• #32 - Tara K. Menon

    Tara K. Menon

    04/2020


    April 18, 2020

    Boston, Massachusetts


    Dear Adam, and all of you,


    We woke up to fat snowflakes whirling in the air, the roofs of the houses below our bedroom window already blanketed white. A winter wonderland, my husband said, deadpan. All week I’ve remarked on how slowly time is passing, today I’ve made the same bad joke to several friends: Could we be moving backwards?

      I started this morning like I do every morning, even before all this: with a cup of hot coffee and a novel. My job is to read critically, but I leave that for later in the day. In the mornings, I read naively—for plot and pleasure and company. Mostly, especially now, I read to escape. Since we’ve been mandated to stay home, I’ve traveled the world: wartime Vietnam (Graham Greene’s The Quiet American), a boarding school in postwar Switzerland (Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline), early twentieth-century high society New York and Paris (Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country), Constantinople under the rule of Bayezid II (Mathias Enard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants). I recommend them all.

      After I exercise to calm my nerves, I sit down at my desk to write. The room I work in is directly above the entrance of a Trader Joe’s. I can look out the window and see the line of people dutifully standing six feet apart, their places marked by little pieces of black and yellow tape on the ground. (I check on this line about ten times a day, even on days when I have no intention of going to the store. Mostly it snakes around the building, the end out of sight.) We are seven floors up but every fifteen minutes or so I hear an employee shouting instructions to the customers through a handheld megaphone: “Please move as quickly as you can through the produce area . . . backpacks and other personal items must stay on your person at all times . . . the carts have already been sanitized . . . ” It’s been the same spiel all week. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard it (most days, I turn the music up to drown it out) but today, they’ve added some new lines. “We know this is frustrating. It is for us too. But please treat our staff with kindness and respect. Abuse of staff will not be tolerated.” I felt a rush of anger when I heard this the first time—how dare anyone mistreat these people who work so we can eat—but when I hear the creeping fatigue in her voice the third and fourth and fifth time she speaks, I only feel sadness.

      Last week, the store closed for a few days. A worker had tested positive. When I heard, I wondered who it was. Because we live above the supermarket, we used to keep an empty fridge and pick up ingredients for dinner every day. I know all the employees’ faces. We had planned our now once-in-ten-day trip to the store for the day it shuttered and we were out of basics—eggs, milk, bread, vegetables. I scoured the Internet for delivery windows and I kept coming up empty. Then, I found a small Turkish shop that promised delivery in the next two hours. I ordered beyaz peynir, lavash, tahini, labneh, medjool dates, and (“new item!”) a pair of handsewn cloth masks. We ate as if we were in Istanbul.

      I have a rule now: no news before 1:00 p.m. But when the clock strikes, I let the world back in. I check the latest statistics about infections and deaths and hospitalizations. In Singapore (where my parents are) there has been an explosion of cases, most in migrant worker dormitories. In Pakistan (where my husbands’ parents are) the official numbers are low but obviously inaccurate. On The Daily, which I listen to daily, an ER doctor describes a day-in-the-life at a hospital in New York (the city where both our brothers and so many of our friends are). In India (where I have family) 1.3 billion people continue to live under lockdown. They were given only four hours’ notice. This week, Modi extended the order until May 3. It is not clear how the destitute are to survive.

      When I sit back down to write in the afternoons, my mind is restless. When I can’t sit anymore, I leave for a long walk along and across the Charles River. I find company in the birds: loud flocks of Canada geese flying overhead, a lone cormorant resting on a log, a pair of swans gliding across the water, iridescent wood ducks standing proud. I am envious of the people who have managed to be on, instead of beside, the river: a lone rower, a couple on a paddleboard, a man driving a speedboat, a young woman in a kayak. Could I get a kayak?

