On Enforced Idleness

Those of us inhabiting the oddly purgatorial condition of the home quarantine, with its unlooked-for mix of relative comfort and existential dread, find that our response falls into one of two categories. 

On the one hand, there are those who have become (maybe always were) a little manic, filling their waking hours (which are many, as they’re not sleeping) with much busy-ness. At the beginning, we all joked: “thanks to the quarantine, I can finally get some work done!!” – but while the rest of us were still figuring out whether and how to decontaminate our groceries, and allowing a nasty slough of flour and water to languish in a kitchen corner as a faint gesture toward maybe eventually learning how to make sourdough…those in the first category actually did it: they got Productive

They claim to be a little worn out from working more than they would have at the office! They’re writing grants and book chapters, and reading Tolstoy! They’re attending lectures and symposia and touring the Louvre and listening to the entirety of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (excuse me: Der Ring des Nibelungen, because they’ve also been learning German).  They’re outfoxing the mask-less hoards by getting their run in at 5 am (in their own home-made masks, made from fabric left over from that quilt they just finished). They’re setting up elaborate photo shoots and composing extensive treatises on their food blogs about the amazingly-decadent and fulfilling vegan-paleo-low-carb-high-virtue meals they’re preparing every day, while documenting all the hours that they’re not eating any of that food because their intermittent fasting window is only between 3.30 and 3.52 pm. And they still have time to call their mothers, drop in to zoom cocktail hours with drinks made from artisanal bourbon and home-made bitters (and not wine with the cork pushed in because the corkscrew got thrown out with the trash, and can’t be replaced because in the midst of boycotting Amazon in a pandemic, we have no idea where to find kitchenware anymore).

For the Productive, the quarantine is, of course, a terrible global catastrophe (#inittogether) but it’s also [said fulsomely, hands pressed against their heart chakra] a gift, an interval for reflection, optimization, and growth (#blessed #gratitude).

At least that’s what they’re saying on Instagram.

All of which I suspect is mostly heavily-massaged narrative in service of personal brand development, and consequently more image than reality, but which is nevertheless real enough to make the rest of us in the second category feel badly about behavior that, in the Before Time, would look like laziness and moral failure – and yet, since Before is now a long time ago, we can consider more sympathetically as what the experts call “allostatic load” – or what I think is more aptly, because more histrionically, called Melancholic Languor

Unlike the Maniacally Productive, the Languorously Melancholic have no trouble sleeping. In fact, we’d probably be sleeping even more than we do, were it not for two things that reliably drive us from bed: 1) the unsettled, Kafkaesque pandemic dreams of being pursued, beset by crawling things, harried by purposeless but urgent wandering through vivid, surreal landscapes; and 2) the demands of our Maniacally Productive colleagues to meet regularly, just like NORMAL, to ruminate collectively and collaboratively over all the decisions we can’t make because of all the knowledge of the future we don’t have. 

We want to be more productive. Or rather, we want to be the kind of person who is maniacally productive, which we so obviously aren’t, because we can’t summon sufficient energy or focus, because of the melancholy and languor. Thus, our day is, in intention, in theory, exactly the same as our busy friends’… if you took the full roster of their activities, threw it in a fire, then retrieved the fragments and tried to make sense of the pieces: worn out…decadent…low…eating…cocktails…

That is, coping with the frightening uncertainty of a global pandemic (with a federal leadership that is literally worse than useless) turns out to be surprisingly draining.

We’re doing what seems to be the bare minimum, and that’s going to have to be enough for the time being.

That doesn’t photograph as well for Instragram (#enduring #hangingon).

