makes you question your health, habits, lifestyle, hairstyle, and the pursuit of elusive happiness.
“Seeking non-drowsy, indoor and outdoor allergy relief?” one salesman asked me.
“No, sir, it’s drowsiness that I want. I’m trying to get back to sleep here.”
“Seeking smart snacking to deliver key nutrients to support your immune health?” another inquired.
“Can a snack induce sleep?” I asked, pondering a raid on the ham-and-cheese in the refrigerator.
“Have you fallen in your kitchen or shower when alone in the house and can’t get up?”
“Trying to fall is exactly what I’m trying to do—fall asleep, that is.”
“Do you want to take control of your heartburn, gas and belching with a single pill?”
“I want to take control of insomnia without pill addiction, thank you.”
“Are you seeking a smudge-proof and life-proof COVID mask friendly to your makeup and eyeliner?”
And so on.
There was no end to it. Bamboo powder deodorants. Wrinkle-reducing regenerating creams. Hair restorers. Comfort food bowlfuls.
I was about to give up and toddle back to bed to await the arrival of dawn when the star of the show arrived. Clad in a starry robe and moon crescent turban, a con man disguised as a wise man offered us what he claimed was an ancient remedy for modern dilemmas.
“Are you seeking to escape the confines of your home, but unwilling to brave the hazards beyond your door?” the guru asked, pitching a book (yours for only $19.99 if you promptly called operators standing by) on the power of creative imagining, alternate reality and venturing beyond the boundaries of lockdown.
The spell was cast. My eyelids closed. I began to drift.
“Come with me now, my friends!” the magician urged. “Set forth on a magical journey to discover the undiscovered you and find new ways to connect with what truly matters…”
Undiscovered me? Who is that? Another me? A double? A twin? Where do I find this character?
And connecting with what truly matters? That’s a question far too deep for late night television. Preachers, teachers and philosophers have been pondering that insoluble mystery for ages. Surely a late-late night hustler hadn’t stumbled on the answer? Or did he have something more sinister in mind? Was he intent on capturing my mind as well as my $19.95?
I felt weary and blurry. Maybe the sleep remedy was kicking in. Maybe I was on my way to some genuine shuteye. Perhaps I owed the wise man an apology and a debt of gratitude….
I closed my eyes to connect with what matters, whatever that was, and discover the undiscovered me, whoever he was. The next thing I knew, the guru was waving frantically for me to return to his sales pitch and give my credit card number to an operator standing by. But he was too late. I was gone.
I was busy trying to decide what it was I wanted from life. But what was it? A stroll on a white sand tropic beach or climbing Kilimanjaro? A penny-ante Scrabble game or casino payoff? Waiting for an obliging striper on the placid San Joaquin, or battling the tenacious spirit and spectacular leaps of a Key West tarpon? Toasting the Delta with a brew and a view at Los Hermanos de Ajo or wine tasting with sophisticated oenophiles intent on sampling elegant Proseccos, rich Cabernets and vibrant Pinot Grigios?
Tantalizing options! All these and more were mine for the asking. The only challenge was deciding which. The sound of singing interrupted my pondering. It wasn’t pretty. Not a chorus of angels, but a ragtag group of mischievous kids I remembered from my childhood. What old song were they singing?
“It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring, ashes, ashes, we all fall down…...”
I woke, breaking a snore, and realized I had never left the recliner where impossible dreams are hatched. I had not found the undiscovered me. I had not connected with what mattered.
Dawn was breaking. The television guru had given up all hope of selling me wisdom. It was time for me to return to reality—to a world cowering from COVID and economic freefall, ceaseless protests and unrest, millions of scorched acres and innumerable homeless.
Would summer ever end? The world to which I returned, with its smoke-laden skies and eerie-colored sun, was far more bizarre than any dream could conjure. I opened my window for morning air and was greeted by the distinct odor of wildfires. Fine ash was raining from a curtain of impenetrable haze and scattered by a restless wind. The excessive heat of the day felt as if it had been imported from the plains of India.
Not exactly the sort of day to put a smile on your face and a song in your heart. Or as a friend complained to me later that day, “This has been a year I don’t want to remember.”
“That makes two of us,” I said. “I suppose there isn’t anything we can do about it?”
“Every politician I’ve heard so far claims that he can. I prefer to put my trust in scientists. I wish science could find us a way to skip the rest of 2020, advance to 2021 and get back to the world we used to know—the world we called normal life.”
“Sounds like television advertising. A miracle cure to conquer anxiety and defeat depression!”
