SARAH BUITENDACH: Escape hatch — finding the calm in Covid-19
What is keeping humans from unravelling in isolation?
Every single morning, from 9am SA time, and between emails and Zoom calls, I do the New York Times Spelling Bee. It’s a classic puzzle that requires you to make words out of the seven letters presented for the day. Nail all the letters at once, and you unearth the holy grail of word nerds: the pangram. It’s fulfilling stuff. Sometimes you see words quickly, sometimes you’re stumped and vexed all day.
Once I’ve taken a stab and cracked it, I feel the need to gloat. So I touch base with my book club – who are scattered across the globe; in Melbourne, in Cape Town, in the UK town of Nottingham. We all do the Spelling Bee and talk about it every day. Jen, a doctor friend in Australia, is the genius of the tribe, she always shoots the wordage lights out. Me, less so. In all, there are a lot of these sorts of Whatsapp exchanges: “how can they say that “meze” isn’t a word? I’m mailing the NYT now!”
The point is, what this offers is a deep, meditative distraction. Zoning out and thinking of nothing else - no anxiety, no financial pity parties, no real world Covid worries. As with their crosswords (which have a Branch Davidian-like cult following – 400 000 people subscribe to them), the New York Times has created a cosy, calm, controlled pocket of escape.
I’d been mulling over this when, serendipitously, the FM’s Fox Editor Razina Munshi sent me this piece, by a journalist in lockdown in fraught Italy. It is an ode to the Times’ crossword and its place as a balm in the madness. It’s something that you can control, Cosimo Bizzarri reckons. He’s spot on.
What else is keeping humans from unravelling in isolation? The Guardian asked some of the world’s top writers how they’re filling the hours. As expected, some of the answers are a bit poncy and highbrow (must every one read Camus’ The Plague right now?) but others are grand. Booker prize winner Bernadine Evareisto is looking after her mum and like everyone else with a streaming device, Matt Haig is watching Tiger King. Anne Enright, whose new novel Actress is newly on the (virtual) shelves, marvelously says: “honestly, there is a lot to be said for tooling about all day, looking up recipes and not making them, not bothering to paint the living room and failing to write a novel.”
A total segue is the new Vanity Fair podcast that interviews Scott Z Burns, the writer of the smash virus hit film Contagion and W. Ian Lipkin, the Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University, who consulted on the 2011 flick. The movie is widely touted as the most realistic pandemic representation in film. The conversation is fascinating and mostly hinges on what’s happening right now. Lipkin is actually down with the virus during the chat, and offers some amazing insight into both being ill and what researchers are up to. Also, movies might be made-up, but it’s clear these two based their crafting of Contagion on hard fact, and we shouldn’t be surprised in the slightest that Covid-19 has happened.
Then purely for a bit of a snoop into how the other half live – and how their social lives (and lives) are being positively wrecked by Covid, you’ve got to read this Guardian piece on Brazil’s most exclusive country club. That club is just a sandcastle away from Ipanema Beach, which is one of the epicenters of Rio de Janiero’s outbreak. It costs roughly R1.5m to join the club, so we’re talking about the private jet-setting ultra, ultra-elite here. The parallels between Brazil and SA are striking – especially given that our first victims brought the virus home from Italy, apres-ski. Lifestyles of the rich and famous, indeed.
- Buitendach is FM’s Life Editor and the editor of Wanted magazine
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