I’ve been having an unusual number of birthdays, several a day in fact. It started when the Virus, as I’ve taken to calling it, came to town. Like a circus, the Virus presented itself with a plethora of advanced advertising, building its hype into a frenzy of danger, mystery, and adventure.
The danger of what we’re facing and the mystery of what lies ahead are being widely discussed, so let’s focus on the adventure, which arose from the advice of experts to wash our hands frequently and thoroughly. They said the duration for adequate hand-washing was 20 seconds, and the time could be estimated by singing “Happy Birthday” twice.
Thus began a new ritual, singing loudly to wash my hands instead of using a watch. As an American living in Brazil, I’ve noticed Brazilians are not keen on wearing watches. Like other Latin Americans, they are not obsessed with time, and it shows in their playful, easygoing lifestyle.
Facing head-on the fear of extinction from an invisible enemy, I’m excelling in my cleansing act by celebrating myself, singing “Happy Birthday to Me” several times a day. I am rejoicing in the adventure of my continued existence amid quarantine, the destruction of the world economy, and the end of civilization as we know it.
The Virus challenge for Brazilians arises not with cleanliness as they are far more diligent about personal hygiene than Americans. Even before the Virus arrived, Brazilians were taking 10 – 13 showers a week on average according to a worldwide study, while Americans and Europeans were taking 3 – 5 per week.
My Brazilian wife came down with a cold in the midst of the pandemic, which she naturally thought was the Virus. She was washing her hands upwards of 50 times a day in addition to her usual two showers.
Instead, the tough test for Brazilians is the other Virus preventive measure – social distancing. Brazilians have a different sense of personal space than North Americans or northern Europeans.
Brazilians gravitate toward crowds and often find themselves standing on long lines. They are so accustomed to waiting on line that they’ll line up unconsciously at the crosswalk of a busy intersection.
They line up at an airport gate before the flight is called as if they’re going to lose their assigned seats. It’s the herd mentality, and there’s no social distancing while standing on line.
When I can feel someone’s breath on the back of my neck, I know he has a different concept of personal space than I do, but that’s not too close in Brazil. On line at ATMs, thieves use the closeness to steal passwords.
Brazilians kiss and hug when they meet. Social distancing here is as foreign as kissing strangers is to me. These days, the Virus has enforced restraint on this friendly behavior, and expats are breathing a sigh of relief.
Meanwhile, as we all attempt to adapt to the Virus lifestyle, some of us are adjusting better than others. One reader in the US commented: “I’m actually enjoying the Covid-19 hype, not to scare people but for the excuse to stay home with my kids. We aren’t hysterical or stockpiling. We’re having a ton of fun bonding together & experiencing the arrival of spring.”
As an expat, adapting to a foreign culture is part of my daily diet. I’ve accepted the constraints of Virus life by adopting the healthy Brazilian habit of germaphobia. I’ll be able to rely on my cold American instincts to maintain my social distance. (In Peru, the police have arrested 16,000 people for violating the social distance mandates.)
Hunkering down, we are forced to spend more time with ourselves. While it might seem narcissistic, I’ve taken the advice of Steven, my Eastern philosophy guide, who said, “If we can’t go outside, we might as well go inside.”
How am I going to care for my fellow humans if I get sick? I want to persevere and be a hero, not a victim. Thus I honor myself over and over, singing “Happy Birthday to Me.” I feel like Walt Whitman gloriously declaring his self-worth in the epic poem, Song of Myself.
What lies ahead? Are learned observers like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times correct when he noted:
“There is the world B.C. — Before Corona — and the world A.C. — After Corona. We have not even begun to fully grasp what the A.C. world will look like . . . .”
In the years ahead, will we be looking back at 2020 with a brighter perspective, discussing the Year of the Virus? Will our genius scientists find a vaccine?
Perhaps the world will eventually fall back into the everyday patterns of normal life. If we are smart enough to learn a lesson from the Virus, we’ll escape our head-in-the-sand political philosophy that protects us from unsolicited anxiety – think Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” – but allows a pandemic to thrive, not to mention global climate change, etc.
In the future, will we be able to entertain our grandchildren with stories of the quarantine? Will they smile at the silliness of Happy Birthday hand-washing? We can talk about OCD hand-washers not only being saved from the Virus, but also ebullient with validation.
They’ll pass on their compulsive behavior to generations for the survival of humanity. In addition to their improved genetic health, OCDers will be stronger thanks to the best psychological medicine known: “I was right. Wash your hands. I told you so.”
We’ll also be telling our grandchildren how the homebound quarantine made agendas useless – there’s nothing on it. I have no appointments and no reason to leave the house other than the supermarket, where I take note of what items people are hoarding.
Speaking of the easygoing lifestyle here, with a blank schedule we may lose track of what day it is, which is exactly what happens during a vacation. This has happened to me a few times when I lived in New York and traveled to an exotic locale. No matter what the vacation cost, it was worth the expense to have this epiphany, “Is today Tuesday or Wednesday?”
I would suggest to all the young people in non-podcast land that the biggest plus of the Virus should be a chance to do more reading. I have dozens of books lying around I haven’t read, and if I get tired of those, Amazon.com.br is still delivering.
Amazon is hiring 100,000 new workers in the U.S. to handle the explosion in online sales. Not that Amazon needed a sales boost, but the new workers are happy I’m sure, and all online retail companies are seeing a spike in business.
Another Virus plus – more free time for hobbies and creative pursuits. If you have creative leanings and curiosity, you will be rewarded for not giving up on your dreams.
While some people are going stir-crazy, we curious folks are delighted to have time away from our jobs, personal trainers, and other appointments like the dentist. Whether it’s writing your memoirs or building a lamp, people get great pleasure from creating or building something new.
When people construct or discover, they fall into a “flow,” as described in the seminal book of the same title by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. We are shocked at the hours that have disappeared.
Under quarantine is the perfect time to reflect on what we value in our lives, whether it’s writing, studying music, or spending days with our kids. If our government agencies can take some lessons from South Korea and Singapore on how to contain Covid-19 and stop making light of regulations that temporarily limit our personal freedom, most of us will survive this fast-moving pathogen.
Finally, wouldn’t it be nice if someone found a new word for quarantine? For those of us fortunate enough not to be in immediate danger of running out of money or food, instead of quarantine or lockdown could we call it Forced Fearlessness, or Involuntary Liberation, or Indoor Play Time?
B. Michael Rubin is an American writer living in Brazil. His website is www.bmichaelrubin.com
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