Disasters are relative. That became clear in the second, or was it the third, weekend in which the world’s most unwelcome guest settled in. Life seems normal and abnormal at the same time.
In the past few days, one of my oldest friend’s mother-in-law died unexpectedly, complications from a fall. I’ve known his in-laws darn near as long as my friend has. In fact I spent some time with them in their Florida retirement community just a year ago. News then arrived that my wife’s oldest and closest friend lies in a New York City hospital, on a ventilator, battling the you-know-what. Then, working in my garage Sunday afternoon, I heard a crashing thud and a yell. A neighbor across the street, blowing leaves out of his gutters, had fallen off his roof, and there he was lying on his side next to the ladder on the driveway pavement. I called 9-1-1. He returned from the hospital the next morning with head-to-foot injuries.
As the ambulance took him away, I looked at my unfinished garage task. Compared to an untimely death of a loved one, a case of coronavirus sickness, and an injurious fall, the big, spreading puddle of warm, V-twin engine oil on the garage floor seemed almost humorous by comparison.
I thought, oddly, of the time when, as brand new parents, we’d brought our son home from the birth hospital. All was mental eggshells and worry over this fragile life. Eventually, I had to change a diaper. I laid him on the floor, and the moment I removed the old diaper, he peed in a great, astonishing arc right into the air. Ordinary life had blown in, and at the sight of it we’d burst into laughter.
But now, I warned Robin, as I frantically yanked newspapers out of the recycling bin and used them to try and dam up the spill, I yelled, “This is an environmental emergency!” Inwardly I was also pleased with myself. I was halfway through the oil change.
Exercising all due caution, Robin rushed to Home Depot for a couple of bags of something called Zep Instant Spill Absorber. Now I had to sweep up the powder, which had soaked up the oil almost like magic, yet still staying in a sweepable state.
Why can’t some bland, white compound soak up all the coronavirus, I thought.
I’d decided to change the oil in my motorcycle myself instead of shelling out $300 for a shop to do it. Red blooded American motorcycle riders should change their own oil, I told myself. And it is an easy task, turns out. I’d watched ten videos. But I positioned the oil catch container wrong and about a quart of the draining oil missed. Lesson learned, albeit it one most do-it-yourselfers learned when they were 16, not 65.
Our weekend reflected the new reality. Friday evening, cocktails and dinner, just the two of us. Then Shabbat services via Zoom, thanks to a heroic effort by our synagogue staff. Then, reading and to bed. Saturday morning, a five mile run in the pouring rain, which I love, then the weekly Torah study, also by Zoom. Then we each worked in our basement office, Robin absorbed with her elderly clients, me with a free-lance writing assignment. Saturday evening — missing a canceled opera — we sat down with home-made pizza in front of the TV, like Ron and Nancy Reagan. But Fios must have been overtaxed, so we couldn’t access a movie on demand.
Not boring by any means, just unsettlingly different. Moments of humor and absurdity against a background of loss — real loss — and uncertainty.
I feel the need to detail all of this. The situation feels unreal now, and might be difficult to convey later on in hindsight.
Sunday we loaded our bicycles and headed to Poolesville and rode around in the mist for a couple of hours. Blooming cherry trees contrasted pinkly with the muted, early spring grays and browns of the woods and fields. Then, at home, after eating the leftover pizza, I took a deep breath and decided to take on my life’s first-ever engine oil change.
So much emphasis has been on our hands. Wash them for 20 seconds. Schmear them with Purell. Keep them off your face. Don’t contact other people’s hands.
But, as someone who has always liked working with my hands, perhaps at the piano or long ago in the darkroom, I welcomed the splash of dark oil on my fingertips as I unthreaded the oil drain plug. Robin was slightly horrified. I said it was no worse then salad oil. In fact by late evening my hands — repeatedly washed and Purelled all day — felt positively baby-soft thanks to Harley Davidson Syn3 premium engine oil.
More than that, I realized I’d rather spend a couple of hours getting my hands oily servicing my beloved machine, even including a tiresome cleanup, than watching 5 minutes of cable TV and its endless cavalcade of babbling imbeciles. Changing the oil was a useful distraction from the strangeness, sadness and unreality of it all. An O-ring, the click of the torque wrench, the rich pour of new, amber oil — those are tangible, unlike the vague fog of disease potential wafting about.
Monday, the governor of Maryland declared a stay-at-home order to take effect that evening. As I rode home from the studio — where I’ll keep reporting for work because I am essential by definition as a news-bearing broadcaster — I was surprised by the sight of long lines of backed-up cars at two establishments. Not supermarkets or liquor stores. Rather, garden centers, nurseries. Places that sell neither toilet paper or Scotch but rather shrubs and bags of planting soil.
Then I realized: A lot of people will seek solace in getting their hands dirty.