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Life in the Time of Corona: Notes from Washington, D.C.

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Yesterday morning my husband came out of our bedroom for the first time in 12 days. I was a little worried about how things would work, post-quarantine. We had gotten into a pretty good Corona routine: he stayed in bed with a fever and tried not to die while I brought him meals on trays with flowers and worried and prayed. I had the rest of the house to myself (well, sharing it with our younger daughter who is home from college, but she disappears into her room).

When he emerged, he was free-roaming the house, looking for a place to work for the indefinite future. It was a dangerous moment. Things had the potential to go right – or very wrong.

Good news: one day in, all seems fine! He set up shop in the living room. My daughter took her virtual class in the sunroom. I traveled between the living room table and the kitchen pantry where I keep so many of the most delicious highly processed foods.  

In other news, multiple friends have sent me this article from the New York Times on how doctors are noticing that loss of sense of smell and taste are symptoms of the virus for many. I’m passing it along for informational purposes. 

Today, I’m thrilled for Sara Bhatia to stop in at Bacon and give us a report from Washington D.C. and the inside of her head. She’s also offering some great book, TV show, and other recommendations. As a grad student in a Museum Studies program, she points us towards some great virtual tours!

Hi Sara! I’m so glad you had a moment for a Bacon interview! It seems only right to start with the question of state of mind. 

How worried are you about the coronavirus? What’s your best coping strategy so far?

I’m pretty worried. I would say I have a persistent low level of anxiety. I’m scarcely leaving home, and being pretty obsessive about washing my hands and wiping surfaces. My husband’s work has been transformed by this crisis, and I hear him on the phone all day long. The news seems pretty grim. Things are clearly going to get worse before they get better. The only other time I remember feeling like this was after 9/11. But this is different — that was such a shock, and living in DC, it felt really close. This crisis is in slow motion, but it’s escalating. 

Time seems to be moving very, very slowly, and yet we are in such a different place than we were even 10 days ago.What’s most astonishing to me is how quickly things that once seemed reasonable now seem ridiculous. My father was supposed to have elective shoulder surgery this week. Two weeks ago that still seemed a reasonable plan. Even early last week we were still talking about it. Now I think, “how did we actually think that might be a good idea?”

I’m not sure I have a good coping strategy yet. Friends, family, food. Maybe too much food. I’m trying to read a book at bedtime instead of the news, and to go for a walk every day. 

What is the mood in Washington D.C.? That is possibly an impossible question. 

I got up early Sunday morning and went downtown to the Mall to take a walk among the monuments and to see the cherry blossoms. It was strange – the Mall wasn’t empty – there were walkers and morning joggers – but far fewer people than normal. There are usually a million scooters available for rent, and they are all gone – I guess someone must have scooped them up and taken them somewhere to disinfect them. 

Spring is the huge tourist season for D.C., and it’s odd to be in the heart of the tourist district with no tourists. I saw two big buses and wondered where they were from. Otherwise, it was all locals. This crisis will be devastating to the city – for hotels, restaurants, museums. 

Favorite comfort food or beverage?

I’ve been cooking a lot more than usual. I’m drawn to ritualized foods and family meals –I bought a turkey and made Thanksgiving dinner. If I could get my hands on a brisket, I’d make that. I wanted to bake challah and do a nice Shabbat dinner, but the bakery aisle was cleaned out – no yeast, no flour. Maybe next Friday. 

My son works as a waiter at a local restaurant, and helps man the bar – he has been practicing his bartending at home for us. So far his best concoction is a raspberry caipirinha. 

How many times a day do you check the CDC website? What’s your preferred source of Corona news? 

I’ve stayed off the CDC website. I’m a compulsive New York Times and Washington Post reader. I’ve deleted and then reinstalled Twitter twice in the past week. I’m trying to walk the line between being well informed and overwhelmed by the news. This is not a new problem for me, but it’s definitely getting worse. 

How are your sons dealing with and thinking about the virus? What’s their school status?

The virus has upended their lives, as it has for everyone. My older son is a junior in college, and was supposed to be leaving for a spring study abroad program on Monday. He came home a couple days ago, and will do his spring quarter online, likely from our home. He’s worrying about whether his summer internship in Chicago will be canceled, and if so, what that means for him in the job market when he graduates.  

