Notes From A Safe Distance

Ben Gambuzza ’20

Contributing Writer

After staring at my bedroom ceiling for five days, I think I have finally figured out how they make those swirly designs in the paint. The ones that look both messy and intentional. 

Just kidding: I have no idea. I’m just bored. Welcome to quarantine. 

In the small backwoods Massachusetts house which I share with my mom, tensions have been high. More than once, I’ve snapped because of the constant “what are you doing?” or “where are you going?” I literally cannot go anywhere, mom. Most hours of the day, I can hear the sound of Donald Trump’s voice resonating throughout the house, making it sound like a miniature Pyongyang. He gives a lame press conference in monotone. He says nothing, but keeps talking. “You know that all he does is speak in superlatives,” I say to my mom. “I know,” she says, but the Fox News rolls on.

I’ve tried to escape the TV. I’ve gone upstairs where I can still hear Fox News (recently, distinguished alumnus Tucker did say some good things about Senator Burr being dodgy). I’ve put my headphones on to blast Mozart’s Idomeneo and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. But when I get to around the five minute and forty-four second mark, I’m out of commission, out of focus. 

I grab my germy, dirty phone and commence on a ramble throughout the media trifecta: Insta, Twitter, and FB. Clutter. Bombardment. Every post is an act of personal journalism! Instagram: nostalgic photo collections from my senior friends mourning their lost semester, orchestra/band pages advertising live-streamed concerts, memes that don’t make me laugh, selfies taken at a desk by a window in bursts: five pictures of basically the same pose–Marilyn Monroes of Instagram, begotten from Warhol’s head. 

Twitter: tweets that make other people’s quarantines sound better than mine. Part of this frustration is material: where’s my fluffy blanket? I don’t have a dog to give me unconditional attention. If only I lived alone and wasn’t constantly infantilized by my parents. Etc. The other part is a matter of will. How do they seem to have alone-time and isolation totally figured out so that it almost seems that they’re in solace, when I can’t focus on anything and constantly feel like I’m floating? Why can’t I force myself to relax and accept? The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek recently compared the way we deal with coronavirus to the five stages of grieving laid out by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Many quarantiners (there should be a better term for this) seem like they have entered the final stage. I feel myself to be either in the anger or the depression stage. So, don’t be fooled by those who seem that they have it figured out, that they’re coping, that they’ve adapted to the new space of daily life in America. Chances are, they are seething. 

One area of health that should be stressed is mental health. If Aristotle’s thing about how humans are political animals has any credence, then government-induced self-isolation is a recipe for depression and substance abuse. Two days ago, I walked into a 7/11 and caught the tail-end of a conversation between cashier and patron. “Have you guys been busy?”, the patron asked. “Oh yeah, especially at night; people buying alcohol and stuff,” the cashier replied with a look of worry that I thought was unusual for someone who isn’t supposed to care about the home lives of her customers. But it was evident that she does care. And that’s both worrying and representative of how we all should be thinking about solidarity today. What’s helped me is sharing memes, commiserating with friends over the phone, and, when I can actually focus, reading a book.

One thing about reading. I am writing an English thesis on readerly empathy and engrossment in British novelists like Virginia Woolf. That means I’ve spent the past year studying what kind of books grip a reader and how they do it. You might say I study the reading trance. I have read a nauseating amount of phenomenology and empathy theory, and you can trust me when I say: books can make you feel better, especially when they feature a character who is like you, or who is going through a similar situation as you. When we find characters like this, we participate in what is called “intersubjectivity,” sharing a mind with the character. And when we experience “character identification,” empathy arises and validates emotions we might feel, because the characters feel them, too. As our social lives are dying, rest assured that they might live on between you and the brain of a fictional character. And if you want to be assured that you’re not the only one feeling disconnected from everyone, read Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in which everyone is trying to reach everyone.

I’ll wrap this up because, by now, we’re probably approaching the five minute and forty-four second mark of your reading experience.

What makes me laugh now are the hopeless things: getting turned away from a health clinic (I should’ve known better: “Health Express” has like a million 1.4 star reviews) because I wanted a strep test, and getting so angry at a mini package of ketchup that I squeeze it so hard that not only does it erupt all over my shirt, but rockets onto my bed, my lamp, my radio, and splats onto my white curtains.

This pandemic is such a unique cultural event not only because it physically and invisibly covers the world, but because it overwhelms our individual and collective consciousness. The thought of progressive annihilation, crippling loneliness, and distance from our loved ones occupy an enormous amount of mental space. And so, self-discipline becomes incredibly important. In the internet age, information management has become more a question of willpower than availability. We struggle more with how to stop consuming, rather than finding avenues to consume. And in a crisis like this, it becomes even harder to put down your phone, lest we miss something. I don’t have a solution, and I won’t tell you to be more disciplined, because I fail at that every morning when I lounge in bed for an hour looking at social before rolling out of that sleep cesspool. All I can say is read, write, and, in the words of Prof. Kyle Evans#spreadlovealways. Or, in this case, spread love from six feet.

bclark

Brendan W. Clark '21 is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Trinity Tripod, Trinity College's student newspaper.

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