“Our brains are changing,” said my sister-in-law, and all I could say was, “Obviously.”
My sister in law is a psychiatrist, and like all therapists, she’s been extraordinarily busy the last few weeks, seeing her clients via video chat. I had asked her if they were dealing with quarantine-wrought anxiety and depression. Oh, no, it turns out it’s more than that, and less. With us stuck inside, our brains have lost some of their function, like the way fish living in caves eventually lose their eyes.
“If you’re not getting up and going to work,” she said, “then your brain says to itself, ‘Oh, we’re on vacation,’ and shuts down the parts that focus on tasks.”
At first it seemed strange to me that my brain knows I’m wearing sweatpants all day, but then again, I’m the one who put them on. I must have let it slip somehow.
With the standard and sincere caveat that I still know how lucky I am, with my good health and continuing employment, this last week or so has been hard, as it’s been for many people. What began as a bizarre adventure, perhaps even with unexpected benefits – Woohoo! Finally can catch up on Bojack Horseman! — has now become a way of life. I think of the episode of American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson that focused on the jurors. When they are ordered into sequestration, we see them delighted to stay in a hotel, for free! They throw themselves onto the comfy beds, marvel at the little soaps in the bathroom. That thrill, of course, fades long before the 265-day trial is over, and as they reach the end of their ordeal, it seems like they allow O.J. to escape prison just so they can, too. Of course, the episode, which spans the whole period of the trial, lasts just an hour. There’s a reason that movies use montages or quick cuts to the prisoner with a full beard to depict long periods of indolence or captivity. Nobody could stand the real thing. Certainly, nobody would choose to endure it.
Here in Oak Park, for all its disruption of our daily lives, the epidemic still seems somewhat distant. As of Sunday, we had 128 cases and four deaths, in a town of 52,000. On the Chicago Tribune’s heat map of infections, Oak Park is – once again – an island, this time a light pink between the red of the poorer suburbs to the west and to the bruise-purple of the Austin neighborhood. The grocery stores are open and manageable with bearable lines to get in and employees who show no visible sign of strain. This, of course, as with so much of what makes Oak Park special, has to do with our affluence. Our population has a high proportion of professionals, the sort of people who can easily work remotely, or in the case of lawyers, are deemed essential workers. (Even my lawyer friends are amazed by that.) We’re not the ones who have to get on the CTA to head downtown, even in the midst of all this. We’re the ones who can afford to stay home.
Feeling a little trapped by our good fortune, the other day I rode my bicycle down Augusta Avenue to Milwaukee Avenue, then slanted south to the Loop, the way I used to commute to work. The city looked the same, pretty much, as it always had, if with the kind of light traffic you usually only get during action movie car chase sequences. I thought about how much I couldn’t see, behind the doors and windows. Then I thought about how much I have never seen, in the 20 years of riding that route. In a very strange way, we’ve all become much more aware of our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters, now that we’re all locked into our individual staterooms on the same boat.
There was a moment in the aftermath of my divorce when my life was completely turned upside down and I kept telling myself, and kept hearing from other people, that “things will go back to normal, soon.” And then one day it came to me, with the surprise and shock of a note tied to a brick smashing through a window: This is now normal. As depressing as it was, it at least helped me put aside false hope and try to conjure up some plans to deal with it.
And so I have tried to do so again. Knowing it’ll be a while till I can get to a gym, I now do bodyweight exercises in the basement in front of a screen, contracting silently with the buff instructor that we will both pretend that he can see me. I try to structure my days, so I can get something done, and also forgive myself for getting to the end of the day and not remembering whatever I might have done with it. To both fill my time and to make myself of some little use, I’ve been volunteering as a guest lecturer on the Constitution to classes around the country, ranging from 8th grade to high school seniors. Each time, I sit in front of the same laptop I use to watch my exercise teacher pretend to watch me, and I see 10 or 20 or in one case 40 blank faces I don’t know and try to amuse, provoke, and enlighten them, and it’s impossible in the middle of it not to wonder if this is another simulation, another entertainment, another window into a world that doesn’t actually exist, or at least, not anymore.
Yesterday morning, I went for a run, and completely without meaning to, arrived at Edmer Avenue, just as the neighbors there began their morning sing-a-long, their 13th in a row. As the residents came out, one more time, to stand together and alone in their yards, with the exhaust-free blue sky above, I realized that if this is the new normal, it’s not entirely bad. I listened to that morning’s song, a quarantine version of “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie. I clapped along with the residents, waved goodbye, and kept running around the empty streets and then back home to shower and change and get ready for the day. But before setting down to work, I put on real pants and a real shirt. You don’t want your brain to get any ideas.