The Sunday Magazine

A COVID-19 confinement chronicle: week two — Michael's essay

“Time can weigh heavily. In a prior life, time governed everything. Now with staying at home without times or deadlines, time can be a fearsome stranger or a kindly friend. Time is the common currency of confinement.”
Signs reading "We’re all in this together" have begun appearing in the windows of Toronto shops closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Time is becoming an abstraction. Days bunch together without the differentiation of hours and minutes. Every day is like every other day. Sunday is Tuesday or Friday.

I can wake at four in the morning or sleep at two in the afternoon or shower at six. It doesn't matter. I rarely look at my watch.

Prison inmates I've talked to say they pay attention only to two times: their release date and the next hour. We, on the third floor, don't know our release date.

Time can weigh heavily. In a prior life, time governed everything. Now with staying at home without times or deadlines, time can be a fearsome stranger or a kindly friend. Time is the common currency of confinement. How to spend it, how to invest it, how to increase it, how to save it.

As with money, you can be wise or wilful. Sometimes it helps the isolation to go on a time spree, like a shopping spree.

The other day I spent 55 minutes and 21 seconds watching a YouTube performance of Mahler's Titan Symphony conducted by Leonard Bernstein. I would never have done that in my former life.

My time guide is a wonderful little book published in 1982 called Time and the Art of Living. It's written by an American English professor named Robert Grudin. His cardinal argument is that humans have expended too much energy trying to conquer time. Instead he says, we should learn to "bend to its curve." He argues that we should stop our nervous twitching about time lost or time spent.

"Patience," he writes, "is the moral virtue which most nearly approaches pure pleasure."

Amid the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, people turn to both healthy and less-healthy behaviours to cope. (Dawna Dingwall /CBC)

In trying to integrate the tsunami of medical and scientific information into some kind of daily understanding, I have really come to regret how little attention I paid to science in high school.

My ignorance of science is scandalous. It borders on the Trumpian.

Physics and chemistry remain closed doors to me, despite the deathless efforts of hardworking teachers to enlighten me, teachers like Mr. Carleton and Fr. Mallon. I couldn't do the math. The only thing I remember from physics has something to do with the distribution of energy along a wire.

I've always envied and admired Canadian science journalists like Peter Calamai, David Spurgeon and Lydia Dotto. But I could never bring myself to read their stuff.

Neighbourhood wildlife has all but disappeared. Haven't seen a raccoon since the pandemic began. They may be busy birthing. 

There are plenty of jolly Friar Tuck fat squirrels running along power lines and up trees, in their usual springtime choreography. They are fun to watch, but their frenetic energy suggests they are nervous all the time. Like the rest of us?

The large brown rabbit that has sat in the backyard the last two springs hasn't shown up yet this year. I did see a skunk ready to practise social distancing by crawling under a neighbour's front porch.

A man with a dog walks past a closed storefront bearing a sign that says, "We’re all in this together." (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

I think I've seen more dogs and their walkers in the past week than in the past three months. Dogs appear not only to be our best friends but are expert motivators to get us outside.

A friend tells me it's almost impossible to adopt a dog or a cat. People who live alone or are terribly lonely have been rushing to adopt a pet.

I miss my old English sheepdog Daisy.

As long as I've been alive, the United States has been the titular leader of the Free World. It has committed some terrible evils over those decades, but it has also been given to acts of great charity.

From the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after the war, to George Bush's $90 billion fund for AIDS relief, the U.S. has led the world in global responsibility. Or used to.

COVID-19 and Donald Trump have managed to change all that. On the international leadership front, the U.S. is in full retreat. It has been replaced by China.

In the battle against the pandemic, it is China that has led the way. Perhaps it's sensitive about the Wuhan origins of the COVID-19 virus. It is sending ventilators and medical personnel to Italy and Serbia. It has offered the European Union two million surgical masks and 50,000 testing kits. A Chinese billionaire has offered to ship to the United States 500,000 virus test kits and a million protective masks.

An international security expert told the New York Times: "The U.S. seems unwilling or unable to lead." Which is a pity for all of us.

A shop that has closed in Toronto due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

There is a handwritten sign on a nearby hydro pole.

It reads:

"Write a positive message and put it in your window. We will get through COVID-19 together. It will be over soon.

"Spread the love one window at a time."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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