My younger son is a high school senior. He started “distance learning” yesterday. The school has done a great job being proactive about the crisis, and trying to set up a variety of learning approaches to fit different kids, but my kid is really social and is already missing his friends and the wild rancor of class discussions. He’s disappointed about the likelihood of missing his last baseball season, and all the senior milestone events — prom, graduation, beach week. He misses his job at the restaurant. And, almost unbelievably, he’s still waiting to hear from colleges — decisions will supposedly be posted by April 1, but who knows if that will happen? I will say that the virus has taken the edge off the whole awful college application process, so that’s a little silver lining.

How will you change your daily or weekly routines? How has the virus affected your grad school experience?

I’m in my final semester of grad school, finishing a master’s degree in Museum Studies at George Washington University. One of my classes is a field trip class, and we have been in a different museum or historic house every week. Like many schools, GW is going online for the rest of the semester. The professor has done a great job lining up alternative experiences – I am really looking forward to our virtual tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a curator next week.

Overall, I’m a homebody, and my work tends to involve lots of research and writing. My kids tease me that a self-quarantine isn’t all that different from my regular life rhythms. But I will miss my classes, and seeing friends.  

For me, the huge change isn’t in the rhythm of my life, but everyone else’s. I’m used to a quiet house all day long. Now everyone is here. My husband is on the phone constantly, for 12 hours a day. And thanks to our too-open floor plan, I am well briefed on his work. 

What essential supply are you stocked up on?

Diet Coke. Alas, there seems to have been a run on Fiesta Cherry Diet Coke, which is my favorite, but this is a pandemic, so I can make do. 

What essential supply are you not stocked up on? 

Apparently we don’t have baking supplies. And like everyone, I wish I had more toilet paper.

When is the last time you went to Costco or the grocery store and when will you go back? 

Yesterday morning I sat down and spent an hour planning a week’s worth of meals, and wrote a detailed shopping list of everything I would need to cook and have stocked in the pantry. This is something I never, ever do. My goal is to do this every week, so I can limit my grocery store outings. 

The grocery store was strange – not crowded, but people looked stressed out and were avoiding making eye contact. Some had face masks, others with plastic gloves. I watched a woman pick up and examine, then reject four bell peppers before I asked her to please not touch all the vegetables. She gave me the stink eye, but then sheathed her hand in a plastic bag and continued looking for the perfect pepper. 

I couldn’t find everything on my list, so I bought what I could. Maybe next week there will be flour? There was no meat at all in the butcher section. I’m thinking about placing an order with Omaha Steaks, and with an Alaskan salmon company that suddenly keeps appearing in my Instagram feed. 

Is there a shortage of TP in DC? 

Yes! And not just toilet paper – the whole paper goods aisle was wiped out. No napkins, paper towels, or tissues either. Also, strangely, a run on feminine hygiene products. 

Part of the challenge of stocking up is that I have no idea what our realistic needs are. All four of us have been home the last couple of summers, but everyone was at work or out and about all day, eating meals out, and (presumably) using public toilets. I haven’t a clue what our weekly toilet paper needs are if we’re all at home. Or, for that matter, how much food we will eat.

Approximately how many times a day do you wash your hands?

Zillions. Actually? I would guess three times an hour. It reminds me of when I had babies, and was constantly washing my hands. I’m trying to avoid Purell, which is awful for my skin. Pro tip – the Body Shop’s mango body butter is the best hand cream ever. It’s really goopy and you will (briefly) smell like a tropical cocktail, but it’s the best.

Presuming that most of us will be spending more time at home, how do you think you’ll use that time?

Like everyone, I have a long list of house tasks I should tackle: photo albums to make, a feral basement to organize, closets to clean out. I’ve been walking four miles every day and just made a plan for a virtual walk with a friend – walking apart, but at the same time, so we can talk. 

I’m teaching my 10 year old niece how to use the sewing machine – we’re making a little quilt. I’d like to make something myself – maybe knit a scarf?

If you watch more TV, which shows will you watch? What shows have you watched in the last year or so that you would highly recommend?

