Like most of us I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix. I recently rewatched Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Aviator, his story of billionaire industrialist and TWA owner Howard Hughes’ rise and fall. Hughes’ story of crippling anxiety to the point of madness is one all of us can relate to lately. Like the Spruce Goose, the large ungainly transport plane Hughes built for the military in the 1940s, each day we try to achieve enough airspeed to maintain our altitude above the preoccupations and anxieties surrounding us during the pandemic. These threaten to pull us back down to earth, trapping us in obsessive thoughts and worry that rob us of joy.
Many of my friends and colleagues are working ten hours, six days a week, fighting anxiety about their jobs, their families, their relationships, and their hopes for the future. I wake up usually after a bad nights’ sleep to face the prospects we all face, going through a litany of self-reassurance:
Money in the Bank (Enough for now)
Job (Some teaching gigs, recent interview)
Meaningful creative work (Both making and enjoying others’)
Meetings with friends (Virtually as necessary but craving facetime )
All those positive-thinking aphorisms have lost some of their shine. (Is it all good? Really?) We live in a world rife with uncertainty that pushes our fight-or-flight buttons. Yet our culture tends to place the responsibility solely on us as individuals for our mental health, pathologizing our struggles and human responses to the trials and tribulations of life merely as occasions for therapy and medication.
Hughes’ own struggles with OCD and anxiety drained him of happiness. In a tragic tale worth of Greek mythology his self-imposed quarantine alienated him from those he loved and who cared for him most. (The film’s account of Hughes’ relationship with Katharine Hepburn is heartbreaking.) His anxiety grew into a demon that devoured his life. Magazine accounts when I was younger described Hughes as a hermit afraid to go out, afraid of the touch of human warmth, who was reduced to shuffling about in Kleenex boxes. My horrified response then was ‘What a weirdo’. Now as we all struggle to counter our fear and isolation trying to maintain hope, I see him as a fellow traveler worthy of sympathy on the road we all face as human beings. — CDL
— Seems to comes around again eventually. Before Nickle & Dimed, there was George Orwell’s Down & Out in Paris & Londonon the plight of the poor in the 1920s. While ‘sheltering’, coping with lockdown puritanism, and hoping you can pay your bills, you can listen to Down & Out, plus Orwell’s other work, courtesy of BBC Radio. – DA
‘The stars are a free show; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.’
‘What a good idea! I should never have thought of it.’
‘Well, you got to take an interest in something. It don’t follow that because a man’s on the road he can’t think of anything but tea-and-two-slices.’
‘But isn’t it very hard to take an interest in things—things like stars—living this life?’
‘Screeving, you mean? Not necessarily. It don’t need turn you into a bloody rabbit—that is, not if you set your mind to it.’
‘It seems to have that effect on most people.’
… ‘But you don’t need to get like that. If you’ve got any education, it don’t matter to you if you’re on the road for the rest of your life.’
‘Well, I’ve found just the contrary,’ I said. ‘It seems to me that when you take a man’s money away he’s fit for nothing from that moment.’
‘No, not necessarily. If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can still keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, “I’m a free man in here”‘—he tapped his forehead—’and you’re all right…’
George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933
Three weeks ago in the city to the south in this Latin American country people were partying on the beach. Now they are carrying dead bodies out of houses. Some people in the capital city here lost electricity for a short while. A curfew is in place after 2 pm. Driving is permitted one day a week based on license plate number. We were told before Easter the police suspended the sale of alcohol. Perhaps they are afraid too many people would get drunk to celebrate and hasten their own Ascension. We struggle to find a competent and trustworthy service to order groceries online for delivery. Yesterday I put on a mask and gloves and went to the overpriced tienda nearby to buy milk, vegetables and wine. I waited, breathing into my mask like Darth Vader while a woman in front of me went back and forth several times for more items, then slowly and painfully wrote a check. After the owner rang up my items, I handed over a fistful of cash without checking the total and left, grateful to be outside.
Like everyone else we suffer boredom. After doing yoga and exercises in the morning, we turn the sofa around to face the large window and catch the equatorial sun. It is a challenge not to get on each others’ nerves when you can’t leave the apartment. I know it could be worse. We have food, we’re healthy, and are at minimal risk. There’s some cash in the bank.
As we are witnessing the fallout to our health, economy and relationships from the virus causing COVID-19, I am thinking of someone eight thousand miles away. James worked at the bank where my wife and I kept our accounts. After she died I visited the branch that James managed once or twice a week seeking help managing outstanding loans and paying off a mortgage. More and more recently we have been herded to conducting banking and other transactions online, mostly I suspect for the benefit and efficiency of banks and vendors rather than our own. Now, of course, there’s no option. Virtual interaction is touted as the answer to maintaining our relationships as we live in connected isolation.
Photo Courtesy of the Old Farmer’s Almanac
In the aftermath of my spouse’s death two and a half years ago, I struggled to navigate daily routines such as getting to work and eating. Financial matters were another matter. We had been in debt. I was seriously worried about paying off the loans and selling the house we had lived in that was in disrepair. I had almost no help to guide me.
I visited the branch where James worked on my lunch hour. I usually arrived with documents in hand, stressed after a morning trying to function at a job that did nothing to diminish my anxiety and sense of vulnerability. He sat in a large glass cube as I came through the door. We established a rapport based on our enjoyment of ice hockey and the fact that he had gone to college in the Central Pennsylvania, where I grew up. James was my son’s age, married with two children. Like my son, he preferred to be addressed with his full first name: James, not Jim or Jimmy. We reminisced about canoeing on the Susquehanna River, good fishing spots, a local pizza parlor, and bars that were still open in my home town.
I’m sure James had other work to attend to. He could have sent me to one of the other tellers or told me to go online. Instead, he made endless phone calls on my behalf, patiently researching the status of our accounts and directions on how to resolve the maze of requirements and documents. After the loans were paid and the house sold, I would often stop by his branch to chat for a few minutes. We caught up on his kids and my evolving, uncertain plans. I like to think he enjoyed these visits too. When I left my job and traveled out of the country seeking new opportunities and a new life, I called James periodically for help with banking questions or for help resetting the password on my debit card. He usually asked how I was doing. It was reassuring to hear a voice and have a conversation, however brief, instead of the maze of voicemail options or online options that increasingly replace human interaction.
I made a brief visit last fall to the U.S. When I stopped at the branch, I was told James no longer worked there. No, they could not give me his contact information. No, they could not pass a message to him. The email I had was his work address. Although he has a common last name, I tried several times without success to look him up on the internet, including through his alma mater.
In Central Pennsylvania the forsythia are blooming.The daffodils are open. Trout season started this week. In light of the virus, the Pennsylvania DCNR instructed people fishing to stand six feet apart at their favorite stream. Here I stay two meters apart from people and stay in touch with my family and friends virtually. I hope to return to the U.S. in June or July to travel and see the landscape and people I miss. Who knows? In the meantime I think of James. I hope he found a new job he likes where he is well-treated and has income during this crisis. I hope he and his family are healthy. I hope to be able to meet him again and thank him in person.
Coronavirus today; AIDS in the 80s. Through the 1950s people were afraid of the white death, AKA tuberculosis. Please listen to the initial installment from a novel in progress submitted to us about a young woman diagnosed with the disease.
This is read by one of our staff. We are considering it for possible audio serialization. For more information on TB, please see Susan Sontag’s Illness As Metaphor.