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Indoor Camping, Wine with Oatmeal, Ceremonial Baths: A Community Coronavirus Diary

by on April 08, 2020 5:00 AM


I asked friends and colleagues to send snapshots of their lives in the time of coronavirus for me to assemble into a group diary. Responses poured in from Seattle to Rhode Island. Here, summarized and edited (apologies for any resultant omissions or misrepresentations) is what I have received so far. Thanks to all who heeded the call. Keep ‘em coming!

My colleague Maura Shea offers a glimpse of the wonderful world of online teaching: 

“I’ve seen more students’ bedrooms than should be allowed. Can you compliment a student on a nice headboard? One male student logged on yesterday while I was chiding them for not turning on cameras. So he did so, revealing that he was still in bed and shirtless. I politely asked him to turn his camera off.  I should’ve said, ‘No shirt no service.’”


The Smith family of State College — Jacob, Amanda and Isabelle — has taken to camping in their living room. They set up a tent and watch camping-themed movies such as “The Great Outdoors,” the original “Parent Trap” and “RV” while eating – what else? – s’mores.


Amy Dupain Vashaw, at Penn State’s Center for the Performing Arts, tells me that her colleague Medora Ebersole came up with the idea of including arts-based self-care kits in the free school lunches being distributed by the State College Area School District. The kits consist of cards with prompts for using readily available items in the home to create performances.

“Keeping connected to the arts,” Amy writes, “provides a small and important slice of sanity in these crazy-making times.”


My colleague Renea Nichols tells me wine and oatmeal have become her “new normal.” She says red’s best, if you’re wondering. 


Another colleague, Krishna Jayakar, has turned baths into “ceremonial occasions: you think seriously about the best time of day when baths will have the most refreshing effect; you lay out the clothes you will wear afterwards; and then realize, there is nowhere to go.”


I heard separately from Jo Carubia and Vincent Colapietro, a married couple formerly of State College and now living in Rhode Island, about their nightly ritual of reading a poem to each other after dinner “to clear the air, to brighten the outlook (after watching the news!), to remind ourselves of beauty,” Jo writes. 

If you’re tired of singing “Happy Birthday” twice every time you wash your hands, she recommends reciting a poem instead. 


For another sort of ritual, we turn to my colleague John Affleck, who has begun meditating with his wife.

“I try to stop my mind from its never-ending frenzy by counting breaths,” he writes. “Two is my personal record, so far. Otherwise, trying to stay awake is good for five minutes at the start, cat watching takes up a bit of time, worry and list-making are both in there. 

“Somewhere around the 19th minute, I start to calm down, and then the bell rings three times and it’s over. My wife smiles at me. I try not to look guilty.

“‘How you doin’?’ she asks.

“‘I think this is your thing.’ 

“But then, as I start my workday, I notice that it takes more to rile me up these days. I make it until I've almost finished reading the news, or roughly my fifth email. 

The lesson, I suppose, is that enlightenment comes in baby steps.” 


In Seattle, where he is “hanging out with ghosts” by getting absorbed in genealogical research, Steve Goldsmith offers a big-picture view of what we’re all going through. 

“Humanity rarely sails on smooth seas,” he writes. “My boomer generation’s peace and prosperity —for those lucky enough to avoid Vietnam — was a major exception. Coronavirus tosses us into the dominant human stream.”


I heard from two friends who used the term “double whammy” to describe recovering from major surgery during the time of COVID-19. Suzette Standring, a fellow columnist who lives in Massachusetts, is trying to “settle into uselessness, a uniquely weird experience for me.” Nor is she used to being ordered, by her doting husband David, to stop texting with friends and take a nap.  

“Is it possible to be even more grounded on lockdown?” she asks. “In my case, yes, it is, and I’m the luckiest bride in the world.”

Willa Silverman, head of the French department at Penn State, notes that she got used to “sheltering in place” last spring after her surgery. “It's not that dramatic an adjustment,” she says of her present confinement, “although I do wonder about the psychic toll on all of us of so much isolation...”

After her most recent follow-up procedure, her doctor told her, "You may lose your spring, but you'll have your summer and fall."

Let’s hope those words apply to all of us. 


Finally, my friend Chris Staley, for whom this was supposed to be his final semester as a Penn State professor of art before retiring, offers this Ghanaian proverb: 

“However long the night, dawn always breaks.”


I’ll gladly take more such snippets if you’ve got them. The Penn State Libraries are also inviting students, staff, faculty, and alumni to document and share their experience of COVID-19. More information can be found at: Thanks to Heather Ross for passing this information along, and to university archivist M. Angel Diaz for being the original source.  


A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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