Pandemic entertainment

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

Keeping entertained during the novel coronavirus crisis is a balancing act.

I’m torn between wanting to stay informed about the current state of the world (physically distant, begrudgingly hyper-local with an undercurrent of pervasive anxiety) and the desire to dig my head in the sand. I don’t want to numb myself to reality, but I also know that too much awareness about the number of infections, the dangerous absurdities unfolding in the US, and the prognostications on when we’ll return to ‘normal’ (ha!) are bad for my mental health.

These competing viewpoints present a conundrum when it comes to entertaining myself with podcasts, books, TV shows, and movies. While I’m 100% certain that Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is not in my best interest right now, the lines feel a little fuzzy otherwise. I was completely (and enjoyably) immersed the pandemic-collapsed civilisation of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven a week ago, but the idea of reading The Stand by Stephen King is unfathomable. Why is one palatable and the other not?

Watching contestants on Making the Cut wander through crowds of un-masked and unconcerned pedestrians in Tokyo seems like another world, but it’s a welcome (and relatively mindless) escape. But true escapism like Tiger King or Love Is Blind feels so disconnected that watching that so-called ‘reality’ is almost sacrilegious.

One treasure is the gentle realism of Cheryl Strayed’s new podcast Sugar Calling. Each episode Strayed calls up another writer and asks a few questions—some quite pandemic-related, others more general. The first episode with George Saunders (author of Lincoln in the Bardo) is a standout, but it’s the conversation with Amy Tan that has stuck with me.

Tan speaks matter-of-factly about some seriously heavy stuff, showing the same kind of deftness that allowed The Joy Luck Club to retain a sense of lightness despite all the heartaches. But my favourite bit was Tan reading ‘Pandemania,’ authored by her publisher seven years ago. This prescient poem captures this COVID-19 period so vividly—and Halpern apparently has no memory of writing it.

With countries beginning to relax restrictions and people re-opening to life beyond their homes, we now have to make sense of this novel, fragile-feeling reality. Figuring out what feels safe and reasonable, determining how to navigate face-to-face interactions—or as the poem says: creating “A new sense of  boundary.”

Pandemania
by Daniel Halpern

There are fewer introductions
In plague years,
Hands held back, jocularity
No longer bellicose,
Even among men.
Breathing’s generally wary,
Labored, as they say, when
The end is at hand.
But this is the everyday intake
Of   the imperceptible life force,
Willed now, slow —
Well, just cautious
In inhabited air.
As for ongoing dialogue,
No longer an exuberant plosive
To make a point,
But a new squirreling of air space,
A new sense of  boundary.
Genghis Khan said the hand
Is the first thing one man gives
To another. Not in this war.
A gesture of  limited distance
Now suffices, a nod,
A minor smile or a hand
Slightly raised,
Not in search of   its counterpart,
Just a warning within
The acknowledgment to stand back.
Each beautiful stranger a barbarian
Breathing on the other side of the gate.

Originally published in Poetry (March 2013)

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