      I talk to friends on these long walks. In the early days, I asked: How is it there? Are you okay? Do you have everything you need? Now, I ask: What are you cooking? Sago pudding in San Francisco. Stir fried tofu in Dallas. Lamb stew with fennel in Brooklyn. Sourdough everywhere. If the novelists provide escape, the cookbook writers offer solace. When I get home, I read Alison Roman, Samantha Seneviratne, Samin Nosrat, Sam Sifton. Their writing is grounding, soothing—the support and encouragement I want by the end of the day.

      On weekends, I miss sports. I’m ashamed to admit this. Even at the best of times, I find the fervor of sports fandom embarrassing, distasteful even. Now, when people are sick and dying, it seems ludicrous to want to watch other people playing a game. But when we are all craving distraction, when we could do with some exhilaration, it might also make sense.

      The NBA playoffs were supposed to start today. The Lakers, the team I have loved forever, were finally looking ready to become champions again. Led by Lebron, in honor of Kobe. This was the year. I’ll have to wait.

      Basketball might be my true love, but the team I miss the most is Liverpool. This surprises nobody more than me. I grew up watching a different set of men in red. The weekend football (I can say sports after a decade in America, but I can’t call it soccer) of my childhood was dominated by Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United: Beckham, Giggs, the Neville brothers, Schmeichel. But it was never more than a casual appreciation. My childhood best friend lived and breathed Arsenal. I recognized that his was love of a different order: holy, infinite, irrational. That kind of devotion always felt a bit alien to me. I couldn’t bring myself to care about any team like that. Since I’ve been with my husband, I’ve witnessed this kind of fanaticism up close every week. His world stops for Liverpool. For those ninety minutes, the rest of the world disappears. Nothing else matters. In the early days, his whooping and hollering and agonized shouting at the screen drove me to distraction.

      But it turns out that I’ve been brainwashed—slowly but surely his Liverpool have stolen my heart. Jürgen Klopp’s men play with freedom and urgency in equal measure. It has made for spectacular, show-stopping, soul-stirring football. Each of the players inspires a different sort of adoration. Virgil Van Dijk is the sort of person you would follow into battle. James Milner is a steady workhorse; the younger players shine under his tutelage, but he knows how to take charge when the occasion demands. Bobby Firmino combines peerless vision and lightness of touch to make passes that make you gasp, and then he melts hearts with his kilowatt smile. Sadio Mané, lightning quick and technically outstanding, is an electric striker. Mohamed Salah’s relentless brilliance is such that when he scores a goal thousands of white working-class British men break out into this song:

        Mo Salah-lah lah lah

    If he's good enough for you

    He's good enough for me

    If he scores another few

    Then I'll be Muslim too


    If he's good enough for you

    He's good enough for me

    Sitting in a mosque

    That's where I wanna be

      Oh, and Alisson is the best goalkeeper in the world. It’s difficult to pick favorites, but I can: Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. Two cheeky schoolboys who have accidentally found their way onto a Premier League pitch. But their childish delight is undergirded by professional discipline. They are fullbacks, defenders of their goal, but when they take off, racing down the wings towards the attacking end of the pitch, I hold my breath and ready myself for some new magic. I’ve rewatched Trent’s audacious, take-your-breath away corner against Barcelona so many times I’ve lost count.

      But for all that, my real passion is for the man in charge. When I see Klopp waving furious instructions from the sideline, pumping his fists to celebrate a goal, or wrapping a player in a bear hug after a game, I feel reverence and, inexplicably, jealousy. I want him to coach me. He has united a collection of gifted athletes into the best team in English football, maybe ever. His team, who have sought a title in vain for three decades, were on course to win by the biggest margin in the history of top-flight English football. Liverpool fans will have to wait. I will have to wait.

      I hope we don’t have to wait much longer, just like I hope the Lakers will be crowned NBA champions this year. Not because either of those things matter, they don’t, but because going back to mindlessly cheering for strangers playing a game would mean we have taken a step back to normal. I’m ready for back-to-normal. I imagine you all are too.


    Stay well, be safe,


    Tara


    Tara K. Menon is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, and will begin as an Assistant Professor of English at Harvard University in the fall of 2021.

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