“That’s after they deliver the vaccine. First we get inoculated. Then we get rehabilitated.”
“Talk about wishful thinking! You wouldn’t happen to be writing science fiction, would you?”
“I have an idea for that. Say a time traveler is dissatisfied with the present. He leapfrogs across time, engages in reverse chronology and chooses to live only in the best of times. What do you think?”
“I think I’m going to climb out of this recliner and go see how the rest of the world is holding up.”
“Oh, no, you don’t want to go out there. The air’s bad. The ash is everywhere. You should stay inside if you know what’s good for you. What’s wrong with staying put in your recliner?”
“There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s more to life than reflection and retrospection. I’m tired of asking myself who am I now? Who was I then? Who do I want to be? Examining your heart and soul is all well and good, but you have as good a chance of finding an answer as you do winning a lottery ticket.”
“I don’t know. Sounds pretty good to me. If redemption is the grand prize, I’ll buy that ticket.”
It used to be that my post-surgical knee and the COVID lockdown were sufficient reasons for me to remain sheltered and secure. Now there were additional reasons. The air was “unhealthy for those with medical conditions,” and maybe even those without. There were strange rumbles in the sky. Lightning ground strikes were a possibility. And the power company announced rolling blackouts.
“What’s happening to us?” a nervous friend asked. “Why is everything so bad? I don’t get it. Is it global warming or something worse? Are we being warned? Is the end of the world coming?”
“The end of the world will have to wait. Gotta go now, pal. The wife and I have some shopping to do.”
“And did you know they’ve predicted a major earthquake could strike us at any time, shift our seismic plate and leave California in shambles?”
“You mean it isn’t already? Well, never mind. We’ve got to get the ingredients for the wife’s casserole. She’s got an old recipe she’ll follow to the letter—unless something new occurs to her while cooking. She starts with the recipe, adds a little innovation here, a little variation there, and—voila!
“You’re going out in weather like this for a casserole?”
“This is no ordinary casserole. You take a little Greek, a little Spanish, a pinch of this, a poke of–”
“But is it worth the risk?”
“No problem! We’ve got our KN95 masks, hand sanitizer, protective glasses–and my baseball cap.”
“Would any of this happened if the government had seen COVID coming and recognized it for what it was? Could we have been better prepared? Better able and equipped to prevent the disaster?”
“I heard the president say he knew how dangerous it was from the start, but he didn’t want to warn the public or get prevention measures started—or, I guess, make masks mandatory. I wonder why?”
“His excuse was that he didn’t want to create a panic. Guess what he created instead?”
“A shortage of paper towels, bathroom tissue, cleaning fluids and sanitizers?”
“Worse. A rivalry between public health experts and a heedless president who called them “idiots.” He dismissed the risks, mocked the masks, and ignored the warnings of scientists, inspiring the public to do the same. Too many emulated his example. As a result, the virus has spiked and surged to record levels. Some authorities say that even before winter comes, it may be raging out of control, and you know what that means. How many Americans will be lost before Donald’s Halloween party is over?”
“Excuse me, sir!” said an indignant, red-capped, red-cheeked eavesdropper who objected to our analysis of the national catastrophe and demanded clarification. “Did you just call our glorious leader a headless president?”
“I said heedless.”
“You said headless!”
“Would you prefer clueless?”
The ensuing war of words might have escalated into something worse than name-calling if a pink-capped, pink-cheeked wise woman had not stepped forward to calm the antagonists with words of reason and restraint.
“When we least expect it,” the peacemaker said, “life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change. At such a moment, such as the present moment, there is no point in arguing or pretending that nothing has happened. Nor is there any use in arguing or pretending that we are not yet ready to meet the challenge. The challenge will not wait. Life does not look back.”
The duelists reflected on her words, stared at one another, shook their heads and retired from the brink of aggression.
I, too, saw the light. In full compliance with scientific protocols, the wife and I strapped on our masks, armed ourselves with sanitizer spray, and climbed into her once-gleaming vehicle (its sheen lost beneath a powder of ash). We then backed out of the garage as if bugles had blown and charged into the world of chaos.
It took more than a fair share of courage on our part to leave lockdown, engage the challenge and embrace the 2020 safety mantra of “Six Feet Distant or Six Feet Under,” but the casserole was more than worth it.
Howard Lachtman, retired reporter and editor, is the author of crime and detective stories, film noir studies, and a history of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s visits to America. In his Delta Detective series written for Soundings, Lachtman introduces a private detective based in the Delta whose wide-ranging investigations offer a diversity of clients and a casebook of crimes.