March 14, 2020
Here’s a transcript of a conversation that took place last night in my house:
Me (greeting my youngest daughter’s spend-the-night friend at the door): Hi, Mariah. What’re your folks doing this weekend?
Mariah: Oh, nothing. My dad’s sick so they’re just staying home.
Me: Might I offer you some Purell?
What a strange time. We crack jokes and try not to overreact, though a little overreaction seems precisely what’s called for at the moment. My oldest daughter is on a spring break trip in south Florida with two friends and the mother of one of those friends. We didn’t want to be the parents who said no, didn’t want to be the paranoid wet blankets, didn’t, honestly, want to humiliate our kid. We do plenty of that under ordinary circumstances. And I’m not really worried about her. She’s young. She’s an athlete. She’ll be fine. Still, I can’t quite shut out visions of my daughter quarantined far from home—sad Facetime conversations like those poor cruise ship passengers.
I joked with my wife that we’d know it was time to worry when we saw National Guard troops in the streets of an American city. That seemed preposterous a week ago. Then we joked that we’d really know it was time to worry when Disney closed. Now here we are. The University of Tennessee has shut its doors. We’ll move to online instruction after spring break. Yesterday, I participated in a prospectus meeting for a PhD candidate via Zoom. I hardly knew what Zoom was before all this started.
Here’s a partial transcript of a phone call with my Republican mother in Alabama:
Me: Mom, please, at least go get your prescriptions filled.
Mom: Fine—I’ll ask your father to call tomorrow. Dad wants to go shopping for a new car. We’ll pick up the prescriptions while we’re out.
Me: Mom, tomorrow is probably not the best day to go car shopping.
Mom: I don’t see why not. It’s supposed to be a beautiful day.
Me: Well, y’all are older. You both have underlying medical conditions. How about just stay home. Your car runs fine. You can get a new car next month.
Mom: You’re being ridiculous, Michael. There’s none of that virus in Alabama.
The next morning, the first confirmed case turned up in my home state and the governor declared a state of emergency and now they’re up to six. Cases, I mean. At last count. It’s hard to keep track unless you watch the news all day and that just breeds more paranoia.
Last night, Jill and I made up our minds to have a little fun with the current state of affairs. After all, we’d scrapped our own spring break trip, and I’d bailed on plans to visit an old friend this weekend in Virginia. But life didn’t have to be all weirdness all the time. So we had a couple of drinks. Jill cooked pasta with pesto and Italian sausage, the meal I often ask for on my birthday. I’d imagined something like a hurricane party—celebrating in the face of impending disaster. To really get in the spirit, we decided to watch a pandemic movie, preferably something with zombies. We settled on a Netflix original called Cargo. It turned out to be perfectly decent movie, maybe 3 stars out of 5. Martin Freeman plays an infected father roaming the Australian outback trying to find his daughter a decent home before he turns. Jill wound up bawling and it took me forever to fall asleep afterwards and not because this movie was particularly terrifying or profound.
Tonight, we’re trying for a do-over. More drinks. Homemade pizza. This time, we’ll watch a movie that has nothing at all to do with zombies or pandemics or daughters. I’m leaning toward one of those old Agatha Christie films, Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot with his ridiculous mustache, solving some upper crust-y mystery in some Technicolor locale. Something light. Something pretty. Something reassuring.