I can’t give you an impressive roster of my activities for the past…day? week? month? because I kind of don’t remember most of it – one day has been very much like another, each day seems to evaporate, and suddenly it will be 5pm and I don’t have a good account for how I spent the waking hours (which aren’t really all that numerous these days anyway, with no extrinsic requirement to be anywhere on anyone else’s schedule). I look out the window at my bird feeder a lot. I stress-bake. I suppose I’m reading a lot, though it’s mostly the stream of obsessive analysis that the Productive are churning out to soothe themselves, and which is, simultaneously and perversely, fueling and exhausting the rest of us. I have gotten the bare minimum of paid work done. I have showed up, somewhat irregularly, to the regular (NORMAL!) meetings that colleagues seem to find reassuring (during which I turn off the video and work on my “Color Yourself Zen” coloring book, because if bureaucratic meetings made me feel like a trapped animal Before, the whole pinned-entomology-specimen feel of a zoom meeting, held as a pageant of normalcy in the “current unprecedented situation” pushes me to a limit of endurance that can only be soothed with a rainbow of markers and pencil crayons).

I am NOT at the height of my intellectual power. Sustained, focused thinking is – ooh! blue jays at the bird feeder! – a challenge. The fragmented, disjointed tenor of our pandemic dreams is just the echo of the haphazard mental processes that pass for thought during the day. Why expect coherent ratiocination in incoherent times?

Thought is hard. Keeping syntax from trailing off into ellipses, and herding refractory words towards any kind of expressive goal is…also…what’s another word for hard? 

To Melancholic Langour, add Enervation and Mental Lassitude. Throw in some Ennui while you’re at it.

If it’s a bit (!) of a struggle to move my brain, I’m finding I can’t move my body enough – or rather, it insists on moving itself. Baking, coloring, aimless drifting from one room to the next to stare out of windows – ooh! mourning doves on the porch railing! – compulsive floor-sweeping, neurotic worrying at my fingernails – my animal self knows it’s pent up, and doesn’t like it. 

And yet, as we know, going outside has become almost intolerably fraught. “Hell is other people,” indeed. Who could have imagined how enraged – because terrified – we would become in the presence of our neighbors? What should be a restorative pleasure – a literal and figurative walk in the park – has become an exhausting exercise in exasperated, hyper-vigilant misanthropy. And almost as horrible as the inescapable proximity to others without masks, is the claustrophobic misery of wearing one oneself. Urban living in a pandemic is teaching me that safety depends on remoteness and solitude. 

Therefore, if my body demands movement, pandemic-induced agoraphobia demands that I confine most of my movement to my house.

I guess I could use the current situation to just take a break from exercise. 

That would be a terrible idea.

Being an anxious person, the provocations of daily life accrue relentlessly in the course of the day, agitating thought and emotion to the point of paralyzing internal frenzy. Over the years, I’ve learned that if I go and lift something really heavy, or blunder, ungainly, un-swanlike, through a dance class, or pedal desperately up some imaginary mountain until I’m gasping for breath, wrung out, legs shaking…the immersion in physicality has the wonderful, merciful effect of resetting mind and body back to zero, at least until the next existential onslaught begins all over again.

But the sanity-preserving benefit of working out has always been a pleasant side-effect of the very maladjusted reason I started exercising in the first place, in middle school, around the same time I started dieting, which was about the time one begins to realize one has a body, shortly after which time one begins to believe (because the world is sadistically intent on this message) that one’s body is simply not acceptable, not the right size or shape, in fact completely all wrong for pretty much all social relationships. Taking pleasure in movement is really very nice, but when motivation flags (sapped, for example, by the not-inconsiderable effort it takes to not completely lose one’s sh*t because we’re quarantined because of a global pandemic)…what reliably keeps me going is the fear that I’m always one meal (too many) or  one workout (too few) away from complete interpersonal calamity. 

I know (or so I’ve been told): that’s never been terribly rational. Right. I’ll work on that first thing as soon as we’re no longer in immunological peril.

And so the first obstacle to #workoutfromhome is overcoming the decades-old adolescent baggage of all those miserable intervals of working out in the family living room, grimly enduring Jane Fonda’s leg lifts and hip thrusts, and the 20 Minute Workout’s maniacal jumping jacks, and knee-ups, and all the bouncing exhortations to feel that burn! just 4 more! you’re doing great!…all fueled by carrot sticks (just as satisfying as chips!) and apple slices (for when you just have to give in to your sweet tooth!) and caffeine (because I was never committed enough to try diet pills, laxatives, or smoking). 