I want to catch up on “Victoria,” and try a few series that I missed, like “Billions” and “The Romanoffs.” “The Restaurant” looks amazing, and is described as the next “Downton Abbey.” I’m a sucker for historical dramas.

In an apparent failure of parenting, our younger son has managed to miss the entire mob genre. We watched “Goodfellas” last week, and have started re-watching “The Sopranos” with him. We’ll work our way through “The Godfather” movies, and maybe watch “The Irishman.” 

On my highly recommended list… from Amazon Video, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is delightful and an amazing period piece. I also loved “Good Girls Revolt,” which is loosely based on a strike by women researchers for equal pay at Newsweek magazine in 1969, at the dawn of the women’s liberation movement.

Money Heist” is a totally addictive series about a robbery of the central bank of Madrid. It’s incredibly clever, with lots of unexpected twists – it was a monster hit in Spain, and available on Netflix (adjust your settings to watch it dubbed or with subtitles). 

Also, can I put in a plug for all the cool content that is suddenly steaming online? Musicians like John Legend are doing live concerts on Instagram and Facebook. My parents have been watching the Metropolitan Opera’s nightly broadcasts of old performances on its website. The Kennedy Center’s artist in residence Mo Willems is doing a daily “lunch doodles” drawing lesson that I think my nieces would love.

And the museums are really stepping up. The big museums like the Getty, the Met and the Smithsonians have great social media, but even smaller museums are experimenting with sharing their collections online. I’ve started following Shedd Aquarium on Twitter, since their video of their pair of rockhopper penguins exploring the empty aquarium went viral.  Google Arts & Culture is amazing — they have virtual tours of 1200 museums around the world, and really rich content, ranging from an online exhibit about tutus from the Australian Ballet to a peek at Frida Kahlo’s diaries.

What are you reading right now? What have you read in the last year or so that you would highly recommend? 

I’ve slowly been working my way through David Rubenstein’s The American Story – it’s a compilation of his interview series at the Library of Congress with biographers of great Americans. I like this book because it’s like the greatest hits – I don’t necessarily want to read a whole biography of George Washington, but I’m happy to spend an hour with him. 

My favorite pleasure reads this year have been a series of memoirs by Ruth Reichl, who was the editor of Gourmet magazine and before that, the New York Times food critic. Her books are beautifully written and inspire me to cook (and eat).

What’s your advice for friends trying to stay mentally healthy in this trying time?

Walk away from the news. Set up phone dates and catch up with old friends. Learn something new. This awful time will pass – at the end of it, what will you want to remember that you did? Do it now. 

Mostly, I’m counting my blessings and trying to remember to feel thankful. Unlike so many, my family is merely inconvenienced by this crisis, which is a very lucky place to be. I am particularly thankful that a direction to self-quarantine allows me to hunker down with my favorite people, and that with one kid about to leave the nest for the college, and the other – who will be 21 next month – about to enter adulthood, I’m thankful to have this unexpected time together as a family.

Thank you, Sara! I’ve loved every moment with you! 

9 Comments

  1. Wonderful post and some great recommendations!!! So glad Gus is better!

  2. You started my day off with a smile. So very glad Gus is recovering. Thank you for pointing out the NYT article…. yet another reason to smell the flowers!

  3. Such a wonderful post! This one made my heart sing this morning as your dear family is on the way to good health. In the clean out of the “season,” I found yesterday pictures of our amazing D.C tour that Gus arranged for our family in 2004. Senator Frist was a most gracious host and it truly was a trip of history and great memories. We love you all and see you sometime this Spring.

    • Oh my goodness, that was a minute ago, Robin! It feels like a lifetime ago. I am impressed that you’re getting to your clean-out of the “season”… I have not yet! I keep thinking – maybe tomorrow. Sending very warmest wishes and love to you and your family, and I love the idea of a get together later this Spring!! Xoxo

    • Ohhh my gosh Jennifer, so glad that Gus is feeling better. Our health is so fragile…just as our lives, and can change in a nanosecond.
      I loved the Mrs Maisel series and thrilled with these other suggestions… as our TVs were installed yesterday.
      Stay well and thanks for keeping us informed.
      ❤️❤️ Sandra

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