These are extraordinary times, so I just have to take those unsettling memories, set them aside, and get the workout done…Except that I live in an urban apartment, a converted attic in fact, the little rooms and low ceilings of which seemed charmingly cozy in the days when I was able to leave the house to go to vast warehouses filled with equipment, and sprung floors, and expert instructors, and music specially chosen to have just the right beats per minute to be motivational…and all those people, all…breathing…in proximity to one another, without any way to measure antibodies or viral loads… 

Unthinkable.

The first couple of weeks of home workouts and dance classes did NOT go smoothly – and under quarantine stress, the stupidest little frustrations magnify to tantrum-level agitation with alarming ease. I kept grape-vining into the potted plants, and relevé-ing into the ceiling fan; I would get distracted during pilates by the dust and birdseed on the floor; I have had to rearrange the furniture, and improvise gear (I discovered that my hoard of bread flour, stuffed into a knapsack, doubles as a kettlebell – and you just know I’m going to lose my grip mid-swing, and take out my tv, or possibly a FedEx delivery guy, or a neighbor’s car windshield). I got excited by all the free dance and fitness classes offered on Instagram…except if you put your phone far enough away that you don’t destroy it with a kick-ball-change, the instructor is effectively an inch-and-a-half tall, and if I had the visual acuity to make sense of such wee images I’d have pursued my dream of a being a mercenary sharp-shooter. Instead, as an aging scholar, I did research and – with no small amount of self-satisfaction – figured out screen casting and can now summon one-foot-tall fitness pixies to urge and chivvy me from the magic lantern of my tv.  

The next challenge was improvising a barre for ballet class. All the professional dancers teaching from their tastefully appointed apartments in London and Montreal have portable barres and 3 square meters of marley flooring. The rickety wooden thrift-store chair that I had at my disposal slid around on the polished floor boards too much – again, endangering plants and light fixtures – so while I can do interval training, pilates and – heaven help me – Zumba in the living room, I have to move to the kitchen sink for ballet. – Which is fine until the class is on zoom, which then entails a frenzy of cleaning to make the space presentable for the webcam – because video conferencing has taught us a whole new form of status display, as this classmate signs in from what looks like the atrium of a villa, and that one is using her baby grand piano for her barre with a view of the ocean outside her floor-to-ceiling windows – and there’s me in a lather trying to dispose of last-night’s dinner dishes as my newly-laundered plastic bags drip-dry over the necks of empty wine bottles.

And then, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – I’m doing ballet IN MY OWN HOUSE and I’m still struggling to get to class on time, waving at the instructor on the other side of the screen with my toothbrush dangling from my mouth while I struggle to get my sports bra fastened. Which should be no cause for embarrassment since all the instructors and participants – almost all women – have been routinely flashing one another with our décolleté – this is where #leanin has brought us, as we repeatedly dangle our, um, accomplishments in front of the web cam as we adjust for flattering angles and lighting. 

The whole process of setting up the necessary space and the AV equipment, going through the ritual greetings (“Can you hear me? I can hear you but your video is muted. Is this loud enough? Can you see my feet? Oh – you just froze. Oops – don’t mind him – that’s just the cat/dog/baby/partner! Sweetie you’re going to have leave me alone so I can do my class so I don’t kill us both later this afternoon. Love you – mwah!”) – never mind doing the actual workout – takes, easily, four hours out of every day.

Now that I think of it, I’m not sure I’m getting that much-needed mind-body reset after all of it, either.

No wonder I’ve yet to finish the collected works of Dickens, finish (start) the self-assessment for my annual review, or settle down to that memoir I’ve been meaning to write. 

This is what counts as coping, these days. 

(Oh – and what’s the word for the awareness that the teacup-tempests of life as a restless academic sheltering in a comfortable apartment are ridiculously small, compared to the efforts of those doing the real work of keeping the world turning…is that irrelevance? superfluousness? shame?)

And now it’s 5 o’clock again.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day…

About farkasca

Writer, editor, researcher, educator, and dancer. Will opine for cash, pastry, or attention.
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1 Response to On Enforced Idleness

  1. smithereens says:

    “exhausting exercise in exasperated, hyper-vigilant misanthropy”, this is so exactly that!

    Liked by 1 person

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